Terry Hale settled into the captain’s chair, watching her crew move back and forth throughout the bridge to finish the many tests on the Phoenix’s refurbished systems. As improved as they were, she had to admit all the new designs were taking a bit to get used to.
Margaret Morgan stepped up to stand just behind her captain’s right shoulder as the bridge’s main comlink chirped. “Carlacci to C&C?”
“This is Captain Hale. Welcome aboard.” Recognizing the somewhat uncertain tone to his call, she considered who would be down there and added, “Do you need any direction to the Bridge?”
A slight chuckle could be heard through the link. “It might be faster that way. I’m still in the main docking bay.”
“There should be someone down with you now. Grab the first person you see, and they can get you here.”
“Understood. Carlacci out.”
Hale glanced to Ops and Helm. Both positions were filled, the Rangers sitting there at their consoles, waiting for her orders. “Have we seen the last of our boardings?”
Yoshino took a quick look at one of the displays on her console, then answered. “All personnel have reported in, Captain. Departure at your convenience.”
“Good. You can begin engine and system checks. Warm up the jump engines and prepare jump sequence.”
Morgan took a deep breath and let it out slowly as Yoshino said, “Confirmed. Jump engines online and cycling.”
The captain gave her exec an amused look. “You don’t believe in clean first tries?”
“If they exist, I haven’t seen one,” Morgan answered.
“Neither have I. Simulations are never going to catch it all. This should be interesting.”
“Don’t curse us,” Morgan said, baring her teeth in a grin.
A smile flashed, Hale’s mood lightening with the banter. “Too late,” she answered out of the corner of her mouth. Morgan simply snorted.
Neither of them seemed to notice Yoshino’s back stiffening and the reflex clenching of her left hand. It was hard to have her months of work belittled even if they didn’t really mean it. She muttered to herself, not caring if they heard, “It’d better work, I didn’t break my back for nothing.”
Hale looked back over toward the Ops station. “Set coordinates for the Abbai system.”
Controlling herself with an effort, Yoshino added more loudly, “Confirmed, Captain.”
As the link shut down, Carlacci looked around, still getting over the sense of awe at the size of this vessel. At the far end of the hangar, he saw a dark-haired Ranger walk-running toward him.
They spotted one another at about the same moment, for the Ranger in the distance waved to Carlacci and called, “Hey, over here!”
Carlacci jogged across the deck, meeting his escort halfway. “Mr. Carlacci?” the Ranger said. “Security Chief Tomas Darquin. Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”
Carlacci smiled and tried to brush his lock of white hair back into its place among the black. “I wouldn’t have been here if you were, so no big deal.” He offered his hand. “Peter Carlacci. Pleasure to meet you.”
With a warm smile, Darquin shook Carlacci’s hand. “Welcome aboard. You wanna hit your quarters, or do you feel up for a quick trip to the bridge?”
“I think we better get to the bridge ASAP. Captain Hale sounded a bit anxious,” Carlacci said with a small grin, then added more soberly, “and what I’ve brought with me probably won’t help.”
“Nothing stays quiet for long around us, huh? C’mon, turbolift’s this way.”
Captain Hale looked forward out the viewports. She keyed the armchair link of her command chair for a ship-wide comm-channel. “All decks, prepare for jump.” She closed the channel and waited, feeling just a little tense.
After a moment, Yoshino turned toward her. “All decks report ready, Captain. We can begin hyperspace jump on your command.”
Morgan stood with arms folded, almost as if she was waiting for the jump engines to burn out. In front of her, Hale watched the spiraling tunnel open, keeping an eye on the readings on her terminal that mirrored Helm and Ops. Everything was working exactly as it should. It wasn’t until the gold of the jump point gave way to the swirling scarlet of hyperspace that Hale began to breathe again — and startled to realize that she’d been holding her breath. The transition had been perfectly normal.
“All systems report nominal, Captain,” Yoshino reported a few seconds later. “We are on course for Abbai.”
“Very good. Keep me apprized if anything changes,” Hale said, rising slowly from her seat and turning toward Morgan. “When Mr. Carlacci arrives, see him into the conference room, will you? I’ll be there.”
Hale stepped into the conference room, just off the bridge. Everything was fresh and polished; she felt it was almost a shame to put it out of order. Stepping to the holographic unit in the table, she summoned an image of the Abbai system, a three-dimensional illusion of planets, asteroids, and stars hovering serenely over the tabletop. She sat down at the head of the table, stretching her legs out under it and contemplating the data.
Darquin led Carlacci through corridors of fresh, gleaming pale grey and azure. “Sorry for the rush. We’re still trying to get up to speed. Major refit, minor shift in galactic politics, y’know, the usual.” He offered up an evil grin.
Carlacci returned it. After his first trip to Abbai, Darquin’s relaxed and friendly reception was a godsend. “I’d heard, just bits and pieces.” He paused for a moment, trying to place something. “You’re not from New Mexico, are you? Your voice sounds a little like that, or West Texas….”
