At 29 minutes and 48 seconds, Ellie stepped onto the bridge of the Impulsive. On the viewscreen was an image of the immediate space before them, with a tug ship applying tractor beams to the stranded luxury transport, Immaculata. If only their engines had lived up to the name.

From Ops, Ensign Fyodor Smirnov greeted her with a glower. “I thought you were Earther.”

Ellie shrugged. “My parents were born and raised on Earth. I was born on Andersworld, and we moved around a lot before ending up in Chatway. They’ve lived on Chatway for almost 15 years. So, what’s our status?”

“Ship’s functions nominal; all ambassadors are tucked in. We’ve got a schedule for VIP tours of the ship and a diplomatic get-together tonight. I think you’re on ‘highly encouraged to attend’ list. Aside from the Immaculata and the Giturdun, there’s no scheduled traffic between here and Belon. Comms are normal, except for some codified personal transmissions. Probably diplomats making calls to their embassies to complain…”

As Fyodor continued his briefing, Ellie scanned the console, taking in status readings, department reports, the latest requests for betting pools…all the information a good Operations Officer should have on hand in case the Captain had a question or the ship was suddenly in a dire situation.

“What’s this?” she pointed to an anomalous reading.

Smirnov shrugged. “Sensor ghost? Security checked it from their station, too. It flickered and was gone. Never returned.”

“Did Immaculata see it?”

“I didn’t ask. They’ve had enough on their hands with breakdown.”

“OK. I have Ops. Thanks for staying late.”

“Всё ништяк. Have a good shift.”

When he left, she sent a communique to the operations officer of the Immaculata, asking if they’d seen the sensor ghost. While Smirnov and Security had checked it out, that was only the Impulsive’s sensors. If the other ship had seen it, then that would verify it was an outside phenomenon.

In the meantime, the Captain of the Immaculata came on the screen. “Looks like we’re ready for towing. Many thanks to you and your crew, Captain Tiberius, for your…help.”

He pointedly did not mention the ambassadors. Ellie’s mom had been right about his concern for secrecy.

Apparently, Captain Tiberius had picked it up, too, because he said, “Glad to be of service. Don’t you worry about a thing. Safe travels.”

“And you.”

The screen went dark.

The Captain called for the helm to take them to Belon, Warp 8, once the tug had pulled the Immaculata clear. While they waited, he and the first officer did a quick game of paper-scissors-rock-redshirt-alien. Redshirt-files-paperwork; the Captain won that round, which meant Commander Smythe got to lead the first tour group. The commander suggested best two out of three as the ship started into warp.

Maybe I should have agreed to lead a tour; at least I’d be moving. Ellie stifled a yawn—and almost missed the sudden spike in some of her censors.

She watched the screen, but it didn’t repeat. Had she imagined it? But no, there it was in the logs. “Captain? I think our sensor ghost is back. It appeared for just a moment on long-range sensors as we went to warp.”

The Captain turned in his chair to look at her. “Active or passive?”

“Passive sir. But it was very strong for just a moment, then faded.”

“Like someone jumped to warp after us?” His eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he frowned.

Unfortunately, she could only shrug. “It was too quick to analyze, sir. I almost missed it.”

“Maybe Captain Rospin had a reason for his paranoia. Well, let’s see what we can uncover.” He turned around in his chair. “Let’s go to Quiet Yellow Alert so as not to disturb our guests. On my mark, I want active sensors and course change to 25-Mark-20, Warp 10. Really punch it, Mr. Cruz. And Lieutenant LaFuentes? Be ready on shields and phasers just in case. Ready? Beer me!”

At his command, instructions were enacted, and sensors picked up a ship. Ellie said, “Got them, sir. The power signature is… odd. Way more than anything that size should produce.”

“I see it, too,” Cruz said from the helm. “Small ship, crazy fast. It almost gained on us before they throttled back. It’s pacing us, Captain.”

“At Warp 10?”

“Ten-point-three,” Lt. Cruz said, “and holding. Must be a Torparis-Ferrari.” Envy made his Italian accent stronger.

“Doall, open a hailing frequency.” When she complied, he said, “Unidentified ship, this is the HMB Impulsive. That’s a mighty impressive engine you got under your hood. How ‘bout you identify yourself and explain why you’re following us?”

Ellie ran it through all frequencies while she looked up Toparis-Ferrari ship models. “No response, Captain. I’m not finding any TF ships or similar models that match the power signature. It continues to pace us, though it’s not bothering to hang back now.”

Lt. LaFuentes added, “No intel reports on new ships matching our readings, or any unusual activity in our area.”

The captain exchanged looks with his first officer. “Press?”

Smythe replied, “This is a highly controversial vote, which is why it’s being held in secret. Someone may be after the scoop.” He paused a beat, then reminded their Texan captain that they could not shoot the press.

Jeb shrugged and called to Engineering, “Angus, any reason we can’t stay at ten-point-three a spell?”

“Are we under attack, sair?”

“Nope, and not anticipating one.”

The Scottish Chief Engineer asked, “Are ye going to take us through a nebula? Weave between some planets? Dodge a comet?”

“Negative. Smooth sailing, some course changes.”

“Ach, that’s all good then. It should be fine for a few hours.”

Jeb thanked him and told the helm. “Maintain speed, but why don’t you plan a few random course changes over the next hour, see if our shadow can keep up? Just don’t take us through any solar systems or nebulas.”

Cruz nodded by cracking his knuckles and kissing his fingertips and touching them first to the image of St. Danika Wash attached to the helm, then to the picture of his grandmother, who raced spaceships professionally and had taught him all he knew.

On Ellie’s console, messages popped up making predictions for how long it would take for the Impulsive to outmaneuver the other ship, along with questions of whether or not chores were still considered valid markers now that Todd had brought them new janbots.

She bit back a sigh. Todd was only a few decks away, yet she wondered if this mission was going to give them any time together.