POLITICS BY OTHER MEANS – Act I
“In a civil war, you at least know who you are killing, and usually why.”
-- Jean Raspail, “The Camp of the Saints”
InSec, Erich cursed, great. They always seemed to appear at the worst possible moment. “Major, my orders from Earth Fleet Command are quite specific. I am authorized to inspect any ship suspected of smuggling illegal cargo in the Rios System.”
“Captain, those orders were signed by traitors to the Federation. I’m telling you that you are to release that freighter.”
That’s it, the captain thought, time to put this guy in his place. “Major, I am the senior officer here, and you have no authority in this system. Until I receive orders from Fleet Command to the contrary, I’m going to search that ship.”
The corvette cut off the comm leaving an eerie silence across the bridge. Gergenstein broke it, shouting as he turned from his console. “Sir, the corvette is targeting the freighter!”
"Schizen. Commander, order the fighters to move between the corvette and the freighter. Lt. Jerez, hit that corvette with a full-power active targeting sweep. Fry their passive sensors if you can." Captain Von Shrakenberg did not like InSec nosies, especially who refused to talk to him. "Lt. Gergenstein, prepare to fire a single particle-beam pulse across their bows, full power."
A chorus of curt acknowledgements echoed from his subordinates. "And I want a channel opened back up to that Corvette, ASAP." Damn it, the captain thought to himself, don't they know I have marines already on board that ship?
Again, Lieutenant Gergenstein interrupted. "She's firing!"
The twin medium chemlasers in the bow of the corvette cut deeply into the hull of the freighter. Atmosphere streamed out in a cloud of crystallizing moisture and gasses. Two brief spurts of flame quickly died, almost immediately snuffed out by the vacuum of space. Vaporized hull plating sent a shock wave through the entire superstructure, knocking crewmembers and marines to their knees as the deck writhed beneath them.
"Dammit, what are those vac-suckers doing now?" cursed Lt. Spyder, warning klaxons screaming down the corridor.
An announcement came over the intercom, barely intelligible above the din of sirens and popping structural joints. "Captain Treschi, you're needed on the bridge! We’re under attack from a second Federation vessel!"
On the bridge of the EFS Schaumburg, the crew was too shocked to react for a full two seconds; just long enough to see the pinwheeling forms of human beings sucked out of the rents in the freighter's hull. Some clearly in civvies, at least one of them wearing light power armor.
"GET ME THAT SHIP!" barked Captain Von Shrakenberg. "Fire at will!"
"Aye, Sir," answered Gergenstein. The heavy Grav Laser and twin heavy chemlasers in the bow of the light cruiser neatly sliced off the bow of the Corvette, destroying its main offensive armament. Seconds later, three Lance Torpedoes detonated close off the stern, utterly destroying its engines and knocking out main power.
"Launch all shuttles, pick up any survivors, retrieve any bodies. Commander Ingolfsson, I want communication with the boarding party and the corvette as soon as…"
"Captain!" The sensor officer cut in. "She's gonna…"
The corvette vanished in a flash of light as their fusion bottle failed.
"…blow," finished Lt. Jerez. "Madre de Dios…"
"Survivors?" inquired the Captain.
"Unlikely," answered the sensor officer. "Even if someone got to an escape pod or was in the severed bow section, they just took enough radiation from that blast to be instantly fatal".
"Too bad. I was looking forward to slapping them in the brig for killing civilians and friendly military personnel." The captain shook off his unhappy smirk. "Damage to the freighter?"
"She's not going anywhere," answered the weapons officer. "Two major hull breaches, but the atmosphere loss is slacking off rapidly. Looks like they got the airtight hatches closed in time. At least 5 confirmed bodies in the wreckage, one of them in a body armor, and its beacon is working. We should have him picked up momentarily. The others were not in skinsuits, they're gone."
"Incoming message from the freighter," interjected the exec.
"Put it on screen," ordered the captain.
"It's Lt. Spyder!" The Tech Infantry Marine officer was visibly annoyed on the screen.
"Sir, what the… what is going on out there?!" the Lieutenant demanded. "We got a good chunk of the starboard hull open to space!"
