Where is the Dark Horse, and why does everyone have goatees?
And now for something completely different than unhappy moreauverse stuff! Time to follow up on the Season 5 cliffhanger, which ended with the battleship Agamemnon threatening to take the Dark Horse under arrest. Who is the Federal Planetary Union? Why does Hatfield seem so volatile? All these questions and more will be... raised and left hanging. Patreon subscribers, this should also be live for you with notes and maps and stuff.
Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute--as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.
Tales of the Dark Horse, by Rob Baird
“Stand down your ship and prepare to be boarded."
Jack and Ciara looked at each other, wordlessly asking the exact same question: did you just hear that? Captain Ford knew from experience that Hatfield was not to be argued with: the doe had a well-deserved reputation for insisting her orders be followed to the letter.
“They're powering up their weapons," Ciara said. “I think. I don't recognize the configuration. All the electromagnetic signatures are off."
Next, though, they heard Hatfield repeat her command, with a threat to open fire if immediate compliance wasn't forthcoming. “Probably powering up their weapons, then, yes, what do you suppose? I don't think we've been detected yet. What do you say about backing us off a little bit?"
“Yes, sir." Munro pulsed the Tempest's thrusters warily, trusting inertia to do the rest. The spy ship's passive sensors drank in as much information as they could; for the moment, it didn't seem as though they'd been detected.
Ford listened as May agreed to report aboard the Agamemnon as soon as one of the cruiser's shuttles could be readied. That pacified Hatfield, at least enough to call off the threat of a boarding party. “What the hell is going on, anyway? Something's not right."
Indeed, the list of things that were 'not right' continued to grow the more Ciara learned. The vixen shook her head. “That's definitely one way of putting it. These readings are… baffling. Almost right—but not exactly. None of them."
“Processing error?" Jack was doing his best to help, working from his own console but Munro knew the Tempest far better than he did. “Maybe we did take some damage from that power surge."
“I don't think so." Ciara kept trying different filters; different algorithms—looking for the single fix that would snap everything back into focus and growing more frustrated with each failure. “I ran a diagnostic on the integrator. Our scanners are fine. Those aren't," she growled, pointing to the stars beyond the viewscreen.
“So what's your answer?"
A second diagnostic also showed no errors with the ship's systems. She huffed a sharp sigh. “We've been transported into a parallel dimension, sir. Improbably similar to our own, but with subtle differences that only make those similarities even more inexplicable."
The coyote allowed himself a quiet chuckle. “You have no idea."
“I have no idea, sir," Munro confirmed; they had nowhere near enough information to explain why the sensors seemed to be malfunctioning. It simply appeared… odd. “Just… look at this—all of this. How's your EM theory? This is clearly an Q-modulated pulse sequence—standard high-bandwidth positioning transmitter, right? But…"
Jack narrowed his eyes. The Tempest's computer had even identified the source of the signal: a Yoyodyne P70, common to Star Patrol's fleet carriers for automated landing patterns. “There's a phase variance in the signal…"
“It's not a variance. They're just using a P70 that's calibrated three degrees off ours. Or this: the transform suggests the comms encryption has to be a Rejmanova algorithm, but… the harmonics only work if the generator has 136 bits, instead of 144."
“Does that mean you can decrypt it?"
The vixen shrugged. “It's still a Rejmanova. So… no, not before the heat death of the universe. Our universe, at least."
“You really think that's what happened?"
Her ears splayed in frustration. “No. No? No, of course not," she decided, finally. “But if you'd asked me last year how much time I'd be spending in 1960s San Francisco on my next assignment, I would've thought that was a rhetorical question, too."
It gave the coyote a slight opening, although he was still wary of seeming too paranoid around the test pilot. “I'll be honest. I don't like Hatfield's tone, commander. I think we should stay hidden if we can, until we do know what's going on. Maybe the fleet's upgraded all our transmitters and this is all just… you know, random. A coincidence. But…"
“No, sir. I agree." She didn't like it, either. “Fortunately, our cloaking device has already compensated for the slight differences in the Agamemnon's sensors. I don't think they'll be able to see us."
“Can we contact the Dark Horse? Do we have any kind of transmitter that the Aggie wouldn't be looking for? A Dominion radio, or something?"
“I'll see what I can do," she said, although the Tempest mostly carried standard equipment. Trying to find a solution was, at least, a way of keeping busy. One of the older Vostok shuttles—undamaged by the reactor malfunction that had disabled the rest of the ship—departed, making its way towards the Agamemnon.
“Godspeed," Jack said quietly. “I hope you figure this out real fast, captain…"
“Very elaborate practical joke?" May suggested. The Agamemnon outwardly looked the same as the dreadnought she was familiar with, although the paint scheme was significantly darker and the Confederation was not given to calling such vessels 'battleships.' She recognized Hatfield's voice. She understood the language spoken by the crew.
Instead of ordinary, Star Patrol-blue uniforms, though, these were slate grey with gold accents. Dave Bradley had noticed, too, the curious look his captain got when she introduced herself as 'Star Patrol' in the first place. “I don't know."
Hatfield greeted them with a curt, surly tone that was on-brand, if a little sharper than May was accustomed to. She pointed to Sabel Thorsen, who had flown their shuttle over to the dreadnought. “An Ulver? Intriguing. It stays outside. You two: in here."
Waiting in the briefing room was her senior tactician, a genet whom she introduced as Lieutenant Commander Irene Stewart, and her vulpine chief scientist, Commander Kendall Braxton. Also waiting, though, was a jet-black coyote the two Star Patrol crew found immediately, unsettlingly familiar. “Jonathan Ford," he said, showing none of May and Bradley's confusion. “First officer."
“These two claim to be Star Patrol officers. Madison May and David Bradley. Which is interesting, because I have no idea what a 'Star Patrol' is, but apparently not all of you is so mysterious." Hatfield let that hang, and crossed her paws behind her back, staring the two down sternly. “Commander Ford says that your ship is known to us."
“That's correct. It matches the cruiser Rocinante, lost on patrol in this sector two hundred years ago. Somehow, you and the, ah, Space Patrol seem to have acquired it." The coyote's explanation dripped open, contemptuous skepticism. “Care to explain?"
“Star Patrol," May corrected, although she didn't suppose that was going to meet with any more understanding. “We've been on a mission of deep space exploration for the Terran Confederation. I think there is some… confusion."
“That's one way of putting it. Stewart, your turn. Tell them what you and Braxton found."
Irene Stewart cleared her throat. “Our analysis suggests that you've been working with the resistance movements. Your ship has been modified with Pictor shield frequencies, and the reactor emissions indicate it was refueled less than a decade ago. Your weapons also show Pictor adaptations."
