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Smoke Test: Once In A Blue Moon - Chapter Seven

This chapter was originally posted to the pre-magazine website in 2003, and appeared in the May/June 2020 issue.

“Boarding Party to Home Base. We’ve secured the missing data.”

Lubbock heaved a sigh of relief. He would probably have faced an inquiry board if the search had turned up nothing. “Good work, people. Try to disable their weapons before you return. I don’t want them taking pot shots at us.”

“Roger that.”

“Home Base out.” Lubbock turned to the task of updating his report to the authorities back at Whipsnade. Satisfied, he radioed the report in. Let the authorities come out here and fix the Pygmalion. And make arrests if they desired, though that might wait until Farb filed a report with his superiors.

It took another half hour before the boarding party returned. Engineer Sprey had ripped out the Seeker’s turret circuitry and slagged the connections with an acetylene torch. She also had a complaint to make.

Sprey accosted the Captain in the crew lounge outside the Bridge door. “That bitch held a pistol on me until I handed over the data cubes I’d found.”

“Well, the technicians are responsible for them.”

“But a weapon! All she had to do was ask for them. Did she think I was going to steal them?”

“Possibly.” He held a hand up to forestall another tirade. “We still don’t know who sabotaged the probe cradle. The technicians don’t know who to trust. No one was hurt, so forget it.”

“Forget it?!”

“Yes. That’s an order.”

Sprey opened and closed her mouth twice without saying anything, then mumbled “yessir” and shuffled off to her cabin. Lubbock went up to the Passenger Deck to get a bite to eat. He had scheduled himself 15 minutes to eat and refresh himself before he took another four-hour shift. He considered the wisdom of taking on another mate, someone to stand a regular watch and leaving the Captain free to fill the odd gaps in the schedule caused by emergencies. Someone who would be dragged out of bed because of a problem in Engineering or with the passengers or something else requiring command presence.

Twenty minutes later he was on the Bridge again. He and Cheng took the Grendelsbane back to its previous orbit for no other reason than to put some distance between them and Pygmalion. The tech team went back to work, Cheng went off duty and Lubbock settled in for what he hoped would be a dull watch.

“Captain! This is Technician Farb. Can you come down to the probe bay?”

Lubbock gritted his teeth. “Sure thing, Farb. Give me a few minutes.”

“This is most urgent, Captain.”

Isn’t it always? “I’ll be there.” He switched to ship-wide intercom. “Will Mate Cheng Hua please report to the Bridge.”

“I’m powdering my nose,” came the reply. “Can this wait a couple of minutes?”

“I guess it’ll have to.” Lubbock settled back in his seat and fumed. I definitely need to hire another mate.

Cheng appeared on the Bridge a few minutes later, her short black hair still wet from the shower. “What’s up?”

“Farb’s got a problem. Take over here until I get back.”

She nodded and took the number 2 station as Lubbock rose to leave.

Lubbock fumed as he donned the sterile work uniform and cap. Once properly attired, he charged into the probe bay. “OK, Farb, what’s the problem?”

Farb and the other technicians present glared at him. “Some of these instruments have been tampered with. Many need to be recalibrated again, even though we’ve already performed that task. If we hadn’t double-checked the photopolarimeter we wouldn’t have tumbled to this latest sabotage. Also, some of the camera lenses are damaged. They were fine before.”

“Except for camera four which had micro-meteoroid damage,” Stevens corrected.

“Except for camera four. Someone went out of their way to set us behind schedule.”

Lubbock folded his arms and rocked back on his heels. “Who was the last person in here before this latest sabotage was discovered?”

“Davout and I were here. We left as Rayne and Stevens came on duty. Stevens discovered the sabotage.”

“Ah. Then Davout is our man.”

Farb shook his head. “We were both working on the fault-protection algorithms in the CDS and the AACS.”

Command and Data Subsystem was the brain of the probe. Lubbock did not recognize the other acronym. “The double-A what?”

“The Attitude and Articulation Control Subsystem determines the orientation of the spacecraft in inertial space.”

“Right. Gotcha. So, the point is he wasn’t even supposed to be messing with the science instruments at all on the last shift.”

“That is correct.”

“But he was here. Unless someone else snuck in here, it had to be either you or Davout who commited the sabotage, and I doubt it was you.”

