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Chapter Notes: WFW #104 - "My heart belongs to...", and then it didn't wind up really being as much about hearts as a previous drabble was (woops), so I didn't post it.

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The Pilot didn't trust the star they were orbiting. It had a pulse like an erratic heart, and its active regions boiled along the surface in step with the off-kilter beat. Erratic was bad from the Pilot's perspective; it meant unpredictable, and unpredictable stars were dangerous.

Unfortunately, that unpredictability was what had drawn the Stellar Surveyors to this subject. There was knowledge to be gleaned from such anomalies, and right now a half-dozen probes were dipping in and out of the white star's chromosphere, collecting samples and readings and images for analysis, while the Dancer's sensor array gathered what it could from their more distant vantage point.

It wasn't as distant as the Pilot wanted. He'd suggested a much more conservative orbit, offering a closer perigee in hopes that would satisfy the surveyors' needs while minimizing the risk to the ship. That perigee was now their apogee, and the Pilot regretted even suggesting a distance so close. He was still learning how to negotiate with the crew on these things, and the curve was steep.

He took some small comfort from the knowledge that the captain had agreed with him, even though she had also been overridden. This was a stellar survey vessel, and that meant what the surveyors wanted they ultimately got.

As a compromise to his concerns, the Pilot reserved most of his focus for the star and used the AI to balance the rest of his duties. Keeping the ship in a stable orbit was easy enough, since their subject was in an open area and well away from the bulk of the molecular cloud they'd traversed to reach it. The more he paid attention to the star's irregularities the more he thought there was a pattern underneath it all, and the Surveyors were correct in wanting more data. It would take a good deal of processing to resolve chaos of this level. He just wasn't sure they should--

His reaction was so fast that he'd grabbed a snapshot off the probes and had the warp drive spun to maximum before even realizing what he was doing or why. The ship-wide alert was an afterthought. "Stand by for emergency jump." He didn't wait for a response from the captain, he just pushed the drive into action.

They dropped out of warp a short distance away; far enough to put the ship out of harm's way but not so far as to damage the drive. The captain stood from her chair, no doubt to demand an explanation, and he gave one before she'd spoken by displaying the star on the viewscreen. The crew present on the bridge stared as an enormous coronal mass ejection, easily half the size of the star itself, arced out, tore free, and spun away into space. The shields sparked and glowed with the radiation showering over them, and the stellar array complained about the datapath filling to capacity.

The captain grew placid and settled back into her chair. "Pilot, report."

"We'll need a minute to reconfigure the drive, captain, but the ship is undamaged. Primary shields are holding at seventy percent, and will be back to full as soon as the warp core stabilizes."

"Very good. We did not see a warning from the stellar array."

"No, Captain--it's possible the ejection was triggered by a behavior we've not seen before."

That seemed to break the head surveyor out of his reverie. "What about the probes?"

"We lost four to the ejecta." A ripple of discontent spread through the surveyors, though they stilled as he continued. "I took a snapshot just before the jump. The other two are safely out of line of sight of that active region."

One of the younger surveyors went to her station. Her hands swept over the display, bringing it to life with charts and tables and formulae, and the head surveyor hovered at her shoulder. "Is the data intact?" he demanded.

"Some." She tapped here and there. "Pilot, please send the snapshot to the computer engineers. We will work with them to recover what you've saved."

What he'd saved. He told himself not to dwell on that and bundled up the snapshots. When the transfer to the computer engineering cluster was finished, he said, "Done, Surveyor Scioryx."

"Thank you Pilot."

The head surveyor made a low sound that was his own reluctant thanks. The captain glanced at him, her body language more smug than Pilot had ever seen it, then looked back to the viewscreen. "Pilot, please plot a safer orbit from the subject."

He caught the head surveyor giving the captain a dark look. "Yes, Captain." He watched the drive readouts while the engineers went about their adjustments, and once the diagnostics confirmed an optimal state he pushed the ship back towards the star at a modest pace. He set to work relieving the stellar array’s data bottleneck, not wanting to miss anything in these next passes.

The head surveyor's voice broke into his concentration. "Pilot." He was regarding some of the current readings from the surviving probes with distaste.

"Yes, Surveyor."

"This is one of the fastest forming ejections we have on record, going back almost an entire Maxima. How did you know it was forming?"

He had no answer which would satisfy anyone, least of all himself, and that bothered him. Yet it wouldn't do to hedge with the head surveyor; he was a shrewd old Praxidian, and the Pilot had the distinct impression the head surveyor didn’t like him. "I was concerned about the star's active regions, and watching them very closely."

"Why?"

The captain's nerve bundles were flicking with impatience. The Pilot replied, "The stellar array's readings were inconsistent with the data we have on file for stars of this type. I wanted to be able to report any relevant changes the moment they occurred." Because we were too close. (But that he didn't dare say.)

The head surveyor was some time in thinking over the Pilot's response, and when he looked about to continue the captain made a sharp movement with one hand. "If you are done interrogating my Pilot, Surveyor, we have a ship to run. I am sure you would like your other two probes back in one piece." Her tone held a threatening note the Pilot had never heard before. He thought he saw one of the systems engineers worrying at the hem of her shirt.

The head surveyor dipped his head to the captain in deference, and said, "Thank you, Pilot, for your efforts."

It didn't sound genuine, and the Pilot could see the head surveyor's suspicions in how his fingers made restless movements. Regardless, he replied, "You're welcome, Surveyor," and the head surveyor made a graceful gesture of acknowledgment, then turned back to the station’s display.

The tension between the captain and the head surveyor didn't abate until they were in orbit around the white star again, which worried the Pilot. He knew Captain Yzzorthil was on shaky political ground in going up against the head of their mission, and didn't want her to take such risks (who knew if any captain they replaced her with would be as tolerant of his idiosyncrasies?). However he'd also been unsettled by the head surveyor's questions and where they'd been leading, and was grateful she'd stepped in to stop him. He would need to thank her when there was an appropriate moment (or at least one where the head surveyor wouldn't overhear him).

He watched the star's arrhythmic mannerisms out of the corner of his mind's eye as he went about his duties, and wondered what warning he'd derived from them, what he'd sensed or read or felt. No matter how closely he examined his memory of that moment, he couldn't find an answer. When they finally gathered up the probes and took the jump to their next destination, he decided to stop thinking about it, and let himself enjoy the accomplishment.

He dropped into his sleeping phase to find the interloper waiting for him in the atrium.



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