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Outpost Station: the novel

Outpost Station



"Captain, we've got company. Looks like pirates."
Captain Elton Ridgeway of the freighter Arega System Pride looked up sharply at the words, his eyes jumping so quickly to the large viewscreen which dominated the control room that he managed to catch the fading glow of their visitor's hyperspace exit window. A scowl pasted itself on his rugged features as he rose from his command chair and moved to stand immediately behind the room's other occupant, watch technician Blaine Griswell. Ridgeway's breathing grew ragged as Griswell adjusted the sensors' focus, magnifying the pickup tenfold to show beyond any doubt that it was pirates headed their way.
"Shit," the captain muttered, almost to himself. "This close to Outpost Station?"
"And closing fast, sir," Griswell responded, ignoring his captain's verbalized question for the one that actually mattered. "Standard protocol?"
Ridgeway stared a moment longer before answering, and felt a growl begin to grow in his throat. Quickly swallowing it, he settled for a large sigh. "Yeah, standard protocol. Let the bastards have what they want, while we live to haul another day."
Griswell's face became grim as he quickly began flipping switches and entering emergency codes into the ship's systems. Ridgeway stepped back to his command chair and allowed a bit of the growl he'd swallowed earlier to accompany the sharp slap of his fist in the System Pride's internal call button.
"All hands," he announced, more than a little of the growl still in his voice "This is a pirate lockdown, repeat, immediate pirate lockdown. Button 'er up, boys and girls, then get yourselves into the hole. This is not a drill. We've only got about five minutes before they start board us, folks, so move your butts."
With no need for further urging the crew began an orderly scramble to secure the ship's systems before heading for the vessel's secure bolt hole--a design feature lately become standard on 16 Cygni freighters as pirate attacks grew from occasional nuisances to a way of life. Within three minutes the Arega System Pride was locked down, its corridors and holds unmanned. Once the pirates had taken what they wanted the crew would re-emerge to comlete their interrupted voyage to Outpost Station.

Outpost Station: a huge metal torus built and operated by the Terran Confederacy, the only habitable environment orbiting Cyg C and the sole presence of the Confederacy at 16 Cygni. All shipping in and out Terran Confederacy member systems was required to route though an official Confederacy facility. There, like all governments, the Confederacy extracted those taxes and fees which were its pound of flesh. Older, more established systems usually boasted multiple Interstellar-class Stations, making evasion of that requirement possible, but at 16 Cygni the condition was much simpler: Outpost Station was the only facility that could accomodate true interstellar ships. In-system workhorses such as the Arega System Pride and its siblings could berth practically anywhere, or even free-load without docking, but for the interstellars that hauled Cygni's ores to established Confederacy worlds and brought the fine products of those worlds to the frontier, Outpost Station was the sole option.
The arrangement was little loved, but it was a system the residents of 16 Cygni did not as yet have the political clout to challenge. 16 Cygni was the most recently settled system in the Confederacy and after a century remained the rawest of frontiers, largely resembling the "wild west" of old Earth legend. Political clout only follows economic power, and frontiers always hold more promise than profit. The economic power of the three-star 16 Cygni system, while growing, was still in a embryonic state.
Cyg C was odd-star-out. A dim red dwarf, it boasted no satellites of its own save scattered rocks and boulders--and, more recently, Outpost Station--and provided a lonely contrast to the other two Cygni stars. 16 Cygni A and B were both mainstream, life-fostering, yellow luminaries, that boasted planetary families and stellar eco-systems of delightful richness...and that harbored the raw materials for economic growth in embarrassing abundance. Bauxite was plentiful on all four inhabitable 16 Cygni worlds, along with iron ore and deposits of copper and other metals. Some mining was done on the "three" worlds--Cyg A-3 and B-3--but the richest ores were found on the hotter worlds of Cyg A-2 and B-2. The populations of the "two" worlds labored almost universally in the mines. Their labor allowed the societies flourishing on the more temperate worlds of A-3 and B-3 to grow more and more genteel, and more and more wealthy.
The miners, of course, did not share in this wealth.
As for those genteel societies: The residents of Cygni A-3, called Shenandoah by its residents, took advantage of their world's moderate climate to fashion a society of agrarian leasure quite reminiscent of one which had once flourished in the southern half of North America on old Earth. Large plantations and sprawling farms covered vast areas of the countryside. The few towns were small and existed more as retail hubs for the local gentry than as centers of commerce. The planet boasted but one truly large city, whose main business was the spaceport it housed and supported.
Inhabitants of Arega, Cygni B-3, took a quite different tack. They had labored mightily to develop the heavy industries needed to process the raw ores into finished products. While still crude compared to the fine imports from Earth and the other more established systems, these local products were less expensive and more readily available than their imported counterparts and were therefore rapidly gaining favor among Cygni consumers. Arega had also cornered the business of space shipping within the system, both building and operating the freighters which moved Cygni's ores and products between the four worlds and to Outpost Station.
Capitalism was working; economic growth was rampant. Unfortunately, there is always a down side to economic growth. At 16 Cygni that down side was piracy.
