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Point Of No Return

Posted on Wed Nov 18th, 2020 @ 3:06am by Commanding Officer Mickey Serendipity & Executive Officer Kenneth McTigue & Passenger Emma Yonkers & Passenger Delphi Jammer & Passenger Aisling Dennehy & Comm Tech Wulf Edevane

Mission: Ticket To Rhea
Location: On approach to Saturn
Timeline: Four Days Out From Saturn

Saturn was now filling half the forward displays of the Albatross. Its golden and peach coloured clouds, banded here and there with darker hazelnut highlights, all of it surrounded by a ring system worthy of a poet. And yet for the crew of the little courier ship, there was a sense they were playing out the final stanza of the Ballad Of Captain Kidd.

+++

"Okay, folks," Mickey began. This meeting was being held in the Ops Deck, its walls lined with acceleration couches and display panes. A gentle half gee of acceleration kept them on the deck, even though the ship's drive cone was pointed towards the ringed planet burning off most of the delta vee she'd built up on the long four-week cruise out there.

"As you all know from the daily sit down chats, we're nearly at Saturn. And no doubt over the last week you've noticed we have picked up another new guest in the form of Miss Yonkers here," Mickey gestured to the same. "It would seem, and it's been confirmed by Wulf our comm tech, that our cargo is not the illicit small arms we thought they'd be. Wulf?"

Home. It loomed large and life-size in their imminent future, well Saturn itself at least did, and that raised a definite underlying anxiety in Wulf Edevane's belly. His mind was pretending it wasn't happening for the moment, focused on the Secret Discovery in Cargo Pod 3. He fidgeted as Mickey called his name as a question, and looked awkwardly up at the Captain of the ship they all stood within. "That's right, Mi... Captain," Wulf confirmed, correcting himself in light of the sheer number of people gathered around. "When we left Mars, we didn't really want to be gun-running, but turns out, we're not." A involuntary light of pure excitement cut with mild fear shone in those dark eyes as the tech added. "In actual fact we're transporting eight female Marines," he looked to Emma. "Only one of whom is currently awake." He shrugged. "So we're kinda in way deeper trouble than we thought. Unless..." He that thought trail and looked from Mickey to Ken.

Emma was sitting there sipping on a cup of coffee, dressed in her tank-top and the sweats Ken had lent her, though they were cut down so that the UNM markings had been removed. "What do you mean all Female MARINES? Why haven't you waken them?" She started growling at Wulf and Mickey as she sat up and leaned against the table towards them.

"Trust me," Wulf muttered, his gaze somewhat whimisical for a moment there. "I kinda wanted to." He backed swiftly away from Emma's reach and threw up his hands. "They're safer where they are right now," he half-explained, and looked to Mickey.

"If you discovered you where trafficking 8 marines against their will would you wake them all up?" Kol asked curiously from one of the chairs. He'd mostly been keeping himself to himself since Mars, busying himself with whatever the crew asked him to do. He sympathised though, remembering his first meeting with the crew and how overwhelming the circumstance at been then, they weren't exactly the most sensitive bunch.

"Not to mention our environmental plant was not set up to run with this many people moving around, let alone seven more people. Also Doc, tell them the thing," Mickey said with a wave of his hand to Alex.

The dark-skinned Martian smiled thinly and gestured at Emma.

"You should be dead," he said simply. "The pods themselves are pretty standard hibernation units, the sort of thing a battleship has near its medbay for the critical cases that need actual surgery not just calcium scaffolds and printed skin grafts. What's not standard is a chemical pump filled with some truly nasty gene-gineered crap. AutoDoc comes back as either a synthetic compound or a biological refinement, but all the indicators look to be focused on nerve transmission. My money goes on some sort of jellyfish byproduct. Pod gets opened wrong, or opened before a timer safes the pump, or something and you just stop breathing."

"Your pod malf'd in just the right way to kill the timing chip so the pod thought it was time to open up, which explains why you woke when you did," Mickey said with a little bow.

"Mother Fuc..." Emma's curse faded away as she Eyed the crew around her. "So what? you guys just going to hand them off to the slavers? What about me? Going to drop me with them too?" She was getting pretty angry at this point. Close to snapping, and unlike when she first woke up she was fully awake and clear of the toxins keeping her sluggish. People will get hurt if she popped.

