As soon as they emerged from the L-point at Square Rock, Rudy's bad feeling was back. He started to realize that this bad feeling had been with him even before he'd taken this shipping contract. Patrice Agbayewa had been the broker for this particular deal. Aggie was a Junker, and an old friend to Rudy. The two had known each other for more than ten years, and Aggie had always been an excellent, reliable source for parts. He'd also been a connection for more than a few jobs in the past. Rudy practically had to beg the Junker to finally give him the details of the contract, and it cost him one of his favourite bottles of scotch. It seemed that Aggie was increasingly nervous, these days, and was even making noises about hooking up with the League. This contract shipping for ASC was suspiciously sweet. But Rudy had needed the work badly. So he pushed that uneasy feeling aside, discussed it with his first officer, and signed up for it.

   Even though they made light of the whole 'gut-feeling' thing, eight years in the captain's chair of the MYLENE B. had taught him a thing or two about the role of gut instincts as an independent freighter. He should have known better, but desperation and hunger was making more than a few independent haulers less careful than they should be. Right now he was wishing he'd paid more attention to that feeling.

   What should have been a routine return to normal space at a relatively quiet L-point was turning out to be suspiciously un-routine, and definitely not quiet. Several contacts resolved immediately on his navigational board. Five armed tugs, four of them Spider-class vessels listed as independents, all turned to approach them in a decidedly un-friendly manner. The fifth ship was an armed Puffin-class tug, named the FISCAL JEER registered to ASC.

   Rudy's assessment of the risks seemed to be shared by his first mate, who was feeding him ID's and information on the approaching vessels. Terry was about twenty years his senior, and had been a member of Rudy's crew for the last six years, longer by far than any of his other hires. He'd served as first officer for the last three years. Even though Terry was an exceptionally quiet man, they'd learned to anticipate one another, and communicate quite well without language. Terry's experience as a freight runner had been invaluable on many occasions, and Rudy considered him as much a friend as a first officer. Terry was also the only person in recent history he permitted to address him as Carl, rather than 'Rudy' as he preferred. It seemed only fair considering the various things Rudy had called him over the years.

   All five of the ships on approach were of different origins and ownership. One was from Longshot; a long way from home indeed. It seemed strange, to say the least, to be met like this: still empty and on their way to a job. However, the FISCAL JEER was registered to their current employer, Angelion Shipping, so Rudy just continued to push that bad feeling down, and acted calmly.

   "Marney, please open comms and remind these kind folk of our identity, that we're unarmed, that we're empty…oh, and that we're working for them."

   "They're already hailing us, Captain."

   "Let's hear it then."

   "MYLENE B., this is Martin Maitland of the Angelion Shipping Company. You're late. Cut V to zero and stand by for docking."

   That gut feeling was getting worse. He touched a short series of keys and spoke for his ship.

   "This is Captain Carl Rudnicki of the independent freighter MYLENE B." He stressed the word 'independent', and used his full name for the first time in years. "We are indeed en route to a cargo pickup for ASC. However, we received no information regarding any rendez-vous along the way, so you'll forgive me if I differ with you on your assessment of our tardiness. Furthermore, we have no information regarding any need for a docking procedure with you or anyone else. Your information must be inaccurate. I advise you to check your instructions with your superior. In the meantime, we'll be on our way. Have a good day."

   "MYLENE B., this is Maitland of ASC on board the FISCAL JEER. I repeat: prepare for docking maneuver. We have instructions to dock then escort. If you'd like I can tightbeam another copy of the contract and particulars. Nevertheless, you will be receiving ASC personnel from this vessel."

   This was getting serious, and this fellow Maitland was becoming annoying. Rudy felt the tension rising in the bridge crew. Marney seemed to be getting uneasy, as her hands darted across her pilot station board, trying to plot a way out of this. An unarmed and unescorted freighter had no real options in a fight. None of the tugs facing them were designed as combat vessels, but they were all armed, and considerably more maneuverable than a freighter, even an empty one. It was no wonder Marney was getting nervous. To make matters worse, they had all had their share of bad experiences with pirates in the past, but never together as crew on this ship. Rudy had promised himself to never again be fodder for pirates, and had so far managed to succeed in that effort. He'd done so by choosing loads and routes with every ounce of smarts and experience he had. He'd listened to his gut. Rudy had to struggle to control his own fearful reaction to the familiar, nightmarish feel this encounter was developing. He shut that painful memory from his mind and focused on the present.

   He regained his composure and replied, "Mr. Maitland, we have a copy of our contract, and it lists no such particulars. We're familiar with ASC procedures, and this has never come up." He snapped the fingers of his left hand and gestured toward Terry, who was frantically trying to call up documents. What he'd just said into the audio pickup was only partly a lie. He had made a bid for an ASC contract once, but hadn't made the cut. "We'll need some time to review the details of this modification to our agreement." Terry was scanning documents on his screens. He shook his head doubtfully the whole time.

