Heliopause

24.03.2268
Alpha Centauri System
76 A.U. from Alpha Centauri B

Dupuis had received the call to meet the Captain in his office almost immediately after he heard the sounds of the Linear Displacement drive ramp up and engage. He was learning to recognize Redoubt's different sounds, and the familiar sound of the LDS drive brought a sense of relief. He was still edgy after the recent sounds of emergency klaxons and fast manoeuvres he had heard during combat. His heart had nearly stopped when he heard the emergency Brace! Brace! Brace sound it's warning. Lying strapped on his bunk while the ship fought a space battle was the most helpless he had ever felt in his life. Even though the inertial dampening field was excellent, every jolt he felt as the ship deflected enemy fire made him wince as if it would be the last sensation he felt. He was exhausted from the sustained rush of adrenaline and fear. The only comfort he derived during the battle was in his thoughts of Corinna. He was realizing what a mistake he had made letting her go to pursue his career. The fear of death had stripped away his ambition, leaving only the resolve to get her back in his life somehow. If he survived this mission, he would find a way to contact her at that research facility. He played out the whole joyous reunion in his mind as the ship dodged and rolled through combat. Those thoughts faded as he double-timed it along the main axial corridor to the Captain's suite in the ComSec.

He passed a repair crew bustling on their way to the next priority job. Before long, he stood panting outside the open door of the Captain's office. Ferris sat at the end of the small table in his cramped office doubling for the moment as a conference room. He had the same worn look of stress and sleep deprivation seen on most of the faces there. Lieutenant Dupuis joined the members of the bridge crew, sitting opposite Lieutenant Commander Skarsgaard against the bulkhead wall. Under the bright light of the room, their eyes were sunken and they all seemed more pallid.  The lighting also made the colours showing through the translucent skin of the Chief Engineer more disturbing than ever. He wore a pained expression on his face, and a glisten of perspiration showed on his lip. They waited in silence until Colonel Carr arrived, a full twelve minutes after the meeting had been called. It seemed like an eternity.

"Ah, there you are Colonel. Thank you for joining us," said Ferris; his anger barely contained. He pointed to the last seat available. "We have very little time so I'm going to go through this very quickly. We have a new situation to digest, which seems to be changing by the minute. I have been given the gift of specialists for this so-called mission, and its time I consult your expertise." He looked around the table at somber faces. "Here's how it's going to work: I'm going to provide the sitrep. Then I'm going to ask questions. I want answers to those questions in as quick and focused a way as possible. Rank means nothing at this table. This is life or death. We have no time for bullshit of any kind. I want answers and ideas, and I want them fast. Our comrades in arms are in the process of hunting us. They're probably setting up blockades at the L-points in this system as we speak. Here goes:

"We were sent on a mission to hunt a spy ship that has been accused of treason. I personally found the evidence against them thin, but orders are orders. Since we have a 'capture' option I was going to strongly support that option and discourage anything else. As a result of an engineering mishap, we missed our scheduled jump by a few minutes. This mishap appears to have saved our necks, because most of our escort was eradicated by an ambush of pirate vessels, paid to destroy anything coming out of the point at precisely that time. Obviously, we were the target. Regular Navy SecPat vessels of the region were conspicuously absent. The pirates thought they had done their work, and were picking over the carcasses when we showed up with the Crusader and surprised them. Fortunately for us, and in spite of certain unauthorized independent actions, we prevailed," he looked directly at Colonel Carr with a cold glare that was matched by a bored look from Carr. "It turns out that there were other vessels way off at the limits of our sensor range during that exchange, and they left quickly after we destroyed the attackers. Before we knew it, we were jumped again, this time by our own people believing that we have gone rogue. Someone paid those pirates; someone gave those Navy vessels orders to attack us, leading them to believe that we were responsible for the recent disaster at Tau Ceti. Once again, we survived, but at great cost. The Crusader wasn't as lucky.

