Chapter Six

Piotrowski huffed as he climbed the ladder through the access tube to deck C. The engineering staff was taking advantage of the ship's hiatus while examining the wormhole to take care of some of the deferred maintenance; as a result, the nearer lift was down for servicing, as were the intercoms in this section. And Piotrowski didn't want to walk all the way to the stern lift to take it up one deck. He was glad that the tubes didn't have localized gravity; the spillover from adjacent decks was enough to make him tired all by itself.

Why did Spanos spend all of his time irritating him?

Piotrowski reached C deck and puffed to the nearest companel. "Bridge," he said, punching a button to open a link, "this is Piotrowski."

"Bridge," returned Lt. Rhodes' voice through the panel, "go ahead."

"I'm responding to Spanos' call. What's in his britches now?"

"This is Spanos," came a new voice. "The scanning gear's isolated the signal Lieutenant Rhodes picked up earlier."

"What signal?" sputtered Piotrowski.

"Oh. Sorry. Forgot you weren't at the meeting," said Spanos."Erik asked everybody there to help him locate an anomaly and we've done it."

"Dammit, I'm totally lost here," Piotrowski cursed into the 'com."What meeting? Why the hell don't you people tell me anything? How'm I supposed to do my job?"

"Look, I'm sorry. You know everybody meets in the officers' lounge after the shift, and you didn't come," Spanos replied carefully. "We can't go searching for you after every meeting because you're too hard-headed to work with us." And, damn you, half the time I'm covering your ass anyway, thought Spanos to himself."Why don't you come up here and I'll explain what's going on."

"Alright, I'm coming, but this is going on the record."

"Fine. Complain if you want to. Spanos out."

Piotrowski arrived on the bridge in a torrent of whispered profanity, his naturally florid face crimsoning even further with anger as he strode toward the science station. "Mister," he hissed into Spanos' face, "I'm going to give you the write-up of your career when this mission is over, and you will be finished as an officer in the Service. Am I abundantly clear?"

"You are absolutely clear, sir," replied Spanos evenly. "And, sir, if you would care to continue this discussion later, I will enumerate the reasons you are unfit for duty yourself."

"I would be happy to scream at you later, mister," said Piotrowski, under his breath. "In my quarters at the close of this shift. You will be there.

"Now, what do you claim to have figured out?"

"With respect, sir, I have discovered the source of Lieutenant Rhodes' EM emissions. Their timing precisely coincides with the California's automatic hyperwave relay to Service HQ. The wormhole is acting as a filter, absorbing the hyperwave signature and returning an afterimage of it to normal space as EM radiation."

"You mean you've been wasting the resources of this vessel on a search for meaningless garbage? Didn't they teach you junior officers anything at the Academy?" Piotrowski snarled contemptuously.

Spanos raised his voice slightly, "Sir, what they taught us at the Academy was to investigate all unusual phenomena we encountered in deep space. If you don't believe that is proper procedure, I can cite the appropriate code sections for you."

"I'll not be quoted regulations by an insubordinate junior officer."

"With your permission then, sir, I'll turn this station over to your competent hands," spat Spanos, turning to leave. Piotrowski glared after him as he left the bridge.

At the end of the shift, the officers gathered as usual in the lounge. Their disappointment was palpable as Spanos recounted his discovery to them. Rhodes was the first to speak.

"This is insane," he offered.   "What kind of an explanation is that? You're supposed to tell me you've deciphered an alien code and that we're about to make contact with the first extraterrestrials we've ever encountered." The group chuckled half-heartedly at the irony in Rhodes' voice. "Okay, so we've been set back in our 'discovery' of alien intelligence. People have been searching for intelligence in the military for centuries. You don't see them giving up, do you?"

Helen broke in, "The humor does you credit, Erik, but aren't we still concerned about finding Howe? I don't think we're focusing enough on that problem. Does anyone have any ideas?"

Shibata broke in, "Yeah, I have a suggestion. Have Piotrowski and you checked out the metal fragment we picked up earlier?" He looked at Spanos, his forehead creasing, "and are you two on speaking terms? I understand you got called to the deck today."

"I'm supposed to submit myself to his disciplining tongue later today," responded Spanos. "But, yeah, I've looked at the fragment. It's not from Howe's 'boat."

"Then what is it from?"

"My first guess is still that it's manmade, but it's definitely older than I am. Probably older than the Confederation, although I wouldn't want to stake my reputation, such as it is, on that conclusion yet."

"So you're saying somebody beat us out here? How?"