Vishnu Lubbock gave up trying to raise the Seeker ship via radio and maser. He swiveledhis chair about as Hayao Farb entered the Control Room. The thin, balding, stoop-shouldered tech team leader scowled at the Captain. "What's wrong? I just know something is wrong."
"I'm afraid so. There's a Seeker-class vessel out there trailing behind the probe by about ten thousand kilometers. Not on top of the thing, and maybe they don't even realize it's there."
"A Seeker?! This won't do at all! Captain, you must find out who is on board and what their intentions are."
"If I must, but they aren't answering our hails."
"Then pull alongside and board the damn thing. Really, Captain!"
Farb reminds me of my sister-in-law, whose nagging drove my brother
the Imperial Marines. "Not as easy as all that. We'll have to match velocities."
"Coming up on orbit insertion," the First Mate announced.
Lubbock punched up the diagrams and figures of the Grendelsbane's approach to the moon and tried out a couple of projections.
"Captain! We -- "
"Quiet, Farb! I'm trying to run some calculations here.... Okay, Moe, here's what we'll do. We'll insert oursevles just behind the Seeker. About five or so klicks, if possible. I'm sending the figures to you now. Got 'em? good. But I want us facing ass-backwards once we're in orbit; that way we can use the engines to brake and drop into a lower and faster orbit if we need to."
"And overtake them," the First Mate interjected. "Got it, Captain."
"Okay, here we go. I'm aligning the ship now using the attitude jets. Hua, keep your sensors trained on that Seeker."
"Say, Farb? If you're going to fidget, get the hell off my bridge."
The tech leader scowled but departed without another word. The three bridge officers focused on the job at hand.
Three hours later the Grendelsbane circled Blue Moon just 7.565 Km behind the Seeker. Farb had monitored the ship's progress and was now back on the bridge.
Lubbock keyed on the ship-to-ship radio. "Merchant Grendelsbane to unidentified vessel: can you read me? What is your ID and status?"
Static issued from the speaker, but a voice came with it. "Grendelsbane, this is" *** "Pygmalion out of Port Citadel at" *** "--itin's Star. We have problems with" ***"'lectronics and power distribution net." *** "gyroscope and CPU diagnostics" *** "'ceding."
"Grendelsbane to Pygmalion: you're breaking up. Confirm that you have an onboard emergency. Over."
"Pygmalion here." Some of the static was gone. "Is that better? We have some systems failures, and we could sure use some extra help getting this rustbucket back on track. As is, we're struck in orbit around this stupid moon. Over."
"Pygmalion, do you have life-support problems?"
"Negative, Grendelsbane. Environment is stable. We're not in any immediate danger, but we're not going anywhere either. Power supply and distribution is erratic. Nav-comp is down. We're still running diagnostics. Over."
"Okay, Pygmalion. We'll get back to you. Grendelsbane, over and out."
Lubbock swiveled his seat around. "Well, gang -- what do you make of that?"
"Could be a trap," Cheng suggested. "They didn't give any explanation as to the cause of their engineering problems."
"Could just be bad orincomplete maintenance," First Mate Smith countered. "And there's no reason to suspect any ship that happens to be here at this time. Blue Moon is the largest satellite of this gas giant. Larsen's Star has twice the heavy metal abundance as Sol-standard normal, and prospectors are constantly serching this star system for the next mother lode."
"Still... we best approach with caution."
Farb butted in. "We need to find out if they've taken information from the probe. We should leave a team here to search the Seeker ship while the rest of us go and collect the probe and check its records."
"You've contacted the probe my maser when we got within range, didn't you? Any sign of trouble or that the probe had been tampered with?"
"Does the probe have a security system?" Smith asked.
"'No,' to your question Captain. And 'yes' to yours, Mister Smith. The probe is quite capable of using its active sensor systems as a weapon against any manufactured object that gets too close wihtout broadcasting a security code."
"Like, 'Halk -- who goes there?'" said Cheng. "And the approaching vessel has to answer with a password."
"Pretty much so. But the Seeker isn't close enough to trigger the probe's defense mechanism. And if they're dead in place.... " Farb ran a hand through his thinning hair. "If they got between the probe and the moon, and then were attacked... and if they had enough power to push themselves into a higher orbit.... "
Lubbock drummed his dark finges on his armrest while he thought over his options. Imperial regulations required Grendelsbane to provide assistance to any ship in distress. But there was no way to know if the Pygmalion's crew had tampered with the probe without check out the probe. If Grendelsbane helped the Seeker-ship get on its way, and /then/ found out the others had stolen the probe's data, there would be hell to pay. "Farb, how long will it take to retrieve the probe, download its data and redeploy it?"
"Forty-eight hours, Captain, as you should remember from briefings."
Petulant bastard. Lubbock turned on the ship-to-ship-radio.
"Grendelsbane to Pygmalion."
