Chapter Eight

Kelly was back on board the Vigilant by 1400. He put his new clothing purchases away and found room to store his new duffle. He would have his new clothes laundered once they lifted ship again. As with the galley, the laundry on board worked only off-planet. There was the base laundry, but Kelly didn’t trust them with natural fabrics. He tended to buy the best he could afford and took care of them. The wools, cottons, and silks would last a long time if properly cared for.

He checked messages on his terminal. There was a message from Candy, saying that she had a wonderful time and hoped they could do it again some time. She also let him know he had forgotten his tie. She would get it back to him next time she saw him.

Another message was from LT Bell, inviting Kelly to the Vehement’s relaunching ceremony on Friday. He checked his calendar, saw he had nothing else scheduled, and touched the accept button.

The next message was from Tammy. She was enthused about the S-660. It was an exoatmospheric shuttle, as opposed to the current atmospheric S-500s the flight detachment flew. She was having a blast flying the sub-orbital flight path in transition school. She was finally back in space, even if only for a brief time. Of course, the S-660’s boost phase was enough to get into orbit, so they would be making runs to the space dock as well as the shuttle flights to the south. She was really looking forward to that. The last part of her message was a request for Kelly to pin on one of her LTJG rank insignia at her promotion ceremony when she got back. Kelly replied that he would be honored to be a part of her ceremony.

Kelly called up the ship’s log to see what had happened while he was gone. Nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, that he could tell. He noted Petty Officer Stinson’s name on a lot of the watch log entries. Kelly guessed that multiple watches while the crew had time off was Chief Watson’s way of reminding Stinson to listen to Corpsman Kumar’s advice on what places to stay away from in the south.

Kelly changed into his coveralls, attached his communicator to his belt, and made a tour of the ship. Very few of the crew were on board. Those few were engaged in games, studying for proficiency exams, or just lazing about. Chief Blankenship manned the quarterdeck watch. When he approached she was bent over the watch desk, probably reattaching a terminal cable. Chief B had a nice behind. Kelly scuffed his shoes to let her know he was coming and she straightened up and came to attention.

“At ease, Chief. How are things going?”

“Not bad, sir, it’s been real quiet. Twenty crew are off the ship. Eleven are on leave. Three are hitting the entertainment center on base. The rest are at chow. Captain took off for a couple of days in the south. You are in command. Chief Watson got pulled by Scout Force HQ to sit on a promotion board. He should be back in about three hours.”

“Great, keep up the good work. Would you like me to bring you some coffee from the galley on my way back through?”

Thank you, sir, but I drink tea. If you could bring back a pot of Lapsang Souchong, I’d appreciate it.”

“Lapsang it is. I’ll be right back with it.”

Kelly walked on to the rear of the ship. He stopped off in the galley to start a pot of water to boil. He continued astern, checked crew quarters, sensors, and engineering. When he made it back to the galley, the water was boiling. He poured it into a mid-sized pot, dropped in two tea bags, grabbed a cup and saucer and headed back to the Quarterdeck.

“Here you go, Chief. Enjoy!”

“Thank you, sir. This much should last me until Chief P relieves me for dinner.”

Kelly returned to his quarters. Conditions on board had the lazy feel of a ship in port. Kelly knew this would revert instantly to crisp efficiency upon receipt of a patrol order. He thought about that for a bit. What would he do if he got an immediate sortie order? He checked the roster to see who was present for duty. When he ran the roster he saw that even though less than half the crew were on board, those on board were sufficient to lift ship and conduct a patrol. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to.

Kelly went back to his quarters and checked the news on his terminal. He did a quick search for reports on the Indigo fire. He found several reports and read them in turn. He saw where they had positively identified the body of Charles Delphant. Cause of death was identified as smoke inhalation. There was intense speculation in the press on what Delphant was doing there so early. He had never been known for coming in early, habitually arriving around 0830.

Kelly brought up a window on the classified system and searched for any classified reports on the fire. He pulled up two agent reports from a team sent in to coordinate with the local authorities on Secundus. They didn’t have much more information than the news reports.

Kelly spent the rest of the afternoon researching all he could find on the Indigo Consortium and its board of directors. After several hours, he looked up and saw that it was late and he should probably hit the rack. He checked his schedule for tomorrow. It would be a light day, with only one outside meeting at Scout Force HQ at 1300. He called up the agenda, saw it was a logistics meeting for all ship execs. He checked the Vigilant’s log status, closed down his terminal, and took a walk around the ship. Kelly then turned in for the night.

The next morning, Kelly reviewed the night watch log and saw nothing of interest. He headed over to the dining facility and had breakfast. Kelly was hoping that today would be boring. Boring was good when you were the acting commander.

Kelly spent the morning reviewing the manuals on the sensor systems. He was looking for new tricks to use when out on patrol. He was especially interested in applications he could run on his monitor on the bridge. It was a shame that Chief B had the duty last night and was sleeping. She could have helped him in his research.

Kelly checked messages. He had a reminder message about the 1300 meeting. He had a message from his bank, giving his balance and including his most recent purchases. He had made a small hole in his account. Fortunately, his expenses were minimal. His quarters were free. His meals were free. His uniforms were subsidized. Life in the Fleet wasn’t bad.

Kelly went to the 1300 meeting. It was one of the interminable meetings by the base admin and logistics folks about the latest regulations on requisitions, personnel actions, and yard procedures. Kelly knew it was going to result in more paperwork for him that evening.

Of course, one of the things that was bad about the Fleet was the paperwork. Technically, it wasn’t really paperwork, because all of it was handled electronically. Electronic or paper, it still took a long time to complete. By the time he was finished, it was well past the time the dining facility closed for the evening. He called his parents and invited himself over for dinner. He owed Arnold a chance to cook him a meal.

Kelly cleaned up and changed out of his coveralls and into his duty uniform. Officers living on ship generally wore their duty or work uniform while on base. Kelly caught a shuttle and wound up at his parents door.

Arnold met him at the door, beaming. “LT Blake, welcome. Your parents are in the outdoor room. Your dinner will be ready shortly. Kelly thanked Arnold for cooking up something for him this late, and went out to see his folks.

Kelly’s folks were having a heated argument about digitizing living tissue. Kelly poured a glass of wine from a waiting bottle and sat down. He listened for a few minutes, decided he didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, and tuned them out. When they realized he wasn’t listening, they stopped.

Moira said, “Kelly, are we boring you?”

No, Mom, I just haven’t a clue what you are talking about. You two are using terms I never heard in college.”

“Son, I never knew your education was so deficient. We paid good money for you to be an engineer. Obviously, it didn’t take.”

Kelly’s folks broke out laughing. Moira said, “Of course you didn’t understand any of it. We invented it. We are talking about transporting human beings and cargo through the ether like radio waves. It does what our FTL transport system does, but with no receiver on the other end. We’ve done it with inanimate objects over short distances. We are trying to extend our range to hundreds of kilometers…”

Kelly broke in, “Are you telling me you are working on a transporter beam?”

