The Nebula's Tide

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Code Red Series Niner-Niner

On the other end of the vast quadrant, Federation Station Fifty-Nine, code named Needle, was on high alert. The uppermost control room of the slowly spinning top was swarmed with early woken officers.

All stations were active, every dash had its attendant, all searching and scrolling, calling out their readings as soon as they emerged. The Needle had established a twenty four hour watch on the doctor’s signal the instant her ship disappeared from their tracking system, switching out operatives every six hours to maintain a constant feed on her health and location. A small dispatch team was sent out when her signal broadcasted coordinates that ranked high on the Federation’s quarantine list, coming in from the slave planet Texth in the Lejos galaxy. But the distance was far, and the team was not able to surpass the slaver’s blockade undetected, before her signal transferred once again.

Admiral Jacob Fletcher was the commanding officer of Station Fifty-Nine. He had been the man to approve Dr. Leahy’s unescorted travel from Tractatio where she had been assigned, he was the supervisor on deck when her ship’s distress signal had flared before disappearing from the command center’s screens, and he was the one who now stood at the center of the station’s chaos, trying his best to maintain control over himself and his officers as they watched the doctor’s health readings blare frantically before them.

The moment the readings spiked, Fletcher had called in the station’s medical experts, consulting with them to be sure that the data was true. But the doctors only confirmed what the computer had already told him. The flashing red lights didn’t lie. All signs of Dr. Leahy’s suffered pain pointed to torture. Her safety had been compromised, her knowledge was probably being extracted, which eliminated the likelihood that an offer of a trade would be made by her captors.

This clearly wasn’t strategy, Fletcher thought. They would take what information they needed from her, and whatever else that might please them. It was cruelty and abuse, and from this distance there was nothing he could do to stop it.

“Do we have a god-dammed fix on her location yet?!” he shouted again over the rumble of scrambling officers.

“Still unclear Admiral. They’ve just entered deep space, we can’t get the exact coordinates.”

“What about the signal trail? Do you have a foundation for hyper-jump?”

“Working on it, sir. Whatever ship she’s on must be cloaked, its wavelength is too scattered to trace.”

"Damn," he cursed under his breath, his hands gripping the edge of the steel railing tight enough that it started to cut into the white flesh of his palms. This was unbelievable. What sort of pirate ship moved that quickly without leaving a traceable disruption wake? And why take such a valuable prisoner without so much as a ransom for her return? That would have been the first thing he suspected.

Admiral Fletcher was by no means a noble man. He gained his rank by doing what was necessary. And though he would never admit it, his main concern surrounding this catastrophe was how it might affect his standing rank, and not necessarily the safety of the Hantae woman who was involved. He recognized her value, one of seven of her race that was granted leave from their home world, and therefore an essential link that tied the Federation to this very profitable ally. But the chain between them was weak and trembling, built on the unstable foundations of a wary people. If they lost her to the likes of …space pirates, whilst under his watch? Fletcher knew he would bare the weight of this collapse, and that was not a brand he wished to carry.

He began to pace back and forth, the scale of his mind weighing the pros and cons of executing the call for drastic action.

“Have we received the information from the slave planet yet? Who’s working on that? I sent out orders for retrieval twenty minutes ago!”

“Corporal Heinlein, sir.” Someone responded. The room shared a hushed mumble of discontentment as the name was mentioned. Fletcher shook his head. Acting on duty as he was, it was not his place to voice his personal opinions, but inside he was rolling his eyes with the rest of them.

“Well someone com him, and tell him to get his ass on deck immediately! I~" but before the Admiral could finish, the doors to the command center slid open as one Corporal Archibald Heinlein stumbled through. The small alien rushed past the rows of operative monitors, using his long arms to bound forward through the crowd as two smaller limbs clutched a jumbled stack of files to his chest. He shouted his pardons and apologies as he made his way to the front.

Stopping short of Fletcher’s platform, he lowered his legs -that, until now, had been tucked beneath him- and rose to a slightly taller stature, the pile of paperwork slipping through his many fingers.

“Apologies, Admiral Fletcher. You have no idea how hard it is to solo out one slaver among an entire planet of them. Not to mention the rigmarole I had to go through coordinating with our ground ops. It's like, what part of 'covert operation' don't you understand? I~ "

“Heinlein! Your report, now.”

