2951-03-01 – Tales from the Service: The Firmament Melee

Operation Firmament. By now you’ve already heard this name; by now Ashton and all your other favorite datasphere personalities have discussed its importance in great detail since Fifth Fleet announced the battle to the media six days ago. This, it seems, is our first unequivocal victory of this already years-long war. Most of Maribel seems to have not stopped celebrating it.

Perhaps you, too, have seen the vid-log snippets which have been bouncing around: the glinting hulls of the cruisers reflecting the light of their salvos, the massive flashing swirl of a strike-craft brawl between a dozen squadrons on either side, and the spectacular explosion of one of the Incarnation tyrants certainly make good vidcast content.

I have talked to some spacers who were there, and the victory is perhaps not as glorious as we might prefer to think. It is, however, no longer the place of this embed team to discuss the operations of Fifth Fleet. As of the twenty-third of February, when we came aboard the Ashkelon, we have been detached from that fleet organization entirely, along with the rest of the ship’s complement. As such, most of my usual official channels into Fifth Fleet’s upper command hierarchy have been cut for the moment.

Ashkelon is perhaps the newest capital unit in the Confederated Navy, having just finished its shakedown late last year, and I am struck by how much larger than Saint-Lô it is. The ship was, I hear, only assigned to Fifth Fleet long enough to play its bit role in Operation Firmament alongside its sister Maribel, and it, with us aboard, is soon to depart on a new assignment as of this writing.

The ship’s skipper is one captain Arik Mendoza. I fear he is far less content with our presence than Captain Liao was; he is young for a battleship captain, and likely eager to see the action denied his crew during Fortitude.

The spherical tac-plot projected above the gunship’s center console quickly became a useless tangle of swirling, multicolored blips, akin to a recently-shaken jar of Earth fireflies, and Lieutenant Wynn Richards kept his eyes on the flashing, sparking expanse of space directly ahead, and at the glittering, stylus-sized spearpoint in the middle of that view. Several more such sinister shapes dotted the void, forming three distinct clusters, each group surrounded by stabbing weapons fire and blossoming explosions.

Somewhere behind him, the two rapid-fire quad-railgun turrets projecting from the Magpie gunship’s sides were shaking the whole ship with their tooth-jarring rattle. Probably, Sullivan and Iwai each had a somewhat less cluttered, and thus somewhat more useful, view of the battlespace than Wynn did, and they were firing away at any target of opportunity without regards to the bigger picture visible from up front. No doubt they’d be alarmed if they knew what their section of three gunships had just been ordered to do, and Wynn certainly wasn’t going to alarm them unnecessarily. After all, if they were going to die, it would be suddenly, and there would be little for the gunners to do about it they weren’t already doing.

Flipping up the cover over one of the few non-dynamic controls in the entire cockpit, Wynn hovered his finger over a series of colored buttons. His was one of a few dozen Magpies modified before the battle with some decidedly non-standard hardware, and it was this hardware which the wires trailing out from the hard-panel and secured along the corner of the console eventually connected. “Two is ready, Lead.”

“Three, ready.”

“Slave to my helm.” Raman Beck, the section leader, instructed. Wynn held down a white button until its associated light came on, then tapped the green button next to it and released the controls with his other hand as the computer began taking commands from Beck’s controls.

“Sullivan, Iwai, check your restraints.” Wynn called into his onboard comms circuit. Most likely a secure harness and crash-padded station wouldn’t help them much if the new hardware went awry or if they ran into stray fire from one of the half-dozen intense sub-engagements whirling nearby, but it was the only hint he dared offer them.

“Arm TR-XE.” Beck called out.

Wynn pressed a yellow button until its associated light began to blink, and the hum of the gunship’s little reactor changed tenor as the TR-XE module haphazardly installed below the cockpit began to draw electricity into its capacitors. He dared not think about what would happen to him if a single piece of shrapnel or a single railgun slug happened to pierce those capacitors, barely half a meter below his chair as they were.

As the power indicators on the unit crept up toward maximum, Beck made a few tiny course adjustments. For the moment, the trio of ships was not being harassed by any of the two hundred or so enemy Coronach interceptors which more than a hundred Magpies and at least thirty Pumas were dueling in all directions, and Wynn hoped that six steady streams of railshot toward the nearest enemy units would dissuade anyone from trying to change this. They’d already fought their way into, then out of, one swirling melee in the last hour, and someone in Command had decided that the strike-craft engagement was going well enough to try a few dirty tricks.

