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.

By Brody

Leave a Reply