The Captain grimaced at the image. "Some verdamnung InSec Corvette showed up. The nosy bastard demanded we leave the freighter alone, refused to give any explanation, then refused to communicate at all. Finally, it fired on that freighter." His mouth became a single hard line for a moment. "And, since I don't take kindly to InSec snoops interfering in my carrying out my orders, let alone actually shooting at the people under my command, I explained my displeasure to them. Rather permanently, I'm afraid."
"Thanks for stopping them, sir. However, somehow I don't think InSec is gonna like that too much."
"InSec and me go way back. Those keyhole-peepers will just have to add it to my already copious file. It looks like one of your people was blown clear of the hull. We've sent a utility pod, we'll pick them up shortly."
"Thank you again."
"Don't mention it. But continue your search. I want to know exactly why that freighter mattered to InSec. While I wouldn't be surprised if they were just poking their noses in my business out of sheer habit, I'd like to give them some credit for being sneaky bastards."
"As soon as you have completed your search, I want you to leave both squads to keep watch on that ship and assist in their repairs. But I want you and the command crew of that ship to come over here for debriefing." The Captain's thin-lipped grimace became more of a snarl. "I want to know why over 50 people had to die on that corvette and the freighter. It had better be worth it."
Andrea Treschi sat in the captain’s office, relaxing in the plush seats, and considering how things couldn’t have gone worse if he had planned it. Running through the system was bad enough, but Rios hadn’t declared its loyalty to either side of the growing conflict. He had hoped that meant they would be safe. He was wrong.
However, things were far from lost. The merchandise had been taken care of, his immediate henchmen (not the worthless crew he employed for this mission) were all right, and the Fearless, apart from the big gash in its side, was still hyper-capable. Now, if could only talk his way out of this current situation, he might be able to complete the mission without too much difficulty.
The captain came in the room, red-faced, and mad as hell. It was obvious that the fleet officer wanted answers and it didn’t matter who he ripped them from. “M. Treschi, I think you’re an intelligent man. I think you’re smart enough to know that I hold your life in my hands. So, I want to know why InSec wanted your freighter so badly they were willing to destroy it.”
“I’m as much in the dark as you are, captain. I am a legitimate businessman trying…”
Erich cut him off. “What is a legitimate businessman doing with a stolen ship?”
“I bought that ship for the Proxima/Durendal Export Company in good faith. I’ve done lots of business with that firm before. I’ve never had this problem! Look,” Andrea pulled out some papers from his satchel, “I have all the papers. Registration of the ship, receipt of payment, regulation certificate… everything.” Treschi held the legal-looking documents up in front of Von Shrakenberg, hoping that they would convince him. They should; he paid enough for the forgeries.
The captain didn’t even glance at them. With one solid hit, he knocked the papers out of his hand, scattering them all over the floor. “I’m sick of playing games! Your ship authorization code matches that of a stolen ship. You’re travelling towards a war zone and some seriously powerful enemies are chasing you. Now, I want the truth, M. Treschi!”
Andrea shot back a look of concern and fumbled with his hands. He was playing the part of an innocent to the hilt. “I… I told you, captain. I’m just a businessman. I command a ship, just like you…”
Erich Von Shrakenberg went over to the desk and hit the comm button. “Commander Ingolffson, do we have an inventory of that freighter’s contents?”
Her bubbly voice broke through the chilled air. “Sir, the platoon’s search only picked up food and medical supplies. They’re making a second run-through, captain, but according to Lt. Spyder, they haven’t found anything.”
One could see the confusion on the captain’s face obliterating the anger. Andrea thought it was like watching a cosmic storm take place. Finally, the storm turned toward him and asked, “All right, M. Treschi, would you mind explaining where you were going with these supplies?”
The old lieutenant finally “gave up” the pretense and sighed. “Our destination was Kalintos Three.”
Erich’s eyebrows went up. “In the Frontier Worlds Territory?”
Indignantly, Andrea shot back, “You make them sound as if they’re aliens. They’re not. They are human beings, like you and me.”
“Still, why food and medical supplies? Surely they can buy that anywhere.”
“They can’t buy anything, captain. A frontier credit note isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. They’re too busy trying to stop the bugs!”
Von Shrakenberg didn’t seem to buy it. “So what… you’re sneaking through enemy lines to give this stuff away?”
“That’s what I was paid to do. It’s a simple delivery, nothing more, nothing less.”
“So how does InSec come in?”
