[SLACK ROLEPLAYING LOG] Off to Earth #amwriting #storytelling #roleplaying

Vechkov wanders into the cockpit and slumps into his usual chair at the sensor station, rolling the moss tube sample between his palms. “OK, so,” he says to Sionnach, “we’re supposed to go to Sol for a second opinion. Once Sharpers is back on board, we’re good to go.”

Meanwhile, the woman who calls herself Sharpers these days sits at a corner table in the mess hall of the Rucker, grumbling into her commlink: “What do you mean he wants me back on the trail? I thought he was worried I’d draw too much heat?”

The voice on the other end replies: “Rodrigo Levante’s in the wind. Caught a shuttle off Citadel and high-tailed it to Quaquan. Who knows where he might go after that? He’s a huge liability. Plus, his brother still owes Lord Fagin a great deal of money. Lord Fagin doesn’t want to have to worry about these things. You’re normally quite good at cleaning up such messes. And, well, *you* owe him too. So, you’re going to find Rodrigo Levante and kill him. Then you’re going to eliminate Armand Levante. You’re cleared to deal as you wish with anyone who attempts to get in your way.”

“Fine,” she growls. “I’ll find my way to Quaquan first.”

She doesn’t bother breaking the news to Prague or Sionnach. By the time she’s disconnected the commlink signal, Sharpers is dead. Shark’s back, with cold, black eyes and a set jaw. She finds the next outbound flight and books passage. Never so much as glances at the Pride.

Unaware of the human female’s abandonment, Sionnach nods to Prague, doing the jump computations while he waits. “Course laid in and ready,” he says, “She say how long she’d be?”

“Should’ve been back by now,” the captain replies, brow furrowed. He tilts his head, pondering. “And here I was gonna share a piece of the profits from this endeavor with the crew.” He shrugs. “More for you, I guess. We’ll find a new engineer. Let’s go.”

“Done and done,” Sionnach replies, his voice sounding a lot more sure about this than his face, “Retracting umbilical, disengaging docking clamps….” The Pride shifts gently away from the Rucker until she is clear. “All set, course laid in and ready,” the pilot says, glancing back at Prague.

“All right,” Vechkov says. “Sol System, then. Let’s see what the Sorties want to offer us for tasty, tasty moss.”

“Deeelicious…” Sionnach replies, pulling the lever that brings the jumpdrive whirring to life as the ship slips free of reality.

A few hours later, the Ekaterina’s Pride reaches the outskirts of Sol System and the Tilsworth-Cooke drive trades off with the sublight engines. An alarm sounds and a red light flashes on the nav display reading: “FARADAY MALFUNCTION – TC DRIVE INOPERATIVE”. Apparently, Sharpers wasn’t lying about the circuit problem in the Faraday cage.

Sionnach winces as the alarms start going off. “Hmm…” he mutters a bit before he calls back over his shoulder, “I don’t suppose you’re hiding a new jumpdrive onboard, are you boss? If not, we might be stuck here for a bit.”

Vechkov frowns. “Let’s just hope the Consortium’s willing to buy us a new one, eh?”

“That’d be nice of ’em,” the Pyracani replies, chuffing in amusement, “Third planet, right?” He lays in a course that comes arcing down into the system to meet Earth in its travels.

“Yeah, third planet,” Prague replies. “Last I checked.” He scratches the back of his neck, grimacing at the thought of something. He peers toward Sionnach. “You think Sharpers sabotaged the Pride?”

“Seems a bit weird she’d do that and tell us what she did,” Sionnach replies with a shrug, “And why do it at all? Not like she can beat you to your claim.” As he guides the ship in, he looks the sensor feed over. “Station out in orbit,” he says, “Big one. We docking there or landing planetside?”

The captain eyes the starbase. “Citadel? Nah. This is more of a scientific/diplomatic thing. Take us down to the San Angeles spaceport, planetside. Should be a car waiting for us.”

“Notifying solar traffic control of flight path,” the caninoid replies with a nod, “Should be on the ground in 5.”

“What if she’s in trouble?” the Ungstiri muses as the Pride approaches Earth. He studies his knuckles. “I just left the Rucker without so much as registering her as late, let alone missing.” He frowns. “I think that kinda makes me a dick.”

“Maybe,” the fighter pilot says with another shrug, “Sharpers smells like a woman who can take care of herself, though. And, as you say, she did at the very least leave us in a lurch.”

“Maybe,” Prague agrees. “Well, I’ll at least send a message to Captain Lee on the Rucker. See if she saw Sharpers at some point.”

“Sounds good,” Sionnach replies as the ship hits atmo. The pilot maneuvers the vessel gently through other traffic, as well as various air currents until it comes smoothly to rest on the tarmac.

A few minutes after the Pride sets down, Prague leads Sionnach down the ramp and walks toward the spaceport entrance. It’s daylight, under a cloudless blue sky. Intent, the Ungstiri keeps his eyes fixed either on the doorway or the tarmac. He never, ever looks up.

The Pyracani steps off and does quite the opposite. “Never been here before,” he says, peering around curiously, “Heard about it when humans started popping up back home a few years back.”

“Nice enough, I guess,” Prague says with a shrug, still studiously avoiding eye contact with the heavens. “Maybe a little too roomy.” He relaxes some as they step into the main dome of the spaceport.

