Friday, February 2, 2221
Arteira system, Terminus sector
Outwardly, the only really peculiar thing about the Kowloon-class freighter drifting in the outer reaches of the Arteira system was that it was drifting in the outer reaches of the Arteira system. This was not exactly one of the galaxy's best-traveled areas; Arteira was uninhabited and not on any of the major hyperspace routes. The only regular traffic the system saw was the routine visit from the Royal Astrographic Society's survey vessels, as that august organization carried on its endless cyclical survey of the known galaxy, and that happened no more than once every ten or twenty years.
As such, today might well have been the busiest day in the history of the system, since there were not one but three starships within the heliopause today: the freighter, a United Galactica Navy Patrol Command vessel, and now - arriving in a flash from its miniature spacefold drive - one of the Wedge Defense Force's Broadsword heavy bombers.
Standing at the freighter's portside airlock observation port, a woman in the uniform of a UG Navy commander watched the Broadsword maneuver alongside and lock on. She had never seen one of these ships before, and she regarded its lines with a professional interest. They were called bombers and carried on the WDF's tactical TO&E alongside such other light spacecraft as starfighters and attack ships, but they were really small gunboats - a more liberal spacecraft taxonomist might have called them corvettes - with a crew of five and heavy weapons for their size. So adaptable had they proven that they were used for all sorts of tasks, both by the WDF and the Royal Salusian Navy - including the capacity this one was now serving in, carrying a fast-response investigator to the scene of an anomalous shipwreck.
A few moments after the Broadsword finished locking on, the airlock ran through its short pressure-on-both-sides cycle, and the inner door opened to admit a single individual in a grey-and-blue WDF field uniform.
"Commander Hutchins," said the UG officer, saluting. "Commander Bryce Tarquini, UGS Chasseur."
The man she was addressing - stocky, brown-haired, faintly in need of a shave - looked slightly bemused to be addressed with such formality, but his return salute was respectable as he replied,
"Pleasure to meet you, Commander Tarquini. What've we got?"
"We received an EPSRB transmission at 0231 hours this forewatch," Tarquini replied, nodding for him to follow her into the ship's interior. She pronounced it as a series of individual letters, as was the fashion in the UGN; in the WDF they'd have said "ep'serb". Either way, both officers knew it stood for Emergency Positioning Subspace Radio Beacon, the standard locator technology for starships in distress these last two centuries and more.
"Chasseur responded at best speed; we were on the scene by 0944," Tarquini continued. "We found this vessel drifting, powered up not under way, and unresponsive to hails. After making fast to the starboard entry port, my executive officer and a standard distress response team effected entry at 1017."
At least she didn't say "made ingress", Gryphon remarked to himself with an inward wry smile. Tarquini was a young woman to hold the rank she held; assuming she had a normal human lifespan, he would have guessed that she was in her mid-twenties, no more than five or six years out of San Francisco. She had the dark hair her surname implied, drawn back in a severe French braid, and was already developing a frown line between her dark blue eyes; clearly she took her job as one of the UGN's patrol captains very seriously. Gryphon made a mental note not to joke around with her. She was probably being as formal as she was because his reputation, and WDFers' generally, had preceded him.
As such, he didn't interrupt to tell her that she could save the precise details for her after-action report to her own Admiralty. Instead, he just kept quiet and let her get on with it.
"Lieutenant Makra and her team found the ship void of atmosphere," Tarquini reported. "They made emergency repairs to one of the pressure bulkheads to render the vessel safe for further investigation, which took approximately two hours."
"Quick work," Gryphon remarked, restraining a perverse urge to ask her to be more specific about the repair. No doubt it would be timed to within a minute in the eventual report.
"Thank you," Tarquini replied. "As you no doubt know, damage control is among the Patrol Fleet's primary tasks when rendering aid to a starship casualty."
"Subsequently, we were able to determine the ship's name and port of origin. Her identity transponder code resolves to the CanVar Carrier, belonging to CanVar Industries, an independent freight haulage firm out of Omega." Tarquini glanced at him, cracking the first hint of a smile she'd shown. "So I think we both know what that's worth."