Without warning, a damaged Magpie tore out of one of the nearest swirling engagements and thundered directly across the electronically locked paths of Wynn, Beck, and Lazarov. Behind it, a pair of sleek Coronachs closed in to finish off their wounded prey. Without thinking, Wynn disengaged the helm-slave and rolled to give both his gunners a clear shot at the Coronachs. Their fire, combined with that of one of Beck’s gunners, convinced the Coronachs to break off, and the damaged Magpie limped off to brave the long trek back to its mothership alone.

Without waiting for Beck’s order, Wynn re-slaved his helm to the lead ship. No doubt he’d get an earful for his hasty decision in the post-action briefing, but if it gave another crew even a tiny chance to make it home, he’d be content to endure Beck’s browbeating.

A moment after he did, the TR-XE system chimed its full-charge alert, and Beck flipped the master switch on his own console, changing the indicator lights from yellow to amber. “Engaging in five seconds.” Beck announced. “Four. Three. Two. One.”

Wynn tensed as the countdown reached zero, and his commander pressed another button. At once, the stored charge below him in the TR-XE module crackled along high-voltage conduits into a series of folder nodes, and the view ahead vanished into a coruscating swirl of blue and violet energy, turning a black more perfect than any void in its center.

Wynn flinched, but by the time his muscles reacted, the Magpie had already flown into the swirling vortex, and out the other side. The momentary feeling of being twisted in several directions that didn’t normally exist was gone even before his hands once again grabbed the control stick.

“Two is clear.” Wynn looked down at his tactical plot, which was now distinctly less populated and more comprehensible, even if only two pips within were the blue-green of friendly units. With their helms slaved and their starting formation so tight, the trio of gunships had emerged from their jaunt through a fold in the fabric of space-time barely a thousand kilometers from each other, rather than the tens of thousands one might have expected otherwise. “Forming up. What’s next, Lead?”

 2951-02-22 – Tales from the Inbox: The Progeny of a Nuisance  

Nojus here again. You guessed it – we’re still in temporary quarters on Martikainen, and most of our vidcast equipment is still in its crates. This time, at least, we have a date certain for transfer, which happens to match the date of this feed item’s scheduled ingest. By the time you’re reading this, we’re probably already stretching out in our assigned quarters aboard the vessel which Duncan and I both hope will be our home for the remainder of the war. 

Naval Intelligence has cleared us to report generally on the rumors that Fifth Fleet outriders smashed up a group of Incarnation ships somewhere in the vicinity of Maribel. We have no clear idea where this battle took place or what strength it was fought in on either side, but it certainly didn't hapen here in the Maribel system itself. Hopefully when the details come out we won’t learn that it’s another Trond-Arud. 

As the little Nuisance argued with Donovan in hushed tones at the other end of the umbilical about the logistics of searching a ship’s trash compaction press for remains, a thought occurred to Svetlana Cremonesi. Obviously, she hadn’t thrown anything alive into the compactor aboard her Tycho Spike, not even a Nuisance, so such a search could only serve to make her departure even later, but all it would really take to prove the creature was lying about kidnapping would be to produce the fellow Nuisance it had named. 

“Donovan.” Svetlana made sure to use enough volume to cut the hushed discussion short. “You issue comms to the Nuisances, don’t you?” 

“Er, sometimes. When a Yixhari-” 

Svetlana dismissed his explanation with a wave. “Ask your data system if you’ve issued one to this Wsir-Virh.” 

Donovan muttered a few instructions into his wristcuff, then cupped one ear to his comms earpiece to listen to the reply. “We don’t seem to even have a Yixhari by that name registered.” 

“So then.” Svetlana stepped toward the Nuisance. “Who is Wsir-Virh?” 

This time, it stood its ground. “Is on ship.” 

“Not where. Who.” 

Before it could answer again, one of the constables returned from within Tycho Spike. “We’ve swept the crew deck, Captain, and found nothing. Do we have permission to search the cargo bay?” 

Svetlana shrugged and jabbed a finger at the control on her cuff which would unlock the access-way leading down to her ship’s pressurized cargo bay. “There’s sensitive stuff in some of those crates. Break a cargo seal, and you’re the bastard paying for it.” 

The constable nodded stiffly, already seeming ill at ease with the search. “We’ll be careful.” With that, he tromped off to gather his two associates and proceed down into the cargo section. 

When Svetlana turned back toward the Nuisance to follow up on the unanswered question, the little creature wasn’t where it had been. Donovan was facing the station side of the umbilical, hand to his mouth as he dictated follow-up queries about this mystery Wsir-Virh. 