   Before Rudy could cutoff the communication link, the bureaucrat on the other end said, "Our records are very clear Captain Rudnicki. Our agent provided you with a general agreement, with clauses stipulating further addenda with details to follow. Recent changes in legislation have resulted in a few procedural changes. Our records also show that you received the new contract with those addenda. Look, I haven't got time for this. It's all in your contract. If we can't bring crew aboard, then not only do you forfeit all pay, shares, and possible bonus, but you are subject to a significant breach-of-contract fine. We may even have to impound your vessel pending further investigation if we suspect that you might be colluding with pirate organizations." This last comment of Maitland's was clearly designed to get their attention. Maitland concluded his statement with a very terse sounding question. "What's it going to be?"

   Cutting off the audio, Rudy turned to his first. "Terry, is he right? I saw the original but…?" Terry shook his head, still searching files.

   Rudy continued, "I know we got another message from them, but it looked like it was full of confirmations and stuff that wasn't important. I can't say I read it all in detail. I sent it to you, too. Do you remember reading anything about this? We've never come across this before." Terry simply shrugged, never looking up from his screen. He looked like he'd found something and was reading it carefully.

   "Damn." Rudy cursed himself as much as anything else. "Alright, let's get a good look at it now, along with this joker's credentials."

   "Marney, set a course for our destination at Fjorgynn, but keep us in place for the moment." Rudy gave the command with the familiar confidence that sent his crew into action. "Terry, make sure everything is battened down and sealed. I mean everything. Lock it all down. I've got to put the command-level safeties in place. I was really hoping I wouldn't have to use them again." The pilot and first officer both focused on their orders, fingers dancing across workstation consoles. Rudy touched another button for the intercom to engineering.

   "Jukka, you and Arne get to the box. Do it now. Double fast. Wait there for Marney, then button up and stay put." He adjusted channels then spoke again, "Janeane, where are you now?"

   A young woman's voice, sounding like it was transmitted from a distant nebula crackled over the intercom. "I'm at the forward hatch. I was just getting suited up to go see what I could do with those four cargo slot clamps that're fucked." There was a pause while they heard sounds of her struggling with something. "Shit, I hate this suit….has this thing been used as a toilet, or what?! It reeks." This was followed by what sounded like a bar fight, liberally peppered with grunts and profanities. Then her voice became much clearer, as her voice was picked up by the suit comm. "We signed a full twenty deal, and we only got sixteen working. We gotta fix 'em sooner or later. 'sides, we're losing money with four dead slots and I need some pay one of these days."

   She seemed to grasp the seriousness of Rudy's tone. "Why? What's going on?"

   Rudy continued patiently. "There's an unexpected development in our plans, and I'm working on sorting it out. It may be nothing, but it may be…something. We're taking on boarders. Finish suiting up, seals and all. Stay where you are by the forward airlock, and on channel…um.. just a second, yeah, go to channel four. And Janeane, stay quiet."

   "Shit. OK, I got it." Janeane's voice conveyed a clear sense of the gravity of the situation. "Uh, Captain Rudy….what do I do if I don't hear anything from you for awhile?"

   "Keep listening. I'm going to keep transmitting from a handheld the whole time. If it gets too quiet for too long, assume the worst. Try to figure some way to either help us out, or hurt them badly. Marney and the boys will be in the box. I may give them an all-clear to come out, but you don't move until I specifically tell you to. Get me? Just stay put, stay quiet and listen." Then he turned his attention back to his console, and resumed communications with the approaching tug.
"FISCAL JEER, hold until we can verify your documents."

   The response was blunt and very sharp, "This is Maitland of ASC. YOU hold. We're on approach. In the time it takes for us to dock, you should have plenty of time to review the documents. We're on a schedule here."

   Rudy cut the comm off and muttered absently, while he worked at his station, "We're holding, we're holding." He then turned to his bridge crew. "Terry, all command level functions are locked. Let's do some speed-reading, and meet our esteemed guests. Marney, I'd feel better if you joined the lads in the box. They're waiting for you. Now skate."

   She replied with fear still obvious in her voice, "You don't need to say that twice." and was gone toward the shielded room in a flash.

   The two men glanced at one another for a brief moment, confirming the each others' fears. Rudy broke the tension with a glance toward the hatch through which Marney had just exited, saying, "You see how she ran? You really can't find good help these days." They both smiled. Sort of.

   "Now let's see what kind of trouble we've gotten ourselves into by not reading the fine print."