Something in Ken snapped. It broke, cracked, lost containment. Behind the friendly engineer was a marine, same as Yonkers. "Stand down, marine." Ken barked as he got up and in Emma's face. Where she had tried the drill sergeant voice he had something else. The quiet warning voice and the sharp knife hand of a Master Sergeant.

"We are not going to hand the people in the pods off to anyone." He locked eyes with her, the eyes of a man who was out of patience. "We are not handing you off to anyone. If you don't believe me, grab a vac suit and step out the airlock as soon as we dock. Otherwise you can shut up and calm down." Ken's nostils flared but he gave not a fraction of an inch.

"Agreed. We run this ship close to the margins, and I won't pretend that not all of our cargoes have been strictly speaking legal. But there is a line, and what we're in right now is on the far side of anything we'd consider," Mickey said before breathing in through his lips. "Except that what we're holding is a grenade without a pin. The powers that be take a dim view on slaving, up to the point of the summary execution of crews and ships found to be carrying even the equipment to prosecute the trade. That means throwing up a white flag and hailing the nearest Blueie or Mickey outpost is not gonna fly. 'We just found them in our cargo hold' is not gonna fly."

He looked at Flo.

"Which given how we found you is a special kind of irony. You might have been safer on High Elysium," Mickey said with an apologetic shrug.

"What are we gonna do, bossman?" Wulf asked, genuinely curious at this point.

"I'm of the opinion we throw them over the side. The pods are vacuum sealed, and we can rig up a time-delayed transponder beacon to draw the attention of the Saturnian Confederacy Navy, or some such. We can even alter our vector so the pods end up in high traffic areas of the Confederacy, neatly ensuring we avoid getting thrown from an airlock," Mickey said and held up a hand. "But...the fact this is paid for cargo from the fine people who take loan payments in body parts and pain, and with our fuel rationed we'll have to set down on Rhea or one of the ring stations. We'll have to deal with the customers we're shorting."

Mickey let that hang in silence.

"I am open to better ideas," he added.

"If we have to deal with the people who shafted us, and the people who aren't getting the delivery they expected," Wulf mused out loud. "We might as well hand them safely over and claim we rescued them? Least then we know the Marines are safe." The tech sighed. "Whatever we do, someone is gonna want to kill us." He might be able to influence the Saturnian powers-that-be. Maybe. But that was a long shot at the best of times, which this definitely wasn't. "But... shots fired back on Mars might help that story?"

"I agree with Wulf, they're safer with us" Kol added from his perch, "Anyone could stumble upon that transponder and with everything going on I'm not sure who to trust. We could simply be handing them off to someone a little less considerate than ourselves" He added, actively ignoring the snort he'd heard from Aislings direction.

"Yeah, except the pesky part about us having both the equipment and the cargo to hang around our necks right before they space us, where ever we land. I don't think they'll buy the idea we just found them," Mickey said through a forced smile. "And before you say, Kol, that with your word backing it up will stay their hand, please remember that as far as your bosses are concerned you died on Eros Station."

"I didn't mean we tell them that we just found them," Wulf said. "I was thinking we shop the guys who stitched us up with the nice ladies in the first place. But... we kinda leave out the 'we thought we were transporting guns' bit of that deal. I think I can jury rig the software at least a little, and I can definitely deep-fake a coupla remnant calls towards the authorities in general..." It was still dodgy as hell, but it meant their cargo would live. "And I still have some friends back home," Wulf added, quietly and with sheepish undertones. "Well, contacts anyway." Another pause. "Acquaintances even."

Mickey merely placed his hand over his face and drew it slowly down to his chin.

"So that's another 'no', right?" Wulf checked.

"At this point it's in the maybe pile along with everything else," Mickey said slowly.

Wulf nodded, frowned, mused in silence and stubbed the toe of his boot into the floor. Then he looked up at Mickey, and Mickey alone. "Can I talk to you about something after this, please bossman? In... um... private?"

"Sure, sure..." Mickey sighed. "So our plans boil down to dumping them and hoping the Great God Darwin sorts them out, or throwing ourselves on the mercy of the Powers That Be. And I ain't talking the Confederacy. We might make it to Titan, there's a UNN anchorage there. Though given the UN and Mars are a little hot under the collar right now..."

