~~~ ~~~~ ~~~
Ten humanoid-forms materialized in the freighter’s main cargo hold: McKendrey and seven other Marines, and a corpsman and a forensics technician both wearing Federation Police uniforms. The sergeant made a single hand gesture, and the team fanned out in a well-rehearsed choreography. Within seconds, the Marines had secured the room. The techie scanned the area, then shook her head to indicate that she found nothing suspicious.
McKendrey pointed to the label on the nearest crate; the techie scanned it and nodded that the contents were as marked: field rations, boots, blankets, emergency medical supplies, portable shelters, and short-ranged communications gear. Just about everything needed for a Boy Scout camping trip ... or ground-combat support for a small army.
The NCO held up two fingers then pointed towards the engineering compartment. Four Marines moved to the door: two took up positions to cover the door; the other two stood on either side of it. One hit the control, and the door slide open. When nothing happened for a five-count, two marines entered. After a moment, one of them gave a thumbs-up signal. Then he pointed two fingers to his eyes, held up three fingers, then turned his palm down and waggled his fingers as if typing on a keyboard: ‘All is okay, I see three persons working.’
Their team leader gave them a thumps-up, and then indicated for the rest of the team to move to the forward cargo hold. It was like an instant replay of the previous scene, except that the entire team (less the two left in engineering) entered the compartment two at a time. There they found, to McKendrey’s surprise, the freighter’s entire crew lined up like Boot Camp recruits waiting for a Commandant’s inspection. Most were human, though there were a few other humanoid races represented: a Vulcan, two Brecon (almost always found in pairs off their home world), an Andorian and two from inside the Klingon Empire. At least there weren’t any ethnic Klingons in the bunch.
A woman of apparent Hispanic descent, a total knockout in this Marine’s opinion, took one step forward. Her arm flinched as if she started to salute. The Marine marched up to her, came to the position of attention, and saluted. “Ma’am, Sergeant McKendrey of the Federation Marine Corps reporting. My team and I are under orders to perform a health and safety inspection of your ship.”
She returned his salute. “I invited your Commander Isenberg to come aboard.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sure the Skipper’s looking forward to meeting you in person.” The Marine figured that was a safe bet. She was being overly cooperative, so it was also a fair bet that she was hiding something. He toggled his comm-unit and reported to his ship, “Magnum
, this is Colt One-Five,” he waited for the reply before continuing. “All secure, beginning inspection, request you send over the technical support team. I believe the lady was expecting you to come over personally, sir.” He listened to his ear-bug for half a minute then said, “Understood, sir, will do. Colt One-Five out.”
The forensics tech caught his eye. She was intently scanning the many crates filling three-quarters of the hold. He checked his own tricorder; its warning screen indicated the presence of nearly fifteen hundred metric tons of chemical explosives. He stepped over to read a label: ammunition, chemical propellant, small arms, 6.23 mm. Most of the crates were marked as such; some contained 11.5 mm handgun ammo, fragmentation grenades, and anti-personnel mines ... all low-tech by modern standards but still quite effective. There were even two crates of 41-millimeter armor-piercing rounds.
Before he could fully consider the implications of the find, his thoughts were interrupted when one of the Privates exclaimed, “Hey, El-tee!” The sergeant turned around to see what caused the outburst. His eyes flicked from his subordinate to the line of civilians and back. He hoped he hid his own surprise well.
“The lieutenant is on leave, DeWitt. Pay attention.”
“Oh, right, Sarge,” the team’s newest member replied sheepishly. McKendrey checked his desire to rip the kid’s head off. ‘L.T.?’ ‘Sarge?’ Just who did he think he was -- a Star Fleet engineer? No wonder some of the other Marines had taken to calling him ‘Dimwit,’ something he’d better put a stop to before Gunny Thorns finds out. “Wha'd we do with 'em?”, DeWitt asked. McKendrey didn't know if he was serious, or actually covering up his mistake.
Sergeant McKendrey turned to face the civilian crew, put his hands on his hips in an unconscious imitation of his old Drill Sergeant, and turned his head to slowly look from one end of the line to the other. “Cuff them,” he ordered. “And make sure you search them.”
“Is that necessary?”
“Yes, Ma’am. For their safety as much as ours.” She shrugged and held out her arms, wrists together.
“Not you, Ma’am. Just your crew.” That might not be the wisest decision from a purely tactical point of view, but McKendrey had learned to weigh political etiquette against tactical considerations. Nevertheless, he wasn’t going to take undue risks. “Watch her,” he ordered the one female Marine on the team, “Don’t let her out of your sight for any reason.”
“Aye aye, Sergeant,” she responded and smiled sweetly at the civilian. Although she was ‘just’ a female, she was also the tallest, most intimidating member of the entire platoon. If the lady had any ideas of causing trouble, she forgot them at the sight of that predatory smile.