"Quite," Gryphon agreed.
"We would probably have been able to work our way through the layers of obfuscation on top of that record by now anyway, but as luck would have it, we didn't have to," Tarquini continued. "Lt. Makra was able to ID one of the bodies from personal experience, and a genescan of the remains confirmed it." The UGN officer paused before the closed hatch to the after cargo hold, turned, and looked Gryphon in the eye to take in his reaction as she told him, "This is the Blue Harvest."
The Wedge Defender did not disappoint; both his eyebrows went up in surprise. "Vandal Carondan's ship."
Tarquini nodded. "The same." She keyed the hatch.
"What's old Vandal doing way the hell out here?" Gryphon wondered rhetorically, and Tarquini showed him another flash of dark humor as she swung the hatchway open and replied,
"From the looks of things, finally biting off more than he could chew."
The after hold, revealed by the opening of the hatch, was a shambles. It looked like a pitched firefight had been waged down here; burn scars and streaks of blistered thermocoat marred every flat surface in the compartment, and what few containers of cargo there had been were smashed, overturned, and/or melted outright. The deck was strewn with tools, weapons, and a half-dozen corpses, all men, human or humanoid. On the far side of the compartment, an emergency patch panel marked PROPERTY OF UNITED GALACTICA NAVY, braced with hydraulic struts, covered an entire section of bulkhead.
In the center of the hold was a large piece of machinery whose purpose was not immmediately apparent. It looked a bit like a biosculpt or crystorage tank, a clear cylindrical tube about six feet long by three in diameter, leaning back at a 30-degree angle in a metal cradle and surrounded by hoses, pumps, and other vaguely-ominous-looking machinery. Large tanks stood on either side of it, but they bore no markings to indicate what they might contain. The tube itself was empty, its base gaping open above a shiny-worn metal chute that led straight to an opening in the deck, though this was presently blocked by a hatch that showed signs of having been installed by hand.
Gryphon advanced into the room, his face thoughtful, and regarded this curious apparatus for a few moments.
"I'm not sure what that is," Tarquini admitted, sounding as though the confession pained her slightly. "We're looking into it."
"It's called a vitrifier," Gryphon said. "It's used to enclose volatile or delicate cargo in a durable transparent containment medium."
Tarquini raised an eyebrow. "What, like clear carbonite?"
Gryphon nodded. "It's called crystallite," he said. He checked the control console standing next to the tube. "Probably used fairly recently... supply tanks are empty." He considered the handbuilt hatch in the floor. "Whatever they sealed with it might still be down there."
Then, discarding that train of thought for the moment, he turned and crouched next to one of the bodies. It had been that of a human male in late middle age, scar-faced and white-bearded. Now, sprawled full-length on the plasma-scorched deck with his hands outstretched like claws, he was fully and unmistakably dead.
"Well, Vandal," Gryphon said, his voice quiet and not unkind. "What did you get yourself into this time, hm?" Then he peered more closely at the corpse before looking up at Tarquini. "He didn't die in the fight, he's been spaced."
Tarquini nodded. "Only three of the bodies we found have obviously fatal battle injuries," she said. "The others all died when the ship lost hull integrity. The fight was probably over by then." She nodded toward the braced bulkhead patch.
Gryphon rose, dusting off his knees, and regarded it. "They must not have noticed how badly compromised this panel was until it failed," he said.
"There are signs that they were busy with other matters," said another voice from the far end of the hold, and another woman approached them. This one wore a UGN EVA excursion suit, sans the helmet and gloves, having evidently not bothered to change after restoring the Blue Harvest's air supply. Her spacesuit's shoulder pods bore the stripes of a lieutenant. Slightly older than Tarquini, she had dusky skin and bleach-blonde hair, cut very short, and her face wore a slightly sardonic little smile as she saluted.