[SLACK ROLEPLAYING LOG] Rigel #exploration #storytelling #amwriting

The Rigel system is a navigational nightmare, devoid of any obvious signs of life (intelligent or otherwise) but plenty of potential for mineral resources. The system consists of five stars, all orbiting each other to a certain extent, with ten major orbital paths that occasionally swap stars. Sometimes, Rigel I orbits Rigel A, but then A swaps places with B or Rigel I moves into the orbital circuit of Rigel Ba.

The first world, Rigel I, is a small hot rockball with low interior heat, rare volcanoes, and a weak magnetic field that leaves the surface exposed to fierce solar radiation. It has no atmosphere. The terrain is hilly and rough. Exceedingly hot climate due to proximity to the supergiant stars. Not much in the way of resources, except for scarce deposits of gold and platinum, as well as rare deposits of industrial metals such as iron, tin, and copper.

The second world, Rigel II, is a Venus-sized hot rockball world with no atmosphere. The terrain is mostly steppes and plains. Metals are rare and the weak magnetic field allows radiation to cook the planet. It has ample deposits of the rare earth known as scandium (useful in alloys that can make starship production and other forms of metallic construction more economical).

The third planet, Rigel III, is an Earth-sized hot rockball world with high background radiation, frequent volcanoes and earthquakes, and extra heat due to internal radioactivity. Strong magnetic field helps contain a thin nitrogen atmosphere and generates a colorful aurora. Abundant deposits of rare earth scandium. Ample deposits of industrial metals such as iron, tin, copper, and zinc (for local use – not enough abundance for surplus). Barren desert terrain.

The fourth planet, Rigel IV, is a small hostile greenhouse world with a silicate composition similar to Pluto. Metals are very rare, as are volcanoes and earthquakes. Almost no internal heat. A weak magnetic field allows harmful radiation to scourge the surface and only manages to keep a trace “reducing” atmosphere of methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. No mineral resources. Barren desert terrain.

The fifth planet, Rigel V, is a volatile Earth-sized world of volcanoes, earthquakes, and lethal heat due to internal radioactivity. The strong magnetic field allows for a dense, corrosive ammonia atmosphere with a colorful aurora. The hilly/rough terrain conceals ample supplies of gemstones for local use, plentiful scandium, abundant supplies of uranium and other radioactives, and lots of industrial metals such as iron, tin, and copper.  

The sixth planet, Rigel VI, is a small hostile greenhouse world with a thin nitrogen atmosphere and widespread marshes of liquid nitrogen. Ample supplies of the rare earth resource scandium.

The seventh planet, Rigel VII, is an Earth-sized hostile greenhouse world with a very thin but toxic nitrogen atmosphere. Barren desert terrain. No mineral resources of significant quantities.

The eighth planet, Rigel VIII, is a Venus-sized hot rockball world with a weak magnetic field that leaves the planet exposed to harmful radiation. It has only a trace atmosphere, and that’s composed mostly of deadly methane. Plains/steppes are the primary terrain.

The ninth planet, Rigel IX, is an Earth-sized hot rockball world with a corrosive chlorine atmosphere and terrain that’s mostly plains and steppes. No significant mineral deposits.

The tenth planet, Rigel X, is Mars-sized hot rockball world with rare volcanoes and a weak magnetic field that exposes the planet to damaging radiation. It has a trace hydrogen atmosphere. Terrain is mostly hilly and rough. No significant mineral deposits.

An asteroid belt rings the outskirts of the chaotic stellar dance within the Rigel system. (edited)

As Galactix arrives in system, he slows to sublight and begins a thorough scan of the various systems. After a few minutes of scanning, he studies the preliminary results. “My my… if there were ever a manifestation of the human concept of ‘hell’, this comes pretty close.”

Vizgwyr watches the system information displayed on a holovid in one of the starship’s observation vestibules. He gapes in dismay as he sees solar storms churning from at least three stars at once. “Be careful, yezyez. Very careful!”

“Indeed. Radiation shields are at maximum.” Galactix says. “No signs of life but I am picking up large mineral deposits on some of the worlds.”

“Valuable, yezyez,” the Lotorian muses. “Hard to get, though. What you think we do?”

“Difficult… but with proper equipment, they could be extracted.” Galactix says. “At a minimum we should lay a claim to these resources. If a base is established in this area, then this could provide construction resources.”

Vizgwyr tilts his head, scratching his snout. “Yezyez.” His tail lashes about. “Maybe I help design base! Gonna be tricky. Dangerous place, this.”

“Yes… this might not be the ideal location for it, but if they want to establish an outpost in this sector, they’ll need materials.” Galactix says. “Perhaps we can use one of the probes to land on Rigel II and collect a scandium sample. That will help us to validate a claim.”

“Good plan,” Vizgwyr replies. “Hope it don’t break!”

“Indeed. I don’t have many to spare.” Galactix says. With that, one is loaded into Galactix’ launch tube and send speeding towards the planet. Its trajectory and telemetry display on the terminals through out him.

The probe approaches Rigel II and enters an orbital pattern prior to the final descent toward a suitable landing site. Unfortunately, its sensors are scrambled by a solar radiation burst. Effectively blinded, the probe AI opts against landing and instead struggles to return to the last coordinates of Galactix. That’s when another stormburst catches the probe and kills its propulsion management computer. Now inert, the probe drifts through the Rigellian hellscape.

“Well. I suppose that answers our question as to just how unstable this area is.” Galactix says. “Do you think you can increase the shielding in one of the probes against the solar radiation?”

