"Listen, Ivan," said Beringar, "We’ve got a mutual problem, here."
"Why should we trust you?" asked Ivan.
Beringar gritted his teeth. "A better question would be ‘Why should I trust you!’" He took a deep breath and sat firmly on his anger. "We both want to leave the solar system. And we need to get under acceleration ASAP, in the hopes that our attackers will break off and leave."
"They want the ship, Beringar. Do you really think Ori’s going to let us go?"
"They’ve got the President back. At least, I think they’ve got him. So at least the Space Marines will leave. Oleg Ori may well be a problem. He’s not rational." Beringar ignored the dry look a few of his refugees sent his way. Mycroft Perris, John Sharpe and Ann Cocoa were working on pulling up the navigation programs on an AI substation. The others milled uncertainly. Ms Stick had posted guards at either end of the corridor, but without weapons there was little they could do, if someone came knocking.
"Ivan, you’ve got the engines, we’ve got the AI; we can fly this bird. Let’s get rid of all the invaders we can, then let’s talk about sharing this ship. I’m a lot shorter on people than I had planned – and you’ve lost a lot of your people. We need each other."
The passive receiver/shielded comm picked up the multitude of conversations on multiple channels. Oleg had changed the encryption on his security channels, but she was completely familiar with the system and had worked it out quickly. The Marine channels had taken more time. She was concentrating now on the Marines’ command channel. An Advanced Combat Vehicle? Why on Earth did they bring that? Unfortunately, she could visualize exactly how much damage it could do. It doesn’t matter, she thought. MOST of my clients screw up after I’m gone. It’s nothing new. If they were competent, they wouldn’t need to hire me in the first place.
She tapped into the Chamberlain’s onboard security system as she continued to listen. Now Oleg was arguing with the CI Major about how many marines he could borrow. OOO Security has never been trained for something like this. At least the Marines won’t kill anyone they don’t have to. She watched Oleg float out into the docking bay; through the marine comm net she could hear him haranguing the Major. An ACV. Christ. She booted the control panel before her. It was not as well shielded as the comm. There was a chance they would detect the electronic emissions. It’s nothing to do with me. Simon is safe with the Marines. As safe as an ichimp could be in this situation. And no safer on Earth. Even if the Chamberlain got away, Simon was still property. He’ll be a great scapegoat. Then they’ll clone him and have their slaves back. Dammit, Ivan, why didn’t you get underway faster? And Damn Beringar for stunning me at exactly the wrong time. With a frown she started tapping commands into the control computer, bringing up the programs she had used to such good effect three weeks ago.
On another channel, she could hear Beringar and Ivan arguing. Not now, boys! Settle your differences later. We need to hang together for just a short while yet.
Beringar winced at the pain as he nipped a fingernail. He looked at his hands in some astonishment. When did I chew them all off? The navigation team was hunched over three consoles, trying to integrate all the functions of a spaceship’s piloting controls into two consoles, so’s to still be able to navigate on the third one.
Simon watched and listened to the reports coming in from the Marines with an odd detached numbness. Shock, I suppose. One of the comm channels was eavesdropping on a conversation between Beringar and the ichimps in engineering. He listened, but failed to recognize any of the voices. He knew so very few of ‘his own kind’. A few friends like Jane, from the ichimp school he’d attended for two years before leaving for University. Ivan, who had mentored him during that rough period when he feared he was trapped in slavery.
"There’s a shuttle separating from the Chamberlain, Sir," called one of the Marines. Simon’s attention was riveted by the comm.
"Stop arguing, Ivan." Those firm commanding tones were May Huang’s. "The Marines have an Advanced Combat Vehicle with them. It’s not designed for fancy maneuvers in space, but if you’re sitting still it’s going to come calling. Its main laser cannon can blast a hole through the hull with out half trying. If we’re underway, it can’t keep up. I’ll see what I can do to stop it, but get those engines lit now!"
The Sergeant’s attention was shifting from comm to scan, and she was murmuring on the headset that kept her in contact with the marine commander as well.