"Lieutenant Corinna Makra," she introduced herself. "You must be Gryphon."
"I must," Gryphon replied, returning her salute a trifle less professionally than he had Tarquini's.
"I've just been down in the orlop," Makra reported. "You guys have gotta see this, skipper."
Too intrigued to bother remonstrating with her exec for displaying this informality in front of the Distinguished Visitor, Tarquini followed Makra to the back of the hold and down a narrow companionway with Gryphon right behind her.
"When we rocked up on this scene initially," Makra explained, "we thought there were no survivors, but we were wrong. There's one. Barely."
She led them through a twisting passage threaded amid the guts of the ship, in places so narrow that she had to turn sideways to get her spacesuited shoulders through, and then out into a cramped, low-ceilinged compartment. This was nominally part of the ship's machinery space, not meant to be inhabited for any length of time, but in his day, Gryphon had known the operators of starships like this one to use it as anything from a punishment cell to super-cut-rate steerage accommodation to a sort of quaternary cargo hold.
On the Blue Harvest it was dominated - almost filled - by a single bulky object, which stood in the center of the tiny room and gleamed softly under the harsh overhead glowtape. At the sight of it, Tarquini pulled up short with a gasp, her hand dropping automatically to her sidearm.
It was a column of some transparent material, like glass or very clear ice, with roughly the same proportions as the empty tube on the cargo sealer Gryphon had explained upstairs. That was, perhaps, not so surprising. She had paid attention to the path Makra had led them on, and knew they would be directly beneath that apparatus. What was sealed inside the column, though... that was surprising, surprising enough that Tarquini had nearly drawn her weapon at the unexpected sight of it.
Gryphon didn't seem surprised, though. His face was grave and thoughtful, as it had been when he regarded the machine. He walked slowly up to the cylinder, gazing at what lay sealed within it, and placed his left palm against the clear surface without seeming to be entirely aware he was doing it.
"Of course," he murmured softly, his voice almost inaudible to the two UGN officers. "Vandal, you son of a bitch, of course you did."
The item inside the crystal column was a woman - well, a girl, really; apparently human, probably in her mid-teens, petite and athletic. She wasn't looking her best. For one thing, she'd been shot; there was a livid, bloody wound low on her left side, the blood frozen in weird ribbons around it, as if in a still frame of diffusion in water. For another, she was dressed in the ragged remains of what looked like they might have been rich garments once, and her long, coal-black hair was disordered, part of it escaping from an elaborate knot high on the back of her head, her long, centrally-parted, face-framing bangs in frazzled disarray.
Even so, there was no denying that she was beautiful. Even smudged with the grime and soot of a recent firefight, her white skin was clear and porcelain-perfect, her facial features - composed in the artificial solemnity of unconsciousness - delicate and pleasingly regular. Her eyes were closed, so there was no telling what color they were, but she had long, dark eyelashes and her eyebrows, in contrast with her hair, were perfectly groomed. The nails of her long, elegant fingers were short and practical, but neatly manicured. Recent hard times or no, this was plainly a young woman who was in the habit of looking after herself.
"You said she's alive?" Tarquini inquired.
Makra nodded, gesturing to a status display fused into the cylinder near its base. "In stable hibernation. She'll need a medic stat when she's thawed or she's liable to bleed out from that GSW, but everything else looks nominal."
Gryphon paid the byplay little mind; he was still standing with his palm against the crystallite column, gazing intently at its contents. "How did someone like you end up here?" he inquired softly, almost under his breath.
"... Do you... know her?" Makra wondered.
Gryphon blinked, as if surprised to be addressed, then looked away from his contemplation of the girl's face and shook his head at Makra.
"No," he said, "I've never seen her before. But I know what she is. Or rather, why she's here." He turned to Tarquini. "Vandal and his crew must have decided to try their hands at 'decorating'. Have you heard anything about that in PatCom?"
Tarquini shook her head. "No," she said.
