None of the patrol craft sustained any catastrophic damage from their encounter with the cargo freighter, but they would be unable to take the sweeper squads back to base. By the time that O’Riley had checked on the status of the crews of the four downed vessels, a troop transport had collected the four sweeper squads from the scene. They had all squeezed into transport but the tight fit made the short ride back to base uncomfortable to say the least. On his way back he contacted his commanding officer.
He pinged his superior officer from his transport comm line. He picked up immediately. “Tell me you have good news.”
“That’s affirmative. The vessel got a drop on us and disabled four patrol craft. No casualties.”
“That’s good I suppose. Tell me the plan?” Sweeper squads operated within the command structure of the Union military but had more freedom than other units within the armed services. They could select their own missions if not already assigned to a mission or detail. They still had to rely on the other branches for support in those missions though.
He loudly replied so that everyone could hear. “My crew and I will chase down that piece of Terran waste, his worthless crew, and their bucket of bolts ship. You don’t take a shot at us and live to tell the tale.” His crew let out a loud whoop of agreement. “My men will prepare for interplanetary pursuit.”
“Granted. I will requisition a Star Patrol Craft to provide support, but you know I can’t assign you as the sole squad on this mission.”
“Affirmative. What is the ETA on our Patrol Craft?”
“Several hours,” O’Riley sighed. He hated when he had to wait for a ride. The trail could go cold by then and it would make it harder to track and find them, but what else could he do. He thought for a second. “Master Chief?” his CO asked.
“Yeah?” he replied. “I’m thinking.” A moment later he had a plan. “Get me the informant that had tipped off the planetary security forces about the smugglers that they failed to capture today,” he replied. “I want him in one of the interrogation rooms ASAP.”
“The locals are going to want to run the investigation on this one,” he said.
“I don’t care. Unless I am mistaken, they escaped the planet and engaged their gravity drive. Correct?” O’Reilly asked.
“That’s affirmative,” he responded.
“Then it’s no longer a planetary matter, Union investigatory and capture forces can claim jurisdiction. Get me that snitch.”
“Will do I will ping you when he’s on site.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
“You’re welcome. Over and out.” The Master Chief shut down his communication line and focused on his next step. He needed to know where they were going and there were several ways he could find that out. First he would check the sensor net data on their escape and gravity jump telemetry. This would give them at least a direction, but it’s not hard to end your jump and redirect your course once you feel you are a safe enough distance from where anyone would expect you to be. Hopefully something will turn up that might make his job easier.
The interrogation will help with that; he could convince that sniveling little smuggler to give him the destination. At that point it would be easy, just call the local planetary forces to detain the criminals until he could get there. They were pulling into the dock as these thoughts ran through his head.
After they landed he held his squad back. “Prepare for interplanetary pursuit. Grab the gear you need and meet at our Sweeper transport in thirty minutes ready to depart. Anyone late gets left behind and no share of any reward when we take these smugglers alive.” The men moved out. He tasked his second officer to grab his rucksack on his way back. O’Riley made his way through the hanger and up the gantry ways through the racks of vessels.
He finally pulled up to a vessel with multiple battle scars from its years of service: his personal Sweeper transport. He punched in a code and the back door swung down and open. He walked through the cargo and crew area right into the cockpit. He started up the electrical systems and turned on the communication lines. He sent a ping to the security chief of the six Union Planetary Defenders in orbit. He sent them a request to send all the flight telemetry and sensor data on the vessel that matched the sensor profile he downloaded from the downed Sweeper transports to his personal Sweeper transport.
Within minutes he had several reports from several of the Planetary Defenders. He had an escape and Gravity Jump vector. He could use this information to plot the direction they headed and all the star systems they would find along that path. He also found some other data of interest. This ship appeared to have sustained some form of damage. Its engines had expelled a form of engine waste, not normal or common with cargo freighters of that type. This would make it easier to track. He plugged in the data to his PDD. Like a bloodhound he had the scent of these law breakers; now he just had to sniff them out. At that moment the communication line in his suit pinged. His HUD showed it to be his CO; this would be his good news. “Yes sir?”
“We have the suspect in Interrogation Room #5 whenever you’re ready. He’s banged up pretty bad. Not sure how you’re going to get any information out of him” he said.
“I have my ways. Over and out.” He exited his Sweeper Patrol craft and head to the interrogation room. On the way he saw several of his crew heading already to depart. He thanked them for their prompt actions but it would be a few hours before they could leave. He directed them to drop off their gear at the craft and just hang out until he pinged them. He turned the corner and entered the elevators that appeared on his side. He punched the level for the interrogation rooms and in a moment he was there.
The elevator door opened and the hallway in view was dominated by doors and windows. Each of these was an interrogation room used by the Union to question suspects in crimes against the state.
He stopped outside the window and looked in. He was shot and bleeding. Both hands were wrapped in gauze that was slowly during dark red. Something was also wrong with his mouth too, but he could not tell what. Information on the suspect was displayed on a PDD outside the room. He scanned the information for any detail that might help him get the information out of the guy.
He was already arrested for operating a smuggling ring for the transport of black market goods off the planet. He should be pretty pliable, but you can never tell with these guys. Some are harder to crack than others. There was an angle here; he just had to find it. His family was already detained as collateral for his cooperation in apprehending the smugglers that worked with him. That angle would not work. He didn’t have a plan but he needed information, the sooner the better. He would just have to play this by ear.
The body of Iron Eagle’s now former Chief Engineer lay on the main table in front of Davik and Chris. A white sheet covered his entire body save his head. “What’s the news DC?” the captain asked.
