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Runaway: Duped

Posted on 09 Jun 2024 @ 7:56am by Fernanda Ruiz

Mission: M4 - Falling Out
Location: Deep in Romulan Space
Timeline: A Few Weeks Ago
4173 words - 8.3 OF Standard Post Measure

Last Time on Runaway:

Chapter I: Stowaway

Chapter II: Catching a Ride

.: [[Ruiz Home, Many Months Ago]] :.

The screaming drifted up the stairs and into the dark hallway, recoiling off of wall, floor, ceiling. It slid through the cracks around Fernanda’s door and woke her from her sleep. She attempted to roll over and block the sound with her pillow, but even unheard she knew the voices were there hovering over her bed. This idea alone swept the last bits of sleep from her eyes. 

She threw her pillow to the side and grabbed the stuffed fluffy pink cat with a Cheshire grin from her bed. She named it Buñuelo. Despite that she had just turned twelve and was trying to convince herself she didn’t need kiddy things anymore, Buñuelo was her constant companion. 

The yelling, which pitched from low to high, forced her from her room into hall. With one hand, she gripped her plaid pajama pants – the ones mama had made her for her birthday after they’d visited Scotland –while the other throttled the stuffed cat. Even as the sounds grew louder, it’s power to propel her faded and she came to a stop at the top of the stairs…  

“Blame me? Me? I did nothing, you’re the one who’s caused all this!” Papa screamed. “We wouldn’t be in this mess – ”

“No! No! No! Don’t. This has nothing to do with you and me, this has to do with you and her. She idolizes you, Carlos! Ahora la tratas como basura! What has changed? Not me! So what?”

Papa angrily hissed, but what he said was incoherent. Fernanda couldn’t make out the words from the top of the stairs, but she heard Mamá’s retort, “What does that have to do with anything? She’s your daughter?”

My daughter,” Papa sneered. “That’s rich coming from you!”

Mamá’s silence carried so much weight, Fernanda could feel it from where she stood. She could see her mom’s face, too, as if she were standing in the room with her parents. Mamá had the ‘I didn’t just hear come out of your mouth what I think I heard!’ look that would silence her daughter in an instance. It apparently worked on Papa, too, because he fell into a reproached silence. Then Mamá’s words began low and slow, picking up both pace and intensity as she spoke. “It was a stupid class project. ¡No significa nada! It’s not like it was a surprise to you! I was eight months pregnant when you met me! We’ve never hidden the fact that you’re not her biological father and she’s never cared! So why do you push her away now? Huh? I still haven’t heard you give me one good excuse!”

Carlos mumbled something Fernanda couldn’t hear. Mamá couldn’t either because she barked, “What was that?”

“You never told me who he is – ”

“And I still haven’t! That test didn’t either! Besides, it doesn’t matter!”

“It does!”

“Why?” she spat.

“You never told me what he is!” Carlos savagely raged, finally unable to contain himself. “What she is!”

“Oh, no, Carlos. Don’t you bring that humanist las tonterías in here!”

.: [[Aboard the SS Bishop, somewhere in warlord-controlled Romulan space]] :.

Sam Bruin shifted in the worn out seat on the Bridge, cradling his head in his hand. It was silent until Sam cursed at himself under his breath, making Marky, the bald, tattooed giant sitting in the navigator’s chair turn his head. The man listened for a moment, but when Sam didn’t say anything else, Marky went back to studying the gaseous giant they were orbiting. The magenta planet was young, newly formed (if 160 million years could be called ‘new’) and the fires of its youth were still burning.

Sam’s youthful fires had been expended long ago. His slight frame had shrunken in. His skin had become paper thin, his bones becoming his most defining feature. It was if his body had started mummifying before he’d even had the chance to die. He’d spent seven decades in space, ever since abandoning his old colony world as a witless teenager. In his youth, he tried his hand at piracy and mercenary work, thievery and policing, but had fifty-odd-years ago finally found his calling as a smuggler.