There are two types of pirates. Some steal for survival. Others plunder for sheer fun and profit. The Jolly Roger was initially hoisted in Cygni space by groups with the first motive... desperate expatriates from the mining worlds hoping to steal enough extra to ease the lives of their families back home. More recently, though, the brigands in the A system had acquired a canny new leader and a high value new target: A selection of finer ores--really, raw gems--was found to exist on Shanandoah alongside the bauxite, steel and copper.
The gems were considered a boon by the nuveau tycoons of Cygni society. Unsurprisingly, the Cyg-A pirates and their canny new leader agreed with that assessment.
There were several pounds of these gem ores in the Arega System Pride's on-board safe.

"Make ready to exit FTL. All personnel, secure stations."
Captain Sydney Chambers surreptitionsly watched around her as the bridge crew of the Cahan Morrigan responded to her orders. A mixture of emotions played inside her as the various stations reported readiness for the transition back to normal space: satisfaction, power, a touch of concern, a dab of pride--and more than a little resentment. The Morrigan was Sydney's first command as a newly-minted captain, and though far from the newest vessel in the Terran Space Military it was a sound ship, the nimble maneuverability of its modest size making up for what it lacked in sheer power and weaponry. A Noble class light cruiser, Morrigan massed 80,000 displacement tons and boasted a crew of 250, with a detachment of marines bringing her total complement to 300--roughly the average for an officer's first command.
But Sydney Chambers was no average officer, first command or no. Whipcrack smart despite her blonde locks and with enough muscle on her five-foot-seven frame to require a slightly larger uniform size than one would expect, she had shown a spark of greatness even before finishing her firstie year at TSM Academy. Quick-thinking, good instincts, and being in the right place at the right time, had allowed her to save several dozen cadet lives during a sabotaged live-fire exercise. The achievement brought her an Academy commendation...and the quiet attention of then-Sector Admiral Lord Steven Alexander. The Admiral had quietly caused Sydney to receive postings of amazing complexity and rapidly increasing responsibility; the latest of which had seen her posted as first officer of the Dragon-class battle cruiser Tecumseh, a squadron command ship in now-Fleet Admiral Alexander's own wing, a mere nine years after being commissioned. After a year on the Tecumseh rumors had been rampant that Sydney was in line for the First Officer's post on Alexander's flagship, due to open up when the Admiral's long-time right hand man, Commander Jason Sebring, retired.
Sydney would have been--by eight days--the youngest flag XO in fleet history if fate and the ill-conceived actions of Tecumseh Captain Horace Steubing hadn't thrown a monkey wrench in the works.
Sydney had been exonerated by the ensuing investigation and courts-martial, the only one of Steubing's command staff apparently uninvolved in the morass. She was none the less tainted by having been so close to the fiasco. Sitting now on the bridge of her command, a brief image of Lord Admiral Alexander's face flashed through her mind, the memory of her recent, painful last meeting with her mentor still vivid.
She'd entered the Admiral's command office aboard his flagship Shades of Glory and come stiffly to attention, not allowing her eyes to focus on anything, especially not the Admiral's face. It seemed to her that ages passed before Alexander had softly cleared his throat. "Stand easy, Commander. The worst is behind you."
Sydney had allowed herself a brief sigh as she'd relaxed into a parade rest. Alexander's soft words bore at least the promise of forgiveness, if not the absolution she craved for her stupidity in not seeing what had been happening around her on the Tecumseh. "Thank you, sir."
Alexander was silent another long moment, then loudly echoed his subordinate's sigh. "You don't sound as though you fully believe me, Sydney."
"I--" she began, then bit off her words, struggling to retain her composure in what she still feared would be the end of her career. "Your kindness is legendary, Admiral, so I certainly believe that you won't hold the last year against me. But I'm quite painfully aware that someone who has been through a court martial, even when found innocent, bears a heavy burden in any attempt to prove their continued worth."
"Huh." Alexander shifted in his chair, closely regarding his still young protege. "I can't exactly say that you're wrong. Many careers have been ended by being caught in an explosion not of their making." He drummed his fingers on his desk a moment. "On the other hand, I have never been willing to waste talent, particularly when I've been working to nurture that talent for an entire decade."
Sydney felt a twinge of hope in her breast, despite her misgivings. "No, sir."
"Still. I'm sure you are aware that Commander Sebring's retirement is effective at the end of next month, and that I had been planning to appoint you as his replacement."
Sydney had to swallow a lump from her throat before answering. "Yes, sir."
"I tell you that not to make you feel worse, Commander, but to indicate the level of esteem in which I hold your service." The Admiral's voice had softened as he said those words, but his demeanor and voice immediately took on a harder tone. " In light of recent events however--as you noted--that appointment is no longer possible, politically."
"I would expect not, sir." Sydney felt a twinge at the loss even as she spoke the words.
"That being the case." Alexander's eyes took on a sort of glow as he looked at the Sydney for a long minute before picking up a data pad from one side of his desk and extending it to her. It took a moment before Sydney realized she had to take the pad. The Admiral remained silent until she had taken the device and resumed her parade rest position without glancing at it.
