En route to Alpha Centauri B
Capsule space never ceased to impress him, no matter how often he saw it. Ferris watched the barrage of light and colour displayed before them in the tunnel effect they perceived in this distortion of physical space. The destination point was nearing, which meant that he had to prepare for the return to normal space. He listened to his bridge officers reporting on their respective systems they monitored prior to the shift into the space of the Alpha Centauri B system.
"How long until we emerge at the Toliman point?" Captain Ferris asked from the command seat.
"Just under ten minutes, sir," McMichael answered.
"Time enough for a brief chat with Mr. Allbright," Ferris said. He turned to the ENG station to his right. "Mr. Skarsgaard, inform Lieutenant Allbright of my desire to meet with him in my office immediately."
Ferris un-strapped and exited the bridge quietly. His arrived at office, only a few steps aft of the bridge, poured himself a cup of water from the dispenser, and sat down to prepare his questions for Allbright. It was bad enough to be stuck with unfamiliar personnel on a mission that reeked of poor planning, but to have someone who didn't understand Navy protocol engage in unauthorized tinkering was unconscionable. He was considering placing this Allbright character under arrest when he heard the tap at the doorframe, and looked up to see a stout, gruff man standing shoulders squared in his doorway.
"Sit," Ferris said, pointing to the chair opposite his desk. Allbright complied quickly, but not meekly.
"I understand you made some small, last-minute repairs to my ship just before we made jump," Ferris started out quietly, containing his anger.
"Yes, sir, I."
"Shut it!" Ferris snapped, escalating to anger faster than he'd intended. "You'll answer me when I ask you a direct question, not before," Allbright nodded, crossing his arms in mute defiance. "Do you understand the consequences of your unauthorized tinkering?"
"I assume we got left behind," Allbright said.
Ferris shook his head and snorted a half chuckle at this man's insolence. "Correct. We missed our jump. Three of four escort ships didn't and they are at Alpha Centauri wondering where the hell we are. It's a pretty sorry way start to a mission, Mr. Allbright."
Allbright said nothing. He simply stared back at Ferris as if he were bored with the whole interview. Ferris leaned forward, arms on his desk. "Time for you to start telling me what the hell you are doing on this ship."
"Captain. You've got a sabotage problem."
"Sabotage, now is it? That isn't exactly the response I was anticipating. Is this a confession? Because right now, the only act of sabotage I have in sight is the one where we were prevented from making a coordinated jump."
"No, Captain. I'm telling you that someone else sabotaged this ship, maybe while we were in port, maybe someone on board. My guess is the former, because the damage would have put this ship at serious risk if any combat situations arose. I'm the one who."
"Mr. Allbright. Answer my question. What the hell are you doing on this ship?"
Allbright closed his eyes and took a deep breath before continuing. "I'm the one who spotted it and fixed it as quickly as I could. There wasn't time for chain of command or protocol, sir. If we had jumped into a hostile situation, we would have overloaded a main linkage and lost weapons after one shot, shields probably would have gone offline too after a hit or two. It was a more complicated repair than I thought so the system recharge took longer than I thought it would. I do apologize for causing the mis-jump. But if I were you I'd be asking myself why someone would want this ship incapacitated in a fight. Sir."
"I find myself asking myself what the hell you are doing on my ship.and I keep getting bullshit for an answer!" Ferris shouted.
This time it was Allbright who leaned in close to Ferris, fixing him with a withering stare. "I'm here because I had no other choice. So fuck you and fuck your barking dog act. I don't give a damn one way or another what you want. Lock me up for all I care, it seems to be the standard Navy way of dealing with people, as far as I can tell. You say you want the truth? Here it is: I was given an offer I couldn't refuse by one of your Navy Intelligence people. She warned me that someone would try to prevent this mission from succeeding, and that I should trust no one. She said I might be able to trust you. So I studied my ass off and tried to keep my eyes open for problems. I spotted one. I corrected it. I believe the correct response is 'Thank you', but I don't expect I'll hear it from you. Sorry if you lost a few minutes off your precious 'coordinated jump' schedule."