“Why?" Hatfield demanded.
Neither of the two knew where to begin; Maddy deferred to honesty as the best policy. “We were on a reconnaissance mission. The Pictor seemed to be massing an invasion fleet. The shield adaptations were to help us evade their weapons fire. But I don't know what these 'resistance movements' are, and I don't think you're going to believe that, either."
“Which Pictor are massing an invasion fleet?" the other captain scoffed. “They don't have more than a dozen planets we haven't exterminated them from yet."
“I should hope it's obvious," Dave ventured carefully, “that we may not exactly be seeing eye to eye. Your ship's configuration is also… a little odd, to say the least."
“And your explanation for this, Mr. 'Bradley'?"
In the uncomfortable silence, Commander Ford answered. “Perhaps they come from a parallel dimension, ma'am. Improbably similar to our own, but with subtle—"
He yelped, and his ears went back. “I did not ask you," Hatfield hissed. The coyote said nothing further; after a few seconds, his captain tapped the computer wrapped about her upper left arm and Ford gradually relaxed. “Your explanation, Star Patrol?"
“We don't have one." May answered for both of them, grateful that Hatfield was—presumably—not capable of inflicting on her two guests whatever she'd done to the coyote. “Everything we've told you has been truth. That doesn't mean we can explain it."
“Terry," Irene spoke up. “You said they had an Ulver. We could access its databanks. There should be plenty of logs there."
“'Access'—without hurting him?" Dave asked.
“What, you've grown attached?" Hatfield rolled her eyes, and went to the door. She snapped her fingers and pointed inside. “You. In here now. Yes," she continued, as Sabel stepped into the room. “Of course we can download their records without 'damage.' The Star Force doesn't know how to do that?"
Sabel Thorsen, courtesy of his tactical programming, was accustomed both to drawing the most likely conclusions under intense pressure—no matter how implausible—and to speaking without guile. “In our reality, the Ulver Program was discontinued in 2591 and nearly all units were decommissioned. I survived only by coincidence."
He held his arm out obligingly for Stewart, who tapped a computer against the inside of his elbow, where it locked solidly in place. She seemed to know her way around the exposed data port—part of early designs, when engineers had envisioned different forearm attachments to improve the cyborgs' flexibility. Sabel could only presume that he now existed in a universe with others like him, gifted with many exciting things they could do with their arms.
The genet's tail lashed, and her expression grew perplexed. “He's not lying. The code revision is marked 2590."
“You're time travelers?" Hatfield asked.
“No. Well, not at the moment," Sabel corrected himself. “My unit was accidentally left aboard the Rocinante, and connected to ship's power, when it was mothballed. I have no memory of the intervening centuries."
“But it does have… exabytes of logs, Terry," Irene said. “Audiovisual data, tactical analyses… crew fitness reports… positioning history… they've been all over the Rewa-Tahi. I think they might be telling the truth." She adjusted the datalink's settings. “What was your last contact with the Resistance?"
“Error," Sabel replied. “The question is ambiguous."
May leaned closer to her first officer. “Did you know he was keeping logs?"
“No. I'm sure he's discreet." This, in vernacular, was 'whistling past the graveyard': Sabel was not discreet even without having his memories directly accessed. “And it's helpful in this case, right?"
“The Link," Irene clarified. “The Reforged Link. What are your contacts with them?"
“There's no record of interaction with that group. My tactical subroutines may require updating. Alternatively, you may narrow the search parameters by location or date," Sabel offered. “Or I can provide a record of all alien contacts since my reactivation."
“Who activated you?" Hatfield asked.
“Then-Commander, now-Captain Madison Amelia May, Star Patrol serial number 6629 Lambda 047 Pi Alpha. The activation sequence has been moved to secondary storage. Shall I bypass archive controls to retrieve it?"
Irene Stewart kept working on her computer. “It was activated nearly two years ago, Terry. I've never seen one kept running this long…"
“Find out what's going on. Jonathan, find a cell for these two."
“And keep them separated."
Acting captain's log, stardate 67430.7
The ship's structural integrity is sound, making it the only thing we seem able to count on. We continue to be out of contact with Captain May, as well as with Captain Ford and Lieutenant Commander Munro on board the Tempest. With our weapons all but disabled and only minimal maneuvering capacity, we'd have plenty to deal with if the only issues were making repairs…
But it seems like that's only the beginning.
Lieutenant Vasquez was familiar, in the abstract, with command. That didn't make him any more comfortable with sitting on the bridge of the crippled Dark Horse, with her two most senior officers aboard a mysterious ship that did not look anything like the Agamemnon he remembered.
Captain Hatfield served in the 16th Fleet, under Admiral Mercure, and her ship was posted to a regular patrol close to the Confederation's frontier. He'd seen the dreadnought before, on review, and he knew it had occasionally served as the flagship for one ad hoc task force or another. Hatfield, and the Agamemnon, would have been a logical choice to rescue the Dark Horse.
He was even more unsettled than the others, though, by its change in paint scheme and the evident differences in its armament. Mitch Alexander was distracted by the work of painstakingly activating and recalibrating their sensors; Leon Bader was all but blind until that work was completed. Both of them shared knowledge of the Star Patrol that was nearly a year out of date, and couldn't dismiss the possibility that things had changed in the interim.
Vasquez, however, knew this was not the case. He rose from the captain's chair and joined Leon at the tactical station. “Any more insight on their weaponry, ensign?"
The shepherd shook his head. “Definitely upgraded from the stock configuration. I think these blisters along the midline must be additional torpedo ports. It looks like they've doubled the number of point-defense turrets, too. I guess the Admiralty must be taking the Pictor threat seriously."
“I guess," Vasquez muttered, unconvinced. “Do those lasers match any you've seen before?"
Leon was used to being the most paranoid member of the bridge crew; he lowered his voice, in case Vasquez was feeling him out. “The defensive turrets? No, sir. They sort of resemble a DAC model, but the heatsinks are a good thirty percent larger. Some kind of top-secret prototype, maybe?"
“Have you heard of Captain Hatfield? You think she'd allow a prototype to be installed on her ship?" The wolf fidgeted, straightening his uniform jacket reflexively. “We need to be careful. How are we on the shields?"
“Another bank has come online. We can manage about 30% strength, but as you can imagine, the defensive grid is still shot. We're on deflectors only for now, until our tactical suite comes back online."
“Our torpedoes have their own guidance scanners, though, right? They can lock on after launch."
“If they're programmed against the right targets, yes. Are you expecting the Pictor to come back?"