"Or..." Wulf looked to Emma, eyes wide with yet another 'bright idea' that had leapt straight from brain to mouth. "We could wake them all up and ask them what they want to do? Maybe they'd want to stay? And we could have our own squad of Marines!" We.. I might be glad of them, the tech considered, if we're going home to Titan.

"Wulf, you of all people should know this. We don't have air enough to wake another eight people. Recyclers are having a tough time as is." Ken referred to the more musty air that they had been breathing the last few weeks. "We haven't been able to do the maintenance we need to to keep it pine fresh in here. So that's not an option."

A soft sigh. Ken was right, Wulf just didn't want to admit that. "Seven more," he said, but his gaze met the engineer's in a 'yeah I know' expression even as Wulf shrugged. The air quality did suck, he couldn't deny that. And they still had four days travelling to do. But leaving the people incarcerated just didn't sit well with the tech. "Okay dude, so what do you think we should do?"

Before Mickey or anyone else could say anything, the Op's deck computer system began to chime instantly.

"Incoming Comms packet. Incoming Comms packet. Incoming Comms packet."

"If that isn't ominous..." Ken said to himself as he floated to the comms station and accepted the message and the standard scans.

"Dude," muttered Wulf quietly. "I have one job..."

The comm packet opened, and an audio player appeared in holographic form. It displayed the waveform of the sound being played, the crests and throughs of the accented voice playing out in real-time.

"SS Albatross, this is the SCNS Xipe Totec. Heave to and prepare to be boarded. You are on our scope as on vector to enter Saturanian Confederacy space, and in line with the United Nations and the Martian Congressional Republic laws of interstellar trade are to be boarded for inspection. This message will repeat until we are in a zero time lag distance. Deviation from your flight course will be deemed a hostile act against the Confederacy and will be treated as such under interplanetary law. SCNS Xipe Totec clear."

"Guess we're taking the Powers-That-Be option, bossman?" Wulf stated rather than asked. "Should I go wake them up so Emma can get them on our side?"

"Again, no. Adding more people to this tiki council is not going to make things easier. Also I have a passing interest in breathing," Mickey said in a distracted tone of voice. "Wulf do your magic for me. We're four days out from Saturn, which means we're still in interplanetary space. Confed's got no juice out here. Can you pinpoint where the Xipe was broadcasting from?"

Wulf nodded, and shifted his focus to Mickey's request. "Yeah," he confirmed in advance, taking some strides to stand behind Ken. "I can backtrack the lag on the comm packet, figure out exactly where she is." Wulf poked the Albatross' engineer's shoulder. "Soon as Ken gets outta my seat."

Ken slipped out of the chair, but not away from it, clearly intending to look over Wulf's shoulder.

"Thanks, dude." Wulf manipulated the holodisplay just above his console and then projected the same out towards the main central Ops board so everyone could see him work in three dimensions. It showed the dark, aggressively comforting (to him) shape of the Albatross and her position relative to Saturn and her moons. Sixty million kilometres currently separated the two objects, and the Xipe Totec was moving steadily closer, bit by bit.

From the Tross, a line began to draw, bright blue, piercing and direct, zipping back across that representative space to locate its source. At his station, Wulf worked the numbers then turned immediately to face Mickey as the tech (and Ken behind him) found their Captain's answer.

"Close orbit of Saturn," Wulf confirmed what they could all now see. His face portrayed his concerns even as he spoke the words. "She's headed our way fast though, bossman. 1.2 days is all we got. 2 days and she'll be using our coffee machine."

He pulled the detail out further then, showing more of the volume about them, hunting now for other potential problems and sharing in real-time.

"Not just a close orbit, she's rising from the lee side of the ring system," Mickey pointed out, tapping the bright golden icon of the Xipe Totec. "And it knew exactly where we are, meaning it has our flight plan. Ken, are you getting the same feeling you got when we got jumped by those LunaCorp goons running the docking bay shakedown at Armstrong City?"

"If we were to look at that ship's comm log I'd be confident that there would be a message from our employer with our information. That also means they're not here to 'inspect' our cargo as much as seize it all whole sale and give us a long walk out of a tiny airlock." Ken replied angrily. "Do we have any idea what kind of ship that ConFed boat is? Maybe we can take it in a fight?"

