Trade Route 3:
Embarked: (N24:52:XX:XX) Designated: Outpost Gamma
Destination: (N24:23:XX:XX) Designated: Manufactorum
Captain Adam Coleman stood on the bridge, hands behind his back, eyes surveying the carnage he had wrought. The molten wreckage of the Dreadnaught-class monster of a ship floating out in space before him, well, it glowed like a god-damned christmas tree. Except for Adam the only gift he’d get from under it would be a jail sentence. If he was lucky.
‘Please tell me you scrubbed the logs, Doc,’ Adam said to the woman frantically working a keyboard, each key hitting like a shot from a machine gun in the awed silence on the bridge.
‘Coleman you son of a bitch, I keep telling you it’s impossible to crack this bastard,’ Doc replied irritably.
‘Doc, if anyone can crack an encryption that bad, it’s you,’ Adam replied. And he meant every word. They picked Doc up from Outpost Beta, the third colonised world of Admiral King’s Colonial Fleet, after New Earth and Outpost Alpha. Doc had just been one of thousands of women working the bars in the terraformed shit-hole dating one of those detestable Fleet Soldiers, but Adam prized himself on seeing the potential in people.
That potential had paid off when he saw her using the bar’s computer to change her cheating boyfriend’s fleet medical record to show seventeen different types of contagious diseases. She’d been working their ship’s terminals ever since, and her ex-boyfriend had been quarantined almost as long.
‘I don’t think you understand, Coleman. The ships logs are locked up tighter than you can imagine. Do you know how many times this ship scanned, got scanned, shit its pants, cried to its mother, all about this Dreadnaught? And its not like scanning a few thousands lines of text and pressing the delete key…the system’s specifically designed not to delete anything.’
‘On the bridge you will address me as “Captain,”’ Adam said pointedly, ignoring her words.
Doc was speechless for a moment. ‘Protocol isn’t going to matter when we’re arse deep in Fleet soldiers, Captain. Besides, this is a pretty crappy bridge, and if now’s the time for truths then you’re a pretty crappy captain.’
Adam swivelled around and treated the woman to a look of complete outrage. ‘Doc, this is my baby. Don’t say a word against The Argo. She’s been good to us. All of us.’ Adam looked around the bridge, and realised that despite his words the woman had a point. Their merchant ship had seen better days. The grey of the metal walls was splotched here and there by stains, and the floors could use a mop. Hell, a mop wouldn’t even do it, an explosion might improve the place. He didn’t know how they kept going like this, half the control panels had wires poking out. But luckily for him they probably weren’t important, else The Argo would have crashed years back.
Sometimes Doc made him regret the day he stole it.
‘How’s the engine going, Henderson?’ Adam asked.
The little man was almost invisible on the bridge. Not because there was anywhere to hide, nor because of any darkness or shadow. It was because he was completely and utterly unnoticeable. Henderson, god only knew his first name, was a thin, almost skeletal little man in a black suit, with a perfectly trimmed goatee that Adam had to admit he was jealous of. His favourite pass-time, Adam could guess, was fading into the background.
‘Just like ten minutes ago when you last asked me, it is still…not going.’ Henderson replied. ‘Captain,’ he added.
‘Ah, respect. You could learn a lot, Doc,’ Adam said. Doc just flipped him the bird and kept typing. ‘Well, do you know exactly why the engine is failing to start, Henderson?’
‘Werlll….i’m guessing it’s because we’re the only ones left on board, and the mechanics have probably stolen everything in the engine room that isn’t, or wasn’t, nailed down. Including the floor-nailer.’
‘I saw the escape pods launching, but I thought The Argo just had a breakdown. Hasn’t been the first time it’s happened, Henderson. I guess I just thought they’d stay considering we’re IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE,’ Adam screamed.
The little man jumped at his control panel, spilling his little styrofoam cup and cursing as the hot liquid hit his lap. Adam liked to scream at him from time to time. It was the closest thing to amusement he could find these days.
‘I think they’d prefer to take their chances in little metal pods going into uncharted space than stay on a ship with you. Captain.’ Henderson replied, scowling. ‘In fact I’d leave too if only-’
‘Good work Henderson,’ Adam cut him off. ‘Keep it up and you might just get a promotion.’
Ignoring the clicking of Doc’s keyboard, and Henderson’s mutinous look, Adam turned back to the glass portal that separated him from the void of space. He felt like smashing it, taking his chances out there in space. It’d be less painful than when the fleet’s lawyers got through with him.
Then again, it wasn’t normal glass. Putting glass windows on a spaceship would be stupid…and it wouldn’t last two seconds. They called it laser-glass these days, since armour researches had seen the clear portal strengthened hard enough to withstand a decent fighter’s laser. It’d take Adam a diamond drill and a lot of patience to put even a tiny hole in it.
