Work in a shipboard science lab is mostly routine. Samples from med-deck, samples from all kind of tech departments, and once a week you run a few random samples of tomorrow's foodstuff through your analyzers, rechecking quality and scanning for contaminants. I never found anything outside the norm.
Container GI/1H2/X2000/S/17/JK4/TBG8-871346, labeled 'All-purpose Nutri-meal, 2 t' – and destined to supply the food processors of Mess MV37 with the resources to provide adequate nutrition for 5000 people, mainly troops, tomorrow – is not all it is supposed to be. Cellulose is considerably higher than the specs allow, but more importantly, there is a little over one percent of fural that shouldn't be there, at all. To find this substance is unexpected and its concentration fairly high, so I rerun the test, then triple-check the results.
Then I ask a colleague to rerun the samples for me, to make sure it's not an artifact of my equipment, while I look up fural in the database, trying to find a reasonable explanation how it might have ended up in the ship's provisions.
Accidental contamination, I soon realize, is pretty much out.
When Osin confirms my results, I compile them into an official report and hand it over to Lt Cdr. Zeist, the officer in charge of the lab. He skims over the report and signs it off, without any indication of concern, which does a lot to alleviate my own unease, but as I have never – in my admittedly not very long career – encountered such a situation and am somewhat unsure about the proper procedures, I ask him if he is to inform Provisions or if I ought to do that.
"Inform Provisions?" he asks back, one eyebrow raised, "The concentration is below toxic levels, there is no need for that."
I work very hard to keep my jaw from dropping. "Sir, the dose is almost a hundred times the acceptable intake."
"Which was established with rather generous safety factors, as you should know." The eyebrow has descended into a frown and his tone brooks no argument, when he adds, "That will be all, Lieutenant."
"Yes, sir." What else is there to say?
I return to my workstation and carry on with my job, but by the end of my shift there's still no changing the fact, that tomorrow five thousand men will ingest a harmful chemical and at a dose that isn't far off the level where observable effects start manifesting.
Five thousand are enough to risk breaking a few rules – written and unwritten – for, I decide. I could send a message, of course, but I do not have the clearance to give it priority, that's Zeist's job, after all, and time is a critical factor. So I swipe a datapad and download the report on it, before I leave the lab. I'm going to inform Provisions after all.
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Provisions is mainly gigantic droids, I find out, and not very smart ones, at that. After various detours, I'm at long last redirected to one of the few humans in charge of feeding almost three hundred thousand people every day.
The incongruently gaunt commander listens to my finds, gives a half-smile, and says, "Lieutenant, I guess you mean well, but you have no idea what kind of chaos would result if we didn't use exactly the container that stands next on the list. So, since you said no one is going to die from this stuff, I'm not going to change anything without Captain's orders, understood?"
I do understand, frustrating as it may be, so I thank him for his time and leave.
I slink back to the nearest turbolift, dejectedly, but once inside, I realize that the bridge is almost right above me, just a few dozen decks higher up. Captain's orders, huh?
I hesitate, I've seen the Captain exactly once, so far, during his welcome speech, when the crew complement, I was with, came aboard. Five thousand men suddenly seem not that much of a backing when approaching a man commanding more than fifty times that. But scuttlebutt says, he is a just and competent man…
At least, he ought to be informed, I decide, pressing the appropriate button before I can change my mind, what he does about it, is up to him, then.
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No one pays me attention, when I enter the bridge. Well, a lowly lieutenant with a datapad in hand looks very much the courier and some of those are probably expected to come and go at all times. That might work to my advantage, actually, as lieutenants aren't likely to show that much initiative, everyone will assume that someone of higher rank is behind my missive. I look around but can't make out the Captain, at first, and then the datapad is snatched rudely from my hand.
Without anyone standing within reach.
Fifteen steps ahead an ominous black figure is scanning through the datapad, finds it obviously not quite what he expected and turns to look at me.
Oh Angels, I'm dead!
"What is this?" a deep growl demands to know, and in the icy light-headedness of having nothing left to lose, I just forge ahead.
"The report on the contaminated provisions, s… milord."
"Contaminated provisions." Slow, deliberate syllables. The bridge crew gives a collective twitch that looks awfully like an aborted dive for cover.
Yep, I'm definitely dead, for bothering his lordship with such trivialities.
"At what scale?" The sharp growl is back.
Huh? "Uh, five thousand men at subacute levels, milord." Too surprised to still be standing, I scramble for an intelligent answer and don't realize the Dark Lord has started to move towards me until he is almost right in front of me.
Staring straight ahead into a complicated set of life support controls does bad things to my concentration, but with a deep breath – still alive, see? – I string a more complete sentence together. "That's the minimum, milord. The contaminant was detected during a routine test, which had a very limited sample size."
"You expect there to be more?" Something in that 'you' is demanding to hear my personal opinion, which is an odd thing to ask a mere messenger, and serves to instantaneously convert me to the faction that insists that his lordship can, in fact, read minds. I have to swallow before I can get any further words out.