Simon shifted to a comp screen and searched for a view of the exterior. Kirby joined him and quickly patched into the President’s shuttle’s exterior camm, and then the Marine’s command voice channel. The awkward looking Mars Express was just to the right of center of the strip of docking assemblies, its large cargo module bulging from the framework connecting the front cabin to the unpressurized fuel and engine components. The ACV he instinctively recognized, the blocky nonreflective black shape on the top of the cabin section was alien to the pitted white of the old cargo hauler. The view shifted suddenly and he spotted the moving shuttle; it had the logo of the French National News Service on its side. Space Force One continued to increase its distance, but the news shuttle wasn’t after them, it was moving in on the Mars Express and the ACV.
"Blow it now!" snapped an officer’s voice, a superfluous order; even as he spoke an eye-searing fan of light flashed, and the FNNS shuttle was spinning away in two neat pieces.
Simon stood frozen in shock for a long moment, then a hand touched his shoulder. "I’m sorry, Dr. Monkenstein, I understand she was your foster mother?" It was Kirby.
He relaxed his muscles consciously. What could he say to that? Look out for yourself, and get out of this mess anyway you can,’ she had said. And, ‘Don’t worry about me. Feeling like a traitor, he forced himself to say, "I expect she still is. Didn’t she fly all of those press shuttles by remote when she drove off Ori?" He waved down the line of airlocks toward the press shuttles that remained docked with the Chamberlain, "she’s still got ammunition."
"Crap!" Kirby turned to the Sergeant, but she’d heard as well and was talking rapidly into the comm. The few marines left in the docking bay turned to the still occupied slots.
The cargo module hung out from the structural framework like a sagging beer belly. The small airlock was unsecured, designed for emergency use. She swung through quickly, ready to fight, knowing that her entrance would have set off alarms in the cabin. She shot across the mostly empty space and through an open hatch. A quick scan found no one, and she quickly changed directions. The Mars Express’s security appeared to consist of rudimentary electronics on the main airlock and a bar to fit through the restraining lugs of the outer airlock hatch. She slipped the bar into place, reversed back out with economical movements. The overhead hatch that connected to the ACV was open, but the mated hatch of the ACV was secured. A quick check showed the pilots cubby hole unmanned. She drifted back toward the overhead hatch, letting the world catch up to her a bit while she pondered how to get into one of the best armored combat vehicles ever designed.
Oleg Ori froze for a moment as he heard Major Woods ordering the gunners on the ACV to fire. Adele! Memories spun through his head as he heard the confirmation of the shuttles destruction. A brief moment of vertigo seized him for the first time since leaving OOO Station three weeks ago. Of course he wanted her dead! Of course! He was glad! She was the Enemy. Brilliant, but the Enemy.
"Shit!" snapped the Sergeant, "Denver, Williams, keep your heads up! That was probably an unmanned decoy, and there are four more shuttles that could have been rigged for remote flight."
Oleg sagged, not in relief. Not. That bitch is not going to get away with this. But somehow, the split second of the ACV’s fire had burned out the hatred that had carried him this far. I have known her for two decades. Loved her. Damn it.
As the major turned toward the Mars Express, Oleg shook off his illogical emotions and headed for his own shuttle. Now the only question was; could they take engineering without damaging the fusion chambers?
He collected his people, all but those who had been stunned; they could come back and pick them up later. Razor had, of course, remained on station during the attack, and quickly separated from the Chamberlain.
"Sergeant Freeman, take the ACV out and assist Ori in getting into the engineering section." Major Woods scanned the troops around him, damn he needed more people, he should have kept Tsau instead of sending him with the President. No, rescuing the President was-is-our first priority. I’ll just have to do this myself.
"Wolfe, O’Malley, Eddings, your teams come with me. Adamson, you’re with Sgt. Freeman. Corporal Conde, your squad will remain on duty here in the dock, Keep in touch with Tsau for what might be coming from outside and keep our line of retreat clear. Kirby, stay here. And you," he added to the strange ichimp, who just nodded and remained still.