“I was just about to start the autopsy, captain. You are welcome to stay if you want.”
“I will.” The captain took a seat on one of the counters surrounding the medical bay. Chris took out his medical equipment and started to get to work. He started with a basic visual inspection. He noted the burn marks on the face of the Chief and took a few samples of the burned flesh. He kept copious notes as he examined the exterior of the body.
Chris then grasped a scalpel and cut a Y-shaped incision into Chief’s chest. The situation became all too real at that moment. The fact that Chief did not jump up and try to scare the Captain in some elaborate prank made reality sink in his stubborn will. The blood that oozed out of the incisions proved that this was his new reality. It was not soon after Chris cut into Chief that he apparently reached a conclusion. He recovered Chief’s body with a white sheet and removed his protective garments. He jotted down some more notes and approached the captain.
“Plasma poisoning.” The doctor pointed to the lips and fingers of the dead crew mate. “Notice the lack of color in the lips and fingertips. The burns are consistent with that conclusion as well. My best guess is that he was examining the engine and the blast caught him straight in the face.”
“But the body was near the exit of the chamber?” Davik asked.
“He could have either been trying to escape or he was working on the computer just after it happened.”
Davik opened ship comm line to the bridge. “Five to the bridge.”
“Monk here.” the voice echoed out of the speaker.
“Check the computer logs for the time we were out on the run.”
Only a few seconds, Cace’s voice rang out from the speaker again. “It appears that Chief initiated a containment protocol in the main engines. Then proceeded to vent the atmosphere from the ship.”
“Thanks, Monk.” He released the button on his ship comm line in the medical bay. Davik could hear Chris’s voice but it did not register in his brain. He attempted to put the pieces of the puzzle together in his mind. Davik did not know much about ships, but he did know that if you ran a containment program it was serious. He also knew plasma burns would have been caused by engine cooling plasma. He did not know how long the engine vented plasma before Chief shut it down. The possibility existed that they could be operating with little or no cooling plasma in the engines. That means the engine could burn out at any time without their knowledge. If that happened, they would be stranded in-between worlds, light years from the nearest inhabited planet. Chief may have saved them from plasma poisoning, but they could face a larger problem; being stuck in deep space without a functioning Gravity Drive. In that case Davik was not sure what the crew would succumb to first: starvation from eating all their food, asphyxiation due to the lack of power to oxygen scrubbers, or hypothermia due to the heating elements failing. Probably a combination of all three depending.
He typed a few commands into the console at Chief’s desk. Read outs for all the vital systems and fluid levels popped up on the screen. He skimmed the monitor and saw what he was looking for: Cooling plasma. What he saw meant he did not have much time.
Master Chief O’Riley was very good at his job. He closed the door behind him and left the broken man alone in the interrogation room. He had the name of the planet where the black market goods were to be delivered. He also knew about when it was expected to be delivered. As he walked back to their Sweeper Patrol craft his communication line pinged; it was his CO again.
“I have good news, Commander,” he said with a smile on his face.
“So do I,” he replied. “Your Star Patrol craft is ready for departure as soon as you and the crew are on board.”
“Awesome. This is turning out to be a good day,” he said. “I have the name of the planet and an expected delivery time for our vessel. Tell the Star Patrol craft to make their heading to Acamar Prime and don’t waste any speed; I want to get there ahead of them.”
“That is where I have some bad news for you,” the CO said. “We ran a sensor analysis on the vessel based on the data you pulled. They were having massive engine problems when they departed. And while the flight path of its Gravity Drive Jump matches the heading to Acamar Prime, it’s unlikely that they will even make it there.” Master Chief went quiet for a second. He hated losing a collar to dumb luck.
“Alert Union planetary security officials on Acamar Prime to be on the lookout for a freighter vessel matching the sensor profile of that ship entering their planetary sensor nets. Give them all the data. Tell them to detain any ship that matches that information. I am still going to pursue. With any luck they will have found out about their problem and made planet fall somewhere else to effect repairs. That is where I will catch them.”
“I will alert Acamar Prime,” the CO responded.
“Thank you sir. O’Riley out.” He hung up the comm line and finished his walk to his Patrol craft. He paged his crew to meet him there with all undue haste. They were all seated and strapped in by the time he arrived, his belongings in the compartment above his seat, brought there by his second in command. That man sure knew how to follow orders. He strapped and the pilot maneuvered them out of the hanger and broke atmosphere. On the way to their Star Patrol Craft he ran the data from the cargo freighter through his PDD to determine where the vessel might make planet fall based on the information he had about them.
By the time they were docked on the V-shape vessel he had a preliminary set of planetary systems to search. He made his way back to the crew seating area. “We are on board our transport. Take quarters but don’t get too comfortable. The ship we are searching for has a two hour head start on us. I expect you active and alert when called upon. Be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Dismissed.” The men unstrapped themselves from their seats and departed the vessel. The men made their way to the general bunks and quarters for enlisted men. They were cramped but they did not need much room.
As he and his crew exited their craft he noticed a half a dozen sweeper transports. There would be significant competition for this hunt. Most of these were assigned because the Union liked to follow the CYA rule. Others were leeches trying to get a quick collar off of the labor or another man’s labor, his labor. It wouldn’t matter in the end. He would find them and bring them in. A deck officer was waiting for him by the end of the ramp to his vessel. “Welcome aboard,” he said to Master Chief with a crisp salute.
He returned the salute as he said, “Thanks. I need to talk to the commanding officer right away.”
“I will inform him you are on your way Master Chief.”
“Thank you,”he had barely slowed his gait as he walked away.