In smuggling he made his galactic reputation. Feds, Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans– hell, everybody! - knew who he was, which added more difficulty to an already difficult job. He loved it. The game of cat and mouse and pulling one over on those prissy captains and their fancy ships, made Sam smile. The most important trick, he’d found, was never sticking with one ship or one crew too long and taking legitimate jobs at every opportunity. They never knew what ship they’d find him on and he was able to sprinkle the smuggled goods throughout legit stuff, making it that much harder to pin anything to him, even though everyone knew what he was doing.

Which is how he found himself orbiting a moon somewhere in the middle of space formerly claimed by the Romulan Star Empire. It wasn’t a purely smuggling job, but it did require stealthily crossing light years without detection. Bonus: he got to charge a premium for the legit cargo and even more for the illegitimate stuff, not that the Romulans seemed to care about that stuff.

The seven other ships in the convoy had all been straight-laced, long haul cargo ships. That’d been okay by him. He figured that gave him a greater chance if anything happened. Cargo ship crews were often multi-generational, family affairs. They were wed to their ship as much to the people on it. Sam could care less what happened to his ship (and only marginally more what happened to whatever crew was working for him at the time), he’d drop the load and the ship, hop on the fast, long-range shuttlecraft he always had handy and get the hell out of there.

When he decided to run, it was usually because something pretty obvious was happening: a Starfleet cruiser suddenly changing course, a Klingon Bird-of-Prey decloaking nearby, or something long those lines. Sometimes, however, he had to trust his gut. At this point, it was telling him to run.

They’d been circling this no-name planet (any planet that Sam couldn’t remember the name of received this pejorative) for going on five days. The Romulans had stopped the convoy here and started pealing off individual cargo ships for what they said was the final run in. They said it was a route fraught with warlords’ ships. Every day, another ship left. Every day the Romulans said they’d made it successfully and there was nothing to worry about. To him it defeated the purpose of a convoy. Convoys were like schools of fish. Yeah, a predator might gobble up one, but the others would survive.

Over the last couple days, he’d started thinking and more ‘they saids’ started popping up. They said they were from the Republic. They said that these supplies were needed on some suffering planet he’d never heard of. They said to not communicate with the other ships, or else it might be picked up by warlords. And last, but not least, they said everyone would get paid at the end.

It was all too much: he should’ve seen it from the get go, but they’d all been promised quite a stack of latinum for this cruise, more than he’d ever made for one shipment before. The upfront was a pittance, of course (another clue ignored). When they stopped the convoy above this planet and started pealing ships off and taking them away, he should have known then, but it’d taken him five days to figure out why he’d been ill at ease for the last few weeks. His avarice had blinded him. Foolish old man!

“Hey, Marky,” Sam’s gravely voice barked at his first mate, “Check on the ol’ shuttlecraft, yeah? Make sure the systems all good.”

Marky had been with Sam for nearly a decade. That in itself was rare, but for some reason they got along. Maybe it was because they were of the same mind: neither would begrudge the other for leaving them behind. “We ain’t been paid yet.” Marky said, stating the obvious.

“Get going,” Sam flipped open a viewscreen that was anchored to the side of the captain’s chair and flipped to the correct starchart. “And get everyone else together. I’m going to find the nearest known Republic planet.”

“And when they complain about not getting paid?”

Sam’s eyes flicked up to stare at Marky. Greed was still driving the younger man. He’d learn. They’d all learn. It was better to be poor and alive, then to be poor and dead. “If they want to stay, I’ll give them the ship. I’m leaving.”

Marky finally nodded. Greed beat a quick rhythm in his chest; he silenced it. Sam’s instincts had kept him alive more than once.

.: [[Aboard the SS Barcelos Rooster]] :.

Patrice told the computer to zoom in on the shuttlecraft leaving Sam Bruin’s ship. “What are they do – ?” The shuttlecraft suddenly went into warp and turned into a pinprick of light. “Huh. Computer scan the Bishop for life signs.”