Vizgwyr ponders. “Maybe, yezyez. Maybe! Gotta reroute power from something else.” He makes his way to one of the few remaining probes and examines the surface of it. “Could be we add extra plating to certain faces, then program good-timed twists and turns to deflect bursts. Always gotta keep sensor eyes covered, yezyez. Never facing bursts.”

“Indeed.. perhaps some sort of waveguide, polarized, so that the sensors can send and receive, but other forms of radiation are excluded.” Galactix says. “That, coupled with upgrades to navigation and the armor plating, could do the trick.”

The Lotorian bobs his snout. “All right! Yezyez! We do this!”

Some time later, Vizgwyr presents Galactix with the final design schematics of the improved probe. It is labeled: “STATICBREAKER.”

“Ahh, this should work nicely.” Galactix says.

“OK, OK, yezyez!” The Lotorian rubs his paws together. “Gonna get to work on the modifications. Won’t take long!”

The modified probe is loaded into Galactix’ launch system once again. A muffled ‘thwump’ and it heads out towards Rigel II. “Establishing telemetry link… let’s see what happens this time.”

The probe survives for longer this time and manages to begin a descent toward the surface of Rigel II. It’s able to gather data planetside for about six hours before the biggest Rigellian star rises above the horizon and pummels the sensors with brutal doses of radiation.

Vizgwyr checks the scan results. “Going to be tricky extracting resources, yezyez. Dangerous. Dangerous means expensive, yezyez.”

“Indeed. And expensive means there will be little interest in this area.” Galactix says with a hint of disappointment.

“Maybe not much legit commercial interest,” the Lotorian agrees. He taps a finger against the side of his snout. “Good place for dodgier elements to hole up, though.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Galactix says. “A potential area to avoid in the future if you want to keep your cargo intact.”

Vizgwyr sighs. “Can’t all be diamonds, can they, nonono?” He gives a shrug. “Well, guess we can at least warn other folks to steer clear. Rigel’s a nasty bit of work, yezyez.”

“Yes. I think we have learned all we can from this location. Perhaps it is time to move on to another system.” Galactix says.

“You want me to send a warning to the Consortium about this place, yezyez?” the Lotorian inquires. “Maybe they put big red letters on the map, say: VIZGWYR WAS HERE, YEZYEZ.”

Galactix chuckles. “Indeed, a warning is warranted. And if they don’t, at least in my star charts, it shall be so marked.”

[SLACK ROLEPLAYING LOG] The Brothers Levante #vanguard #storytelling #amwriting

“I’m severely troubled by this information,” General Charles Avocet responds to Lieutenant Thrum in his answer to the latest report from the Zheng He. “I wish I had better news for you, but it appears that Rodrigo Levante abandoned his post after planting that device on the hull of your ship. Seems like he took a civilian shuttle from Citadel down to Earth, where he caught passage on a freighter called the Duncan Idaho bound for Quaquan. I’ve got a Consortium Intelligence spook asking that you deliver Ensign Armand Levante to Citadel for questioning.”

Thrum sighs at this reply, and then walks to the bridge. “I need a private channel with General Avocet, as soon as possible, regarding his last message. Put it through to my quarters,” he tells the now very overworked comms-person. Thrum then returns to his room and gets to work on other reports and things until his console beeps.

“General Avocet, sir.” The commo says, before the image of the General appears on Thrum’s screen.

“My apologies for this General, I just want to make sure we’re following things by the book. Shall I place Levante under arrest, or simply keep him confined to quarters? And, is returning him to the Citadel a top priority, or do we have permission to continue our work here until our next scheduled visit?”

The response arrives a minute or so later. Avocet frowns. “Given that he’s a material witness, potentially an accessory, to an act of espionage against the Vanguard – and seeing as how we may need as much leverage as we can muster against Rodrigo Levante – getting young Armand back to Sol *is* your mission. Assign a marine detail to guard him until the handoff. I wouldn’t say this is an arrest yet. Just…keep him comfy in his room. Avocet out.” He cuts the transmission.

“That is what I thought…good to have it on record though.” Thrum mutters to himself, before he turns on the intercom and says, “Corporal Vrex to the Captain’s Quarters.” And with that he gets back to that fuel report he had been working on.

The marine corporal arrives at Lt. Thrum’s quarters within minutes. “Captain,” the Zangali says once his ring is answered, coming to attention with a salute as he reports in.

“Put a guard on Ensign Levante. He is not under arrest persay, but he is to be confined to quarters for the duration of our voyage. Thank you, Corporal.” Thrum says, dismissing the soldier, before he keys his intercom to the Bridge, “Bridge, set course for Sol system. You may jump once the course is laid in.”

In his quarters, Armand Levante sits on his bunk, sulking. He thought he’d escaped his problems with this assignment to the Zheng He. Thought he’d left behind the mistakes of the past. He’d been ready for a fresh start. Now, his own brother had managed to drag him back into the quagmire. Did Roddy have a good reason for what he did? Would it matter? “Why, Roddy?” Armand asks the bulkhead. It doesn’t answer.

Light years away, Rodrigo Levante walks down the ramp of the Duncan Idaho onto the dusty landing pad in the town of Four Corners on Quaquan. He’s not sure how long he can run, and now it’s doubly bad: Consortium Intelligence, the Vanguard, *and* the minions of Lord Fagin are hunting him. He almost turned himself in to the Vanguard or the intelligence folks – they might keep him safe. But he’d heard rumors of a witness to an assassination plot getting killed by a mole just in the past few weeks. He couldn’t risk it.