With O’Malley’s team at point, he shoved off and down the corridor again, turning and heading for the control room. The corridors were empty of either people or ichimps. He wasn’t sure he’d fit through the hole in the control room door, and sent Wolfe’s team in first. The damaged door refused to budge, so he had to be satisfied with Herring’s assessment of the controls as totally fried. "Keep your team here, Wolfe, dig into the guts of the equipment and see if there’s anyway to get control of the ship, even if it’s just to shut it down completely."
He frowned around the corridor. One of the three tram runs was right here. "Edding’s, your team stays here." He jabbed a finger at the tram door, "I don’t want any surprises coming from there."
"Yes, sir." She looked disappointed, but her team was one short with Williams on the ACV.
Chuck waved O’Malley onward, bringing up the rear. He switched back to Freeman’s frequency to check on their progress when the door next to him snapped open. What should have been an empty storeroom was full of ichimps. He felt the sudden drop in temperature as his metabolism revved, and he reached through the still air toward the first ichimp, who was moving just as fast and who suddenly had a laser rifle shoved into his armpit at the most vulnerable point of armor. And as he met the chimps eyes recognition froze him for a critical second and the chimp’s other hand had a firm grip on him. He wasn’t going to get away from the laser.
"I see we have a lot in common, Major."
His own voice sounded surprisingly calm, "I always wondered if all of you had really died." No doubt in his mind who and what this was.
"I’m the only survivor. Listen to me. You have the President back, but you can’t have this ship. I am taking the ichimps out of slavery, and so far away they can never be recaptured." He leaned into him, and Chuck was aware, as he never had been before, that his opponent was just as fast and probably even stronger than he was. "Let us go, Major, or be a slave owner. Your choice."
Chuck was peripherally aware of the marines soft approach and ordered them to stay put. He cued up his comm, belatedly remembering that he’d just switched to Freeman’s frequency.
"God dammit, Denver! Why’d you bar the hatch?" demanded Sergeant Freeman, faintly over the comm.
"What," the gunner yelped, "I didn’t! Alan, you locked it, you go unlock it!"
"I did not," protested Williams.
Woods, wiggling his jaw to switch to Tsau’s frequency, heard the background sounds of an unsealing pressurized hatch. He wasn’t sure what that thump was, they were the least experienced in zero g, probably pushed too hard and . . .
He heard Denver’s voice again. "Did you unlock it? OH, SHIT!" Sssnap. Silence. A stunner. That had been a stunner.
"Denver! Williams! Report." Freeman voice snapped. Woods did not like the rustling sounds that followed. He could, unfortunately, picture an unconscious Denver being shoved out an ACV hatch.
He changed channels, abruptly, "Tsau, I think you’d better duck around the other side of the Chamberlain. I’m afraid the ACV may have just been captured."
"That’s right," said a cheerful female voice, over the marine net, "But don’t worry, I won’t shoot anyone that’s moving away from the Chamberlain. And I won’t put a hole in the roof of the docking bay unless you decide to stay here. Oleg, darling, you are in a very vulnerable position, please move away. Now."
Chuck had a frighteningly close view of the superchimp’s grin of triumph. "May, can you hear me?" he spoke slowly into Chuck’s pickup.
"Yep. What’s up?"
"I have the top marine, what say we negotiate a cease fire and send these guys home?"
"Excellent idea. Unfortunately I think we’d better keep Beringar. The control rooms smoked and Beringar’s got the AI."
"Damn!" the grip on his arm tightened in irritation. "Well, two problems at a time. Let’s ditch the marines and OOO for starters." He met Chuck’s eyes again, "What do you say, Major?"
He made himself speak slowly, "Tsau? Have you raised SDHQ?"
"Yes, sir." Tsau said, "they’ve been notified that we have the President."
"Request orders; do we leave with the President now, or continue to attempt to capture the ship. Inform them that May Huang has control of the ACV, and has offered a cease fire for our withdrawal."
He was sweating a river under his body armor; with the laser still in his armpit he couldn’t persuade his body to slow down.