"Since I cannot make you my flagship's first officer," Alexander began formally, "I hereby raise you to the rank of Captain, and require that you report by six hundred hours tomorrow to the TSM Cahan Morrigan, to place yourself in command of that vessel until further notice. The data pad you hold contains full details of your assigned mission, as well as all command codes and other information you will require as ranking officer of the Morrigan."
Sydney felt her eyes widen slightly at the Admiral's words; she had to actively work at not allowing her jaw to drop when Alexander rose and extended his hand across the desk toward her.
"Congratulations, Captain. Though you may find your post and your posting less, ah..." the Admiral paused as though searching for a word, "...glamorous than what I had originally had in mind for you, I trust you will serve the Confederacy to the full extent of your abilities, as your career so far has led me to expect."

Glamorous. Right. Exactly what this is not. Sydney dragged her thoughts back to the present as her executive officer, Commander Steve Garvey, prepared to execute Sydney's order to exit FTL.
"All stations report secure, Captain," Garvey announced. "Helm, give us the count."
"Yes, sir," responded the shift helmsman, a husky lieutenant of Scandinavian heritage named Thor Hellespont. "Exiting FTL in ..."
The Cahan Morrigan's bridge filled with the flash of intense light and brief blurring of reality that was the hallmark of FTL transitions in smaller TSM ships. As the effect cleared Sydney could again see in the ship's oversized main monitor the starfield which had been absent during the transit in hyperspace. The intense silence of the FTL transition also vanished as the bridge was once again filled with the buzz of officers and technicians bustling about their required duties. Sydney glanced around again at the dozen men and women busily attending to shepherding the Morrigan's arrival on its assigned station at 16 Cygni. From her slightly raised position in the center of the bridge, she found satisfaction in the smooth machine her crew had become in the brief weeks of her tenure. Good people, she reminded herself, working hard to prove themselves to their new captain.
"Drive status?" she finally asked, deciding to get the post-transition process underway.
"Engines nominal, Captain." Her chief engineer, Lieutenant Hailey Kristoff, could be seen poring over the readouts at her position on the perimeter of the Morrigan's bridge. "FTL drive shut down is nominal, in-system drive is engaging by the book."
"Very good. Structural status?"
"Hull looks good, Captain. No concerns." Kristoff turned from her gages to briefly meet Sydney's regard from across the room. "Looks like the dry dock techs did a good job on her."
Sydney smiled briefly in response to the engineer's unasked but still welcome assessment. She'd hadn't initially been comfortable with a female engineering chief, having never worked with one before, but was so far particularly impressed with Hailey Kristoff's handling of the job. Maybe something else the Admiral--or fate--needed me to learn, she told herself, savoring the wry tone of her own thoughts. Just because I'm not instinctively tech savvy doesn't mean all females share that shortcoming.
She was about to turn her attention to navigation when an agitated voice spoke up from one of the scan positions, across the bridge from the engineer.
"Captain, we've got multiple vessels at mark seven-dot-five two!" The speaker was one of the youngest scan tech postings on the bridge crew, Ensign Shannon McInerny, barely six months out of TSM technical training. Despite her youth, Sydney had yet to find even the smallest fault with the young tech's performance.
"What sort of activity?" The captain could hear the snap in her own voice.
"Looks like it may be hostile, Captain," McInerny affirmed, then hesitated a moment as she studied her screens. "I believe--yes, at least one of the vessels carries pirate markings."
"Main screen." Sydney could feel her blood beginning to roil in her veins. Her orders, when she'd examined them after leaving Admiral Alexander's presence, had referred to pirate activity in the two inhabited systems of 16 Cygni, A and B--but had said nothing to indicate the infestation had spread to 16 Cygni C, the dim red dwarf which serves as stellar anchor for Outpost Station. Apparently the reports on which those orders were based either trailed--or understated--the reality of the situation. As the distant specks that were pirate ships appeared on the main bridge viewscreen, Sydney immediately began wonder just how much worse the situation at 16 Cygni was than she had been led to believe.
"Magnify." Resolution on the monitor jumped ten times in response to her terse order, and now the situation became clearer: a fat local freighter, bearing what appeared to be the insignia of a Cyg B shipping line, wallowed along side of a gaudily painted, ominous-looking attacker that was clearly a pirate despite not actually bearing a Jolly Roger insignia on its hull. Sydney felt rather than heard a low growl rattle in her throat.
"Damn," she commented, to her exec and to no one at the same time. "Nice of them to roll out the welcome mat."
"Definitely pirates, Captain." Garvey had moved to stand beside her command chair as soon as the situation had developed; now he consulted a hand-held computer link-pad before saying more. "The freighter's markings would seem to make it a part of Arega Shipping Systems, one of the larger carriers based out of 16 Cygni B. Cygni B is the one with most of the metal ores, and B-3 is apparently taking the lead in tech startups as well. Mining and manufacturing."
Sydney merely grunted. "So these are pirates from the B system?"
Her exec peered more closely at the main monitor, then rapidly scanned through several screens on his computer link. "I can't tell which pirate band that's supposed to be, not from the visible markings. I believe we need more current info in that regard. But our orders include no reports of pirates working out of Cygni C."
