January 8th, 2017

_Outlaws of the Solar System_ Part 28


Chapter Forty Nine

Chuck stabilized his spacesuit and took a moment to relax and enjoy the view. The Chamberlain was silhouetted against the mountain of ice, and so close that its searchlights covered only a portion of it. Away from the glittering reflections the Iceberg faded into a massive darkness, an absence of stars covering a quarter of his sky. The hydrogen cracking facility showed as a faint glow on one edge. It was already eating its way through the comet, converting water and methane ice into easily compressible hydrogen gas. When they left, the Iceberg would be a riddled husk. Beringar’s estimates of the mass and fuel needs of his future ship had either been shrewd or lucky. But then, Beringar’d only started maneuvering the comet five years ago. Chuck tried to remember which had come first, the comet project or the Chamberlain. They’d been close, and for a good reason.

"Beautiful, isn’t it?" he commented out loud.

"Yeah, hey is that Alpha Centauri?" Lieutenant Conde was pointing at a bright star just clear of the patch of blackness.

He checked the position, "Yep. That’s it. Them, whatever."

Looking back at the ship and squinting a little he could make out the three tugs standing by in case the ship needed to be shifted. He’d included Beringar’s best pilot to his roster to get two pilots aboard each tug. Perhaps he should have added more of the trainees, but this seemed safest. With the engines down, the trainees couldn’t do much harm left onboard and standing watches, and the one experienced Piggie pilot couldn’t do much with just one tug. Especially since Chuck had put him with Adam Adamson. Adam might be more at home in the ACV than a tug, but Sharp wasn’t going to overpower the Marine. The other two tugs…he really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. May Huang and ‘Brother Wisdom’? SpiderJohnny and von Monkenstein? He’d rotate Flintstone and Baker out to the tugs periodically, but all things considered it was going to be a long eight weeks. And not just in the tugs. The ship couldn’t rotate during refueling, the els were in freefall for the duration.

"Okay, lets head for the hydrogen cracker. Watch your speed going in." Chuck led off, letting the Lieutenant deal with his NCO’s and their untried troops. All but one of the NCO’s were his ‘old’ marines and the privates the recruited Edenites. This was their first exercise off the ship, and he planned to keep them busy for the entire eight weeks.

He listened, but did not interfere, noting that Corporal ‘Brother Snider’ knew his stuff, and three of the eight privates obviously had EVA experience. How the Hell did they fall into the Church of Earth is Eden’s orbit?

"What are those little flashes, inside the ship’s frame?" asked one of the tyros.

"Arc welders," he answered, "We’re building anchoring frames between the main structural members to carry the smaller ships along. Docked, they put too much stress on the forward section and are destabilizing."

"What the . . . my low air alarm just beeped." Ursula growled. "Must be a malfunction . . . "

Some of the most dread words to hear . . . Chuck spun in place while cueing up a link to the bridge.

"Damn! My tank’s practically empty." Ursula sounded pissed, much better than panickey, she was an old hand. Snider was nearest and already twisting her valves shut. The most vulnerable points of their air system were the tubes and the joints. Standard procedure for a leak was to replace the main hose and shut everything else down. "Umm, anybody got more sense than me and brought a Y tube?" Silence.

Chuck’s link to the bridge popped up, "Commander? May I borrow one of your tugs? We have a leak out here."

"Yes, sir, we’re stable. T3, go." She didn’t bother with details, so the tugs must be on circuit.

"We’re gone." May Huang’s voice came simultaneously with a long flare of light from the tug on the near side. He could hear her talking almost out of the pickup range of the mike, ordering Wisdom to cycle the lock. "How short’s your air?" she asked, back on mike.

"About three minutes." Eddings replied. Snider had the hose off and was attaching a replacement in one smooth movement. Another long flare from the tug followed quickly.

Chuck watched out of the corner of his helmet as Snider reopened the valves. The buckytube storage system was an efficient, compact and safe way to carry hours of oxygen around. Its only drawback was the high pressure needed for recharge. In a combat zone, damage to the breathing apparatus was so closely correlated to instant death that ways to share oxygen were largely neglected. And for a short training run, no extra tanks had been brought. At least Snider had had a replacement tube, but Chuck berated himself silently that he hadn’t checked more thoroughly. The troops were new to him and vice versa, he should have checked them. He tromped on the thought. Sergeant Eddings should have checked emergency supplies. That’s what sergeants were for. As he watched the tug rotate for a deceleration burn he realized that this sergeant was going to get a bruising for her inattention.