Andrew said, “Well, son, that’s not what we call it, but that sums it up succinctly. In fact, that is what we’ll call it from now on. We feel we are a couple of years away from perfecting it, but it shows great promise.”

Kelly shook his head and laughed, “Mom, Dad, do you get all your ideas from old science fiction works?”

All three were laughing when Arnold came in and said dinner was ready. Moira and Andrew had eaten earlier, but they went in with Kelly to keep him company.

Kelly sat down and Arnold brought in a local fowl, sort of like a cornish game hen, wild rice, apple relish, and a shredded vegetable salad from local greens. Kelly ate very well.

After dinner, Kelly went back out to the outdoor room with his parents and a bottle of wine. Andrew took a long sip and said, “Son, I understand that Tom has already spoken to you about why we are here. He didn’t tell you everything, though. Our transporter gate will be here in two weeks. It was fabricated at Fleet Base 14 in the Tau Ceti system. When it gets here, it will have taken the space tug two weeks to pull it here at power 2 light speed. Once we have it set up and functioning, that tug will make the trip back in seconds.”

“Dad, how safe will it be?”

“It will be safe enough that your mom and I will make the return trip using it. In fact we are so confident, that we will ask Tom to loan us your ship to take us back.”

Kelly almost dropped his glass of wine when he heard this. He said, “You want to use the Vigilant and my crew as guinea pigs?”

“Exactly, except they won’t be guinea pigs. The only thing they will be testing is the long distance transmission capability. We’ll do a number of tests before we send your ship through. It will be very safe.”

Andrew mentioned that he and Moira had made scores of trips through the gates at their lab at Tau Ceti and the two prototype gates within the Tau Ceti system. “This will be the first operational test over realistic interstellar distances.”

“But why the Vigilant?”

“Well, the Admiralty is not completely sold on the idea. We need a test they can’t ignore. They need to see a Fleet ship come through the gate unscathed to convince them. They also need to know that we have no reservations, no fears that our technology won’t work. The most convincing test we could think of was to use your ship in the first operational test. I hope you understand the importance and significance of this test.”

“Dad, are you absolutely sure this technology is safe?”

Moira spoke up. “Son, if we weren’t sure, we would never risk all of our lives at once. We have months of successful tests over short, intrastellar distances. We wouldn’t ask anyone to chance what we won’t chance ourselves. Trust us, it will be fine.”

“Well, I always have trusted you. Why should I stop now? I have a request, though. When we do the test, only one of you is to be on the ship at a time. If anything should go wrong, it won’t be a good idea to have the only two people in the galaxy that understand it to disappear. We’ll need one of you to help get us back if something goes wrong.”

“You make a good point, son. Your mother and I will consider your concerns.”

Kelly had to get back to the ship. He said goodbye to his folks, thanked Arnold for a wonderful meal, and caught a shuttle.

Upon his return to the ship, he did a quick walk around inspection and retired to his quarters. He turned in, but it was a while before he could get to sleep. Tomorrow, he’d have to tell LCDR Timmons about his parents’ plans. Together, they’d have to tell the crew.

Kelly woke up early the next day. He wanted to give the ship a thorough going over before the captain got back. Chief Watson met him in the galley with a cup of coffee. Together, they divided up the ship and put the crew to work making the Vigilant shipshape. After noon chow, Kelly took the helmsmen and ran them all through simulations on board. He remembered the slow response when they lifted off the asteroid. He ran them through several drills of landing in zero-G and making quick lift offs. He wanted them to bring the ship down quickly and safely and get them up and away in a smooth easy movement. After four or five drills he had all the helmsmen much more confident at the controls. It would still require actual practice to get it fully ingrained in them, but it would do for now.

Chief Watson told him that the captain was due into the spaceport in twenty minutes. He was leaving to go pick him up. Kelly made a final walk around and was pleased with what he saw.

Kelly was waiting with the quarterdeck watch when LCDR Timmons came up the gangway.

“Exec, how has it been?”

“Just fine, sir. All but 10 of the crew are on board. The 10 are on leave and are due back tomorrow. No orders or communications of other than a routine nature have been received. I have something to talk over with you later, but it can wait until you get your gear unloaded.”

“Is it important?”

“I think so, sir.”

‘Then come on and tell me while I unpack. Okay if the chief listens in?”

”Absolutely, sir. Let me help you with your bags.”

Kelly grabbed one of the captain’s bags and followed him to his cabin. Once there, the captain closed the door behind them and moved into his conference room after dropping his bag on his bed.

“What’s up, Exec?”

Kelly told the captain and Chief Watson about the transport gates and his parents’ involvement. Once they had absorbed that concept, he told them about his parent’s plan to use the Vigilant to test the technology.

LCDR Timmons pondered on this for a time and then said, “I’ll wait for the order to come from Scout Force, but if your folks are willing to risk their lives and yours, how can I not trust them? We can do this. Somebody has to go first. If not us, some other ship will have to do it. What do you think, Chief?”

Chief Watson had been silent up to this point. He leaned back and said, “Sir, I was always taught never to turn down a combat mission, because some other poor soul will just have to go out and do what you wouldn’t. If we get this mission, we’ll come through it just fine. We have the best ship and the best crew in Scout Force. Hell, I’d be insulted if they didn’t pick us.”

“That’s the spirit, Chief. Now, Exec, how’s this technology work?”

“I’d love to tell you, sir, but I listened to my folks talking about this last night and I didn’t have a clue what they were saying. They tend to work out on the leading edge of technology. Most of the jargon of high tech came out of their mouths first.”

“I want to speak with your folks about this, but not until we get the mission through channels.”

“Give me the word, sir, and I’ll get them to invite us over for dinner. Arnold, their housekeeper and cook, is a gourmet chef.”

“Great, now let’s talk about a training cruise I want to do this week.”

The captain, Kelly, and the chief spent the next two hours planning a three-day training cruise to work out some deficiencies the captain saw on the last patrol. At the end of the planning session, the captain’s terminal chimed with a priority message.

LCDR Timmons walked over to his terminal, dumped his bag off the chair, and sat down to log in and see the message.

The message was from Captain Hasselrode, instructing Timmons, Kelly and the chief to report to Building 603 at 0800. It had to be more debriefing on the K’Rang ship encounter.

They arrived at building 603 right on time. They were ushered up to a different floor and a different office than before. The room they were led to was a computer lab. A LTJG introduced himself as Bill Taylor and invited them to some seats in front of a large screen wall. He said, “Admiral Craddock wanted you to see what we were able to glean from the two ships and all you brought back. What you are about to hear is not to be discussed outside of this room, except between the three of you, and in a secure space.”

“First we’ll cover the data device you found on the K’Rang body. By the way, the body belonged to the severed hand with the ring you found, LT Blake. The ring belonged to a K’Rang named M’Talli. He belonged to a small sept of the ruling clan. Not quite royalty, but very comfortable.”

