The docking and undocking took about fifteen minutes. The trio in the box returned to their respective stations, but no one seemed to truly relax. Their destination at Fjorgynn was only another few hours away. During the trip, Maitland proved to be a decent, if self-absorbed conversationalist. He also enjoyed Rudy's scotch with alacrity. Rudy tried several different approaches to get Maitland to discuss the company, but his efforts were always skillfully deflected. About the only thing Rudy succeeded at was to excuse himself long enough to check in with Janeane, still sitting and waiting in a spacesuit that stank. For someone who tended to be volatile, she was showing remarkable restraint. She only swore at Rudy about seven times during his brief communication with her. He was able to assure her that this would all be over soon, but that he needed her there and quiet until he was convinced there was no danger. She indicated that she understood. At least a part of her was enjoying the cat-and-mouse aspect of this.
Roland Knopf took it upon himself to inspect the ship while the others worked. Terry sent Arne to escort the ASC man, and managed to get a warning off to Janeane to hide before they reached the forward section of the ship. As Knopf was returning to the bridge, Terry's workstation chimed, alerting him that a discrepancy analysis of the contract was complete. He continued to read through the original document for the second time, while listening to Arne's report on Mr. Knopf's tour over the comm. There didn't seem to be any real purpose to Knopf's inspection: he ignored important parts of the ship, and neglected to ask certain obvious questions. He seemed particularly interested in some of the modifications Rudy had made over the years, and in the crew comforts they had added to their accommodations, but otherwise Knopf seemed to be wasting time.
Two more reads through the contract offered no evidence of the specific clause to which Maitland had referred, which disturbed Terry. The basics were still there, but all other clauses only pertained to ships carrying ASC cargo, or an ASC brokered load. The fine print just didn't reveal anything new. He decided to examine the computer's discrepancy analysis while he pondered this, when he noticed that the analysis was still running. The computer alert he'd heard had been for something else. Terry quickly started to query the source of the alarm, but realized that Knopf would be walking onto the bridge within moments. He had only a few minutes to investigate this problem before Knopf's footsteps could be heard approaching the bridge from the command deck main corridor. He had just enough time to code an alert to Rudy and Janeane, and was in the middle of sending a text message to Marney's station when he saw Roland Knopf standing over him. He hit 'send' as he looked up, and asked the newcomer about his impression of the vessel. Unfortunately Knopf saw enough to become concerned.
"What exactly are you doing?" He asked.
"My job." Terry replied, turning back to change the information on his workstation screens. Marney stood up from her workstation at that point, and started walking toward the exit. Terry hoped she'd gotten the gist of his message, and was heading for the safety of the box.
"And what about you, pilot? Why are you leaving your post?"
Before Marney could answer, Terry stood and glared at Knopf. "Because that's what I instructed her to do. I thought Maitland brought you here to help out, not question our every move. She's leaving the bridge on ship duty, ordered by me." Terry continued to stare at Knopf, but then spoke to Marney. "Pilot, follow your orders, and get me those load redistribution charts."
Marney was almost past Knopf, when he reached out and grabbed her arm with a steel grip, never taking his eyes off the first officer. "I'm here as an advisor, and right now, I advise you both to sit back down at your stations and stay there."
Terry nodded to Marney to comply, but remained on his feet while she shrank back into her seat. They both heard the hurried footsteps in the corridor approaching, but held each other's gaze for another few moments.
Rudy was first to reach the bridge. He saw the tension between his first officer and Knopf, and wanted the focus shifted elsewhere. "What's going on here, gentlemen? Terry? Report."
Before Terry could start, Mr. Maitland emerged onto the bridge as well, and demanded a similar report from his assistant. "Roly, what have we got?"
Knopf replied by removing a very lethal-looking gun from his breast pocket and aiming it squarely at Terry's chest. No one else was expecting this particular response, except perhaps Maitland. The crew of the MYLENE B. were stunned into temporary silence.
Knopf broke that silence. "The first officer, here, has been looking very hard at your contract, Mr. Maitland. It seems he suddenly decided to start sending secret messages to the pilot, who was just about to go somewhere. I'd very much like to know the contents of that message. Wouldn't you, Mr. Maitland?"
Maitland seemed to be tired. He sighed, and wearily shook his head when he spoke. "Probably not, but let's have it."
Rudy's gut feeling was full-blown fear, now. His heart pounded and he felt the tingling sharpness of adrenaline jolt his entire system into alertness. He managed to assess the situation quickly and spoke out before anything else was said. "Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. What the hell is this guy doing with a gun pointed at my first officer's chest. If you wanted me to trust you Maitland, do you really think this'll help? Mr. Knopf, put the gun down and I assure you we'll get this cleared up."