He felt horrible leaving his little brother in the lurch. But Rodrigo didn’t see a choice. He’d get a new identity, erase the old one, and then worry about how to extricate Armand from trouble.

Just got to survive a little while longer, he thinks, and steps into the shadows of the spaceport.

Vrex finds his way to the junior officers’ quarters, posting two of his marines at the door before stepping in himself. Finding it empty with the exception of Ensign Levante, he makes his way over Armand’s bunk. “Sir,” he says with a nod, “I wanted to let you know that the skipper has ordered a protective detail for you. They will remain outside unless you need them. The captain also wishes you to remain here until we reach Sol. If you should need to leave for any reason before then, please allow my men to consult the captain, first.”

The ship shudders as it begins its journey back to Sol. Thrum writes up his report quickly, but delays in sending it for now. Rather, he opens up a small box in his desk drawer, and pulls out a bottle of something of rye. He pours himself a small glass, and then sits back to watch the stars fly by. A few minutes later, he starts writing up commendations for those who showed great perception in finding the tracking beacon and spotting the Martinette’s doppleganger while he nurses his drink.

“OK,” Armand replies to Vrex. He’s still sitting on his bunk. “I don’t want to leave. I made a mistake falling that far into debt with Lord Fagin. But I didn’t conspire with Roddy to spy on the Vanguard. I wish someone believed me.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Vrex replies, “It doesn’t matter to me. Sir.” He offers a quick salute, and clomps back out into the hall.

A handful of hours later, a voice comes over the intercom in Thrum’s stateroom, “We’ve arrived at Sol system, sir. Beginning approach to Citadel base.” The Lieutenant starts awake from where he was napping at his console. He rubs his eyes, keys the comm and replies, “I’ll be up in ten minutes,” and then stalks off to the shower. Once that is done, he makes his way to the bridge and says simply, “Hail Citadel Base, tell them to inform the General we have arrived.”

In the main docking hub of Citadel Base, General Charles Avocet awaits the delivery of Ensign Armand Levante by the crew of the Zheng He. His attache, a weary-looking young man with short-cropped dark hair, glances up from his PDA and says: “Our source in Four Corners reports that Rodrigo Levante may have been sighted after the Duncan Idaho landed.”

“Did they seize the freighter?” the general inquires.

“Tried to,” the aide replies. “Out of Consortium jurisdiction, though. Local authorities wouldn’t act without more evidence.”

“Did someone at least put a tail on Levante?”

“Briefly,” the aide answers.

“They lost him,” Avocet concludes.

“They lost him,” the aide confirms.

“I’m having a bad day, Milton,” the general says, clasping his hands behind his back. “You know what that means?”

“I’m having a worse day,” Milton ventures.

The general nods. He goes back to waiting in seething silence.

“Corporal Vrex, make sure Ensign Levante has all of his personal effects. I have a feeling he will not be returning to the ship.” Thrum says on the internal comms to the Marine Corporal. “Then, meet me with the Ensign at the hatch when we dock. You might want to dress up a bit, as I think we will be seeing the General.” He then turns his attention to the docking procedure, and lets the bridge crew carry that out under his watchful gaze. A routine dock, no problems, no surprises. The Lieutenant nods once, turns, and then walks off the bridge, saying to his XO in passing, “Begin re-fueling procedures, and see if we can’t top off our stores. Not sure what the General might have in store for us, but I doubt it’s a three day leave.”

The Zangali corporal shows up at the junior officers’ quarters in service dress rather than his usual utility uniform, having sent a marine ahead to inform Ensign Levante of Thrum’s orders. “Are you ready, sir?” he asks.

“No,” Levante replies, somewhat contemptuously. But his duffel is packed and tucked between his knees. He gets to his feet. Slings the sack over his shoulder.

“I know,” the Zangali replies, almost sounding sympathetic, “But it’s time anyway.” He gestures towards the door. “After you, sir.”

At the docking hatch Thrum is standing, looking down at his datapad. When he gets the beep from the Bridge that docking is completed, he gives the handle of the door a hard pull, and opens the airlock with a hiss of compressed air. The Lieutenant then steps through the hatch and starts down the gangway to the deck. He walks with a purpose and when he gets to within a couple of yards of the General he stops and salutes, “Lieutenant Thrum turning over Ensign Levante to Citadel Base Command,” he says crisply.

Avocet returns the salute. “Lieutenant, thank you. Welcome back to Citadel. Glad you didn’t have any major problems at Beta Ophiuchi. Scary place, seems like.” He peers at Levante as he emerges from the airlock with the Marine detachment. “And I wager Ensign Levante wouldn’t mind being back at Beta Ophiuchi right about now.”

Thrum nods once and says, “We’d not be here without the hard work and quick thinking of my crew. Ensign Levante included. I will only add that he was very forthcoming with the information we requested, and cooperated fully with my investigation, sir.” He then looks over his shoulder at the Ensign being led forward.

Corporal Vrex and two other marines lead the Ensign out of the Zheng He. Offering a salute to the two senior officers, he stands aside to allow them to conduct their business.

Levante gives a curt salute to the general as he arrives with his military escort. “Ensign Armand Levante, reporting as ordered, sir.”

Avocet returns the salute, then says: “Milton will take you from here. There’s a fellow named Colclough from the CIS with a few questions. Keep cooperating, ensign. It’s in your best interests.” As the attache leads Levante away, the general returns his attention to Thrum. “And you’re going back to Beta Ophiuchi. Weapons division wants a sample of that material you encountered.”

