The docking bays had not been arranged in a very logical fashion. The bays were organized in a random formation around the central offices. Each bay was independent and closed off from the other areas of the harbor. Each bay was a large circle that had an automatic roof that would open and cover the areas between the different bays. Most of them were open, ready to receive ships. This meant a lot of shade, but all the curved outer walls of the bays made it difficult to maneuver to a specific bay, especially the ones on the outskirts of the facilities, like docking bay fifty–four. It was one of the bays furthest away from the office and it was a confusing maze of paths to get there.
The sweeper team already had to backtrack twice. O’Riley was aggravated due to the lack of technology in this backwater world. The secretary provided a map to docking bay fifty–four, but it was not satellite enabled. Which means the path she drew was just a line. They could not track their current location on the map. This made his aggravation even worse.
They had good intelligence that the star freighter they were looking for landed in this city and in this facility specifically. Though the engine trail had gone cold by the time the Star Tracker arrived on the scene, the ship was of a distinctive sensor profile. It was not hard to find the city that they had landed near by scanning the local sensor nets. They knew the ship landed here, but they could not access the docking bay information without the harbor master’s authorization. While they had proof the ship had been involved in smuggling and assumed it had landed here, they could not pull rank to access the files. That required a warrant that they did not have at the present moment. Procedural bureaucracy always made this type of investigation harder. This should be cleared up as soon as they reached docking bay fifty–four, but given the organization of this facility that could still be a while.
A few minutes later in front of him stood bay 54. The blast doors shut behind a man strolling towards the Union sweeper squad. “I hear you boys are looking for me,” the harbor master joked.
“Yes. You are a hard man to find in this maze of docking bays.” the master chief said.
“I was finishing up with the freighter crew in that bay. They are on their way out.” he replied. He offered his hand to the sweeper captain; the captain took it. “What were you looking for again?”
“We have reports of a ship smuggling Union contraband out of the Synex system. It appears that they landed on this planet and settlement here to make repairs.” The captain handed him a datapad with all the pertinent information. The harbor master paged through the information. The look on the harbor master’s face went from astonishment to disbelief to horror in a few short seconds.
“What’s wrong Harbor Master?” the captain asked. Behind him and the thick walls of the docking bay the engines of the Iron Eagle whined as this ship started up and lifted out of the bay blowing sand and other debris in the spaces between the bays. No voices could be heard over the noise and commotion of the vessel lifting off. The Harbor Master screamed at O’Riley at the top of his lungs, but even the sweeper captain could not hear or understand him, even just a few feet from him. He pointed at the ship with an emphatic gestures. The veteran sweeper could understand the basic gist of the movement.
He raised his weapon and issued an order to the rest of his squad through their squad communication link within their helmets. Twelve guns raised and fired in the direction of the vessel rising above docking bay fifty–four. The front and rear wings of the vessel extended to their normal flight position as the bullets dented the hull. One of the large guns attached to the back of the hull of the Eagle pointed in the direction of the squad, and opened fire as the vessel started to make its way out of the range of the squad weapons.
The sweeper crew hit the deck and looked for cover from the large caliber weapons. The vessel flew off and away from them, apparently in a hurry. Silence finally came over the area as the Eagle as the din of its engines moved into the distance. “Anyone hurt!” the captain yelled louder than needed. “Squad sound off!” The other eleven members of the squad all said their call signs into their squad link. No one was hurt. How the gunner on that ship did not hit any of the squad and the harbor master was beyond the comprehension of the captain. He walked over body of the harbor master plastered to the ground. O’Riley grabbed him up by the collar and pulled him to his feet. “Did you know that was our vessel?”
“What?” he asked.
“I asked if you knew that the vessel that just tried to kill was the vessel we have been looking for?” Screaming it in Jeremiah’s face
“And how could I know that until you gave me the information?” Sprague asked of the captain with a puzzled look on his face. “I have been out of my office for most of the day so any Union communications, I have not even seen yet. Honestly captain, I had no clue. In fact I suggested to them my daughter to make repairs. She had just finished them before I left. They offered her a position on the ship as their chief engineer. Do you think I would let my daughter take a job on a ship that I knew violated Union laws?”
The captain stared down Sprague. O’Riley hoped he would crack under the pressure. Jeremiah held the best Four Suits face he had ever given in his life. The captain continued to stare at him as he gave the order for his squad to make their way back to their transport, double time. “If I find out you had a hand in this you and your family go straight to the prison camps to spend the rest of your natural lives.” He turned on his heels and ran to catch up with his squad, shouting orders into the squad communication link to their transport pilot.
“Get the ship warmed up. Contact the Star Tracker and tell them we have confirmation of the ship and they are currently departing from the Jefferson City harbor. We will be in pursuit shortly.”
The voice on the other end of the line was the captain of his troop transport. “I would love to warm up the vessel but we just came under fire. They did some undetermined amount of damage to the engines before we got your orders. To protect the transport I had shut the doors to avoid any more damage. The ships also apparently damaged the door’s mechanics because they wouldn’t open after it calmed down. The harbor even tried a manual override, but it didn’t do any good. I already radioed the Star Tracker. They are sending an extra troop transport. Also they ordered a squadron to pursue the targeted vessel. They should be on station in a few minutes. Don’t worry we’ll catch them.”