Svetlana spun around, and realized there was only one place the Nuisance could have gone. “Damnation, Donovan, you weren’t watching it!” 

“Eh?” The Survey officer turned around, confused. 

“It’s on my ship. I warned it. I warned you.” Svetanla jabbed a finger at Donovan. “It was just waiting for me to turn my back, and-” She stopped, then smiled and opened her ship’s intercom. “Constables, the Nuisance has boarded my ship. If you find it before I do, apprehend it. I wish to pursue slander, trespassing, piracy, and endangerment charges.” 

Donovan cut his comms channel, a frown on his face. “Captain, what are you-” 

“What I said I would the first damned time.” Svetlana undid the safety clasp on her holstered pistol and drew it. “Repel boarders.” 

With Donovan’s stream of incoherent protesters following her every step, Svetlana strode aboard Tycho Spike and sealed the umbilical with a command override. At each pressure bulkhead, she stopped and sealed hatchways usually permitted to stand open, and at each compartment, she left Donovan and his babbling at the door while she carefully swept the space for any sign of the Nuisance. Once she was satisfied with each space, she sealed it off, and quietly set the atmospheric system to evacuate each cleared compartment and corridor section just to be certain. 

Lieutenant Donovan, whose imprecations likely kept him from realizing that Svetlana was depressurizing her ship room by room behind herself, continued to follow, as if something he said might undo what his halfwit charge had already set into motion. She knew not to expect him to try anything desperate - such a desk officer was he that he didn’t even have a sidearm, and he didn’t look the type to know what to do with one even if he had. 

When Svetlana reached the accessway down to the cargo bay, she found one of the constables standing at the threshold, seeming confused as to what he was supposed to be doing. 

“Are the other two of you down there?” She gestured with her gun down toward the cargo deck. 

“Yes, Captain.” The constable nodded, glancing nervously at Donovan’s increasingly shrill protests. Unfortunately for Survey, the station constabulary knew only too well that the Law of the Spacelanes did not tolerate hostile boarding of any ship. 

“Go get them and bring them up here.” Svetlana gestured forward. “When I get back, I’m venting the bay.” She gestured with her free hand. “Donovan, stay here.” 

“But you’re-” 

“On my own ship, where I just gave you a direct order.” Svetlana turned to fix him with only the briefest glare. 

Donovan finally fell silent and made no attempt to follow Svetlana as she went through the next bulkhead and sealed it behind herself. She cleared the next two compartments, including her own cabin, then set them both to evacuate, feeling only the briefest pang of guilt for what this would do to the Herculean jade-claw plant on her desk. The plant wouldn’t die outright in a few hours of decompression – they were popular aboard starships for a reason – but it would probably lose most of its cluster of plump, hooked leaves to bursting as the vital fluid within its thick outer skin broke through and boiled off. 

As she sealed another length of passageway, Svetlana activated the intercom once more. “Nuisance, if you come out now and go with the constables, you get to live.” She came around the corner into the ship’s cramped med-bay with her gun leading, but nothing vaguely rodent-like presented itself within that stainless-steel, antiseptic space. 

One by one, Svetlana sealed and evacuated the lounge, the cargo grapple control blister, the mess, and every other compartment as she moved forward toward command. Tycho Spike’s crew deck was long and narrow, sitting on top of its much bulkier engine and cargo spaces like a stubby dorsal fin, so she knew that nothing had gotten past her. There was, short of her command override unlocking the maintenance crawlspaces, only one way aft from where she was – if the Nuisance wasn't trying to hide down in the hold, it was just ahead in the command compartment. 

Taking a deep breath, Svetlana keyed open the door to command, gun aimed roughly where a Nuisance’s body would be if it charged out at her. 

The Nuisance was there, all right, its ear-crowned head peeking over the back of the pilot’s chair. “No trash compactor!” 

Svetlana scowled, imagining grubby Nuisance paws all over her ship’s controls. They were locked against tampering, but she’d probably spend half the outbound leg sanitizing them. “Into the corridor. Now.” 

The Nuisance’s dark eyes stared at Svetlana for a long moment, then its head disappeared. Just as she was about to issue the order again, it slid down off the chair and scuttled back into view, a bundle of dirty cloth held in its arms. 

Svetlana waved her gun at the parcel. “Drop the souvenir. I don’t care where you found it.” 

“No drop Wsir-Virh!” The Nuisance held the parcel tighter. 