Five more of the Magnum
’s personnel materialized near the door to the main cargo hold. One of them, a Marine corporal, stood only about four feet tall but looked to be about as wide at the shoulder. If he wore a beard, he’d be mistaken for a dwarf straight out of a fantasy legend. In actuality, Corporal Ackar was a Prellarian, a native of a high-gravity planet. The other four new arrivals were Police Force crewmen; two of them were Petty Officers Second Class, equivalent rank as a Marine Sergeant, but Legalman First Class Foster outranked him and could, technically, assume command of the mission. McKendrey wondered how this would play out. He didn’t know Foster very well and had never worked with him before, so he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You’re up early, Corporal.”
“Couldn’t sleep,” his voice rumbled like a tuba, “Figured you could use a hand.”
“Take over here. I want them all searched and cuffed. You two,” he pointed to Private DeWitt and Lance Corporal Porterfield, “Go up and secure the bridge.”
“Where do you need me, Sergeant?” asked the Legalman.
“Would you go to the bridge and check the ship’s records and manifest, please?”
“Sure thing.” He followed the two Marines out. That went well, McKendrey thought.
“Okay, you know the drill. Pair up and scan the rest of the ship,” he ordered the four Police personnel. Each pair had a techie to do the scanning and a Boatswain’s Mate from the maintenance department who would know where to look for hidden compartments. He turned back to the lady captain, “Ma’am, I can’t wait to see what’s in the upper cargo holds. Please escort me there.” He had a pretty good idea what he’d find there.
They left three marines and the corpsman behind to guard the crew and climbed a spiral staircase up to the port side hold. As McKendrey suspected, they found more field rations, more medical supplies, and more ammunition ... and weapons to fire the ammunition from. He opened a crate, retrieved an assault rifle and examined it with professional interest. He was impressed with the simplicity of the design that would fit the hands (or what passed for hands) of nearly any sentient being in known space.
The civilian took it from him and slid the action back. “Always make sure a slug-thrower is clear when you handle it,” she admonished him. “This weapon fires six point two-three millimeter rounds, propelled by either a chemical explosive or hyper-compressed gas. The slugs are usually copper, lead or depleted uranium, and I can get soft-stun, tracer and explosive rounds, too. Seeker rounds aren’t worth the price. But if you’re trying to take a ship or space station, you’d want to use frangible rounds.” McKendrey already noticed she didn’t have any, which told him these were being sent dirt-side. “A thirty-five round clip or a two hundred round drum goes in here. Or you can break the weapon open to fold this down and feed a belt in through this slot. This selector sets it to safe, single shot, four-round burst, slow-auto at a hundred and fifty rounds per minute, or full-auto at over nine hundred per minute.”
She hefted its three point eight kilogram mass to a firing position, with its butt firmly against her shoulder and her cheek rolled on the side of the stock. “Even with the iron sights, I can knock down a humanoid-size target at four hundred and fifty meters. The specs claim a maximum effective range of about two klicks, but in real world use, the killing range is only half a kay. Less for the average shooter. There are a variety of scopes available, including IR / UV and E-M scanner, but I only have a couple dozen ten-power optical scopes and a handful of light-enhancing sights.” She put the weapon back in its case.
“Impressive.” The sergeant ran some mental calculations: five weapons per case, stacked five cases high, in two rows of ten stacks each. Whoa. Five hundred rifles -- that’ll arm a pretty fair-sized army. Or a revolution. He found three crates of 11.5 mm automatic handguns, fifty per crate, and a dozen 20-mm bolt-action long-guns with variable-power sniper scopes. An expert marksman could reach out and touch someone three or four kilometers away with one of those. But the real treat was the pair of 41-mm anti-tank guns. Tripod-mounted and over two meters long, they looked like it’d take two men and a boy, literally, to carry them. The freighter captain proudly demonstrated those as well.
She really knew how to handle her weapons, and the NCO said as much. “Why, thank you, Sergeant. That’s high praise coming from a Marine.” Her tone was filled with humor, so he wasn’t sure whether she meant that sincerely, or sarcastically. “You are Marines, no? You’re not in the Police Force, right?” He nodded. “So, is the Corps taking over police duty ... pirates getting too rough for the real cops?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.
He didn’t answer.
It was a question he was tired of answering. Everyone knew that all Patrol Cutters belonged to the Federation Police Force, which, unlike the Merchant Fleet, Marine Corps and other such agencies, had yet to be absorbed into Star Fleet Command. Indeed, most people knew that it was very unlikely that Star Fleet would ever absorb the Police -- at least, not without a drastic shift in the political climate at the upper echelons of the Federation. However, few people realized the level of cooperation between Star Fleet and the Police, or that many Cutters have a Star Fleet liaison officer or two assigned. On the other hand, it was unusual to find Marines serving on a Police boat, and never a whole platoon before.