“Anyway, the data device contained partial schematics of a number of recent technological advances, including a few your parents developed, LT Blake. None of the schematics were complete, suggesting that the Indigo folks were holding back on what they were trading the K’Rang for the flame stones. You were witness to how successful that technique was. We are working with your folks to see if we can determine how many installments of data there were. We are assuming this transaction was not supposed to be the last.”

“The K’Rang data log was much harder to break into. It was encrypted with a devious code that relied on K’Rang music as the key. I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll just say it was a real challenge for our Crippies. Oh, excuse me, sir, our Cryptologic Technicians.”

“LCDR Timmons, you were correct in your assumption that the device found in the K’Rang instrument panel was the ship’s log. That is exactly what it is. It’s the captain’s voice log. It’s taking a while to translate the language. What we know so far is that the ship is an eight year old merchant ship. It left the K’Rang home world nine days before it crossed the frontier, transported in the hold of a larger ship that had FTL capability. It was released about a day away from the frontier and proceeded to where you picked it up. The captain says in the log that he was working under the orders of a high K’Rang family patriarch. The fellow with the ring was his son and had absolute authority over the captain. It was the son that gave the order to fire on the shuttle. The captain recorded M’Talli telling him to fire on the shuttle in his log. M’Talli says something about his ring and that the humans were not supposed to know of any involvement by the nobility. He was probably talking about the ring that showed him as a resident of the home world. We guess he forgot to sanitize himself before the meeting. The Indigo folks must have spotted his ring and recognized what it signified.”

“Most of the stuff in the log is routine ship’s business, but we did find a segment where M’Talli burst in on the captain while he was recording and the captain left the log running. M’Talli was a little upset that the captain wasn’t going faster. There was some concern about being late for the meeting. The captain told him that they’d be there in plenty of time to approach slowly and scan the area to make sure they were unobserved. He reminded M’Talli that he’d already done this three times and he knew what he was doing.”

“Three times gives us a pretty good number to work from, as we try to figure out how much the Indigo folks traded for the flame stones. Speaking of which, we have identities on the bodies from the shuttle. Most of them are longtime employees of the Indigo Consortium. All but two were manifested as crew onboard the Gurkha. Those two were out of the Indigo Consortium HQ on Secundus. They were Aubrey Gundersen and Dale Wilkins. Wilkins was a courier. We anticipate that he was to be the guy bringing back the stones. Gundersen was a VP of the Indigo Consortium. We think he was the dealmaker.”

Kelly said, “Yes, we saw how good a deal it was.”

LTJG Taylor continued, “We’ve tracked Gundersen’s travels for the last four years. He was fairly consistent until six months ago. In four separate occasions, he took business trips with Wilkins to planets where one of the Indigo ships was to make a port call. The last two were to meet up with the Manchu Warrior and the Gurkha. He and Wilkins would make the run out to the 6664 system and back. Gundersen always went straight back to Fomalhaut. Wilkins, on the other hand, would take a roundabout path back to Fomalhaut, but each time included a stop in the Rigel system. We have Fleet Intel snooping about to see if we can discern Mr. Wilkins’ activities. Rigel may have been the final destination or a transfer point.”

“We are still analyzing the K’Rang ship, but we have found a few interesting things. On the port bulkhead is the electronic device that you pointed out in your report. We have determined that it is a sensor device. According to the ship’s log, it was installed just before this trip. Fortunately for you it wasn’t installed correctly. The ground cable was installed improperly. They used a rubber washer between the cable and the hull of the ship. The whole apparatus was shock mounted to the bulkhead. Somebody probably got in a hurry and used a shock isolation washer instead of a regular washer.”

“It was probably only working at 50 percent efficiency, if at all. Our techies have tested it and found that if the ground had been properly installed, you would have stood out like a beacon on that asteroid. We’re studying it to adapt it for our own ships. It should give us a 10 percent increase in sensor range and 50 percent increase in resolution.”

“We’ve also found a complete navigation and communication system. The nav system is being tested against known data, but appears to have a complete star chart for all of K’Rang space. Interestingly, there is another space faring race in-spiral of them they call the A’Ngarii. They seem to be having the same problems with the A’Ngarii as they are with us. The communications system had an independent self-destruct device that failed to go off when you cut the ship in half. Seems it wasn’t designed to operate in a vacuum.”

“The comms system was complete and loaded with a week’s worth of codes. The Crippies are ecstatic over that bit of good luck. They have gone back over the tapes of the last three weeks of traffic and are breaking out all manner of information about the K’Rang.”

“We are going to continue exploiting the ship for quite some time. LCDR Timmons, there are a lot of people on this base that want to buy you a beer. Your crew will probably drink free for a month.”

“Do you or any of your people have any questions of me, sir?”

LCDR Timmons looked over at Kelly and the chief, “I don’t have anything. Do either of you want to ask any questions?”

Kelly shook his head. Chief Watson spoke up. “What bar do you guys frequent so I can tell the crew?”

Everyone laughed and Timmons said, “LT, I guess you answered all our questions. Is that all?”

“Yes sir, Admiral Craddock wanted you to know what all we found. Of course, this is just a preliminary assessment. We intend to continue to tear the ship apart until we get all we can from it. Again, I must emphasize the sensitivity of this information. Be very careful discussing it. Let me escort you out then.”

The captain, Kelly, and Chief Watson rode quietly back to the ship. They stopped off for lunch on the way, and discussed the upcoming training cruise and what each of them had done on their days off.

On the K’Rang home world, a very irritated Shadow Leader M’Trang was berating his subordinates. One lay in an enlarging puddle of his own blood on the floor. His throat had been ripped open with an expert flick of one paw, all claws extended. The former deputy never saw it coming. The other two remained at a stiff, but shaky, attention.

“Baron N’Gana is not happy that his son has not returned from his adventure. It is only my reputation for success that kept me from sharing the fate of your associate on the floor. He failed me. He chose the Shadow Warriors that accompanied Baron N’Gana’s son. I suggest you not fail me.”

“The cargo carrier ship T’Onna waited three days and M’Talli’s ship never appeared. Our drones have crossed the frontier and verified that his ship was destroyed as was the human courier shuttle. We only found small debris from the stern and engine section of M’talli’s ship. The lack of debris from the bow of the ship and the trace of metal from the human ship makes me suspect that the humans may have captured M’Talli and the human couriers. If not, they at least have the bridge and crew section of our ship and all the information it contained.”

“This challenge cannot be allowed to go unanswered. Shadow Petty Commander L’Alla, you will organize an expedition to the human world in the system adjacent to where M’Talli’s ship was taken. The human traitors have a facility on the major continent in the southern hemisphere where they have stored a back-up copy of the final data segment. M’Talli was killed attempting to acquire it. Assemble a sufficient force to enter the facility, kill all you encounter, find the data, and return to me with it.”

“Shadow Petty Commander G’Sanu, you will take command of one of our new torpedo ships, precede L’Alla’s attack force, conduct a thorough surveillance of the frontier region near the human world, and destroy any human combatants that may be in the sector. Are there any questions?”