"OK, May give me a heads up display, Lieutenant, you take the Corporal’s left side, I get the right." They accelerated gradually, balancing carefully, and flipping over, bracketed the open airlock as the tug slid by, still with a significant delta v. Brother Wisdom was in the airlock, and grabbed as they released. Chuck hit the hull beside the airlock in approved paratrooper style, and bounced off unharmed. Conde was cursing under his breath. Chuck somersaulted to watch the airlock snap shut, then headed back to the cluster of marines.

"Break something?" he asked.

"Twisted an ankle." Conde answered, "I never was any good at landing."

Then Ursula’s voice came on, "OK, I’m in. Snider, bless your Boy Scout training, I’m going to learn how to brew beer just so I can buy you something better than that piss the food labs turn out."

The tug was burning again, stopping relative to them and then creeping back. As it came even, Ursula popped back out of the airlock wearing a glaringly yellow OOO airpack. Stuffing something that looked like the Y tube someone ought to have had along into a zip pocket.

Atta Girl! Chuck nodded approvingly, "Now, as I was saying, watch your velocity and show Lieutenant Conde how to land properly."

Chapter Fifty

Kirby whistled in dismay, "Those are some bruises! What kind of delta v did May Huang have?"

"Too much, I bounced around a bit." Ursula grinned, floating in the steam. "But I’m not complaining, I was down to tunnel vision by then. And my own damn fault, as the Colonel pointed out. Not a Y tube among us." She winced a little. "He was pissed. And let us know it once the privates were out of earshot."

Kirby stretched and rotated her arms speculatively, "Do you think I should take off any more hair?"

"Not on your arms. Turn around and let me see your back." Ursula pursed her lips, "Maybe a bit more off there." The other female marines had been giving her advice, often conflicting, on how to get her man. Judging by their own success rate, she ought to ignore them. The steam swirled as the sauna door opened and closed.

"Whoa! Kirby, you are definitely pregnant!" Brooke Baker grinned at her. "How much longer?"

"Three months," Kirby grimaced, patting her stomach, "Probably. Ichimps apparently specialize in irregularities." She changed the subject, "What really happened on the bridge? Rumor has it that the Colonel threatened Beringar?"

"Oh, he just slapped him down when Beringar got uppity about how much he was going to charge us for fuel." Brooke started giggling, "What was really funny was the way he kept eyeing me. I was wondering if I’d broken out in purple spots. After he left Mike said he probably thought I was May Huang, san disguise." She sighed, "What a reputation she has. I think Mike’s in love with her."

"And Sergio. And Adam. And Sean. And," Ursula sighed, "most of the rest of the men on board. And she doesn’t even notice."

"Is she giving you any tips?" Brooke asked.

"Mostly just cosmetically." Kirby said. "As far as romantic advise, she keeps say things like ‘just talk to him, don’t assume he knows things.’" Kirby grinned, "She doesn’t seem to think men are very perceptive. ‘Be blunt.’ She says, ‘Men don’t have ESP.’"

Ursula snickered, "Maybe I should be blunt with Sergio." She hooked a foot through a bench for stability, and drew herself up and thrust out her chest. "Sergio, you gorgeous Surfer Dude, I want your body!"

"Like, you know, uhh, do you think he would know what you meant?" Brooke snickered as Ursula looked in vain for something to throw, and copied her pose. "Mike you handsome devil, I want your body!"

"Ha! He’s old enough to be your grandfather." Ursula said. "And how come he got cashiered?"

"He had a bad heart, too bad to stand the strain of rejuve, according to the docs. So he did it illegally, in exchange for doing something for May Huang is the rumor, he won’t say." Brooke frowned, "And he made it through rejuve fine, too. I don’t know why the doctors are so picky. Anyone they turn down has a virtual death sentence."

"Arf! You are an infant, aren’t you?" Ursula shook her head, "The thing about life is, we don’t any of us get out of it alive."

"I think anyone should have the right to try rejuve," said Kirby. "Doctor Livingston is trying it now on some of the really old ichimps. Not," she said bitterly, "that there are many of them."

"You’ve got a shorter lifespan, don’t you?" asked Brooke.

"It’s hard to say," Kirby sighed, "So few live to be old, we’re just animals, you know. Safety regulations don’t apply to us, and we don’t have medical or life insurance, nor retirement accounts. When we’re not useful any longer it’s more merciful to just put us down like old dogs, you know."

