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Smoke Test: Once In A Blue Moon - Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Vishnu Lubbock never got a chance to assign crew to stand guard over the probe bay. Chief Technician Hayao Farb needed one of Grendelsbane’s engineers to fill in for the injured tech team member twelve hours or more each day. Lubbock assigned him the two Assistant Engineers to work 6-hour shifts, but told his engineers to keep their eyes open while they were working on the probe.

First Engineer Pepper Sprey wanted to use Arghaz as a part-time assistant, before Farb vetoed the idea. Aside from the fact that a hairy Vargr posed certain problems in a sterile environment, they still had no idea as to who had committed the sabotage.

Mostly, he tried to stay out of everyone’s way while looking reasonably intelligent even though most of their work was beyond his understanding. Right now, Farb was going over Pepper’s duties. The First Assistant Engineer looked odd in the sterile suit, her pink curls tucked into the special cap. She had a clipboard tucked under her arm.

“Before and after each major test,” Farb was saying, “the probe has to undergo a series of reference tests to ensure that the mode’s mechanical, electrical and thermal properties remain unchanged.”

“Yessir.” She indicated the clipboard. “That’s on the checklist.”

“The reference tests ensure that the probe’s subsystems have not undergone degradation at either equipment or sub-equipment level.”


“Functional tests check quickly that the probe is operating as it should. Electrical compatibility tests involve checking at the probe level that the equipment and subsystems operate correctly and efficiently when used simultaneously.”


“The electromagnetic compatibility test measures interference levels and checks whether the equipment and subsystems are operating nominally and efficiently when they are subjected to slightly higher levels of interference. The RF compatibility test checks that RF transmitters equipment and subsystems are operating nominally and efficiently.”

“Roger that.”

“The sign tests check actuators operation in response to changing sensor input sign—”

“I know about sign tests, sir. We have to analyze consistency in the direction of attitude adjustments made by the actuators. Roger that.”

“Um, yes. We have to use measurement data to check that the probe structure, equipment and subsystems have not changed shape.”

“Yessir.” Pepper held up the clipboard and read from it. “There are software tests of both central flight software and decentralized software programs. We need to test for correction operation under nominal conditions or in event of anomalies, and in particular to ensure that information flows as it should.”

“That is correct.”

“And there are technical and operational qualification tests.”

“Yes, yes. You seem to have a grasp of what your duties are.”

“It’s all on the clipboard, sir.”

Technician April Rayne walked up and addressed Farb. “We’re ready to pull the software packages.”

“Good, good. Let’s get to it.”

“Well, there’s a problem, sir. Although most of the instrumentation and equipment can be accessed through surface panels, the main data core can be reached only through a maintenance crawlspace. Uh, it’s not very big, sir. It’s a tight fit for anyone except Engineer Sprey.”

Farb frowned. “You want to allow one of the crew access to our main data files?”

“No, sir. I just want her to fetch it for us.”

Captain Lubbock cleared his throat. “If you like, Freeman Farb, I can stand by with a handgun, and if my engineer tries to run off with your data core I can shoot her legs out from under her.”

Farb seemed to be actually considering the proposal. Out of the corner of his eye, Lubbock saw Sprey and Rayne roll their eyes ceiling-ward.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, Captain. As long as we keep a close eye on her while the data are in her hands there shouldn’t be any trouble.”

“I am so relieved to hear you say that,” Lubbock said, and beamed an insincere smile.

Farb nodded, pre-occupied, then led Sprey over to the probe. The access panel was off, and the petite engineer peered into the dark interior. Rayne handed a light on a belt to Sprey.

“Tie this around your forehead. Here’s your tool kit. You want to pull the data files for the Solid-State Imagine camera, the Photopolarimeter-Radiometer, the Near-Infrared Mapping Spectrometer and the Ultra-Violet Spectrometer to start.”

“I want the data on the Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem first,” Farb said.

Lubbock positioned himself where he could watch Pepper boost herself up and into the cubby hole before slithering into the darkness. He had trouble, after that, getting the image of her wiggling butt out of his mind. He sternly reminded himself that dating crewmembers was against the policy he’d laid down for this ship. He also made a mental note to make an appointment at Ishtar’s Garden of Earthly Delights when returned to Port Whipsnade.

Instead of gazing longingly at the soles of Pepper’s canvas shoes, Lubbock decided to take a walk around the cradle and then wander into the lab. Not that he would really be able to tell if something was out of place, but it at least could look like he was on top of things. After five minutes or so, with everything appearing to be running smoothly, Lubbock decided to go be bored somewhere else.

Lubbock ended up in the passenger lounge outside the galley. He often wondered why there was a crew lounge on Deck 2; the only thing it was good for was as a conference room away from the ears of the passengers. Crew usually socialized where they ate their meals, and the only galley on the ship was on the passenger deck. Maybe he could convert the crew lounge into something else…

He spotted Isabelle Nguyen studying one of her cookbooks. “How’s your patient today?”

“Awake and eating soup. I still have him on a mild pain killer.”

The First Mate came bounding up the ladder from the crew deck. “’Lo, Captain. ’Lo, Izzy.”


“Just came off watch and could eat Siberian Tiger. How about cheese-burger and bowl of beet soup?”

“Anything you want, as long as you don’t call me Izzy again.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Smith dropped into a chair and slapped his thighs. “How are you today, Captain?”

“Fair. You seem to be in a good mood.”