The computer aboard the Barcelos Rooster didn’t have a voice – just one of the many things that needed an upgrade – and replied only via text on the view screen next to the captain’s chair Patrice was sitting in. No life signs detected.

He titled the view on the mainscreen to look for the Romulan escort, a mid-century Bird of Prey class a few thousand kilometers away from the cargo ships. They hadn’t moved. Patrice sat back. None of this sat well with him. He sent a message to Allison, the captain of the Rooster, to come to the Bridge.

She arrived a few minutes later, cheeks smudged with grease. The EPS cables, deep in the belly of the ship, had required replacing – the fourth time in a year. Damn things should’ve lasted five years. They needed this job to pay up soon or else the ship would likely fall apart before they could even make it to a spacedock for upgrades and repairs.

She wiped her arm across her face, smearing the black grease down her neck. “What’s up?”

Patrice apprised her of the situation.

“He just abandoned ship? Anything wrong with the ship?”

“Not that our sensors can tell. Everything checks out.”

“What about El’tes?” Allison asked, referring to the captain of the other cargo ship still left above the planet. Her ship was on the other side of the gaseous giant and out of view.

“I thought about contacting her or the escort, but the communications blackout...”

“Get a hold of the Romulans. If something is wrong with Bruin’s ship, I’d rather us not be close to it. He’s a smuggler after all – God knows what he’s carrying. No. Wait.” Allison considered the situation again. Bruin was known to up and leave ships behind if it meant saving his own skin. “What’s the Romulan ship doing?”

Patrice checked again. “Nothin – no. They’ve changed position and are now heading toward Bruin’s ship.” He ran a life signs scan. “Now there are five Romulans aboard the cargo vessel. All on the Bridge.”

“No attempt to communicate with any of us to let us know what’s going on?”


Allison didn’t like this at all. “Bridge to Ry.”

“Ry here.”

“How long would it take you to prepare the cargo pods for manual jettison?” Patrice looked back at her quizzically and then understanding dawned on him. They’d had some issues with the computer once while trying to outrun a pirate – their’s wasn’t the high-end mainframe of Starfleet ships – and the cargo pods hadn’t ejected like they were supposed to. Getting them prepped for manual release took some time, but then all someone would have to do is drop a lever next to the main access hatch.

“Twenty minutes if I had the twins’ help.”

“Do it,” Allison ordered, before cutting the communication and starting a new line. “Bridge to Julia.”

“Julia here.”

“Ry and twins are working on something for me. I want you to corral everyone else in the crew mess until further notice.”


Allison cut the communication line again. “Start plotting a course to the nearest known Republic world. Once everyone is set, then we’ll try talking to the escort.”

“What about El’tes? She’s on the other side of the planet. Chances are slim her sensors caught Bruin taking off. If this goes bad, she could be surprised.”

“I know, but I don’t know what else we can do. The Romulan bird can turn us into a burning wreck if we twitch wrong. Let’s hope that since she’s on the other side, that’ll buy them some time.”

Fernanda worked the point of a utility knife under the edge of a gray scan tab stuck to bottom corner of one of the crates in Cargo Pod 5, then she started to pull up. At first, the little disc, no bigger than the end of her finger, refused to budge. The adhesive she’d used on the back of the tabs was originally designed to work in a vacuum and getting it to ease its grip took a fair bit of her strength. After a minute of working along the edges with the blade, it started to slowly come up until it detached with a sticky pop.

“I found another one!” Livvy called from deeper in the cargo pod. “How many did you put on our crates?”

Fernanda worked her way down the ladder, threw the used tab into a small baggy filled with a dozen or so of the devices and shrugged. “I dunno. I had, like, I dunno, two hundred? I put them on tons of crates. Most were going to other ships though.”

She tucked the knife into its sleeve and shoved that into the back pocket of her bright red overalls. Her own overalls, with her name stenciled on the left breast and ‘Barcelos Rooster crew’ on the right. When Captain Allison had given her these her second day on the ship, she’d nearly fainted with excitement. In that moment, she’d thought of her dad, but the thought was sobering. It wasn’t ‘Papa’ anymore: he’d told her to stop calling him that. Just ‘Carlos.’