"Well, yeah, but anyone can choose euthanasia." Protested Brooke.

"Yeah, but we weren’t the ones doing the choosing, were we?" Kirby waved a hand, "Sorry. Let’s drop it, I’ve been getting an overdose of Chimpanzee Liberation Front propaganda down in the school." She searched around for a change of subject, "I hope," she frowned at her belly, "that I can still fit into a uniform for the honor guard."

Ursula grinned, "Trust the Colonel to want an honor guard at his wedding. Unless you’ve popped, you’re going to have a problem with fit, aren’t you?"

"Yeah, and its not like I can hide behind anyone, Captain Wolfe and I are the only actual military personnel at Head Quarters Company, everyone else is civilian."

"I think it’s a bit silly trying to keep a Battalion Format, when there aren’t enough of us for a platoon." Brooke frowned. "Even counting all the civvies."

"You’ve got to plan for growth, Brooke." Said Ursula. "Beringar’s such a creep, I surprised we haven’t gotten more recruits. And anyhow, the politicians back home are probably talking about how they sent a whole battalion to protect the first extrasolar colony."

Kirby looked at her in surprise, "Didn’t you catch Ace’s last editorial? She quoted the President as saying that there was only a tiny ‘peace keeping’ force aboard."

"Yi!" Ursula shook her head, "I’ve started ignoring Earth news. It just doesn’t seem to matter any more. And after the nasty letter my ex’s lawyer sent, I may stop reading my mail as well."

"I still watch the news," Brooke frowned, "And my parents write ten times as often, bemoaning the fact that I can’t come home for Christmas and stuff, when I haven’t been home for more than two weeks at a time for years anyway."

"I haven’t got any family," Kirby admitted, then blinked in surprise, "Except what I’m making, here."


"Why can’t we eat the humans?" Erk demanded. Vorp wished he’d never embarked on this project. Ax was listening and thinking, as usual. Vorp both trusted him more and realized he was the more dangerous of the two. Erk was at least obvious.

"Because they are intelligent beings, not prey animals. We eat their artificially grown flesh so we will look like them. But we do not kill and eat humans." What was that human saying? Do as I say, not as I do? It suddenly made sense.

"Sooner or later, a human will come down here and find us. We are going to join them, pretend to be them. We will gradually gain status in their society, and join the leaders of this ship. By the time we get to Necon, we will be in a position to take over the ship and hand it over to Exploration Leader Chuff, or his replacement." He hoped he was getting through to the newts, it wouldn’t do to have them mindlessly repeat this. "We cannot call attention to ourselves by killing people."

"OK." said Ax, "We’re undercover alien spies." His grin was full of pointy teeth. "Just like in the vids."

Vorp nodded, "Just like in the vids. Um, don’t show your teeth when you smile. They don’t look human." He started back to the food lab, then turned back. "And remember, eat only what I give you, or you’ll start growing fur and feathers again. You have to eat only the food that has your name on it. I’m growing all sorts of other things in here. Don’t sample!"

Chapter Fifty One

Kirby craned to see past Mike Perris and Brooke Baker.

"It’s all yours, you lucky dogs, you." She heard his voice first, then spotted him as he swept a credible bow in zero G to usher the replacement crew onto the tug. Spider shoved off the floor and Kirby met him half way in an exuberant embrace the ended up with them bouncing off the ceiling.

"How have you been?" he asked breathlessly.

"I missed you." She said simultaneously, kissing him again. Damn life was good!

"Wanna have a ringside seat for the event of the millennium?" He cocked his head, "Is it just me or is it getting harder to get close to you?"

"One fat joke and you die, buster."

"Me? Joke?" He grinned, and twisted to shove off the ceiling. "C’mon, Simon’s been driving me nuts for three f…umm, weeks about not being able to run his experiments. If I keep him waiting he’s likely to sic his Mommy on me." Simon was already halfway across the bay, eager to grab his models and head back out.

Kirby snickered, more at his attempts to clean up his language in her presence than his threat. "She’s sure not what I expected."

"Yeah," he grinned a bit as a distant memory sprang to mind. "I remember the first time I realized she was a wanted criminal. I was shocked. Out in the belt she was one of the founding settlers, one of the early corporate explorers."

She pushed off and drifted toward the lab. "You don’t mean the Alfoa missions, do you? She was on them?"

"Yeah, under her original name. The government hadn’t twigged to her being responsible for a bunch of crimes yet." Spider grinned, "Must’a been a Hell of a shock when they figured it out. Although she says they never did figure out half of her aliases." He touched down outside the door.