“They’re making a mistake. They have been effectively blockading the Frontier Worlds in order to force them return to the Earth Federation. However, in doing so, they’re making them unable to fight the bugs. Do you know what will happen if the bugs break through their lines? How many Fed systems will fall before it’s too late?”
“That still doesn’t explain Internal Security getting involved. If it’s a simple blockade, then Earth Fleet enforces it. There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Andrea looked around the room for a second and sighed. “Myself, my crew, and my current employer… that’s Antonio Treschi of Olin Industries, Proxima/Durendal is one of their subsidaries… is well aware what’s happening. I know that InSec is behind this crime against humanity. And I know that Grand Council Member Michael Lucos is behind this. It’s a stupid political manuever and countless people will suffer for it."
“So you’re running the blockade to keep support the Frontier Worlds against the bugs? There’s something you’re not telling me. Like where the money is coming from.”
“Olin Industries was one of the Harrington daughter corporations. They make a lot of money through shipping and trade with the outer systems and the frontier worlds. If the bugs get through, they go out of business. We need them to stay alive.” Treschi sighed as he focused on the captain. “The fact that I know this makes me a target of InSec. They want to make me quietly disappear thanks to what I know. And now, since you know as well, you may also disappear."
Erich sat down on his desk, wondering how much to believe of what Andrea said to him. In the end, the comm signal answered it for him. “Captain?”
“Yes, exec, go ahead.”
“Spyder has completed his second sweep of the ship. They found nothing but the food and medical supplies.”
“Thank you, commander.” Von Shrakenberg said, turning the comm off. “I hate being wrong, M. Treschi, but I have no reason to doubt your story. Since we have destroyed an InSec ship, doubtless they’re going to come after me and my crew.” He stood up and towered over the seated trader. “In which case, one’s going to need all the friends one can get. We may need someone like you, from time to time. Would you be willing to help us?”
Andrea thought about it, but it didn’t take long before he nodded. “Very well. It seems only fair. You did save my life.”
“Please try and remember that. I’ll see to having your freighter repaired so you can be on your way.” Erich crossed back to the desk and hit the comm button. “Commander O’Reilly.”
In the bowels of the Ion Drive room, Xinjao hit the button. “Yes?”
“This is the captain. Assemble a repair crew to board the freighter. I want it operational as soon as possible.”
“Yes, sir.” He replied before the comm circuit was cut off. He turned around in his chair and looked over the drive room. “Chief Tran!”
The thin little Vietnamese man rushed over toward him. “Yes, sir?”
“Assemble a repair team with EVAC equipment. We’re going to make a housecall.”
Once they got off the shuttle, the place was a mess. The freighter’s deck had lights broken, wiring scattered on the floor, and a burning smell that wanted to choke the engineer’s throat. Turning around to face his repair team, Xinjao said, “All right, we have a job to do, so here’s how we’re going to do it. Chief?”
“Yes, sir?” Tran popped up.
“I want you to take your EVAC squad to the nearest airlock to the damage. We need to seal that hole before this crate can go anywhere. Then once you’ve accomplished that, repressurize that area so we can go in and repair the internal damage.”
“Yes, sir.” The chief looked at his suited team and barked, “All right, you heard the man. They ain’t paying us by the hour!”
The EVAC squad wandered off down the corridor. O’Reilly looked at the rest of them. “Okay, until they’re done repairing the hole, we’re going to make a sweep of this ship, checking for any other collateral damage. We’re not going to leave her beached because of some chicken soup nozzle unattached.” He brought his voice down as he continued. “While you’re doing that, keep your eyes open. The jarheads might not have found anything, but we’re engineers, and we know ships better than they ever could. Collins, I want you to head to the bridge, find a way to check their computers… tell ‘em you’re looking for energy spikes or something. Vasquez, go with him, see you can scan the ship for mass analysis. Get a schematic of their ship, see if something doesn’t quite fit. If there’s a hidden compartment, I want to know. Understood?”
The two engineers echoed, “Yes, sir.”
“All right, Miklusicak, take that fracture scanner and put in the chemical software. Check those medical supplies for something that ain’t supposed to be there.”
“Got it, boss.”
“The rest of you, spread out, search the ship, and report what you find. If you have any trouble, ask one of the armored guys to help you out… they’re not doing much.” A chuckle of laughter went around the group. “The Federation expects your best. Get to work.”
