An electronic ‘ping’ in her nanoputer told Penny that she was coming up on the Jagganath.
Penny switched her main window from the navicomp’s screen to the visual sensors, putting the pride and joy of the Hindu Pantheon Fleet right in front of her.
Jagganath sat in high orbit over St. Aloysius like a turtle guarding its eggs. The flying fortress was the ops centre for the entire pacification effort, keeping key administrative and command personnel out of harm’s way while they directed ground troops, logistics operations and orbital support.
At her approach a pair of aerospace fighters broke off from their patrol route and switched to an intercept course.
The hailing alert sounded and an audio-only window appeared in the corner of Penny’s main screen. [Unidentified Vessel, you have strayed into official military space, please change your course or state your business in this area. Over.]
Penny sent the mental command to transmit her own hail.
[This is Ranger Penny Dreadful commandeering the civilian freight vessel Ravenwing. Requesting permission to dock with the Jagganath. I have instructions to check in with General Ram. Over.]
[Roger that Ravenwing. Please hold your position while we transfer you through to Jagganath Comms. Over.]
Penny reached out with her mental commands and began the deceleration process.
[All engines stopped. Awaiting further communications.]
The Jagganath‘s comms team did not keep her waiting. The HPG message she’d sent ahead assured as much. In the meantime the two aerospace fighters positioned themselves at the Ravenwing’s 5 and 7 o’clock.
A vidwindow appeared before her. On its screen Penny saw two men of subcontinental decent dressed in Marine Corps uniforms. The junior officer sat at the console the camera was pointed at, standing over him was a burly man with a thick, black moustache and gold General’s bars on his collar. Penny straightened up a little more.
The General scowled and began barking at her in a language she did not understand. After several volleys of noise he paused and looked down at the man at the console.
The junior officer cleared his throat. His voice was softer and carried little hint of an accent. [This is General Ram, Commander of the St. Aloysius task force. What business do you have in our theatre of operations Ranger?]
Penny failed to hide her annoyance. [I’d rather not have that conversation over an open channel. Protocol insists that I report in with the highest authority when entering an active combat zone and I am following those instructions. I restate my request to dock with your vessel and further request a pair of hands to supervise a dangerous prisoner aboard my ship.]
The junior officer relayed her request to the General, who growled a few more sentences and walked off camera.
[Permission to dock has been granted. The General will meet with you on the command deck and requests you be brief. A squad will be dispatched to escort you and your prisoner aboard ship. Please proceed to docking bay four and await further instructions. Jagganath out.]
The vidwindow disappeared and Penny brought the ship around.
Penny hesitated. Her hand hovering above the button to lower the cargo ramp.
“Keep your hands behind your back.” She told Wu. “They’re sending a squad of Marines to babysit us while we’re aboard and they seem a little jumpy. So don’t go making any sudden moves.”
Wu shrugged and crossed his arms behind him. “Did you tell them who I was?”
“Just that you’re a talented nanohacker. That’s all I wanted to say over the channel.”
Penny hit the button and the cargo ramp began to descend.
Three marines in recon armour stood at ease on either side of the ramp, their squad leader had put himself just in front of where the ramp came to rest. The leader had his helmet open and his weapon slung on the magnetic clamps on his back. Every other marine had their weapon in hand but lowered.
Around them the rest of the docking bay got along with its hustling and bustling. Judging from the contents docking bay 4 was the Jagganath‘s shuttle bay. Wu glanced around and saw that he was the only living soul not wearing a pressure suit. On the one hand he was impressed that the Aloysius resistance could keep even a vessel this high in orbit on a war-footing. On the other he quietly hoped they didn’t have any sneak attacks planned for today.
Penny popped her helmet and made her way down towards the marines.
The leader put a foot on the lip of the ramp and threw a salute. A pair of AR Corporal’s stripes hovered in the air beside his head. His English was crisp and clear, if strongly accented “Ranger Dreadful, My name is Corporal Sandeep Amrah. Welcome aboard the Jagganath.”
Penny shook the marine’s hand and looked him in the eye as she gave it a squeeze. He smirked and squeezed back. After a moment they both let go.
“Thank you. Marine” Penny said evenly.
LC Amrah indicated Wu with his chin. “This your prisoner?”
Penny turned to Wu. “That’s him. He’s been collared so if he causes any trouble I’ll just yank on his lead.”
LC Amrah nodded. “Anything else we need to know about?”
“I also have a civilian on board. Name of Cho Hae Lee, she’s our ship’s mechanic. If I could leave a Marine with the ship in case she needs to ask for anything that would be most appreciated. Beyond that she’s just like any other civilian.”
LC Amrah nodded. “Chandra, stay here and look after the Ranger’s ship. Everyone else form up.”
He turned back to Penny and Wu and smiled at them. “Let’s get you to the General’s office Ranger.”
The marines Amrah ordered to follow shouldered their rifles and stepped into line around them.
As they crossed the docking bay, LC Amrah flexed his hand and stretched his fingers.
“You’ve got a strong grip for a lady. You special-forces?”
Penny nodded to him. “All Rangers are ex-SF. It’s how we recruit.”
“I see.” He nodded. “That’s a good idea, you get to leave the service… without actually leaving the service.”
Penny smirked back at him. That sly tilt never left his lips. “Beats working for a living.”
The marines led them up the stairway. “They let you keep your augmentations up to date?”
“The Ranger mission statement is to police the periphery for any crimes, even those committed by Federal personnel. If we ever have to tangle with… let’s say a rogue Recon Marine, for arguments’ sake, we need to be up to par.”
Amrah turned to one of his troopers. “PFC Verma. Remind me to buy our guest a drink to stay on her good side.”