A tall figure gazed out the window of his cabin at the stars. Even now, at 2.3 FTL, their light remained brilliant and beautiful. They were, however, the farthest thing from his mind.
"Someone has stolen two bowls of cherries," the Captain blared to his first officer.
"Two bowls of cherries?" the first officer replied in disbelief.
"What an affront," the second officer said indignantly as she ran her fingers through her hair. "Such a blatant act of theft cannot be tolerated."
Captain Alluet Lutius toggled the intercom and cleared his throat into the microphone. For fifteen pregnant seconds, the crew waited to hear the pronouncements from the speakers located in every corridor of the freighter.
"Now hear this," spoke the Captain, slowly measuring the tones of rage for full effect. "As you all know, food has to be carefully rationed on these Rimward runs. The duration of the flight is not sufficient to justify cryogenically suspending all or part of the crew for any length of time." The Captain sat back and listened to the sound of his voice resonating throughout the ship.
The first officer broke into a wide smile, already satisfied that the Captain was going to get his points across. "Oh, that sounds good," he said, "very good indeed. Put the fear of the gods in them."
"Because of the need for strict adherence to the rules, any man or woman who violates procedure not only dishonors themselves, but also endangers the health, safety, and profit shares of his or her fellow crewmen." Lutius stopped to adjust the positioning on the desk of the Commendation for Diligence of Procedure that he had received the previous year from the Chromium Line board of directors.
"Show them who is in command so that they may learn the folly of their actions" the second officer egged on.
"Inventory control has shown," the captain continued in an even more serious tone of voice, "that two extra bowls of cherries were consumed during yesterday's meal cycle. This is discounting recorded spillage and portions turned down and reassigned to other personnel." The Captain switched off the microphone and pondered his next move, tapping his hands nervously on the wooden composite table.
"Should I really go as far as this?" he asked of his first and second officers. "This is a serious offense, but does it possibly warrant the sweeping changes I am about to make?"
"Sir," replied the first officer, "your compassion is legendary. Your desire for harmony and openness within the crew is matchless within the fleet." His face drooped into a low scowl. "But, this is beyond simple insubordination. This, in my humble opinion, is the theft of life, the impairment--willful and deliberate--of the smooth functioning and operation of this, the Chromium Line's best, most efficient, most successful mid-range space freighter."
The second officer nodded and then cleared her throat to get the Captain's attention. "Such honors are well worth protecting," she said, "and the crew should be willing to pay such a high price to maintain the honor of this vessel."
The Captain pondered the advice of his close officers and close friends. Then, slowly, he reached out and retoggled the intercom. "Once I was notified of this grave act of theft, I asked for the complete provisions inventory since the beginning of the mission. Almost from the first, there has been crystal clear evidence of this unauthorized consumption of food, and this will no...longer...be...tolerated.
"Effective immediately, all personnel must sign a detailed receipt before removing any food in any condition from the stockrooms." Alluet paused in order to allow his words to settle into the collective psyche of his crew. "Any personnel found to be in willful disobedience of this ordinance will be shot by security. Effective immediately, I am also ordering a crew lock-down. All men and woman not currently on shift or on scheduled dinner duties are prohibited from exiting their quarters for other purposes. Violators of this ordinance will also be shot."
"Good words, Captain," said the second officer, "this will show them that theft of life will not be tolerated."
"I certainly hope so," the Captain muttered through clenched teeth as he deactivated the intercom, "I certainly hope so." The three of them--the Captain, first officer, and second officer--walked over to the Command Terminal to make an entry in the log concerning the action taken, and then prepared themselves for their evening meal and for bed.
The following morning Ensign Byron Lyttle slowly turned onto the corridor leading to the Captain's quarters, his brow raining sweat in little beads onto his chromium blue uniform. Only recently out of the Line's training school, Lyttle had been assured by the Flight Dispatcher's Office that the Cradle of Commerce was a great ship to serve on. "Congratulations," his classmates, who had all graduated ahead of him in his class, to a man had said, "couldn't have happened to a better cadet." He was quite surprised at the time that his classmates had even noticed him as they really had paid him no attention before. Of course, this surprise only grew when none of them wanted to switch assignments when he offered to give up his seat in a final gesture to win some sort of praise from them. Only now was he realizing that Ensign Tyn Zeton's decision to keep his assignment--to the garbage scowl Quark--was a perfectly reasonable action after all.
For now, though, Lyttle was here, and it was his unfortunate burden to serve as the Captain's messboy. Slowly, he inched his way down the dimly lit corridor. If only I wasn't in on this secret, he thought, who's going to believe me. He felt his heart beating against his breast plate, and he heard the sound of blood pounding in his ears. Almost as if he was carried by an unstoppable force, Lyttle found himself before the Captain's door.
"C-c-captain," he said as he activated the voice monitor, "I'm here t-to t-t-take your morning orders."
For a moment, there was complete silence. Then, static crackled over the monitor, and the Captain's voice came through.
"Standard breakfast," he replied, "selection number 14."
"Anything...anything else sir?" Lyttle pulled from his pocket a Chromium Line handkerchief--his name and rank carefully sketched in blue along the boarder--and wiped his face and hands. I hope Dr. Riley still has some of those nerve injections left, he thought. Most popular items in the sick bay I bet.
"This is the first officer," a different voice cackled, "I'll have selection 14 as well." Lyttle felt faint, but he committed the request to memory.
"This is the second officer," her voice slithered seductively, "just coffee."
For a moment, the comm panel remained silent, and Lyttle began to slowly back down the hall.
"Ensign Lyttle," the Captain's voiced yelled, "tell the XO to send the morning reports with you. I want to see what mischief may have occurred after my directives of last night."
"Yes sir," Lyttle said, and then he ran quickly down the hall to the lift.
The CLF Cradle of Commerce was not one of the newest ships in the Chromium Line Fleet. That distinct honor belonged to the big deep space models, the Mark Triple-Sevens. They were rumored to have state of the art everything--from crew quarters to cargo capacity to propulsion, including Full-Drive Rated FTL engines. The Cradle of Commerce was a Mark Two-Seven Freighter, one of the bigger ones built by the old Gestran Ship Yards near Terra, but one with less overall cargo capacity and range due to the inefficient requirements of the propulsion systems.
The ship could carry a crew 100, as well as up to 50 passengers, and had massive compartmentalized cargo bays. The lower bays, in fact, were technically spacecraft in their own right, capable of ferrying themselves around most freight stations and space ports, though not for long ranges, and not at great speeds.
The equipment on the Mark Two-Sevens was generally adequate though old, but the craft possessed another quirk, one that irritated Executive Officer Daniels greatly. Whenever the Cradle dropped out of FTL drive, the command officer had to commit his/her/its craft to a specific speed prior to leaving warp space. If the officer selected the desired speed as three-quarter FTL, the breaking engines would take the ship out of warp and slow it down. However, the Mark Two-Sevens FTL engines could not operate efficiently at low speeds. So, the ship used thrusters powered by Liquid Oxygen and Liquid Hydrogen, as well as a few others powered by hypergolics. Provided there was nothing significant to slow the ship down by natural force, the power of the thrusters could sustain the ship at the speed at which it dropped from FTL.