"I get the impression you're not someone who tolerates all this Navy bullshit very well."
"No, to be honest, there's a lot about you people I just don't."
"Because here's the situation acting Lieutenant Allbright! You're aboard a Navy vessel, which is part of the Navy fleet, all of which operates according to the tried and true method of respecting the chain of command and following orders. You don't have to like it. You just have to do it. Do you think you can do that? Respect rank, and follow orders?" Ferris glared at him.
Allbright stared back.
"I need to know right now, because if you can't, you're not only useless to me, you're a liability to this ship, and I will lock you up somewhere, in which case you won't be able to do whatever you were put here to do."
"I understand. I can and will respect the chain of command. You'll have no more problems from me, Captain," Allbright conceded.
"See that I don't. Just tell me who put you here," Ferris asked more calmly.
"I don't know much about her," Ferris acknowledged, "except that she gives half the Navy the creeps, and other half just plain hates her. She was head of operations of an intelligence-gathering platform at Midway. They had to be evacuated when it looked like we were going to lose the whole system, so some ships got diverted to assist the evacuation that were needed elsewhere. I guess it was a pretty rough time for the evacuees, but the Navy took that whole thing pretty hard. The folks in intel have never been popular with the regular navy, but ever since Midway, Chen and the whole,intel branch have been on a lot of people's shit list."
Ferris paused and thought carefully for a moment before continuing. "Here's the deal Mr. Allbright. I'm going to give you another chance. You do your job and you do it extremely well, do you understand me?"
"Aye, Captain," Allbright said much less enthusiastically.
"You respect that uniform, and the people you work with, and.keep your eyes peeled for any more odd occurrences. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on this last one. When someone starts talking about sabotage on my ship, I start getting very nervous. It won't hurt to have some extra eyes looking for unusual problems, I suppose. Just remember that I'll be watching you very carefully, too," Ferris checked his watch and realized they were due to arrive at Alpha Centauri soon.
"I'm needed back on the bridge. Return to your post and be sure to inform me of any other problems before you decide to take any action. Is that clear?"
"Crystal clear, sir. Thank you," Allbright was already up and leaving the office.
"In the Navy, there's this thing called a salute."
"Oh, sorry sir," Allbright seemed genuinely sorry as he snapped to attention and offered a decent imitation of a Navy salute. "I really didn't mean any."
"Nevermind, just get," Ferris said with a quick salute response. He waited for Allbright to leave and headed back to the bridge with two minutes to spare before exit to normal space. He would need more time than two minutes to think about the implications of a Navy Intel plant on board.and so obviously not a properly trained one on top of that, as well as the possibility of sabotage. Under normal circumstances he would bring everything to a halt and take the time to think about it. These were not normal circumstances.
They emerged in a blinding flash of light almost at the same moment the Crusader emerged from her capsule space transit. Alarms rang instantly, as they registered debris and residue from explosions. There has been a battle here very recently, and some of the wreckage was still hot.
"Captain, I've got debris and ship fragment contacts all over the area. The fighting is over, but only just," Ravindran announced. "Five intact ships in the vicinity, all corvettes. I'm reading two in amongst the nearest cluster of debris, and three more much further out, near another collection of debris fragments."
"WEPs, get me IDs!" Ferris shouted. "NAV, stand by evasive manoeuvres and get me Crusader."
Ravindran was already identifying what she was reading. "The debris is what's left of our escort. Three destroyed Navy corvettes. The other five ships are all stolen and heavily armed.three are on our list of known pirates."
"Crusader here," Hyslop-Smith could be heard on the comm arm as it unfolded in front of Ferris. "Looks like we caught those pirates trying to salvage what they can from their victims."
Ferris looked at the tactical display, and realized that Hyslop-Smith was right. The pirates probably thought they had time to grab a few goodies before hightailing it again. "We've got five contacts, assumed hostile, and confirmation that our escort was destroyed," he replied. "Crusader, you take the nearest pirate vessel, the Caustic Kiss, and disable her. I want prisoners. We'll handle the rest."