After an objective age, Tsau came back on, "Colonel Updike orders you to accept the ceasefire and get the President back to Earth immediately. She says you should stay aboard with whatever force is necessary to ensure that they don’t fire upon him as he leaves. She says that if you need to stay on past Venus, and their projected trajectory of the Chamberlain’s course is correct, you can stay aboard until the far side of the Sun and then leave for Earth and they’ll arrange refueling. She wants to speak to you personally." Worry was leaking out around his professionalism, no doubt one of the other troops had been talking on the side to him.
"As soon as I can." Woods told him, then met the Superchimp’s eyes. "It looks like you get the ship. So how shall we handle this? May I recommend that I send my people back to the control room, and the dock? I’ll have them load all of Ori’s people and most of themselves back onto ships and they’ll leave. I’ll stay with a few troops until the President is out of the ACV’s range, then leave either immediately, or on the other side of the Sun."
The grip on his arm remained constant, but the superchimp nodded.
On the OOO shuttle, everyone froze. Intellectually, they had known that the Adele Stuben they’d taken orders from, that had been Ori’s right hand assistant, had become the enemy. Now, hearing that familiar cheerful voice threatening them, the knowledge solidified into reality. As one, all eyes turned to Ori. And were shocked.
He was grinning, then laughing out loud. And seeing the indignant looks on the faces of his people, he nearly howled. He got himself quickly in hand.
Still snickering, he ordered Razor to stand off. Wiping the pooling tears from his eyes, he explained, "Without the ACV we can only get in through the tram entrance. We could never get in, in sufficient numbers to take it." He moved over to the comm, "Major Woods, would you please round up my stunned personnel? Miss Huang? May we take the four shuttles remaining?"
"The one at dock twenty two suffered a slight accident, the other three should be provisioned and ready to go. If you lack pilots, I can maneuver them into an Earth return loop of Venus. You can rendezvous with pilots as you approach Earth."
"No, thank you," Ori drawled, "We’d rather you didn’t have anything more to do with the controls.
"Major, my copilot was stunned," said Ori. "You’ll find him floating about in the docking bay. And several others have some training . . . Oh hell, we’d better start counting heads, I’m not leaving any of my people behind."
"Ditto," said the major. Oleg could hear him talking off mike. He turned away from the comm and was confronted with the indignant stares of his crew.
"Don’t you see it?" he asked, "Beringar the pure humanist that hates ichimps has maybe a hundred and fifty people, how many of them are women? Or should I say, how few? And he’s stuck on a ship with thousands of mutant chimps that think they’re self sufficient, even though they don’t reproduce well. And they’re going off to colonize the stars? In a ship that was designed for a 5 year voyage? That we’ve just damaged? God, I hope that Vorp thing is alive. That would make it perfect." They still stared at him. "Well," he growled defensively, "I think it’s funny."
SpiderJohnny kicked back in front of his control panel and savored the sounds of chaos coming from the speakers. It was the biggest fuckup he’d ever had the privilege of witnessing. He stroked Norman’s head absentmindedly. The Marines and Security people were collecting their fallen fellows. The only fatalities from the scrum were ichimps shot by Ori’s laser wielding goons, plus two friendly fire casualties and a few of Beringar’s wacko’s, killed by a chimp. The CI Major had ordered the Marines to leave the ichimps alone, they had no way to lock them up on the shuttles. He’d heard Kirby twice. She was still on the Chamberlain with that other chimp. Well, he didn’t care. Best she stick with her own. If any besides the two of them were left on Earth. Ha! Worse dead end than zero G belters like himself! He’d just hitch a ride with the Chamberlain and drop off on the other side of the sun. It was high time he got back to the belt.
May Huang watched carefully, but the Marines simply grabbed their unconscious comrades she’d dumped in the airlock and left the Mars Express without trying to retake it. The three shuttles detached and drifted away from the Chamberlain, warming up their engines. They would loop equatorially around Venus to return to Earth. Twenty marines, and their civilian doctor were still onboard.
Simon was still onboard the Chamberlain as well.
She couldn’t feel anything from here, but knew from Fred and Cocoa that the laser fusion reaction was initiated but choked down to the minimum. They would bring up full power as they passed under Venus, for a five hour acceleration that would put them on track for the solar flyby. They’d be under continuous acceleration after that for the six months it took them to chase down Beringar’s comet. She could transfer to the shuttle at dock twenty two, which had her equipment, and drop off the Chamberlain anywhere. Or she could stay on. She had plenty of time to decide.
