'Your father and I are so very proud of you Jen. First Officer! And such a big ship as well! We knew you could do it.'
'Thanks Mum.' I felt my ears starting to go red after my mother's nearly ten minutes of continuous praise. But to see her smile on the view screen in my quarters made it all worthwhile.
'To be fair Mum, it is only Acting First Officer. But the Captain doesn't expect Hohanison to return once the baby is born, he's been complaining ever since I got on board that she's gone all maternal on him. So, if she tenders her resignation, then the job is mine.'
'Acting or not! You beat over five hundred applicants for the job! That's something to be proud of. So…how long before I'll be addressing Captain Lindz?'
I grinned, 'some time I should think.'
Just then, my father stepped into the viewscreen, shoulder to shoulder with my mother. 'Congratulations Jen.' He said with his usual sober face.
'Thanks Dad.' I smiled, hoping he might smile back, but being left disappointed as always.
'I still think you'd go further in the Hermondée. You haven't even sent in your application,' he picked up without a pause.
With a stern look, Mum punched his arm. 'Let it rest John, be happy for her.'
However, before he could reply, before he could even try to hide his mild disappointment I cut in, 'I know Dad, and maybe one day I will. But I'm just not ready to be a space cop. And you always said I should be practical. The Hermondée Academy is all the way on Earth and I wouldn't be earning much money until I had graduated and was posted, and even then the first year is very low wages. Hauling cargo means I get to stay near home for a few more years and earn good money. Rose Transports pays really well, plus a cut of the profits from every delivery. Once I've saved up some, and you're able to go back to work, then I'll think more about the Hermondée.'
I could see in his eyes how bad he felt about being on medical leave for the past year, the lines on his forehead said he felt guilty for the hardship the family is experiencing and for stifling my career.
'Don't feel bad Dad, in a..' but the sound of three loud klaxons ringing throughout the ship cut off the rest of my sentence. I paused, turning my head to listen for the ship-wide announcement that would surely follow the alarm.
There was only silence.
'What? What is it,' my mother was asking as my father looked concerned.
'I don't know Mum, probably nothing major. But I've got to go. Will call you both again soon, love you.' I tried not to let the concern seep through my smile as I ended the call.
My new first officer quarters were just one deck below the bridge of The White Rose, and I cleared the steps in three long bounds.
As I entered the bridge, Lieutenant Marcus, who was at the helm, was speaking, 'Intercept course plotted, Captain. We will arrive in thirty-three minutes, dropping out of light-speed in thirty minutes.'
The Captain casually turned to face me while leaning heavily on his thick walking stick. 'Jen, glad you're here. We've had a distress call from The Morning Star and have altered course to see if we can help.'
'What's their problem Captain?' I've been on board almost a month, and wasn't yet used to Captain Vantara's relaxed manner of command. He rarely used rank when addressing subordinates, unless you managed to anger him, which was nearly impossible. Everyone addressed him as Captain, but only when on duty. When off duty we called him by his first name, Reek. Which I just couldn't bring myself to do. On my last ship, which was also part of the Rose Transport Fleet, if you addressed a senior ranking officer by their first name at any time, you'd be scrubbing floors in your off-duty time for a month. And yet, even with this relaxed style of command, he had more respect and loyalty, not to mention discipline, from his crew than any ship in the fleet. Making every other captain that worked for old man Rose, envious.
'Don't know. The message cut off before they could say. But it's a small haulier, if they're in trouble, they'll need help.'
A chill ran down my spine, as the first thought to enter my mind was, raiders! 'But, aren't they in merchant lanes the same as us? Surely the Hermondée have picked up the message and will be en route to…'
'Yes, yes,' the Captain snapped back, cutting me off in an exasperated tone and a wave of his hand. 'The Hermondée have picked up the same message we have, but their nearest ship is over three hours away.' Then he paused and his voice softened a bit. 'Listen, The Morning Star is captained by Dennam Prusten. Den used to Captain The Black Rose before leaving the company and going private. We were good friends, very good friends, back in the day. Ah…, the stories I could tell…'
The Captain paused for a moment as his eyes glossed over. 'Mmm, some of the things we got up to. You wouldn't believe ‘em if I told you. Old man Rose, he would never have made us both Captains if he knew half the stuff we did as first mates. But, there’s more money in private, also more risk. When Den had had enough of the corporate red tape, he struck out on his own.' the Captain said. Then, prompted by the look on my face that I wasn't able to hide, he continued, 'Are you worried about raiders? Don't worry your little head about that space scum. There haven't been raiders in this sector for some time now, besides, Den knows how to deal with raiders. Tis Probably just an engine or electrical malfunction, or something routine. But still, he's a friend and I'm not going to have him waiting in a cold ship for the Hermondée to pull a finger out when I'm thirty minutes away.'
'Yes Sir, of course.'
'Good. Glad you understand. Can you reassure the passengers that everything is OK and ask them to stay in their quarters? Marcus was a tad quick on the klaxons, it probably has them a bit spooked. Then prep a dinghy and have an engineering team standing by. I want youto lead the boarding party.'