She persisted, “Perhaps Klingons are too tough for Marines, so you decided to try something easier.” That twinkle faded as she realized, from the look on McKendrey’s face, that was the wrong thing to say. “Then again, I can’t think of anything you guys won’t tackle. So, what is this ... purgatory? Don’t tell me you’ve been a bad little soldier and got sent to the screw-up squad.”
“No, Ma’am, this is a special duty assignment. We were hand-picked for it.” That wasn’t the whole story, of course. McKendrey didn’t know the whole story; all he knew is four months prior, his company was broken up into three detached platoons, each assigned to Patrol Cutters based along the Klingon border. No reason was given, and nobody asked for his opinion back then, of course; if they had, he would have told them it was the dumbest idea the Corp ever came up with -- probably another great idea dreamed up by some Major someplace bucking for Lieutenant Colonel. Today he’d admit, however grudgingly, the experience was well worth the hassles. If nothing else, his team got more combat experience then they could have in a year’s worth of sims.
“I see. And what about Thomas Isenberg -- he’s still in Star Fleet, no? Or did they kick him down to the minor leagues?” referring, of course, to the fact that nearly a third of the command officers in the Police Force transferred over from Star Fleet, usually straight out of Academy.
The Marine gave a little shrug, “I thought the Skipper’s always been a cop, Ma’am.”
An impish little smile crossed her lips “No, he wasn’t. I know that much for a fact.” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully, “So, what we have is a Police Cutter commanded by an ex-Star Fleet officer, with a company of Marines instead of a Police Tac-Team, looking for high-value Orion Syndicate targets. Let me guess: Special Ops. You’ve got a PRIME TEAM onboard, don’t you?”
McKendrey sighed. True, rumor had it Prime Central had its own secret little fleet (or not-so-little, depending on the rumor), including four or five Cutters, several tramp freighters like the one they were on now, and even a Light Cruiser or two. Or so rumor had it. Funny how everyone talking about said mythical ships was always ‘a friend of a friend of a friend’ of somebody that was served on one -- never a closer link than that. “No, Ma’am ... but even if we did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Oh, is it one of those ‘I can tell you, but then I’d have to kill you’ deals?” she smiled.
“Something like that. I’d rather not have to, though,” he returned her smile, “the paperwork is a royal pain. Shall we continue the inspection?” McKendrey gestured forward as he noticed some equipment that, on closer inspection, turned out to be a trio of ammunition reloading machines. Someone was planning for the long-term. But who? They crossed through the shuttle bay into the starboard cargo hold. Its contents were an exact match to that in the portside hold. He wondered where this arsenal was heading for. With any luck, Petty Officer Foster will have turned something up in the ship’s log. The sergeant led the two women back down to the forward cargo hold.
One pair of inspectors was back already; they reported that while they found nothing of interest in the starboard half of the ship, they did see the other team discussion something with Legalman Foster on the middle deck. However, the Corporal reported that one of the civilian crewmen had a dagger hidden on him, and the corpsman’s medical scans found traces of both zap and flash in his system.
Zap had been around for about twenty-five years; flash was the newest in a growing list of xeno-narcotics to hit the streets. Xeno-narcotics are a class of synthetic bio-chemicals that, unlike traditional drugs, affect most sentient races with similar, and often tragic, results. McKendrey wondered again for about the millionth time why an obvious genius would spend so much time and effort creating something that could do nothing but destroy lives.
The civilian captain’s reaction surprised and shocked the Marines: she was absolutely livid. They had to physically restrain her from carrying out her threat to throw the crewman out the air lock. She’d have to be an award-winning actress to fake that much passion. They barely had her under control -- McKendrey threatened to put her in cuffs -- when Foster returned with the other inspection team.
The techie’s scan picked up zap residue in the laundry facility, and she had a possible indicator coming from one of the crew quarters. When the sergeant asked what they found on a search, Foster told them they didn’t have enough probable cause to go into the compartment.
“Excuse me? If the tricorder shows contraband, what more probable cause did you need?”
“Not my call to make, Sergeant, it’s yours,” Foster explained. “If it was a clear-cut case, I would have gone in on my own authority. It wasn’t, so I’m bringing it to you as the team leader. The thing is, we couldn’t tell how old the residue was. Remember, officially we’re on a health and safety inspection, so we don’t have a search warrant to open locked compartments. We don’t need one, legally, if we have a reasonable suspicion that will hold up in court. In this case, we’d need to establish a timeframe to prove the drugs were put there recently. Either that, or we’d need some other corroborating information to suggest the presence of drugs on this ship.