Vasquez clenched his paw into an unsettled fist a few times, trying to decide just how absurd the words would sound when he spoke them. “Get a firing solution on the Agamemnon. Prioritize their targeting scanners."
Leon's brain ran through any number of scenarios in his mind. He knew that Vasquez was Internal Security, and therefore likely had privileged information. Had the Agamemnon gone rogue? Been captured by pirates? Was it all a complex drill? In any case, the wolf did not need to doubt Bader's loyalty. “Yes, sir."
Taking a deep breath, Vasquez went to visit Mitch next. The Abyssinian was not in a good mood: even after the damage control drones finished their work, realigning the sensors was a manual process and she keenly felt the pressure they were under. She did not want to disappoint the wolf.
And their previous encounter introduced an as-yet unresolved wrinkle. They'd both showered in the interim. Eli Parnell, the helmsman, had a canine's nose and knew Mitch's scent well enough to pick up on anything out of the ordinary; she was, fortunately, distracted.
Mitch still twitched guiltily at the softer tone in Vasquez's voice. “Progress, spaceman?"
“A little. Internal and external comms are both working fully. No idea why our encryption keys aren't being accepted." Had she been given the space to look at the data, she would've come to the same conclusions as Ciara Munro—but for the moment, other pressing matters intervened. “I'm trying. But I think the navigational array takes priority."
“It does. The hyperdrive is almost back online." Not that he knew where they'd go—not like they could go anywhere, with the captain and first officer aboard the Agamemnon. “Just… keep me posted. You've got this."
“And… what's that? New error?"
Mitch called up the message and double-checked the signal path. Fuck. There was no sign of any anomaly. “Hyperdrives. At least twenty contacts, seven thousand kilometers away and closing on an intercept course."
Vasquez had the same first reaction as their sensor operator: blasphemy. He settled his nerves. “Action stations—set State Red throughout the ship! Ensign Bader, I need those shields back! Helm, stand by to maneuver. Can somebody tell me what we're looking at?"
Jack Ford tightened his harness and pulled the tactical display up. “Those look like Dominion starfighters. Heavier—they have FTL drives of some kind. But they look familiar. Right?" By this he meant they were brutal, angular, and designed to convey the impression to anyone who saw them that form decidedly followed function.
“Yes." Ciara double-checked the initial report, which didn't make it as clear as she might've hoped even with the additional data now being processed. “The FTL signatures are closer to a Confed design, though. Miniaturized. Weapons are definitely Uxzu. They're going for the Agamemnon."
“Alone?" Jack growled. “No, this must be a precursor to something else."
“Probably." Theresa Hatfield's voice, on the radio, ordered the 'rebel interlopers' to withdraw or be annihilated. The Link has no right to interfere with Union business, within the Union's borders.
Those borders weren't yours to establish, whoever was on the other send shot back. If you don't intend to let us carry out our rescue operations, well… you're alone, captain. And outnumbered.
So, Jack thought, they definitely intended to bring in reinforcements. Ciara's efforts at making more sense of the signals was interrupted by a diagnostic error in one of the Tempest's systems. The vixen ran through the codes quickly. “We have a fault in the lateral integrator, sir. The cloak might be about to go."
“Checksum error on the buffer. There's an extra sixteen-byte… wait." She dumped the contents of the buffer, and directed his attention to the anomaly: TO:TMPST.RUN-MAY. “A message from the captain: 'run.'"
“Where's it from?"
“I don't know. It looks like it was injected straight into the system. Some kind of backdoor, which means… Sabel Thorsen, maybe. Or Mitch. Spaceman Alexander," she amended belatedly.
Not that Ford was the type of coyote to stand on decorum on the best of days; he wasn't even paying attention. “Can we reply?"
“Not without knowing exactly who sent it, and from where."
As he'd feared. “Alright. Commander, we're through the looking-glass, here."
“Sir? What do you mean?"
“By 'through the looking-glass'? Alice in Wonderland, Munro. C'mon. It's the one literary reference you need to get. I haven't even read it, and I know that. What I mean, though, is that things have gotten weird."
“I've been serving with Captain May for six months, sir. I didn't need a reference to appreciate that."
“Fair enough. Keep me honest, okay? We can't bail the Dark Horse out on our own. If we talk to them, we give away our position. The more attention they draw, the more likely somebody notices us. Right?"
“So we run. Be ready to jump as soon as more of them show up. In the opposite direction—let's find out where this 'Link' is based, and maybe they can tell us more. Does that make sense?"
'Weird' as everything was, Munro did have the sense that the newcomers were, at least, slightly friendlier than Hatfield. “They might help us rescue our friends, you think?"
“I think, either way, it's going to accomplish more than we'd manage sticking around here."
Ciara, like the coyote, wasn't exactly thrilled with the prospect of leaving the Dark Horse behind. But she had to agree with him: they were all but unarmed, and the only thing they had going for them was the element of surprise. She brought the hyperdrive online, and did what she could to interpolate where the starfighters had come from. “I have the nav plot, sir."
“Set it to trigger automatically."
That was not something the engines could really do. She was partway through programming a workaround when two more signals appeared, and before she could stop herself she hit the hyperdrive control reflexively. “Close enough. I don't think anybody would've detected us."
“Now it's our turn. Where did those ships come from? Can we look at the residual chaikalis turbulence—extrapolate backwards?"
A local density plot looked like nothing so much as pure noise. “They covered their tracks pretty well. Multiple converging paths. There'll be…" Millions of possible origins, she thought. Maybe more. The coyote looked at her expectantly. “I don't know. I'll try."
“Battle stations!" There was little more information present, except that neither the phrasing nor the tone of voice would be at home in the Star Patrol. The Agamemnon was a warship, clearly, and run tightly as one. Dave Bradley wasn't looking forward to seeing it in operation, although his room had no window and he could not look outside anyway.
The door to his quarters—cell was more appropriate—slid open, and Sabel Thorsen stepped in. “We should depart," Thorsen said, hoping the firmness would overcome the surprise evident in the retriever's startled blinking. Bradley would understand what had happened as soon as he stepped into the corridor.
Having done so, Dave made his way over the bodies of the two guards. “Are they, ah…"
“Stunned, but they will recover. The ship is under attack by vessels of a configuration unknown to me, but apparently representing the so-called Reforged Link. As the saying goes, opportunity may knock twice"—here he gestured to the disabled guards—“but it can't be guaranteed a third time. This way, please."
Bradley followed as Sabel led him towards where the Vostok shuttle was being kept. “Do you know where Maddy is?"
The spitz held up his paw, bidding the commander halt. More crewmen guarded the bay. Sabel had familiarized himself with the compliance bands they'd all been fitted with; a brief set of commands was all it took to bring them to full intensity. The guards dropped without a word.