'Yes, right away Captain.' I said, before turning to dash out of the bridge, feeling proud that I’ve been given the responsibility of leading the boarding party.
The White Rose is the largest cargo ship in the fleet of vessels belonging to Rose Transports. It has a crew of eleven, plus five officers and seventeen cargo holds. We were making a run from Artain to Collipse, in neighbouring solar systems and have been in space for twenty-three days.
This is always a busy time of the year for hauliers in the region, as the only two life-sustaining planets in their respective solar systems are closest to each other. This cuts the journey time between the planets down by sixty-one days and makes for low running costs and high profits. As a result, we were fully loaded with goods.
We were also transporting forty-three passengers eager to take advantage of the shortened journey. Most cargo hauliers avoid carrying passengers when they can. Although good money, they are always a lot of trouble. They require feeding for one thing. Entertaining for another. But also more space than cargo, and the longer the journey, the more space they require as cabin fever will inevitably set in and they will need room to stretch their legs. It is much easier to just leave people carrying to the many luxury liners that make regular runs between systems. But, Artain and Collipse are on the very edge of known space, far removed from the core of planets in the United Planet Confederation. Most cruise liners just aren't interested in the low volume of passengers in this remote region. So hauliers sometimes have to make an exception, especially, when the travel time is so short and the opportunity for profit is so irresistible.
Thirty minutes later The White Rose came out of light speed and I was positioned at the controls of our cargo-dinghy with four of our crew sitting anxiously behind me. Dinghies are small space crafts often used to transport cargo or people from one ship to another, to space stations or even to the surface of a planet. Virtually every space-faring vessel has at least one dinghy, which can vary in size from carrying a few people to carrying several dozen people or large amounts of cargo. They have universal docking ports and can attach to pretty much any ship in the known galaxy. They're typically small, agile and very versatile.
The display screen to my right showed the image of a silver metallic ship steadily getting larger as we approached. Far beyond The Morning Star, Artain’s sun shone like a bright speck, larger and brighter than all neighbouring stars. The ship we were approaching stood out, dark and lifeless, against this backdrop of light.
I took a long, slow deep breath, trying to calm my pounding heart. I knew, as First Officer, I would be in charge of small teams like this carrying out one task or another. I wasn’t afraid of command, but this was a very strange situation. Despite what the Captain said, ships rarely just break down, especially commercial ships. The requirements to keep everything in working order, and to have backups for the backups, means a mechanical fault is very rare. And yes, raiders haven’t been seen in this area for a long time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. If it is raiders, the fact The Morning Star is dead in the water is proof Captain Prusten isn’t as successful at dealing with raiders as one would hope.
'Hail them' I heard the Captain say to Marcus over my open comm link to the bridge.
'I've been trying, but there's no reply Captain.'
'Marcus, bring us in closer; let's get a good look at her. Are you seeing this Jen?'
I snapped out of my wandering thoughts. 'Yes, Captain. Looks like a complete power failure. We're ready to launch.'
'Could be, could be.' The Captain said slowly. 'But don't jump to conclusions, be ready for anything. Marcus is bringing us in close. Stand by.'
Several breathless moments passed as The White Rose positioned itself parallel to The Morning Star, matching its course and speed as it drifted silently through space.
'Jen, this is as close as I dare put us until we know what the problem is. Keep the comm link open.'
'Will do Captain.' I then powered up the engines and pressed the button to open the aft cargo doors of The White Rose. I’ve flown dinghies between ships a thousand times, so bringing it around The Rose and attaching to the docking port on The Morning Start was second nature to me. Once attached to the side of the ship, a data and power link were quickly established.
I turned to face our chief engineer sitting behind me. He was focused on a small datapad in his hand, flipping through information screens with his finger. Eventually, he looked up. 'She's running on emergency power, barely. Life support is stable, but not for much longer. What I can't figure out is that the computer isn't reporting any damage, internal or external. And yet, only a handful of systems are running.'
'None, that I can tell, but the internal sensors aren't working everywhere. It's like, some systems have been randomly turned off throughout the ship, while others have been left on.'
I turned back around in my seat. 'Did you get that Captain?'
'Yes. As Captain of The White Rose, under Emergency Space Protocol Seven, I authorise you to board The Morning Star and perform a search and rescue.' he paused 'Be careful Jen.'
I turned around and gave the engineer a nod. There was a hiss and a pop as the airlocks between the dinghy and the cargo ship sealed, and then the hatch opened.
I wasn't paying much attention to the conversation going on behind me, but I could just make out Captain Vantara and Marcus talking as I climbed out of my seat to join the crew. The Captain was logging his official report on the distress call and had asked Marcus to contact the nearest Hermondée ship.
I had one foot in the hatch when I heard Marcus' voice go up a number of octaves.
'Captain, I'm picking up another ship. No hail, no transponder code. It's coming up behind us, and fast!'
'Bloody raiders! It's a trap. Send out a distress call, if we're lucky the Hermondée will pick it up. And Marcus, hope that we're Lucky! Jen! Are you still there? JENNIFER..!