"She says." Kirby frowned at him. "How well do you know her?"

"Kirby," She could hear the exasperation in his voice, "stop being a Cop at me. Everyone in the belt knows her. It’s like living next door to Robin Hood. She’s reliable. You yell for help, she comes. If you’re desperate for a part, she can find one, if you’re hard up for work, all of a sudden you find yourself with a contract to make those parts everybody is so desperate for. She’s," he waved his arms, fishing for the right term, "like a fairy godmother, or the granddad you can always go to when you’ve exhausted all other possibilities."

"Spider! She’s been at the top of the Most Wanted List for decades. She’s a cold blooded murderer."

"Kirby!" He copied her tone, "Welcome to the real world. It ain’t perfect, and neither are we. Yeah, she’s killed people. Go read about the one’s she’s killed on purpose."

"What about the innocent bystanders?" she snapped.

"Real world, Kirby. Does the term ‘collateral damage’ mean anything to you? You’re a government agent, a soldier, you know shit happens. Go see what she was doing when the innocents got killed. Yeah," He glared at her, "I know she’s been called a terrorist. Among other things. She’s Robin Hood, not King Arthur, who wasn’t all that bloody perfect anyway."

"Will you two stop arguing and carry some of this stuff?" Simon placed a sizable box in Spider’s face. "Mother . . . is not the hero you’re making her out to be, Spider. Kirby, go see if your boss will give you her complete file. Read it like you were looking over the operations of a government sponsored black op group. You may find the change of perspective enlightening."

Spider took the box and started towing it toward his ship, staying on the deck. "No way is she a government agent."

"Really?" Simon grinned. "You mean, never?" he snickered. "The old CIA trained her when she was young, and she worked for them till the bitter end. She was part of the effort to undermine the United Earth Faction, and reaped the usual reward of the losing side. Except she didn’t let herself get caught."

Kirby frowned at him, then looked at Spider. He looked indignant. Simon handed out more boxes, and headed off across the bay towing one from each hand.

"Ahh, I don’t believe a word of it." Spider scowled after his retreating back, then followed. "She’s got no respect for government at all."

"I believe it." Memories from the two years of college she’d taken were surfacing. "When the US Congress ratified the United Earth Treaty, a bunch of people disappeared, especially in the intelligence community and a lot of information disappeared with them." She was frowning, "I wrote a paper on it in Modern History. From what evidence was available to the public, the UEG carried out a systematic campaign of assassinations to tilt the US in their direction, then when the merger looked inevitable, a lot of information was destroyed and people started disappearing, not dying like before. As soon as the ink was dry on the treaty, the UEG cleaned house on them. The National Security Administration, the CIA, the FBI, DEA, DHS, well, there were dozens of law enforcement and security organizations. Indictments and secret tribunals. People committing 'suicide' while in custody. It was eighty years ago. When May Huang was thirty years old."

"Strap them down here in the airlock," Spider suggested, "there should be room for them all."

"So, your Mom erased her CIA career?" Kirby asked.

"Yep." Simon grinned, "Made herself a civilian Space Administration employee, and carried on like a good little lab tech and payload specialist. She got clear off Earth for the whole five year Asteroid Survey."

"Didn’t people wonder where she’d come from?" Spider was baffled, "She couldn’t just turn up out of thin air."

"She said she’d checked them over for counter espionage stuff, so they knew her as ‘that tech that came with Senator So-and-so’. Apparently there were so many transfers out of Washington D.C. right then, on top of merging with the European Space agency that no one noticed any irregularities. And since it was a carryover from her black ops days, it came with full documentary background, shaved about ten years off her actual age and gave her a degree she hadn’t actually gotten around to quite finishing." The ichimp shrugged, "Anyway she was in on the early lunar mining, and then, like you said, the civilian asteroid mining project."

"So, what happened?" Kirby asked. "Why is she a thief and assassin now."

"You mentioned the United Earth purge of the US intelligence agencies." Simon took Kirby’s boxes, "There was a core of highly trained people that didn’t like the idea of a United Earth government, had seen the brutal side of their policies up close and personal, had seen friends and colleagues railroaded. So the survivors of the NSA and the rest of the alphabet soup turned into the NSU, with black Ops people from all sorts of agencies." He shook his head, "They financed themselves illegally, but they always watched the government, and . . . nudged it occasionally.