"Apparently there are some now," the Captain grunted, then sat upright in a move that Garvey had come to recognize as 'a decision has been reached.' "Helm, plot a fast intercept."
"Yes, Captain." Hellespont, at the helm, began quickly entering commands into his console. "What vector do you want to use?"
"We're not close enough to pick out many details, Captain," Garvey said quietly, for her ears only, "and reports on the various pirate armaments are sketchy."
Sydney considered for a moment, then shook her head. "We've got surprise on our side, Exec, and we might as well take advantage of it. Mr. Hellespont, plot a course to take us directly between the pirate and the freighter. I want to thread the needle."
"Yes, Ma'am!"
"Mr. Garvey, sound combat alert. Arms control, uncap all weapons and stand by. Helm, in-system drive to flank speed."
The Morrigan's control room, always a busy place, suddenly seemed to take on a life and intensity of its own as the general lighting dimmed slightly and a claxon sounded several times. The increase in tension was palpable, and seemed to deepen with each sounding of the combat alert. The usual buzz of conversation briefly rose to a din as all hands reported current status and settings to the Exec, their figures flowing both into his earpiece and onto his hand-held pad. As Garvey stood silent beside Sydney, studying the flow of information, a small smile of satisfaction settled onto his lips.
"Looking good, Captain," he reported in a soft voice as the claxons stilled and the noise level returned to near normal. "Looks like all those drills we ran have paid off."
"I would hope so," Sydney replied. Before she could say more, though, the Morrigan's speed subtly changed as its sub-light engines kicked up to full.
"ETA two minutes, Captain," the helmsman reported.
"Understood, Mr. Hellespont," Sydney acknowledged, then turned back to Garvey. "Exec, scramble a team of marines into a drop-ship. It looks like there's going to be pirates on board that freighter before we can get there." She gestured at Morrigan's main viewscreen, which showed a small boarding vessel already heading toward the freighter from the pirate vessel. "I want us to have pest controllers right on their tails."
Garvey nodded. "Yes, Ma'am," he said, then began punching commands into his pad even as he turned to walk over to his own station. Meanwhile, Sydney kept her eyes glued to the situation as it developed on the screen in front of her. "Arms control!"
"Ma'am!" The responder was a very young-looking officer named Sean Grelkin; while the ink on his Academy diploma was still wet, his performance in a series of combat drills run before the company had departed for 16 Cygni had impressed the Captain and Exec enough to win him a bridge-crew slot. Now, despite his lack of experience, his voice and demeanor showed nothing but confidence as he awaited instructions from command.
"Mr. Grelkin, I want to send that pirate cruiser a bit of a love pat as we sweep by," Sydney said, allowing the slightest touch of irony into her voice as she spoke. "Have two medium-yield missiles primed and ready for ballistic deployment on my mark."
Grelkin made two quick motions at his board, then nodded in satisfaction as two spots of green appeared in response. "Locked and loaded, Captain, awaiting your order."
"Ninety seconds," Hellespont reported from the helm.
"Boarding contingent will be ready to drop in one minute, Captain," Garvey announced as he returned to his place immediately beside the captain.
"Good." Sydney looked down at the left arm of her command chair, which boasted a small number of recessed buttons, and selected one with a quick jab. "Captain to drop-ship," she said, inclining her face slightly to the voice pickup condenser located near the button she'd just activated. "Be aware that you may have a bumpy ride--we're launching ordnance the same time we launch you. But get yourselves on board that freighter and round up the vermin as fast as you can. Captain out."
Garvey gave Sydney a side-long glance as she sat back in the chair. "They'll get it done, Captain," he quietly assured her.
"Of course they will," she responded, adding a small chuckle for emphasis. "But they deserved warning about the missiles." Sydney's attention was suddenly pulled back to the main viewscreen, and a frown darkened her face as she stared at the vessels poised there. "They're surprisingly well disciplined for pirates," she muttered after a few moments.
"One minute," the helm reported.
Garvey's eyes snapped to the viewscreen, and he stared at the tableau for a moment. "What do you mean, Ma'am?"
"Hmm?" It was a moment before Sydney realized she'd commented aloud. "Ah. You can bet they've seen us by now, Mr. Garvey, but they haven't flinched yet. I've never heard of pirates holding station when they find a Noble-class cruiser bearing down on them."
"Huh." Garvey frowned as he also studied the pirate and freight ships. "You're right. Neither have I, now that you mention it."
Hellespont piped up again from helm. "Thirty seconds."
Sydney briefly shook her head; the time for speculation was past. "OK everyone, here we go," she announced to the bridge at large. "Arms control--Mr. Grelkin, target their engines and weapons with all available guns; blast 'em if they so much as twitch, otherwise give them a general strafing as we pass by. Drop ship and missiles, launch on my mark--"
"Fifteen seconds."
"Mr. Hellespont, give me a second-by second count, please."
"Twelve," the helmsman immediately responded to his captain's order, "eleven--ten--nine--"
"Drop ship, go!"
"Missiles away now, Mr. Grelkin. On your toes with those guns!"