Farb looked uncertain, but Technician Rayne spoke up in defense of her teammate. “Neither man would do such a thing, Captain. Besides, I saw the Vargr heading for engineering when I came off shift. And not on the second deck, but this one, and heading back there.” She pointed to the Jump-Drive room.

Now, that’s odd, Lubbock thought to himself. The Jump-Drive room was normally unmanned unless in use or during General Quarters or some other emergency. The engineering office on watch made periodic trips to read off the dials there, but was Arghaz qualified to perform that task? He’d have to ask Chief Garcia about that.

“I’ll look into it, Farb. If the Vargr had no good reason to be down here, we may have found our culprit.” But he also knew that it was just as likely Arghaz had a legitimate reason for being down here. Reserve judgement until you speak to Garcia.

“You should lock up that creature.”

“When I have cause, Farb. See you around.” The Captain abruptly turned and walked out of the probe bay rather than face a lengthy argument. He also had to see Garcia before returning to bridge duty.

Except that it was Fu Quan in the Main Engine Room on Deck 2, Garcia having gone to bed. But the Second Assistant Engineer remembered Arghaz being told to bring some things to ship’s stores on this deck at the time Rayne said the Vargr was down on the lower deck.

“Arghaz might be in the machine shop with Pepper right now, or puttering around somewhere else on the ship.”

Lubbock thanked him and checked out the machine shop, finding it disappointingly empty. he decided to postpone the interrogation of the ship’s apprentice; right now he needed to relieve Cheng Hua.

He was just settling in at his Bridge station when the maintenance hatch to the Avionics Bay popped open and two grimy figures crawled out. Pepper looked up at him from under bangs dyed pink.

“All dressed up and nowhere to go,” Lubbock said at the sight of her. She grinned and climbed to her feet, then helped Arghaz up. “How long have you been in there?”

“Almost since we got back aboard ship, Captain. We took a few minutes to eat and freshen up, then got to work.”

“Which one of you was down on Deck Three when the techs were changing watch?”

Pepper wrinkled her nose in thought. “Deck Three?”

“Heading for the Jump Drive.”

“Wasn’t us, Captain.”

“Is truth, Captain,” Arghaz said. “We come into ship and put away suits and guns. We do hygiene and eat. Then go work.”

“And you were together the whole time?”

“Well, not in the water closet,” Pepper said. “But otherwise, yeah. Except for a couple of minutes when we were going back and forth from the Engine Room to the Ship’s Locker. But neither of us would have had time to go to the FTL room and back without the other noticing.”

Unless one of you was covering for the other. But he didn’t say it out loud. “Okay, thanks. Carry on.”

“I’d rather Cary Grant,” Pepper quipped. She saluted and left the Bridge, the Vargr in tow.

Lubbock wasted a moment to puzzle over Pepper’s apparent joke, but couldn’t figure out why she’d want to carry a Paleotechnic Era army general named Grant. He dismissed the subject from his mind and began a systematic scan of his instruments.

Finally, some time to himself.

Lubbock lay in his bunk, propped up with pillows, and ran cost estimates on his wrist-comp. Grendelsbane Ltd could afford another mate if that person was also a qualified mechanic who would then be able to take the load off both the deck officers and the engineering staff. But they’d have to let Isabelle Nguyen go, which meant they’d all have to learn to use the med-scanners and get Medical Technician Certificates. Lubbock couldn’t see himself dropping Isabelle from the crew. Aside from the fact that she was his father’s cousin’s daughter, he rather liked her. All the crew did.

Now there's a problem—I like my crewmates too much. But that was to be expected. Working with the same small group of people day in and day out month after month, they became a surrogate family, especially since the real family was back in Fuxi-Nuwa system. Which was why each of them shied away from the thought that a member of the crew had sold them out. Much better to blame a stranger.

If I leave the crew off the list of suspects, I’m not doing my job, Lubbock reflected. But he had no hard evidence that pointed to any one person. And without evidence he had to reply on people’s word.

Enlightenment struck. Lubbock put down on his pad as his now-rested mind finally collated the flood of information it had received of late.

Technician April Rayne had said the Vargr was on Deck 3, over by the FTL room.

Pepper and the Vargr claimed to be on Decks 1 and 2 the whole time.

Captain Lubbock had suddenly narrowed his list of suspects to three names. Someone was obviously lying.

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