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Smoke Test: Once In A Blue Moon - Chapter Ten

This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine website in 2003 and was reprinted in the November/December 2020 issue.

Chapter Ten

Cavalry Officer: “I once knew a man who was stabbed by a woman. He was quite surprised .”
Prostitute: “I once knew a woman who was beaten to death by a man. I don’t think she was surprised at all.”

— from the motion picture The Duellists

Garcia was waiting for Lubbock when the Captain arrived on Deck 3. The Chief Engineer’s eyes focused on Lubbock’s sidearm, but he made no mention of it. Farb exited the probe bay a moment later, the mark on his forehead indicating that he’d been wearing the sterile cap required by regulations.

“What is so important that you have to interrupt my work, Captain?”

“How long have you been in the bay, Farb?”

“Three hours now.”

“Was Technician Rayne with you the whole time?”

“Yes, she was. What's all this about?”

Lubbock turned to Garcia. “Can you tell if the maser has been used recently?”

“Already checked.” He walked over to the piece of equipment that took up over two displacement tons of space. Thick cables snaked across the floor to an access port connecting the equipment to the actual signaling unit attached to the outside hull. “Just put your hand here. Machine’s still warm.”

Lubbock and Farb confirmed this. “I don’t understand, Captain. Why would anyone be using the maser?”

“To signal the Pygmalion, perhaps,” Lubbock suggested. Farb went white.

“Not possible, Captain,” Garcia said. “I had Hua compute the possibilities. Turns out that the Pygmalion wobbles a bit in her orbit. At the time the signal was sent, the line of sight was blocked by Grendelsbane’s hull.”

This bit of news brought Lubbock up short. “Then where—”

“At the time, the maser had a clear line of sight back to Whipsnade.”

“Balls on a heifer! For what purpose?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Chief Garcia smiled. “Let’s find out, shall we?” The engineer walked over to the bulkhead and removed a wall panel. He unhooked a readout-device from his tool belt and plugged it into the socket. “I installed a security system yesterday.” Seeing Lubbock’s frown, he added, “I informed the Second Mate during her Bridge watch. It’s in the log.”

“Ship High In Transit! I’d forgotten.” Or had he? Lubbock realized with some embarrassment that he hadn’t gotten around to reading the entry in the ship’s log; he’d spent time reading up on Seeker-class ‘buggies’. That does it! I’m definitely going to hire another mate to take the load off. He craned his neck to survey the ceiling and upper portions of the walls. “And the reason I’ve forgotten is that there’s no signs of any cameras or other sensing devices.” Partly true: captains can’t admit to some types of mistakes.

Garcia snorted. “What good would they be if anyone could see them?” He worked the controls of his read-out device. “Here we go. Look at the screen.”

The three men bent over the digital readout and watched Technician Henri Davout walk into view and activate the maser. He aligned the machine, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a large data disk, one large enough to hold several gigabytes worth of information. He inserted the disk into the proper slot and worked the controls. Mission completed, he removed the disk and pocketed it once again. He then walked off.

Farb sagged against the wall. “I don’t believe it,” he whispered. “Henri was always so reliable.”

“Maybe he just wrote home to his mom,” Garcia said.

Lubbock gave his Chief Engineer a look that said, Can it. “I want this all logged, Chief. And I want this maser temporarily disabled.”

“Aye, sir.” The engineer turned back to the wall access. He turned his head about when Lubbock rested a hand on his shoulder.

“Good work, Chief. You may have just saved this mission.”

He grinned and said, “Thanks, Captain,” and returned to his work.

Lubbock called Cheng Hua on his pocket commo and asked her to have Sprey and Grurrdzarg meet him in the Crew Lounge. Once they were together, he ordered Sprey to draw sidearms and handcuffs from the Locker. He then informed them that they were all going up to the Passenger Deck to arrest Technician Davout and search his quarters.

When Davout answered his door he found himself facing a stern-faced ship captain. Two pistol barrels suddenly rested against both sides of his head.

“Hold out your hands,” Lubbock demanded.

Davout nervously wet his lips. “Captain, may I ask—”

“No. Hold out your hands so we don’t have to scrape your brains off the walls.”

Davout complied. Once the cuffs were on, Arghaz clamped a hand on the technician’s forearm while Lubbock searched the man’s clothing. He found no weapon and no data disk. He ordered Davout to lie face down on the deck and had the Vargr stand guard while he and Sprey tossed his room.

They spent well over an hour going over the room. They pulled out all the drawers and shook out all the clothes, checked under the mattress, pulled everything out of the closet; checked the walls, ceiling and floor for hidden compartments; looked behind, under and around every stick of furniture including the toilet; tore open cushions …

“He must have ditched it!” Sprey complained. She was angry. Lubbock knew that the engineer believed that careful methodical work would bring results. Failure was unbelievably frustrating.

Lubbock went back into the Passenger Lounge. Nguyen was just coming out of her cabin, the one generally reserved for Ship’s Steward, and gaped at the sight before her. Lubbock ignored the woman and placed his foot on Davout’s back.