“What did you just do?"
“A medium-length story, to be recounted later." He bent down to retrieve one of the guard's weapons, handing it to Bradley. “Captain May is being kept in an interrogation unit. I was not able to disable the safeguards. She instructed me to leave with you. It was a very firm order."
“Specifically she instructed me to tell you: 'come with me if you want to live.' I did not think you would react well to those exact words, and I'm not sure why she wanted—"
“Where is she, Sabel?"
“She also suggested that I use force to overcome your tendency for stubbornness. I would… rather not. We are to escape as quickly as possible."
“Fuck. Fuck. Fine." They were at the shuttle's landing ramp, anyway. “You told her we'd come back for her, right?"
“No. She told me that, though, so there is general agreement on the point." Sabel estimated that they only had another minute or so before their escape was discovered, and at most two minutes beyond that before the attacking ships entered firing range.
The shuttle didn't seem to have been disturbed. Dave watched the spitz's fingers tap quickly on the control panel, and the bay doors sliding open in front of them. “I didn't know what they'd done to you. The genet, Stewart, she seemed to be able to control you…"
“She was not."
Sabel fired the thrusters, and their shuttle rocketed out into empty space. His course kept them visible to the absolute minimum number of the Agamemnon's defensive turrets, although the ship's tactical officer was apparently ignoring them anyway for the moment. “A ruse," the spitz explained, when he was comfortable with their odds of escape.
“A ruse," Bradley echoed.
“She transmitted some kind of administrative password to me. Obviously, a later addition to the Ulver program. It seemed like a good idea to play along. I believe it was. She neglected to close the connection. I was able to extract some valuable information, which allowed me to rescue you."
“But not Maddy?" Dave furrowed his brow, reconsidering what he'd said. “Not that it's your fault, Sabel. I'm glad we have you. I just don't like our chances."
“I never have, personally. I've come to understand that my objections to long odds have never had much of an impact on the outcome. You'll find a way. For now…" he pointed to the communications console. “Can you take over the radio? They should know we're coming."
He hailed the Dark Horse, which at least had more lights on than the last time he'd seen it. The shield emitters looked like they'd been powered on, too. “This is Bradley. We're inbound for a hot landing. Talk to me."
“The Agamemnon is under imminent attack by two cruiser-sized ships and about seventy strike vessels," Vasquez answered. “So far, we're being ignored, but that seems to be changing. A few fighters are adjusting course and making for us."
“Torpedoes only. The defense grid is inoperative. We can't hold our own against fighters like that, sir, in my opinion."
“I agree. Is the FTL drive back?"
“Yes. But our navigational computer is… not good. We won't be able to calculate a trajectory for another half-hour, at least."
Dave muted the channel for the duration of his growl. A blind jump with a ship the size of the Dark Horse could get them into serious trouble, and he didn't think Hatfield would give them half an hour of quiet to continue repair work. “What about our previous course? Can you reverse it? That ought to be safe, at least, even if it's in the wrong direction."
“Lieutenant Parnell, what do you think? Alright—I'm being told 'yes,' sir. We can do that."
“Set a course, and be ready to jump as soon as we land. I'll explain more when I'm aboard. And don't fire on anybody. Even if they shoot first, don't engage those fighters."
Uncomfortable silence. “Uh… okay, sir. Yes. The deflectors are just barely working. I must advise you to expedite your landing, if possible."
Sabel nodded. “It will be."
“Understood, lieutenant—we'll be quick," Bradley said. “As soon as we land, hit it." The Vostok's sensors indicated that targeting scanners were beginning to notice the shuttle. The Agamemnon's, in particular. He didn't know how hard the battleship could kick—but considering everything that had happened, he didn't want to find out, either.
“Copy that. Dark Horse out."
Sabel Thorsen kept the throttle firewalled as long as he dared—any speed they picked up would need to be bled off by the time they hit the shuttlebay, after all. Threat-receiver alarms warbled. “It's the Agamemnon. They're targeting the Dark Horse, instead of the attack vessels."
“Targeting with what?"
A ninety-missile barrage answered Dave's question. He looked warily at the plots. They could be aboard in sixty seconds. The missiles would hit in sixty-five. The retriever couldn't guess at their payload—was Hatfield shooting to disable them, or worse? Did she know that the point-defense grid wasn't working?
Did she even know that the cruiser had point-defense weapons? Ninety missiles wouldn't have been a problem in other circumstances. Maybe she was just trying to bloody the Dark Horse a bit—keep them from running away. Or perhaps it was tying up a loose end, now that she had Madison May captive. Or—
“Brace for impact," Sabel cautioned.
No sooner had they done so than the Vostok slammed hard into the landing bay. Sabel fired the dorsal thrusters, shoving them into the deck to let friction do the work of slowing them. Metal screamed on metal. Sabel howled with it—someone had recommended it to him as a way of coping with stress.
The shuttle caught on a bit of warped deck plating, spun, and came to a stop against the far wall. The two had a glimpse of space, from the open bay doors, and then a bright flash. And, at last, Mitch Alexander's voice over the radio. “Welcome back aboard. You're going to want to stay put, guys."
Fires had begun to spring up along the track of their reentry, courtesy of the heat caused by their dramatic entrance. Damage control bots were already at work. Dave sighed, and tapped his communicator. “Understood. Bridge, I'm going to ask for a status report, and when I do, I want to know about everything but the flight deck."
Lieutenant Vasquez came back on: “Well. It's not great news there, either. Did you and Captain May learn anything you can tell us about what's going on?"
“I did. Sabel did. The captain didn't make it back. She's been taken prisoner."
That would have, he realized, gone over the intercom; everyone on the bridge would be processing that information. Vasquez composed himself. “Well. Well, then. Comparatively speaking, if you ignore the shuttlebay, everything's doing just fine."
“No." Ciara had no choice but to rebuff Jack Ford's optimism when he asked if she'd made progress in trying to find where the attacking warships had come from. “Look at this. The hyperspace eddies converge on thousands of possible origins. It was a good idea, captain, but…"
Jack tapped one of the data points. “What about this one? What's wrong with it?"
“Insufficient data. There's some kind of pulsar distorting hyperspace around it."
“Seems like it would be a good place to hide," the coyote suggested. At least, it seemed like as good a place as any to start—given the Tempest's speed, it was only a few hours away. “Call it a hunch."
“I didn't say that—don't jinx us. I said a hunch. You can keep running down other options while we're on the way, right? And we have plenty of fuel."