"We now sit at the very edge of the system while repairs are nearing completion. We're down to a handful of disruptors, even fewer seekers, and one REM missile. If we have to fight again, it's going to be a short one either way. If we want to go anywhere, we have to move out soon, or they'll have this system locked up and we'll be stuck here. We were supposed to go to Tau Ceti, but I have a feeling more unpleasantness awaits us there, so that direction is not an option, in my view. Mr. Dupuis."

Dupuis started in his seat, not expecting to be called upon so directly. "Uh, yes sir?"

"Let's talk about the mission first. We're supposed to contact the Wolf-In-The-Fold. How do you suggest we do that, now that things have.changed?"

There was a silence at the table and a panicked moment during which Dupuis felt like getting up and running. He might have if he weren't hemmed in on either side by McMichael and Ravindran. He bit his lip. "I don't know."

"What?" Ferris asked with incredulity.

"I don't know. Sir."

"I said forget rank. What would you suggest we try?"

"Captain, I don't know what to tell you. I have no idea where or how to find the Wolf-In-The-Fold. You have the same information as I do about last contact. Your guesses would be as valuable as mine. The.have we really been declared rogue?"

"Yes, the last combat manoeuvres you felt were part of an exchange with ships of our own forces. We destroyed four of our own vessels in that battle. If we weren't rogue before, it'll sure as shit look like we are now," Ferris replied curtly. "You were saying?"

Dupuis seemed a shade paler than he had a moment before. "The only thing I can think of would be to say that looking in Tau Ceti is a waste of time. It always was a waste of time, even before this all turned to.before things changed. I honestly don't even think the Wolf-In-The-Fold is the problem it's being made out to be, and we certainly aren't going to find them if they don't want to be found. Listen: for months now we've been pretty sure that the Crack-In-The-World group used the Tau Ceti system as their main base of operations, and we haven't been able to find them. We've only spotted them twice, and the last time we did was a disaster, and they wanted us to find them. It's a big system. Finding a single ship, experienced in covert techniques will be next to impossible. Sir."

". 'it's a big system'," Ferris said nodding. "I'm having a hard time believing my ears. You're our intelligence officer and that's the best you can do: 'I don't know' and 'it's a big system'? We're often out here for weeks at a time finding and fighting Indie ships, without the benefit of your 'intelligence' data. We do better than that with sensors that can only detect targets to about two thousand Kilometres. Perhaps you can tell me why you are aboard this vessel."

"Captain, I don't mean any disrespect. I'm.I'm just trying to give you straight up answers. I was included on this mission to keep me out of a political witch-hunt brewing back at Naval HQ. I came up with a conclusion that was very unpopular with the brass. No one seems to want to believe that there's another.oh never mind. Look, I'm an intelligence analyst. Most people think that everything we learn about the enemy comes from our 'spies'. But only about ten, maybe twenty percent of useful intelligence data comes from the work of covert operatives. The bulk of it comes from open sources; L-point activity, shipping manifests, traffic patterns, financial transactions, that sort of thing. The trick is to assemble it into useful patterns we can read. That's the kind of thing I was trained to do. My expertise as an intelligence data analyst never really had much bearing on the task of tracking a single ship in space. We spent months assembling data and modeling scenarios before we could confidently put the Indie fleet in a given place at a given time. Even then, it took a critical report to give us the specifics. I wish I could be more helpful, but in all honesty, I think my being on board this vessel is a mistake."

"I'm inclined to agree with you, Mr. Dupuis. We need a plan, not explanations for why we don't have a plan. And frankly, if you're not an asset, you're a liability," Ferris looked next at Ravindran. "Rav, it looks like we get no help from our intel specialist, and from where I sit the mission is moot, anyway. Survival is the game, now. Suggestions?"