“Look at me, sunshine.” The technician craned his head around with difficulty to look up at the Captain. “Where’s the data disk you fed into the maser controls? And don’t say, ‘What disk?’ We have you on tape.”

Davout remained silent.

Lubbock ground his heel into the man’s back. Davout sucked in a sharp breath. “You know, Henri, my gunners are itching to use the Pygmalion for target practice. Would you like for us to shoot up your partners in crime?”

Davout’s eyes widened in surprise. He turned his head away, but Lubbock thought he saw the man actually smile.

That took the Captain aback. It was as if Davout has no use for Leach & Company. Or ….

“What, are they competitors of yours? Working for a different outfit? Or the same outfit, and the first one to succeed is the one who gets paid?” Davout said nothing.

“Why don’t we just dump this useless fucker out the airlock?” Sprey spat out.

“Might be hard to explain to the authorities. We could shoot him, press a pistol into his dead hand to create fingerprints and store his corpse in the freezer. If I claim he tried to shot it out with us, who’s going to argue?”

“Works for me.”

“Captain, may I make suggestion?”

Lubbock looked up at the Vargr. “Sure, Arghaz. Go ahead.”

“We should keep criminal alive. Use drugs later to make him talk. But if he has arms and legs he can make try to escape.”

Sprey’s mouth fell open. “Are you saying we should chop his limbs off?”

“Not chop. Chop makes much blood to wash off deck. Use laser. And not waste arms and legs. Vargr are carnivore and like try new meats.”

I think I may be sick. Aloud, the Captain said, “Go get your cutter, Pepper.”

“Uh, Captain, are you really sure about this?”

Lubbock put as much coldness into his voice as he could muster. “Oblige me, Engineer.”

“Aye, sir.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

“Wait,” said Davout. “I put the disk back in Rayne’s cabin.”

“What do you mean by ‘back’?”

“She’s the one who compiled all the data from the probe and put it on the maser disk. She’s my partner.”


Lubbock jerked his head up when Nguyen called out. He saw April Rayne standing in the doorway of her cabin with a look of complete horror on her face. Beyond her stood Nguyen, and just behind the Steward Mohammed Ivanovitch Smith was just coming through the hatch from the lower deck.

Rayne turned to run. “Grab her, Moe!” Lubbock called out.

Smith scrambled to his feet and lunged towards the Technician running towards him. A glint of metal spoke of a knife suddenly materializing in her hand. Lubbock drew his own pistol, but he had no clear shot. Although Nguyen had pressed back against the wall, he might miss Rayne and hit Smith. He was in direct line of sight and a much bigger target.

Rayne thought so, too. She slashed at the First Mate, but Smith caught her arm with one hand and brought his other fist up under her elbow. Lubbock heard bone snap, and Rayne cried out. The knife clattered to the floor.

Smith smacked the woman against the side of her head, then threw her against the wall for good measure. Rayne collapsed in a heap and lay there moaning.

“Buddha’s Blessing!” Smith turned to look at the angry Steward. “Why don’t you kick her once or twice for good measure?”

“The bitch tried to knife me. She’s lucky I don’t stomp her to death.”

“That’s enough, you two!” Lubbock snapped. “Mohammed Ivanovitch, come stand guard over this jackass. Pepper, give him your sidearm. Arghaz, help Isabelle get Rayne patched up while I search her quarters. Hop to it, people.”


They’d cuffed both criminals and kept them in the Personnel Airlock until the Patrol Cruiser arrived to take them, and the crew of Pygmalion, into custody. Fear of seeing parts of him go into a Vargr stew prompted Davout to name the firm that had hired him and Rayne to sabotage the mission and transmit back stolen data. Vishnu Lubbock and Chief Technician Farb had to fill out a file cabinet worth of forms and explanations concerning the boarding and searching of the Seeker ship, but the probe’s data core records did show the Pygmalion had approached and that the crew had tampered with it. Grendelsbane had to stay in Port Whipsnade until after the various trials and inquiries, but a grateful Vaughn-Payne R&D was footing the bill for estimated—and inflated—lost revenue. Plus there were extra bonuses for the crew to spend on their months-long vacation.

Lubbock had also made a decision about Arghaz Grurrdzarg. “I can’t afford to pay you a salary,” he’d told her, “but you can work for room-and-board and a crew share of profits.” She’d gladly accepted.

The extra income also influenced another of his decisions. He sat now in the Blue Lotus Cafe sipping green tea and reading the resume of the woman seated across from him. It was impressive enough, but the name at the top kept drawing his attention back to it.

“Your name really is Penelope Tiem Esposito?” he asked and raised an eyebrow.

The woman lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “My mother’s a long-time fan of Tiem’s poetry. Most people just call me Penny or P.T.”

Vishnu Lubbock smiled. “Your mother’s not the only fan of the greatest poet since Sappho.” He put the file and teacup down and laced his fingers across his stomach. “What I’m looking for is a Third Mate and part-time mechanic ….”

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