"Very well, Captain Ferris. Breaking off to attack now." The comm arm winked out and folded itself back into the retracted position.
"Rav, launch a REM missile immediately, and link it to me." Ferris ordered. "Then launch disruptors at the Just Plain Mean. Defensive PBC fire only."
"They've spotted and identified us. The pirate vessels are all turning to engage us now," McMichael said. "It looks like we surprised them a little too. They're all launching missiles, and the Just Plain Mean and the Caustic Kiss are firing at us."
Ferris was busy guiding his REM-linked missile toward the three pirate vessels that had been further away, but were now speeding toward them. He saw the names of the targets on his display, as they raced into PBC range. The Something Wicked, the Gangrene IV, and the Disturbing Development would be upon them in several seconds, but before that, hopefully they would encounter his REM missile. If he could guide it toward the middle ship and detonate it at the right moment, he would be able to destroy them all with one blow. He guided the missile at them, mentally calculating the timing of the blast with their approaching velocity. The targeting computer was making the same calculation, displaying a set of numbers that counted down so quickly they blurred into a flicker of unreadable symbols. He pressed the detonation trigger moments before the last of the digits disappeared and lost his link instantly. He looked out the front view port, to the place he estimated they were, and he saw the expanding sphere of dissipating light that marked the location of the missile's explosion.
"Direct hit, sir," Ravindran said. "The three pirates from the more distant group have been eliminated. The Something Wicked is the only one left and it is tumbling and heavily damaged. It doesn't look like it will last long. Internal explosions are probably still ripping it apart. The Caustic Kiss has engaged the Crusader. It looks like they're off on a high-speed chase. Both vessels are already nearing the limits of our sensors. Our first two disruptors have missed the Just Plain Mean, or were countered. There's just too much debris over there. They're using the destroyed hulks to evade missile locks. Launching another now."
"Mac, get us in closer to those wrecks," Ferris ordered.
"Aye, Captain. Moving in on them now," McMichael said. He pressed the main thrust overrides into the full forward position, and gripped the controllers tightly. They all felt the subtle changes in directional forces while the pilot manoeuvred closer to the target. "Captain, it looks like the Caustic Kiss has damaged the Crusader and is returning to engage us. The Crusader is adrift for the moment."
"Stay with the Just Plain Mean everyone," Ferris said. "Rav, what's the status on that last disruptor?"
Ravindran was about to say, "Hit," when their entire vessel shook violently. Despite the powerful inertial dampening field, the jolt she felt made her grateful for the restraint harnesses. They all looked at one another a little shocked at the reminder of the limits of the dampening field.
"What the hell was that?" Ferris shouted. "Did we just take a missile right on the hull, or was that a debris impact?"
"Neither, Captain," McMichael said. "The starboard accommodation module has just undocked and hit full thrusters right on top of us. They're headed for the Just Plain Mean, sir."
"Damn!" Ferris exclaimed. "What in the hell is Carr up to?" he said as he keyed open a channel to the marine pastie.
"Captain," Ravindran said. "I can confirm that we have successfully disrupted the systems of the pirate vessel Just Plain Mean. It looks like the marine pastie is going to dock with her. We have the Caustic Kiss inbound on us now. The Crusader is in better repair now, and trying to get back in the fight too, but she's still quite far out."
"How long until the Caustic Kiss is in range?"
"Less than fifteen seconds, sir."
Colonel Carr was not responding to his comm request, so Ferris gave up on the pastie for the moment and focused his attention on the approaching pirate vessel.
"They're coming in fast, launching everything they've got at us," Ravindran uttered calmly into the wire-thin audio pickup attached to her headset. The ship jittered and bounced to the fire they were receiving. Yellow and magenta light flared outside the forward view port as the LDA countered incoming PBC fire. "Evading. launching countermeasures.launching seeker.and returning fire now," she continued in her calm manner. PBC fire could be seen streaking forward toward their unseen enemy as they approached in a head on contest. A rush of static told Ferris that the pirate corvette had just skimmed past at tremendous speed. McMichael was already flipping the corvette end over end and firing at the passing pirate. "Got her!" he exclaimed.