Svetlana narrowed her eyes. “It’s something you nicked from my ship. Unwrap it.” 

The Nuisance hesitated, then slowly began to unwind the cloth bound around the object. After a few loops had come off, it began to squirm violently, and the Nuisance held up its prize. “Not steal.” 

At first, Svetlana didn’t know what she was looking at; it seemed to be a furry grub about the size of a small cat. When the folds of skin on the top end of the grub-like shape twitched and flicked upwards into a familiar crown-like arrangement of four ears and revealed two dark, curious eyes beneath, she understood. Tiny, plump arms detached themselves from the trunk a moment later to reach in Svetlana’s direction. “Wsir-Virh is a child. So how did it get on my ship?” 

2951-02-15 – Tales from the Service: The Desires of a Nuisance 

Svetlana Cremonesi met Raul Donovan and the trio of station constables at the hatch with a scowl. “Make this quick, boys. I have a schedule to keep.”

Donovan tried very hard not to wilt under her glare, clearing his throat and adjusting the green collar of his Survey uniform. The holographic Lieutenant’s pips over his shoulders flickered as he did so. “I do apologize for the inconvenience, Captain.” He gestured to the constables, then pointed inward. “Unfortunately, I must take this tip as credible.”

Without even a formal request to come aboard, the three men stomped past Svetlana and fanned out into her ship. She tried to glare at each of them, but they ignored her completely, even though they were now on her deck. The idea of those three goons pawing everything she owned all over the fantastic claims of a mere Nuisance made Svetlana’s bile rise, but there was nothing to be done about it except have it done quickly.

A diminutive, brown-cloaked figure ducked back behind Donovan’s legs as Svetlana turned back to the station’s Alien Sapience Welfare Officer. “You brought it with you, I see.”

Donovan shrugged, then stepped aside to reveal the very same Nuisance which had tried to wheedle itself onboard Svetlana’s ship earlier. “Yes. The Yixhari don’t often lie, especially not in easily falsifiable ways. This one at least thinks you a kidnapper.”

Svetlana discovered with satisfaction that her glare worked far better on the troublesome Nuisance than even on Donovan himself; as she stared it down, its quartet of ears quivered and then fell limp like the leaves of a plant sprayed with herbicide, and its whole body seemed to tremble on the verge of flight. “I don’t care what you want today. If you take one step onto my ship, you’re going in the trash compactor.”

The creature emitted a hissing squeak and padded several steps backward in the umbilical’s short tunnel. Donovan rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. “It really is most unkind to threaten-”

“Unkind, Donovan?” Svetlana whirled and leveled a finger at the Survey man. “That little wretch accused me of some pretty serious crimes. When those bobbies prove it’s a liar, I want slander charges, do you hear me? I will be demanding prosecution.”

Donovan, too, took a step backward. “Captain Cremonesi, do you really think that’s fair? To put a Yixhari in the dock over-”

“It’s your theory they’re our fellow sapients.” Svetlana turned her accusing finger at the cringing Nuisance. “Admit they aren’t and get them out of everyone’s hair, or let it stand trial. If the station authority declines to prosecute, I will invoke my rights under Kastner.”

Donovan visibly paled. “You cannot seriously-”

“I can, and gladly.” Svetlana knew her rights, generally speaking; anywhere in Confederated jurisdiction where local law enforcement declined to investigate or prosecute an offense, the victim could not be held liable for any crimes committed as part of any personal reprisal against the offender. The so-called Kastner Principle came from a centuries-old court case Svetlana knew little about, except that it was a popular defense in murder cases across the frontiers of the Reach. The popular version of its logic was that it was the ultimate answer to the corruption of lawmen and bureaucrats, especially when the two worked together. “If the Nuisance are beyond the law, they are beyond its defense.”

The Nuisance, doubtless understanding nothing of this exchange, took a step forward. “Aswo, I want-”

“It can wait, friend.” Donovan held up a hand, knowing that now was not the time for the creature to dig itself in deeper than it already was. He probably felt guilty for taking the claim seriously and exposing the Nuisance to consequences for its craven slander. Svetlana had no pity for the Nuisance, but she did feel a bit sorry for Donovan; after all, he had probably trained in xenosapience relations for years, and herding Nuisance in Sagittarius Gate had to feel like a punishment.

“No, no, no wait.” The Nuisance wrung its paws together, its beady eyes flicking between Donovan and Svetlana. “I want friend Captain Cremonesi.”