The two assumed an even stiffer position of attention, saluted, and answered in unison, “No, Shadow Leader.”

The Shadow Leader stepped over the body on his way out the door, “Do not fail me, Petty Commanders. Return with the data or not at all. But first, send someone in to clean up this mess.”

The Vigilant’s training cruise went well. The crew picked up on the goals of the cruise and quickly improved their performance at all stations. The helmsmen put the simulator drills into practice by conducting a series of zero-G landings on Armstrong’s smallest moon. They weren’t as smooth as Kelly would have liked, but they were greatly improved over the last patrol.

When they returned to base, they were back on patrol status. The next patrol would be back to the Scutum sector. Signals indicative of flight by the K’Rang drone ships were being picked up in that area and HQ wanted them to go and see what they could find. They would be held at the base only until the new reverse-engineered K’Rang sensor system could be fitted onto the Vigilant.

The yard crew and Chiefs Miller and Blankenship put the system in and tested it in only three days. They would have to calibrate it enroute to their patrol sector, but it was in and operating nominally. It should give them an edge.

Kelly had time to see Candy before they shipped out. He found out that she had accepted the job at the Base JAG office and she would be in it by the time he returned from patrol.

On the morning they were scheduled to lift ship, Kelly had messages from his folks and from LT Bell, wishing him well on his patrol. There was a message from Angie that the Bolivar had been diverted to patrol near the border for a few more weeks. They would not be at Armstrong until much later. Kelly thought this was lucky, because he would have been away on patrol when they arrived. He did not know how long this patrol would be, but most likely they would be back in time for the Bolivar’s port call. He really wanted to see his old squadron mates. There was a message from Tammy, telling more of her experiences transitioning to the new shuttle. The video of her message showed her in her flight suit with the zipper provocatively down to her navel.

Kelly replied to all and told them he expected to be back in about a month, but he probably would not be able to receive or send messages while he was gone.

Kelly made his ship inspection, noticing some minor deficiencies in the galley that were corrected immediately, but the rest of the ship was ready for patrol. He moved back to the bridge to put his own position in order.

Kelly looked around the bridge. The helm and navigator positions were manned. The engineering sensor and weapons positions were manned by senior petty officers. There was a quiet hum of efficiency; the bridge crew was now a coherent team. The captain and Chief Watson were conferring in the conference room. He expected them to finish just before lift off.

True to his prediction, the captain and the chief came out just before lift off. They made a quick inspection, gave the necessary orders and lifted off the planet. The Vigilant quickly sped out of the system and went into FTL mode. In a few short days, they arrived near the Scutum sector. They stopped in the dark space outside the sector and calibrated the new sensor system, then scanned the entire sector as they approached, and found nothing out of the ordinary.

The Fleet intel reports on the strange signals showed them originating across the frontier, moving into the Scutum sector, and returning. The distance to the nearest listening posts was too far for an accurate location. They would have to patrol the region and hope they got lucky.

The first five days were uneventful. They drifted in the sector in close proximity with several large asteroids. The passive sensors were operating at maximum sensitivity. Nothing out of the ordinary appeared.

On the sixth day a K’Rang ship appeared, dropping out of FTL just a few thousand kilometers from the frontier. Chief B focused every sensor on that ship. The new K’Rang-style sensor gave an incredibly high-resolution image of the K’Rang ship. The ship was about twice the length of the Vigilant and half again as wide.

The sensor feed to Kelly’s station showed a smaller ship, about twice the size of a fighter, detach from the larger K’Rang ship and move toward the frontier. It quickly penetrated the frontier and made a run through the center of the Scutum Sector. It was incredibly fast, accelerating quickly to just below FTL speed. Kelly couldn’t figure out how they could get such power out of such a small ship.

“Petty Officer, can you get any kind of a reading on the engine in that thing?”

“The petty officer spoke into his intercom and said, “Sir, Chief Blankenship will be here shortly to answer your question.”

The captain looked over at him and said, “It is fast, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. I’m trying to think what they could be using to get speed like that out of such a small vehicle. How restrictive are our orders, sir? Could we capture this thing?”

“I’ll let you read the orders again, but I don’t see that flexibility in them. I read them as we are to observe only, unless GR citizens or property are endangered.”

Kelly rolled his eyes. “Got it, sir, no action unless they shoot first.”

The K’Rang ship continued its high speed run through the Scutum sector. Kelly wondered if it was intentionally showing off, hoping to draw a GR Fleet reaction. Kelly saw the wisdom in following their orders to the letter. It was probably equipped with a self-destruct mechanism and they could gain more information from observing the ship secretly than analyzing a debris cloud.

Chief Blankenship appeared. She said, “Sir, you asked about the engine. As best we can determine it is an extremely efficient reaction engine with an unshielded gravity well FTL drive. It is running at about 98 percent efficiency. They seem to be injecting something into the exhaust stream to give them that much thrust. We’re trying to see what that might be. We are tracking the flight path. If we can run through the flight path later, we might be able to use the sniffers to figure out what it is.”

The captain said, “Good enough, Chief. Once this thing clears out, we’ll do just that.”

Chief B continued, “One other thing, sir, as sharp as that ship is turning, there isn’t a living being on board. Nothing human or K’Rang could survive those G-forces.”

“Thanks, Chief, that’s all for now.”

Chief B went back to the sensor section.

The ship turned back toward the Vigilant’s position and slowed down. It began a series of slow, wide right and left turns making a serpentine path across space. As the ship got closer, the turns got tighter and tighter. An itchy feeling came over Kelly.

“Captain, I think it’s homing in on us. That thing is going to come right at us if it keeps going as it is.”

“Exec, I think you’re right. Helm, prepare to lift us out of here on a course dead away from that ship. If it gets within 10,000 km of us, execute. Gunnery, don’t move the turrets at this time, but prepare to fire on the ship if it gets within 9,000 km.”

Helm and weapons answered aye aye.

Kelly watched the ship continue to close the range and home in on the Vigilant, wondering what signature was giving them away to the drone.

The captain looked up from his terminal and said, “Helm, we’re not waiting. Come to course 175, mark 0 and get us out of here now. Prepare to go to FTL if I call for it. Gunnery, slew your turrets as we move off.”

The helmsman acknowledged the order and pulled the ship quickly out of the asteroid field. The K’Rang ship oriented on the Vigilant and sped up. The distance closed slightly until the Vigilant picked up speed and then the distance remained constant. As the K’Rang ship increased speed, so did the Vigilant. The captain ordered the helmsman to stay outside of 10,000 km distance from the K’Rang ship. It required the helmsman to keep accelerating to stay ahead of the K’Rang ship. Their speed was approaching FTL.

“Helm take us to power 2 and steer us away from the frontier. Exec, let’s see what kind of legs this thing has. If we leave him behind, we’ll slow down some and lead him away from the frontier.”

The helm smoothly accelerated the Vigilant to power 2. The K’Rang ship fell behind. The helmsman slowed the ship down until they were just maintaining the distance from the K’Rang ship. They calculated the top speed of the ship to be power 1.6, or at least that was all it was currently showing.