It didn’t take long to check the freighter. Apart from some items that were jostled in the chemlaser blast, the place was pretty well intact; half his team was busy just stuffing wiring back in the bulkheads. Chief Tran had made record time sealing the breach and he was able to move in the other group to finish the job. Meanwhile, the young lieutenant commander made the rounds of the ship himself, looking around for something that just didn’t feel right.
Miklusicak found him first. O’Reilly was making his way toward the diesel deck when the Polish man found his way toward him. “Sir?”
“Find anything, petty?”
“I ran my scanners over his medical supplies. If they’re medical supplies, they’re not Red Cross issue.”
“Their ‘pain-killers’ are some rather potent stuff. Now, I’m no medic, but phenol barbiturates are not standard load.”
“Good work, petty. You’ll get that second stripe soon enough.”
Just then, his comm beeped. ”O’Reilly.”
“Sir, this is Vasquez, you want to meet me in Cargo Bay 3?”
“On my way.”
Once he got there, the ensign was waiting for him. “Report.”
“Collins couldn’t find anything on the computers. They’re clean. They either sent a tapeworm through their system before we hit or they’re really good.”
“What about you?”
“Well, I was looking around on their schematics,” He pulled out his datapad, showing the freighter’s blueprints, “and everything looks normal. Then I do the mass analysis scan. There’s a slight variation in this cargo bay then what it should be in the ‘prints. It could have been just a correction made due to a mistake when they laid down its hull, but I don’t know. Anyway, it’s all I could find. A cleaner ship I’ve never seen.”
Xinjao took his datapad, looking at it, then comparing it to the room. “Doesn’t give us much to go on.”
O’Reilly started walking down the mammoth open space, filled with various crates, but not as filled as the other ones were. Comparing the blueprints to the ship, he pulled out his slide rule, and started checking.
The ensign noticed this and asked, “What’s that, sir?”
“My calculus program got eaten by a virus yesterday. I’m just doing some simple calculations.”
The engineer was doing anything but calculus, as the numbers flew across the slide rule, telling him he was walking in the right direction. Finally, he had a feeling that it had found whatever he was looking for and stopped. “Vasquez, come over here.”
The ensign rushed over as O’Reilly kneeled down closer to the deckplates. “What is it, sir?”
“Can you see this? The deckplates don’t quite match here.”
Vasquez squinted. “I don’t see anything.”
“It’s here, whatever it is.” Xinjao rubbed his foot along the side of the discrepancy until something clicked. He stepped on it again and a large part of the floor moved. Inside was an large, unlit hole, with a pressure lock on the other side. “What have we here?”
The lieutenant commander nodded. “An airlock that doesn’t appear on any of the specs or on the outside scan. Now why would you want an airlock that doesn’t hook up to the docking area?”
“If it’s not hooked up to the docking area, the only place it can unload is deep space.” Vasquez mumbled.
“Exactly. That’s why we haven’t found anything else, ensign. They dumped it.”
“But Collins said he couldn’t find anything in their computers. They’d have to keep a trace on whatever they dumped if they wanted to get it again.”
“Which makes these guys immensely clever. Once they’re caught, they dump the cargo. Able to depressurize the airlock, our sensors wouldn’t have picked up an atmosphere expulsion, and they could safely eliminate the evidence. Cute.” Unfortunately, Xinjao’s thoughts added, that also means that we couldn’t bust them. No evidence, no case.
“All right. I’ll bring this to the captain. Why don’t you go help the repair team out and we can get done with this sooner?”
Once back on board the Schaumburg, O’Reilly went back to his room to take another crack at that damn surveillance bug. “All right, buggie,” he said to himself, “let’s see what you’ve got.” Taking out his probe again (he always had a molecular probe), Xinjao found the transmitter switch and activated it. His nearby scanner picked up the transmission and was quickly finding the receiver. Finally the scanner beeped and the destination was discovered.
“Let’s see here.” The engineer gleamed with anticipation, like a neolithic hunter would have over the hunt. His hopes crashed when he saw the read-out. “Damn, just a computer file.” He was hoping for a single physical location that would be easy to trace. Electronic locations were easy to disguise. Bringing up the ship’s computer access screen, he intoned. “Bring up records in file Alpha-Tango-Zulu-Zulu Six.”