"If you ask me, we don't know enough to formulate a plan. What we need is information. We need good intelligence. Who paid those pirates? Who ordered our own ships to attack us? Whose ships were out there watching to see the outcomes of the battles? Unfortunately, we don't have time to go around looking for answers to questions; not while we're being hunted and blockaded by our own fleet. So more than intel, right now we need time and distance in order to consider the options. We need to pick a direction, and fast."

Dupuis watched the Captain look at the WEPs officer with respect. The woman was definitely a clear tactical thinker. "Agreed. Our most important objective right now is to prove that we haven't gone rogue, and in order to do that, we need to stay alive and collect information. The question becomes: Where will we find the information that's going to help us? You've already heard how easy it is to stay hidden within a given system if you don't want to be found. But ships need fuel and supplies; crews need rest. We can't run around this system forever. Colonel," Ferris turned his gaze to Colonel Carr  "the routes back to Sol, and to Midway are most likely blocked by now. Which of the others would you recommend?

Captain Ferris touched the screen of his pad and a display of the stellar map appeared on the surface of the table, rotating and zooming in to the Alpha Centauri system. Colonel Carr looked at it a moment, then pointed at the system as he spoke. "Even though the L-4 point in this system is closer, making it an easier or at least quicker escape route, I would caution against heading to Midway. Those systems are now dominated by the Independents, and as you can see only offer a dead end. No, I think your best bet would be Proxima Centauri or Epsilon Indi, as long as you don't get forced in the direction of Delta Pavonis. I suggest we use the Matisse L4, behind Matisse's Folly.it will be the least likely to be covered yet by any patrols."

Ferris nodded. "Very good. I agree. What about you two?" he looked at Skarsgaard and McMichael. "The real question at hand is where can we go that will help us to find the answers, and the proof we need to demonstrate our innocence?"

Skarsgaard shrugged, "I still think we should try for Tau Ceti. The mission."

"The mission is FUBAR, Chief!" McMichael yelled. "We've been on mission for a matter of hours, and already we've been attacked by mercenaries, we've been declared rogue by our own Navy, we lost four escort vessels, we've been forced to destroy our own ships in self defense, and our intel specialist tells us we probably had no hope of ever finding that spy ship in the first place."

"And we've been sabotaged!" Ferris added.

"Sabotaged?" McMichael asked. "What sabotage? Do you mean the missed jump?"

"It was probably done while we were docked," Ferris nodded. "One of our engineers detected and fixed it immediately. His repair was the reason why we didn't make the jump.it probably saved our lives. The problem wouldn't have stopped us from jumping, but it would have crippled us pretty quick in a fight."

"Why didn't I hear about this sooner?" Colonel Carr joined in, suddenly quite upset.

"Because we've been pretty busy since we got here!" Ferris replied. "Because I'm not certain the saboteur isn't aboard, what with all these new people. Besides, none of this helps us choose a course of action. Ravindran, you said we needed to get some good intelligence. Which direction offers us the best opportunity for that?"

She shook her head, still puzzled at the turn of events. "I'm not certain. I just wish I could have gotten a better track on those strange contacts we spotted during the battle. They might have provided some indication of course if I had been able to spend more time tracking them."

"Captain, if there is a security threat on this vessel," Carr burst in, "I expect to be apprised of it in full! The completion of this mission depends on it. There are measures my people can take that could prevent any further."

Ferris held up his hand to cut the Colonel off. "Rav, you might be on to something. It might be worth looking back over the sensor logs. Those ambushes required some real time data, which means that whomever is behind these attacks is using some kind of spotter. We need to know more about that possibility. Colonel Carr, I agree that your marines may yet prove to be important to the security of this ship, but I alone will decide when to call for and implement those measures. I will let you know when that decision is made."