Chapter Twenty Eight
He was jerked out of the healing trance by the first sounds of intruders. His sluggish brain interpreted the hiss as the sliding door being opened. As his metabolism sped up, preparing to fight for his life, the intruders shoved something up against the tarp that concealed him and the human corpses.
"We'll just stack all the bodies in here until everyone figures out what we should do with them." A human male, by the tone.
"I think we should send them all into the Sun as we pass it." Another one.
"Nah," disagreed the first man, "cremate them and plant a garden in one of the center els. It can be a symbol of why we're leaving the Earth, and a reminder of what to avoid in a government."
"Or a symbol of humans killing ichimps," stated the second man. "You gotta be careful about symbols, Beringar"
"Tell me about it!" Beringar grumped. "I only claimed six els for our group, but would they be happy with six? Would they leave six els empty, to be claimed as either of us needed them? Nooooo! They wanted twelve right off the bat. And then they had the nerve to say that the Marine’s counted as one of ours. Ours!"
"Oh, give it a rest Beringar!" a female voice, and more background noise. How many were out there? "Even with their fatalities there's over two thousand of them and less than two hundred of us, even counting the marines. The one el we’re actually using is pretty sparsely filled. Those marines in el one must feel like they’re living in a ghost town. The ichimps need the room right now, and have plans for babies galore. Ugg. OK, that the first load, let’s get the rest."
Despite the silence that fell, Vorp stayed still. So, the humans and ichimps killed in the battle were being stored here. For how long? If they were just now moving bodies, he couldn't have tranced long. And he'd better not sink back in either! Or he'd wake up as they shoved him out the airlock. Would the humans have much use for the storerooms hereabouts? Or, what about those els? Surely Beringar had been referring to the Living Spheres? They were in rows of six, strung out along the three main structural beams. If the ichimps had twelve, probably the aft spheres, and the humans were using two, there were four empty els. Most likely, the second tier was being left empty for now- one of them would be the perfect place for him to hide out.
Except for food.
Wait! The els would have food labs, not in use, but the equipment would be there. Perfect. All he had to do was take this fine frozen gentleman with him, when he left. And perhaps a few extra tissue samples, from the other corpses, as well. Vorp settled back into a satisfied stillness as the humans returned bearing more bounty.
Chapter Twenty Nine
Major Woods looked up from the eyes-only file, his normally brown skin pale. "There are space traveling aliens? In at least 7 star systems? Including Alpha Centauri?" He cleared his throat as he realized how squeaky it sounded. He waited out the time lag on the comm system.
"We're sure of it, sir." The unidentified man, from somewhere well up the power pyramid of the United Earth Intelligence Service said. "The transmissions are unmistakably artificial. The pattern of our receiving them, relative to the distance of the source, has been analyzed by experts. The aliens were moving in our direction, system by system until 38 years ago, at which point they withdrew abruptly from every system near enough for the Long Baseline Telescope to pick up. Or, they became aware of us and began to conceal their communications."
"These communications, you are sure they were not directed at us?" Chuck asked, exercising control and not tapping his fingernails.
"Positive. We can't really translate the signals, but there are repetitive codes at the start of every transmission, my experts have tentatively dubbed them 'call signs', of different. . .ships, bases, installations? Communicating back and forth with each other?" The man shrugged, "We can't tell what they're doing, but they talked a lot until they suddenly shut up. And the call signs," the man hesitated a moment then plunged in, "a lot of them occurred in one system for a while, then moved to another. At a speed that seems to indicate they have some sort of FTL ability. "
"You can see our problem, Chuck," the third person on the comm link was his immediate superior Lieutenant Colonel Paula Updike of the Space Division’s criminal investigations. "We cannot leave the first contact we have with these aliens in the hands of that…" She paused to edit her speech. "Beringar and a bunch of ichimps. Since we can’t stop them, we must send an official envoy."