“Ah, gave ship-brain run for its money. It took computer long time to beat me this time.”

“You still trying to beat the ship-brain at 3-D chess, Mohammed Ivanovitch?” Nguyen called over her shoulder from the galley.

“I will win someday soon, have no fear.”

“Keep dreaming.”

Smith grinned. He leaned back in his chair and linked his fingers behind his head. “What’s new, Captain?”

“Pepper’s crawled into the probe on a data retrieval mission. Listening to the engineering babble-talk gives me a headache if I try to understand what they’re saying. Usually, I just nod my head in the right places and try to look like I’m following what’s going on.”

Smith laughed. “What I do sometimes is to ask, ‘Are you sure about that?’ Most times they look surprised and vehemently insist that their statement is unquestionable. Other times, they aren’t so sure and start spouting out their reasoning and the alternatives they’ve dismissed as unlikely. I still don’t know what they’re talking about, but they think I do. In fact, after I eat, I’m going down to lab and look over their shoulders with a frown while they work.”

Lubbock turned up one corner of his mouth in a sardonic smile. “You’re an evil man, Mohammed Ivanovitch.”

“True, Captain. But God is merciful and forgiving.”

Nguyen brought the First Mate’s food on a tray and set it down in front of him. “This isn’t a game, Moe. One of the techs might be a saboteur, and you should keep a keen eye on them all the time.”

The hatch to the lower decks popped open just then and Stevens and Rayne came up the ladder and into the lounge. The techs gave the three crew members a brief but cold stare as they entered the galley.

“April? Jack?” Nguyen called out. “Can I fix you something to eat?”

“No, we’re fine,” Rayne replied. The two techs selected microwavable dinners from the freezer.

“You want anything, Captain?”

“Some tea, Isabelle. Thanks.”

“Any special kind?”

“Surprise me.”

Nguyen returned to the galley. When Rayne and Stevens had their meals in hand, they strode down the length of the lounge to the table at the far end. They ate quietly, casting hostile glances at the crew every so often.

“What do you make of that?” Lubbock asked softly.

Smith ran a finger over his trim mustache. “They must think one of us is responsible for the sabotage. But we don’t get paid if we thwart the mission.”

“True. But the possibility exists that one of us might be getting paid a lot more to see this mission fail.”

Nguyen brought two cups of tea to the table. She set one down in front of the Captain and sat down between the two men. She raised her own cup to her lips, but eyed the techs over the rim. “Who do you suspect is the saboteur? Neither of those two look the type.”

“No one on board looks the type, Isabelle.” Lubbock sampled his own tea. It had a hint of cinnamon. “The only shifty-eyed person among us is Fenton, and he’s out for the count, poor sod.”

Grurrdzarg came up the ladder and over to their table. “Salutations, Captain. Salutations, First Mate Smith and Freelady Nguyen.”

“Pull up a seat, Arghaz.”

“Thank you, Captain. But I merely wanted to inquire if Freelady Nguyen had any chores for me.”

“Have you cleaned the passenger rooms yet?”

Grurrdzarg barred her teeth briefly. “The technicians no longer want me in their rooms.”

“Why of all the—!”

“Calm down, Isabelle.”

“Calm down?! Captain, I—”

“I said to shut it.” Nguyen clenched her fists, but fell silent. “The techs can make their own beds and do their own laundry if they don’t trust us.”

“And cook their own bloody meals,” Nguyen muttered.

“Just so.” Lubbock sampled his tea again. Definately cinnamon. He glanced at his chronometer. “I’ve got better than three hours before my watch. I think I’ll catch a nap.” Or lie in my bed and fret.

Lord Krishna was trying to explain something of supreme importance to Vishnu Lubbock, but the mortal had trouble understanding what the avatar was driving at. For a moment he teetered on the brink of enlightenment, but a sharp, double-tone whistle cut off Lord Krishna’s words.

Lubbock struggled awake and stared bleary-eyed at his alarm clock. He still had a full hour before his watch.

“Bridge to Captain.”

Another bloody emergency. “Lubbock here. What’s up?”

“Something’s wrong in the lab, Captain,” said Cheng Hua. “Farb insists on speaking to you.”

Shiva dancing! “Well, I guess I better run right down there. Tell the old… gentleman I’ll be with him in five minutes. Captain out.”

Six minutes later, Captain Lubbock strode into the lab module. Farb and technician Davout were huddled over a nest of monitors, cables and panels full of dials and switches. They did not look happy. Neither did First Engineer Sprey who stood off to one side shifting her weight from one foot to another in agitation.

“You wanted to see me, Farb?”

The chief technician’s head shot up. If looks could kill he’d be out on parole in two or three centuries. “Captain Lubbock! The probe’s data core has been tampered with! Some of the data storage cubes and chips are missing.”

Did you look behind the sofa? Lubbock clasped his hands behind his back. “And just who do you think took them?” If he at all insinuates that it was Pepper I’ll punch him right in the nose.

“Fool! Who else but the crew of that Seeker?”

Lubbock rocked back on his heels, stunned. “My gods, yes. We don’t know when they arrived here. They could have—”

“They could have tampered with the probe and stolen important instrumentation and data. And the probe would have used its active sensors to fry their electronics in self-defense. A recording of the event will be in the data core, but the relevant cubes are missing. Captain, we must board and search that ship!”

Lubbock pulled out his personal commo unit. “Captain to crew: General Quarters. Repeat: General Quarters. This is not a drill.”


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