by John R. Plunkett
F.S.S. Canberra, patrolling the Gosper Fringe Denied Navigation Zone
Captain Duncan Van Nuys occupied the Canberra's command chair with a relaxed but alert air, every centimeter the perfect image of competent, confident commander. His gray-green eyes missed not the slightest nuance of the bridge's quiet activity.
If only there were actually something to notice, Duncan thought. The Federation Security Council had enacted the decree, the Commandant of Starfleet had given the order, headquarters staff had implemented it... and Canberra found herself assigned to a six month patrol.
It all looks good on paper, but we're not doing anything here, Duncan fumed. They aren't going to attack us, their space fleet is a joke. Meanwhile, they carry on over there like nothing's happened. If we really deplore Morph slavery so much, shouldn't we go in there and put a stop to it once and for all? Instead we sit here, watching and waiting... for what, exactly?
The main screen showed a navigation display. As usual, it revealed absolutely nothing of interest. Just give me a reason, the captain prayed. Anything at all. And I'll show you how serious-
"Sir," Lt. Engstrom reported, "Incoming hyper-wave message on guard channel."
"Let's hear it," Captain Van Nuys commanded.
A new window appeared on the main screen. The video field remained blank, prominently displaying the words "No Image." A data crawl reported the specifics: freighter Juan Cristobal, registered to Hackman Brothers Logistical Services, headquartered in Zion, on the planet Grandia. Class: labor transport.
It looks like I got my wish, Van Nuys thought to himself, narrowing his eyes and slowly stroking the arms of the command chair with his fingertips. "Labor transport" was a polite euphemism that, in this context, meant slave ship. Yes, it looked like something very interesting indeed.
"Hello," a voice began. Extreme compression stripped it of all character and recognizable tone, leaving it impossible to identify the speaker's age, sex, or species. "My name is Selah. I'm on board a ship that's four days out from Grandia. The drive is shut down and I don't have the ability to start it up again. I am not a crew member. The crew is gone. There is just me and the cargo. If anyone can hear this, please respond. We are in desperate need of assistance. Please help us. Life support will only last another ten days, at most. I don't want to go back. I can't. Please help."
"After that, it repeats," Lt. Engstrom said. "I've sent a hail but there's no response; the transmission is on automatic."
"Plot an intercept," Captain Van Nuys commanded briskly. "Sound battle stations." The speaker is not a crew member, and the ship in question is a slave transport. Put those things together, and the situation became more and more interesting moment by moment. As in the Chinese curse: may you have an interesting life.
Throughout the ship the alert siren sounded, while the computer calmly directed all hands to assume combat stations. On the bridge the alert status indicator changed from yellow to red, and the room lighting changed from "daylight" to "combat," meaning that about half the fixtures went out and the other half dimmed. Semi-darkness brought the main screen and other assorted displays to greater prominence and clarity, which was entirely the point.
Commander Giles Roquefort, executive officer, entered the bridge surreptitiously adjusting his tunic. A glance at the main screen provided the gist of the situation. "A Fringer slave ship calling for help?" he inquired. "Sounds awfully convenient, sir. Could be a trap."
"That's why we're going in hot," Captain Van Nuys responded. "Still, I can't imagine what they'd possibly hope to accomplish by attacking us." But I hope they try, so help me I do.
"Course plotted," Lt. Higgins, the navigator, announced. "I don't have a lock, but she's sitting in normal space."
"Very good." Captain Van Nuys nodded approvingly. "Execute course change. Sensors, lock the target as soon as possible and keep watch for other traffic. I don't expect trouble, and I don't aim to let it sneak up on me either."
A chorus of affirmatives greeted the orders. The Canberra didn't heel into a turn the way a surface vessel would, but experienced observers felt a change in the thrumming which communicated through the ship's fabric. In Captain Van Nuys' admittedly partisan view it felt eager, like a hound straining at the leash, poised for the hunt.
"Contact," Lt. Bluebell at Sensors sang out. "No transponder, sharpening gradient, and she's way too hot for a civvie."
"Navigation, match us with the intruder," the captain commanded. "Fire control, you will Alpha strike on de-fold. You are weapons live."
"I am weapons live, aye aye sir," Lt. Bithy replied, straightening in her chair. Her stomach roiled, but to her intense relief her hands remained steady on the controls. Canberra had sparred with raiders and smugglers on various occasions, but this was an act of war: firing upon a military vessel carrying the flag of a foreign power. It didn't matter that the warship in question was only about a third Canberra size, nor that the economic output of the entire Fringe amounted to less than that of Voxxa alone. This was war. She resisted the urge to grin wolfishly. Those Fringer scuts wouldn't even know what hit them.
"Incoming transmission," Lt. Engstrom reported.
"Let's hear it," Captain Van Nuys directed.
A window opened on the main screen. It identified the signal as originating from Captain Giles Ortley of the G.S. Gabriel. A second later an image of that worthy appeared. Despite the name, his opposite number struck Captain Van Nuys as more of the Viking sort: heavy, square face with hard, chiseled features, set on shoulders that looked equally square and heavy. A shock of bright red hair adorned his crown, matching a beard that spilled down across his chest and out of frame. "Juan Cristobal, this is the Gabriel," he announced. "We are coming to lend assistance. Please stand by; we will dispatch an away team as soon as we enter normal space."
"Screen on," Captain Van Nuys commanded. "Gabriel, this is the F.S.S. Canberra. Juan Cristobal is in violation of the Denied Navigation Zone." That couldn't be established conclusively until Canberra entered normal space and took a precise sighting, but Duncan considered it a safe bet. "As are you if you attempt to enter normal space. You will sheer off at once."
"Canberra, we are merely attempting to offer assistance-" Captain Ortley began.