Ferris looked as if he were deep in thought. He turned off the display and gathered himself up, signaling the end of the meeting. "We may have some other options to consider before choosing our next direction. Rav, I want you to go through the sensor logs in as much detail as you can and try to get more information on those mystery contacts. I get the feeling they're important. Mac, I want you to plot high-speed course options for the remaining possibilities, and ready yourself for a fast run through the gauntlet. I expect it'll be just like at Arcadia, but I want to make it through whichever L-point we choose as quickly as possible, so be ready for the word. Once you've worked out the routes, I want you give Rav a hand with the sensor logs. Mr. Skarsgaard, repairs should be complete presently. I want you to double-check everything to make sure we have no more mechanical mishaps. I also want you to work on IFF options. See if you can hack an alteration of our identification signal. If we can borrow an ID tag for long enough to get through an L-point, it might make the difference between survival and destruction. Colonel Carr and Lieutenant Dupuis, I'd like a word with you after this meeting. The rest of you: Dismissed."

Dupuis waited while the rest squeezed out from their places and exited the cramped room. The three of them sat in silence, while Ferris waited for the sound of the airlock hatch to close and seal behind the retreating bridge officers. Once he was certain the others were gone, he turned to Carr. "Colonel, it seems unlikely that we will be able to pursue this mission as assigned, and as such, I am questioning the utility of a marine contingent on board this vessel. Your strategic and tactical expertise is obvious, and would probably help our cause, but I see no need for you to become a part of this mess. Your module has independent LDS capacity. I'll put it to you directly: Do you wish to remain with us, or do you wish to detach and return to the Navy on your own?"

Carr must have given some thought to the matter already. His answer was a measured one. "Captain, I have never returned to base without having completed a mission. I have no intention of doing so now. You may have abandoned your mission after encountering a little adversity, but I have not. I intend to complete my mission, and I intend to make sure your actions don't prevent me from doing so. You have been accused of treason and declared rogue. For the moment, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt, as I've seen nothing to support such allegations, and there has been nothing in the form of due process. But if I learn that you did in fact have anything to do with the disaster at Tau Ceti, or have in any way assisted the enemy, I'll execute you myself and complete the mission. For the time being, I'll support you in your efforts to find alternatives. Our existing mission parameters require some.adaptation.  But I will not allow you to abandon our ultimate mission. Whether it's the Wolf-In-The-Fold, or you, we have a real security risk out there, somewhere, and it's my job to rein them in. I have no intention of running home."

"Very well, Colonel. I appreciate your.vote of confidence. In truth, I was hoping you would leave and take some baggage with you," Ferris nodded in the direction of Dupuis. "But I could use all the help I can get. If you're going to stay, we need to get one thing very clear: you are not to take any action with your accommodation module without my direct orders. That means you don't detach without my order, you don't fire your weapon, you don't do anything, without a specific order from me. Do you understand?"

"I understand your request, and will take it under advisement," Carr answered, as he stood to leave.

"It wasn't a request, Colonel, As Captain of." but Carr was already out of the room and walking down the corridor. Ferris, now alone with Dupuis, looked decidedly unhappy. "Looks like we're stuck with each other, Lieutenant." There was a pause while Ferris considered something. "Why do you really think you were included on this mission?"

"Vice Admiral Wexler gave me my orders right after the Tau Ceti debriefing. He said that they were looking for a scapegoat to hang that mess on, and he wanted to protect me from the political fallout, so I was to do some field work, as he called it."

"Why would he care? I mean, why would he be so protective, even magnanimous toward you?"

"No reason I can think of, now. I'm starting to think he set us all up for some reason, but I can't figure out why. I'm usually pretty good at seeing the patterns, and getting a handle on the different angles, but not this time. Maybe because my own skin is involved."

"That makes two of us, but we'd better figure things out fast," said Ferris as much to himself as to Dupuis. "What was it you concluded that was so unpopular?"

"My analyses pointed very strongly to the presence of a third faction in this war.a very quiet one," Dupuis said.