Darquin smiled as he took them into the lift. “Really? I never thought about it. But yeah, raised in the Flagstaff Arc’.”
Carlacci’s grin widened. “Born and raised just outside of Austin. Nice to be working with someone from so close to home.” As he turned to face the front of the lift, something under the edge of his jacket glinted silver.
“Bridge,” Darquin said to the lift. “After being in space so long, knowing anyone from Earth feels like close to home.”
“Tell me about it. How long for you?”
“Three years, then the war back home–What’s that?”
“What? Oh, this.” He turned back the edge of his long jacket, revealing the silver badge — a five-pointed star inside a circle — pinned there.
Darquin allowed himself an ironic smirk as he recognized the badge. “We’re getting all sorts of Rangers here. All we need now are jerks from Fort Benning.”
“Oh God, no thank you,” Carlacci said with a laugh. He let his lapel drop back into place. “It was all I ever wanted to be, and almost as soon as I made it, the war started, and it was off into space.”
“I know what you mean,” Darquin said as the lift stopped and opened. “Now we’re in this place.”
“Mm-hm, more or less the same job, just a wider jurisdiction….” His voice trailed off as he stepped out into the bridge. A low whistle escaped his lips. “Nice.”
Darquin nodded toward the bridge, smiling at the mix of sculpted crystalline Minbari consoles and the gleaming chrome trims of human influences. “I’m still getting used to it myself.” He looked for Hale and Morgan, and saw the exec turning to look at them with one eyebrow rising.
“Carlacci?” she asked.
He smiled back at her. “Correct.”
“I’m the XO. Captain’s waiting for you.”
“I’ll follow you. If you’re the exec, you should probably hear all this.” He turned back toward Darquin. “You too.”
“Gotcha, the conference room’s over here,” he said.
Morgan looked at both of them, then turned toward Yoshino. “You’ve got the bridge,” she said, then followed Darquin.
Darquin led the way into the conference room, nodding in greeting to Hale as she rose from her seat. “Sir.”
She returned Darquin’s nod and held out a hand to Carlacci. He took it, answering her firm grip. “Peter Carlacci, at your service.”
“Again, welcome aboard. Please, have a seat,” she said, including the others with a gesture. Darquin took a seat beside Carlacci while Morgan sat near Hale, facing them.
Returning to her seat, Hale waved to the 3-D space chart. “We have two days in travel time, but I want to go in with plans, so we need some answers. What is going on, exactly?”
“I hope you don’t mind my presumption in bringing your exec and security chief in on this, Captain,” Carlacci said. “Seemed the most efficient…. As for what’s going on … well, the short answer is, a mess.”
“I can believe that,” Darquin said. “We’ve hardly heard from Abbai since the Shadow War.”
Hale nodded. “We probably should have seen that as a trouble sign in itself.”
“They took a real pounding then. The Abbai themselves having been trying to put things back together ever since,” Carlacci said. “Unfortunately, a lot of other people have decided to play coyotes and get a piece of the place.”
Darquin frowned. “Terrific.” Morgan too scowled, though honestly wasn’t surprised by the news.
“Who are these others?” Hale asked, sitting back.
“Shorter to say who they weren’t,” Carlacci said with a little snort. “I was able to get at least a glimpse of most of the races in the old League, plus several different raider organizations.”
“A bunch of the League?” The clear outrage in Darquin’s voice drew startled looks from around the table.
Carlacci nodded. “Yeah. I don’t know which, if any had sanction from their governments.”
Hale sighed. “Apparently signatures in an alliance still don’t mean much to some people. Do we have any allies?”
“Allies? Hard to say, except that the Minbari will back whatever we do … it’s personal for them now.”
“How did that happen?” Morgan asked. A grimace crept across Hale’s face as she remembered the brief report on Carlacci’s activities.
Carlacci looked at Hale for a moment, then explained for the others, his expression little different from the captain’s. “One of these groups … got to one of my contacts. A Minbari, warrior caste. They killed him.”
Darquin sat back in his chair, looking as if he’d been struck. Even Morgan blinked. “That’s… not easy,” she said quietly.
Hale tried to be businesslike, to help the others focus. “One of the warrior caste isn’t easily brought down. At the least we are dealing with considerable numbers. And the means to pay for them.”
“I saw who did it,” Carlacci said quietly. “They were packing a mace.”
“The genuine article?” Hale asked, startled.
“If it wasn’t lifted from a museum, it was a damn good copy. And that’s where our biggest challenge is going to be … these people are not only ruthless, they’re clever. And — ” Carlacci paused, considering his next words carefully. “I think they’re organized, too.”