Daniels had never liked this aspect of the Two-Sevens. Old-fashioned thrusters seemed to him to be a waste of time and technology. Plus, the old thrusters always seemed to be causing problems.
"Mr. Kelson," Daniels spoke into the intercom, "the pressure in the LOX master tanks keeps fluctuating, at least on the status panels here."
"Sir," Kelson replied, "I've got men lookin' at it, but we're a little busy keepin' the FTL engines in-line. We've got at least seventeen work orders to the fill on the FTLs alone when we come to the Lightspeed Dropout..."
"Damnit, the master tanks are right next to the blasted FTL drive!!! You can't just step over and check a frappin' gauge?" Daniel's removed his hat and ran his large hands through his thinning black hair. "Would you go so far as to actually confirm the existence of the LOX tanks?" Daniels asked mockingly. The static over the line indicated that the engineer had not taken the comment well. "Okay, Kelson. Just do what you can. We have that Lightspeed Dropout in the not too distant future, and I want to be sure we have enough power to maneuver properly without a tow. See if you can get someone on it in the next few minutes, just to confirm the status reports are accurate." Daniels slammed his finger on the comm panel toggle. At that moment, the lift doors opened, and Ensign Lyttle, agitated and upset, bounded onto the bridge.
"Did you see him this morning?" Executive Officer Daniels said to Lyttle as he entered the bridge.
"No," Lyttle said, "I didn't see any of them." Daniels rolled his eyes impatiently.
"This is a rotten business," Daniels muttered, "and all of it coming at the worst time." Getting up from the leather captain's chair, Daniel's, tall and proud in his Chromium Line uniform, strolled to the communications station. Pieces of the machine were scattered on the floor and over the console. "Grandars, are you making any progress?" Grandars was buried from the waist up in the maintenance way beneath the console.
"Geez now," Grandars grumbled, "yer `spectin progress." A burned circuit board angrily flew out onto the bridge floor. "Aye n'ted on report that it din't measure t'my standr'd before we left port."
"'But it meets the preflight standards,'" Daniels intoned in the voice of the Captain. This wasn't the first time Captain Lutius had used technicalities to depart from a port on schedule, and for a second his mind drifted back to ten seconds of horror that had occurred on the previous flight of the Cradle. "Damnit, I've got to contact the Flight Dispatcher. I've got to get authorization before I can take any actions against him."
Sliding up next to the XO, Lyttle moved his mouth next to Daniels' ear. "Begging your pardon sir," Lyttle said, stray strands of his blondish brown hair brushing against Daniels' temple, "no one has seen the Captain since our second week out. The only person he'll talk to is me, and even then it's only on the voice monitor." Lyttle's voice began to quaver as he started recalling the incidents of the previous weeks. "For god's sake, sir, there's the matter of the First and Second Officers, these crazy orders. A guard shot at me...shot at me!!!...this morning when I came out of my quarters because he didn't see my name on the authorized list." Byron, sweat again beading on his forehead, moved in front of Daniels, the pretense of discretion falling away.
"Why...why is anyone taking orders from this lunatic?" Lyttle screamed. Daniels slowly and deliberately walked over to the ship's status panel.. The various lock-down checkpoints were illuminated on the diagram, and reports periodically appeared indicating all was well. He tapped a finger on the screen, and engineering status replaced security information on the monitor.
"You came out of the academy just before this mission didn't you," Daniels said, turning his face towards Lyttle. "You don't understand the politics of the Chromium Line." Daniels motioned for Lyttle to follow, and he walked into the Captain's Conference Room--really little more than a large closet with windows--located at the back of the bridge.
"Mr. Daniels," Lyttle whispered as he entered the room, "they stated emphatically during training that it was the crew's responsibility to insure the safety of the mission." His eyebrows began twitching, and he turned to look at the stars displayed outside the window, his Chromium Line breast pocket logo reflecting back at him from the glass. "They said that the crew was authorized to relieve the Captain of duty if he, she, or it could not perform the duties expected of them."
"You don't know the power Captain's have," Daniels muttered," you don't know what's happened to all of the previous crews who resisted the authority of those the Line placed in command. Those rules are there to make green, wide-eyed innocents like you feel safe joining the `greatest shipping line in the galaxy'". Now his face began to twitch. "Back in `37 the Captain of the Go'rin d' blanga began referring to everyone as his little fishies, and he began regularly slathering himself in tartar sauce. The crew relieved him, and now all of them can't find jobs with any of the lines. He was, in the judgment of the company, improperly relieved because he posed no threat to the cargo or to the ship, and now those poor souls are blacklisted."
"But," Lyttle began to protest.
"I can't even enter a lift without checking with the guard stationed there first," Daniels muttered. "Doesn't even matter that I can stand right there and write up my own friggin' authorization. I still have to have it." Daniels sighed, and looked longingly out the window, the vacuum of space suddenly seeming like the surface of paradise. "It's damned rotten, but can you honestly tell me that he's done anything to threaten the ship or the cargo?"
"But the crew," Lyttle cried, "we're all being treated..."
"Like cattle, Mr. Lyttle, like cattle. And that's what we are to the Line. They care about the cargo, and they care about the ship. But, as long as you are on contract, the Line doesn't care about you."
"Mr. Daniels," Grandars said as shuffled up behind the two of them, grease and shards of wiring coating his uniform.
"Yes," the Executive Officer replied.
"The board'shot," he said, "n' good. Nothin' aye c'n deu."
"We've got no communications at all beyond navigational transponders and running lights," Daniels said to Lyttle. "If I could talk to the Dispatcher and tell him what is going on, it's possible he'd authorize relieving the Captain. But unless that happens, we do nothing but try to make it to Blackport Station, and in my post-flight report I'll list the strange behavior."
"We don't make Blackport for another three months," Lyttle screeched to both Daniels and Grandars.
"Tak't easy," Grandars said, placing a hand on Lyttle's shoulders, "all captain's d'ranged. But none kill m'yet." Traces of grease pulled along the uniform as Grandars pulled his hand away. At that moment, the intercom on the bridge buzzed.
"Bridge, this is the galley," a trilling voice said, "is Ensign Lyttle there?"
"Yes he is," Daniels said as he turned and walked onto the bridge.
"Then tell him the mess for the Captain's quarters is ready."
"Affirmative galley." Daniels sat in the Captain's chair and looked forward to the view monitor. He pulled a stack of printouts from a hamper attached to the chair and gave them to the Ensign. "I assume the Captain wants these." Lyttle took them in his hands, and the papers began to tremble. "Byron, just do it, humor him. Hopefully we'll pass another ship along the way, and I'll try to use the nav lights to code a message to them." Lyttle, after staring with anger and uncertainty into the eyes of the XO, turned and walked slowly towards the lift, entering the tube and activating the control panel. "Don't piss him off. That report's going to show more food missing."
Lyttle slowly lifted his hands to massage the sides of his temples, and then the lift doors shut.