"We read you, Grendelsbane."
"We are prepared to render assistance, but we have an urgent matter to attend to. Can you wait forty-eight hours while we see to it? Over."
"Please stand by, Grendelsbane." The comm went dead, though the status light showed the line to be open. Lubbock figured that the Pygmalion crew were discussng the situation.
"Pygmalion to Grendelsbane. We understand your situation and will wait two days if necessary. However, I will have to file a complaint with Whipsnade authorities about the delay. Over."
Lubbock ignorred the attempt at intimidation. "Understand, Pygmalion. See you in two days. Grendelsbane out." He cut the connection.
"Okay, gang. Let's head over to the probe."
The tech team used their communications equipment to contact the probe as Grendelsbane approached. Lubbock monitored their progress with a comm link tucked into his ear. It was pretty boring stuff to listen to. The techs had to shut down the probe's on-going operations one at a time. Sensor booms had to be retracted, and the small fusion power plant ramped down and secured. To make matters even more tedious, each procedural step had to be re-checked and certified before proceeding to the next. Bureaucratic red-tape required by the Vaughn-Payne R&D's grant from the Duke. Lubbock picked up a notepad and jotted down a new slogan to hang on the bulkhead. "Bureaucracy: Working Hard to Make the Galaxy More Tedious for Everyone!" And, "Today The Galaxy, Tomorrow The Universe: Strangling Us All With Red Tape One Star At A Time." He thought it over and decided the first idea was best. He tapped his stylus on the pad, then wrote, "Bureaucracy: Slowly Grinding Gears To A Dead Stop." No, the first one really was the best.
"Farb to Bridge."
Lubbock activated the intercom. "Bridge here."
"Captain. We're read to initiate Close Approach."
"Copy that." He checked the duty roster. "Second Mate Cheng, report to the Bridge."
"She's got a mouth full of food," Nguyen answered. "But she's on her way."
"Tell her to chew carefully." He cut the connection and checked the updates on the navcomp while he waited.
Cheng arrived a couple of minutes later and slid into the number two seat.
"Give me a distance reading, Hua."
"Five hundred twenty klicks and closing."
"Cutting speed slowly.... Distance reading."
"Four hundred sixty-five klicks and closing."
"Let's see if we can get within spitting distance." Lubbock put more power into the braking jets.
"Farb to Bridge. Are we there yet?"
"I need to concentrate here, Farb! Stay off the intercom!" Godsdamn fool.
The last kilometer of the approach was the most dangerous. Lubbock cut the ship's speed to virtually nothing, tapping the attitude jet controls for short bursts as he manuevered to within 50 meters of the probe. He paused to wipe the sweat from his face.
"Okay, Hua. Let's pivot this beast so that the starboard cargo bay door is facing the probe, then we'll move closer."
Ten agonizing minutes pass.
"Bridge to tech team. We're ten meters from the probe and holding steady. That should be adequate for you guys to go and fetch the probe."
"Very good, Captain. We're suiting up now."
Lubbock activated a starboard camera so that he could monitor the progress of the tech team in bringing the probe on board. Fifteen minutes later he watched the two docking arms carefully extend towards the probe. The left-hand one stopped halfway to the probe.
"Goddammit!" someone swore.
"Shut down the docking arm motors," Farb ordered. "Davout and Fenton: go out and check the arm joint. Rayne: take a look at the motor."
It took the better part of an hour to locate the trouble -- the motor had seized up -- and fix it. Engineer Sprey had to lend a hand before the system was operating properly again. The docking arms inched their way towards the probe once again.
The grapples eventually took hold, and the two vacc-suited techs outside the ship jetted over to the probe for verification.
"Probe is secure," one of them announced. "You can bring it on home, April."
"Copy. Retracting the docking arms."
The probe edged towards the cargo bay door. Mohammed Smith entered the Bridge during the procedure and stood quietly behind Cheng, watching the event on her monitor.
"The probe is aboard. We're setting it into the cradle. Get back inside, guys."
Lubbock looked up as the First Mate laid a hand on his shoulder. "You look beat, Captain. It's time for change-of-watch anyway."
"Already?" Lubbock unbuckled his seat belt. Cheng did likewise. Lubbock stood and stretched. "I'm going to take a nap. We'll go back to shifts of four hours on and eight off. Wake me at the end of your shift."
"Let me take the second shift, Captain," Cheng said. "I'm more rested." Smith nodded in agreement.
Lubbock studied the determined faces of his two subordinates and decided not to argue the point. "Alright. I could use eight hours in the sack."
Smith touched two fingers to his right eyebrow in salute, and then took Cheng's seat.
In the dream the goddess kali loomed over Vishnu Lubbock and waved her four arms in the air. They were not of flesh, though, but metal and cables like docking arms. He retreated, but the goddess grinned and chased after him.
An alarm woke him. An alarm and a shouting voice.