The pirate ship and the freighter appeared motionless in relation to each other, roughly two hundred yards apart--far closer than ships of their respective sizes usually approached, but still more than enough clearance for the Morrigan to flash between them. At such close range even a barely competent gunnery officer could hardly miss, and Sean Grelkin was far better than that; even as Morrigan's nose began to enter the zone between hunter and prey the two missiles homed on the pirate's tail with unerring accuracy, quickly closing to detonation range.
Which was exactly when the pirate ship's sub-light engines roared to life.
The blast of superheated plasma from those engines set both missiles off before their own detonators could engage, acting as a cushion against the missiles' energies and turning them into booster rockets rather than engines of destruction. The ship leaped away much faster than its engines alone could have pushed it from a dead stop. Grelkin tried to strafe the jack-rabbiting vessel with Morrigan's guns, but hitting a moving target is no easier in space than anywhere else; the pirate suffered little more than a hit or two before disappearing into a newly-formed hyper window.
But even as the pirate vanished in the flash of FTL, Morrigan rocked as fire from an unexpected source smashed into it. while Morrigan had been concentrating on its own approach, two small pirate vessels had lain in wait, hidden in a sensor shadow cast by the massive freighter they had intended to victimize. Now those two drew point-blank beads on the warship as its momentum carried it past the bulk of the freighter. The explosions sent hull plates flying and caused Morrigan to slew in its course. The pirates, apparently content with having stung the TSM ship, quickly scuttled to a safe distance and the just as quickly disappeared into newly-formed hyper windows, all before Morrigan could swing its guns around to reply.

"Damage report!"
Sydney's voice snapped out like a whip over a team of horses. The bridge bustled as an ant hill might in response to an invader: quick, decisive movements everywhere, all hands efficiently performing their tasks at double normal speed, but with little fuss. The only unusual noise was provided by the red alert claxon, which had been automatically triggered by Morrigan's sensors when they sensed incoming ordnance. A slight hint of smoke and ozone lingered in the air, the result of several brief electrical surges and one small fire that the Morrigan's automatic suppression systems doused within seconds. On the main viewscreen, the two escaping ships' hyper windows could just be seen to wink out after their brief existences.
"All hands report safe, Captain," Comm Tech Peter Rieger reported, pressing his earpiece close to better hear the reports incoming from all over the ship. "No injuries beyond a bumped elbow." Rieger was still an ensign, but had caught Sydney's attention with his outstanding performance in six months on the Tecumseh. When the young man had joined her in exonoration at Courts Martial she had requested he be assigned to Morrigan, one of the few specific crew choices she'd made on being appointed Captain.
"The hull didn't fare as well, Captain," Hailey Kristoff announced, still studying the readouts flooding her own screens. "We definitely took some damage. Nothing crippling, as far as I can tell from the remotes, but we definitely lost a few hull plates."
"Acknowledged," Sydney said, a grimace briefly twisting her mouth. "Get some eyes out there to take a look as soon as possible, Ms. Kristoff, and keep Mr. Garvey informed as to what you find. Everyone else, stand down from red alert--and would somebody please shut off that damn klaxon?"
Garvey, who had personally visited each station during the fast-moving situation, sidled back up beside Sydney's command chair as the noise of the alarm abruptly halted in mid scream. "That could have been a lot worse," he said in a low voice, for her ears only.
Sydney looked around the room, her eyes glittering slightly with pride. "The crew did well for their first run. I'm more concerned with where those two damn little birds came from."
The exec briefly examined sensor logs on his hand-held. "Sensors show they emerged from behind the freighter, Captain--apparently they were laying in wait for just the opportunity we gave them. If I didn't know better I'd say they expected us, right down to what our incoming vector would be." He grunted quietly. "You were right--those are amazingly good tactics for a bunch of pirates."
Sydney half laughed at the comment. "Yeah, this is one time I'd happily have been wrong. It certainly doesn't bode well for what we're going to face in the next while." She shook her head. "For right now, you keep tabs on the repair folks while I wrap things up with the freighter. We'll escort them on to Outpost Station as soon as the marines report everything in hand and the civilians are buttoned up and ready to go."
Garvey had just nodded and headed back toward engineering when Rieger spoke up again from the comm station. "Captain, I've got Marine Sergeant Saans calling for you."
A twitch of a smile touched Sydney's face--leave it to the Marines to call with good news just when it's needed! "On the main screen," she told Rieger. The stars disappeared from the huge screen at the front of the bridge, to be replaced a moment later with the rugged face of Sgt. Morrie Saans, the ranking NCO of Morrigan's Marine detachment. Saans gave a vicious grin when his equipment showed him his call was live.
"Everything here is go, Captain," he reported, glee palpable in his voice.
"Give me a quick summary, Sergeant," Sydney prompted.
The grin reappeared. "We've got the pirates accounted for, Ma'am. Three in custody, two pirate casualties. No injuries on our side. The freighter crew had locked down and gone to ground in a safe room so no one hurt there, either. The civvies are in the process of unlocking their systems--apparently it's local policy to lock the ship down when pirates swoop in and just let them have whatever cargo they want. They say they'll be ready to boost in about five."
Sydney nodded her understanding. "Good work, Sergeant. Leave two of your people on board as a liaison, the rest of you pack up the vermin and get back here--we'll be underway as soon as the freighter's ready."