After the doors closed, Daniels turned towards Grandars. "It's a rotten business," Daniels murmured, "a rotten stinking business." He pressed a finger onto the comm button on the Captain's chair. "Engineering, this is the bridge. I need the status of the LOX tanks..."
Captain Lutius slowly opened his door and looked out into the corridor. As he had requested, Lyttle had placed the food and the reports on a cart outside the door. Then, he had cleared the corridor.
I can't allow any of this lot to assassinate me, the Captain thought. He released the locks on the wheels of the cart and pulled it into his quarters, taking care to relock the door behind him.
"We have breakfast!" the Captain exclaimed as he sat down at the table. He opened the foam box of Captain's ration 14, and steam rose from the contents, filling the air with the aroma of bacon, reconstituted eggs, and an extra large portion of Zyllion fydol pie. He then lifted the cup of Alliance tea and removed the lid, taking a full satisfying swallow of the warm liquid. "Earl Grey," the Captain said with satisfaction.
The second officer reached forward and picked up her cup of coffee, placing it to her lips. After taking a sip, her face scrunched into a disgusted expression. "It tastes like they mixed tea with it." Her expression shifted to one of concern and horror. "You don't suppose it's been poisoned, do you?"
"No," said the first officer as he took a bite of his pie, "this would be too obvious. If they're going to kill us, they'll do it with blasters blazing."
The Captain picked up his fork and took a bite of his eggs. Beside the food, he lay the morning reports and the copy of the receipt for the food he'd have to sign. He affixed his name to the receipt, and then first officer did the same, and the second officer after him. Then, he looked at the reports. Security normal, he thought to himself, ship's operations within acceptable limits, communications down. He flipped through the papers and found what he was really looking for, the galley inventory. Two standard rations over normal--dinner...
"Look at this," the Captain screamed, and the First and Second officers, began pouring over the reports. "Blatant theft!!!! Blatant theft!!!!!!!! These ungrateful wretches."
"Call the galley," the first officer screamed, "the receipt system went up during the dinner shift!"
"Yes," said the second officer, a slight grin crossing her face, "I distinctly remember signing one myself."
"Good idea," Lutius said, "if someone didn't sign their receipts, then we'll know who did this." The captain reared from his table and approached the intercom, pounding on the galley call button.
"Mr. Krutzer," the captain bellowed, "I want a full report, now, on any irregularities from last night's dinner receipts. I want to know which individual or individuals are responsible for this act of insubordination." Pulling open an oak panel, the captain pulled his status monitor into view, activating the system and patching himself into the bridge monitor. The security checkpoints showed themselves to be secure. Touching the screen twice, the screen began displaying a tracking chart for personnel movement. No one unaccounted for had entered the galley during the previous 24 hours.
Down in the galley, Krutzer pondered his next move, his chromium blue chef's hat bobbing nervously on the top of his head. If he told him the truth, he risked angering the Captain. If he bent the truth slightly, the wrath of the commanding officer would be distracted for a while longer.
"Captain," Mr. Krutzer said, "we're showing all receipts signed for properly."
"Really," the Captain said, skepticism pouring through his voice. "Well, then, I guess nothing at all could be wrong in the galley then...those two extra standard rations just walked out, cooked themselves, and then left on their own recognizance. How quaint." The Captain angrily flipped off the comm switch.
"You know what this means," the first officer said.
"The only thing, my Captain, that such news could possibly mean," the second officer said.
"If there was no unusual traffic into the galley area, then it is an inside job," the Captain muttered. "We must not brook such actions."
"We must decide what action to take, Captain sir," the second officer said. Walking over to another delicately crafted oaken panel, Captain Lutius pulled out a golden yellow key from his pants pocket and inserted it into the lock on the panel. Twisting the key in the lock, a low click echoed through the cabin, and Lutius pulled open the panel. After allowing it to creek and groan melodramatically, Lutius pulled a leather bound book, the letters CLF printed on the cover in deep Chromium blue, from among the various manuals located there Just below the letters, in smaller print, were the words Procedures Manual.
The Captain slowly opened the book, almost as if he were touching a sacred object. The pages had been heavily book marked, and interpretive notes had been placed in the margins of the text. Page by page, like a photo album of favorite children and memories, he surveyed the contents of the book, and a smile began inching across his face.
"Here is what I think we need to review," he said as he showed the others what he had found. Section 43--Authorized Responses and Actions Against Hostile Takeover and Terrorist Actions.
"I like this option," the first officer said, "and we need to see if it is authorized. I think we need to decimate the galley, very much like the Romans of Terra did when one of their combat units failed."
"Keep this in mind," the second officer chimed in, "this is not a new development, yet we alone were able to catch the discrepancies. Does that not, my friends and colleagues, strike you as very suspicious?"
"The information was there for everyone to see," the Captain said, a puzzled look overtaking his features. Suddenly, his faced screwed itself into an expression of horror and revulsion. "The crew..."
"...have already been infiltrated by the forces of evil," the second officer completed.
"Sir," said the first officer, "I believe this changes the complexion of the entire problem. We're no longer dealing with just an errant section. The Cradle of Commerce itself may be under the control of....of..."
"The forces of evil, decay, and entropy," the Captain said. His eyes returned to the manual, and the Captain began searching the manual for a proper course of action.
Line Lieutenant Roger Kelson, Chief Engineering Officer of the Cradle of Commerce, scanned the status monitors, checking all systems and gauging their response. Satisfied with what he saw on the monitors, he reached his hand up above his head, through piping, ducts, and bundles of wiring, searching for the toggle switch for the comm system.
"Bridge, this is engineerin'," Kelson said.
"Go ahead Mr. Kelson," Daniels said, his voice echoing through the brown engineering section.
"LOX, LH2, and all the hypergolic brakin' systems are go."
"Great news Mr. Kelson," Daniels said, "we're about 15 minutes from the Dropout."
"Engineerin' out," Kelson said, and he switched off the comm. His hand wedged itself among the piping and wiring and he tried to pull it away from the switch. Looking around to make sure no one could see him, Kelson lifted his feet from the deck and hung for a few seconds by his trapped hand, and when it pulled free he landed hard on the decking.
"You okay, Chief," a voice called from within the section.
"Just fine, thanks," he said, and lifted himself from the floor. To his left, the lift door opened, and Ensign Lyttle stepped out, At first, he froze in his tracks, overtaken by the drabness and dirtiness of the section. All around him were brown walls, brown and black conduits, silverish tanks, and occasional bundles of wiring that may have at one point been colored in appealing shades.
Even the display and instrument panels, which were colorful and expressive on the other decks, were muted here. Information was displayed in a yellowish green on the monitors. Nearly all of the lighted buttons and switched were colored a browning yellow, and even the green and red status switched looked like they had been painted over in a layer of black ink. The general depressing effect of the whole thing was only enhanced by the dull yellowish light that pervaded the entire area.
"Lyttle, what are you doin' here," Kelson said as he hit the cryotank stirring switch. "You're Captain Lutius' messboy aren't you?"
"I'm what they call a Floating Officer," he said, walking towards Kelson as if afraid he would be attacked by the lights. "He only eats his three meals, and the rest of the time I'm sent where Daniels feels I'm needed."
