Numerous brilliant red lights flashed on the bridge as switches were vigorously flipped and buttons vainly pressed while all of the monitors sitting before the motley crew of the SJ Raptor all displayed the same thing: the ship was going down. The many reports and calls of the crew fell on the deaf ears of the captain, who sat with her feet kicked up on the panel of monitors in front of her and her hat pulled over her eyes as if she was napping. The only sign that she was not in fact asleep was the occasional bob of the toothpick protruding from her mouth.
One particularly valiant crew member took it upon himself to take a stand in front of the captain, just behind the panel of monitors, and address her, “Captain Kandor, the ship is going down!”
The captain lifted a gloved hand and adjusted her hat just enough to see the tall, slim body of the Lieutenant Commander. “Calm down, would you?”
The poor ginger man, already flustered, clenched his fists in frustration and raised his voice in a wholehearted attempt to get his point across. “Captain, do something! We’re approaching Huron Four at an alarming rate and, at this rate, we’ll burn up in the atmosphere! That planet is volatile, Captain, and the escape pods are still dysfunctional! You shouldn’t be so calm!”
Tanya Kandor sighed and removed her feet from the monitors, re-adjusting herself into a proper seated position to lean slightly forward, eyeing her worrywart of a second in command. “I said,” she spoke slowly and loudly as if to a senior citizen who was hard of hearing as well as memory and had forgotten their hearing aid on the nightstand that morning, “to calm down. The ship isn’t going to burn up in the atmosphere and those escape pods were always useless. We. Will. Be. Fine.”
The anxious Lieutenant Commander began to run the pads of his fingers along the numerous scales that colored his cheeks, a nervous habit of his. With no response he returned to his chair to fume. Tanya stood in his wake to do a quick tour of the room, scanning the various alarming displays as she passed them. One in particular was different from the rest and showed a variety of cold blue bars, and she stopped to lean over the bridge officer seated before the screen; the tired old man with pure white hair grinned up at her, then spoke loud enough for the rest of the bridge to hear.
“Outer temperature is well within the safe zone miss Tanya and shows no sign of increasing.”
“Thank you Benson. Carry on.” Tanya stood straight and took a deep breath to project her voice to the entire bridge crew, “All right people, cut the alarms. Roan, increase power to the atmospheric shielding. Lotus, ignore your wonderful piloting skills and shoot us straight at H4, but avoid anything not gray. Cry-Baby, I want a full report on any stations not prepared for that emergency jump.”
“Captain Kandor, how could the outer temperature be fine!?” The Lieutenant Commander pointed at the largest display toward the front of the bridge, showing a large and getting larger sphere of gray wasteland. “That's a planet, so where's the atmosphere?”
The Captain smiled to herself, “Where indeed?” Closing her eyes, she leaned against the back of old man Benson's chair, “There's a reason I set this planet as our primary emergency jump coordinates.” The gray planet had become larger than the view screen would show; large mountains and vast plains could be distinguished. “As long as we don't have any hull breaches and the atmospheric shielding is working, this planet makes for the perfect crash landing.” The view screen, lacking true depth, tricked the eye into thinking that at each moment the ship would smash against the approaching planet's surface; the planet seemed to adhere to fractional dimensions, no matter how close they got there was always a similar appearance. “Or if all aboard happen to be dead or dying, it also makes for a decent burial site.” A ripple appeared on the planet's gray surface, a growing halo that welcomed the ship like a target. “The textbooks will tell you that H4 is volatile and dangerous, not to be approached or landed on, but that is only half the truth; to the wary, any danger ceases to be.”
One of the bridge crew, a pale woman with graceful features and long-fingered hands spread across a large pad, spoke up, “Captain, we will hit the surface in five, four, three,” the frustrated Lieutenant Commander closed his eyes, “two,” the Captain opened her eyes to watch the primary view screen, “one.” There was the most subtle of tremors and they were inside the planet, floating through a haze of gray. “Captain, what is this, soup?”
“This soup, my darling, is a massive collection of nanobots,” Tanya replied, “that consumed this planet a long time ago. The fourth alliance had been experimenting with all-consuming machines for military use, and one of their researchers dropped a vial.”
