Just as Rudy was about to enter LDS on a random vector, the contacts resolved into League IFFs. Rudy became visibly more relaxed. Fatigue weighed on him suddenly, as he watched ship names scroll down his contact list. The STINGRAY, the BELGRANO, the NAMUROISE, the GIMINEZ, and the REYKJAVIK. He was mildly surprised to see Mendoza's squad alongside Einarson's corvette the REYKJAVIK. However, he was truly shocked to see his Junker friend Aggie's Jeep-class freighter, the BALLROOM BLITZ, arrive with the League group. He hailed them as soon as he could, afraid that they might attack him in his captured tug.
"If you're supposed to be my rescuers, you're a little late." Rudy sent over the broadband comm. He didn't try to disguise his anger.
Mendoza replied from the BELGRANO. "Rudy? What are you doing on the BABEL-17? We've had a heck of a time finding you. Is everything OK."
Rudy's reply was less vitriolic, but still conveyed an edge. "So you've been looking for me, have you? I didn't really think this was just a stroke of luck that you happened to be the closest ones to pickup the distress call. No, we're not OK. Terry's been killed. Arne's badly hurt. We all got pretty banged up. And you can see how my freighter's doing. So where were you looking for us, why were you looking for us, and what the hell is Aggie going here?"
The League ships slowed as they took up defensive stations around the crippled freighter. Einarson was the next voice to be heard on audio. "Captain Rudnicki, we're here because we knew you would be needing our help. Captain Agbayewa has been working with us for some time. It was his task to find an independent freighter for the ASC contract"
Rudy's anger was clear in his response. "If you knew we were going to need help, then why the setup? I AM assuming that this was a setup, and we were the bait. Aggie, how could you just send me out to bait your League friend's trap, like that?"
Einarson replied with the same cool detachment. "If you allow us to dock with you, we'll discuss the matter fully, and attend to any medical needs."
"Come on in and dock. In the meantime, get someone to recover three bodies drifting in the area, and any scrap, parts, or components they can gather. I'm claiming salvage rights to anything in this vicinity. And tell Aggie to be at that meeting. I've got some questions for him." Rudy replied. He closed the comm circuit and turned to Janeane as she entered the bridge. "How are our patients?"
"Jukka's doing better. He's conscious now, and keeping an eye on Arne. Arne's still in pretty rough shape. I'm not sure we can save him." Janeane said.
"We're moving them both to the REYKJAVIK as soon as she docks. She's got better med facilities, and a medico. In fact, we're all going to get checked out, then we're going to a meeting with some League boys, so let's get ready to get moving."
The hiss and clank of docking collar and hatch machinery blended in with the other unfamiliar sounds Rudy tried to ignore as he walked purposefully toward the captain's conference room. His shoulder still ached despite the new sling and the analgesics. He concentrated on his footsteps, and those of his pilot and engineering assistant flanking him. Even the corridors felt small on board the corvette. He'd forgotten how tightly packed things were on combat vessels.
Einarson's office suite was near the bridge, and the room used for meetings, was a small space with a table adjacent to that office. As he approached, Rudy overheard someone in the room saying "…pissed off now, but he'll cool down. Just don't make things worse than they already are."
Rudy decided to make his entrance using that overheard fragment. "You're damned right I'm pissed off." He stood in the entrance hatchway glaring at the three men crammed into the small room. It was going to get even more crowded. He had insisted that his remaining able-bodied crew attend this meeting. Both of them. "And I'm not sure if things could get much worse than they already are."
Einarson gestured toward a single seat next to him as he spoke. "Welcome aboard, Captain Rudnicki. My medico informs me that you're all going to be fine."
"Tell that to my late first officer." Rudy fired back without moving toward the seat. "Let's cut the bullshit and niceties. I'm not in the mood. You used us." His gaze seared into the eyes of each of the seated captains. "All of you. I hope you got whatever it was you wanted, because it cost me more than I can tally."
Einarson spoke again, and this time the warmth had left his voice entirely. "Captain. I am offering you and your crew my hospitality." He nodded toward the empty seat at the table again. "I know you have questions, and you will have answers. But I refuse to suffer ill-mannered guests, captains or any other rank."