Thrum watches the Ensign being escorted away. He then looks over to the General addressing him, “Yes sir. Do they happen to have any suggestions as to how we might pull that off without becoming…infected ourselves?” the Lieutenant asks. “It disabled our probes relatively quickly, and I have to suspect that there is a boundary around the planet that the material is able to exist in space, but I am not confident in our ability to keep it from assimilating our ship once we’ve come into contact with it.”

“It’s a good question, Lieutenant,” Avocet replies. “And I am confident the smart people on the Zheng He can put their noggins together and find a solution. I damn sure hope so. Because whoever put that tracking device on your ship knows you went out to Beta Ophiuchi. Fagin’s people, most likely. And if that rat bastard can get his hands on the tech, he’ll sell it to the highest bidder. We don’t want the Nall buying it at any price.”

The Zangali marine corporal waits in silence, though his eyes follow the conversation.

A grimace passes over Thrum’s face as he replies simply, “Yes sir.” He considers for a half a moment and then says, “If you happen to have any science-y types you might be able to let me borrow for a few days, that would be quite useful. Since we currently have an open bunk.” As he says this he turns to the Corporal and says, “Vrex, go inform the XO of our orders so he can begin plotting a course back to Beta Ophiuchi.”

The general nods to Thrum. “I’ll assign an egghead within the hour. Thank you, Lieutenant. Dismissed.” With that, he strolls away.

“Sir, General,” Vrex says with a salute to the two officers before heading off to fulfill his orders.

“Sounds good, sir. We will be back on station by the end of the day.” Thrum replies, before he salutes the General as the man leaves. Once he has been dismissed, he turns and heads back up the ramp to the ship. Once aboard he makes his way to the bridge to get an update on the fueling status, and then waits for the aforementioned ‘egghead’ to arrive so he can get on his way.

[SLACK ROLEPLAYING LOG] Beta Ophiuchi #amwriting #storytelling #vanguard #otherspace

Shortly after the exercise aboard the Rucker, Ensign Armand Levante reports to the lieutenant: “We’ve received orders from General Avocet on Earth, sir.” He transmits the data to Thrum’s PDA.

The message reads:

“Lieutenant, we’re overdue a report from a civilian survey ship – the Martinette. Her flight plan was filed with the Rucker six days ago. Captain Dillon Wire intended to take the ship out to Beta Ophiuchi for a look around but expected to return within just a few days. Maybe the crew found something interesting and decided to take longer. However, let’s assume nothing with that damned sentient starship monster lurking about. Go check on them. Avocet out.”

“Thank you, Ensign.” Thrum replies as he reads over the message from command. The Lieutenant ponders for a few moments, eyes moving over the crew on the bridge, and then a glance back to the sensor crew working diligently away on their assignments. “Enisgn Inokori, lay in a course to Beta Ophiuchi. If possible, have us stop short of the system itself. A few light hours out ought to leave us sufficient space to peek around at what we might be getting in to without being immediately detected.”

Thrum then stands up from his chair and walks towards the probe section of the ship, “Probies, we are heading towards Beta Ophiuchi, an unexplored system. One of our exploration ships that was headed out that way has gone silent. Maybe it’s nothing, but I want a plan within the next two hours for how we will scan and then search the system for this missing vessel.”

From the bridge Ensign Inokori speaks up, “Course laid in Captain, we will be at our destination in nine hours.”

“You may jump when ready,” Thrum replies as his technicians get to work calling up the preliminary scans of the system and starting to work on their plans.

The briefing report arrives a short time later, as the Zheng He travels at FTL: Beta Ophiuchi is a giant orange star, classified as a K2 III. It’s only 13 percent more massive than Sol, but it has expanded to about 12 times Sol’s radius with a relatively cool outer-envelope effective temperature of 4,467 degrees Kelvin. Sensors indicate a planetary system with a few orbital bodies, but nothing in what could be labeled a habitable zone.

When the Zheng He returns to Normalspace, Beta Ophiuchi is just one dot of light out of thousands in view. “Let’s get to work Scanners and Probies. Launch your scouts and start listening for short range transmissions. I also want a better view of those orbital bodies. Could be the ship parked somewhere it can’t get out of.” Thrum says, striding onto the bridge. He looks around and then adds, “Corporal Verx, prepare your men for a boarding action. Not sure when we will need you, but but if there is some sort of emergency I’d rather you ready to go sooner rather than later.” The crew of the ship begin to hustle to their work, as Thrum moves to type a quick report back to Headquarters updating the situation.

Sensors show four planetary bodies – one blue-striped gas giant on the system’s outskirts and three rocky dead worlds on orbits closer toward the orange sun. No immediate sign of the Martinette.

Time passes. Lieutenant Thrum seems perfectly happy to wait and see what is going on in system, but eventually even the Zheng He must move from its observational perch outside the system. “Ensign Inokori, lay in a jump for somewhere between the rocky worlds and the gas giant. We may be too far out to spot a debris field. You may jump when ready.” The Ensign replies, “Aye, sir.” And the Zheng He shoots into the solar system.

Once there, the Lieutenant calls over his shoulder, “Probies, send some probes to the rocky worlds, let’s do a little surveying while we are in system. Ensign Armand, is there any activity on the local comm bands? If not, send out a burst message — on repeat — calling for the Martinette. Perhaps they are in energy saving mode somewhere waiting for our call.”