“We do." Their rations would run out before the fuel, Ciara thought; neither of them had planned to be away from the Dark Horse long enough for either to matter. She kept replaying the final telemetry: for a brief instant, a second ship was visible, large enough to threaten even Maddy if their cruiser wasn't fully operational…
But they'd jumped to lightspeed at the same instant, preventing anything more than that fleeting glimpse. It looked a little like another Dominion warship, perhaps with influence from one of the other cultures in the sector. The Uxzu were allies of the Terran Confederation, though…
Ciara gave up on trying to puzzle out which of the other signals seemed like they might become interesting prospects. A more perplexing philosophical question had emerged, and she hadn't spent enough time with Maddy to figure out an answer on her own. The closer they got to their destination, though, the more she felt the issue was a pressing one.
“What if…" She leaned back in the pilot's chair, point her muzzle towards the ceiling and sighing in exasperation. “What if we are in an alternate universe?"
Jack was more concerned with getting back to the Dark Horse and figuring out what to make of the Agamemnon, but the circumstances were bizarre enough that he, too, was willing to spend time on them. “What do you mean?"
“Are you religious?"
“No. Mom said us coyotes have been counting on there not being a god too long to change up now."
Ciara couldn't tell if he was joking; trusted that he was not. “That's a very coyote thing to say."
“No surprise there. What about you, commander?"
“A little. Think about chaos, Captain Ford. Hit two identical pool balls, or… no. Here. This is the simulation I was using to guess where the hyperdrive signals might've come from. Now let's delay this signal by ten milliseconds…" The results, when updated, painted a radically different constellation. “The most minor changes create unpredictable outcomes."
“One tree falling over in a different direction ten million years ago on Earth could very well mean there isn't a Ciara Munro and a Jack Ford. But… there's a Theresa Hatfield here, and an Agamemnon. No Terran Confederation, but apparently a Federal Planetary Union."
“The odds are against it," the coyote granted. “If I were you, I guess I'd be wondering… if we were in an alternate reality, what changed about it?"
“I don't think that's the right approach. If we're in an alternate reality, it can't be chaotic."
Something, she said, had to be driving it. The odds weren't simply 'against' a battleship Agamemnon, Captain Hatfield commanding: its appearance in the first place meant 'odds' were no longer the driving force behind what was going on. “And you think that might be… god?" Not that Jack himself had any better explanation.
“I'm not sure. I think it should change how we look at things, though. We're visiting this system because—in your words—you had a hunch. Maybe that's not it. Maybe something whispered in your ear. God, a puppetmaster, a playwright, an author—I don't know. We should be ready for anything."
“The planet's name turns out to be yours?"
“I guess. Or weirder."
“That was the weirdest I could come up with on short notice. We'll find out soon enough, though," Jack pointed out. “Almost there. Shields up?"
“Shields up," the vixen agreed, and counted down the final minutes of their exit trajectory in her head. “If you were right…"
“Coyotes can have intuition, commander," he said, aware even with that declaration that it wasn't particularly reassuring. “Deflectors are standing by."
“If you were right," Ciara warned again, and cut the hyperdrive. “Then deflectors are the least we can do to be on guard. Running passive now."
“The second planet in the system. It's dry, but inhabitable, and I think you're getting faint EM signals from the equatorial belt. You think that's random?"
Another, shorter jump took them into the upper atmosphere. The signals had a regular modulation; they were coming from a group of artificial structures, camouflaged—but not well enough to hide from the Tempest. Ford, immediately curious and without Ciara's natural caution, gave the vixen permission to approach.
It looked like some kind of scrapyard. Or, perhaps, a repair facility, though the one ship they could identify as having been a ship was so badly damaged neither Star Patrol officer could tell if it had landed or crashed. “Another Dominion vessel," Jack said. “And look at the insignia on the starboard wing: two interlocking links of a chain."
“You think we should land." She didn't really need to phrase it as a question.
The biofilters detected nothing troubling about the atmosphere, except that it was rather warm outside. The two traded jackets for armored vests—just in case—and made their way towards the settlement. They were, Jack admitted, liable to be shot at. At the very least, he thought it unlikely that they'd receive a warm welcome.
Still, the explosion directly in front of them was startling. An amplified voice followed: “Hands where I can see them! Now, or you both die."
They did as asked. The speaker revealed himself presently: an Uxzu, carrying an energy rifle that seemed large even for him and weighed as much as Ciara did. Jack took heart from the warning shot, though, that these fighters might prove to be more reasonable. “We're looking for the resistance—a Link, of some kind? Our vessel, the Dark Horse, was damaged; our crew were taken aboard a warship called the Agamemnon. Am I speaking gibberish to you?"
“Not yet," the Uxzu answered. “Do you have names?"
“Captain Jack Ford, Dark Horse CAG."
“Lieutenant Commander Ciara Munro, 71st Tactical Reconnaissance Wing."
“Rensho. I'm Sergeant Rensho, of the Neviin Pride," the man said, staring oddly at Ford. “Are you related to Jonathan?"
“Well, we have the same first name." Jack rolled the dice: “You said I wasn't speaking gibberish, right? At some point, you're going to change your mind. I'd like to talk to whoever's in charge here before that happens."
“It's a… strange story."
Rensho slung his rifle, and crossed his burly arms. “I have a good imagination. They call our general the Scimitar of Radavah II—and not because scimitars are known for their listening skills. Try me, first."
Ciara Munro, who lacked a coyote's blind trust in fate despite the way it routinely sabotaged their affairs, did not see the recounting of that story going well for them without evidence. “We're out of place here, and we have proof of something… strange going on. Do you have equipment that can read a nano-holographic data crystal?"
If they did, she felt the bizarre, near-quantum differences would become as glaringly apparent to their technicians as it had been to her. The chip was absurdly small in the Uxzu's fingers as he turned them to examine it. “Yes, we do. But I haven't seen this format before. We'll need to take it back to the salvagers…"
He ordered them to walk in front of him, towards the compound's gate. Jack and Ciara could practically feel the weapons being trained on them, although the exchange had to that point been largely cordial. “I hope this works," Jack muttered under his breath. “What's on the crystal?"
“Maps. Sensor data I was going to archive. It'll look weird, no question about that. I'm not sure what we'll do if they don't believe us."
“Charm our way out of it," Jack suggested.
“Halt," Rensho ordered. “Open the gate. These two knew about the Agamemnon. They must've been part of the convoy that was attacked."
“Did they say that?" another Uxzu guard demanded to know. The two could see an interested crowd forming on the far side of the gate: the compound, it was safe to assume, did not receive many unexpected visitors. “Or did you assume? You're too trusting, Rensho. Did you disarm them?"