Kelly said, “Gunnery, keep targeting that ship. It may be faster than it is letting on. Let’s keep our guard up.”

The chase kept up for the better part of that day, with no signs of the K’Rang ship breaking off. The captain called Kelly and the section chiefs into his ready room. “All right, what are we up against? I want to hear your opinions.”

Chief Blankenship spoke first. “When we went into FTL the reaction engine was replaced by a primitive FTL engine. We are seeing a standard FTL signature. Our assessment is that it’s a little faster than it’s showing, but probably less than power 2.”

Chief Miller spoke next. “I agree with Chief Blankenship. The engine signature shows it to be a single coil system. That’s about the only FTL engine that can fit in a ship that size.”

Chief Pennypacker said, “I’ve looked at the sensor readings. The ship is unarmored. It has minor navigational shields. I can cut it up into little ship bits in no time.”

Chief Billings said, “All ship systems are at 100 percent. The bridge crew is ready for any action you choose, Captain.”

Chief Watson was next. “I’ve been looking at the active scans we’ve made on this ship since its been chasing us. I can’t figure out what it is. It doesn’t appear to be a scout drone. If it is, it shouldn’t be chasing us. It should be running the other way. It’s not fast enough or armored enough to be a combat drone. I don’t like the way it is chasing us away from the frontier. I recommend we kick this K’Rang piece of crud in the butt and get back to the frontier.”

It was Kelly’s turn. “I agree with Chief Watson on not liking the way it seems to be chasing us away from the frontier. Why don’t we increase speed to high FTL, leave this guy in our dust and use the long-range sensors to see what he does. It might not be a bad idea to move away and circle around behind him. Let’s get behind him, between him and the frontier.”

“I like that idea, Exec. Let’s see what he does when he loses us. Let’s all get back to our stations.”

Orders were given to the helm to increase speed to power 4.

The Vigilant quickly pulled away from the K’Rang ship. As the distance increased to 250,000 km, the K’Rang ship slowed, halted, and turned back toward the frontier. The Vigilant made a wide turn around the K’Rang ship, keeping it at least 300,000 km away.

The captain ordered a max speed run back to the Scutum sector. In two hours they were at the fringes of sensor range of the sector. They slowed to sub-FTL and scanned ahead for any anomalies. The K’Rang ship that had launched the probe had moved away from the frontier, but was still in range of the Vigilant’s sensors. The Vigilant moved in slowly.

A second, larger ship appeared at the edges of the sensor range. It moved closer to the frontier. The captain ordered the Vigilant to dead stop. It floated free in space.

LCDR Timmons said, “Let’s see what’s going on here. We’ll wait until we have a better picture on this second ship before we move closer. Chief B, get me all you can as soon as you can on this second ship.”

Kelly and Timmons watched their monitors as the sensor crew resolved details on the second ship. It appeared to be about three times the size of the earlier K’Rang ship. It looked to be no more than a medium size interstellar freighter. It moved up to the other K’Rang ship. The sensor crew determined that the second ship was a lighter carrier. It was designed for moving cargo from space to a planet’s surface on a primitive planet without an orbital transfer point. They were usually fitted with four to six cargo lighters that would carry the cargo from the ship to the ground. The sensor section estimated that the cargo lighters would be about the same size as the Vigilant, or just a little larger, for a ship the size of the K’Rang lighter carrier.

Both K’Rang ships moved toward and through the frontier and proceeded directly to the 6664 system.

The captain ordered the Vigilant to proceed to the 6664 system and the crew to battle stations. He had a message sent to Fleet requesting reinforcements and containing all the details of the last two days.

The K’Rang ships were closer to the system than the Vigilant and arrived first. The lighter carrier launched four lighters down to the surface. The lighter carrier and the other ship used pulse cannons to soften up the planetary defenses. The New Alexandria authorities issued a general distress call, which was replaced by an invasion emergency call. The Vigilant increased speed.

“The captain keyed up the internal speakers. “This is the captain. We are moving to engage the K’Rang force attacking New Alexandria. I plan to attack the lighter carrier first to give the lighters no escape route. Once we have dispatched the lighter carrier, we will take out the other ship, then go down into the atmosphere to take out the lighters. We will leave any enemy soldiers for the New Alexandria defense forces to deal with.”

“Exec, contact the New Alexandria authorities and inform them we are coming to their assistance. Just in case our K’Rang friends over there are listening in, tell them that we have a reinforcement fleet coming in behind us.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

Kelly brought up the comms suite on his monitor, contacted the Defense Force HQ of New Alexandria and informed them they were coming to their aid. The general in command gave him a status report on the battle on the surface. The K’Rang had landed about a battalion of troops near a light industrial compound in the southern hemisphere. New Alexandria security forces in the vicinity were completely overwhelmed. Forces were moving into the sector and preparing to counterattack. Kelly told him that the lighters would have no place to return to shortly.

The captain increased speed to just below FTL to close the distance more quickly. He oriented their approach to bring them in on the rear of both ships. His plan was to take out both ship’s engines on the first pass and then come back and take them both out in turn.

As they approached, the turret gunners fired, taking out the K’Rang ships’ engines. Once the engines were disabled, they switched their aim to destroy the pulse cannons. They were less successful on the cannons than they were on the engines. A couple of cannons were still in service and a few pulses impacted on the Vigilant’s armor and shields with no damage.

On the second pass, the Vigilant came in above the lighter carrier, using the forward guns and the turrets to maximum effect. As they blew by the two K’Rang ships, the lighter carrier was displaying secondary explosions and venting atmosphere into space. The second ship launched another drone as they passed. It locked onto the Vigilant and vectored in on a tail-chase collision course and accelerated. Kelly switched his monitor to rear view and watched as the turrets and rear-mounted guns made short work of the drone. The size of the explosion as it disintegrated gave an indication of its true purpose. It was a space torpedo.

The K’Rang lighter carrier exploded into a tremendous fireball, engulfing and consuming both K’Rang ships as the Vigilant turned back for a third run. Sensors informed the bridge that the K’Rang lighter carrier used its self-destruct mechanism. Both K’Rang ships were completely vaporized.

The captain took the Vigilant down into the atmosphere to deal with the lighters on the surface. Kelly called the New Alexandria Defense HQ to get the exact location and status of the invading force. The general came back on personally and said that the K’Rang forces were loading back on the lighters and attempting to escape back into space. New Alexandrian fighters had made short work of two of the lighters, one had been destroyed on the ground, but one was escaping beyond the maximum altitude of their atmospheric fighters. Their exoatmospheric fighters were not in range to close with the lighter. The Vigilant turned to pursue. As the two ships reached space, Chief B informed the bridge that the original K’Rang drone had entered the Scutum sector at power 2.

The drone picked up the Vigilant and turned onto a collision course at just under power 2. The captain turned the Vigilant toward the lighter, with the drone closing fast. At the last minute he increased speed to power 2, closely passed the lighter, and accelerated to power 3 FTL. The drone lost track on the Vigilant and locked onto the lighter. The long-range sensors recorded the destruction of the last K’Rang lighter.