He ran one shaky hand through his short-cropped black hair, the wobble the only indication of his shot nerves. Maybe he should have stayed on the farm back in Outpost Alpha. But then, he was a runt for an outpost farmer, built shorter and thinner than most; a lot of the men you saw out there, you couldn’t fit your hands around their biceps.
And then one day he visited Alpha’s local spaceport and he realised captaining a spaceship was in his blood. Once he donned the drab, grey uniform he found his calling in life. A red flashing light and a loud alarm noise made Adam jump a foot in the air and snapped him right out of his reverie. ‘What have we got?’ He demanded.
‘Two corvettes and…oh god, it’s a battleship,’ Doc said, squinting hard at her computer screen. ‘Remember how I said all that about our ship shitting its pants and crying out to its mother on account of this Dreadnaught? Well, here comes mommy.’
‘Do we have enough time to flush the cargo hold?’ Adam demanded.
Henderson snorted. ‘If we can scan them, they can scan us. They’ll see any junk we jettison, and the best case scenario is that they just collect it on up. You shoulda flushed it ten minutes ago, but no, don’t listen to poor old Henderson.’
‘Well, what’s the worst case scenario?’ Adam asked.
‘They feel threatened by the big Dreadnaught bonfire in front of us, assume there’s a…god help, us death star nearby and we’re the bait. Even dumping some pellets of supplies could give their trigger happy fingers a workout. I say we do nothing, and you broadcast a surrender immediately. Just be glad they’re our guys.’
‘Glad isn’t exactly how I’m feeling at the moment,’ Adam muttered, heading to the comms control board.
[[Onboard Battleship Wingless Angel, debriefing room]]
The man walked into the room and sat down, dropping the thick stack of papers on the table before him with an ominous thud. Adam snorted. He’d heard of this man, Captain Bates, the man they called “King’s Dog.” They said he had a knack for knowing things, and for brutally killing anyone that threatened Admiral King’s beloved fleet. Bates was a big, fair-skinned bald man, in his early fifties. Any muscle that he once possessed had long since turned to fat, but those eyes… the malevolence in those cold eyes had only strengthened, hardened to a point where laser glass could take a few tips.
‘You are Captain Adam Charles Coleman?’ Bates asked. Before Adam could reply the bald man held up a finger. ‘Ah, my mistake. You are Former Captain Adam Charles Coleman?’
‘You haven’t got the authority to demote me,’ Adam said defiantly.
‘I do indeed,’ Bates responded evenly. ‘King himself gave me the authority to rigidly enforce fleet doctrine, and enforce I do. I have the authority to accuse, punish, and execute.’
‘I would like to see a signed document to this effect,’ Adam demanded, trying to stop his voice from shaking. Being locked in a small, cream coloured room for two hours after what he’d done…it’d test anyone’s nerves.
‘And I would like to see John King as ruler of the galaxy, but there’s quite a few Admirals out there that want different. We don’t always get what we want.’
Adam opened his mouth, but closed it again. He had a feeling he wasn’t going to survive the journey back to New Earth, the technological heart of King’s empire, to be judged for his actions. That’d happen on board this battleship.
‘Now, now, here I have a copy of The Argo’s ships log. Let’s see what it has to say.’ Bates flipped a few pages and pulled out a simple yellow highlighter pen. He highlighted a few sentences and sighed, as though this was all some tedious, monotonous work.
‘You embarked from Outpost Gamma at oh-six-hundred hours, carrying a full cargo of…“goods”. Oh for …we really need to standardise the bloody cargo manifests. Anyway, you left for Admiral Firefly’s fourth-colonised planet dubbed “Manufactorum”, with a full hold, with the purpose of peaceful trade.’
Adam was silent.
‘At twelve hundred hours The Argo’s long-range scanners picked up an unidentified ship travelling with advanced warp engines in an intercept trajectory with your vessel. Following protocol you decelerated to a halt.’
Bates licked a finger and delicately flicked a page.
‘When the unidentified vessel came within range of your advanced scanners you identified it as a dreadnaught class and immediately opened comms for a peaceful surrender. As per protocol.’
‘Well, I did what I thought our esteemed Admiral King would do if he were in my place,’ Adam said.
‘Quite. Records of the transcript of your communications indicate it was a fleet vessel of Admiral Grognog, with whom we have an NAP, or non-aggressive-pact. This dreadnought was captained by a…Jenkins, who demanded to inspect your hold and to see your ship’s cargo manifest. Little good it would have done the poor bastard. You declined.’
‘I had a good reason-’ Adam began.
Bates held up a finger. ‘You offered to meet the captain in person to discuss negotiations, via a small personal shuttle that resided adjacent to The Argo’s cargo hold, an offer which Captain Jenkins accepted. This was not regulation.’
Adam dreaded the part that came next.
‘The Argo’s scanners detected a single heat signature aboard the personal vessel sent to Jenkins’ dreadnaught. No doubt they detected the same thing, thinking mistakenly it was you, Coleman. The Argo’s records show no mention of what was actually aboard that vessel, but my technicians can make an educated guess.’