Soon enough, he was watching himself, pictured through the hologrammatic lens of the bug. It was eerie feeling looking at one’s self in real time. “Okay, computer, display any summaries derived from this record.”
The screen flashed and changed off into several screens, each showing him doing something different. Writing letters, reading, watching net broadcasts, working, watching porn… “Computer, delete summary five.” A man had to have his pride, after all. “Computer, display door access to quarters of O’Reilly, Xinjao, Lieutenant Commander.”
A list of time records popped up. The engineer quickly scanned them but he found nothing out of the ordinary. No one but him had opened his door. Great, dead end there. Maybe there was something else he could check.
Up on the bridge, he went over to the weapons station and his friend Gergenstein was there. “Hey, Will, got a second?”
“I’m on duty, sir.”
O’Reilly looked over at Commander Ingolfsson. The bubbly blonde was sitting in the captain’s seat, busy with a datapad. Turning back to his friend, he whispered, “Look, Will, it’ll take you a minute tops, and Jo’s busy.”
Lt. Gergenstein sighed. “What is it?”
Xinjao pulled out a tiny box and handed to him. “It’s a bug.”
Wilhelm’s eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t know you collected insects, Chin. Why don’t you go down to Phalanx Seven, I’ve heard they’ve got some lovely lice…”
“Not those kind of bugs, Will. Spy bugs.”
The lieutenant commander looked closely at his friend as he bended down for a closer look. There was… surprise, he thought, on his face as he realized what it was. “Where did you find this?”
“In my room.”
“In your room?!”
“Look, Will, is this just a standard electronic device or is there…”
“Is there what?”
“…some sort of ‘paranormal technology?’”
Gergenstein glared at him. He had been a mage once. A weak mage, that’s how he got out of the Tech Infantry, and transferred to Earth Fleet to complete his citizenship requirement. Many rankings resented him for it and treated him like crap, despite his excellent service record. That’s why he remained a lieutenant junior grade… and probably why they got along so well. “You mean ‘magic,’ right?” he finally answered.
“Yeah, but I don’t…”
Xinjao was cut off by an annoying flashing button on Wilhelm’s console. “Ma’am, I have a jumpgate activating.”
Johanna broke away from her datapad and barked, “Where?”
“Aspect GC 179 mark 308. It’s inbound from Ashdown!”
The shock on the bridge was complete. “Number of ships?”
“I read twenty, no… ma’am, it’s an entire fleet!”
Just then, the commander hit the GQ alarm.
Drifting through the vastness of space has a way of effecting your dreams. Sergeant Dimiye's body rested motionless in his quarters on board the EFMS Vena Cruz while his mind buzzed with images of recent events. He saw Pvt. Jimmy Kemper firing his weapon at the enemy like a man possessed, only to be cut down. He saw Benjamin cradling Kemper in his arms, like a loving father, in the midst of a firefight. Poor Benjamin; the kid had been walking around the decks for hours with the stare till he was confined to quarters. At least some of the men managed to pry him away from Kemper's body.
He saw his troop bounding up and down the golden hills of freedom called Yarobi, the sun shining upon them. They were like children, completely unconcerned with the black demon in the sky awaiting them. The demon turned into a second sun and was banished by an angel in the sky above, which beckoned to them.
He saw a familiar face; the Chaplain. He was right after all, he thought. And all this time I thought he was drunk. "The biggest calling card of aggression between nations," The face spoke, "is in it's shipping. The first thing noticed when hostilities arise is a decrease in trade. So, in order to make a surprise attack work, the very last thing you do is sever your trade ties. Even after a declaration of war. This also keeps the merchants on your side happy. Which is good cause you're going to rely on them heavily later on." Your advice came in handy, old man. Remind me to thank you the next time we meet.
The face transformed into another, that of one of his wounded, Pvt. Balamentai. The face looked down sadly to see that one of its legs was missing. It's OK, kid, the sergeant thought, you'll be back in action when we get to a place that'll grow you a new one.
The dream suddenly turned deeper, darker. An almost intolerably bright light filled his senses as it moved closer. Polaris, he thought.
"There is still great danger that awaits you, my son. Take care, and do not let the sins of the past interfere with what you must do."
What am I to do? He thought.
"What sins? Am I being punished? Am I being punished?! Am I being punished!"