Ferris looked at him carefully for a minute, deep in thought. "I see," he said. "You aren't the first person I've met that believes that. It does seem almost too hard to believe, but.the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Very well, Mr. Dupuis, maybe we can find a way for you to be useful after all. Get yourself suited up for bridge duty and report to the bridge in twenty minutes. You'll be assigned one of the fold-down rumble seats at the back of the bridge. I'll want you to give me best guesses, analyses, estimates, or hunches whenever I ask for them, on whatever issue we find ourselves facing. You're an intelligence specialist: it's time to start acting like one.even if it isn't your area of expertise. I need every edge I can get. Get moving!"

"Aye, sir!" Dupuis saluted and left quickly.

On returning to his cabin in the port module, Dupuis encountered Skarsgaard in the suite changing clothes, and looking for something in his room. Yves noticed him swallow a few yellow pills in his palm, holding his eyes closed for a moment before relaxing his shoulders and breathing more deeply. Finally, Skarsgaard opened his eyes and looked at Dupuis.

"Since I have to oversee the rest of the repairs, I'm going to be busy for awhile, so I thought I'd change, clean up a little, and get some of the equipment I use." Skarsgaard said, as he placed a more pieces of equipment in a utility tote.

Dupuis nodded, and turned to enter his cabin from the common room. Before he left, though, he turned and asked, "Does it hurt? I mean, does the thing with your skin cause you pain?"

Skarsgaard nodded. "You mean the little pharmaceutical pick-me-up? The pills help. Funny. Almost no one ever asks me what it feels like. They're usually too pre-occupied with what it looks like."

"So, why did you do it?"

Skarsgaard looked down and smiled a crooked smile. "A girl." He quickly held up his hand as if to ward off a blow. "I know, I know. How stupid can you get, right? But I was young, and in love, and she was.well, she was wild like nothing I'd ever seen before. She was into the whole body decoration subculture, you know: covered in tattoos, pierced everything. She was always going on about how amazing all this new radical genetic stuff was. I thought I'd impress her into wanting to be only with me, and did this." He gestured with one hand down the length of his flight-suit covered body. "The irony of it all was that she took one look at me afterward, and nearly lost it. It turns out she was more talk than action, and nowhere near as wild as she led on. She ditched me and.I still look like this. So I guess you could say it hurts me in more ways than you might imagine, but the pills definitely help." He placed a few more latched equipment boxes in the tote and added. "It's crazy how the very thing you choose to do to bring someone closer can end up driving them away, isn't it?"

"I guess," Dupuis said. "In my case, the problem is the opposite. I chose to do something for my career, knowing it would end a relationship, and now that I have what I thought I wanted, all I want is to have her back. How's that for stupidity?"

"Irony, stupidity.it's just the way things go. We always seem to want what we can't have," Skarsgaard replied as he zipped up the bag and headed for the door. "At least you can go back. I mean you could go find her and try again."

"I'm considering it, but I'm not sure anyone can really ever go back."

"Maybe so. But you can always try. Anyway, I gotta get to work. See you later." And with that Skarsgaard was gone. Dupuis found himself staring at a closed door. He left the cabin less than four minutes later, feeling strangely exuberant dressed in the amber and green flight suit of an active bridge officer.

Ferris found Allbright working on a panel in the port pastie, not far from the assistance Chief's own workstation. "Mr. Allbright. A word, if you please."

Allbright spun around in startled surprise, almost dropping his tools as he did. "Oh, Captain. I didn't see you coming." He placed his tools in the holder on the tray, wiped his hands on his coverall, and stood to face Ferris. He'd been too edgy lately, he thought to himself. He struggled to control the tremor in his hands. "What can I do for you?"

"You can tell me more about what happened before you came here. I'm interested in what you claim to have seen in Epsilon Indi."

"Not claimed to have seen, Captain. Saw! Plain and simple; with my own two eyes, and an entire bank of sensors to boot."

Ferris nodded and looked over his shoulder to make sure they were alone. "Go on. I need to know what you saw, and what you recorded."