The Vigilant turned back to land on New Alexandria, on the request of the New Alexandria authorities. The ramp dropped, and the captain went out with the Exec, Chief Watson, Chief B, and three gunnery crew members. All went armed. Chief B had a sensor pack and a hand sensor.

A Defense Force first lieutenant came over and saluted. “Sir, General Holcomb sends his complements and asked me to escort you to his headquarters.”

The Vigilant team followed the lieutenant to a collection of large hover vehicles arranged as a mobile command post. They were led into the largest vehicle and General Holcomb came over. He was a short, balding man, but with a weightlifter’s physique. The Vigilant team saluted and had their salute returned.

“Saluting is not necessary indoors, Captain. Stand easy. I know you Fleet guys do that, but it’s not required here. I want to thank you for your timely assistance. We’d have lost a lot more soldiers if you guys hadn’t come along. When you attacked the lighter carrier, the K’Rang lost all interest in what they were doing. They ran for their lighters and lost all discipline. It was a rout at that point. We didn’t take any prisoners. They even shot their own wounded.”

LCDR Timmons made introductions and asked, “General, do you have any idea what they were trying to do?”

“No, Captain, they were attacking this industrial complex. We are checking to see what is in here. None of the companies are defense related. There are a couple of electronics manufacturing firms, but they are mostly consumer electronics producers. I can’t see any reason for a battalion-sized assault.”

On a hunch, Timmons asked, “General, does the Indigo Consortium have a facility here?”

The General looked over at one of his staff officers and asked for a listing. The major passed a data tablet over to him.

“Yes, the Indigo Consortium has a shipping office here. It was right in the area that took the most damage when they came in.”

“Sir, with your permission, I’d like to send a couple of my people to go over and have a look.”

“Sure, Captain, we are under martial law here at the moment and you can go look at whatever you want. If you want I can arrange transport for your folks and a guide. I see you are all armed, but I’ll send a security squad along just in case any stray K’Rang are still around.”

“Thank you, sir. Exec, take Chief B and a couple of the gunners and have a look around. See if you can find out what the K’Rang may have been looking for.”

The first lieutenant that greeted them on landing was their guide. He led them out to a small hover vehicle that already had a security squad onboard. They lifted off and flew over the industrial complex to a row of warehouse-sized buildings, and landed near one building that had taken several pulse cannon hits. The New Alexandrian security squad dismounted first, established a perimeter and the lieutenant led them off. “The Indigo Consortium offices are over here.”

It was obvious as they got closer what part of the building was occupied by the Indigo Consortium. The door had been blasted in and the offices were in a shambles. Kelly had Chief B unship her sensor pack and give him her hand sensor. Kelly checked for life signs in the building while Chief B got the sensor pack on line. The building was devoid of life. Kelly could see several indications of bodies. Chief B gave him a thumbs up signal and they proceeded inside.

One of the security squad led the way. They passed through a lobby and reception area and came to a double security door that had been blown in. A body was just inside the door. The blast had thrown the door at him and crushed him against the wall, almost cutting him in half. His office attire identified him as an employee. They went on.

They came to a vault where the door had been cut through. A crew-served pulse cannon sat abandoned in front of the door. When they walked inside they found three more bodies, a man and two women, that had obviously attempted to take shelter in the vault. The man had died a rather gruesome death. His body was almost skinned. Kelly supposed he had some information the K’Rang needed and they tortured it out of him. The women’s throats had been slashed. They stepped carefully around the blood pools.

Chief B put the sensor pack on full record mode and set it in the middle of the vault space. Kelly went over to the man’s body and located his identity card. He was James Fulks, the Indigo Consortium general manager on New Alexandria.

Kelly looked over at Chief B. “Can you tell if anything is missing, Chief?”

“Nothing so far, sir. I’ll know more once we run the sensor pack recording through the ship’s system. My eyeballs tell me they concentrated on this locker area here.”

Chief B was standing next to a bank of lockers. The K’Rang had been systematically burning into the lockers. They had gotten through half of them before they stopped. That must have been when word of the Vigilant’s attack on the lighter carrier must have reached them.

Kelly spoke in low tones to Chief B. “Chief, I don’t think they found what they were looking for. Could you open these other lockers for me?”

Kelly led the lieutenant and the security squad member out of the vault, telling them that the sensor pack would work best with them out of the room. This would allow Chief B to do her magic. Chief B had lock opening techniques that only Fleet knew, and they wanted to keep them that way. Kelly left a gunner at the vault entrance to see she wouldn’t be disturbed.

A few minutes later, Chief B came out to talk to Kelly in low tones. “Sir, the K’Rang stopped just short of their goal. The last locker they were working on had what they probably were looking for. It’s a data device. It’s in my pocket. Remember what we found on that K’Rang ship we shot up on last patrol? This looks like a copy of that data.”

“Hmmm, keep it in your pocket. What was in the other lockers?”

“They all just contained gold and gems, sir. None of them had flame stones.”

“Okay, let’s keep wandering around for a bit to disguise that we found what we were looking for and then we’ll return.”

Kelly and his team wandered around for a bit, poking here and there. He called the lieutenant over. “I think we’ve seen all we can here. Let’s get back so we can have this data analyzed by our ship’s computers.”

They boarded the hover vehicle and headed back to the command post. When they landed, the General and the captain were waiting for them. “Exec, what did you find?”

“Sir, it appears that the K’Rang raiders were after gold and jewels at the Indigo Consortium. They had burned there way through half the vault’s lockers before we interrupted their party. If you check the wreckage of the lighters, you might find the gold and jewels they took.”

LCDR Timmons turned to the General. “Sir, with your permission, I’d like to get back to my ship so I can make my reports and analyze the data we’ve collected. I’ll forward whatever we discover to you.”

“Thank you, Captain, please accept the thanks of myself, my men, and my government for your assistance today.”

The team exchanged salutes with the General then walked back to the Vigilant. On the way back, Kelly briefed the captain on what they found. LCDR Timmons was not surprised.

Chief B hooked the sensor pack and the handheld into the ships computer. Sensors would spend the next few hours analyzing the data. Kelly and the captain went to the galley for lunch, filled their trays and proceeded to LCDR Timmons’ ready room.

“Kelly, I’m going to recommend that the engineers take another look at the data we got off that K’Rang ship last patrol. The K’Rang want it too much for it to be low-level technology. Either the techies don’t know what they are talking about or don’t want to let us know what it’s about. I’d like your folks to look at the data, too.”

Kelly prepared a full report of their combat with the K’Rang ships to send to the New Alexandrian authorities. With the captain’s okay, he transmitted it.

The New Alexandrian Defense authorities requested the Vigilant return in a week and land at the Jefferson City Spaceport, the New Alexandria capital city. The officials wanted to bestow honors on the ship and its crew. The captain made Scout Force aware of the request and got their approval.