Mickey pulled his terminal from his pocket and began to page through some of the app's and files on it. After a moment he flicked an image on his terminal to the volumetric hologram. The star map shrank back, replaced with the image of a stubby brick of a ship. 200 hundred meters from its blunt sensor studded nose to the pair of rocket bells sheltering under an armored skirt.

"Knew keeping that subscription to Janes Fighting Spacecraft would pay off one day," he grumbled as an article popped up alongside the hologram. "She's an old Perth-class heavy cruiser. Class entered production in 2240. When she was new she had internal magazines and six-tube launcher, along with a pair of 4-inch rail guns. Sold at cost to the Confederacy 40 years ago when the class was decommissioned, the internal magazine and launchers were removed but she kept the guns. See those things on the hull on either side? 10 missile box launchers. No reloads but the birds are the same we have tucked into our hold. She's an old warhorse, but we don't have the fuel to out race her so...yeah."

Eyes wide and gaze fixed on the Xibe as Mickey described it, Wulf remained utterly silent. The expression on his face implied he saw this new threat as the Destroyer of Worlds and he had no current idea how they were going to survive it rolling right over them and taking whatever the hell it wanted.

After taking a deep breath and calming down Emma watched the others debate what to do. She had an idea but before she could bring it up without yelling or taking a swing at Ken, the communication came through.

"Well it sounds like the options are now becoming limited." She gave them a grim smile. "Well I might have an idea, but it'll be a long shot... and it'll take you trusting me." She winked at Ken.

"I'm sure we're all eager to hear it," Mickey said.

"Well I want to say it is simple, but it won't be... You have the medical records of me after I woke up, right? Well we broadcast in the clear for the whole system to hear me talking about how you guys saved me, and found the pods free floating, and then put up the medical logs with it. Mars will know by now I'm missing, and that being a marine who retired in good standing after fighting against slaves during my service, it would be awkward if people were saying it was siding with slavery, and transporters..." She frowned it was a long shot but it was all she could think of to save these idiots who were attempting to keep her from becoming a slave...

"You want to pull a fucking James Holden?" Mickey said in a tone of utter astonishment.

"She's trying to help, Captain," Wulf said, respectfully, but he winced as he said it and offered up a worried shrug as he looked from Mickey to Emma and back again. His next words were spoken apologetically to Emma. "But that kinda sounds like it'll make things worse?"

"Make things worse?" She cocked her head before gesturing with both arms to the area around her, "How? How could things get worse... Once that ship gets here we got a death warrant for all our heads... Even mine." She frowned. "It is all I got, contacting Mars and getting information on my kidnapping. Or I'm guessing my disappearance, and then tell them you found me and the others free floating... It beats being airlocked..."

"Well, when you put it like that it's worth a roll of the dice. I mean the last time someone did something like that it only sparked an interplanetary war. But hey, second times the charm," Mickey said. He looked at his terminal. "Time lag with the Mars comm beacon is...one hour and change. So say three hours for a message to get there, get replied to, and sent back to us. We don't lose anything by trying."

He flicked his terminal towards Emma, floating it across space between them.

"Mic's all yours. Wulf, set up the transmitter. No point tight beaming this if we want people to hear us."

Taking the terminal Emma sat back in her chair before hitting record. "Um... Hi I'm alive... My name is Emma Zelda Yonkers, formal Martian Marine. Ummm I was working at and Terra former before I was kidnapped, luckily whoever did dropped their cargo of me and a few other cryopods into the vacuum... Well that wasn't the lucky part I guess... The crew of the Albartross found us. Thank gods he did, my unit was damaged and I was waking up as they were pulling us in. I am broadcasting now from said ship in hopes that we can find a safe port to bring us in. One that will be able to save the other Martian Marines, all Female, from the cryopods. You see they are rigged to kill if improperly opened. The way mine failed must have kept it from killing me. Please any MCR ships, or even..." She pauses for a moment as if she was choking on the idea, " even a UNN ship could help us!" She ended the recording and looked at everyone.

" I hope this works... I really do."

"Sounded good." Wulf offered up an optimistic smile, enthusiasm buoyed slightly by Mickey's rousing words and Emma's authentic sounding plea for help. His fingers played lightly across the console for a short moment, then he looked directly to the Albatross' captain for permission. "We really broadcasting public, Mickey?" Wulf double-checked, his index finger poised to execute said instruction on the other man's word.

