Things That Go Bump in the Night
23.03.2268. 0230 GMT
Saltlake Naval Base
"Senator Hartwick. What a pleasant surprise. To what do I owe this honour?" Vice Admiral Wexler said, as he opened the door to his private suite, blinking at the brightness of the corridor lights.
"Cut the bullshit, Wexler," the senator grumbled, as he pushed his way past the Vice Admiral into the room. "I'm not in the mood."
"Any time I receive a visit from a senator is an honour, even if it's." he made a dramatic show of looking at his watch. "Two-thirty in the morning. I take it this couldn't wait?"
"Damn right it can't wait. We have to talk," Hartwick was pacing the anteroom nervously. Wexler turned on lights, and gestured toward the couch in the sitting room, tightened his robe and followed the senator toward the comfort of soft furniture.
"I just got out of a meeting with the President," Hartwick proceeded, more composed now that he was sitting. "He's not happy. He's scheduled to announce our new budget tomorrow afternoon. It's not going to be a very popular budget, to say the least. The deficit is getting worse by the minute. He's already down in the polls, and the ratings are heading even further south as we speak. The public is reacting to this recent military debacle at Tau Ceti even worse than we'd imagined. Frankly, he's more than a little pissed that you've organized a little 'fact-finding' mission without consulting us about the details."
"That mission is more than just a little." the Vice Admiral started to defend himself.
"He doesn't give the tiniest shit what it is. What the president wants, and what you will give him, is the name or names of the people responsible for the intelligence leak in our defence and security forces," spat Hartwick, with more vehemence than Wexler expected. "You will provide them to his staff, along with the details of how they were captured and how they have confessed to their crimes, and how they will be punished; all by tomorrow at two. Do you understand? He fully intends to lead off his budget announcement with a nice little heart-warming, confidence-building victory story.preferably one that has some truth to it. But truth is optional: You catch yourself a god-damned spy in a very public way, and do it by tomorrow. Got it?!"
Vice Admiral Wexler leaned back in his chair, with a smug look, opened his hands, and asked, "Is that all?"
"Don't play games, Wexler," Hartwick was cooling off again, and started sounding exhausted. "Like I said: I'm not in the mood."
"That's Vice Admiral Wexler to you, senator." Wexler said with a controlled tone that sent a chill down Hartwick's spine. He leaned in menacingly close to Hartwick, as he spoke. "Just VICE Admiral. I will be a full Admiral by the end of this week, and more by the end of the year. Much more," his voice lost some of the deadly seriousness it had, and returned to a more cavalier tone. "I can probably give you all that espionage information right now if you want. I set up that mission to give us what we want one way or another. I was just waiting to see how things might play out, hoping we'd be able to kill a few birds with one stone. I was about to finish telling you that it's a mission with a number of contingencies for just such changes of political will. Now that I've learned about our President's weak support for a real spy-catching mission, all I have to do is make a call or two, and things will proceed in a slightly different way. But they will still produce the desired results. In fact, I think the results will be downright spectacular. Just between the two of us, senator, the President and I differ considerably on this point: I don't think the public is upset enough. Not yet," Wexler's eyes burned with greater intensity, and looked through Hartwick for a moment as he expounded. "If you really want to see your shipyards in full production with lucrative military contracts; if you really want to see this entire society start screaming for more security and more military strength; if you really want to see the population crystallize their resolve to eliminate the Indie threat, then you need to scare the living shit out of them! They need to be so afraid of that Indie 'boogey man' out there that they'll hand you their wallets, the keys to their hovercars, hell, even their own children, just so long as you promise to keep their lives safe, secure, and essentially the same."
Hartwick grew pale as he realized how dangerously he had underestimated Wexler's ambition. "What kind of 'spectacular results' are you talking about?"
"Let's just say that the loss of the strike group at Tau Ceti was just a taste of the terror to come. A more.significant loss should really get things moving quickly in the senate. You'll get the funding bill and the military build-up you want, and I'll get the emergency powers I want. If King ends up looking weak, or as if he fumbled the ball, well.that's a pity isn't it," he smiled a rictus grin that sent another chill through the senator.