"Yes, Ma'am," Saans acknowledged, and was barking orders to his team even before the link to Morrigan blanked.
"You heard that, everyone," Sydney announced to the bridge at large. "We're underway in five minutes. Rig for in-system transit. Mr. Womack," she said to the current navigation tech, Stefan Womack, "plot us a nice, straight course to Outpost Station at whatever that freighter's best speed is. Ms. McInerny!"
"Captain?" The young scan tech looked up, wondering at the Captain's tone.
"I need you to keep an eye on the freighter as we go, since we're going to be in close formation with them. At the same time I want you to keep every parsec of this system under observation. If any more pirates dare show their faces I want to know about it yesterday."
"Yes, Ma'am!"
"Course laid in, waiting your order, Captain," Womack reported.
Garvey returned to her side at that moment. "Nothing our own repair crews can do, Captain," he reported in a low voice. "More plates gone than the sensors initially showed--we're going to need replacements, and best to do that much work in a spacedock."
Sydney turned a sour look at her executive officer. "If there is such a thing in this wild west system," she said, her voice leaving little question she doubted the possibility. "I guess we'll find out real quick just how ready 16 Cygni is for TSM support."
"Surely there'll be something at Outpost Station," Garvey said, though he sounded doubtful.
Sydney just shook her head. "One can hope. Mr. Womack," she called to the comm tech, "get me a link to the Outpost Station manager as soon as we're in range, please."
"Yes, Ma'am," Womack acknowledged.
"Captain, the marines on the freighter report all secure to resume course," Rieger called from his comm post.
"Thank you Mr. Rieger," Sydney acknowledged. "Tell them to get a move on; we'll be right behind them. Mr. Hellespont, follow that freighter."
"Yes, Ma'am."

"Director Rudolph?"
Outpost Station Managing Director Walter Rudolph looked up from his desk as a young militia lieutenant knocked timidly on his door. Lieutenant Cami Frye wasn't really timid, the director knew, only nervous--she had been his assistant a mere two weeks before, until the station's defense forces had talked her into volunteering. Conned her into it, in Rudolph's view. He grudgingly admitted to himself that at least a part of his opinion derived from the fact that Frye was now able to work for him only part of the time--when she was not drilling, training, or performing other military-type duties that he sorely wished could be done by someone else--and he did not want to see her harmed. Cami was the closest thing to a friend that he had on the station, despite the chasm that lay between their ages.
"What is it, Cami?"
The young lieutenant took a step toward his desk and held out a data pad for him to look at. "We've detected explosions in the system, sir. They seem to be weapons fire. About three AU's out."
Rudolph took the reader but scarcely glanced at its display, instead tapping a request into his desktop terminal. He studied the answer to his request for a moment then sank back in his chair with a sigh.
"Today's the day the Terran Space Military contingent is supposed to show up," he muttered, more to himself than to his former aide. "Looks like they're here with a bang and a boom."
"Sir?" Frye looked confused by the manager's remark. "Who would they have to shoot at?"
Rudolph grunted derisively. "Pirates, what else?"
"But the pirates have never bothered us here at C!"
"Never have doesn't mean never will," Rudolph grunted. "Either they've decided it's high time to include us on the menu, or they arranged a special welcome for our new TSM guardians."
Frye was taken aback at the thought. "How would they know when the military would be arriving?"
"How do they know and do a lot of what they know and do?" The question was rhetorical; both manager and lieutenant knew that pirate behavior in the 16 Cygni system had become far more organized, far more ominous over the past couple of years, in a way that had to stem at least partly from inside information. A leak had yet to be found in Outpost Station's systems or personnel, but that didn't mean that there wasn't one. Rudolph sighed again.
"Doesn't matter, TSM is here now and it's their problem. Hopefully we'll all be able to sleep a bit better for it."
Frye only shrugged.
"Cami, do me a favor if you would. Keep a watch on incoming transmissions. If the military is three AU out it'll be a couple of hours before they're in range to check in and I want to know the moment they contact us. Even if they don't specifically ask to talk to me."
"Of course." She accepted the data pad back, but paused before turning to leave.
Frye seemed to hesitate a moment before speaking. "Do you think they sent everything we asked for," she finally asked in a soft voice.
Rudolph snorted. "A full squadron? Not likely. We're too far out to rate that kind of firepower. But I was very clear that we need at least one boat for each A, B, and C. Three ships should be enough to make a big dent in the problem."
"I hope you're right," was all the young lieutenant whispered in response, but there was a frown on her face as she turned to finally leave the director's office. Rudolph stared after her retreating form for a long moment.
"I hope I'm right as well," he finally muttered, then returned to the report he'd been working on when Frye had arrived.

"Current status, Ms. McInerny?"
"Freighter holding station at one-half kilometer off our port bow," the scan tech responded without hesitation. "No sign of activity in or out of the system beyond local motion around Outpost Station."
"How far are we from the station, Mr. Hellespont?"
"Just crossing to within one AU, Captain."
Sydney nodded once and rose from her command chair. "Very good. Mr. Womack--?"