"I don't know, yet, milord. But there is no way this could have been accidental, milord."
"Hm." The datapad is brusquely pushed back into my hands and the Dark Lord brushes past me in an impressive swirl of cloak. I scramble not to drop the pad and hurry after him.
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The turbolift is fast – has to be, in a ship this size – but his lordship still finds the time to ask a few very pointed questions concerning the effects of the fural I found in the Nutri-meal. He also seems to know exactly where the real heads of Provisions are situated.
Almost at the door he asks me, "Who else knows about these finds?"
"Commander Feron, from Provisions, I notified him first. And Lieutenant Commander Zeist, naturally, he signed off the report, milord."
"And then he sent you to report this, in person?" If I didn't know better, I might almost read some dark amusement into the tone of that last question.
Well, from a certain point of view… "Yes, milord."
Invisible fingers brush across my throat, then shove me into the wall beside me.
"Do not lie to me," the Dark Lord says very quietly.
Under the circumstances, I consider that damn good advice.
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His lordship has stalked into Provisions before I have picked myself off the floor. He is barking out orders that will mean no dinner for a quarter million people. No breakfast or lunch, either, possibly.
Good work, idiot, I admonish myself, his lordship won't have to kill me personally, it'll be far more amusing for him to just step back and watch the disgruntled mob tear me to pieces. With civilization being just three meals ahead of barbarism, and so on.
A black helmet turns towards me and I remember belatedly that there's a mindreader present, but the Dark Lord merely nods towards me and says, "The lieutenant will see to it that the tests are done in all alacrity."
"Yes, milord," I agree in unison with Cdr. Feron. His lordship abruptly wheels and disappears in another swirl of black fabric, leaving said commander to focus on me.
"You don't do small fry, do you, Lieutenant?" he says, after a moment of close scrutiny.
I open my mouth to protest and close it with a snap. It's not like he – or I – have the time to spare for explanations how his earlier reference to 'Captain's orders' ended up with the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Forces standing on his toes. Instead I try to get back to the problem at hand.
"Sir, how much Nutri-meal are we talking about, for the next three meals?"
"Forget dinner," he grins without humor, "preparation had already started, by now." Then the grin disappears and is replaced by a frown. "You're sure it's only the Nutri-meal, Lieutenant?"
"It's the main carbohydrate feed for the food processors, isn't it, sir? Fural is a cheap cheat for carbohydrates, it makes little sense elsewhere."
"So? Fine with me, it's your funeral, after all. You want the usual samples?"
Thankfully it gets technically after that, and within minutes I am free to run back to the lab, trying to get my overwhelmed brain to remember the officer in charge of the following shift and to compose a reasonable explanation as to why the lab is about to be absolutely swamped with top priority samples. I'm almost there, before I realize that 'Lord Vader's orders' is going to be all the reason I need.
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His lordship, however, has beaten me to the punch. When I enter the lab, I find it in utter turmoil. Grabbing the next best fellow science officer by the arm, it still takes some shaking to get Lt. Corel's attention and a bit more to get an explanation.
"Zeist's dead," he rambles, "Vader just…," a wavering hand indicates a sizable dent in the wall plating, with a maintenance droid working on it, before all that hard-won training kicks in and Corel makes a valiant effort to pull himself together.
"Lord Vader stormed in, had Zeist summoned back to the lab, demanded to know what he thought his job was, if a poison in the food didn't merit his attention, and when Zeist had no good explanation – and how could he have, really – he grabbed him by the throat and smashed him into the wall."
His spacer-pale face gets a bit greenish when he nods towards the wall again, a wall with the robustness of light armor plating – and I do not want to know, what the force necessary to put a kriffing dent in that, does to the human body used as a battering ram. Ugh.
But if I don't want to leave a matching dent in the opposite wall – and share my fate with the rest of the department, possibly – I have a job to do. I push through the milling mob until I find Lt. Cdr. Bansal, in charge of the current shift.
"Sir," I address the man who is currently staring at the top of his desk in dismay, "Provisions is sending over samples from all their Nutri-meal containers. Sir, you need to give them top priority…"
"Yes, yes," he snaps back in irritation, "his lordship already… wait a minute. Malan, what the hell are you doing here, you're in Zeist's shift…" Eyes widen, then narrow in icy fury. "You! You ratted out on Zeist!"
The lab falls deadly quiet.
"I didn't!" Note to self, lieutenants should not shout into a lieutenant commander's face. Not even when faced with unjust accusations on top of an already nightmarish day.
"Sir," I get the volume down, but the indignant hiss isn't much better, career-wise. "I felt it my duty to inform Provisions of a serious contamination in the food they were about to serve. Provisions sent me to the Captain, but before I got there, the Supreme Commander took an interest in my datapad."
