Chapter 22 Impulse
"GOOD to see you again. Please take a seat," said Commodore Saunders, hastily brushing some spilled DSUs off the two chairs in his chaotic office. Winston and Albright took a seat each.
"Our report's on this DSU," Winston said. "The abstract should give you a pretty good idea about what we've found so far without needing to delve too much into all the evidence."

  Saunders took the small cartridge and slotted it into his datapad. He read it, poker faced, then placed the pad back onto the desk, sending a pile of DSUs sliding onto the floor.

"Sorry about the mess," he apologised.
"Things are quite serious, as you see from our report," Winston said, trying to get the meeting on track.
"Yes. They are. I suppose you want backup?"
"Well, it would be nice," replied Winston.
"Hmmm," was Saunders' simple reply.

  Albright watched the rain blatter against the window of Saunders's office. He didn't feel too good. Winston had taken them through a thunderstorm on the approach to Edinburgh starport, and the rough air and greenish-black angry clouds had matched his mood. He had a bad feeling that Saunders wasn't going to give them what they needed. His feeling of unease had continued to grow as the mission had progressed, and he still couldn't get the uncomfortable departure, no departure wasn't the right word - fleeing was more the word - from Diamond spaceport out of his mind.

"I'm afraid all our resources are allocated at the moment, and besides, giving you any support right now in Enedlia space would be risky business."
"Well, not as risky as us going without any," Winston remarked. Albright made a sidelong glance in his direction. That was rather bold talk to make to a military superior of Saunders's standing. It was usually considered to be answering back.
Saunders appeared to take no notice of the rebuff. He merely sighed and continued with what he had to say.
"Unfortunately, there's been a couple of diplomatic incidents concerning Enedlia since you've been away. The new leadership there is trying to look as pro-Federation as possible. In the past, the Enedlians were quite happy for AJN antipiracy patrols to protect Alliance shipping in their space. That all ended recently - a routine AJN patrol was confronted by the Enedlian Police and told to leave Enedlian space immediately. Then it happened again, except this time the Police fired on our vessels."
"What happened then?" asked Albright.
"Our boys withdrew of course. Our forces are merely guests in Enedlian space, and since we aren't at war with them, they have every right to request they leave. The Enedlian governor then made it clear that AJN ships were not welcome in their space, alleging a number of wrongdoings. The Federation publically stated they would support the Enedlians. Not wanting to create any further problems, we aren't sending any military craft there any more."
"What about us? Surely AJNIB craft could slip in with us, looking like any other civilian flight?" Albright asked.
"They could if we had any. We are dangerously shorthanded at the moment, and the only cover available to us is AJN. Agents have just had to be extra cautious and discreet. On the other hand, two agents sniffing around a site as opposed to half a dozen raises a lot less suspicion, so it's not all bad."

  They sat in silence for a few moments. Lightning flashed outside, and a dull rumble of thunder reverberated around the building.

"Well, I do need some technical support," Winston said at last. "The last ditch thing is that we could liberate a Nova Rodstein associates ship, have the AJNIB techs get through the security systems, and then slip in using one of their own ships."
"We can do that for you."
"In the meantime, you better talk to your mates over in the AJN and have them form some plan of action in case force is needed in Enedlia. I know right now that Backstab, Nova Rodstein and all the other things I put in my report are focused on the Alliance. For what purpose - I don't know, but I will by the time we return from visiting the system. I have a pretty good idea where to start our investigations, too thanks to a report on rising piracy in the system."
"Well, as I said, I think sending any AJN forces to the system is out of the question, whatever you find," Saunders replied, doubtfully.
"I have a hunch that you're being a bit overoptimistic if you think we won't need them," Winston finished, darkly.

  The meeting concluded, and Winston and Albright were ushered out. Neither was satisfied; Winston hadn't realised that the AJNIB was in such a desperate state, and Albright was worried that the mission was starting to open up like a hole in the ground.