"So I'm the lucky SOB," Kelson said. "Is this your first time in an engineerin' section?"
"I went into the simulators at the line school, but never into an active engineering area." They always seemed in the simulators to be much more appealing Lyttle thought to himself. Kelson walked to his left and pulled open a storage locker, taking out two large bags.
"Take this," Kelson said as he handed one of the bags to Lyttle, "if nothin' else I can use ya as a horse. Follow me." Kelson began walking towards one of the tunnels that seemed to spring out of the central section. "Watters," the Chief yelled, "goin' to conduit A!"
"Okay," a voice yelled back.
"Where is everyone," Lyttle asked as they entered the narrow passage way and climbed a set of stairs.
"Were all over the place down here. When we hit the Dropout, there's allotta work we gotta do on these puppies." He raised his left hand and pointed at the large tube the two of them were walking next to. "There's only so much you can do to an FTL engine while yer in flight."
The two of them approached a door, and Kelson pushed it forward, revealing a more opened up area. The new section exposed much more of the tube and also revealed ten large silver spheres suspended next to it.
"What are those things," Lyttle asked as he followed Kelson over to yet another display panel.
"Cryo tanks," he said as switched the display monitors to show the status of the thruster systems. "We've got allotta them `round here. This particular batch is LOX tanks." Kelson turned a looked in Lyttle's eyes. "That's liquid oxygen if you don't know it." Lyttle rolled his eyes in disgust when Kelson wasn't looking. "Okay, they're still workin' fine."
The two of them walked back over the tube, and the chief pulled open a panel. He placed his bag on the deck and took out a series of instruments. "Put yer bag down, Ensign, I know it's gettin' heavy." The Chief began adjusting various dials and hatches using the tools. Suddenly, there was a loud buzzing sound and Kelson jumped up clutching his hand.
"Damn!!!" he yelled.
"What happened?" Lyttle asked.
"What the heck you think happened," the Chief yelled, barging past Lyttle and walking towards an open conduit next to the first of the LOX tanks. "Too much current flowin' through there right now." He reached into the conduit, flipped off two circuit breakers, and then returned to the panel.
"Should an open electrical panel be that close to a liquid oxygen tank?" Lyttle asked.
"I don't design `em," Kelson said, "I just fly `em."
"Mr. Kelson," Lyttle said, "can I ask you something?"
"I ain't no data bank," he said from within the panel.
"I just wanted to know about the Captain. I mean, he's the commanding officer, and he's making life miserable, and yet three times a day I stand outside that man's door, and I've never seen him more than maybe a total of six times."
"I know," Kelson said, "ain't it great." Lyttle looked horrified and walked up next to the Chief.
"How can this be great? Huh? I've been shot at twice since breakfast."
"But you weren't here before, were ya greenhorn." A bundle of wires emerged from the panel and coiled itself over the panel door. "Captain Lutius used to ride us harder than you could ever imagine. You ain't never met a man more dedicated to procedure. Everyone's uniforms, includin' all of us down here in filth central, had to be buttoned, styled, and polished exactly accordin' to regulation. We had to file at the beginnin' of each day an action plan and time table, and if we strayed one inch...damn this thing's hot, hand me that coolant bottle." Kelson aimed the bottle into the panel and sprayed the area with coolant, and then placed it on the deck next to him.
"You mean you had to account for all of your time in a shift," Lyttle said. "That doesn't sound that unreasonable."
"You tell me how to schedule when you're gonna take a dump, my friend."
"Beginnin' of last year the company gave him a commendation for diligence towards procedure. The company loved him. Always on time, always under budget, always first on efficiency. I tell you the Captain's what they used to call obsessive completive...complexive...computive..."
"Compulsive," Lyttle said.
"Whatever," Kelson said. "I tried to transfer off this bucket more times than I can recall. Give me a number five, there. Thanks. Then last year we had that run in with a White Whale."
"A what," Lyttle said. "What did you say?"
"Oh yeah...yer too new." Kelson pulled himself out of the panel and looked at Ensign Lyttle. "We call comets White Whales. Anyway, when we started this run last year, they ran the ship through it's check outs. Someone looked at the flight sensors and found that one whole quad weren't registerin'. I mean, the ship was blind from one whole coverage area. So, they said to the Captain that we needed to delay shippin' out so that we could check things out. Well, he pulls out his bible, his procedures manual, and checks out the preflight specs. `It says here to be certified fit for launch we only need 75% efficiency on the flight sensor' he says, or somethin' like that. Hand me a water bottle, will ya'."
Lyttle reached into his bag and pulled out a black thermos and handed it to the engineer, who took several gulps from the bottle.
"The man had a perfect record, always on time or early with deliveries of cargo, always on or above the efficiency curve, and if 75% was good enough for the company, it was good enough for him."
"But," Lyttle said, "it's seems like they were talking about 75% efficiency over the whole system, and not one entire blind spot."
"Didn't matter," Kelson said, and he began working in the panel again. "Procedures manual just says 75%, so we left with that. We looked and we looked, and we checked and we checked, but we couldn't find where the fault was, and the Captain wouldn't never authorize an EVA to check out the external stuff, a waste of time." Kelson handed a burned out instrument to Lyttle and pulled a new instrument from his bag.
"So what happened with this White Whale?"
"Ah...well," Kelson said, "we came to a Lightspeed Dropout, and we were just cruisin' along. Well, what were the odds, but a comet came flyin' in through the zone right when we were there, and right from the blind spot. Never saw it comin'. Took out a good chunk of the portside, blew out the FTLs, and ripped off a bunch of the lower bays. We had just enough thruster power to clear out of the space lane and wait for help. Well, that blew the whole flight plan didn't it. First time ever that Captain Lutius wasn't gonna make a delivery on time, and all his schedules and flight plans and stuff just went flyin' out the window. That's when he got sick?"
"Sick?" Lyttle questioned. Kelson again pulled himself out of the panel.
"He blew a gasket, had a breakdown. The Line said it was just injuries, and sent him on leave to recover, but it was because we weren't gonna meet a schedule."
"But, didn't the company want to know what happened? Didn't they see it was because of his negligence that all of this occurred."
"Oh they held an inquiry all right. Fired a whole section of unionized dockside maintenance workers `cause they didn't have ship serviced properly when we were in port. They commended the captain for followin' procedure, and we were all put on layoff until the Cradle was fixed this year." Kelson's face began to redden, and his voice began to fill with rage. "Spent the rest of the year on a cruise ship as a third class steward. `Oh boy, my bon bons have melted. Fix the air will you?'"
"So how is all of this better this year than before?" Lyttle said, "how is being shot at and signing receipts for food and being in a lock down better than it was before?"
"'Cause you don't seem him anymore, do ya. You get these pronouncements from on high occasionally, but the XO's runnin' the show. No more action plans, no more daily status meetin's, no more hourly reviews when things aren't goin' exactly like the Captain wants them to. I'll take these conditions over those any time."
"Mr. Kelson," the intercom crackled, "this is Watters. Ya' busy?"
"Yeah," Kelson said, "watcha need?"
"I gotta spike on the containment field here. We may need to reprioritize the work orders."