“Nothing on local bands,” the ensign replies. He adjusts the receiver sensitivity range, then knits his brow before announcing: “Wait. Wait. I’m not picking up any chatter, but I *am* reading a steady radiation pulse. Possibly a generator bank. Seems to be in orbit of the second world.”

“Steady pulse? How steady? Any idea how much power this generator bank is putting out? And can you get us a location more exact than that?” Thrum asks, before he stands and heads back towards the Probe and Sensor section. “I want whatever we have near the second planet to do a flyby of this generator bank that Armand found. Get into a low geosynchronous orbit, and snap a couple of pictures of the location once Armand gets that figured out.”

“Peaks every 6.36 milliseconds,” Levante answers. “Consistent with a medium-sized freighter running an average power load with FTL inactive.”

The probe operator checks his feedback report and informs Thrum: “Looks like our target, sir.” He transfers an image of the Martinette to the lieutenant’s station. “No obvious external damage.”

Thrum listens to the reports coming in and says, “Ensign Inokori, plot a course to the planet, but try to keep us out of sight of the location of the ship, if at all possible.” He then turns his attention to the communications officer, “Picking up anything that might be jamming a signal from them? Any other interference? Anything out of the ordinary at all? If not, I want you to patch through a short, tight beam transmission through our satellite that has eyes on the ship. See if that maybe rouses them.” He turns to call back to the Probe division, “Give us a window where we can speak to our eyes, to pass along a message, Push it into higher orbit, or move it around the planet, whatever you have to do.”

The probe shifts to higher orbit. Levante waits for word that the maneuver is complete, then sends the transmission: “Consortium vessel Martinette, this is the Vanguard starship Zheng He. Are you in distress? We stand ready to assist.” He waits about thirty seconds, then looks toward Thrum. “No answer, sir. Maybe I…” He cuts off as a burst of static pops through his headphone. Wincing, he pulls off the headphone.

A couple stations away, the probie reports: “Lost our eyes, sir. No immediate sign of malfunction – it’s just off the grid.”

“Try to get it back up, or if another probe in the area may have seen what happened. For now we’re not going near that thing.” Thrum replies, frowning at how things are turning out with this particular mission. He then taps a brief update into his console about the status of the Martinette search — including a request for further advice — before encrypting the notes and sending them to Comms, “I need this sent to HQ top priority. Ship may be hostile and while I suspect they’re going to want us to land and check things out, I’d rather get confirmation from above.” He leaves out the bit about how he’s just covering his own ass.

A short while later, the probie shares with Thrum some footage from another satellite that captured the fate of its companion: it’s covered with clusters of black metallic-looking orbs, like tiny grapes made of graphite. The clusters seem to be growing over time. The probe almost looks like it’s bubbling.

As the video replays over and over on Thrum’s screen he simply says, “….riiight. Well then, let’s call back our probes, except for the one with eyes on whatever the hell this is. And then let’s get a little more distance from this…event. I want all data regarding what is going on here encrypted and sent to HQ in five minute bursts. I think we know what’s happened to the Martinette.” He then turns back to the probe section and asks, “Do we have a ground exploration unit we can drop a couple of kilometers away, to see if we can get a closer visual of the Martinette? Or would we have to UAV it?”

The probe with eyes on the Martinette and the “bubbled” satellite suddenly has an obscured view, and then goes to static. “Just lost that one,” the probie replies.

Levante frowns. “These last images of the freighter don’t show any damage. Or any of those anomalies. It looks – normal, I guess is the word for it.”

“Once everything is compiled and sent to you, Ensign Armand, encrypt it and send it to HQ. When that is finished, we’re going to fly down to the planet. Ensign Inokori, you’re going to get to do some real fancy flying here so, get ready.” Thrum says, frowning as he writes up an addendum to his report.

Once finished he stands up and says, “We are going to drop in on the planet, and send out an expedition to the Martinette. It is likely they landed, and somehow became trapped by this…infection. In order to do this, and hopefully avoid infection ourselves, we are going to be going in at full speed. So, we will all have to strap in and prepare for a rather rough ride.”

“Sir, I just reviewed the final sensor reports from our probes,” the junior officer reports to Thrum. “That may look like the Martinette, but it is not quite the Martinette. It’s a near replica composed of the same shape shifting material as the stuff that consumed our probe.”

“Thank you for that information, Ensign. You probably just saved our ship. Right then. Shields to full and I mean incinerate anything even microscopic that comes near us full. We’re going to try to take out our probes…but should that fail we are jumping out of the system and heading for somewhere empty to report and run a close inspection of our ship.” Thrum says, frowning a little at the latest report. He turns to the comms officer, “Ensign Armand, I want you to put two missiles into the probes we launched. Inokori, once our missiles are away, I want you to turn and put us somewhere a couple light years away from the nearest system. We need to ensure we are not also somehow infected before we move in to inhabited space.”

“Aye, sir,” Levante responds, tapping a sequence into the weapons console. “Probes targeted. Missiles away.”

Inokori takes that cue and maneuvers the Zheng He away from the problematic star system. “Accelerating to transition velocity,” Inokori reports, adding: “Should be at max sublight speed in about six minutes.”

On the sensor displays, the missiles close distance toward the assimilated probes near the Martinette.