Just ‘Carlos.’ For as long as she could remember, she’d played dress up in his coveralls. He’d taken her to the almost weekly since she was old enough to walk. He’d taught her about inner workings of the tugs that moved cargo from the port to waiting ships in orbit, the shuttlecraft that needed repair, and, when she got older, even took her to the spacedock in orbit to wander around the Goliath-sized cargo ships that needed work. They’d even planned on building a speed shuttle for the Race to the Edge. Carlos called it the modern equivalent of something called a ‘soapbox derby.’ She’d spent a year learning how to pilot and navigate to the outer rim of the Sol System.

Then came the day Papa became ‘Carlos.’

Livvy thankfully interrupted Fernanda’s thoughts about Carlos when she emerged from a canyon of crates, a scanner clutched in her hand. “Want to trade? I’m soooo bored.”

Along with all their other chores, Captain Allison had assigned the pair to scanning every crate in the cargo pods looking for all of Fernanda’s tabs. Since there was no way of knowing how many tabs had ended up on the Barcelos Rooster they had to scan every crate in the pods. That was hundreds and hundreds. It’d taken them nearly two weeks to get through scanning the entirety of the pods. Number five was their last one.

Livvy scooped some of the tabs out of the bag and scanned them, giggling like she did whenever she found one on the crate. When Fernanda made the tabs, she’d programmed most to give readings that were just ridiculous like three purple-skinned elephants, one billion polka-dots, and a dozen bottles of fireflies. The last tab Livvy scanned was programmed to report that the crate it had been attached to carried forty-eight jell-o molds. She looked at Fernanda quizzically, “What’s a ‘jell-o mold?’”

“I dunno. I learned about it in history class. It was one of the foods that people on Earth consumed in great quantities during the pre-war era.” Fernanda’s face lit up, “We could figure out how to make one!”

“Ew. No. Sounds d-i-s-gusting.”

“I know! We could feed it to Ry!”

Both succumbed to a wild, maniacal giggles. Only the sound of the hatch opening and Ry’s voice booming slowed their laughter to a trickle. “Oi, ya girls! Get to the mess! On the double!”

Livvy threw the remaining tabs in her hands back into the sack which Fernanda scooped up and closed, tucking them into the top pocket of her overalls.

It took nearly thirty minutes for Julia to gather the crew, and Ry and the twins to finish their work. Allison and Patrice, meanwhile, had spent the time plotting a course and keeping an eye on the Romulans. Allison, for her part, wanted to stop and curse her decisions that had brought them to this point. Of course the Romulans had lied to them. She should’ve figured that out the moment they started breaking up the convoy. It was small comfort that it took Bruin this long to figure it out.

Julia, her frizzy blond hair pulled back into a bun, moved through the hatch onto the bridge and plopped down into the engineer’s station, quickly checking over all the systems while she said, “Someone going to tell me what’s going on now?”

Allison told her.

“Do we need to move everyone to the escape shuttles?” Julia asked as if this were just another day. Space travel could be hazardous and the Rooster had been in some fine jams before. Granted, none quite so serious as this.

“Not yet,” Allison replied.

The escape shuttles weren’t at all like the big shuttle Bruin kept on his ship. They were tiny, smashing four adult occupants inside with small emergency replicators. There was no manual navigation: once launched, the onboard computer would hone in on the nearest habitable planet and make a beeline for it at warp 2. What made it impossible to put the crew in them, however, was the emergency subspace transmissions. It would automatically kick on when the shuttle hatches opened. If the Romulans were rogue, then that would alert them as sure as anything that the Rooster didn’t trust them anymore.

“Patrice,” Allison asked, “you have the navigation locked in for that Republic world?”

“Yes. It’s a week away if we can maintain maximum warp,” Patrice looked at his wife. She nodded: they could do that, if nothing went wrong like taking hits from a high-energy plasma weapons fired from the Bird-of-Prey.