"Be there in a minute," Kelson said, and he picked himself up from the deck. "Kelson out."
"What do you need me to do?" Lyttle asked.
"Don't do anythin'. I don't know what they're trainin' ya to do these days, but I don't want ya messin' things up down here." Kelson led Lyttle over to the display panels and sat him down on a stool. "If they're gonna float you down here during the flight, ya better learn some things. These," he said, pointing to the monitors, "are displays for engineering status. Touch the screens and they'll show all the different status panels. Just look at how things happen, and I'll quiz ya when I get back." Kelson then turned and walked back down the corridor towards the main engineering area.
"It's a ship of fools," Lyttle said to himself, "a ship of crazies."
"So it's decided then," the Captain said to his colleagues.
"There is no other recourse for us to take," the first officer said.
"A strong statement must be made that ships of the Line will not allow themselves to be commandeered by any outside influences," the second officer said.
"My only question," muttered the first officer, "is how are we to do it without anyone noticing. Surely someone on the bridge will see what is happening and hit the override."
"The company prepared a contingency for just such an emergency," smiled the Captain as he turned to Section 43, Subsection 41, paragraph 18, procedure 4. "We can do it without raising any suspicions, and it can be done from the here." He pointed to the status panel.
"Then I suggest we proceed with the utmost haste," muttered the second officer and she stood up and walked towards the panel.
Executive Officer Daniels sat uncomfortably in the Captain's chair and felt his palms becoming sweaty. Normally he regarded Lightspeed Dropouts--zones often so heavily trafficked by deep space or local spacecraft that FTL travel was considered dangerous--to be a nuisance, a friend only to engineers and lazy crewpersons. But now, he was counting on the slow down to provide help.
"Mr. Houston," Daniels said to the helmsman in front of him, "I need a sensor scan of the zone."
"Aye, sir," Houston said. Like Daniels and Kelson, Houston was a veteran of several voyages of the Cradle of Commerce, and he knew exactly what the XO was hoping to find in the zone. Adjusting the screens in front of him, Houston ordered the sensors to perform a full range sweep of the zone and the surrounding areas. At the far end of the scanning display, a red contact signal illuminated on the screen.
"I've got a contact!" Houston yelled as he tried to identify who or what it was.
"Okay, Houston," Daniels jumped from the Captain's chair and ran up to the helm, "tell me something good."
"It's the Seward's Folly," Houston said, and he turned and looked at a smiling Daniels.
"Good," Daniels muttered as he walked over to a locker and pulled out an operations manual, "another CLF ship. Anyone remember who's in command there?"
"I think it's Horatio Kidd," Proundfoot, the Navajo security officer, said. Daniels cringed at the sound of the name.
"I never liked that man," Daniels said, "he's the most damned rotten practical joker I've ever met. How long before FTL dropout Mr. Houston?"
"Ahhh...two minutes sir."
"Outstanding," Daniels remarked, becoming distracted by some oddly familiar notes in the manual. "Mr. Houston, you have the bridge. Kidd's got a direct line to the Flight Dispatcher, and so he's now my best friend in the fleet." Daniels checked to make sure that operations manual listed the operating procedures for the science station. "Grandars, contact the science officer and tell him to meet us at the Data Recording Center."
"We have a science officer?" Houston asked incredulously.
"Of course," Daniels said. "Once in a while the company actually wants some research conducted." Daniels began probing his memories and came to a sudden realization. "Actually, though, I can't really remember any occasion when we did so."
Grandars, sitting at the disheveled communications station, pulled up the personnel listing, searching for the identity of the science officer. After spotting the name, he turned and looked at Daniels.
"Mr. Daniels, y'are science off'cer," Grandars smiled, nearly breaking in to his first silent chuckle in nearly ten years..
"Me? Science officer?" Daniels said in disbelief. A loud bell began clanging in his head. "Come to think of it I was trained to operate the station my first flight out as XO." Daniels giggled lightly to himself. "Well, we'd better get down there. Slow us to one quarter FTL, Mr. Houston, as soon as we come enter the zone. I want as much time as possible to contact Seward's Folly."
"Aye sir," Houston said as he moved into the Captain's chair, enjoying the plush cushioning and feeling a new sense of power flowing through his body. Proudfoot moved from the science station to the helm, and Grandars and Daniels entered the lift.
"Rem'ber t'write auth'rization on way down," Grandars said to Daniels as the doors closed.
Ensign Lyttle looked at the status panels and found himself being mesmerized by the flow of information. He saw orders issued from the helm to the engines, and he watched as the FTL drive began to switch itself in an orderly manner into neutral operation. He also watched as the lines to the thrusters began pressurizing themselves for their moments of glory.
Then, suddenly and beautifully, the entire system switched from FTL to sublight mode. With precision and care, the hypergolic breaking thrusters slowed the ship down, and at the same instance liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen thrusters began sustaining the ship at the cruising speed selected by the bridge.
Behind him, he heard the LOX tanks gurgling happily to themselves, and he couldn't help but smile at the marvel of the technology on display even in such an old freighter.
Captain Horatio Kidd sat in his chair on the Seward’s Folly, quietly snickering to himself. He was a large, rotund fellow, with red cheeks and even redder hair. Somewhere inside his body, an overstressed heart beat and planned it's next assault upon the sanity of his crewmen, and listened with anticipation as Communications Officer Sparg sat down in his chair.
The sound of the deflating whoopee cushion filled the bridge, and Captain Kidd chuckled wuth ghusto. Sparg, expressionless and without anger, turned and looked at Kidd.
"Captain," he said, his voice flat and monotone, "I do not understand how the sound of gases escaping from a bag of petroleum based material produces a humorous response in some of your race."
"Of course you don't, my tall green chap," Captain Kidd giggled, "I pity your race's inability to appreciate a good, old-fashioned ribbing." He began snickering uncontrollably again. Then, his watery eyes turned towards the helm. "Mr. Holloman..."
"Yes sir," Holloman muttered without the slightest hint of excitement or enthusiasim.
"Have you identified the new target in the dropout zone?" Kidd turned and focused his eyes onto the viewscreen.
"I’m checking the sensors now," Holloman said as he looked at the computer display on the helm console, "but it looks like it may be another CLF ship sir."
Daniels and Grandars, now virtually in the center of the nonengineering decks of the ship, handed their authorization to the guard stationed at the nearby security checkpoint and entered the Data Recording Center. It was dark, quite musty, and covered with several layers of dust. Peering through the door into the darkness, Daniels ran his hand along the wall, found the light sensor, and activated the lighting in the room. Old lights, unaccustomed to actually performing any duties, buzzed unhappily to themselves, flickered uncomfortably, and then slowly began filling the room with nearly useful illumination. Grandars and Daniels sat down on chairs located near the science station.
Struggling to remember his almost forgotten training, Daniels found the powerup switches, sending pulses of energy through the circuits, wires, diodes, and microchips. At the flick of a large and somewhat uncooperative master switch, he also gave the data collection booms the order to extend from the hull, navigation lights blinking with precision at the end of each one.
Slowly, a diamond of four green lights began to illuminate, one after the other.