Maitland answered with that same tired voice, and even rubbed his forehead with one hand while he spoke. "Oh we'll get things clear, alright, but we're past assurances and trust, don't you think?"
Terry took advantage of the pause to announce his finding. "Rudy, these guys are up to some bad Shit. The contract he gave me to examine is pretty much the same as the one we always had, but it had a virus embedded in it, which seems to explain why he was eager for me to download it from his pad. I haven't had time to analyze it, yet. But based on what it was aimed at, my guess is it would give them the keys to the ship."
Rudy looked at Maitland for a moment before speaking. The first words he managed to utter were: "Maitland, you lying sack of Shit!"
Terry continued, "The fact that you locked it out before they arrived meant that it hasn't penetrated anything vital yet, and it won't now that I've done a purge. But it would have gone to work the second you opened the NAV command functions to input their new coordinates. They were just killing time until then."
"Maitland, call off your thug, and get off my bridge. Marney, bring us out of LDS. Start sending out an….."
Maitland looked down and raised his hand as if to calm the room, "Now, now. Let's not get all upset. I guess this does merit a bit of an explanation." He then looked up at his assistant and spoke clearly and in a business-like tone. "But first things first. Roly, that one." And he raised his chin to point in Terry's direction.
The gun discharged once with a surprisingly quiet cough, but the impact sent Terry sprawling awkwardly back against the wall beside his seat. He hit it with a grunt, and began to slide downward as if in slow motion, into a slouched sitting position. The look in his eyes was of complete surprise as he made a small final sighing sound. His head slumped forward, as if he were trying to find the right word, and his eyes didn't close completely. It was very clear though, from the gore on the wall, the growing pool of blood on the deck, and his complete stillness, that Terry was quite dead.
Maitland's eyes narrowed as they examined Terry's body for a moment before shifting to fall on Marney. As if it were linked to his gaze, the gun in Knopf's hand swung around to point at the trembling pilot. "You might want to wait before you do anything, there, pilot." He then turned his attention to Rudy, but the gun remained steadily aimed at Marney's chest. "Captain Rudnicki. It seems you have an opening in your crew roster." Maitland's chuckle sent a chill down Rudy's spine. "Care to make it two? Three? More?"
He continued in the face of the others' shocked silence, as he began a slow stroll around the workstations on the bridge. He gestured to Terry's body slumped on the floor. "For a guy that didn't talk much, he sure as hell didn't know when to shut up. I was getting tired of you bunch of sad sacks, anyway. OK, here's the deal. And what a sweet deal it is, I must add. This is just business we're doing here. Do you understand me? Just business. You see, we've been in the business of blowing ships, and taking their stuff for a long time. Some call it piracy. We like to think of it as a family business in creating opportunity.
"But this business can be a risky one. In fact, piracy is downright dangerous, and danger is not good for business. People start arming ships and hiring escorts, so we get more arms and things get nasty. People die, we take some losses, and our profit margins go down. This is, after all, about making money. So we decided to branch out and try a few new things to help reduce the risks. Angelion Shipping Company is what you might call a subsidiary of our family business; a legitimate corporate face. In fact it's pretty lucrative in its own right." He spun around to face Rudy directly. "Did you know that we broker shipping contracts in every system in the Badlands, now? It's wonderful: we set up cargo shipping runs, then arrange to have a percentage of them hit by our own people? We just hand it over to ourselves, and report it to the insurers. No shots, no damage, and everyone involved gets a cut. By the way, our insurers are another subsidiary. As I said, it's a very sweet deal. Going corporate was about the best thing we could have ever done.
"Anyway, we hit the independents a lot as well as the League and everyone else in the biz, all the while promising safe delivery for our customers. And much of the time we do just that. But lately we've run into a small snag: keeping up with the demand. We've been looking to expand our fleet and personnel. Getting ships isn't so hard. In fact, we've got a whole shipyard full of ships and ship parts. We'll get yours, too, one way or another. The trick, it seems, is to recruit good people. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find good help, these days? I'm sure you do." Maitland continued his discourse, and pointed to Terry's body slumped against the wall.