He awoke with the words still on his lips. Was I talking out loud, he thought? Punished for what, and who was I talking to? As he readied himself for the morning ahead, all but one part of his night's dreaming faded away; Polaris.
He was walking along the upper deck of the ship towards the bridge when a voice cried out to him. "Sergeant Dimiye?"
"Yes sir?!" The sergeant said throwing a quick salute. It was the Consul.
The diplomat drew closer to him, his face softening, his body humble. "I want to thank you for…handling the situation as well as you did. I feel I owe you an apology, and my life."
He started to continue as Dimiye cut him off.
"Just doing my duty, sir." He said, with a tone of understanding that surprised the ambassador.
The old diplomat looked as if he were about to melt into the ship's bulkhead out of pure shame. Instead he gently extended his hand to the sergeant. The sergeant paused, shook his hand aquardly, then saluted.
The tired old diplomat gave him his leave and slowly walked to his new quarters.
Alistar watched him walk away. No one has ever shook my hand before, he thought. Maybe when I finally win my freedom, it will happen more often. He was quietly awed by the sheer sincerity of the moment. He shook those thoughts from his head and went to work.
The doors to the bridge opened.
"Permission to enter the bridge." The sergeant said.
"Permission granted." Captain Bantu said. He was a tall, lean man in his earlier forties, with a dark complexion and touches of gray at his temples that accentuated his handsome features. "That was one hell of a show you put on down there."
The sergeant wasn't used to flattery. "I wasn't expecting that troop carrier at the end." He said as more of a question.
"Well, you must have embarrassed some pretty influential fellas. That carrier was assigned to the siege of the consulate at Khmer, and they pulled it away at the last minute after the other company had to break off pursuit. We listened to their curses over the comm net." The captain smiled. "How's it feel to be a hero?"
Hero? We got lucky because they were cocky. If he were commanding those troops, he'd be interrogating the entire consulate staff right about now.
"What's are current status?" The sergeant replied.
The captain's opinion of him went up another notch. Good; a man who knows when to get down to business. Then the captain noticed the holes and bloodstains on his uniform.
"I'm fine, what's our current status?" The sergeant said, not giving him a chance to speak.
"The consul and his staff have been confined to quarters." The captain began. "Your wounded are in medical getting patched up. As for getting out of this system in one piece, I don't know. We passed Khmer's orbital defenses without much fuss and are heading to the jump point. They're going to be waiting for us there, and after what we just pulled, we'll be watched for at the trade routes."
The sergeant broke in, "Why are we headed to the jump point then?"
"We're not. They'll think we're headed that way, When we're about half way out I'll cut the engines and we'll float derelict. That will gives us good time to come up with a plan."
Smart, the sergeant thought. I wonder if this guy has ever had any fleet experience?
"I want to thank you for coming to our aid." The sergeant said. "I know you're part of the merchant fleet, but can you help use refit out suits?"
The captain went strait to his question. "Well, we can recharge your cells and refuel ya. As repairs go, we just don't have the facilities." It was about the answer the sergeant expected.
"About getting out of here," The sergeant asked, "Could we change our registration markers to avoid identification?"
The captain shook his head. "If there were more ships like ours, maybe. But there were only a few of us in port today and they all left right after I broadcast the morning dispatch you gave us over the secure channel."
The sergeant never thought about the other ships that might be at port. He was glad they all got out OK. If I didn't think about that, he thought, what else didn't I remember? He started to reevaluate the details of their situation.
"Well captain, I need to get back to my men."
"Understood. I'd like to have a meeting in a few hours with you and the ambassador."
"Good, I'll bring my squad leaders." He'll like that, sergeant thought. Any man with a pulse would like that.
The two commanders saluted and parted company.
The meeting was not as cordial as he’d hoped. Drifting toward the jump point, the captain spelled it out. “All right, the Vera Cruz’s sensors picked up a cruiser and a destroyer are holding station near the jumpgate to Pyong. Which means, we try and run the blockade, we get burned from stem to stern. Now the gate to Edo is wide-open and for good reason. There’s no way out of Edo System except through Bug-infested territory. I have a healthy reason to live, ladies and gentlemen, so I have no interest in dodging Bug ships. However, I bring it up as a last-minute option.”