"Well... you know how bounty hunters like to freeze their captures in carbonite, to make delivery easier? The usual thing is for the client to thaw out the captive after delivery, and then proceed to... whatever the next step is going to be. Judicial proceedings for the legitimate authorities... other stuff for the underworld boss types."
"Right. That I know about."
"A few years ago, it suddenly became fashionable in underworld circles to just keep their victims carbon-frozen and... display them. Like bizarre objets d'art. It started with the Hutts, we think, but nowadays all the best lowlife kingpins are into it," Gryphon added with grim sardony.
"That's some sick shit," Makra said.
"It gets better," Gryphon told her. "And by better I mean worse. The next weird twist was that certain enterprising scum started catering to that market directly - which is why they call themselves 'decorators'. They're going out and bagging complete strangers, people who don't owe the bosses money - who have nothing to do with anything - just because the decorators figure they'll make pretty wall hangings. Problem is, carbonite isn't much to look at in itself, and it obscures a lot of detail." He put a hand against the crystal column again. "Crystallite, on the other hand... "
"OK, I take it back, that is some sick shit," Makra said. "So this girl... whoever she is... was destined to be some Hutt's paperweight?"
Gryphon nodded. "Something like that."
"I guess it beats being a concubine," Makra said after a moment's consideration, "but only just."
"What happened, then?" Tarquini wondered. "Did someone storm the ship trying to rescue her? If so, why isn't there any sign of them? If they were killed, we should've found their bodies, but there's no one on board who isn't a known associate of Carondan. And if they lived, why didn't they take her with them? This compartment isn't exactly hidden."
"That's the other thing I wanted you to see," Makra told her. "I found a retrofit security surveillance computer down here. It's got camera feeds from all the holds. Why they installed it down here I couldn't tell you, but you're not gonna believe this shit."
The three of them barely fit into the tiny room abaft the orlop, where the security console had been rather haphazardly installed. Tarquini was put in mind of her academy days, when the perennial collegiate fad of stuffing public commo booths had come back into fashion. Rammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, the three stood before the console's display and watched the playback Makra cued up for them... and what they saw banished any thought of their cramped, uncomfortable surroundings.
The Blue Harvest had not been stormed from without by anyone, trying to rescue their unwilling cargo or otherwise. Rather, Vandal Carondan and his crew had discovered to their dismay that not every pretty teenage girl in the galaxy is as harmless as she looks. The sensor logs only went back a few hours, but it was evident from the scene when they began that the "decorators" hadn't frozen this one when they first acquired her. Probably they had assumed there would be no need, or they'd been hoping they'd get a higher bid for an unfrozen specimen. Instead, they'd locked her up in one of the larger containers in the after hold, rigged up as a makeshift cell.
Which had probably worked fine for a while, but by the time the surveillance holo's buffer began, it had plainly ceased to work at all. As that evidence showed, Vandal's latest find had taken violent exception to her situation - and, contrary to the old miscreant's expectations, she'd had the chops to file her grievance in the most forceful style possible.
"You know, I always hoped in the back of my mind that someday, one of these assholes was going to target a vacationing Kryptonian or something and get exactly what was coming to him," Gryphon mused as, on the screen before them, the dark-haired girl demolished the three biggest, toughest members of Vandal's crew.
"Guess you got your wish," said Makra.
"Mm," Gryphon agreed absently.
An adept martial artist, evidently pyrokinetic, and so stratospherically furious that her gas-flame-blue firebolts melted bulkheads, the girl had shown Vandal's crew exactly as much mercy as she must have expected from them, which was to say none at all. There was no sound on the recordings, so they couldn't hear what she was saying, but she'd obviously been speaking - or more likely shouting - as she threw herself headlong into battle against the outlaw crew. Presently it appeared that she had even begun to enjoy herself a bit: By the time the second of Vandal's enforcers had fallen before her, she was smiling. It was a hard, cruel smile, the smile of someone indulging a long-cultivated taste for rough justice, and it had more than a slight edge of mania in it. Gryphon found it disquieting, particularly on a face like hers.