With a sense of foreboding, Woods asked, "This is why you called me? Who are you sending and how can you get them out here? I thought we were beyond intercept range."
"Well, Chuck," Updike hesitated, "Umm, well, umm, you're single, no family ties. . . "
"And Ivan hasn’t shot me yet?" Chuck sighed. He really didn’t have an option. "I’ll talk to the troops and ask for volunteers." He waited out the lag and after some organizational details, received a salute and farewell.
He pushed back from the desk with a sigh. This was going to be difficult. He’d kept twenty of his twenty-six marines with him this far, sending one of his sergeants, the only married one, thank god, back to Earth with a single team and an extra, injured, private to guard the President. The rest of them had all been packing to leave next week. How many would stay and how many go? Not to mention…
He stood up and walked out the door into the echoingly empty living sphere. Kirby, bless her, had traded a couple of live plants from the ichimps, and the seeds they’d planted were starting to show a faint fuzz of green, so it wasn’t quite as grim as it had been when they first moved in. But even with a few surprise additions, there were only twenty-four people living in a space designed for five hundred.
When he stuck his head through the door of the very spacious sick bay, Cherry was talking to her sister. I can’t believe that I am peacefully coexisting with the single most notorious criminal on or off Earth! Even temporarily. She started to get up to leave, but Chuck waved her back down. "I have an announcement to make to all the troops, I’d like you both to hear it as well." And addressing May specifically, "And you might want to pass the information to your people."
"I’ll talk to them as they come off duty." She looked curious. She was remarkably mellow and relaxed when she wasn’t actually in a fight. He suspected that it was the end result of something like his meditation and relaxation exercises that had become integral with her personality.
He nodded, "I’ll run a feed up to the bridge, so I can talk to all of my troops at once." The bridge wasn’t actually quite functional yet, but they were still manning it. Beringar was still controlling the AI room, and Ivan engineering. May’s people seemed to be the only ones with access to both areas. An interesting tangle of loyalties and betrayal there, or was it just a complicated case of self interest?
He sent the first two privates he encountered to hunt down all the off duty personnel, and was shortly addressing the totality of the Government on board.
"President Bussard had decided that the first interstellar exploration ship should have a government representative." He took a breath. "I have volunteered, and will be staying on board." He looked them over, two months ago he’d never met a single one of them. "I am asking for volunteers to form the Extra Solar Battalion. We will be officially a part of the Space Division, 1st Brigade, but needless to say we will be on our own and seriously undermanned. Please think long and hard before you volunteer. This is a one way trip, and you will be living," He gestured around the sphere, "Here for the next twenty years, with no idea of what will happen after that, other than a strong possibility of more of the same." He nodded to them, collectively, "I will be in my office, anyone seriously thinking of volunteering, please see me." He dismissed them, and climbed back up one flight to his office. Hmm, time to take a cutting torch to it, if he was going to be here for essentially the rest of his life. He wanted it bigger, and he wanted a window. Minimum.
As he sat down, he caught a flicker of movement at the door and Cherry joined him. "So, do you need a doctor?"
"Yes. Do you need a husband?"
And then they were grinning at each other and everything else was just unimportant details.
It was perfect, Vorp decided. All the Living Sphere's differed slightly from each other. This el had two huge plexi water tanks for aquaculture. They were sealed over, now, but would be open when the Spheres were spun for artificial gravity. To be able to swim again! Marvelous!
The food lab had everything necessary to start up cloning of both plant and animal tissue for eating. He, of course, ignored the cryoed start up cultures. In fact he divided up his collection and added samples to the liquid nitrogen storage chambers. Only a few scattered lights were on, with a minimum of the self-contained algae tubes keeping the air breathable. He turned on more lights, first thing, which automatically increased the activity of the nearby tubes. But just a few of them. He wouldn't be much of a load on the system, all by himself.
After starting his special cultures in the food tubes, he ate more of what he'd brought, then stashed the remainder in the kitchen freezer. He felt groggy, and knew he needed to return to the healing trance. Now that he felt safe he couldn't fight it off any longer. He sought out an upper level domicile room. Leaving the door open so he would hear any intruders, he strapped himself to the bare mattress.