"Boom 1," Daniels said, "Portside, Boom 3, Starboard...locked in position." Daniels wiped his hand along his upper lip. "Okay, that green switch over there, Grandars, will turn on that TV monitor. I want to see the Seward's Folly." Grandars reached to his right, toggled the switch, and after a few seconds of interference, a view of the outside appeared from a camera placed near the top of Boom 1. At first, it was hard to see the other vessel due to the persistent green glow on the monitor, the stars in the background, and the insufficient light provided by the nearby Gettysburg Star. But then, moving slowly, a somewhat brighter star could be seen moving towards them.
"Thar sh'blows Mr. Daniels," Grandars said, pointing to the pinprick of light on the screen, and Daniels began smiling from ear to ear. He reached up and toggled another switch.
"Okay Grandars, I've taken the navigation lights off of automatic." He began scribbling a message on a piece of paper. He wrote:
Communications down. Captain behaving erratically. Request permission to relieve. Relay to flight dispatcher. Out.
"This is what I want you to tell them." Grandars took the paper, and then cast an uncertain look at Daniels.
"What d'ya wan' me to do?" Grandars questioned.
"Code the message over to the Seward's Folly," Daniels said, and he turned his eyes back to the screen.
"What code?" Grandars asked. Daniels' smile collapsed.
"Grandars, you're the communications officer." Daniels stared into Grandars' hazel eyes and found nothing encouraging. "You're supposed to know these things."
"Mr. Daniels, you're s'posed t'be science officer," Grandars said. Daniels' face took on a blank and defeated expression.
"Touche," Daniels muttered. "Damn," he said quietly and matter-of-factly. "O-kay...we'll just have to call the bridge and see if anyone up there knows it." Grandars' finger tapped on the comm switch, but the button merely popped out of the socket and ping-ponged around the room before throwing itself through a ventilation grating. Daniels and Grandars looked at each other, expressions of sheer frustration on their faces. "The manual," Daniels said suddenly. Flipping frantically through the operations manual, Daniels came across a sheet of paper containing rudiments of the communications code.
"Whoscribble's that?" Grandars asked.
"Mine," Daniels said, "they spent about five minutes on it during preflight my first mission out as XO. This is damned rotten, Grandars, damned rotten. I can barely read it." Daniels held the sheet of paper up to the light. "Operate the nav lights," he muttered, "and I'll try to figure this thing out." Grandars positioned his finger over the switch. "Okay, four long pulses to indicate that a message is about to be transmitted..."
"Captain Kidd," Holloman said, his eyes focusing on the diamond pattern of lights flashing on the viewscreen. "I think they’re trying to contact us."
"Really," the Captain turned towards the screen, "contacting us using the old communications code?" The Captain looked at Sparg again and continued laughing to himself. "Well, well, well, anyone up here remember it?"
"I am fully conversant in this mode of communications," Sparg said with a significant hint of frustration, not to mention a few tones of doubt, and he began writing down the message as the lights on the other freighter began flashing their code.
"Let me know what that they're saying when you have it all," Kidd said as he reached into the hamper attached to his chair and pulled out a half-eaten bar of Hygron Chocolate.
"Isn't the Cradle of Commerce Captain Lutius' ship," Navigator Handleman asked. "I can't believe he'd use this code. I would have thought he'd insist on normal communications."
"Maybe," Kidd mused, "just maybe our stuffed shirt of a colleague on that distinguished vessel finally slipped up. One can only hope." He looked around at the collection of personnel around him on the bridge, and his face momentarily collapsed into a smirk. "With this crew, at least, we'll never meet his efficiency ratings."
Security Officer Jung reached over to his weapons locker to stow away a power pack that he'd been cleaning. Reacting quickly, Kidd pushed a button on his chair.
For a few seconds, the officer lay stunned on the floor, the charge from the joy buzzer mounted in the locker momentarily knocking the wind out of his lungs, and then he picked himself up, taking care not to put any undo pressure on his hand. Captain Kidd again began laughing heartily.
"Nothing like a sense of humour to keep up morale, eh Mr. Jung?" Jung smiled as best as he could, his expression collapsing into one of resignation and humiliation when the Captain’s attention shifted back to the screen.
"I hope they're getting the message," Mr. Houston said, watching the dot on the viewer becoming brighter and more distinct. Seward's Folly was another Mark Two-Seven freighter, so any response from the ship would come in the form of code tapped out on their data collection booms.
"Mr. Houston," Proudfoot said, turning to look at the Captain's chair, "pressure in the lines to the thrusters is falling."
"What," Houston said, standing up and walking to the helm. "Can you stabilize it?"
"If I knew what the hell I was dealing with." Proudfoot gritted his teeth and then realized that he was fighting a losing battle. "I've done all I can from here," Proudfoot said, "I've tried rerouting the system, I've tried switching to fewer thrusters, but..."
Houston scanned the readouts and found himself reaching some grim conclusions. "Emergency computer's not going to like this one." Houston ran a mental calculation through his mind. "Braking thrusters should fire in about two minutes." Houston activated the comm system. "Engineering, this is the bridge. We're showing a fall in Oxygen and Hydrogen pressure."
"What," Kelson said. He checked the status monitors in front of him. "I don't get it. Listen, I'm down near Anti-Matter containment. It's gonna take me a few minutes to get back to main engineerin'. I'll report then."
"Find out as quickly as you can," Houston urged, "the computer's getting ready to stop us. Bridge out." Houston toggled a second switch.
"Data Collection Center, this is..." A loud, whining sound of feedback flooded through the speakers in the bridge, and Houston cut the switch off.
"The link there must be down," Proudfoot said. Houston moved quickly over to the status display panel and called up the engineering readings. The displays for LOX and LH2 were both flashing red, and he ran his hands nervously through his silver black hair.
Ensign Lyttle watched the situation unfolding in front of him on the display screens, and he was puzzled by what he was seeing.
"Okay, this is strange," he said to himself. Suddenly, in the background, he became aware of a distant sound. At first, he wasn't sure what it was or if it was anything unusual. But then the sound became louder, and out of the corner of his eye he saw something that he couldn't quite put a finger on. Getting up from the stool, he walked down and looked at the lines and valves. Watching very carefully and using grime on the decking as a background, he finally saw what was bothering him. One of the valve handles was turning, slowly and nearly imperceptibly. And then he noticed another, and another, and another, and...
He again noticed the power conduit near the first of the spheres and felt himself becoming very uneasy. The LOX tanks began gurgling again, but this time he couldn't convince himself that they were happy.
Lyttle walked back towards the exit, finally stopping near tank 1 to think. His eyes surveyed the area. The FTL access panel was still open, and Kelson's tools lay on the floor and in the two bags.
He turned again to face the row tanks but found himself more confused. Was it his imagination, or had the tanks gotten bigger? Suddenly, he found himself making a concerning connection in his mind.
The power conduit, he thought to himself.
"Oh my god," he whispered, jumping up and running back down the passageway, grabbing the coolant sprayer on his way.
"Captain Kidd," Sparg said over the intercom, Captain Kidd having left the bridge for the comfort of his quarters. "I believe I have the message decoded."
