Appearing silently against the backdrop of the nebula, the Zheng He reverts to normal space. While the exterior of the ship is calm, the bridge is bustling as Lieutenant Thrum starts giving orders, “Ensign Inokori, lay in a course to the Rucker. Ensign Armand, get them on comms and see about getting us docked to fuel up. Sensors, I want you to start scanning the region. I suspect we will be sitting here for a couple of hours at least, so pick a slice of sky and get analyzing. I want us to find a cozy little spot where we can listen to what’s going on around here without being seen too easily. Probes, ready our defense drones, and if there is anything interesting in the immediate vicinity, feel free to send an explorer out to take a peek.”

The various posts respond their assent to the orders, and Thrum settles into his chair, waiting to hear from the Rucker.

Below decks, Vrex is cleaning a pulse rifle. Feeling the ship come out of FTL, he begins getting his marines ready for the intended training exercise.

“Armand, are you awake Ensign Armand?” The Lieutenant asks as the ship starts to settle in to a course towards the Rucker.

Corporal Vrex lumbers up onto the bridge, presenting the Lieutenant with a salute. “Marine contingent is prepared for mock boarding operations, sir,” he says.

“Wide awake, sir,” the ensign replies. “I’ll hail the Rucker. Stand by.” He transmits via comms: “Fuel vessel Rucker, this is the Vanguard starship Zheng He. Requesting permission to dock, fuel, and resupply. Standing by for approach instructions.”

“Excellent Corporal, let’s hope they let us have some fun. If not…I’ll let you drag the new guy behind the ship for awhile on a tow cable…call it zero-g practice or something.” The Lieutenant replies to Vrex, grinning just a little bit. in the direction of the revivified Commsman. He then turns his chair back aft and amends, “Actually, Probes, send out a fly to go peek at the nearest Consortium comm relay. Let’s see who else is hanging around here and what they’ve been doing on our airwaves. Once you’ve gotten through to the Rucker, Armand, I want you to run the mail through the censor — incoming and outgoing — and then pull comm logs from the Satellite that Probes is going to connect you to. Don’t want all the gory details of messages, just the who and when, since that’s all we’re allowed to pull currently.”

The Zangali seems just a bit puzzled by the suggestion but he nods as he departs to join the marines at the boarding hatch. “We’ll be ready when you give the word, Skipper,” he says.

Levante nods. “Aye, sir.” He listens to an incoming reply, then reports: “Captain Miranda Lee says we’re clear for docking at Lock 12.” After that, he silences the transmitter and informs the Lieutenant that the censor’s deciphering AI is ready to receive the mail.

“Put me through to Captain Lee if you would Ensign, I have a request to make. Hopefully she acquiesces.” Thrum replies, before he turns his attention to his small Marine contingent, “Thank you Corporal, hopefully we’ll get a positive response.”

The corporal finds his way to the docking hatch, nodding to the marines there as he taps his commlink. “Acknowledged, sir,” he says.

“Aye, sir,” Levante says. “Routing her to your station, sir.”

Moments later, a woman’s voice: “Captain Miranda Lee here. How can I be of assistance?”

“Captain Lee, this is Lieutenant Thrum of the Zheng He. I was wondering if you might allow our Marines to use your ship as a staging area for a brief boarding exercise. I want to get them some work before we go out into radio silence for who knows how long.” Thrum replies, as he looks over the list of sensor hits that are coming through his console.

“A boarding exercise?” Lee chuckles. “Sure. I’ll make sure my people switch to non-lethal gear. Hopefully, your Vannies will escape with just a few bruises.”

“Roger that, Captain. We’ll commence after fueling operations begin. We will be aboard in..ten minutes by my count.” Thrum replies, before he switches over to the intercom, “Corporal, you have permission to run you exercise aboard the Rucker. You run your operation, we will refuel and resupply, and we will be back in flight in three hours. Understood?”

“Affirmative, Skipper,” Vrex replies quickly, “Ready to move out as soon as border clamps are engaged.”

“I am sending along a couple of Probe boys who seem to want to get in on the action, so they will be down and ready to go in a moment.” Thrum says over the intercom, before he watches the Zheng He maneuver into it’s docking with the Rucker. “You are a go Corporal.” He then switches off the intercom and flips the external comm back on, “Captain Lee, our Marines are coming aboard. Once they’ve cleared the loading bay you may begin refueling. My XO will be coming aboard to oversee the operation. Need anything else from us?”

“Just make sure your guys bring enough white flags to let us know when they surrender,” Captain Lee quips. “Rucker out.”

The corporal nods to one of the marines who simulates firing on the mechanism of the unlocked hatch. “Acknowledged, sir,” he says. As the hatch is opened, one of the marines tosses in a flash-bang mimic, and Vrex takes point, leading the marines with a pulse rifle at his shoulder.