Donovan blinked and turned slowly toward the Nuisance. “It’s, uh. A bit late for that. Half an hour ago you wanted me to have her arrested. What do you think she wants because of that?”

The creature slowly turned its muzzle toward Svetlana. “Want put me in trash compactor. So said?”

“Hey, at least it was paying attention.” Svetlana flicked both of her thumbs toward the overheads.

“If you lied about her being a kidnapper, she wants you arrested. And she’s kind of right, that would be fair.” Donovan held up his hands. “I’d say now’s the time to come clean, but it’s a bit late for that.”

“Not lie!” The Nuisance shook its head rapidly, and the whole body shook in sympathetic motion, like a dog shaking off water, only mostly bipedal. “Not lie. Not lie. Why lie?”

“Because you wanted to board my ship, and I wouldn’t let you.” Svetlana pointed behind herself, to where the constables were still searching. “Maybe because you thought I’d let you help them search.  What do you think they’ll find, anyway?”

“No what! Find who!” The Nuisance held up one paw. “Find Wsir-Virh. I want find Wsir-Virh.”

Svetlana shrugged. She knew in some vague sense that Nuisance had individual names, but she’d never bothered to learn any of them. “Whoever that is, they’re not on my ship. Any of you would’ve got the same reception you did if they’d tried.

The Nuisance froze for a long moment, then turned to Donovan. “Aswo, I want search trash compactor.”

Nojus here again. We’re still aboard Martikainen, and most of our vidcast equipment is still in stowage. The purpose of this delay isn’t clear; if we were waiting on a ship out on patrol, you’d think Fifth Fleet wouldn’t have started our transfer until that ship was back in-system. It’s all very inconvenient, really, and one imagines this has to do with some damnfool idea of Naval information security.

Svetlana Cremonesi’s account of interspecies relations in the besieged Sagittarius Gate system has provoked quite a bit of discussion on our datasphere hub. Apparently a lot of people weren’t aware that there were so many already-contacted sapient species in the Sagittarius Frontier. The density of sapients there does seem quite interesting, though I’m not sure what to make of these Yixhari, which Cremonesi and many other spacers seem to call the Nuisance. They don’t seem to mean any harm, but neither do Naval Intelligence spooks or government bureaucrats, and they make untold amounts of trouble anyway.

2951-02-08 – Tales from the Inbox: The Sagittarian Nuisance

Nojus here again. I know I promised you all some answers as to what ship we’d be transferring to. Turns out we don’t have them. We’re still aboard Martikainen, and most of our vidcast equipment is still in stowage.

The reason for this seems to be that the vessel we’re being assigned to is currently out of Maribel on an operation. Duncan speculates this means we’re bound for a posting on a cruiser, though we aren’t aware of any major fleet units of any class that are outside the Maribel defensive perimeter at the moment.

My theory is that it means we’re going to be shunted onto one of the light carriers that are performing picket-station duty in the outer line of Farthing’s Chain systems, which in turn means that Admiral Venturi wants us journalist-types out of the way before she does something bold and risky. Looks like there’s been a general shakeup of the embed teams from all media companies, which is what I would expect if I’m right, which of course I am.

Today’s account comes from a civilian spacer operating in Sagittarius Gate – apparently there are still quite a few, despite the system’s rather hot conditions as regards the war. Nate, though, isn’t the problem this spacer wanted to complain about.

“No way you’re getting on my ship. Not in any creative hell.” Svetlana Cremonesi scowled down at the little figure which she’d just stopped from sneaking through the umbilical. The creature might have been, in other circumstances, almost adorable, with its large black eyes, small mouth at the end of a stubby muzzle, and quartet of round fur-tufted ears that topped its head like a satin crown. If it were classified as a non-sapient creature, its kind might have been prized as pets by wealthy socialites throughout the Core Worlds, but alas, much to Svetlana’s current disadvantage, the critter was of a species classified by Naval Survey as sapient, and by most everyone else as a Nuisance.

“But…” The Nuisance emitted a series of rapid, squeaky chirps which probably meant something in its own language. “But I want-”

“I want to put you out the airlock for trying.” Svetlana shook her head. “Get out of here. Go complain to the Aswo about how I was mean to you.”

The little creature scuttled off, its long whip-tail ramrod-straight behind itself as it went.