"Station just came within range, Ma'am," the comm tech acknowledged. "They are responding even as we speak."
Sydney repressed a smile of pleasure at how good her crew was getting at anticipating her commands; it usually took crews a lot longer than this group had been together to work quite as efficiently. She hoped that it boded well for the success of her first command. "In my office once you have the manager available, Mr. Womack," she said as she headed in the direction of that retreat. "Mr. Garvey, you have the conn."
"Conn, aye, Captain," Garvey replied, lifting his eyes to give the command center a quick scan before resuming a conference on Morrigan's damaged hull with engineer Hailey Kristoff.
Confident the bridge was in god hands Sydney quickly covered the remaining distance to her command office, entering the space with a renewed sense of satisfaction. The room wasn't large, of course--space was always at a premium on a vessel of Morrigan's size--but it was hers, a symbol of her authority on the ship as well as a retreat where she could close herself off from the crew to research, to mull decisions which could at times mean life or death. A port hole adorned the far wall of the room, one of the few actual viewports that Morrigan possessed; in front of that, facing the hatchway entrance, was Sydney's small but efficient desk. Despite the standard, dull TSM gray of the walls she could almost make herself believe that she was where she had always wanted to be--which was why she had mounted a small, framed photograph of her previous ship on the bulkhead next to the hatch. A reminder of the true state of her career.
Dismissing thoughts of anything but the present she rounded the desk and punched the button which connected her to bridge communications. "Please put the station on my terminal, Mr. Womack."
"Yes, Ma'am," came Womack's voice, even as her terminal came alive. "Station manager will be on in a few moments."
"Thank you."
It was nearly a minute, though, before a balding middle-aged man appeared on her desktop terminal, glaring dolefully at her. Before she could even draw a breath to introduce herself the man snapped, "About damn time. We noted your weapons fire almost six hours ago. You dawdling on purpose or just taking the scenic route?"
Sydney clamped her mouth shut on the first comment which sprang into her mind, though she did feel her nostrils flare slightly as her temper flared to easily match the station manager's display of ire. To gain a moment she limited herself to asking, "Station Master Rudolph, I presume?"
"Of course," he snapped. Who--"
"Manager Rudolph," Sydney cut him off, "I am Captain Sydney Chambers, in command of the Terran Space Military cruiser Cahan Morrigan. As you noted, we have arrived in the Cygni-C system. That weapons fire you observed was a group aimed at a group of pirates we happened on as they were attempting to ransack a local freighter. We are currently engaged in escorting that freighter to Outpost Station." She paused for a breath before adding, "I do apologize if our attention to duty has put a crimp in your schedule."
Rudolph closed his eyes and breathed several times before visibly calming, then re-opening his eyes to regard Sydney through the comm link. "My apologies, Captain. While we've been plagued with pirate activity for nearly two years now, this is the first report I've heard of them actually attacking traffic here at Cyg C." He drew another breath, then nodded once. "Of course you were only doing what you had to."
"And we have only now come within one AU and hailing range, Mr. Rudolph. I only wish that I could have appraised you of the attack sooner."
"One AU?" Rudolph chuckled as though finding the comment humorous. "The 16 Cygni system may be a bit of a backwater, Captain, but Outpost Station is near state-of-the-art tech wise. Our comm easily handles an AU-and-a-half." He added a smile. "Just for future reference."
Sydney found herself chuckling at the manager's change of mood. "So noted."
"So now that you're here, how many ships have you brought with you? I specified how many we needed, and I do hope that our TSM masters have been generous...." His voice trailed off at the frown that immediately etched itself on Sydney's face.
"You requested assistance in dealing with a few pirates." Morrigan's captain couldn't keep the incredulity out of her voice. "How many ships do you think you should expect?"
"I asked for a squadron," Rudolph replied testily. "Knowing command's stinginess with hardware, though, I did admit that we could probably get by with one or two for each of our three star systems."
Sydney found herself suddenly amused at Rudolph's optimism. "So you're expecting, what? Four ships? Six?"
"About that, yes."
Sydney found herself staring at the earnest face of the station manager, a brief wave of irritation passing through her before she realized that a civilian such as Rudolph could have no idea how TSM command viewed the 16 Cygni system. Schooling her face to as bland a look as possible she said, "Central Command sees the issue a bit differently, Manager Rudolph. The Morrigan is what you get."
"Wha--" Rudolph was actually sputtering for a moment, unable to speak. "One ship? One? 16 Cygni is a trinary system, Captain Chambers. That's three complete star systems all wrapped up in one not-so-happy package. Almost three-and-a-half million cubic AU's!" Sydney noted that his face had turned an alarming shade of red and was glad when the man paused for a breath. "What can one ship do against that?"
Sydney tried not to sound as offended as she felt. "One ship is capable of a lot more than you might imagine, Manager Rudolph. Admittedly, one ship cannot simultaneously be in all three sub-systems. But a thorough, slow, methodical, approach can, over the course of the next few months, bring the pirate beast to heel. Or so Central Command has assured me.