‘Umm…i can explain,’ Adam began.
‘What was actually aboard that vessel, Coleman, was a tactical nuclear device, attached to a personal heating unit. You fired a nuke at that poor bastard Jenkins and the rest of his men, and he let it straight through his shields and into his bloody god-damned ship. This was not regulation.’
Adam felt his heart skip a beat. ‘To be fair I lost my personal shuttle. My favourite deck of cards was on there.’
‘Coleman you son of a bitch, where the hell did you get your hands on a nuke? You’re a bloody merchant! I haven’t even got one on board!’
‘Well, you have a drink at a bar on Gamma, meet a couple nice girls…’ Adam coughed, ‘make a trade with illegal arms dealers. You know, the usual stuff.’
‘I don’t think I have to tell you, Coleman, that you have jeopardised the NAP with Grognog and his boys. Dreadnoughts are more expensive than you can possibly imagine. I imagine that Jenkins got one of the first off Grognog’s production line. Now those thousands of credits he spent, well, he’s just bought a very expensive pile of radioactive molten slag. Tell me why you engaged a vessel we’re not even at war with.’
Adam felt that the truth was probably the best option available at the moment. But, thinking on his situation, no matter what he said he’d probably end up being thrown out of an airlock without a suit.
‘Jenkins had an annoying voice, sir,’ Adam said, looking the man in the eye. ‘Couldn’t stand to hear it again. A nuke was the only way, sir.’
‘You realise I could probably beat the information out of you, and still be well within my rights,’ Bates said with a sigh. ‘But I’d probably just end up bruising my knuckles on your thick skull. Your pilot Henderson has already told us. You were carrying a full hold of arms and ammo on the way to Firefly’s fourth colonised planet. Dealing weapons under the table to insurrectionists? No wonder you didn’t want the dreadnaught to peek inside your hold. Grognog would’ve probably given you a life of forced labour on terraforming some arid shit hole of a world, and King wouldn’t lift a finger to help you.’
‘Money’s money, and merchant captains don’t make enough of it these days. Maybe if King payed me more…I don’t know. I’d probably deal the weapons anyway. It’s pretty fun.’ Adam admitted. ‘I gotta say though, I really feel the urge to beat the crap out of Henderson right now.’
‘Coleman do you know how many merchant ships have destroyed even a cruiser?’
‘Damn right, which is why they weren’t expecting it.’ Bates replied. ‘Merchant ships have never been outfitted with so much as a hull-mounted pea shooter. Which is where you come in.’
‘I don’t believe I do,’ Adam said slowly.
‘We’ve recently lost contact with a very distant, yet very expensive, world. We need a covert vessel to escort one of our top scientists, as well as a squad of elite black-ops fleet soldiers for protection. Any ship bigger than a scout or a merchant ship might draw a lot of unwanted attention.’
‘And you want me?’ Adam exclaimed. ‘I’m an arms dealing, treaty breaking man you’d like to see beaten or executed. Why the hell do you want me to fly a suicide mission in uncharted space?’
‘It’s not uncharted, just…extremely occupied. By enemies. And I want you, Adam Coleman, precisely because you are a smuggler. You’re good at this sort of thing, and by that I mean not being boarded and searched. Also, well, you’ve got a lot riding on succeeding.’
‘Well, if you fly there and back and don’t cock it up, we might just forget all this nuking and arms dealing.’ Bates said evenly.
‘Promises aren’t any help to me if we get blown out of the sky. Which will happen if we encounter practically any ship bigger than a fighter. I refuse.’
‘Then let me phrase it differently,’ Bates began. He drew in a breath. ‘Coleman you sack of crap you will do as you are told or I will have you beaten within an inch of your life and you will be thrown out of an airlock as soon as we pass a decent sized sun so your lying arse can be burnt to a crisp and you’d better pray not even a micron of your corpse survives or I will have you cloned and do it all over again Do I Make MYSELF CLEAR?’
Adam just nodded. There didn’t seem to be much else he could do. Bates was famed for following through on his threats.
‘Very good,’ Bates said quietly, panting slightly. ‘First we’ll introduce you to the scientist you’ll be escorting, then the black ops team that’ll be looking over your shoulder the whole way. Then we’ll start talking weapons.’
‘Merchant ships can’t be outfitted with guns,’ Adam said, confused.
‘We’ll find a way.’
‘I need to see my crew.’ Adam demanded. ‘Before we start anything I need to see them.’
‘We can give you the finest pilot and computers specialists you could ever hire. Why do you care what happens to those two?’ Bates asked.
‘They are the finest, though I hate to admit it,’ Adam explained. ‘Where are they?’
‘The canteen. Since you’re working for us, I suppose there’s no point detaining you any further. But I don’t want any secret communication, signals or body-language. If you people try anything to escape your new duties, I swear hell will seem like a picnic compared to what I’ll do to you.’
‘No body language? Sorry sir, I can’t abide by that. I’m going to break Henderson’s nose.’