The Vigilant continued its Scutum sector patrol to provide warning of any further K’Rang incursion into GR space. A reinforcement GR cruiser squadron moved into the area to provide a visible deterrent to any K’Rang plans for revenge. A week later, the Vigilant made its way back to the New Alexandrian capital.

The captain gave orders to Chief Watson to give the ship a quick once over in case they had to entertain visitors. Chief Watson set off to get the crew polishing and cleaning the ship. Crew, chief, and officer quarters were inspected and brought to Chief Watson’s high standards. Classified material and components were properly secured. The ship was ready for company.

The Vigilant made a slow, deliberate approach to the Jefferson City Spaceport, making a classic textbook landing. It was obvious where they expected the Vigilant to touch down. There were a reviewing stand and bleachers sitting on the apron. The Vigilant’s best helmsman brought them to a perfect landing within feet of the reviewing stand. The gangway ramp was lowered and the captain, Kelly and Chief Watson, in their dress uniforms, disembarked. A senior New Alexandrian functionary met them.

He walked over to LCDR Timmons and shook his hand. “Captain, I’m James Marcus, Special Assistant to the Governor. Let me first thank you for your help in the Battle of New Alexandria. That’s what we are calling the K’Rang invasion. If you will follow me, I’ll take you inside the terminal and brief you on the events we have planned. We want to clear everything with you, of course.”

They were led into a plush VIP room in the terminal, where a host of functionaries were waiting. After brief introductions,

Mr. Marcus started his briefing. “There will be a reception today at noon at the Jefferson Hotel for you and as many of your crew as you can spare from your ship. There will be rooms for all of you. If you will let me know how many and the name and rank of your personnel, I will arrange it. In fact, if you could furnish me with a complete crew roster, it will make preparing the awards easier.”

“There will be a memorial ceremony for those lost in the attack at 1400 hours. As many of your crew as you wish may attend. Just let me know how many and their ranks so that I may set aside seating. There will be an award ceremony and dinner at 2000 at the Governor’s Mansion. The Governor’s Security Office has asked that no more than ten of your crew attend and that you not be armed, not even with ceremonial weapons. Tomorrow, there will be a breakfast with the Planetary Defense Commander for you and your second-in-command. There will be a second award ceremony at Defense Force Headquarters for you and as many of your crew as can attend at 1000. Finally, there will be a victory ball at the Jefferson Hotel at 2000 hours for your entire crew or as many as you can spare.”

“I will arrange for transport for you and your crew to all of the events, if you will give me that list with names and ranks. I have a van and driver that will be parked here at the terminal for your use. Just call the number on this card and it will come to the gangway and pick you up. Here is my card; if you need anything else, call me.”

The next two days were a whirlwind. The Vigilant was given a unit commendation by the Governor of New Alexandria. LCDR Timmons and Kelly were each given the New Alexandrian Order of Valor, a gaudy gold and bejeweled medal on a red and white neck ribbon. The Chiefs were all inducted into the New Alexandrian Legion of Valor, a smaller, but no less gaudy medallion on a blue neck ribbon. The whole crew was awarded the Golden Shield of New Alexandria, a gold medallion in the shape of a lion’s head that went on the left breast pocket. If Kelly was going to fit all these awards on his uniform, he would have to gain some weight.

The officers and crew were feted for two days. No crewman bought a single drink. The single ladies of New Alexandria all wanted to be on the arm of one of their gallant male defenders. Kelly, with his bemedaled mess dress uniform, was in particular demand. He never wanted for a pretty and attentive escort. He had to arrange to be called away on important ship’s business a couple of times to save him from a too-attentive escort.

The men of New Alexandria also strove to have a female crewman on their arm at the festivities. Chief Blankenship as the senior female crewman was in high demand. Kelly had to admit that she was a fine figure of a woman in her mess dress uniform.

The receptions, ceremonies, and dinners were almost too much for the crew. Hungover crew members, chiefs, and officers lifted ship the third day and headed back to Antares.

On the final morning, Kelly worked through his hangover. They had managed to download messages while on New Alexandria. His message queue seemed to be filled with messages from young ladies of New Alexandrian society, asking him to return again some day. Kelly quickly scanned through them, and found messages from Candy, Tammy and Angie.

Candy’s message was news of her new job at the base JAG. She was staying with her folks until he returned. She wanted him to help her hunt for some land around the base. Her hiring bonus would allow her to purchase an air car, so distance was not a concern. She was thinking about a place in the country. There were some mountains to the west that she wanted to explore. He was invited to accompany her. She might even have the air car by the time he returned.

Kelly thought wandering in the mountains with her might be fun and looked forward to it.

Tammy had sent three messages. The first was more on her transition training. She was really enjoying the orbital component of her training. Her instructor pilot had let her have free rein on one orbital flight and she had really put the transport through its paces. She described it as almost as good as sex.

Her second message was to tell him that she had done so well in training that she would be returning to Armstrong early. They were sending her back with the first of the new S-660 transports. It would be transported on a space-going dry dock ship. She would be a week getting back to Antares. She hoped to be back by the time his patrol ended. Her third message was to tell him that she had loaded her transport on the dry dock ship and she was shipping out. She would see him when they both got back to Armstrong.

Angie’s message was short and sweet. She would be on Armstrong for a month as their fighter squadron would disembark from the Bolivar and be stationed at Antares Base for a time. They were supposed to be taking part in some experiment. It was all hush hush and they wouldn’t know what it was until a week after they arrived on Armstrong. She insisted that he be there to greet her and show a lady a good time.

Kelly thought to himself, how was he going to juggle three women at the same time. Oh well, he hoped they would all like each other.

After he got his personal messages out of the way, he set himself to the task of figuring out what signature had given them away to the K’Rang torpedo. The Valiant class scout ships were supposed to be the stealthiest ships in the Fleet. They had special scan-reflective hull coatings, their engine exhaust was shielded, and not even their shields emitted a recognizable signature, at least that was the theory. What could have given them away so readily?

He left his quarters to seek out Chief Blankenship. He found her sitting at one of the sensor positions, with headphones on, and concentrating hard on a sensor display in front of her. Her jump suit was unzipped to the waist and pulled off her shoulders. She was wearing a thin tank top normally part of the physical training uniform. When Kelly tapped her on the shoulder after unsuccessfully attempting to get her attention, she nearly jumped out of her chair.

“Damn, sir! Don’t sneak up on me like that! You just scared the hell out of me.”

“Sorry, Chief. What had your attention so riveted?”

She looked down and took a few calming breaths. Kelly watched her chest move up and down, but broke contact and was looking in her eyes when she sat up straight.

“I’ve been analyzing the data from the original torpedo. That thing picked us out of the whole Scutum sector. I’m trying to figure out how it did it.”

“That’s exactly what I was coming here to talk to you about. It was almost as if they knew we were here.”

“Exactly, sir. The Vigilant should have appeared like any other spot in space. What could they have homed in on? When we get back, we need to have our ship tested against this new K’Rang sensor we have installed. I’m running diagnostic tests on the ships sensor array to make sure we aren’t emitting some unintentional signal and missing it.”