"Aim it at the Mars comm relay Wulf, full power. Might as well broadcast it towards the Xipe as well," Mickey looked at his watch. "We'll know in a few hours if it worked or not. And it'll give our friends from the rings something to think about."

"Yessir, bossman," Wulf acknowledged, his brow furrowed just a little as he realigned their transmitter carefully, ignored the rapid thumping of his heart and dialled up the power all the way to max. He tested the signal strength, triple checked the trajectories in turn and then hit 'send'. A simple series of commands that could very well lead to a very big outcome. A very icy feeling of foreboding in the comm tech's gut as he watched the projection on his display. "Just a few hours..." Wulf whispered, his voice filled with trepidation.

"I have a bad feeling about this..." Ken muttered to himself.

"Me too," the comm tech seconded as Ken's words close beside him caught his attention. Wulf looked beyond the crew then to the silent pair of Belters they'd fired upon and essentially kidnapped, if nicely and with coffee, lodgings and food for the last couple weeks. He let his gaze lock like a tractor beam caught by that tall intimidating reed of Delphi's form as he called over to them both. "If Emma's message gets us outta the slave-trading charges, are you guys gonna report us?" Wulf asked outright.

"And willingly add a few million Martian credit chits to their Vector Red ledgers?" Mickey asked looking at Aisling and Jammer.

Delphi laughed at that one. "Oye, like I give wa pashang about Vector Red" she scoffed. "They can burn in hell. Not getting their claws on mi again!" she pointed her thumb at herself, then glanced at Aisling.

"What would be the point?" Aisling shrugged appearing unphased. Inside was a story though, she was having trouble processing that absolute absurdity of the past day. Who in God's name were these people? she questioned mentally, her eyes full of suspicion as they raked over the crew. She didn't feel any more danger than before but she had to admit she suddenly felt warier of the bunch.

Wulf looked super awkward at the Belter pilot's accusing question, and uncomfortable with that look as Aisling scoured across them all. He spoke with a tone that implied a keen need to remind them that their current crime was unintentional. "We didn't know," Wulf insisted. "We didn't know there were... people... in there." Suddenly gun-running seemed so minor a crime versus the reality of this new rapsheet. Slaves. Almost murder. Definite destruction of property. Wulf looked to Emma with hope of some kind of brownie points.

"I'll be in engineering, preparing to either dump core or go into combat. Setting up the emergency response gear." Ken replied, then turned to Wulf. "Can you get the emergency plans to the terminals that don't have it yet?" Then Ken turned to Delphi, "You want to help?"

Delphi glanced at Ken, mild disbelief crossed her face for a moment, she had not expected to be asked to help with this ship, in engineering, anything, ever. She still didn't trust these people, but she had no intention of getting captured by a different bunch of inners or pirates. She raised her fist in the belter sign for a nod.

"Ya, fosho" the Belter engineer said as she pushed away from the wall she had been leaning against. She paused by Aisling. "Come with, s├ęsata?" she asked her shipmate. She really did not want to be separated from her if things went pear shaped.

Aisling nodded but remained quiet. They already had a pilot so it'd be better if she just stuck with Delphi.

"Great. Whilst you are doing that, Yonkers: you and me are going to spend some quality time in front of a comms panel. We're gonna call the Xipe and let them know we're matching course and breaking for a mutually agreed point in space. Which we'll ping to the nearest trio of comm beacons and CC to the right sort of Fax's out there that like to run with unsubstantiated stories," Mickey pushed himself off the wall and walked towards the ladder heading towards the lower decks. "But before that, I need coffee. Can't go full Holden without coffee now can we?"

"I'll stay here," Wulf told no one in particular as he put his feet up on the console. "In case anything comes back in. Or someone else comes looking." He shot Mickey a puppy dog eyes kinda expression and added. "Bring a coffee back for me too?" A pause. "Please?"

Emma got up and followed the captain. "I can be of help here more then just a voice... I was trained to operate the weapons systems of MRC combat craft, I can't imagine it being to terribly different on your ship." she spoke hoping to make herself useful and maybe he won't just air lock her when she gets them free of the authorities.

Ken turned around on the ladder, looking up at the captain. "I'm okay with her running PDC's."

There was a brief moment where Wulf gave Ken the 'you-never-let-me-have-a-go-with-the-guns' look, but the tech didn't say anything out loud.

 

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