"You will sheer off at once," Captain Van Nuys growled, his lips drawn back in a snarl. "If you de-fold we will consider it an act of war and respond accordingly. You will retire from the area. We are perfectly capable of handling the rescue. If you wish to assist, you will contact the Federation through proper diplomatic channels and obtain the necessary permission. You have sixty seconds to comply."
The two captains glared at one another through their respective screens. The seconds ticked away, one by one-
Captain Ortley blinked first, metaphorically if not physically. "We are sheering off," he announced resignedly, with only five seconds remaining. "Screen o-" the window closed, cutting off the end of his command.
"They're going, sir," Lt. Bluebell reported. "Gradient is flattening."
"Yeah, and the horse you rode in on, too," Captain Van Nuys muttered under his breath. Or maybe not so much as he thought, given the number of coughs and throat-clearings which accompanied the remark. "We'll wait a bit to make sure they're really gone," he announced, briskly. "Lt. Engstrom, notify Command. Commander Roquefort, ready away teams. Bridge to Medical." The computer chimed, indicating that the requested channel had been established. "Medical, stand by. We're preparing to board a stranded Fringer slave ship, and we don't know what condition the poor blighters will be in."
"We'll be ready," Dr. Cinnamon Sugar replied.
"Excellent." Captain Van Nuys nodded, lacing his fingers together. There'd be trouble over some of the things he'd said and done... and he didn't care one bit. Those Fringer bastards deserved far worse, whatever the politicians and peacenicks said. He only hoped he'd be in a position to deliver it.
* * * * *
Lieutenant Chuck Gibson, Federation Marines, held his weapon against his chest. As the shimmering transport field faded away he swung it out, ready to fire. That he saw nothing to fire at mattered not a whit. His world contained only two kinds of people: those who were ready, and those who died. "Away team to bridge, we're in," he reported.
"Bridge to away team, copy that. How do things look?"
Lt. Gibson turned, looking first at his five teammates, then surveying the area. Except that his suit telltales indicated no atmosphere, everything looked perfectly normal. Juan Cristobal's wardroom might be the largest open area on the accommodation level, but even so it wasn't that large; six marines in combat rated pressure suits and full kits filled it a bit more than completely. Lt Gibson gestured with his free hand; the team saluted in response and split up to check the rest of the ship. Corporal Laroche and Private Johnson headed down to the cargo deck, Sergeant Kelly and Private Thompson went to check on engineering, leaving Private Salazar with the Lieutenant.
"Typical civvie," Salazar commented. Gibson merely grunted, though he agreed. Juan Cristobal clearly wasn't all that old, but the interior spaces had a scruffy, disheveled look as if no one had ever bothered cleaning them any more than perfunctorily. Gibson didn't like that at all; untidyness in itself didn't concern him, but it spoke of a lackadaisical attitude. In his line of work, that sort of thing got people killed.
"Away team to bridge, everything looks fine," Gibson reported. "Lights are on, gravity's on, no unusual disorder... there's even somebody's lunch sitting here." Vacuum had turned the half-eaten meal into a pile of desiccated lumps, more like gravel than anything edible. "No sign of damage."
"Sir, we can't reach the cargo level," Corporal Laroche reported. "There's an airlock- the cargo level has atmosphere- but the pressure doors are locked. Computer says there's a security lockdown."
"We can't get to engineering either," Sgt. Kelly put in. "There's no pressure, but the doors are locked."
"Are they, now." Lt. Gibson stepped out into the companionway and almost tripped over a dead body.
Vacuum did not make people explode. It did burst small blood vessels under the skin, turning it an ugly purple-black. It also made the victim swell up, like a corpse left to rot in the hot sun. Bodily fluids forced their way out through available openings, resulting in bleeding from the mouth, nose and eyes, not to mention voiding of the stomach, bowels, and bladder. Vacuum had desiccated the mess, just as it had the half-eaten meal. Nevertheless, Gibson was glad he couldn't smell it.
"Sir, we just found a bunch of bodies piled up in a utility room," Kelly reported. "Looks like they were working on the dump valves."
"Sounds like a screw-up to me," Laroche put in.
"Then who brought the ship out of warp and sent the messages?" Gibson responded. He continued to the bridge. He found the pressure door sealed and locked. A telltale indicated atmosphere on the other side. "Away team to bridge. The pressure doors are locked, but there's atmosphere in the control room. Can you beam us in?"
"Bridge to away team, wait one."
"Sir, ever notice how when they say 'wait one,' it always ends up being a lot more than one?" Salazar commented.
"You've been in the service this long and only just noticed that?" Gibson responded. Salazar snorted.
"Bridge to away team six and first squad, stand by for transport."
"Away team to bridge, copy that." Gibson smiled; it was just a fancy way of saying you and Salazar. He brought his weapon up against his chest. Salazar did the same, automatically stepping into position behind his commander.
Juan Cristobal's corridor dissolved in a spray of sparkly, multicolored light. Canberra's transporter room faded in but only briefly; it faded out once more, replaced by a room that could only be the bridge of a starship. But a small one, nowhere near the size of Canberra's. Gibson found himself facing the wall, with a station- engineering, probably- to his right. The person sprawled at his feet clearly hadn't sent any messages; he'd bled out from a stab wound to the heart. From the look of it, he'd been there for several days at least.
Gibson turned in place; he had to, or risk hitting something in the confined space. Looking past Salazar's shoulder he saw another person- alive, this time- sitting in the command char, gazing up at him with large, soft, brown eyes.
"Bridge to away team, report."
"Holy fuckin' shit," Gibson breathed. "Away team to bridge. We found a survivor in the control room. And you not gonna fucking believe who it is."