Eventually, though, her luck ran out, or perhaps she got a bit sloppy. Vandal himself was the one who finally stopped her. Gryphon recalled that he'd always been a dab hand with a pistol. Then, in a near-frantic hurry, the pirates dumped her into the vitrifier and froze her. Gryphon chuckled darkly and shook his head at that.
"Vintage Vandal," he muttered to Tarquini's questioning glance. "Even under those circumstances, he was still thinking about the bottom line. Damaged and dangerous is worth less than intact and docile, but a corpse isn't worth anything at all."
"You almost sound like this guy was a friend of yours," Makra remarked dryly.
"Hardly," Gryphon replied. "But he was an old, old enemy."
On screen, the freezing process finished. The automatic mechanism had just delivered the crystallite column to the orlop and closed the hatch behind it when one of the damaged bulkheads, just visible off to the right of the shot, gave way.
"The rest... goes pretty much like you would expect," Makra said, stopping the playback before they had to watch Vandal and his crew suffocate.
"Well," said Tarquini, backing out of the room - there was no space to turn around - and then turning to regard the crystal-frozen girl. "I guess we'd better treat this as potentially hazardous cargo."
"Based on what we've just seen," Gryphon said thoughtfully, walking slowly around the column with his hand trailing across its smooth surface, "I suspect this young woman needs medical help on a couple of different levels."
"I wonder who she is," mused Makra.
"We'll find out when we get her back to Earth," Tarquini said. "Unless you want to take her to the SDF-17, Commander," she added, sounding as if she didn't think it was likely.
Gryphon regarded the girl in the crystal column for a few more moments, then shook his head.
"No, she'll get the best care on Earth," he said. "I don't have a problem releasing this case to you guys. I'm curious, though. Keep me posted."
Tarquini nodded. "Will do. Thanks for checking it out."
"It's what we do."
To: Cmdr. Benjamin D. Hutchins (gryphon!wdf.mil.zc)
Subject: Blue Harvest
Date: Friday 16 Feb 2221 10:19:23 -0000 GST
I almost titled this message "sons of bitches!", but I thought that might fall into your spam folder, especially coming from an Outer Rim anonymizer address. Corinna Makra here, from the Chasseur.
The Naval Strategic Intelligence Office took the Blue Harvest case away from us! As soon as we got back to Spacedock and Bryce filed her report, we had the men in black coming out our asses. They took all the logs, intercepted the salvage on the ship itself, and whisked the mystery girl in the glass pillar away without so much as a thanks-for-all-your-effort. We're under orders not to mention the matter to anybody, especially you. My ass would be in a pretty big sling if they found out about this message, but you know what, screw 'em. Goddamn suits. Most of 'em wouldn't last five minutes in a real space posting. You know what they say, those who can, do, those who can't, join the secret police.
Bryce just about hit the ceiling. I was outside her ready room and heard her reading the guy from SIO the riot act, but you know how those guys are, butter wouldn't melt, he's just like, "I assure you, Commander Tarquini - " Assholes! On her own ship! Captain, if you please! I digress, sorry, pretty drunk - "I assure you, Commander Tarquini, we're putting our top men on this case. TOP. Men." I didn't stick around for the next part, I figure that was probably about when he would start threatening her, and if I had heard that there would have had to be a fight, and then I'd be in the brig instead of on leave getting snockered in a Glasgow pub. So there's probably gonna be a fight anyway before too much longer.
Anyway, don't be offended when you don't hear from Bryce bout it, she's a much lawer-abiding citizen than I am. Orders are orders, amiright? Some days I wish I had joined the WDF even though my momma warned me about you guys.
Speaking of which, my momma warned me about you. You wanna go out sometime? I'm on leave until next Saturday, assuming I don't end up in the hospital tonight.
Gotta go. Some dude's giving me the stinkeye over in the corner and I think I'ma go see what the hell his problem is.
This message anonymized by SAMIZDAT.ORT the Outer Rim's favorite privacy service!