“Oh, yes! Um, she was sold by a slave trader named Artemis Hind two days ago, to Captain Treta. The doctor was last seen boarding the pirate ship Monoceros and… well that’s it, that’s what I got.” At mention of the Pirate Lord, the room grew quite. The officers all turned to see how their Admiral would respond, but his face remained blank and still as stone.

The Monoceros. So that’s what we’re up against. The uncatchable ship and its monstrous captain.

A thousand thoughts seemed to rush through his mind at that moment, thoughts of fear and uncertainty, battle plans and means of pursuit. But through it all there was the prevailing notion of opportunity. They had a Federation signal on-board the Monoceros, and though it was scattered and distant, it could be enough to track them down. For the time being, anyway. At least as long as the doctor remained alive.

Fletcher snapped his attention back to the command center and the eyes of his officers, eagerly awaiting his orders.

“Corporal Heinlein, I want all possible information on that ship. Statistics, blueprints, anything you can find.”

“Already found sir,” said the small, ape-like man, and he lifted the mess of files and sheets in his hands, “I anticipated your interest and the possible pursuit, so I printed off what I could.”

Fletcher raised an eyebrow, “You printed it off? Is that paperwork, Corporal?”

“Ah, yes it is, sir. My Glass Tech has been malfunctioning lately so I said 'to hell with it' and threw the darn thing out. This is actually made from old Earth components. I managed to hook up a printer to our computer’s system and even found some ink for it too. Let me tell ya, it’s not easy stuff to come by.” Heinlein started chuckling, hoping it would lighten the iron stare his superior was giving him. It did not, so he stopped and instead stumbled up the stairs.

“You know what, I’ll just leave these here for you, to look over. And if you get confused about the organization I can just~"

“Transfer the information to a modern component and have it sent to me.” The Admiral finished for him. For a moment, Corporal Heinlein looked almost heartbroken. But his commander’s bark to ‘get to it!’ quickly sent him nodding and scurrying away. Fletcher raised his voice as he sent it across the wide cavernous room.

“For the rest of you, I want the farthest coordinates that we can get on that signal unscrambled and locked onto immediately. Ready all active battle cruisers in the Beta, they launch as soon as we have a location for hyper jump. We’ll meet the bloody pirates on the deep space boarder and surround them from there. All Federation stations in the quadrant are to be on full alert, this rescue mission has been elevated to code Red. I want results and I want them now!” He turned from his platform railing and, kicking aside the pile of paper left on the top stair, quickly descended. He called to a nearby officer, signaling for the woman to walk with him as he left the command center.

“Sgt. Markis, you will serve as commanding officer while I’m away.”

“You’ll be assisting in the rescue, Admiral?” she asked, her voice resonant with the clicks and hums of her native language.

“I’ll be leading it. The Monoceros and its captain have never been this close to capture, and I want to be there to see that it’s done properly.”

“And what of the Federation council? They’ve been notified and are asking about the doctor’s status, sir. She’s still under diplomatic title, and they’re anxiously waiting to see if we need alert The Hantae ambassador about her condition.” Admiral Fletcher stopped mid stride and spun around so quickly that the Sargent had to pull up suddenly to keep from running into him.

“Listen to me very carefully, Markis, the Hantae are not to be notified until the last possible moment. If word of her capture gets to them, we will face strategic and diplomatic destruction. Your focus remains on ensuring that the signal is decoded and tracked, do you understand?”

The Sargent nodded respectfully.

“Good.” Fletcher turned, and continued quickly down the corridor. Calling back over his shoulder he added, “Notify me when the location is secure. Nothing else leaves station Fifty-Nine.”

Down at the point of the rotating Needle, two of the Federation’s battle cruisers were docked and waiting. The back engines began to awaken as the booster rockets glowed like embers against the starry night. Ancient fires then giving way, melted into the modern blue glow of the Spectral Flame, the Federation’s patented power source. A call to arms had been sent to the other two war ships in the Beta, and both confirmed responses had returned.

Kala's coordinates were secured. Admiral Fletcher took his seat in the commander’s chair and, with not so much as a word, he launched the mighty ship. That feeling, that… sense of opportunity from before, was now burning inside him. The image of his own predetermined glory was a force willing him forward, and at that moment it was all he could see.

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