“Ensign Armand, I will be transmitting a full report in the next few minutes to you, for you to send on to Headquarters.” Thrum says, before he sits down at the command console and turns on the intercom, “Marines, prepare for an EVA inspection of the hull. You will receive a briefing in one hour, and I expect you outside within two.” He then turns finally again to his navigator. “Keep us at maximum for a couple of hours, that should put enough distance between us and whatever that was, and also put us far enough away from the space lanes should something have attached to us before you bring us back to sublight. Once out of impulse, bring us to a full stop for the inspection.”

As directed, the navigator brings the Zheng He back to sublight speed after two hours, once the ship is safely away from Beta Ophiuchi and the mimic of the Martinette. The Vanguard vessel slows to inertial drift for the ordered inspection.

Down below, Corporal Vrex is getting his marines ready for action. The airlock is full of straps being tightened, clips being fastened, and other exciting sounds. “Ready for boarding, Skipper!” Vrex says into his helmet’s comm.

Vrex has his usual Marine contingent with him, as well as a couple of EVA certified techs from the probe section. The techs look decidedly uneasy with the whole situation. “The ship has stopped Corporal, you may step out at your leisure. I suspect this search will take a few hours, and I expect regular updates on your status.” Thrum says over the intercom, before he turns back to his report on the incident that he is writing. “Scanners, did we get confirmation of the missile strikes before we were out of sensor range?” the Lieutenant asks, looking over his shoulder to the sensor techs sitting behind him.

“Acknowledged,” the Zangali rumbles back before nodding to the others, “Move out.” He snaps the polarization visor shut on his helmet and cycles the airlock for exit.”

“Missiles detonated at their targets, sir,” the officer reports.

Outside, Vrex won’t find any strange all-consuming bubble clusters. Instead, about the middle of the outer starboard hull, he finds a small blinking triangular device. A homing beacon.

Thrum amends his report to reflect the missile detonations, and then sends it off to Headquarters. He then stands up slowly, stretching, and turns on the comms to the search party outside: “Any progress so far Corporal?”

“Sensor boys are telling me we have a homing beacon attached, Zheng He,” Vrex’ flat reply comes back, “Please advise.”

A message arrives a short time later from General Avocet at Vanguard headquarters: “Lieutenant, I want some clarification here. Is there any indication of signs of life aboard the Martinette? What are these…things…on your sensor readouts? They appear problematic.”

“Disable it, and then detach it from the hull and bring it aboard. We’ll have one of the techs give it a look over. If there is nothing else out there, come back aboard as quickly as possible once the homing beacon has been disabled and removed.” Thrum replies, before he turns his attention back to the response from the General. “The things we discovered are indeed problematic. They ate two of our probes extremely quickly, and seem to have colonized the Martinette as well. We were not in position to get a good reading as to life signs aboard the Martinette, though I do not believe we actually found the Martinette, but rather a replica of it.” He then turns to Ensign Inokori, “Please prepare for a jump for as soon as our EVA personnel are aboard. I’d rather not sit around somewhere we’ve been traced to.”

Vrex glances over at one of the EVA techs and conveys the orders. He watches, somewhat uselessly as the woman attempts to disable the device.

The device is disabled and extracted from the hull plating in short order.

Following orders, the corporal has the device brought aboard, taking a careful look around again before being the last one to enter the ship. “EVA team aboard, Captain,” he says into the comms, “Secure for departure.”

As soon as the team reports they are secure for departure, the Zheng He warps away. It is not a particularly long warp as the ship suddenly decelerates after about ten minutes, then turns slowly, and shoots off on another course. The ship will do this twice more in the next hour, before it settles on it’s course back to the Rucker.

On the bridge Thrum sends off yet ANOTHER update to the General, noting the presence of a tracking device, and telling him that analysis of the device is under way. He hops up from his chair and walks back to where the techs are dissecting their new toy. “Tell me where this is from and how long it’s been tracking us,” he says simply to the group of assembled techs.

“It’s from SparkTech, a model that’s available on the open market via the infomatrix and electronics shops throughout the Stellar Consortium and Fringe,” one of the techs answers. He taps the data module. “Internal records show it’s been transmitting since it was affixed to the hull right before our departure for this mission from Citadel Base. Now, obviously, the crew gave an all clear for the hull sweep while we were docked. So, either we missed it or someone put it on the hull after the inspection.”

“One of the crew?” Vrex growls with narrowed eyes from the corner where he has been standing, trying to keep out of the way.

“Unclear,” the tech replies to Vrex. He looks toward Lieutenant Thrum. “External holocams may have caught something. We’ll pull up the recordings.”

The frown on Thrum’s face deepens at what his tech says, “A civilian tracking device? And a cheap one at that? How is it possible we didn’t notice it transmitting?” He then nods once to the tech, “Put it on screen. Maybe we can see who gave us this unexpected gift.”

Vrex seems to have little or nothing to add to what the tech is saying, instead opting to look towards the viewer in anticipation.

“It’s cheap, but it got some modifications after market,” the tech replies. He taps a sequence on his console keypad. The holoviewer displays footage of someone in a Vanguard EVA suit along the outer hull, affixing the device and switching it on. Their face is obscured in shadow. When they complete the work, they cut loose from the tether connecting them to the Zheng He and drift as the ship departs.

“I want to find out exactly where that suit came from, and then have it accounted for. Keep an eye on that individual, and let’s see what we can find.” Thrum says, watching the video display of someone in a Vanguard suit putting the tracking device on the Zheng He.