"I was servicing an FTL relay unit out beyond the orbit of Old Man Panemito's parahelion in Epsilon Indi. Up until a couple of weeks ago, that was my job. That unit had been acting up already that month. As I approached I saw two contacts that shouldn't have been there. I started recording and sent copies of the data over to my drone's on-board CPU. The contacts didn't make sense, so I pinged 'em on active. Suddenly they made even less sense, and they weren't very friendly. These were PatComs, but different, and stealthy as hell. I recorded the whole approach, encrypted it and I launched the drone. They had to be doing something they shouldn't have been doing, 'cause they weren't interested in talking. They just came toward me in an unfriendly way. I realized I was screwed, so I sent a full spectrum test broadcast at maximum power through the relay, and it made pretty much everything scream for a few seconds. They rammed me and ran like hell. That's it. I got picked up, transferred to the spooks, recruited by Chen, and here I stand trying to keep your ship running, despite all the interruptions."

Ferris smirked a little at the dig. "Where's the drone with the recordings?"

Allbright smiled. "If only you knew how many people have asked that question in the last couple of weeks. Actually, it isn't far from where it all happened. There's another older model FTL unit in the vicinity of the one I was repairing. It failed a few years ago, so it was replaced but never removed or demolished. So it just sits there, another inactive piece of space junk. I always figured it was left there as a backup or for parts or something. Anyway, it was from the twelve-oh-two series, so it has a fairly large storage bay for its own automated repair drone, which was long since removed and put into service elsewhere. It just so happened that the 'elsewhere' was with yours truly. All I did was to tell Sneezy to go 'home' and wait quietly for me."

"Could you direct us to the drone and get us those recordings?"

"I guess. Why?"

Ferris sighed. Trying to get used to non-Navy personnel and their conduct wasn't easy, but the whole situation was demanding more adaptation than most could handle. "Because, Mr. Allbright, we've been shadowed by vessels that defy any contact profile we know about. But they smell an awful lot like these stealth ships you say you encountered. We'd like to compare the little bit we have to whatever you were able to record. It might help us find them, it might help us find out where they come from, or it might help us by having more evidence to raise doubts about us being the traitors everyone thinks we are. Either way, we are without a plan, and I need to get this ship somewhere fast. Epsilon Indi might be our best bet."

"Sounds like as good a reason as any, to me, Captain. Only there's one more thing I should mention."

".and that is?"

"We'd better hurry. Chen knows where Sneezy is. She may already be there collecting the data from it."

"We'll leave immediately, then. Epsilon Indi, it is! Send the coordinates for a waypoint directly from your station to McMichael's on the bridge. Stand by to assist when we get there. In the meantime, carry on, and.thank you."

Allbright turned back to his work without acknowledging Ferris' gratitude. He couldn't stop thinking about where to find something stiff to drink. Maybe the galley had some liquor. Maybe he'd be able to find something in the medical suite. His hands started to shake again. Ferris let protocol go and turned to return to the bridge. Before Ferris got more than three steps away, Allbright said, over his shoulder, "Is it just me, or are all the 'specialists' on board the Redoubt for this mission linked in some way or another?"

Ferris turned and waited, then asked the obvious prompting question. "Linked in what way, Mr. Allbright?"

Allbright closed up the panel and turned back toward Ferris and shook his head. He ran a shaking hand slowly over his graying head and licked his dry lips. He was suddenly acutely aware of how badly he wanted a drink. "I'm not sure, but it seems more like someone has assembled a collection of specific people on this ship and tried very hard to destroy it. It's almost as if someone was trying to put all their problems, or loose ends, or liabilities in one place for more efficient disposal. I just can't figure what the common thing is that makes us all liabilities, and to whom."

"Interesting thought, Mr. Allbright. I'll consider it. In the meantime, please remain alert to any other.anomalies."

This time Allbright saluted smartly. "Aye, Captain."

".and try not to be so damned sarcastic," added Ferris, as he left through the hatch to the bridge.

"I wasn't being sarcastic," Allbright muttered to himself as he gathered his tools and headed for his command workstation.

 

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