“So, it’s your call, Sergeant, but I figured you’d want a good search so the evidence is admissible in court,” the Legalman continued. He’s not being condescending, McKendrey thought: he’s actually trying to keep me from screwing up the mission. “Another option is to ask Madre Chavez for permission to search her crew’s private quarters. Of course, we might not be able to prove which of the three crewmen that share that quarters owns the drugs.”
“Let me guess: the port side forward quarters, by the nav-deflector, right?”
“That one there,” the sergeant pointed with his thumb to a sandy-hair slip of a boy that looked like he belonged on a farm on some back-water world, “popped up on med-scan for zap and flash. His bunk?” Chavez nodded.
“That’s enough probable cause for a good no-warrant search,” Foster confirmed.
The team leader turned to the techie, “How much do you think is in there?”
“A hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty grams, Sergeant.”
“We’re looking for a couple hundred keys.”
She shook her head. “No way. That much zap would have lit up on the scans like a supernova as soon as we beamed over.”
Sergeant McKendrey considered this. “Does he have a record?” The Corporal shook his head no. The Marine looked at the Legalman; their eyes locked, and he wondered if the Petty Officer had a psi-rating. Perhaps it was just the depth of his own thoughts, but McKendrey felt like he could hear Foster’s voice in his head. He made up his mind.
“Who bunks with him?” he asked the civilian crew. He pointed to one of the two that moved. “Un-cuff that one. You three; go with him to his quarters. Find the zap; if there’s less than two hundred grams, jettison it out a trash shoot. Then pack his belongings,” he indicated to the suspect, “and bring it back here.”
“My stuff? What do you want that for?” asked the suspect.
“Well, it can stay here if you want, but you’re coming with us.”
“What? No! You can’t! Don’t do this to me,” the suspect pleaded, “Oh, please, I don’t want to go to jail!” He dropped to his knees, sobbing.
“Oh, knock it off! You’re not under arrest,” Petty Officer Foster replied in disgust, “We’re taking you in under protective custody. If we leave you here, she’ll probably kill you.” That wasn’t a small risk. “Of course, our chief medical officer will recommend a compulsory rehab treatment.” Thank heavens they found a way to wean zap addicts off it. Star Fleet Medical Command spent nearly a decade developing a therapy regiment that didn’t include a lifetime of controlled daily doses of the narcotic, with all the inherent risks of psychological damage. “Hope you don’t have any plans for the next four to six months.”
“Six months? But ... but ....”
“Shut up already! Save your tears for the judge.”
“Who bunks with this one here?” the sergeant pointed out another crewman. “Help them pack up his junk, too,” he ordered.
“Hey, you can’t waltz in here and start taking all my crew!” Chavez exclaimed. “What do you want him for?”
“You’ll have to ask the Skipper, Ma’am. All I was told is he’s a material witness for a case, but that usually means they haven’t figured out what charges to file yet.” Obviously, that didn’t satisfy the Madre, but she didn’t argue. She just folded her arms across her chest and glared daggers at him. McKendrey sighed and turned to the senior Petty Officer. “What did you make from the ship’s log?”
Foster handed him a data-pad. “Here’s their itinerary, which matches the nav-log thus far. If someone sliced into the nav-comp, they’d have to be a real artist to fake these logs. And the manifest is right here ... interesting cargo but nothing blatantly illegal. I took the liberty of transmitting all this over to the Magnum already.”
“Good,” the Marine said absently, not looking up from his reading, “that’ll save some time. Thanks.” The manifest appeared to match what he had seen with his own eyes. Hmmm, grenade launchers ... he missed those. And the body armor, too. Diapers? Baby food? What gives? He checked the nav-log for the past six months: the Santa Maria had a regular run between Shiloh at the edge of the Federation to the disputed planet Zursk between the Klingon Empire and the Kzinti Hegemony, with occasional trips to the Klingon colony on Farlin or the Kzinti world in the Lumien system. And frequent stops at Mad Jack’s Hole -- what a pit that place is! It’s nothing more than a safe-haven for thieves, smugglers and other assorted scum. He searched for the shipping contract entry listing where they were heading with their current cargo.
And the winner is ... Rio Verde. Well, hello! Named for its numerous river systems and lush swampy jungles, Rio Verde was an illegal Earth colony of approximately eight thousand people on the edge of Kzinti territory. The Hegemony fought two wars against the United Federation of Planets over perceived territorial expansion, not to mention the massacre at Allen’s Planet, and the presence of humans on Rio Verde was on the verge of setting off yet another confrontation regardless of the current treaty. So that’s what the pretty lady was trying to hide. He toggled his comm-unit on.
~~~ ~~~~ ~~~