"You don't need to worry about the President. You'll get your announcement. And you'll get it on time," the Vice Admiral regained his composure, but some of the menace stayed in his voice. "If I were you, I'd be more worried about how well you can serve me. I didn't get this far without knowing a thing or two about tactics. I always have a backup plan or two. Or three. King will get what he wants in time for his little announcement. More importantly, I will get what I want. As far as everyone else is concerned? Well, almost everyone will get what they need." He leaned back again, tenting his fingers in a gesture of supreme confidence, as he scrutinized the senator. "Almost.
"Now get the hell out of my sight, senator.I've got some calls to make."
CNV 676 Niagara
The Niagara orbited Jupiter at a comfortable distance for the third straight hour. Iwamasa slid out from under one of the processor subunits serving the ENG workstation on the bridge, and sat up on the floor, a collection of tools and parts scattered between his feet. The shakedown patrol mission was serving its purpose by revealing a few glitches in the ship's data control systems.
"Captain, I've almost got this problem fixed." Iwamasa said to his new Captain, Emile Lejeunne, who sat watching from the command workstation. "I'll need a little more time to test it once I get things back together.maybe another hour."
"Very well, Lieutenant Iwamasa," Lejeunne replied casually, his French accent was already less obvious to Kenji, now that he was getting used to it. "Proceed. This mission has been full of delays of this sort. Better to have them happen now than in combat."
Their new pilot, Ensign Rennie North, appeared to be born at the helm. He was newly graduated from the academy, but was made for the NAV station, training or not. He was barely able to contain his excitement since they left Saltlake for a tour of the Sol system, exclaiming that the Niagara had even better responses than the simulator, and the training ship from which he'd transferred. Iwamasa could tell already, even after a few hours, that North was a gentler soul than McMichael had been. In fact, Kenji observed that North, an African Brit with a thick east end London accent, was downright optimistic about almost everything so far. He was friendly and respectful to Iwamasa, and seemed to appreciate Kenji's wit. Come to think of it, Kenji thought, maybe North was being a little too nice to Kenji, which made him oddly miss Mac's relentless teasing. At least no one was calling him "the kid" on this ship, where he was one of the more experienced crew on the bridge.
Iwamasa had found that the Niagara was identical to the Redoubt, in most ways, only she smelled newer. Fresh paint, unmarred labels, and clean handholds were the most noticeable differences. Looking around, he could see that there were fewer scratches on the floors, fewer stains in the upholstery, and fewer taped up bundles of cables than the Redoubt had. There was also a distinct absence of any personal touches anywhere. As much as he had hated them, Kenji had to admit to himself that he missed the fuzzy dice and the rear view mirror on the Redoubt's bridge.
Lejeunne was from someplace in the south of France. He came from a wealthy family and long line of ship captains. At times Iwamasa could see the spoiled rich kid in him, but he was growing to like him anyway. Iwamasa could also tell that Lejeunne was still uncomfortable in his new role as the ship's Captain. At one point during the first leg of their shakedown mission, Lejeunne completely forgot to issue an order, so they sat there for a few moments, until he realized his error. They'd been able to laugh about it then, but if it happened at a more critical moment, no one would be laughing.
Their WEPs officer was Edwina Bates. There was no telling what her original hair colour had been, but her short-cropped mop was dyed an almost blinding white. It peeked out in scintillating flashes as unruly locks of it seemed to escape from under her flight helmet. She introduced herself to Kenji as Eddie. She was older than Rav, about a foot taller, longer limbed, and lean. She looked like the kind of gunner that was happiest when the shooting was at its most intense. Her service record seemed to bear that impression out, as she had a number of confirmed kills.
She caught Kenji looking at her, earlier in the day, as they were preparing to launch. He wasn't ogling or anything, he was just trying to figure her out, when she looked right at him from her workstation, gave him an exaggerated wink, and blew him a kiss. He felt embarrassed, but she just laughed out loud and returned to her gum chewing. She clearly enjoyed getting the attention of men.