"Let's go to the officer's club, I need a drink," Winston said grimly, as they walked towards the main lobby of AJN Headquarters.
"Did you read that RIG article?" Albright asked. He thought he ought to mention it.
"Read RIG? I only get it for page three," Winston replied, completely deadpan.
"I might have known. But there's an article there, apparently about certain members of the Alliance government conspiring to invade eight other independent systems in the name of security, once the election's over."
"Gosh, RIG have started using some long words, then," Winston replied sarcastically.
"The author of the said article is from Enedlia."
"And it's not RIG's normal style either. Look, I feel a bit of a prat even mentioning it, but check it out anyway. It shouldn't be hard for us to track down the author whilst we're there and see if there's anything in it."
Winston decided to humour his partner. "OK then, give it here," he said, not expecting much.

  He read it. In fact he read it twice. The article didn't even contain any spelling mistakes or lewd jokes, a definite departure for RIG. He was surprised no one had picked up on it. A cross check on the other papers showed nothing - not even a hint at "RIG article panics independent system" kind of news. Just this one article.

"Well, we'll pay a visit to the author. But it's got to be bullshit. Just doesn't seem to make sense," Winston said, shrugging.

"...and two hours later, he managed to get out!" said the AJN Captain loudly.
The group around the bar burst into laughter.
"Oh, that's nothing," was Winston's comeback, "you should have seen the look on my mate Wesley LaRoche's face when I shot him with the stunner after he tried to mutiny. He...what?"
Albright was tugging his sleeve.
"Sorry, something's come up, I'll catch you later," he said, as Albright dragged him off.
"What's up?" he asked, seeing Albright's obvious urgency.

  Albright turned Winston's body to face out of the window. Winston was getting a bit sozzled, and Albright was a bit worse for wear. A night in the officer's club often ended up this way. Winston tried to focus on outside, where it was getting dark, and the heavy rain had given way to fog and light drizzle. Edinburgh's main spaceport was not far away, and Winston could see dull shapes - machines moving cargo to and from trading vessels.

"It's just the spaceport," said Winston at last.
"Look at the ships."
"Yes, you get ships at the spaceport, it's hardly..."
"Look at the middle one."
"Yes, a Cobra Mk.3, very nice, now where's my pint gone?"
"In that ship if you don't look harder," Albright said in a harsh whisper. Another burst of raucous laughter eminated from the general area of the bar.
"Look, I really ought to get back to telling my story, I'll lose my place," Winston complained. "I mean, it's just a Cobra Mk.3," he finished, pointing vaguely in the direction of the spaceport and lurching a little.
Albright sighed.
"What do you want me to say? It's just a Cobra owned by the trading company," Winston peered into the gloom, "Nova Rodstein..." His voice trailed off.
"Oh shit," Winston said at last.
"I say we steal it right now, I've already called the AJNIB techs." Albright said urgently.

  The AJN captain at the bar had started telling another tall story at the top of his voice. Winston decided no one would notice if they slipped away now. The pair left the club, and jogged in an irregular line towards the spaceport hangars, where their own ship was parked. After a little fumbling, Winston managed to open the ship.

"Quick detox in order first, I think," Winston said with a slight slur.
"How many beers have you had?"

  They both took a detox shot. Winston could feel his head clear. He grabbed a backpack with some extra clothing and equipment, the ship computer's AI module named "Jas", and a Lance and Ferman light pistol. Albright picked up his own backpack, but preferred to take his own Kreuger Deathmaster 357 defence handgun over the standard AJN issue weapon. Neither wasted much time. The commander of the Nova Rodstein ship might be back any moment.

  The pair walked towards the NRA ship to avoid attracting any unwanted attention. It was dark and silent, parked on the spaceport apron, loaded with cargo for its next mission.

"Wonder if the techs have been yet?" muttered Winston quietly.
The ship answered that question, as Albright placed his hand on the entry panel. The main doors opened, and the entry ladder slid out.
"Looks like it," Albright replied.

  The pair climbed on board, and closed the door after them. The ship's interior lights came on, dimly illuminating the equipment bay. Winston carefully looked over the fittings.