Captain Kandor sighed, recalling all of the researchers’ faces and names who had been quarantined on the dying planet. While there truly was nothing she could have done, she still took it upon herself to remember them.
Tanya turned to face the rest of the bridge and plastered a smile onto her face before giving the wall next to her a good thump. “Alright people, time to get this hunk of scrap stabilized. Cry-Baby?”
The blue-furred, bat-like creature that was the Comms Officer adjusted the miniscule listening device in one of the many ears that lined the sides and back of his head. His voice was gravelly but a bit high pitched in comparison to that of an average human man, “Not all of the weapons in the artillery had been strapped down and a few of them fired. No hull breaches but a matter processor was damaged and Kern sustained a few injuries.” He paused, twitching an ear as a new report came in from Residential. “A few civilians with minor injuries, but one of the meds is already down there.”
Tanya spoke just as Cry-Baby finished his report, “Has anyone spotted that little rat on board?”
The Harpoine chirped into the microphone and waited, twitching an ear every time a department or station responded. Cry-Baby shook his head and chittered something in a high frequency before replying to the captain, “There are no sightings of the intruder, Captain. They may have escaped before we jumped.”
Tanya gazed out over the bridge, calculating, before finally unholstering her blaster and striding off of the bridge to search for the intruder herself. The Lieutenant Commander timidly followed, passing through the bridge's air seal at the correct two paces behind his captain. In the hallway beyond, after the seal had closed behind him and they were walking alone, he spoke.
“Captain Kandor, going to such lengths as entering a class B volatile is extreme. The incoming energy pulse was of unknown origin, we may have been in the path of someone's radio beam or an equally harmless - .”
“Call it captain's intuition then.” Tanya approached the nearest seal with her blaster held before her and waved a hand across the sensor bar to open the automatic entry. The small arms locker, no larger than a walk-in closet, was empty and unlit; Tanya gestured for the LC to enter. “The frequency looked familiar to me, something about it spooked me.”
In her time spent on Huron Four Tanya had seen many experiments for advanced energy weapons, some that could cause a crew to go mad and rip each other to pieces, others that could warp and alter a being's DNA, and a hundred more that would kill you in a hundred different ways. The horrors of war were dreamed up in places like that, by researchers and scientists who could still go home to the loving families that didn't know or didn't want to think about what they did.
The LC intruded on the captain's reverie after exiting the weapons locker with a long-barreled soft-slug rifle, “So you believe it was an attack. Do you also believe our stowaway from Playineed's Master is related?”
Captain Kandor shrugs and moves on to the next air seal in her sweep, “The rat may have been a coincidence. We'll find them and ask.” The next air seal is opened to reveal yet another room, this one was a lounge with several tables and chairs for the occasional coffee break. The lights were lit.
Tanya gestured for the Lieutenant Commander to stay back to guard the exit as she stalked over to the matter processor: the only thing large enough for anyone to effectively hide behind. The captain waited until she was just in front of the machine before lunging to the side to get a good look at whoever or whatever was in the crevice between the matter processor and the wall. It was to her disappointment that the only thing there was a bound, gagged, and very agitated human. It was not long before the arrogant engineer was untied and making himself comfortable in one of the cushioned chairs, propping his feet up on the table and leaning so that the front two legs of the chair were in the air rather than on the ground.
The LC was the first to take a crack at him. “What were you doing in here? The engineering department has its own lounge for a reason, Litz.”
Litz rocked his chair back and forth on its hind legs. “What’s it to you, Jen?”
Gen flinched at the intentional mispronunciation of his name, but Tanya did not give him a chance to respond. “Did you see the rat before it tied you up?”
“Short haired albino male, tall, thin, and a bit like a Chilo. Type two muscular enhancements on the upper arms and a palm stunner on the right hand, concealed. Got me just about five minutes ago.” A smirk appeared on the engineer’s face as he watched his captain commit to memory the details of the intruder. “Anything else, sweetheart?”