Mendoza's tone was far more placating. "Please, Rudy. Just sit and hear us out." He also nodded toward the seat. "Please."
Rudy remained standing for enough time to take two deep breaths. He could not douse his anger, but managed to feign some of the decorum they required. He sat, allowing Marney and Janeane to step just inside the doorframe.
Rudy leaned back in his chair and focused his gaze on Patrice Agbayewa. Without any prompt, Aggie began his part of the explanation. "Rudy, these guys have been trying to get you to join the League for a year now, and you keep saying 'no'. I've been working with them for the past few months. It's how I could offer you those weapons and military parts you've been wanting. The League has been suspicious of ASC's connection to organized crime for some time. They've been trying to investigate, and all they come up with are dead ends, or dead investigators."
Mendoza spoke next. "He's right. We knew the only way to expose Angelion Shipping was to catch them in the act. We set up a sting. All we needed was a freighter that they'd go for. We did NOT intend for it to be you. You have to believe us when we say that it was just blind luck that you got the contract."
"In fact," Aggie interrupted, "I really tried to steer you away from this contract, if you recall. But you kept pouring scotch into me, and promising me better and better signing bonus cuts." He shrugged as he looked around the table. "I AM a business man, after all."
"Aggie, you knew I was the bait for a trap, and you didn't say anything? Why?" Rudy asked, less out of injury than disbelief.
Mendoza continued. "He couldn't say anything. But as soon as your Junker friend here told us that our trap was baited, we high-tailed it to Mohawk to set up the sting. We last spoke just as we were collecting ships for a squadron to go out to meet you at the ASC destination at Fjorgynn. It just so happens we got hit by the Weeds on our way in, which delayed us more than we wanted."
"Are you saying that you were supposed to be waiting for us?" Rudy asked.
"Well not exactly at the precise location you were contracted to go to, but close." Mendoza replied. "We knew that they would be going elsewhere from there. We just didn't know what the final destination would be. We have the tracking equipment, but we've never been able to use it. So we powered down nearby to listen and watch."
"You never showed up." Einarson said. "About five ASC tugs did, so we waited. We waited for a while, but still no freighter. Then a few of those tugs left and seemed to be returning on the same vector. This was curious, but moving would've given us away to the remaining two tugs. The decision was made to remain and observe. The decision was mine."
"When the last two tugs left in the same direction, we decided to track them and follow." Einarson continued. "We lost them. Firefrost is harder on systems than you'd think. And, as you know, space is big. The fact that we were able to find you at all, is damn lucky."
"So how come I'm not feeling very lucky right now?" Rudy quipped. "Do you think Terry would say that we were lucky?"
"You weren't where you were supposed to be, and if…" Einarson barked.
"We didn't know we were SUPPOSED to be anywhere!" Rudy bellowed over him. The room fell silent as the two men stared at each other.
"We didn't know anything except that we were trying to do a job, and then stay alive when it turned to shit." Rudy said more quietly. "Now I've got a dead friend, a seriously wounded engineer, and a crippled ship. I still have no cargo, no pay…nothing except whatever I can salvage, and that tug, which, by the way, I'm claiming too."
Einarson looked at Mendoza, then at Aggie before saying, "I'm sorry about your first officer. Mendoza and Agbayewa have told me that they knew him; that he was a good man. There isn't much we can say or do that will compensate that kind of loss. I'm also sorry to have to say that you can't keep that tug. The BABEL-17 was stolen, and the owners want her back. However, you will get the reward for her recovery that's been offered. Furthermore, the League is prepared to offer full compensation for the value of the contract, plus any damages."
"You think you can buy me off that easily?" Rudy asked. "I'm going to have that gang after me for the rest of my severely shortened life, now. How am I supposed….."
Aggie interrupted him. "Rudy, I'm really sorry about Terry, too. But these guys aren't finished. There's more. We're talking about some serious bounty."
"He's right Rudy." Mendoza added. "There are large rewards posted for members of the Weeds, and more for information leading to the discovery of their base or bases of operation. We've already confirmed the identity of one of the recovered bodies." He looked at Einarson, as if for permission to continue. "You managed to kill one of the nastiest members of the Wiede clan. That reward alone should almost cover the cost of repairs on your freighter."