"Very good, Mr. Sparg," Kidd sloshed between gulps of coffee that crewpersons had `cheerfully'donated from their own rations, "what does our friend Captain Lutius have to say?"
"I will warn you, sir, that it makes very little sense."
"Just read me the message, Mr. Sparg," Kidd commanded, "I'll be the judge of whether or not it makes sense."
"It says, sir. Communications down. Captain believing erratically. Seeking permission to release. Relay at flight dispatcher. Out." There was a long pause over the intercom. "I am quite confused, Captain Kidd."
"The Captain is believing erratically," Kidd said with confusion. "Something here doesn’t quite jibe, Mr. Sparg. Are you certain you decoded it properly?" But a smile was already beginning to slither across his face. "Never mind, Mr. Sparg," he said with glee, "it’s a joke! A bloody joke!"
"The possibility is there sir, but..."
"He’s loosened up a little, Mr. Sparg. That White Whale must have done the fellow some good." Kidd pulled up a notepad and scribbled a note. "Send someone down to the Data Collection Center. When they get there, have them contact me. I have a little message I want them to send out to Captain Lutius..."
The lift doors on the Cradle of Commerce opened, and Ensign Lyttle peered both ways along the corridor. He hadn't expected to find guards on a floor containing only the Captain's quarters and some equipment storage lockers, and sure enough no one was there. He was thankful, because the only weapon he had was the coolant bottle, and Lyttle very much suspected he needed to use it against the Captain. He walked slowly down the corridor, finally standing in front of the cabin door.
Nervous, more because of what he suspected than from the prospect of dealing with the Captain, he straightened his uniform and reached forward to activate the intercom.
"Captain, this is Lyttle, I need to talk to you...and you alone."
"It's not lunch time, Mr. Lyttle," the Captain's voice crackled over the speaker. "Return to your other duties."
"Sir," Lyttle said, his hands feeling around the door for an emergency release, "I can't do that, and I think you know why."
"Really," the first officer said, "and just what is it that we're supposed to know?"
"I don't want to talk you," Lyttle yelled, "I want to speak to the Captain!" Frustrated, he began pounding on the door with the butt of the coolant bottle, but it did not budge.
"What if the Captain isn't available," the second officer trilled, "what are you going to do about that little kink in your plan?" Again searching the rim of the door, determined to get in, Lyttle's fingers finally caught on what at first felt like uneven bulkhead, but he was able to squeeze his finger nails into the gap. A small panel , no wider than a little girl's palm, opened, and an emergency open button was revealed.
As he prepared to push it, Lyttle was overcome by a feeling of confidence, a feeling he'd never truly had before. Gripping the bottle firmly, he placed his finger over the button. "This is your chance," he said to himself, "your chance to be a hero." Heroics weren't particularly motivating his actions, but he needed something to keep himself moving forward. Before the feeling could subside, he jammed his forefinger onto the switch.
However, as the door slid open, the lights in the corridor turned a deep shade of red, and Lyttle felt himself suctioned to the wall by some sort of electrical field. Unable to move anything other than his eyes, he watched as the Captain walked from his cabin into the corridor.
"You wanted to see me," Captain Lutius said as he stood in front of Ensign Lyttle. The Ensign struggled briefly before finally addressing his commanding officer.
"You're mad," Lyttle said, calmly. "I don't know what you must have gone through last year. I've never been that slavish to schedules and time tables, but...but..."
"But what, Ensign," Lutius said, his eyes gleaming, almost as if he were hoping the Ensign would say a few particular words.
"Personal insanity doesn't give you the right to murder everyone on this ship!" Lyttle yelled. "I know you've set some sort of self-destruct system. I saw the LOX tanks buckling. I bet the hydrogen tanks are doing the same thing."
"Ahhh," the Captain smiled, "you think I'm insane. Good. There is promise for you yet, Ensign." Lutius walked back into his cabin and out of sight.
"He's completely nutters," the first officer said, "it's true."
"Captain...you don't have to go into the other room to talk to your friends." Lyttle struggled to break free from the wall, but all he managed was to cause his pants to slowly fall to the floor. "I know they're all you! We all know what's happened to you."
The Captain came back into the hall and again stood before the Ensign. Suddenly, Lutius began to purse his lips together, moving before the Ensign is a strange parody of seductive behavior. "We'll admit to having become somewhat unwell recently, dear boy," the second officer cooed. "But, pray tell, why neither you nor anyone else would tell us to our faces?"
"You're the Captain," Lyttle hissed through clenched teeth, "and they're all afraid of you." Frustration began coursing through his body. "I'm not afraid of you...not anymore. I'm only afraid about what's going to happen here."
From his pocket, the Captain pulled out a small microlaser and pointed it at Lyttle's head. "You're a braver man than most of these cowards I'm forced to work with," the Captain said. "Twenty years as a Captain. Twenty years worth of voyages. Twenty years of careful planning and scheduling, of compiling personnel charts..." He looked directly into Lyttle's eyes. "Braver...or more stupid, Ensign. I'd prefer to think it's bravery. You've yet to request a transfer, you've never to my knowledge tried to be reassigned as my messboy. Undoubtedly you've expressed grave doubts, which everyone failed to heed. But you expressed them anyway."
The Captain moved forward and stepped within inches of Lyttle's body, lowering the gun. The Ensign could feel something being slipped into his pocket, and he sincerely hoped that the second officer didn't have plans for him.
"You would certainly never steal food, would you Ensign Lyttle," the Captain muttered under his breath. "You're certainly the only one here not guilty of any crime." He stepped back, and began walking towards his cabin again. "Through the locker door at the end of the corridor, you'll find something only a Captain is generally privileged to see. It's a secret lift that will take you to the lower cargo bays. Take one of the cargo pods, and get away quickly. There are security checkpoints down there, and they will shoot you if they can."
Lutius stepped into his cabin, and as the door began to close, he wedged his hand through and stopped it's closing. "Don't try any heroics," the first officer's voice said, "it's already too late. You'll only die too."
"It's a backup destruct system, designed not to be detected by pirates and other vagabonds and trash," said the second officer.
"Say farewell to the fair Cradle of Commerce," the Captain called, "hotbed of corruption and poor character." Lutius let the door close. As soon as it locked, the lights in the corridor returned to normal, and Lyttle fell to the floor. The equipment locker at the end of the corridor opened slowly revealing a lift.
Lyttle felt torn. He could take the escape and most likely save himself, or he could take the lift, warn as many as he could, and maybe prevent the conflagration of the ship. However, while he had a good idea about what was going to happen, he wasn't sure how much more time was remaining. Finally, reluctantly, he made the only decision he could--one he was sure would come back to haunt him in the years to come...
"Four flashes," Daniels said nervously. It had been nearly ten minutes since the message had been delivered, and during that time he and Grandars had been waiting for a response. They had been puzzled by what appeared to be a complete lack of movement on the part of the Cradle, but they couldn't worry about it now. Finally, a response was coming.