Captain Kandor gave one of the back legs of Litz’s chair a light tap, just enough to send him scrambling to the floor. “Stay put,” she spoke as she strode out of the room, Gen in tow, and tapped her ear to connect with Cry-Baby. “Has there been any interdepartmental movement in the last 10 to 15 minutes?”
“No Captain. All sections were locked down during the jump as per standard regulations. Shall the order be given to - ?”
“No, inform all departments to stay locked down.” Tanya grinned at Gen, “We've got the rat trapped in Command, unless he can … .” she trailed off. “Hmm, I hope not.” She crept towards the next seal down the hall, Gen behind her with his rifle trained on the T-intersection ahead.
“Captain Kandor, I'm thinking a month of mixed martial arts for Litz?”
“You always know just what to say Gen. Make it judo with a few of the neanderthals.” Tanya waved open the next seal, this time a small custodial closet filled with stacked cabinets of chemicals and supplies, a small cart magnetized to the floor and a rack of secure cleaning implements. One mop was missing. “The mop is a ruse, the rat may have taken chemicals. At least two of the combinations I see would be dangerous.”
“If you don't mind me asking Captain Kandor, what did you mean by saying unless he can?” They continued down the hall and arrived at the intersection, Tanya at one corner and Gen the other.
“Hopefully nothing. Loss of skin pigmentation is sometimes a sign of antimatter sickness. On three, one, two - .” Together they spun around their corner, but there was no one in either direction. Both short halls ended in a heavy reinforced air seal, one with the sign Engineering above and the other Quarters. The only place left was two seals at the intersection, one baby blue and the other pink. Tanya sighed, “We'll have to split up for the bathrooms.” Gen nodded and walked toward the pink seal, “No, you take the men's bathroom.”
Gen paused, nodded again, and changed his course to the blue seal, waiting for his captain to get into position and signal for him to enter. She raised three fingers, dropped one for two, and on one waved her hand across the bar as Gen did the same at his. The women's side opened with no excitement, the insides unlit, but a thick white smoke poured from the men's side and a light flickered inside. Before Gen could enter, Tanya smacked the sensor bar above the blue seal; the bar lit up with a red glow and the seal closed again.
“Captain Kandor, the intruder - .”
“Isn't in there. Meaning either Litz was in that break room for a lot longer than he wanted to admit, or we have a dark shifter on the ship.” She tapped her ear again, “Cry-Baby, I want all interdepartmental seals unlocked and held open, we need maximum maneuverability, then tell everyone to arm themselves and start patrols of the ship for - .” An explosion from back down the hall rocked the ship, Gen was sent tumbling and Tanya dropped to one knee. She winced and looked back the way they had come, where the sensor bar above the break room seal had turned a bright red. “CB, status!”
“Officer Benson has informed me that a repair drone must be sent to the exterior, all he can say from the diagnostics is that there was an explosion inside the ship, causing light fracturing of the neck and a possible leak to the outside.”
Tanya scowled, “How possible?”
“Atmospheric shielding is all that we have keeping the soup out. Chief Engineer Roan has informed me that the shielding can be kept at its current level for - .”
“Not long, I understand.” Tanya rubbed her forehead with two fingers, her eyes closed, as Gen took a knee at her side and waited for orders. “Tell Engineering to send the drone out immediately, we need that breach sealed. Send Saint and someone to the Command break room in air shields, to pull what they can of Litz out. And lastly, tell Benson we may have a dark shifter on our hands, I need options.” Tanya stood up as the two large seals opened down both short hallways. She pointed Gen at one and he nodded in understanding, he had already walked below the sign for Quarters as she entered Engineering.
The walls were a bare gun-metal gray as Captain Kandor stalked through cold dark rooms of bare light bulbs and steel rivet flooring. A burst of static assaulted her ear before Benson's voice came through, “Can you hear me Miss Tanya? I'm borrowing the headset from Cry-Baby, though I’m not sure if I - .”
Tanya spun around a corner, blaster ready but no target there, “Thank you Benson. Now, what are my options?”
“Not good Miss Tanya. If our perp caused the explosion then he could do so anywhere else as well, meaning there is a certain degree of urgency that we catch - .”
“Benson, I know all that! What I need are options!”