"Now, I'm also sure our dead friend sitting there had loads of valuable experience, and would have been a great asset to any shipping crew, and bla bla bla…. But he just pissed me off, and I needed to make an important point to the rest of you. So, in case you haven't understood it, in all the powerful emotions of the moment, here it is: I have no problem killing you all, so don't FUCK with me! Do as I say, and we may all end up getting along just fine." The intensity and ferocity of these last statements left no room for misinterpretation of Maitland's message.
"As you can probably tell already, I'm really more accustomed to the old ways." He continued. "You know, we kill everyone, and strip the ship of every little thing we value. But one of my jobs for the family business is in Human Resources. I don't particularly like that part of my job." He leaned in close to whisper to Rudy, "Personally I prefer the killing." He then returned to the dramatic monologue he was clearly enjoying delivering. "But we all have our crosses to bear, don't we. Anyway, I'm a recruiter; a 'headhunter' of sorts. You are my new job candidates. So let me make you our standard job offer. It involves all the usual incentive packages: we hold someone dear to you hostage, under threat of death until you're so deep in with us that there's no real way out. It's simple and very old, but very effective. We also split you up so you serve with other crews on other ships on continually rotating bases. It actually works pretty well once you get into it, but every once in awhile someone wants to leave the fold, so we have to make an example of them for the benefit of the others.
"Take Ms. Firth here. Do you mind if I call you Marney? No? Marney has a couple of boys being looked after by her sister and brother-in-law in Mwari. We know exactly where they are at all times. If she continues to make us happy, here at ASC, then they get to grow up, and not suffer any horrible accidents or diseases. The best part of this deal is that Marney will actually get to make some decent money doing these gigs. No bull, the pay is excellent. Everybody wins."
"Unfortunately, the retirement plan leaves a lot to be desired, so don't even ..."
At that moment, a groaning sound could be heard from deep within the ship, followed by four sharp, rapid, metallic banging noises. An alarm sounded on the audio as red lights started showing up on a number of the control stations. The ship dropped out of LDS drive, and came to a full stop. They were in the middle of nowhere.
"Captain, if you are trying anything funny, you picked a very bad moment for it, for Marney's sake." He gestured toward the pilot, and nodded to his assistant. "Roly…."
"No, wait" Rudy blurted out desperately. "Don't shoot her. You've been watching both of us the whole time. We haven't moved. We didn't do anything. This is an old ship, and we have breakdowns. This kind of thing is pretty common." He lied. "Especially in Firefrost. Don't shoot anyone, else, please. You'll need us if you want to get this ship running again. OK?!"
Maitland nodded his head slightly to the side, and Knopf eased back on the trigger finger and relaxed his grip on the gun again. The gun's muzzle remained aimed at Marney's chest, though. "Very well. But I get even a hint of a whiff of something funny, you've got more job openings in your crew, and more mess to clean up."
"Understood. Can I communicate with our engineers?"
"Over here, at this console." Maitland gestured, before adding, "Roly, watch her closely."
Rudy moved carefully, with his hands held open and wide, as he approached the console Maitland had indicated. He reached down with equal care and touched a single button. "Arne? Jukka? What's going on? Did we lose the tuning of the port field generator again?"
"Uh, Rudy." He heard Jukka finally reply over the ship intercom. "We're still not sure what happened just now. It wasn't an LDSi field. I'm still working on what caused it, but those banging noises didn't sound good."
"Alright, Jukka. Let me know as soon as you've got something. Rudy out." He then turned to Maitland and said, "We may get moving faster if I can go down there and help."
"Not a chance." Maitland countered. "We've been doing this kind of thing for generations, and know pretty much every trick in the book. You will be too busy giving me access to the ship's computer, anyway. Ms. Firth remains where she is, at the business end of Roly's gun, to ensure your cooperation." He turned to his henchman. "Watch them while the captain, here, unlocks his ship computer. I'm going to his office just down the hall here to send some messages."
He then turned back to Rudy before exiting the bridge and said, "Don't worry Captain, we won't be stuck for long. We've got friends waiting for us, and they'll be along shortly to repair or tow this tub to our base. Just get busy opening things up for us."
There was a silent moment after Maitland left when Rudy looked at their captor, then at Marney. Knopf raised his gun hand, pointing the weapon at Marney's head, while looking at Rudy with an eyebrow raised. No words were needed, and Rudy knew there was nothing else he could do, so he sat at his command station, and began entering codes. He took his time about it, though, and made a few errors along the way in a seemingly vain attempt to stall for time. He tried one other small act of defiance, which was to enter a one-word message to the main engineering console, embedded in the other codes he was entering. He hoped that Arne would think to look up at the console for the brief moment that the word "BOX" would appear on their screen.