   After what seemed like an eternity, the docking rings were sealed, and the pressure equalized. The MYLENE B. waited until both the captain and first mate were ready at the inner hatch before unsealing the outer door. Three men drifted toward them through the opening before expertly orienting themselves toward the floor and placing their feet solidly down. Hatches re-sealed behind them as they stepped toward the two men there to greet them. The oldest of them looked sternly at both, and went straight to Rudy.

   "Marty Maitland, ASC admin." Said the older man. He nodded first to the taller of the remaining two. "This is Roland Knopf, from the FISCAL JEER, and his assistant Tommy Nguyen. As I'm sure you now are aware, we're here to accompany you as company representatives, crew advisors and compliance officers for the Angelion Shipping Company."

   "And as I'm sure you are aware, I am Captain Carl Rudnicki. This is my first officer, Terrence Vassiliakis. We did indeed verify that there is a provision for company representation, if a ship was carrying an ASC load, and additional crew if a ship was deemed to be under compliment. We are, however, not carrying anything belonging to ASC as yet. We are on our way to COLLECT an ASC load. Furthermore, we are adequately staffed. It still doesn't say anything about unscheduled meetings like this one. So you'll understand, Mr. Maitland, my curiosity as to why you gentlemen are standing here at all."

   He was holding his e-pad up, pointing with his stylus at the recently reviewed document to show the new arrivals. The hiss and clang of unsealing airlocks then punctuated his statements, as the FISCAL JEER apparently undocked without waiting for the go-ahead.

   Maitland took the pad from Rudy's hand in a quick forceful gesture and after a quick series of taps, looked back up and returned it. "This, I believe, is the clause you need to review." He then held up his own e-pad, which looked very similar to Rudy's. "I have a full, updated copy of the entire contract documents, including the relevant parts of the new legislation here in my pad. I suggest you download it all immediately. If you wish you can read it now. In the meantime, we'll proceed to the bridge and begin our assessment."

   Terry managed to place himself squarely in their way in the narrow passageway. It was done in a remarkably unthreatening way, but the intent was clear.

   Maitland glared at Terry for a moment, then looked down at his pad again. He worked it for a moment, and looked up again, "Terrence Vas… Vesicle… Va..sickly…"

   "Vassiliakis" was all Terry said.

   "What the hell is that?" Maitland stared up into Terry's face, clearly belligerent. "Well?"


   Rudy could tell that these two were not going to become pals. "Mr. Maitland, seeing as you are now guests aboard my ship, I suggest you dust off your manners. We can find you a comfortable place down one level, if…"

   Ignoring him, Maitland had already shouldered his way past Terry, heading toward the bridge. "Like I said, we're on a schedule." His two assistants followed. Terry and Rudy looked at one another very briefly before following after them quickly.

   They caught up with their visitors as they approached the bridge. Entering together, Maitland scanned the bridge, and started making notes on his pad. "This is an FR-200 series, right?"

   "Actually it's a 200-B." Rudy replied with a hint of pride. "Better power plant and power distribution grid. It also fixed an annoying humidity problem that cropped up in the mid-deck cabins on the 200 models. I practically rebuilt this ship from scrap myself, which is why you probably don't recognize much about the bridge layout."

   Maitland gave him a wearied look, narrowed his eyes and continued. "I'm sure you're aware of regs about bridge crew and watch schedules. We just walked onto an empty bridge, Captain Rudnicki. Do you still want to tell me you have enough crew?"

   "I sent my pilot to the shielded room in the event of an emergency, and both my first officer and I were on watch. That is, before we came to greet our respected visitors in accordance with this ship's tradition. As you can see, we're not under weigh, but it's starting to feel like we're under siege."

   "You sent crew into the box! I'd forgotten that these older ships even had a shielded room. Do you have problems with your LDA? Is the reactor shielding inadequate? Are you expecting some radiation flare-ups? I find it hard to believe that you would interpret our rendez-vous as a hostile boarding emergency. Unless, of course, you have something that you're hiding."

   Rudy was reaching his limit, but somehow managed to squeeze out one last effort at politeness. He needed this job, and this was a representative of his new employer. "You'll forgive me, Mr. Maitland, if I seem upset at having to explain myself to you. Now why don't we try this again, from the start. You gents follow me OFF the bridge to our galley where we can have a tea, or a scotch, or some milk and fuckin' cookies and sort this whole thing out while my mate here goes over everything we need to review, and gets confirmation from ASC headquarters. Then we'll dock to your tug, and we can all go our merry ways, and do what we set out to do when we woke up this morning." He took a step toward the hatch leading off the bridge, and raised his arm in a gesture indicating the desired direction. No one moved.