Svetlana watched it until it was out of sight, then watched in that direction a little longer. It hadn’t gone far, of course; a Nuisance that wanted something never really gave up on it. Rather than waiting to see its eyes peeking around some corner it thought would be unexpected, she crossed the threshold and sealed the hatch, muttering a curse against whichever moron had brought Nuisance to the Sagittarius Gate waystation. Once they were aboard, they couldn’t possibly be convinced to return to whatever noisome warren they hailed from, because they didn’t want to go. Unless they did, in which case they skulked around the hangars and docks in ones and twos until they managed to sneak aboard some vessel or other.

Svetlana wasn’t about to let her Tycho Spike become another victim of Nuisance. True, she generally only did two or three day-long supply runs out to the outer asteroid mining installations, after which she could enlist the mine crew to deal with the problem if she didn’t manage to catch and space it on her own, but the truth was, she didn’t want to have to put any of the little critters out the airlock. As troublesome as they were, they were theoretically capable of thoughts – however rarely they seemed to think – and they were, in the grand scheme of things, neither physically capable of hurting a human nor particularly interested in doing so. It was the unintended consequences of pursuing their wants that could be so dangerous.

As she made her way forward through Tycho Spike toward the cockpit, Svetlana’s comm pinged. With a glance at her wristcuff, she saw it was a channel request from Lieutenant Raul Donovan, the waystation’s Aswo. Few planetary colonies in the Reach needed a dedicated Alien Sapient Welfare Officer, and even fewer hab stations, but Sagittarius Gate wasn’t properly in the Reach, and it was something of a special case at any rate. At last count, survey had positively classified five new sapient species in the broad swath of the Sagittarius Frontier, and it surprised nobody that zero of them had good relations with the Incarnation. Excepting the Nuisance, Svetlana had seen a group of elfin, golden-skinned humanoids, some sort of colorful avian, and a trio of walking mountains that seemed entirely composed of scar tissue and bad attitude. Where their home-worlds were, she couldn’t say, and didn’t want to.

After letting Donovan’s channel request hang long enough for the chime to repeat twice more, Svetlana jammed her comms earpiece into her ear and accepted the request. “Kind of busy here. What do you need, Lieutenant?”

“It’s probably nothing, Miss Cremonesi, but I am being told that, ah…” Donovan sighed wearily, and in the emphatic misery of that sigh, Svetlana knew that the Nuisance she’d shooed away from her ship was there in his office at that very instant. Only a Nuisance could inspire that level of dismay. “Ah, you are a kidnapper, apparently.”

Svetlana chuckled. “Quite the reverse. No passengers on my ship, human or otherwise. Some critters just don’t take a damned hint.”

“And also that you threatened murder?”

Svetlana sighed. “Well yes, I did suggest that. And technically, it would be-”

“Entirely legal per the Law of the Spacelanes, Section 31, subsection 4, assuming the stowaway presented a danger to the ship or was unwilling to take orders from the skipper under way.” Donovan’s tone was tired and rote; he’d both heard and recited Section 31 dozens of times over the last few months. “And yet, I must formally discourage the use of this section with-”

“With sapients who are not well adjusted to our customs.” Svetlana finished his scripted warning. “How are those cultural assimilation classes going, by the way?”

“Oh, quite well.” Donovan didn’t bother to hide the gritted-teeth tone in his voice. No doubt trying to herd a few score Nuisance into a classroom when they all wanted to be elsewhere was the most entertaining part of his job for anyone privileged with access to the security monitors, and the most miserable part for Donovan himself.

“Good to hear from you, Lieutenant. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a departure window in ninety minutes. Can we cut this short?”

“Of course. If you could release the ah… person or persons confined? Perhaps you did not know that this person was aboard and accidentally locked them in a compartment?”

“Donovan, there’s nobody and certainly no Nuisance aboard my ship.” Svetlana had just accepted delivery of thirty-odd crates of high-strength drill components bound for MS-71 and a half-dozen refrigerated cases of pharmaceuticals for MS-112, and on both occasions she’d sealed the ship and swept the entire cargo bay and crew deck for unauthorized passengers, just in case. “Your little complainant there nearly wore out the hatch chime to get me to come open up. Everything was locked down.”

“Unfortunately, I must take this seriously. Until we are satisfied as to these allegations, your departure will not be permitted.”

“What? Donovan, I have a schedule-”

“I will be along with the station constabulary in five minutes, Miss Cremonesi. We’ll have to search the ship, and we’ll try to be done before your departure window.”

Before she could make any response, Donovan ended the channel. Svetlana thumped one fist against the bulkhead in frustration, then turned on her heel and went to the boarding hatch to await the search party. No doubt the mine operators would be happy to dock her pay over this nonsense. “Damned Nuisance.”