This chapter was posted to the pre-magazine website in 2003, and reprinted in the March/April 2020 issue.
“General Quarters! Repeat: General Quarters! This is not a drill.”
“Bridge to Captain. Request status update.”
“Plot a course back to the Seeker, Hua, and stand by.” Lubbock pocketed his commo link and turned to Farb. “Secure this area and have your people return to their cabins. I want them strapped into their bunks in case we have to perform some fancy maneuvers. A sudden vector shift at one-gee can still cause injury to the unwary.” Without waiting for a reply, Lubbock sprinted for the stairwell and scrambled up the ladder to the next deck.
Cheng was at the number 2 position, this being her watch. Smith had grabbed the number 3. The First Mate had managed to get his pants on, but aside from that he wore an undershirt and bunny slippers. Both mates were belted into their chairs. Lubbock took his own seat and pulled the straps tight.
“Deck Two Engine Room to Bridge: manned and ready.” That was Garcia over the intercom. “Power levels normal. Main Drive primed and ready.”
“Deck Three Engine Room to Bridge: manned and ready,” said Sprey. “Jump Drive on standby.”
“Port Fire Control to Bridge: manned and ready.” Fu Quan. “Upper turret powering up. Targeting computer activated.”
“Starboard Fire Control to Bridge: manned and ready. Lower turret powering up.” Lubbock heard some clicking and other noises over the intercom before Nguyen’s voice came back on. “Bridge, lower turret targeting systems are malfunctioning.”
“First Assistant Engineer to Bridge: you want me to take a look at it?”
“Stay put, Pepper. Isabell, take over the Port Fire Control and let Quan work on the malfunctioning targeter.”
Both gunners acknowledged. Lubbock punched up the pre-planned course on his navcomp. “Moe, what’s the Seeker up to?”
“They’re still in orbit ten thousand klicks behind us.”
Lubbock studied the course Cheng had laid in and found it satisfactory. The ship would use the main thrusters to brake and drop into a lower, faster orbit and come up on the Seeker from behind and underneath.
“Nguyen to Bridge. I’m on the upper turret controls and ready to rumble.”
“Fu to Bridge. I’m going to have to yank the whole system out and go over it with a fine tooth comb.”
“Save it for later,” Lubbock told him. “Just strap in for now. Everyone stand by for a main engine ignition.” He cut off the intercom and turned to the other bridge crew. “We’ll have to keep in mind that the lower turret is out of action. We have to keep Pygmalion from getting under us. Fortunately, Hua’s approach puts us underneath Pygmalion.”
The Grendelsbane was already coasting backwards in its orbit. Garcia fired up the thrusters at Lubbock’s command and the ship gradually dropped closer to the moon. It also picked up speed. At a predesignated position, Lubbock had the thrusters shut down, and the Grendelsbane settled into its new orbit. Lubbock then used the attitude jets to swing the ship around 180 degrees. That maneuver accomplished, he sat back and waited.
“Coming up on Point B,” Cheng announced.
“Copy. Captain to Engine Room.”
“Lay open those thrusters again, Don.”
“Roger. Igniting main thrusters.”
The Grendelsbane gradually moved away from the moon. When the ship was just under and behind the Pygmalion, Lubbock ordered the engines shut down again. He then used the attitude jets to tidy up his alignment.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. “Captain to crew. We’re going to contact the Pygmalion and request permission to board her. We’ll be looking for missing data cubes. Assuming the Seeker crew does not want to shoot it out, the boarding party will consist of First Mate Smith, Engineers Sprey and Fu, Technicians Rayne and Stevens, and Apprentice Grurrdzarg. Arghaz, do you copy?”
“An armed Vargr may intimidate the other vessel’s crew and keep them from causing trouble for the boarding party. Be sure to obey the First Mate’s orders. Understand?”
“Yes, Captain. I do you a good job.”
“Swell. The First Mate will draw a weapon from the ship’s locker for you. Okay, everyone: stand by until we see how the Pygmalion’s crew wants to play this.” He switched off the intercom and glanced up at Smith whose expression quietly asked, Are you sure you want to arm the Vargr?
“Make sure the weapon you give her isn’t loaded.”
Smith visibly relaxed.
“Do you think the Seeker’s crew will give us much trouble, Captain?” Cheng asked.
“Not if we lie about our intentions. See if you can raise them on the commo.”
A minute later: “Got ’em, Captain.”
Lubbock flicked the switch on his console. “Pygmalion, we’re able at this time to send a party aboard to help you with your repairs.”
“Sooner than we expected, Grendelsbane.” Did he sound suspicious?
“We ran into a few snags that would’ve delayed us longer than the forty-eight hours, so we decided to switch priorities. I’m sending over my First Mate with an engineering team, including some technicians we have on board as passengers. They offered to lend a hand. Over.”
“That’s right neighborly of you. Glad to have the extra pairs of hands. Over.”
“My people are going to suit up and head your way in a few minutes. Whereabouts is your airlock? Over.”
“There are two in the aft section. One leads directly into the engine room, but the main ’lock to the left of the port thruster is roomier and better suited for a large group of people. Over.”
“Captain, the door of the airlock he’s talking about is visible thru the forward window.”
