On the command deck of the Excalibur, Head Secretary Calvin Campbell turned from his station to face Captain Barron. "They're ready for us."
"Is Rattan back?" Rolland asked from the captain's chair.
Campbell punched a command into the console. "Shuttle one has checked in," Campbell confirmed. "Jordan Rattan and his team are on board. All crew members accounted for."
"Alright." Rolland faced the viewscreen. Through it he could see the Kaax Gate just ahead. "Let them know we're comin' in."
"Riona -" Rolland turned to Sergeant Namarra "- Take us in."
Namarra tapped the console. The Excalibur drifted forward in space, making its way into the massive arches of the Kaax gate, until the ringed structure surrounded the ship. They stopped there, holding position as the gatekeepers calibrated the field. A tingling sensation ran through their bodies. In a prismatic flux of color, their surroundings morphed wildly. When the undulating colours quieted, the Kaax gate was gone. The blackness of the Apex region was replaced by a dense, starry vista of foreign constellations: Caldwell 57. While the crew looked into the stars of the foreign galaxy, the Avalon appeared by their side, melting into space from an ethereal rainbow.
"Location?" Rolland asked.
"Right on target," Sergeant Titus answered. "Perfect jump."
"Distance to next jump?"
Titus looked down to his console. "'Bout eleven days."
"Alright." Rolland turned to face the crew, his back to the alien stars of Caldwell 57 on the viewscreen. "We've got one more stop before we part ways with the Avalon. I want us on standing alert for the next eleven days: no EVA, no buffer hull maintenance, sentry stations manned at all times. There are pirates operating in this area. There's a lot of holes into this alley but none out -that makes it a nice spot for an ambush. I need everyone to keep an eye out for thruster signatures or anything suspicious. And be ready for a fight. This stretch is why the Avalon wanted a Sol escort. Let's prove they can count on us."
The crew on deck nodded their assent and went to work, setting eyes on their stations.
"Catrina -" Rolland turned to face the communication specialist. "Open up a channel to the Avalon."
Catrina entered the commands. "Pinging them now." A series of beeps followed, and Captain Mary Lloyd's face appeared on screen.
"Captain Barron." Mary Lloyd nodded towards Rolland through the viewscreen.
"Any problems with the jump?" he asked.
"None." Mary smiled. "All systems functioning properly. We're set to go."
"Great. We'll be right by your side, and we'll be launching sensor probes ahead."
"Thank you for your help, Captain. I believe I speak for the crew and guests of the Avalon when I say we all feel better knowing we've got you nearby."
Rolland bowed his head. "We're happy to help the Alliance."
Captain Lloyd's face disappeared from the viewscreen, which one again showed the stars of Caldwell 57. The Alliance vessel Avalon drifted by their side. Rolland watched as the Avalon accelerated towards their next destination: a wormhole, eleven days flight away, that would take the Avalon to their research site. The Excalibur hummed as it accelerated, keeping pace with the Avalon.
From the edge of the room, Erin Locke walked to Rolland. She stopped beside him, and joined him in watching the stars through the viewscreen. "Was she just being polite?"
"What do you mean?" Rolland asked.
"I mean being so thankful for our presence. I've seen the Avalon's defensive specs. They can handle themselves."
"We're military. They're scientists and politicians."
"All the same, I'm pretty sure they could outgun the Excalibur."
Rolland laughed. "Careful what you say about my ship." He turned to face Erin more directly. "On a strictly numbers level, you're right. They've got more firepower, more shields, more missiles. Yeah, they can take care of themselves. But we have a finely tuned warship with a hand-picked crew of military professionals. I'm sure they appreciate having us as around."
"I suppose so. Anyway," Erin glanced towards the exit. "I think I'm just getting in the way up here. I'm going to head over to the lounge."
"It's okay." Rolland smiled. "You're welcome on deck."
"Thank you, Captain," Erin nodded and started towards the door. "I'll keep it in mind."