A wicked grin could be heard in the old man's voice, “Tactical maneuvers while the perp is mid-shift, if you don't mind losing the opportunity to ask them questions.”
Tanya smiled as well, “You always did fight dirty. Go for it, scan for dark shift waves and tell Lotus when, make sure you get the rat on the first try. And give Cry-Baby back his headset before you make him upset.” Tanya dashed through the dim hallway to the engine room, another possible target for the destructive stowaway.
It was not long before Tanya reached the other interdepartmental seal at the end of the hallway. She took a right and then a left, pushing but not quite shoving through the flustered engineers bustling in and out of the engine room. So many people of so many species moving everywhere at once made it hard to discern if the dark shifter was among them, but Captain Kandor found him nevertheless.
The Chilo mutt with a phase-shift device covering the length of his forearm was still quite a distance away from the engine itself and was sticking close to the walls. Engineers were so busy recovering from the jump that they didn’t give him a second glance.
“Cry-Baby, I’ve got eyes on him. Connect me to Benson.” The rat had yet to spot Tanya, as he was too focused on getting to the engine. He moved at a steady pace forward, neither slow enough nor fast enough to draw attention. Tanya moved around him from the distance, planning to cut him off from the engine: if he recognized her while she was still behind he would bolt and, chances were, Tanya would not be able to catch him in time to prevent another explosion. What she really wanted to do was scare him into another phase shift.
Another burst of static squealed over the comms. “Have you found him Miss Tanya?”
Tanya was in front of the rat, then, and was walking straight towards him. She wanted him to notice her. “Yes, I’ve got him in my sights. I’m going to scare him into a phase shift.”
“Just say when.”
The captain was just ten feet away from the dark shifter when he spotted her, and she charged. As expected he turned to jump through the wall, slamming his hand down on the device on his forearm.
The ship jolted, bringing nearly everyone to the floor. The Chilo was no longer in the room, but Tanya suspected that he would be stuck in the next room over, or perhaps two. Tanya put a finger to her ear as several of the engineers around her realized who she was and started saluting her as they stood and went about their work.
“Benson? Or Cry-Baby, somebody tell me we got the rat.”
Benson's voice squawked from the headset, “Looks like it Miss Tanya, judging from the readings he's interposed with a wall down in the officers quarters. Depending on his placement a med team might - .”
“Do it.” Tanya glanced around the room and used her commanding voice to address the engineers, “Sorry for the emergency jump people, now I want this rusted soap box back in shape!” They scurried into action and Tanya turned to leave. “Cry-Baby, anything else I should know?”
“Gen has been informed of your success and is returning to the bridge. Saint has reported in and says that Litz will survive, though he is badly injured.”
Tanya nodded, “Okay, I want Lotus to take us out of the planet. We've spent long enough and it's getting bad for our health. See you on the bridge.”
A minute later Captain Kandor entered the bridge-deck to the quick salutes of her crew and took her seat. The large central view screen showed the stars of space again, while a side screen showed them leaving the gray planet behind at sub-light speed. Tanya stared at the central view screen and clenched her jaw.
“If we're ready, we'll track down that energy and see who - .”
“Captain Kandor, that must wait.” Cry-Baby's high voice was higher than usual, and he pointed one long furred finger to the view screen. A large shape blotted out the stars, a black plate that filled the screen even as its tail end stretched forward to meet with the rest as the giant cube of a vessel finished its jump. “I have received a Plat-class communication. On threat of bounty you are ordered to appear before the arriving Triumvirate envoy.”
Captain Kandor secured the last button of her red-gold embroidered suit and stepped back from the mirror to appreciate the whole outfit. Her plain hat was replaced for a sleek red military cap to match her suit, several bars and stars were pinned to her lapel and her gloves had been ironed to stiffen the creases. She scowled at the mirror, then smiled like a shark.
“What was the line from that old poem?” Tanya stuck a fresh toothpick in her mouth and glanced up, where the snow-white face of the Chilo was half-out like a hunting trophy. Judging from his expression, the last thing he felt was shock before his brain fused with the wall. Tanya sighed, “Right. When meeting with the devil, wear red.”