“If it was one of the crew,” Vrex rumbles, straightening, “They might not be aboard any more. Permission to conduct a shipwide count, sir.”

The tech nods. It doesn’t take long to track back in the holovid as the mysterious individual plants the device, then walks backward along the hull toward the hatch into Auxiliary Airlock 17A. The tech switches the camera view to the interior of the airlock, where the footage follows the suited individual through a reverse-order final EVA check procedure. Then the person in the EVA suit walks backward through a hatch into the access corridor. The tech tracks with the next holocam, in the corridor, following the beacon-planter back in time and space to the ready room.

The individual removes the EVA suit, their face now in full view of at least a third of the wall- and ceiling-mounted cameras. It’s a male, late 20s or early 30s, with dark hair. The tech zooms in on the face, then brings up a HUD for facial recognition scanning compared to the Vanguard personnel database. It takes a while, but he finally gets a positive ID.

“Not one of the Zheng He crew,” the tech says to Thrum. “He’s Vanguard, though. Assigned to Citadel Base. His name is Rodrigo Levante.”

“Bring Ensign Levante to my quarters if you would Corporal,” Thrum says simply, before he turns and walks off towards his private room, “And send me that video Mr. Fernandez.”

The Zangali’s eyes narrow and he nods. He immediately strides out, waving along two other marines as he sets out to begin a top-down search of the vessel, starting with the bridge.

On the bridge, Ensign Armand Levante sits at his console, attending to his duties. He glances around as Vrex and the marines stomp in, then he returns his attention to the console display. Work to do, after all.

“Sir,” the corporal says approaching Levante, about as subtly as a huge lizard can in a crowded

room, “I need you to come with me. Captain’s orders.”

Levante flinches at the request as Vrex soon looms behind him. His eyes go wide and he looks back around at the reptiloid. “What’s wrong?”

The Zangali leans down a bit. “With all due respect, the captain will explain it, sir,” he says quietly, “Now don’t force me to place you under arrest.”

The ensign nods. “Of course. It’s just…I didn’t…do…anything.” He gets to his feet, then moves to walk beside the Zangali and the other marines. “Not this time, anyway.”

“Not my place to say, sir,” Vrex says with a nod as he escorts the Ensign back towards the Captain’s cabin.

As Ensign Armand is brought in to the Captain’s Quarters, Thrum is standing behind his desk, looking down at a datapad. “Please, come in Ensign. Have a seat. You’re not in any trouble, I just have a few questions to ask you about a device we’ve found attached to our hull.” The Lieutenant picks up the tracking device and holds it out for Armand to look at if he so chooses. (edited)

The ensign shakes his head. “I had nothing to do with that, sir. I know what it is. Homing beacon. I would *never* put our mission at jeopardy with something like that.”

“I never said you had Ensign.” Thrum replies, before motioning for him to sit, “Take a seat, again: you’re not in any trouble but a rather odd coincidence has occurred with the retrieval of this device.” As Thrum says this he moves to sit himself, “As we were digging in to the possible identity of the person who did attach this tracking device to our ship, we found evidence that it was this individual,” and he brings up a picture of Rodrigo Levante. “He apparently stole a EVA suit, and used it to place the device on our hull. Do you recognize him?”

Ensign Levante settles into the chair as ordered. Color leeches from his face as he sees the image. “Roddy. That’s my brother. But why?”

Vrex just takes an imposing stance at the door until he is needed.

“That is what I brought you in here for. Why might your brother be trying to track our ship? I have sent off a notice to Citadel Base to have him detained, and they will be conducting their own investigation, but if there is a family matter that may interfere with your work here, I would like to know about it before another tracking device gets stuck to my ship.” Thrum replies, watching Armand closely.

Levante looks at his hands for a few moments. Then he looks at Thrum. “I’m not sure. He’s part of the prep crew. You know, when a ship like the Zheng He gets ready to clear out, he makes sure all the mooring connections are firing properly. So he’s on and off ships stopping at Citadel all day long.” His gaze drifts toward the wall to his left. “He didn’t even stop by to say hey. So whatever he was up to,” his attention returns to Thrum, “he didn’t want me to know about it, I think.”

“I see. Is there anything else you’d like to get off your chest now before another tracking device or something else shows up on the hull of my ship? Again, you are not in trouble here, but it is best to know what exactly might be out there gunning for you.” Thrum says, steepling his fingers as he watches the young Ensign.

Armand frowns. He’s quiet at first, but then he says: “I wagered a lot of money on a rockhopper race a few months ago. The bookie worked for Lord Fagin. I…I haven’t been able to pay up. But I don’t know why Roddy would be sticking a beacon on our boat.”

“Thank you for your honesty Ensign. It is a sign of good character, though…this debt, how large is it?” Thrum asks, leaning back in his chair as he speaks with the crewman.

“It’s…significant,” Levante answers. “About 250,000 credits.”

“Two hundred and fifty thousand credits? Well…I can tell you this: you will be staying in the Vanguard for a very, verrry long time.” Thrum says. He stands up, and adds, “I must pull you from active duty until this is taken care of, and you may be demoted…and you will definitely not be working the comms any more. I will speak with Headquarters about this, and the actions of your brother, and update you on their decision. Until then, I am going to order you confined to the barracks and the recreation areas. You’re not under arrest, but you’ve suddenly become a rather major security risk for us.” He then nods to Vrex, “If you could escort the Ensign to his quarters, Corporal. That will be all.” He then sits back down, and begins composing his latest update to HQ.