The crowded cargo bay shifted a bit with the nervousness of that statement. No one went into Bug space unless they were well armed or suicidal. The Vera Cruz was neither. “Now, we can try and fool those ships with a distress beacon once we get close enough to the jumpgate. With any luck, we’ll drag both ships off station and they’ll close on us. Then we can bolt past them and hide in hyperspace till they go past us. Now if one of them stays behind, we won’t survive long enough to make it to the gate. In which case, we can try and knock out their marines when they come across, but I don’t see that happening.”
“Finally, we can turn around, and head for the Sinkiang gate. The only problem there is that it takes us further into Bloc space. Pyong is the quicker way out.”
All eyes turned toward the sergeant. He held up his hands and said, “I’m no space jockey. You know what you’re doing in this arena, not me.”
The captain stared back at him. “Look, I can take this crate through that gate, but I don’t want to be responsible for all these people. That’s your job.”
“Just a minute…”
“Gentlemen,” the consul interrupted, “there is another option.”
All eyes turned toward the diplomat. “Yes,” Dimiye replied.
“We have all these crates, don’t we?”
It was an insane plan, but it was the best one they had. Pack the people into some empty crates and put a trooper with them. With the chameleon circuits activated, that should shield them from any detection device that the Bloc Marines might throw at them. If they changed the SAC, pretend to be another ship, they might let them through the gate. Still, if they searched or scanned the ship, they’ll find nothing. Alastar huddled in one of the crates next to one of the staff and her child. Why anyone would want to bring their family into a danger area was beyond him.
The destroyer had come off station and was bearing down towards them. The captain had let them know through his comm link that they had ordered them to cut their engines and prepare to be boarded. Now to see if this insane plan actually worked.
He listened as he heard their marines come through the cargo bay, their suits making a clanging sound against the metal deckplates. A highly amplified voice burst through the squad commander’s speaker. “What ship did you say this was again?”
“The Salamander, sir.” The captain of the Vera Cruz replied. Dimiye had to laugh; his irony was good. The ship that could walk through fire… why not?
The steps came closer. “And what were you doing in the Khmer System?”
“Simple drop-off,” Corporal Tess replied. She posed as the ship’s first mate; her real job was to get the captain clear in case the shit hit the fan. “Our firm provides service throughout the Eastern Bloc. Once we hit Pyong, we’re heading back home. It’s been a long trip this time out.”
“I see.” The squad commander’s voice turned to someone. “Anything?”
“Nothing on the scanners, sir,” another amplified voice replied.
“All right,” the commander seemed disappointed. “Very well, Captain Bantu, you’re free to…”
“Sir! I detect an energy spike!”
Oh, shit, Dimiye thought, as he heard the charging of gauss rifles.
The bar in Cayborn Junction was just like the rest of Van Diemen 2; hot, sweaty, and crawling with filth. Justine Macoure walked in with Cianan and Rebecca flanking her. For once in her life, she actually wished Freak was here to back her up. There were smugglers, pirates, and every other sort of disgusting criminal in this one dark establishment. Why didn’t the Light Infantry raid this place instead of chasing after me?
It didn’t take long to find Chambers. He was one of those people who wanted to be found. Justine placed a hand on Becky’s massive shoulder to calm her down. Somehow the stressed muscles relaxed and she calmed down. This was Macoure’s area; she was going to handle it.
Shoving the man opposite Chambers out of his chair, she sat down. The grunt she’d knocked down looked like he was coming back, but one step by Rebecca’s massive frame, and he ran off into the crowd. “I suppose you know why I’m here.”
Chambers was one of those people you only thought you saw in net dramas. His hair was fashionably slicked back, he wore the finest clothes, expensive rings… and completely, totally ugly. “Let me guess,” his smooth voice responded, adding to the cacophony of his appearance, “you didn’t find the lace.”
“No, but we did find a platoon of Light Infantry waiting for us right where you said.”
“What a pity. What will you do now?”
Justine smiled. “You’re going to give me 100,000 credits for me to get fuel so I can leave the system.”
Chambers laughed loudly. “Oh really? Would you like me to throw in a supply of emeralds as well?”
“That would be nice, but I’ll take the cash.”
“And why would I do that?”
“Because me and my friends are going to break every bone in your body if you don’t.”
In a flash of movement, a large gun was suddenly in his hand. “That was a rather foolish statement. I don’t like threats.”