"I don't think you gentlemen understand what I've been saying. By using me to play your games, I now have a lifetime of running from these guys as a reward. The money you're talking about won't really help me much now, will it? They had the names and addresses of her KIDS, for Christ sake!" Rudy said, nodding toward Marney.
"We're aware of the potential for vendetta against you." Einarson tried to reassure Rudy. "The information contained in the BABEL-17 NAV logs is being extracted by our tracking specialists as we speak. They've assured me that we'll know the location of their main base very soon. We're already assembling a strike fleet. This means that you'll get the reward for helping us find them, too. The reward for that is the big one. It includes more than money. It means you get protection. Like it or not, Rudy, you're under the League's protection, now. You don't have to take orders, you don't have to fly any of our loads, or claim any kind of affiliation with the League. It just means you've got our help, whenever you want it." He looked at Marney and added, "That includes family members that may be at risk, Ms. Firth." His gaze moved to Janeane's tiny frame. "I imagine we'll be able to clear things up for you, too, Ms…..?"
"Gibson. Name's Janeane Gibson. Formerly of the ASM." She replied. "And thanks. It would be nice to have that …cleared up."
Aggie interrupted again. "Rudy, just to show you that we mean what we say, I brought a full team of my people with me on the BLITZ. We also brought everything you ordered. One word from you, and I can send them over to the MYLENE B. and get started on repairs, upgrades, armaments, you name it. And your credit line with me for all the past repairs and parts is zeroed out. Your money's no good with me anymore. You want something, I'll look after you."
Rudy was stunned into silence. He tried to maintain his anger, but it had vanished amidst the promise of wealth and security. All he could think of to say to the Junker was, "For starters, I want new spacesuits. And an escape pod."
Rudy's proclamation silenced them all. Aggie was the first to break into a laugh that was joined by the rest.
Four days later the MYLENE B. limped into Mountbatten to dock at the Waystation. Her escort left the station traffic zone to begin patrolling the belt. This was to be their new home base, at least until Arne returned to them from the Medical Orbital nearby. Rudy stood on the bridge, watching Marney pilot the freighter on an approach that made the cumbersome vehicle appear nimble. The two had worked well together in the past week. Her scalp had healed, and his arm was mending. They were becoming an excellent team. He smiled as he realized that he hadn't had a single nightmare since the ASC incident.
Much of the bridge was still under reconstruction, and only half of the workstations were functional, but he knew they'd be fixed. Old mess had been cleaned and replaced with the new mess of refit. He was still getting used to the fact that two teams of engineers and repair experts were working on the decks below him, assisted by Jukka and Janeane, giving his ship a top-to-bottom overhaul like she hadn't seen since her first assembly. The bridge seemed like the last quiet retreat on his vessel, which was the opposite of the past few years. He was enjoying working with Marney, and knew it was time to bring her up to date on his plans.
"Marney, as soon as you've secured us and powered down, set up a training schedule for Janeane. I want you to start her on helm and NAV operations immediately. She's informed me of her desire to stay on, so she's going to be our new pilot. Teach her everything you know and get her ready for her First-Class exams."
Marney looked puzzled for a moment, before she asked, "Captain…Rudy, we don't need two pilots. Am I fired?"
Rudy's look was blank for a moment. "No, you're not being fired, First Officer Firth." He turned to the command console in front of him and continued his work checking the new weapons inventory like a child in a toy store. It took Marney another moment to grasp the reality of her promotion. She was struck by the thought that the familiar and comfortable life she had gotten to know was gone forever.
Rudy looked up from his console and said, "Once you've finished that, we need to sit down to discuss the refit schedule. I got wind of a contract hauling a full load of station components that have to be delivered by the end of the month. We need to decide if we can make that or not. I'd hate to pass on a deal like this one. We also need to get hiring, we're under staffed, now…" Marney listened as Rudy talked of personnel, cargo loads, contracts, routes and schedules. She smiled as she realized that maybe some things would indeed, remain very much the same.
Uncertain Freight was written by Duncan Day if you would like to contact the authour you can do so here.