As the boarding operation plays out, Thrum looks up from his readouts and asks, “How is that commsat coming along Ensign? I want a complete picture of who is hanging around here, and those logs will give us at least a sense of how many Captains have taken the Consortium up on the prospect of finding riches in uncharted space….and we may come across a familiar face or two that the MPs would like to speak with.”

“Several corporate-owned exploration vessels and freighters that are Consortium-flagged, sir,” Levante informs Thrum. “A few ships from independent worlds like Ungstir.”

Aboard the Rucker, Lee’s small security squad waits in the main airlock access corridor with the lights off and their night vision goggles activated. So the flash bangs do a nice job of scrambling their optics for the first few seconds of the boarding op.

Vrex, his own night-vision coming online as he enters, fires off a pair of shots at the nearest of the security guards as the other marines stream in behind him, making what use of the corridor’s structure they can for a modicum of cover, trusting in the hail of simulated gunfire down the hall to keep the defenders’ desire to expose themselves minimal.

“Send the log to me Ensign, I will look at them here.” Once Thrum has the list, he spends a few moments scanning through them — perhaps noting names, perhaps just making a show of it. Either way he absorbs himself in the readout for a couple of minutes, before turning his attention back to the feed of the Marine contingent aboard the Rucker.

“Aye, sir,” Levante replies. He transmits the log to Thrum.

Meanwhile, aboard the Rucker, the defenders are trying rather unsuccessfully to fend off the onslaught from Vrex and the Marines. The security chief thumbs the commlink nub on his left gauntlet and shouts: “Goddamned cheap ni-vi goggles, Captain! Half of them are still showing static after the flash-bangs. I told you we should’ve invested in Spark equipment. But no! Some bean counter thought they knew better!”

The marines finally manage to take control a corridor junction so that they can take better cover. Determining which direction can be used to bypass the lift to the bridge, Vrex leads them down that corridor, as their munitions expert sends a smoke grenade down toward the defenders and leaves a small portable turret behind to give the impression the boarding team is still there. Two of the marines remain behind at the hatch to prevent a counter boarding party.

On the bridge of the Rucker, Captain Miranda Lee watches in bemusement as her crew members fall back from the onslaught of the Vanguard invaders. “Lucky this is only an exercise,” she mutters.

Still, she wants to keep it interesting. So she reaches for a touchscreen button that reads B-EC PROCEDURE ALPHA. Tap. Suddenly, heavy hatches slide down into place to keep the intruders contained to the entry corridor – as if the Rucker’s being protected from a hull breach. Then she hunts for another touchscreen button. This one reads: LS-EC PURGE. Tap. Breathable air starts venting into space, making it difficult to stay conscious in the sealed corridor.

Not wanting to actually damage the Rucker by using explosives or torching through the bulkhead, Vrex is faced with a bit of a problem. “Corporal Vrex to Zheng He,” he growls, trying to use as little air as possible, requesting electronic infiltration and override of the target’s environmental systems.” He nods to the munitions expert who plugs a networking bridge into a computer access port.

Thrum — who has been watching the exercise off and on — sits up a bit at this new tactic the Rucker employs. “Let’s see what sort of magic you computer jockeys have. Pop that door open for the Corporal if you will, and shut their bridge out of environmental control if you can,” he says to his crew, who get to work on doing that exact thing. He then flips on his comms and says, “Captain Lee, I would hope you aren’t trying to murder my crew. That would make this friendly exercise decidedly less so.”

The response from Miranda Lee comes moments later: “Murder? Hell, no. But I’d love to give them a bad headache. You crying uncle, Lieutenant?”

Watching some of his comrades begin to falter, Vrex has the whole squad take a knee. “Zheng He,” he says quietly into his comms, “We need that environmental control.”

“They want to blast your door, unless you have any way to prevent that on your end I’d say let’s skip the property damage and return atmosphere to the corridor.” Thrum replies languidly, smirking a little bit at the jab Lee sends his way. “Unless you’d like me to give them permission to preserve their lives.”

The Rucker’s captain frowns, but decides the lieutenant’s got a point. She relents, allowing atmosphere back into the corridor. “You’ve won the day, sir,” she concedes.

As air begins to flow back into the corridor, Vrex has the marines complete the exercise before returning to the Zheng He. He stops to help the Rucker’s security chief calibrate their night vision equipment so as to be more effective, and heads home. “Marine squad is aboard, Skipper,” he says into the comms as the airlock cycles shut.

“Report in once you’ve secured your objective, and then get back here, we’ve got to get heading on.” Thrum replies to his Marine corporal.

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