Lubbock glanced out the window. The twin thrusters in the aft of the Seeker flanked the engine room airlock access, but another door was visible to the left. On the right was a double-door access for what was probably a cargo or small boat bay. “Roger, Pygmalion. We see the door. Expect us in ten minutes or so. Grendelsbane out.” He cut the connection and turned to his Mates. “Be firm but polite when you explain to them that their ship has to be searched for contraband before you can help with repairs. Rayne and Stevens should know what to look for—have them lead the search teams. Use ‘Jenghiz’ Quan and Arghaz to guard the crew.” Smith’s somber face broke into a grin at that suggestion. “Any questions?”
“Get moving. And change your footwear.” Smith unbuckled and hurried out of the Bridge. “Captain to boarding party: grab your vac-suits and rendezvous at the personnel airlock on Deck Two.”
Four people made up the crew of Pygmalion. Captain Archie Leach was a suave, debonair type with a nasally voice. The beefy Chief Engineer, Marion “Duke” Morrison, spoke with a drawl. His assistant was a shot, baby-faced volatile type named Joel Yule. First Mate Frances Gumm had pouty lips, and looks as though she took the armed invasion of Pygmalion as a personal affront.
Pepper disliked all four of them on sight.
First Mate Smith sent the Seeker crew into the main airlock, without vac-suits, and made them sit on the floor. He stationed Fu Quan by the control panel: at the first sign of trouble, he’d flush everyone into space. Arghaz hefted a Gauss rifle and smiled at the captives.
“This is piracy, you know,” Captain Leach said.
“Only if we take something from here that doesn’t belong to us,” Smith replied.
Back in the corridor, the searchers shucked off their vac-suits and divided into two teams, Pepper and April Rayne to search the starboard side of the main deck while Smith and Jack Stevens tossed the portside. They were very thorough, even to the point of ripping tiles off the walls of the shower stalls. Using her own pet theory that people tend to hide apples among apples instead of in a crevasse, Pepper ripped open the ship’s computer core and quick-searched all the files. Nothing. Nothing in any of the staterooms, not even in the Captain’s safe. (Or so said First Mate Smith when Pepper bumped into him in the corridor—Smith had used an acetylene torch to burn the safe open.) Nothing in dresser drawers or cubby holes or tucked under pillows or mattresses. Nothing in the ceiling crawlspace. (They took out some panels and boosted little Pepper up into the ceiling.) Nothing inside the floor or the walls as far as they could tell.
“Jack and I have done Engineering, and you two have covered the Bridge,” Smith mused. “Did you check the Avionics Bay?”
“April did that,” Pepper said with a nod toward her teammate.
“Let’s take the upper gallery next. You go up the fore ladder and we’ll take the aft.”
Pepper headed down the axial corridor to the fore of the ship, technician Rayne in tow. They scrambled up the ladder into the Forward Sensor Bay. The two women searched that, then worked their way down the gallery to the aft hatch and ladder. “Where’s the other team?” Rayne asked.
Suddenly, we’re on speaking terms again. “They must have come up into the aft storeroom and fire control station through Engineering.” The wall hatch popped open just then and Smith stuck his head out. “Any luck?”
“Yeah, all of it bad.”
“What’s left to search?”
Pepper considered the problem. She wasn’t that familiar with the layout of a Seeker, except that it was a modified Courier design. She considered the outer shape of the vessel ….
Her head jerked up. “The lower cargo bay. Three and a half displacement tons under Engineering.”
Smith waved a hand in dismissal. “Been there. There’s two floor hatches in the aft of this bucket, and both lead to the lower cargo bay. Some prospecting and camping equipment there. We went through it pretty thoroughly.” He glanced at his thumbnail chronometer. “Sheesh. Look at the time.”
Pepper glanced at her own thumb. Nearly six hours, and they’d come up empty-handed.
“Did you check the vehicle bay?” Smith asked.
“Yes. Looked inside the ‘buggy’, and under the ‘buggy’ and on the roof of the ‘buggy.’ No joy.”
“Crap.” Smith pulled out his pocket commo. “Boarding party to Home Base.”
“Home Base here.”
“Nothing so far, Captain. We’re going to look a while longer, but if this ship’s crew took anything off that probe, they've done a good job hiding it.”
“Roger that, Boarding Party. Take as long as you need.”
“Roger. Boarding Party out.” Smith put his commo away. “Okay, let’s try this: Stevens and I will now search the starboard side of the ship while the ladies ransack the portside.”
Pepper led Rayne down the ladder to the main deck and began her search of the Engine Room. The two women spent close to an hour going over every centimeter of that chamber, over every nook and cranny. They headed next to the Port Ore Bay. It was empty, now, but they tapped the walls and pried up floor panels. Nothing.
“Where does this go?” Rayne inquired of a ladder and ceiling hatch.
“Must lead to the upper gallery. Yeah, that wall hatch off the sensor bay led to a compartment with a floor hatch in it.”
“Oh, I remember.”
Pepper moved alongside Rayne and looked up the ladder to the hatch overhead. They’d already searched the compartment the hatch led to. She lowered her eyes to the ladder itself. Something odd about the rungs; they were awfully thick. The engineer pulled a wrench from her tool belt and worried at a rung until one end detached. Data cubes spilled out. With a shout of glee, Pepper worked on the other rungs until she had them all off. Three of the rungs held data cubes. She and Rayne scooped them up.
Technician Rayne tucked her cubes into a leg pouch, then pulled out her pistol and pointed it at Pepper.
“The rest of them, please.”
Pepper's jaw dropped.