"Okay," Daniels said as wrote what the code was saying. Dot, dash-dash, dot-dot-dash, long flash...etc. It was a short message, taking only a minute or so to complete. The letters emerged on the pad under his pen, coalescing into coherent words, and it confused him greatly when he was done.
"Grandars, I don't understand," Daniels said as he handed the message to him. He held it under the light.
Understand message. Fullest Sympathies. Try Transcendentalism. Out.
"Should we try `gin?" Grandars asked. "Think they miss'd point?" Daniels shook his head. On the screen, Seward's Folly clearly was getting ready to pass the Cradle of Commerce.
"It's a damned rotten business Grandars," Daniels sighed, and he felt his ego slowly deflating, his attention suddenly being drawn to the science monitors on the other side of the room. A TV program from the Gettysburg Star system was being picked up through the Booms.
"Did you know they had television there?" Daniels said as Grandars tried to decide what to do next. "Ten years I've been making these flights, and I never knew someone actually lived here..."
The escape lift doors opened, and Byron Lyttle, snapping shut the last of the buttons on his pants, entered the lower cargo decks cautiously. He could clearly see the well-armed guard 200 yards away at the checkpoint, and he pulled the microlaser from his pocket. Lyttle wasn't even sure that the gun had a range of 200 yards, but he needed some type of protection. Getting as close to the floor as possible, he began slowly but deliberately moving towards the pilot's cabin of one of the cargo pods. As he did so, however, the metal buttons on his uniform scraped against the metal flooring.
"Halt!!!" the guard yelled, suddenly seeing the Ensign snaking along the floor. He fired a warning shot over Lyttle's head. Rolling over twice, in the process staining his uniform with years of dirt and grime from the decking, Lyttle fired his gun at the guard, sending a surprisingly powerful jet of energy towards him. Caught off guard by the power of the weapon, the soldier fell on his back behind the cockpit of another pod.
Moving quickly towards his target, Lyttle yelled. "Take my advice and get in that pod and leave!" Another laser blast flew towards Lyttle, this time aimed more deliberately at his body. Neither stopping nor looking where he was shooting, Lyttle began firing repeated volleys in the general direction of the guard, sending sparks and smoke flying and obscuring him from the view of his adversary.
"I'm telling you," Lyttle shouted over the noise of the weapons. "The ship's going to blow up!." Another shot exploded over his head just as he reached a cockpit and climbed down into it, pulling the hatchway closed above him.
The ensign frantically activated systems, not bothering to wait for all of the warm up lights to illuminate. He also began arming the pyrotechnics that would throw off the latches holding the pod to the ship. Through the glass he could see the guard moving into position above the pod. First, he tried the hatchway but found that Lyttle had latched it behind him.
The guard's black uniform, trimmed in Chromium blue, was torn and burned, and blood trickled down the side of his head onto the glass. "I'm going to give you to a count of ten," the guard said menacingly, raising his weapon, "and then I'm going blow a hole through the hatch and vaporize you limb by limb." He smiled grimly, and his steel blue eyes focused on Byron's.
"It's not much of a threat," Lyttle said, looking down again and continuing the start up of the cargo pod. "If I stay, we both die. Take my advice," he toggled the guidance system, "grab a pod yourself and get out."
"What are you," the guard sneered, "some sort of a nutcase? Ten...nine...eight...seven..."
Captain Kidd emerged from his closet, a long cardboard box in hand, and began setting up his prized telescope, an antique from Earth made in the late 1900s by some place called the Nature Company, knocking over furniture in the room that was seemingly placed well out of harm's way He wanted to confirm his suspicions about Captain Lutius suddenly developing a sense of humor. Peering through the eyepiece, he searched for his counterpart's cabin.
"Where are you," Kidd maneuvered the telescope, "over a little, over a little..." He caught a glimpse of the captain standing in front of his window, waving slowly, and smiling happily. "There you are you cheeky devil!"
The two ships passed each other, and Kidd watched Captain Lutius and the Cradle of Commerce slip farther away. He bounced to his display panel and toggled up a rear view from the ship, showing Lutius' freighter falling farther behind.
"Attention," Navigator Handleman announced, "FTL engagement in 25 seconds..."
"...five....four...three...two...one..." the guard counted. However, as he reached three, Lyttle fired the pyrotechnics and the pod was released. The lower bay began depressurizing rapidly, throwing the guard onto his back and causing his shot to hit the ceiling. As the cargo pod pulled away, drifting slowly from the ship, the guard was pulled into the vacuum of space. Sorry about that Pal, Byron thought, just think of it as avoiding the rush. Pulling away as far as he dared before dealing with other flight tasks, Lyttle began maneuvering his cumbersome craft away from the ship. It was slow going, painfully slow. Even at full power, the Cradle of Commerce was sliding away at a snail's pace.
"Come on...come on..." Lyttle yelled over the whine of the cargo pod's engines. "Get me away...farther...farther..." His hand pushed down on the throttle, and all of the engine monitors quickly slipped into the red line...
Kelson entered the tunnel leading to the most accessible bank of LOX tanks. The anti-matter containment problem had taken longer to correct than he expected, and as a result he was several minutes late getting started with the pressure drop in the lines.
A few seconds before opening the door to the tank room, however, he stopped and noticed a loud whine and what sounded like metal banging on metal coming from up ahead. It was not a sound he was familiar with, yet he knew it was something he was not happy about. "Okay Lyttle," he screamed over the whine, "I don't know whatcha did, but you really mucked things up!" He pushed open the door and entered the room. Then he saw it.
The normally rounded LOX tanks were buckled and distended, shaped like large footballs, and growing bigger by the second. They were bouncing on their mounts, hitting each other and the FTL engine tube. In particular, Kelson noticed that tank one was seconds away from hitting the nearby power conduit. Equations flashed through his mind, engineering stats collated, specs flipped by, and despite what he was seeing, he found himself truly in awe of what was taking place. Never taking his eyes off of the tanks, mesmerized by the idea of the tremendous pressures he was standing near, Kelson toggled the comm switch.
"Bridge," he yelled, "engineerin’."
"This is Houston," the helmsman replied, "go ahead."
"Houston," the Chief yelled, "we have a problem..."
Captain Lutius stared out the window of his cabin, and reflected back at him was his reflection, the reflection of a tall and balding man, and the reflection of shorter attractive woman.
"May I say that it has been a privilege serving with you," the Captain said, and the three of them saluted in unison.
"FTL in five seconds...four...three..."
Kidd, momentarily lifting his eyes from the display screen for the Captain’s log, saw what looked like a cargo pod drifting away from the Cradle of Commerce, and he began smiling widely.
"Oh, I bet this is a good one", he said with glee, "but we'll be gone before we see it what kind of joke you’re pulling, Lutius."
"...two...one...engage..." The background on the monitor began pulling back rapidly, but not before the screen was filled with a brilliant light, more brilliant than anything Captain Kidd had seen before, and then it receded away in a matter of a second.
"The boys in engineering must have cleaned the plasma vents," Kidd said to himself, and he made a mental note to find out what they had used to do it. He then formally noted in the log both the incident with the Cradle of Commerce and the bright light, and then as he left to return to the bridge, the display screen returned to its pleasant hue of Chromium blue.
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