“They only have light weapons. They're no threat. And they knew the location of our base, didn't they? If they were here to kill us, we'd already be suffering under an orbital bombardment." After a moment, the gate creaked open. “We need to find someone who can read alien technology. Some kind of data storage device."
“Me. I can." A shorter figure pulled away from the crowd. Her right eye was obscured by a small screen, and when she flipped it up to look more closely at the two Ciara briefly caught a hint of robotic augmentation in the narrowing of the iris. “What've you got?"
By that point, though, the feline woman's question—like her cybernetic implant—were the least of the vixen's concerns. “Mitch?"
“Your ship escaped." Hatfield cracked her knuckles, one by one, as she stared across the table at Madison May.
May could not respond in kind; her arms had been restrained. “Good."
“We'll find them."
“They're resourceful. More likely, they'll find me—at a time of their choosing, not yours. Maybe with the help of this resistance movement."
The doe's grin was sharp and, were May the type of Akita to be unnerved, deeply unnerving. She leaned closer. “Or perhaps you'll lead me to them, and we'll recover the Dark Horse and crush the Reforgers in this sector once and for all. Which do you want to bet on?"
“I don't think a bet would be very fair to you."
Her muzzle hadn't quite closed when her muscles seized up, all sensation blotted out for a moment in sharp, white-hot pain that drove the breath from her in a hiss. The device had been implanted at the back of her wrist; the pain found its way into every nerve. “What did you just say?" Theresa purred. “I don't believe I caught it."
And the sensation switched off, leaving a startling, aching throb in its wake. “You hear better than that, Captain Hatfield, I'm sure. You need me to repeat myself?"
“Try me." Agony surged again into the Akita's form, and Theresa was openly snickering when she finally let up. “You were saying?"
“You don't get to win. You don't get to beat me." When Hatfield twitched, May steeled herself for another round of torture, but the doe calmed herself down. “I told Dave and Sabel to get out of here because I wanted my crew to know just who you were."
“And who's that?"
The other captain laughed, and rocked back in her chair. “I wonder what things are like where you're from, Madison. I found your records. You died six years ago when your ship was lost in a reactor malfunction. A hazardous waste transport, the Sunshine-203. A garbage scow, for a disgraced captain."
“If you say so."
“Your genetic profile is a match. Your immune system, though—you have immunities to diseases we've never seen before, and you don't have any antibodies to vaccinations your service record clearly shows you received. So I think you're telling the truth."
“I am. About everything."
“I think you're going to help me find your ship. If you ever hope to get back, you're going to have to help me out."
May shook her head. “I don't think so. But—"
And then the device switched on again, and as May bit back a scream, Hatfield left the room.
First officer's personal log, stardate 67432.3
Sabel Thorsen says that he's learned not to focus on long odds. I have to hope that goes for all of us and not just Maddy, because I have no idea what to make of this—and no idea how we're going to get her back. And no idea of what we'd do next. Where are we? Who are we?
Even if it's not clear how we got here, everyone seems to understand that we've found ourselves in some kind of parallel universe. All the same, I asked Sabel to keep quiet about the Jack Ford we encountered on the Agamemnon—I've told Felicia Beltran and Dr. Schatz, but nobody else. The last thing I need is the crew worried about running into each other.
Hopefully the Agamemnon will prove to be the last such coincidence. I'm not even going to bother crossing my fingers.
Dave steeled himself at the sound of the door chiming. When it opened, and Shannon Hazelton entered the ready room, the retriever only tensed further. “Please tell me you have good news, lieutenant."
“Good news and better news, cap'n. Which first?"
Coming from Shannon, 'better news' ran the risk of being dangerous. He was not quite ready for that. The Dark Horse had dropped out of hyperspace to take shelter in a chaotic binary system with a convenient asteroid field to make finding them more challenging. He hadn't slept in the eighteen hours since making their escape from the Agamemnon. “Start with 'good,' please."
“The reactor passed our diagnostics with flying colors. Main power and all systems are back online. We didn't really sustain much damage, just a lot of hassle. Ms. Smith thinks the weapons will be at full capacity within two hours." She was more excited about the other things she'd discovered, and hoped Bradley would not be too insistent on figuring out what had gone wrong in the first place.
But he saw that as a necessary hurdle to overcome. “How did we end up here? And news on that front?"
“No. Dave, this hasn't happened before, and we've got about fifty years worth of data to go through. Barry's locked himself in the lab to try his best. So there's more good news, right? Internal security is working again."
“Yeah. Alright, lieutenant, I suppose I'll take what I can get. What's your 'better news,' then?"
“Sabel. What he was able to grab from the Agamemnon's computer is pretty thorough—enough that we can adapt our systems to work with their encryption. Maybe pass a little better in the future. And, more that, there's a sectorwide comms network, a little like META but more primitive. We're still reverse-engineering all the protocols, but we've made good progress."
“Anything that could help us find the Tempest?"
Sabel Thorsen said May had asked him to send a message to the ship; under pressure, he'd had to use his cybernetics for that, and he did not know what the message had contained once the buffer was cleared. Mitch Alexander was almost—“at least eighty percent. Maybe ninety"—positive that the Tempest had jumped when the battle started. It was what Dave would've done, too: in a hostile environment, the only real advantage they had was that nobody knew the Tempest even existed.
He didn't think it was safe to return to the scene of the fighting, though, which limited how effectively they could search for the scout ship. And he did not want to broadcast their location too loudly. Shannon's news for him wasn't any better.
With no better ideas, Dave pulled the rest of the senior crew together. He stayed seated, with May's favorite whiteboard empty, and his paws folded on the table. “Hazelton says the ship is coming together pretty well. Now we need to discuss next steps. Spaceman, you've been working with Dr. Schatz: does he have a theory about where we are?"
Mitch felt her ears and tailtip twitching. Summarizing the Border Collie's thoughts was never especially easy, and he'd been weirdly cagey about some of his suspicions. “The Agamemnon ain't our Agamemnon. The Hatfield you met probably ain't our Hatfield, either. Physical constants appear to be the same. Water's still wet, fire's still hot, coffee's still delicious and nuclear fusion is responsible for every star in the sky. As for the rest, we're… well. Through the looking glass, sir. To borrow a phrase."
She met Bradley's curious expression with a tilted head. “What? I've dated Academy grads. Not to sound like Sabel, but… it's not a bad metaphor. Cosmically, it's a near-perfect image, with little imperfections here and there to screw everything up. I can't explain it. Barry said the odds of this being a coincidence are… infinitesimal. Something must be going on: this universe and ours have to be linked somehow. But we don't know how."
“What does 'linked' mean?" the retriever asked.
“Tied together, limiting their ability to diverge."