Deep gulp of air, but the bridges are burning so merrily behind me by now, that attack is the only option. "When his lordship asked me, if the officer who had signed off the official report on it, had sent me, I said, 'yes'. He then forcefully suggested not to lie to him. I considered that damn good advice. Sir."
Bansal is leaning away from me, nonplussed by the fierce outbreak, but before he can gather his wits and blast me in return, a loading droid filled to capacity with samples trundles in and chaos dissolves into frenzied activity. I grab a sample and a scanner and jump right in, because anything is better than to stop and think, right now. Bansal is calling my entire shift back in, which leaves space at a premium but doubles the workforce.
Zeist's fate soon makes the round in urgent whispers, and suddenly lack of space isn't much of a problem around me. I try to ignore that.
"Is it true, Malan?" Lt. Eroi asks in an undertone, just when I think the social ice-age is complete. "You…"
"I what?" Eroi is a nice guy, polite to a fault and rarely the one to initiate a conversation, and I really admire his courage to talk to the 'traitor' directly instead of listening to the rumors, but I don't have much patience left for playing guessing games.
"You not only went over Zeist's head without telling him, you went straight to the top," Lt. Larnon brashly cuts in.
He's working next to me, usually, a loudmouth with all the inhibitions of a hungry rancor. "Now, Mal, I know you well enough to realize that you don't have the guts to literally climb over the dead bodies of your superiors to gain a promotion," he grins nastily, "so what the hell were you thinking?"
Oh well, my reputation is beyond salvage, anyway, I might just as well tell them the stupid truth. "Five thousand men were about to eat poison. I wasn't going to let that happen, on my watch, even if the dose was low."
Larnon chuckles incredulously, "You shot your career to hell for some mudsuckers who wouldn't even have noticed? They're just grunts…"
"Watch it, 'non," I snap back, "my brother is a mudsucker, too. An officer, mind you, but he still eats in the main mess, every other day…"
"As do I, occasionally. It does wonders for morale." Everyone turns towards the door at the unexpected interruption, then snaps to attention.
The hard-eyed man in the entrance may not be Navy, but he's still a couple of pay-grades above everyone else in the room. "Now, what is this nonsense about someone putting poison in the food for my men?"
Everyone turns to me.
Ah, hell, here we go again. "Sir, a routine test detected substantial, though subacute levels of fural in a Nutri-meal container assigned to Mess MV37." There, all the pertinent facts in one sentence.
"And what's that supposed to mean, Lieutenant?" The general has an air about him, as if he might go hand-to-hand with any of his troops and come out on top. If I hadn't had a close encounter with a Sithlord already, today, I would have thought him intimidating. My colleagues obviously do, the way they step back at his approach.
"Sir, it means someone thought he could turn a tidy profit by using a lot of cheap fillers instead of real food in the Nutri-meal he sold to General Supplies. Then he added a cheap feedstock chemical to cheat the standard tests checking for nutritional value." That's not quite what he was asking for, I see in the general's flinty eyes. But he waves me to continue.
"What does it do, this cheating chemical?" he demands to know.
"Sir, fural gives ten times as strong a signal in the standard carbohydrate test as any sugar does. When ingested, at the levels detected, it won't cause any acute symptoms, sir, but repeated intake damages the liver and compromises the immune system."
The general looks like he would like to damage some livers, too. Preferably by cutting them, piecemeal, from a score of living bodies. Good. I feel pretty much the same.
"Hm. See that it doesn't come to that. Carry on."
"Yes, sir," the whole lab choruses and turns back to work.
The general, however, does not simply walk away. He steps beside me, gives me a long, hard stare and snaps off, "What unit?"
Huh? My utter confusion must have shown, since the general adds a clarifying, "Your brother, Lieutenant."
"Uh, 43rd Walkers, sir. Colonel Stricoff's troop, sir." Where did that come from?
"'Rooster' Stricoff, huh?" The general looks pensive, for a moment, "Put up a rather impressive parade, a few months ago."
Uh oh. One of my most priced possessions aboard is a holo-vid my brother sent me a few months ago with the lapidary comment of 'I start left'. It shows two rows of AT-ATs marching forward with their usual ominous gravity, while two units of scout-walkers perform a crazy slalom race between and underneath the ambling giants, crossing their and each other's paths with barely a meter to spare.
I most sincerely hope that wasn't said parade. Mom would kill me if I manage to get my brother assigned to the Executor, too. I haven't dared yet to tell her I'm on that ship, and I'm supposed to be the sensible one. No that I would subscribe to that title, anymore.
Unaware – or so I hope – of my gloomy thoughts, the general finally retreats for good. I breathe a sigh in relief, before finding Lt. Cdr. Bansal standing next to me.
"If you intend to have His Majesty over for tea and chit-chat, next, Malan, I would appreciate a forewarning," he says with dry sarcasm.
"Not that I am aware of, sir," I reply with all the calm I can manage.