"Now, sir, that being said--let me be frank with you. To a certain extent I share your sense that Central Command tends to, ah, underestimate problems on occasion." Sydney watched for a long moment as the face of the man on her desktop screen changed from stunned to outraged to thoughtful. When she estimated that he was again in an emotional state to consider reason she continued, "So now that I'm here, please bring me up to speed on your perspective. Just what is your estimation of the scope of the problem?"
Rather than a thoughtful response Rudolph began to laugh, a laugh which grew until he seemed to be almost hysterical. "The scope...of the problem," he finally managed to gasp out, then panted for a long moment as he obviously fought to regain his composure. "The scope of the problem? The problem is as big as I said the whole damn system is, Captain! There are pirates at Cyg-A. There are pirates at Cyg-B. There are pirates bloody everywhere lately, out-thinking us, out-maneuvering us, and out-fighting us. And now you tell me that you've found them attacking shipping even here at Cyg-C...."
"A caravan of three ships," Sydney interrupted the manager's rant, "one large ship and two small scouts. Just as an aside, we'd appreciate any help you can give us on identifying the markings on those ships so we'll have a better idea which group they belonged to."
Rudolph's eyes flashed. "Belonged? As in, you blew them out of the sky?"
Sydney felt a taste of disquiet at the manager's question. "No we did not 'blow them out of the sky,' though we did run them off. Our first priority is stopping pirate activity, of course, but a close second is gathering information--and that means taking prisoners. We did manage to take a couple of captives from the group already on the freighter, but the more we can get the more we will learn."
"Huh." Rudolph drew a deep breath, then remained in silent thought for a moment. "I do wish that you'd blasted them, but still--your point about reeling in some creeps to question has merit. Well. Sorry I sounded a bit nuts here a moment ago. I'll be happy to look at the ship markings you saw, and give you a complete briefing on the pirate--problem--face to face, once you're docked."
"Thank you," Sydney said. "I look forward to it. Morrigan out."
She had no sooner blanked her terminal than there was a knock at her doorway. "Captain?" When she looked up, she found Marine Sgt. Saans looking at her from just inside the hatch.
"Sergeant," the Captain said with a smile. "Again, good work today. So what did the merchants have to say for themselves? You say they holed up in a safe room? Sounds a bit odd to me."
"To me as well, Captain," the sergeant began, "until they explained what's going on. Safe rooms have apparently become SOP across the Cyg systems because it keeps ship personnel insulated from forced recruitment into the pirate ranks. Apparently that was a big problem up until about a year ago when some of them developed the scheme--just lock everything down so the bastards can't make off with the ship itself, but otherwise let 'em have whatever they want. Their captain says that killings and dragoonings are 'way down since most local merchants took to the tactic."
"Huh." Sydney thought it over and decided there was a certain rough logic to the idea. "Sound enough tactic, I suppose, if they're willing to sacrifice profit for security. It does say a lot about the scope of the piracy problem here, though." Suddenly pensive, Sydney stood and turned to gaze out of her porthole at the nothingness outside of the ship. "The merchant say anything else that might help us get a handle on just how big our job might be?"
"Only that the pirates have been getting more and more brazen over the past year or so," Saans told her. "He was pretty emphatic about this being the first time anyone's seen an attack here in Cyg-C space, though."
"Terrific." Sydney grimaced as she stared out into the blackness. "It can't be a coincidence that it happened just as we were scheduled to arrive. Well, we didn't come here for a vacation, did we? That's all for now, Sergeant. Make sure your report gets to my desk as soon as your lieutenant signs off on it."
"Yes, Ma'am." Sydney continued to stare into space until another polite knock and a cleared throat demanded her attention.
"Ah, Captain?"
Morrigan's executive officer was just outside her door when she turned from the port. "Ah? Oh, come in, XO."
Garvey took one step through the hatch. "We're on final approach to Outpost Station, Captain. Should be docked in about twenty minutes."
"Fine." Sydney grimaced again, then took a moment to sit back at her desk before continuing. "I'm scheduled for a face-to-face with the station manager as soon after we dock as I can get to his office. Going to be just loads of fun. Anyway, that means I'll be tied up for a good while, and we need to get on top of those repairs that Morrigan needs."
"Understood. I've just spent half an hour with Lieutenant Kristoff working up a full list of what we need."
"Good," the captain acknowledged. "Stay on top of it. Use Kristoff and anyone else you need to track down a repair facility, or at least a parts depot. Despite Manager Rudolph's glowing claim that Outpost Station is on the cutting edge of technology I tend to doubt that they have a repair dock that can handle our needs."
"No, Ma'am," Garvey agreed. "It does not, at least not on the record. I'll see what the locals can direct us to. There's got to be some sort of dock facility somewhere in the three-system area."
"I agree." Sydney flicked on her terminal once more, and took a moment to pull up the same exterior shots of the hull that Garvey had been studying earlier. "Huh. Well, at least the damage isn't debilitating. We can still do pretty much anything we have to, even being a bit low on sheet metal."
"Yes, Ma'am."
The captain sighed. "Not an auspicious way to start a new posting. Still, it is what it is. Page me when we're docked."
"Yes, Captain."
Sydney stared at the images of hull damage a while longer before again shutting the terminal off, and shaking her head in disgust. "Not an auspicious start at all," she muttered.

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