"Standard cargo hauler configuration for a Cobra Mark Three, by the looks of it," he remarked.
"Military drive, though," Albright added.
"Allows for more cargo space."
"Or to fit one of these," said Albright, pointing to a large, beige piece of equipment. It was almost completely nondescript. All it had was a small keypad and display on the side.
"I wonder what this is," Winston said, looking at the large boxlike object.
"It's a low-frequency transmitter. Quite powerful, hence the size," said a voice behind them. Winston whirled around in surprise, drawing his weapon.
"Oh, hello Kev, don't mind Jim here, I think you startled him," said Albright.
"No, no problem," said the tall man with an amiable smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you, my name's Kevin Waller, senior technician for the AJNIB," he said brightly.
"I could have blown you to smithereens," Winston said without much emotion.
"Oh don't worry about that, I always wear the latest in personal shielding when on the job, you never know who you'll meet," he said. "You'd have to get in quite a few shots to deplete it."

  Winston looked at the man in slight disbelief. He was tall and thin, and it looked as if there was an eagle somewhere in his ancestry. He had that slightly nervous look that all nerds have when around people, which seemed at odds with his sunny disposition.

"Well, have a good trip anyway, and don't get blown up," he said, and left the ship.
"Strange man," muttered Winston, who turned and headed towards the bridge.
"Wonder what the transmitter is for?" Albright asked.
Winston shrugged. "I'll set Jas on the problem once I've found somewhere I can slot her into the ship's systems."
Albright sniggered.
"Slot her in...oh, never mind, just a joke I was thinking of," Albright finished. He wasn't positive that the detox had worked particularly well. He didn't feel any of the unease he had earlier.

  They wasted no time in launching. The real owners of the ship could be back any moment, and they didn't want to be around when they arrived. Albright took the helm, whilst Winston made sure that Jas was happily installed and connected to the ship's systems.

"Are you fully operational?" Winston asked. Jas performed her self-test.
"Never liked Cobras," she grumbled, "but other than that, all systems check out."
"Good. We've got a task for you already. Find out what that low frequency transmitter does and how to work it."
"Yes, boss," she replied. Winston was sure he could hear just the tinge of sarcasm in her voice. She could act very human at times.

  The ship dropped out of hyperspace, leaving the glowing blue hyperspace exit cloud behind. Winston lazily leaned back in the copilot's seat, whilst Albright set the navigation computer to take them to Enedlia A,B1c, the nearest planet to where the wreckage of the ASC ship had been found. He engaged the autopilot.

"Stardreamer?" he asked.
"No, I need to think."
"Well, boys, I've found a few interesting facts for you," said Jas's voice over the cabin speakers.
"What's up?"
"That low frequency transmitter of yours has a small computer, that has a single stored message. The ship's databanks also contain a private and public cipher key, and a few encrypted messages. The key is protected by a passphrase. It's a very simple one," she said.
"What is it?" asked Winston.
"Wubbles?" asked Albright, surprised. "How do you know? I thought those things were impossible to crack."
"The passphrase is written on a sticker which is stuck to the terminal inside the commander's quarters. Cracking is often looking for obvious clues like this, not the glamorous rooms of equipment brute-forcing keys you know," she added.
"Why 'wubbles'?"
"Probably the name of his pet rat. There is a large white rat in a cage in there, too."
Winston shook his head.
"What about the transmitter?" he asked.
"It's high powered, connected to a directional antenna, indicating that the intended receiver is placed somewhere where signals have difficulty getting to. Or the receiver isn't very sensitive. The stored message looks like a command of some kind. Oddly enough, it's not encrypted by the cipher key."
"The cipher key may be just to confirm identity," Albright said.
"Very probably," replied Jas.

The ship plied the silence of space.

Little were the occupants to know, that due to a terrible mistake of their own doing, they would be expected at their destination. In fact, they were to become more concerned with what the long range scan was showing...

© 2002 Dylan Smith.

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