“I was afraid of that,” Hale said, looking at Morgan. “If you aren’t intending to already, I would suggest some tactical plans, should we have a warm welcome on entering the system. We won’t be transmitting our exit point.” The exec nodded her agreement.
Darquin rubbed one of his temples in thought, resting his elbow on the tabletop. “So we’re going into a raiding party free-for-all with a bunch of so-called allies that might stab us in the back first chance they get.”
“There was something to be said for the Shadow war,” Hale said, an edge of dark humor to her words. “The enemy never left you wondering.”
Carlacci sighed, looking at each of them in turn. “That’s about it, all right. One other thing I … picked up, that might give us something to work with, though.”
“Yes?” asked Hale.
Carlacci pulled a small cloth-wrapped bundle from one pocket. He pulled away the fabric to reveal a small knife. “I took this off someone who tried to get me,” he said, offering it handle first to Darquin. “Take a look at the engravings on the blade. There are marks of several known criminal organizations — but the designs are all sort of merged.”
Darquin took the hilt, resting the flat of the blade on his forearm as he studied the engravings. “Looks like a Brakiri crime syndie here. This might be Thieves’ Guild, but I’m not sure….”
Carlacci pointed toward other marks. “Those two are raider gangs that go way back. I remember them from when I was working passenger liners.”
“I hope it doesn’t mean what it sounds like,” Hale finally said.
“I think it might,” Carlacci said.
“Phew, no wonder they’re so gutsy.” Darquin set the blade down on the table and watched it with renewed, wary respect. “There’s a lot of money backing this.”
“Far more than we can take on in a match of firepower,” Hale said. “We’re going to have to see some other way through — in part at least.”
“If we can follow the money to the right sources, they’ll be vulnerable,” Darquin offered.
Carlacci leaned back a little, smiling. “Well, that’s what we were trained for,” he said, nodding agreement with Darquin. “That, and any kind of syndicate like this is bound to be vulnerable, simply because these guys aren’t used to cooperating.”
“So we encourage that,” Hale said with a slight smile. “As you said, we’re trained for it. Some of us could slip quite well into roles that’d be useful in spreading disinformation.”
Darquin looked over to Hale. “We’ll have to keep the ship locked down, in case they figure it out.”
“We’ll have to see how well we can play it. I’m not sure how secret our arrival is going to be.” She looked to Carlacci for confirmation.
“Hard to say,” he said with a shrug. “Depends on whether the two who killed Tanisval reported anything back before they got blown into space.”
“Or if anyone inside the Abbai council uses our expected arrival as a calming tool,” Hale said, considering. “At the least, we can see a shuttle or two clear from the ship, and make sure their attachment to us is kept locked down.”
“The fact that you’ve got an Earth Alliance type shuttle aboard ought to help there,” Carlacci said.
Darquin nodded. “Double-encrypted clearance codes on a transponder subchannel? We could do that for everyone.” He leaned back, adding to himself, “Wow, that almost hurt to say….”
Hale chuckled dryly. “So long as it doesn’t hurt to do. I want this to work.”
“I’ll touch base with Engineering on it.”
“And Ops. They’ll have to be with you in this game. I’ll be making an official appearance, but that leaves the rest to be shuffled about. Even you,” Hale said, looking at Morgan.
“Aye, sir.” The tactical officer didn’t argue, though she didn’t know how she could be of much use.
Several moments passed in silence, then Carlacci said, “If there isn’t anything else right off, Captain….”
Hale stirred from thought, glanced around at the others. “No, I think that’s it for now.”
Carlacci stood, stretching. “Then, if you don’t mind –” he turned toward Darquin. “I’d take that escort to my quarters now.”
“If you remember anything, or have any thoughts, don’t hesitate to page me — at any time,” Hale said.
“Will do, Captain, thank you.” He followed Darquin out.
When they had gone, Morgan sighed and looked at Hale. To her surprise, a smile cracked the captain’s expression, and she joked wryly, “Well, perhaps a cursed mission is enough to head off a cursed shakedown.”
Morgan simply shook her head.
Carlacci followed Darquin back to the lift. “I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but I haven’t had any time to rest. Barely had time in Tuzanor to say hello and goodbye to my daughter.”
“Her name’s Candace, right?”
Carlacci’s expression brightened. “Yeah.”
Darquin opened the lift and entered. “I think I saw her. At the big library awful late.”
Carlacci followed, grinning a little. “Getting into trouble, no doubt.”
“Deck Four,” Darquin told the lift, then turned toward Carlacci. “A little too close, but she came out fine.”
His grin faded to a sober expression as he took a long look at Darquin, wondering if it was worthwhile to ask for more details. Finally he said, “I’ll have to talk to her when I get back. She’s a bright girl, but … Anyway, thank you. For being there at the right time.”
Darquin smiled. “All part of the service.”
(c) 1999 Jamie Lawson, Leslie McBride, Joe R. Medina, and Alida Saxon. All rights reserved.