Dr. Beltran, uncharacteristically for the leopardess, added her own thoughts unprompted. “We see this as a very different universe, Commander Bradley, because the name of the Terran Confederation has changed and Theresa Hatfield's personality is altered. But, on the grand scale, it is all but identical to our own. We should expect further coincidences. We should also expect that our familiarity will not help us."
“How do we behave, until then? Does the prime directive apply?"
“I am… unsure. The Federal Planetary Union is at least as developed and powerful as the Confederation is. Standard non-interference protocols would not apply, but I cannot say that diplomatic ones replace it. Ordinarily, commander, I would caution against the impact our presence might have… but if there is something unique that connects our two realities, then who knows what that impact would even be?"
Bradley nodded. “The Union seems to be… harsh. They're quick to use force, and they mentioned that the Pictor are all but extinct. I imagine we might come into conflict."
What he meant, Beltran already understood, was that he was thinking about trying to contact the resistance movement that apparently operated against the Union's control. Unlike Madison May, the retriever could be dissuaded from this course of action. But at the moment, their diplomat was unwilling to do so. “We will have to evaluate each situation as it arises, sir."
“Noted. Next, the Tempest. Are we any closer to knowing where they might've ended up?" The silence was uncomfortable; the universe had not seen fit to grant them any useful answers.
“Can I make a suggestion?" Leon ventured. He knew that his reputation for conservative, martial thinking tended to put him at odds with May and Bradley. He hoped, though, that Bradley would see the wisdom in that approach.
Which the retriever did: they were in hostile, unknown territory and badly outnumbered. “Of course. An educated guess would be even more appreciated."
“Captain Ford is a combat scout pilot, and Lieutenant Commander Munro knows the ship better than anyone, including its limitations. They should be doing the same thing we're doing now. Hiding, staying quiet, and trying to regroup. We can be pretty sure that they didn't come in this direction, sir. What about the opposite?"
“Maybe," Mitch Alexander added. The Abyssinian had found the closest thing to proof the crew possessed: something that might have been a hyperspace aperture being generated, or might have been an artifact of the arriving cruisers. “They could've used the incoming vessels to mask their departure, on an exactly opposite trajectory."
Bradley was willing to take what he'd been given. “It's an idea, at least. Here's what we do: deploy a hypersonde, and target the least hospitable system on that bearing within… six hours at the Tempest's normal top speed. Keep the dispersion and the signal strength low, and listen for any replies you can authenticate."
“You're all dismissed. Except Dr. Beltran, if you don't mind."
The leopardess waited patiently while the others filed out. “How can I help you, sir?"
“You know our diplomatic protocols inside and out. Are you concerned about what Maddy might divulge?"
“Captain May will act in the best interests of the Terran Confederation. I am not concerned that she will reveal something sensitive. She would only do so if she thought it might inconvenience her captors… whom, I venture to say, would deserve it."
“Can I ask your advice? Not about diplomacy."
That was the only kind of advice Felicia was ever asked for; the change surprised the leopardess, and replying took her a second or two. “Of course, sir."
“What does it mean? Being in this… strange universe. I wasn't expecting you to chime in with Mitch, back there. You've given this thought since I told you about our interrogation."
“I have." She'd received an initial report from Dave when he reported back aboard—the retriever thought of her as level-headed, and thought she'd be interested to know about Commander Jonathan Ford and the other crew. “Indeed, I have thought of little else."
As a diplomatic official, Beltran had privileged access to Confederation records. In their own universe, Irene Stewart had been recently made captain of the cruiser Sacagawea; she was a disciplined engineer, not a tactician. Lieutenant Braxton worked at Research Center Buckminster Fuller: a shipwright, not a scientist. And Jonathan Ford…
All three had served on the Agamemnon, and putting everything together the leopardess had decided the similarities were too much for simple coincidence. She had spent several hours meditating, to no immediate conclusion. “I am still trying to answer that for myself, Commander Bradley. We should expect more strange encounters. I am certain of that much."
“We should expect more of them, you mean? Or we should expect them to be stranger?"
“One more time. You're from some other plane of existence, or something?"
Ciara looked towards Jack for help: she'd already explained more than she was comfortable with to the inquisitive feline who looked like—but apparently was not—the Mitch Alexander she knew from the Dark Horse. “Is this a prime directive violation? Do you even have a prime directive?"
The Abyssinian shrugged. “Measure twice, cut once?"
Her superior, as far as the Star Patrol could tell, was a stout Yara who'd introduced himself as Siyalo. “What does the data say, Torres? Are they telling the truth?"
Fiber optic glowed just beneath the skin of her palm when the feline pressed it to the computer terminal. A dizzying expanse of information jumped forth into the air above her—maps, mostly. “The systems are right. The data is fucked. It's like somebody went through your quarters and replaced everything with a duplicate slightly the wrong color."
“It's internally consistent. The same tiny correction factor I had to apply to read the data has to be used for every bit of information. If you do that, it works out. But it doesn't work out here."
Jack coughed. “You're Yara, right, Mr. Siyalo? You could tell if we were lying, couldn't you? I'll give you permission to read my mind."
Siyalo's white fur flushed a subtle lavender. “How did you know that?"
“Our ship's doctor is a member of your species. She's never done it to me," the coyote surmised—slightly incorrectly, as it happened, although Ayenni was conscientious about only probing when her crewmates consented. “But she could. So could you."
Purple darkened towards indigo. “I can't. The Union purged that ability from us… generations ago, when they captured our planet. If any of us still have that gift, it's kept a secret even from other Yara. We're relying on the story you're telling us. And the data. What do you say, Torres?"
“The odds that this is random are infinitesimal," the Abyssinian proclaimed. “The general needs to know about this, Siyalo. Now, probably, not later."
Siyalo's fur held its darker tone while he stayed deep in thought. “You're right. Come along, the two of you. We'll see whether the general says you live. The Scimitar of Radavah II does not suffer fools lightly."
“Does 'the general' have a name?"
“Scimitar is their name. That's all you need to know," Siyalo told Jack curtly. It was not, the coyote thought, a particularly good sign. But they would have to work with what they'd been given. “And they won't want to be kept waiting."
As Ciara turned to leave, the feline—Torres was her surname, apparently—reached out to touch the vixen's wrist. “Hey. You looked really surprised to see me. Are we, like… enemies where you're from? We got a history?"
“No. Not enemies."
This version of the cat seemed to share more than a few of Mitch's personality quirks, and Ciara felt it was best to tread warily. But she couldn't help herself: Torres seemed better-natured than most of her colleagues. “Yeah. Friends."