It also didn't take Kenji long to figure out that she and Lejeunne had something going on, probably for a long time now. Kenji knew the signs to look for from personal experience, and there was no mistaking the comfort of their physical closeness, or how they spoke to one another. They must've been bed partners from when Lejeunne was the NAV officer of the Corrigedor. He wondered how they would manage, now that Lejeunne was in the Captain's chair. At least they got to be together on the same ship. At moments like this, it seemed like Rav was a million miles away. In fact, she was a good deal further away than that.
Lejeunne instructed North to take a break, and sent Eddie to assist the second engineering repair team in the C.R.A.C. room. The bridge seemed much quieter for a time. After a period of silence, during which Kenji worked on his back under his console, his new Captain broke the silence with a surprising question.
"Lieutenant Iwamasa," Lejeunne said. "Have you ever seen anything out there in deep space that simply defied.I mean, that you could not explain in any way?"
Iwamasa almost bumped his head as he slid back out from under the console. He sat up and thought for a moment, recalling of some of the spectacularly beautiful vistas of space he had witnessed, none of which seemed out of the realm of the natural universe. "I don't think so, sir. I recently saw a 'visible man' but I don't think that's what you mean. Do you mind if I ask why?"
By way of answering, Lejeunne asked him another question. "Were you always interested in serving as Chief Engineer aboard a starship?"
"Umm.I hadn't really thought about it like that," replied Iwamasa. "I mean, I've always wanted to be on a starship since I was a kid, and the Navy was my best chance at getting something better than a mate's or a deckhand's position. Once I joined up, they told me my strengths were in engineering and managing the onboard teams.so here I am. From what I've learned so far, I'd say they were right; it's been a pretty good fit."
Lejeunne answered this with a nod. He seemed lost in thought.
"Do you mind if I ask what you're trying to get at, Captain?" Iwamasa ventured.
"Mm? Oh, no not at all," Lejeunne answered. "I was thinking out loud, really. I was wondering about some of the things that go beyond explanation. I was wondering if my own path to this position as Captain aboard the Niagara might be one of them. I can't help feeling that, no matter how we try to evade our destiny, it seems to find us somehow."
There was another pause during which Iwamasa wondered if there were more questions coming, more of an explanation, or if he should return to his almost completed work under the console, no more enlightened than he was a moment ago.
"Did you know that I come from a family of ship captains?" Lejeunne continued. Without waiting for Iwamasa to reply, he explained further. "My great grandfather owned a very successful ocean going commercial shipping company based in France. Some of my family still operate those container ships, but some of us went into commercial shipping in space. My grandfather was the Captain of the Walter Sisulu."
This got Iwamasa's attention. "That was one of the first Powell-class mega-freighters ever commissioned wasn't it? That ship is in every kid's history book these days. I had no idea that was your grandfather. I remember learning about how she was destroyed. That must have been very difficult."
"I wasn't even born when it happened," Lejeunne offered. "He was not the first in my family to die in the Captain's seat. The real tragedy was that the Navy rescuers could not reach them in time. It seems that being rescued by the Navy is also in my blood, somehow."
"Just because we picked you up last week doesn't mean you have that in your blood," Iwamasa said. "Besides, unlike your grandfather, the Redoubt found you in time, and you weren't Captain of that ship when things went wrong."
"True," Lejeunne conceded, "but I still feel like I was somehow fated to find myself sitting here. My father is also Captain of a freighter, based in Ross 128. He was furious when I announced my decision to break with tradition and join the Commonwealth Navy. I was young, and I wanted to fly C-fighters. It didn't take me long to realize that the life expectancy of fighter pilots was very brief for a reason. After a friend of mine died in training, I didn't want any part of it. So I trained to pilot these things.
"As I said, this decision broke my father's heart," Lejeunne continued. "He told me I would never make Captain if I went into the Navy."
"So, he was wrong," Iwamasa stated. "There you sit, Captain of your own Commonwealth Navy corvette. So what if you got rescued once. It's better than the alternative."