O’Riley stopped in his tracks. “Contact me when the transport arrives; I need to have another conversation with the Harbor master.” His men continued on their way to the docking bay while he headed back towards the Harbor master’s office. He took out the map and followed it the best as he could, but it still took longer than he needed. His helmet comm line buzzed, “Go.”
“This is the flight leader for Red Squadron. We got your orders and started tracking the vessel in question. We followed the flight plan picked up by the city’s sensor nets and followed it along a projected path. We just caught up to it just in time to see it crash into the mountain side and explode.”
O’Riley looked up in the direction of the mountains that surround Jefferson City. Black smoke curled up over the edge of the horizon from the mountains in the far distance. “Are you sure this is our target?” he asked.
“Tough to say, but given the time line of recent events, it’s likely,” the voice responded. “Based on the scans performed at Synex 5, we know that the vessel had engine problems. Maybe it just gave out and crashed.”
“You might be right,” he took a second to compose himself and think of procedures to follow. “Dispatch a search and rescue squads to the crash site. Let me know of any new information.” O’Riley’s second conversation just got more difficult. He knocked on the door labeled “Harbor Master, Jeremiah Sprague.” The voice inside beckoned him to enter. He opened the door, and walked in.
He closed the door behind him and the Harbor Master stood up and started to speak. “I am so sorry about earlier Master Chief. If I had even known that ship carried smuggled materials or other contraband I would have alerted the local Union law enforcement offices immediately. I mean my daughter joined the crew, do you think I would allow my daughter to join with a bunch of criminals?”
“No I don’t think you would, but we have bigger issues. You might want to take a seat for this.” Jeremiah sat down as did the sweeper captain. “I just got a report from my command ship that there was a vessel that crashed into the mountains outside of Jefferson City.” There was a look of confusion on the Harbor Master’s face.
“We think it might be the vessel that escaped a while ago.” O’Riley let the information sink in and Jeremiah’s face went from confusion to shock.
“I have dispatched search and rescue squads to the crash site. If you have any local firefighting or search and rescue squads I would recommend you call them into action right now. Also, you might want to prepare for the worst in regards to your daughter.” The Harbor master choked down his shock, anger, fear and possible sadness.
“Thank you, Chief, you have the full cooperation of this office and Jefferson City. Now if you’ll excuse me I have some calls to make.” O’Riley hung back for a second as the Harbor master went back to his chair and picked up the in office communication line. He turned around and headed out of the office and back to his troop transport. His helmet communication link buzzed again.
“Go ahead.”he said.
“Ground crews got the docking bay doors open. We are ready to move the moment your feet hit the boarding ramp.” his pilot said.
“On my way. Get clearance for take off and set a course for the crash site. I need to see this for myself.”
The Harbor Master waited a few minutes in his office and then proceeded to exit. He told his assistant to reschedule the rest of his meetings today for tomorrow and then go home early. He left the office and went to the bone yard. There he sat around the ships he and his daughter worked on for all those years before and after she left the engineer’s academy. Surrounded by all these memories, he sat and waited.
Hours later Master Chief O’Riley and his troop transport could finally come near the crash site, and they tried to assist where possible. Local firefighters and emergency squads from the Star Tracker battled the blaze caused by the crashed freighter. Luckily the fire did not spread too far from the crash site. Due to the nature of the terrain and the thickness of the forest, there was no easy approach to the crash site. The local Union command outpost sent a team of investigators to the crash site and Chief O’Riley waited until he could get a preliminary report.
The chief investigator entered the troop transport covered in soot and mud from the site. “Well, what’s the good word?” O’Riley asked.
“This ship appears to match the profile to the one vessel that blasted its way out of Jefferson City and Synex 5, the one I assume you were looking for.”
“Survivors?” O’Riley asked.
“None. We do not have a clear idea of the total crew complement and we can’t find any remains of the crew,” he replied. O’Riley had a puzzled look on his face that begged the question of why. The investigator continued, “The ship’s black box data shows that it had a massive plasma leak prior to this crash and the engines compromised. They never would have made it out of the system. My best guess: the plasma lines ruptured, suffocating the crew, leading the crash, and igniting the plasma. Engine cooling plasma burns hot enough to consume all biological materials, hence no human remains.”
“This all seems too convenient,” O’Riley said. “Any evidence to suggest foul play at hand or that something’s missing?”
“Not likely captain. We will keep working on the data over the next day or two and let you and your commander know if there is any other information.”
“That’s okay. Thanks for your help.” The captain opened a comm line to the troop transport. “Notify the local officials that it might be a good idea to get a scanning crew down to the crash site. We may be swinging at air for any sensor data, but I want to make sure all our bases are covered.”
“Yes, sir. Are we returning to base?” the pilot asked.
“No, there is nothing more we can do here. Contact the Star Patrol Craft and tell them to set course for Acamar Prime. I have a hunch.”