“Chief, I’d like you, Chief Watson, and me to meet with the captain on this. We need to figure out what gave us away so easily.”

Kelly arranged for all four of them to meet in the ready room. The captain also wanted Chiefs Miller and Billings in on the discussion.

“Exec, this meeting was your idea. Why don’t you start us off?”

“All right, sir. I have concerns with how easily the K’Rang torpedo was able to pick us out of the entire Scutum sector. That torpedo was launched from the K’Rang ship and made a high speed run, just below FTL, through the longitudinal axis of the sector. On its return trip it turned toward us and proceeded to make a weaving path toward us, as if it was constantly refining its bearings as it got closer. If we had stayed where we were, the calculations show, it would have hit us dead on. Now Chief B and I have gone over the sensor logs and the ship logs. We found no signal emitted from the ship. We found no movement of the ship or of the turrets that could have given us away. The K’Rang torpedo shouldn’t have been able to home in on us like that. It was not actively scanning.”

Chief B said, “Sir, I have run a full diagnostic on the ship’s sensors. They are operating better than specs. If there is something giving us away, it’s something the sensors can’t pick up.”

Kelly broke in, “Sir, we’d like to modify one of the probes we have on board to apply the K’Rang sensor suite to it. We’ve checked the inventory. We have enough spare parts on board to rig it up. I’d like to launch that probe and use it to analyze the Vigilant’s signature. We’re going to be out here on patrol for another week; we can schedule it so it doesn’t interfere with our normal patrol duties.”

“Good plan, Exec. Do it when we are in dark space between the star systems.”

“Yes, sir. Chief Miller, would you work with Chief Blankenship to modify a probe? How long do you think it will take?”

“I can have it ready in two days, sir.”

“Chief Billings, when will we be in the dark space exactly between Scutum and Aquila sectors?”

“It should take us about three days.”

The captain stood up. “Okay, let’s aim for running out the probe in three days. Are there any questions? None? Good, back to work.”

Chiefs Blankenship and Miller configured and tested the probe in a day and a half. Chief B fine tuned the data link to increase its data flow to be the sensor equivalent of the Vigilant.

On launch day, Chief Billings confirmed the coordinates, Chief Miller loaded the probe in the launcher, and Chief B confirmed the area was clear of ships and stellar objects. Except for space dust, normal background radiation, and normal gravimetric influences there was nothing for a long way. The captain gave the order and the probe was launched.

The probe set into an increasing spiral around the Vigilant’s horizontal axis. When it reached 10,000 kilometers, it shifted to a decreasing spiral around the vertical axis. This was repeated on the two 45 degree axes between the vertical and horizontal axes. Then the spirals were switched to cover the 22.5 degree axes between.

After all spirals were done the probe was retrieved and stored away. The sensor crew correlated all the data and Chief B displayed the results in the small holographic viewer in the ready room.

Chief B turned down the lights to start the briefing. “I’m going to run through the different spectral bands. First is the visible band. As you can see, the Vigilant has excellent stealth qualities in the visible wavelength. We look like any other black spot in space. As the probe gets closer, you can resolve the outline of the ship, but not pick out any details. As we move into the Ultraviolet bands, we are almost invisible. In the near IR bands we are equally nondescript. Once we move into the far IR, we pick up a small IR signature from the engine exhaust, but only at very close range. If we are greater than 8,000 kilometers away, we are virtually invisible. When we move into the radio and radar bands, we emit no signature whatsoever. We are gravimetrically and magnetically neutral.”

Chief B fiddled with the controls. “It is not until we start looking at the exhaust plume that we see any signature at all.”

The exhaust plume shone in the holographic field like the tail of a comet.

“The exhaust plume of our sub-FTL engine contains ionized particles that trail out behind us like the contrail of an atmospheric flyer. This is what I believe the K’Rang torpedo was homing in on. The sweeping, back and forth movement that it was making was the probe turning back and forth through our exhaust plume. If it had kept going, it would have flown right up our engine exhaust cones.”

The captain folded his hands under his chin, pondered for a moment, and said, “Chief Miller, is there anything we can do to alter our exhaust to make it harder for these things to lock onto us?”

“Well, sir, I’ll need a few days to think about how to do it, but if we could inject something into our exhaust to de-ionize the particles it should throw their sniffer off. I don’t know if we would want to do it all the time or only when we are being sneaky.”

“Chief, think about this and give me some recommendations before we turn back to Antares.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“Chief B, thank you for your analysis. Don’t change the probe back just yet. I’d like to use it to test some of Chief Miller’s ideas. See if you can program it to home in on our exhaust plume. That’s all, everyone. Thank you. Exec, stick around.”

The others filed out, leaving the captain and Kelly alone. “We’ve got about four days left on this patrol. Work with Chief Miller and Chief B to see what we can come up with to scramble this exhaust homing torpedo. I suspect that the torpedo had a bit more speed than it was displaying. When we went under that lighter and went to power 3, it was gaining on us. Fortunately, it locked onto and took the lighter out rather than us. Review the sensor logs for that particular engagement and see if you can determine how fast that torpedo was going when it hit the lighter. It might come in handy to know that.”

“We did very well. The crew did a great job. Our first real combat and not even a scratch. You’ve done well, Kelly. You have done a great job of making the crew into a cohesive unit. I couldn’t have asked for a better exec. I imagine you’ll do very well. I can see you in your own command some day, in the not so distant future.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the compliment, but you’ve got a good crew and great chiefs.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m recommending awards for you, the chiefs, and the crew for our combat action. Of course, they won’t be as impressive as those from New Alexandria.” The captain and Kelly both broke into loud laughter.

“Come on, Exec, let’s get back to patrolling. The K’Rang may come around to see where their friends went now that the cruisers have moved out.”

The rest of the patrol was uneventful. There was no reaction from the K’Rang side of the frontier. A review of the sensor logs from the battle showed that neither K’Rang ship sent a distress call. The K’Rang may not know what happened to their expedition.

On the way back to Antares, the captain called Chiefs Miller and Blankenship into his ready room. Kelly trailed them.

“So, Chiefs, what have you come up with to mask our exhaust?”

Chief Miller spoke first. “Well, sir, Chief B and I have been working on this. We’ve found a number of compounds that will de-ionize the exhaust. The simplest and most effective method would be to increase the size, and therefore, the capacity of the existing electron guns. The electrons will bond with the ions and eliminate their charge with no loss of thrust. That leaves no charged exhaust trail to follow.”

The captain jumped up. “Great, do we have what we need to do that on board?”

Chief Miller had an unhappy look on his face. “No, sir, I’ve searched the whole ship and we don’t have the parts to do that. It will have to be done in a shipyard.”

“Shoot, I’m disappointed in you, Chief. I always thought you could make anything out of almost nothing.” The captain smiled, belying his serious tone.

Chief Miller responded, “There’s no need to be insulting, sir.”

The whole room broke out in laughter and even Chief Miller cracked a smile.


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