"Also true," said Lejeunne. "But there is more. My sister, she stayed with the family tradition. She is Captain of a family freighter, the Conspiracy Theory. She spends most of her time running neutronium from Xi Bootis. On a recent run, just a few weeks ago, she was in transit on a new route they've started using because too many freighters have been seeing strange things in FX-2978. While travelling through the Gulatos system, near the Lemuel LaGrange point, she came into contact with something she'd never seen before.it came up too fast to see clearly, but it was small and bright, and it knocked out all their systems for several hours. Their engineer was also rendered unconscious. She told me they were completely powerless and adrift until they were rescued by a Navy ship; I believe it was the Dreadnaught. It was another one of those totally inexplicable things."
"So, she got rescued by the Navy, too. The Navy does a lot of that, I suppose. Any idea what that thing was?" Iwamasa asked.
"None," replied Lejeunne. "No one had any idea and no one was willing to talk about it. Even my own sister was reluctant to discuss this with me. I think she finally did tell me because she knew we were going to go out there again, and she wanted me to be careful."
Iwamasa replaced the cover to the access panel he had removed, gathered his tools and said, "I guess that would be one of those stories of things that go bump in the night. I've listened to spacers tell all kinds of tales of unexplained things they've seen out there, but I figured they were mostly made up, or embellished. You know, to keep everyone in that spooked mood, or to keep them buying rounds of beer or something like that."
"Perhaps," Lejeunne said. "But if my sister says she saw something, and her ship was affected by it, then I believe her."
Iwamasa returned to his seat at the ENG controls and started calling up command screens. "I guess there's a lot more out there than we've encountered, or can explain. I just haven't seen any of it yet.
"Anyway, speaking of seeing stuff," Kenji continued, "the optics targeting system is working again, so you can use the scopes to confirm targets and contacts out to a good distance, if you want to. Most vessels don't use optics that much these days, not with sensors the way they are. But I can tell you from experience that we found it to be very useful during a recent mission, when the Redoubt was doing some recon."
"Yes I heard about this mission," Lejeunne said. "Let's try it now, while we wait for the others to get back, shall we? Let's see if we can see Pluto from Jupiter orbit."
"Alright," Iwamasa said as he complied with the order. "Calculating Pluto's position, targeting and recording. We should be able to.Holy CRAP!"
"What is it?" Lejeunne demanded.
"Did you see that?" he replied excitedly. "That was one huge burst of X ray output. I think we might have caught it on the recording. It was definitely from the vicinity of Pluto space."
Iwamasa confirmed the recording and the location. "It's confirmed. It was a massive X ray burst from the location of FTL Communications relay number 307, Captain. We managed to record most of it. What do you think we should do?"
"Report it to HQ immediately," Lejeunne said. "Send a copy of the recording with a priority message to base immediately, and request permission to investigate."
"Sending," Iwamasa confirmed. "Talk about things that go bump in the night. It looks like we've got our own strange occurrence to tell stories about, now."
"Maybe it was destiny that we look at the right place at the right time, eh?" Lejeunne mused.
North and Bates returned to the bridge quickly after receiving the Captain's orders to prepare for departure to Pluto space. They were strapped in and ready for action filled with a sense of excited anticipation, and then waited what seemed like an eternity for the reply to come from Saltlake base. They chatted excitedly about the possible explanations for the event they witnessed, and they speculated about the kind of new mission orders they would get in response to it. What they received was even stranger than what they had reported.
The new orders they received made no mention of the strange burst of radiation they had recorded. Instead, they received a hastily recorded voice-only briefing from Vice Admiral Wexler describing disturbing developments about a Navy corvette gone rogue. The Vice Admiral indicated that his fleet was mobilizing to pursue the traitor vessel as soon as they could launch the Purdue, and her escort. The Niagara was active and ready to respond to this crisis faster than any other vessels in the area. They were to proceed at best possible speed to the Toliman jump point at Alpha Centauri B and engage the fleeing Naval vessel commanded by spies with extreme hostility. Vice Admiral Wexler's direct orders were to engage and destroy the CNV 534 Redoubt at all costs, and by any means necessary.