“C'mon," Siyalo repeated. They were all, unsurprisingly, rather cagey. Jack intuited from this that the resistance movement was up against the ropes: if their leader, or at least one of their leaders, was to be found at the desert outpost, the Link couldn't be in much better shape than the starship under repair outside.
A grey, scale-covered alien stood guard watch outside the conference room. “They're busy," he told Siyalo. “Debriefing from the battle in the Kizad System. Who are your guests?"
“Someone the command staff needs to see. How did the battle go?"
“Well, the Agamemnon fled. There seems to have been one survivor from the convoy, too, albeit… the telemetry is mysterious. It depicts an unfamiliar vessel—which also escaped, just before the Agamemnon opened fire on it."
“TCS Dark Horse," Jack said. “A Sovremenny-class beam cruiser. Three hundred meters or so long, a quarter-million tons uncompensated mass—that sound about right? You get imagery of the port hull where we patched it up from tangling with the Wanesh? Telltales from a U-class hyperdrive?"
Two of the alien's three eyes narrowed; the third closed altogether with its clucking, quiet hiss. “How did you know?"
“It's their ship," Siyalo explained. “That's why we're here."
Ordering them to wait, the guard turned and slipped into the room. Jack tilted his head lightly towards Ciara. “Alright, betting time. The general is Maddy. Five credits."
That was almost too logical, though. “Twenty. Dr. Schatz."
Jack grunted. “Sucker bet. No way."
The door opened again, held by the grey alien. Half a dozen officers were in conference around a low table; somehow, neither Jack nor Ciara had to guess which one was their leader. It was just something about the leopardess's bearing. “You're from the freighter, is that it? What do you want?"
Jack and Ciara turned to each other at the same time. The coyote shrugged: guess I'll go first. “For one? To thank you for your time, General Beltran."
Her brow arched. “You have my attention."
He gestured to the screen behind her. “This is our ship, and it's not a freighter. She mounts four 1200-terawatt particle beams, plus forward and aft torpedo launchers. And a small complement of scout ships, which I'm responsible for."
“Nobody but the Guard fields warships of that displacement," Beltran countered. “And they haven't done so for two centuries. What scrapyard did you dig this out of?"
“We didn't. And, until we ran into the Aggie, we'd never heard of the Guard."
General Beltran froze. “Anyone still in this room thirty seconds from now dies by my hand," the leopardess said, with the sincerity of her intent dripping from her fangs. The others left in a hurry. Her sharp eyes flicked between the two who remained. “You're from the Star Patrol, aren't you?"
“You've heard of us!" Ciara was so relieved that the vixen exclaimed it out of turn. “Finally!"
“Rumors. Highly classified rumors, at that. There was an… event, twenty years ago, when I was still a diplomat with the Union. When I still thought they could be saved."
“You have much to learn, coyote."
“I don't doubt it. Can you teach us?"
Her pause was dangerously lengthy. “Yes. Perhaps I can."
“Thanks for coming, Ensign Bader."
There was nobody else in the ready room; the German Shepherd was not yet certain why he had been summoned, although he'd dutifully roused himself from sleep to report at once. “Of course, sir. Do you need something?"
“Can you tell me how to take the Agamemnon down?"
“I'm still working on that, commander."
That he'd started in the first place, and that he had yet to finish to a degree of confidence that satisfied the shepherd, were both unsurprising to Bradley. “Speculate wildly. What are we up against?"
“It's a battleship, sir. Compared to our records, it moves like something with about 30% thicker armor. We also detected what appears to be velionic radiation. The striations on the turrets along the top and bottom sides of the armor belt seem to match spalling from that sort of weaponry."
“Velion spalling?" Dave didn't know if he was supposed to be skeptical or concerned.
Leon assumed the former. “You told me to speculate wildly."
“Yes, but… correct me if I'm wrong, Ensign Bader. My understanding is that velion weaponry causes temporary microfractures in subspace on impact. The energy emitted when those fractures close is intensely destructive to living organisms. Velion particles…"
“They annihilate nucleic acids, sir, yes. Further research was forbidden by the 2315 Exotic Weapons Treaty. Even the Pictor agreed to that. But the scoring along the turrets is indicative of a phased velion cannon. Our deflectors will keep the worst out, if that's true, but we'll take a beating." The shepherd operated under the assumption that it was true; he was already trying to adjust their shields to compensate.
Dave, though, saw bleak prospects. Based on the way Hatfield treated her subordinates—whatever device she'd used to inflict pain on her first officer—he had to imagine that weapons of mass destruction were only the beginning.
What would Maddy do? he asked the question to himself, after ordering Bader to continue work on developing a plan to defeat the Agamemnon. The only thing he knew for sure was that Maddy would come out on top—not how she would get there. Not, for that matter, how she was currently faring as a prisoner of the Union.
His communicator chimed. “Commander, can you come to the bridge?"
It was all of twenty steps away. He pushed his concerns about May to the side and made his way over. The ship's main viewer was active, showing a map of the nearby stars—and a line drawn to one of them in particular. “What's going on, spaceman?"
Jack Ford's voice over the speaker provided the answer. “Dave. Thank God, huh? It's a good thing you found us."
“It's good to hear your voice, Captain Ford. What's your situation?"
“We've made contact with the senior leadership of a resistance group. They've told us plenty about the Union, and plenty about the Agamemnon. And they've heard of the Star Patrol before. It's been a lot to take in. Probably easier to show you, commander. Is Captain May there?"
“Maddy didn't make it back from the Agamemnon, sir. We believe she's been taken prisoner. She ordered Sabel and I to escape."
There had been an obvious smile in the coyote's voice, at hearing his compatriots again; its absence was just as obvious now. “Well. That explains a few things. We were sent a message from May—it just told us to 'run.' We didn't know how it got into our systems. Must've been Sabel."
“On the captain's directive, yes. Mr. Thorsen claims he doesn't remember what the message was, so it's nice to have that cleared up as well, I guess. We're going to get Maddy back, sir, but we'll need help."
“Our contacts here might be able to provide that. They're definitely interested in the Hoss, at least. How's she holding up?"
“Combat-ready as we can be, but from what I've seen about how outgunned we are, it'd be in our best interest to stay out of fights. Can you come to us? How's the Tempest?"
“In good repair. But I think it's best if you come here. A ship of your size, you'll have to be careful. I'll send a detailed navigational chart of the worst turbulence when we can. It'll take a few hours to reverse-engineer the transmitters for high-bandwidth data, I guess—that's what I'm being told. But if you start heading over, we can be ready for it."
The map on the viewscreen made it seem like Ford and Munro were less than a day's journey away. They'd gotten lucky early. Expect more coincidences, Dave thought darkly, but made his decision nonetheless. “Very well, sir. We'll be on our way shortly."