“Good. Hail the Romulans. Let’s see if they have an explanation that holds up.”

Patrice hailed the Romulan ship. He hailed them again twenty seconds later and another ten seconds after that. Finally, on the fourth attempt a Romulan appeared on the main view screen at the front of the squashed Bridge. Allison opened her mouth to ask after Bruin, but the Romulan coldly cut her off, “Stay off communications for your own safety.” Then the screen went back to showing the star field and the planet below.

“Now what?” Julia asked.

“Hail El’tes,” Allison ordered.

The Ramatatian woman accepted the hail on the first attempt, she looked as stressed as Allison felt, her golden brown pulled back into a bun and her green eyes wide as if trying to drink in all the visual information she could. “What is going on? We picked up a warp signature of a small shuttlecraft leaving the system, but the Romulans won’t respond to our hails and – ”

Allison held up her hand to try and silence the other captain and explain everything that had transpired, but suddenly the screen went black. Patrice cursed, “The Romulans are jamming us!” He cursed again, “The Romulan Bird-of-Prey is coming around, bearing 95-mark-127! It’s charging its weapons!”

That answers the question whether they’re friendly or not. For a moment, she felt like the universe’s biggest dupe, but just as quickly she switched that thought off. There would be time for self-recrimination later. “Shields! Bridge to Ry, dump the cargo pods! Get the twins and the girls children to the escape craft! Crew – prepare to repel boarding parties!”

The ship shook with the first burst from the Romulan ship’s weapons. Cargo ships had few options in the way of weapons, mostly enough to scare off tiny pirates. Most of its capabilities were in its shielding. It could hold out for a while when working optimally, but it was one of the key areas of the Rooster that needed updating. Allison didn’t know how long they could hold out. “Patrice, once the pods are detached, get us out of here!”

The seconds ticked by like hours as the ship shook from another hit. Patrice called out the changing bearings of the Romulan ship as it circled them. Julia shifted the shield harmonics, so the strongest section was always facing the Romulans. “Ry!”

“Done! Kiddos to the escape craft now!”

Patrice ordered the ship into maximum warp and prayed the Romulans wouldn’t follow them and be happy with scooping up the cargo pods they were leaving behind.

His prayers went unanswered.

“They’re following,” he informed Allison and Julia. The Romulans couldn’t fire at them while they were in warp, but they could run them down. There were a few ways to pop another ship’s warp bubble.

“How long?”

“They’re much faster,” Julia responded while the computer ran the numbers, “Forty minutes.”

Allison leaned back, letting her head fall back so she could stare at the ceiling. They had limited options if the Romulans didn’t veer off. Why would they chase them and not Bruin? She remembered seeing a large shuttlecraft attached to the underbelly of the Bishop when they all gathered into their convoy after leaving Federation space. Maybe that was faster than the Bird-of-Prey? Probably. But why chase the Rooster if all the goods were still floating around the planet in orbit?

“Hostages,” Julia said suddenly. Both Allison and Patrice looked at her. In the silence, they’d all been asking the same question. Julia seemed to have gotten to an answer first. “They’re not Republic, right? I read a report that some Romulan warlords have started pirating Federation ships crossing the Neutral Zone, but not for cargo. It’s for the people.”

“And? We’re all independent,” Patrice said, “Who’s going to pay? The Federation won’t. They warned us against this when we submitted our flight plan, specifically telling us they won’t extend any aid.”

“The Federation won’t. Families, on the other hand just might,” Allison replied.

“Our families are aboard the ship,” Patrice said.

“Not all of them. We’ve ten hired crew on the ship. They all have families who might just be motivated to do a deal. Okay. Let’s go with the assumption they want to take us hostage. They won’t destroy the Rooster. What options does that give us?”

“I could redirect all the power that we’re using on maintaining shields to maintaining our warp bubble,” Julia said.

Allison nodded. “Do it. That might buy us some time.” She stood up from her chair and started for the hatch to the rest of the ship. “I’m going to go check in on Livvy and Fernanda, and let the rest of the crew know what’s going on.”


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