   Rudy let his arm down slowly, but never took his eyes off Maitland's. "OK, let me put it to you this way: This ship is locked down and going nowhere until I'm satisfied. From where I stand, we've just been boarded by an unknown hostile force. Maybe you're full of it, and just want to get us to take our own ship right to your lair without firing a shot. Maybe you're legit. The thing is, I just don't trust you yet, Mr. Maitland. I'm taking your uninvited presence here very, very seriously, and I absolutely WILL NOT unlock the ship computer or remove my crew from safety until I get some reassurances. Your rude behaviour, threats, fines, or even PBCs won't change a damn thing. Only satisfactory answers will get this ship moving. So what's it going to be?"

   "Captain Rudnicki," Maitland seemed to be taking a different tone, "let me explain things a little bit more from where I stand. I am a representative of a successful shipping firm. Do you understand the implications of that in these times? While every other shipping company is getting gutted by pirates and outlaws, ASC is doing well. Why? Because we're damned careful, that's why. Yes, I'm a company man, and sometimes get a little overzealous in my work. When the company does well, I do well, when the company loses, I lose. Pirates are a very serious and real threat to the success of our enterprise, so we are taking serious steps to protect our business. We can't just let anyone haul for us, so we select very carefully. We meet every new contract hauler and assess them from top to bottom. We supply staff to guarantee safe operation and safe pickup and delivery of cargo. We escort new freight carriers to and from our staging area, and only provide the coordinates of our main shipyard after we've verified that our safety is assured. As you can see, ASC has been successful in its fight against pirate attacks only because of this security-minded vigilance. From where I stand, you could be the pirate spy, looking to get into our hidden shipyard, then contact your buddies for a hit. So if you please, stop with the drama and let's get down to the business of shipping cargo. Our ships will escort you to Fjorgynn. We'll be on board to make sure your ship is running adequately to fulfill its contract, once there. We'll input the last NAV waypoint, ourselves, which WILL require access to your computer, and then we'll travel to the final destination, the ASC base for cargo pickup."

   "Mr. Maitland, I'm glad your company is careful, but that doesn't ease my mind much. It hasn't changed the fact that I think of you as a threat. I need an act of good faith. So here's what I propose: you and your friends leave this ship, and we all travel separately to Fjorgynn. I'm talking about the NAV point that I was given as part of the original contract. If you're legitimate, then you'll know exactly where that is, and we'll meet up again there, at which time I'll be more inclined to let you transmit final coordinates. Note that I said transmit'. No one gets direct access to the command levels of this ship's computers but me, not even my crew."

   "Please be reasonable." Maitland replied. "If I did that, I'd lose my job, and we'd be no further ahead, either of us. You really have no options except to proceed as instructed or forfeit everything and pay that fine. However, if we do that, then it makes me look bad, too. So I guess an act of good faith might be tolerable. I suppose I could let the escort ships travel on their own to Fjorgynn orbit, where we'll meet up again. At that point, Captain Rudnicki, you'll have to give us brief access to at least the navigational levels of your main computer in order to input final coordinates. If not, we'll be right back where we are now. I think we both want this deal to move forward, but this aspect of the impasse must be resolved, or there's no point in any further action."

   Rudy hesitated for a moment, then countered Maitland's offer. "You send both of your little helpers over to the FISCAL JEER, they all leave together in those tugs to Fjorgynn, then I'll consider letting you stay, and letting you enter the destination codes under my direct supervision."

   Maitland sighed as if he was getting tired or bored, "I suppose I could permit Mr. Nguyen to return, but unless you have a number of hidden crew members, you really are short handed with only yourselves, two engineers, and Ms. Firth. You need all the help you can get." He paused, and then smiled wryly, "You don't have a secret cache of hidden crew do you?"

   Rudy placed his hand in his pocket to make sure his portable comm was on, and transmitting on Janeane's frequency. He then nodded his agreement to Maitland, "You seem to have done your homework. As you said, there's the two of us you see here, and three more who are waiting in the box for my all-clear: my pilot, and two engineers." He deliberately neglected to mention Janeane. He sincerely hoped that the heating in the airlock was on, because as bad as that suit smelled the real problem was its faulty heater.

   "Then we're agreed, Captain? I'll signal our ship to dock, again. Mr. Nguyen can disembark, and we can start doing business again, yes?"

   "Agreed. So long as you don't object to my second going over the contract again."

   "Not at all. I've already said I'd give him my copy to download, so you can compare them. Now, about that scotch you mentioned…" Maitland passed his e-pad to Terry without looking at him.

   "Right this way." Rudy raised his arm again to gesture down the corridor off the bridge. As they passed him and exited the bridge, he turned to his first officer and spoke quietly to him. "Terry, get on that contract immediately. Bring your summary to me soonest. Once those ships have departed, signal the all-clear to the box. And Terry," He gently tapped the bulge in his pocket that was the handheld comm transmitter, "stay in touch at all times, you get me?"

   Terry nodded, and returned to work.

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