Macoure willed herself to stay calm as an old .50 caliber recoilless hand cannon was aimed at her. “I don’t make threats. I want a hundred thousand.”
“I think you should leave now… while I’m feeling generous.”
Her prehensile tail snaked out of her dress and found its way around Chambers’ legs. “Not until I get my money.”
“You really are a beautiful lady. Too bad, you’re just as stupid as you are good-looking.”
“Maybe not as stupid as you think.” Justine replied, before pulling his legs from underneath him. He slid under the table and she made her move. Releasing his legs, she lunged for the hand cannon, but Chambers’ grip was like a vise. Cianan had his plasma revolver out a heartbeat later, but he couldn’t get a target through Macoure. Becky was holding off the confused crowd as the two struggled for the weapon. Finally, Cianan made his shot. At the last minute, Chambers turned, and the girl took the full brunt of the plasma charge in her shoulder.
Justine screamed as she leaped off Chambers, clutching her wound, as the toughs around her closed in for the kill.
Hex wandered through the armory like it was Christmas. Knives, plasma revolvers, bombs… all of it was available to him, and he took as much as he knew could be concealed. Although the thought of leaving the center was painful, the chance to use all this stuff was more than he ever dreamed.
Doctor Xaktos was waiting for him at the end. “All ready?”
“Yep!” he squealed, making his way towards him.
“Very well. Follow me.”
The doctor took him through corridors of the Center he had never been through before. Something seemed… well, different, somehow. Far from the white-washed walls he had grown to love, these were drab, gray, utilitarian walls. These were designed to hold pressure, he knew from his engineering lessons; though why, Hex could not fathom.
Finally Xaktos led him to a airlock. Now this was confusing, he thought, adjusting his oversized trenchcoat around him. “Hex, this is where you start your first steps as a man. I wish you luck.”
Hex immediately rushed over and hugged him. The doctor was always uptight about displays of affection, but somehow he endured this one. In the middle of his embrace, something flashed in his mind.
A firefight. No, not quite; he was looking at it through a monitor. No, Hex thought, it wasn’t him. It was someone else. Whatever is going on, there were plasma bolts blasting all over, people were dying left and right.
Finally, a hand appeared to the side of the monitor, hovering over a red button. The fingers press it and the monitor changes. Explosions throw everything aside; boxes, people… everywhere is the sounds of terror. The screen soon covered everything with a lake of fire. Occasionally a person would run helpless across the camera, but would inevitably fall down, allowing the flames to consume them. The image eventually cut off into static.
Hex broke away abruptly as he looked up at the doctor. No, those couldn’t be his memories! He could hardly hear Xaktos as he opened the airlock. “On the other side of this is an shuttle. You can take it to the New Paris system. The hyperspace beacon is already locked in. You should reach there in a couple days. Good hunting.”
The boy was too confused to make sense of it all. Shuttle? The Center was onboard a ship? With robot-like movement, Hex went inside the airlock, passing quickly into the shuttle bay. The spacecraft was there, just like the doctor had said. He quickly got inside, activated the ship, and depressurized the bay before taking the craft into the orange-reddish blur of hyperspace. The computer found the beacon easily and followed it into the void.
His mind was filled with the confusing image. Finally, he went to the back of the shuttle, tabbed a sleep pill, and went unconscious. He needed the sleep.
The boy woke to the sound of the computer beeping. Still tired (but only slightly confused), he made his way toward the pilot’s seat. He quickly figured out what was happening. One scan of the console told him they were at the hyperspace beacon; how long had he been asleep? With practiced precision he activated the jumpgate and popped through into normal space…
…and right next to a giant metal object looming closer ahead. Hex veered the shuttle and ducked it underneath the mammoth structure. What the hell was that? As the craft headed toward a pre-set course, the boy turned the scanners around to the rear. The shuttle rushed on, but at this close range, he could easily detect the massive digital gate shrinking behind him. Why would someone put a hyperspace jumpgate behind a digital gate?
The naval patrols were massive. He had never seen this many Earth Fleet ships in one place except on history reels. Hex knew all their class names. They didn’t pay much attention to a commercial shuttle and he easily passed through the immense defenses. It would only be a few minutes before he reached the shuttle transfer station on the planet surface. Once he got there, though, he had a new world to explore.
END OF ACT I
Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved. Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you DO have a prehensile tail.