"Confirmed, Captain," Ravindran announced, excited. "The Caustic Kiss is crippled and tumbling. Our seeker is about to find her.and..." They all watched the light flare out the forward viewport. "She's gone. Completely vaporised. Enemy destroyed, Captain."
"Mac, get us back to the marine accommodation module," Ferris ordered, watching the pilot nod in reply. "And try to get the Colonel on comm for me, will you. Skarsgaard, what's the status on the CRUSADER?"
"Limping back, Captain. She'll be OK, but my guess is they'll need time to make repairs."
"We've got a link to the marines now. Colonel Carr is on the comm."
They heard the sounds of explosions, gunfire, and screams. They heard Colonel Carr's voice shouting over the background din, sounding annoyed at the interruption. "We're kind of busy here, Captain, what do you want?"
"Get back here as soon as possible, and meet me in my office immediately," said Ferris. "And make sure we get a captive alive. I have some questions that need answering."
"Captain," Ravindran shouted. "We're still not alone. I thought I saw something else when we jumped in, but there was so much wreckage and then the hostiles, I."
"What have you got, Rav?" Ferris asked.
"I'm still not sure, captain. I'm getting two small contacts, quite far out, but within sensor range. They don't seem to make any sense. If they were truly that small, at the range we're seeing them, we shouldn't be able.and the speed and power output doesn't match." Ravindran continued to try to decipher the readings. "Wait, they've moving off. It looks like they're accelerating to LDS."
"Mac, Pursue them!"
Aye, sir. Engaging auto." McMichael cut short his report. "Sorry sir, they're already gone and off the scope. I couldn't even get a heading."
Ferris sighed and looked down at his screen for a moment. "Contact the Crusader and offer assistance. In the meantime, bring that marine pastie back on board." He watched his screen as the specialized marine accommodation module undocked from the drifting hulk of the pirate corvette and manoeuvred toward them for re-attachment.
"Crusader sends her compliments by text only, Captain," Skarsgaard said. "Captain Hyslop-Smith states that repairs are proceeding well. They are not in need of assistance, and will join us presently."
"Very well," said Ferris, as he keyed his comm arm again, in an effort to raise Colonel Carr. "Colonel. Please report to my office immediately. I want a full."
"I'm sorry Captain, but I won't be able to meet with you for some time. We're simply too busy here with our operations," Carr replied coolly.
Ferris held back his temper. "Understood Colonel. I'll accept your report here and now, then. What happened during your boarding action?"
"You'll receive a full written report of the action within twenty four hours. The upshot of it is that we had a single survivor, who was not able to provide much information to us during the debriefing phase."
"Are you telling me we only have one survivor from that ship left?" Ferris was incredulous.
"Had, Captain. Had," Carr corrected. "He did not survive the.debriefing."
"What were you able to learn during this debriefing?"
"Only that this group of pirates were in the employ of someone who paid them well to destroy the group of vessels emerging from that L-point at that precise time," Carr reported. "They were instructed to leave no survivors, and were permitted to take what they wanted from the wreckage, so long as they disappeared very quickly. These pirates believed they had completed their task and were looting the wrecks when we emerged.apparently taking them as much by surprise as they did our former escort ships. That is all."
"So we have no idea who paid them?"
"I'm afraid not, Captain. That is all we know, at this point."
"Thank you, Colonel. Next time I tell you I want survivors, you better give me survivors to talk to personally. And the next time I call you to a meeting, I expect you to be there. Ferris out," he cut off the comm, eager to end the conversation with the marine colonel as quickly as possible.
McMichael broke the silence. "You hear that Rav? No survivors! I told you the guy was a complete nut job. I don't even want to think about what they did to interrogate that pirate. But I'll bet it has something to do with why they call him 'The Barber'."
"Listen up, people. We came through that one relatively unscathed, but we need to stay sharp. This mission is making less and less sense all the time. Good work everyone. Let's move over to the Crusader, and lend what aid we can."