"Go look at the politics of some of the people she’s suspected of killing. Although," Simon finished strapping down the last box, "she says she didn’t do a quarter of the things she’s accused of. ‘Mata Hari’ was sort of a group ID, at the start. She was actually a late joiner, now she’s nearly the only one left alive." To Kirby’s relief, he changed the subject abruptly. "OK, let’s go find some nice empty space."

Kirby hovered and watched Spider run through an obviously familiar startup sequence, that looked to her to be an order of magnitude more difficult than the tugs with their automatic sequences and computerized controls. He looked over his shoulder at Kirby, "C’mon up. What a f…relief to be back in my own ship! You want a flying lesson?"

"I’ve had the basics, for pods and such." She slid into the seat in front some odd controls. "But it was totally inadequate for anything like this."

"Ah, those are just controls for the remote robotics. If you’ve ever played any of the construction games, you could pick up using these in an hour or so." He waved back at his own control panel. "This stuff is pretty standard, it just doesn’t hide it behind the computer automatic processes. See this screen? It’s the checklist. On a pod, the comp would do it all and you’d only see what wasn’t within the parameters. I want to see where in the range each reading falls, so I know what’s showing wear, needs service or whatever." He glanced doubtfully at her, "In the belt, it’s not a good idea to breakdown. This way I fix it before it breaks."

She breathed over his shoulder as he ran through the list. "See this pressure? It’s fluctuating more than it ought, probably a hose. It’s still within parameters, but I’ll replace all the hoses and seals after we get back in from this test. With computerized checks, I wouldn’t even know about it yet." Rats! He was babbling, she must look in need of reassurance. "It’s safer than trusting yourself to a F. . . computer." He asserted, "I built most of it, and I can fix all of it."

Simon’s voice floated up from the rear, "Don’t believe a word he says, I’ve heard he sacrifices a virgin to the Gods of Space at every perigee to keep this junkyard functional."

Spider sent a glare in his general direction. "Unlike some people, I have a much better idea of how to treat a F… virgin!" he switched the glare to Kirby as she started snickering, then cancelled it and grinned at her instead. "Much better, you poor bachelor." He yelled, tapping at the controls.

Kirby watched carefully as he separated from the Chamberlain and headed away from the comet. He stabilized their position relative to the Chamberlain before Simon took his models and instruments out. He had a swarm of miniaturized gravity meters with basic station keeping ability that he spread out in a wide array, leaving his six models grouped near the center of the array. After he was back inside Spider backed the ship a bit further.

"It would be nearly impossible for me to actually hit us, Spider." Simon shouted up at them. Kirby abandoned the control cabin and anchored herself where she could watch Simon. He had two comp screens hooked into the ship’s systems and looking over his shoulder she could see he was monitoring what looked like a scrolling screen full of random numbers. When she said so, he snorted and agreed. "I was hoping that this far out from the sun, the gravity wave would be strong enough to register over the background noise." He fiddled a bit. "I think I can almost imagine a pattern to some of this." He sighed. "When in doubt, push the button." He taped the left screen, "See, this might be a wave building up and moving through. Here goes nothing." He entered a series of numbers and sent it. "This one ought to do something," he touched one of the red dots, "I hope." It winked out obediently. He chewed a knuckle, "Oh, oh."

"Widen your area." Yelled Spider from the front, "It’s out there."

"What!" the grid on the screen shrunk as he scrolled back until he found a white dot. "It’s only the passive radar return, not the transponder. Did it record?" apparently it was a rhetorical question, as he immediately reran the memory and sighed with relief. "Ha! Same time lapse as the micro jumps! Didn’t I tell you!" he yelled up to Spider, "Sorry Kirby, didn’t mean to yell in your ear." He was practically bouncing up and down in his seat, she hadn’t a clue how he managed it in zero G, but his joy was contagious. "OK another one!" He hunched over the screen, "A lot of the leading edge instruments are coming down, the wave may be cresting" he taped in more numbers and sent them. "That one," he tapped the screen. The red dot turned white and sat there. And sat there. He growled and brought up a status screen. "Damn, the capacitor’s drained, and . . . " his voice trailed off, "or the fuses are shot, and . . . " he typed at his screen, "the rest of them are alright. Let me see what the first one looks like . . . it’s just about out of power." His voice dropped below audibility and muttered on for a bit. The first model’s indicator dot switched to red again and she faintly heard, " . . . fuel cells working . . . ", but the second model stayed stubbornly dead. Finally he straightened, "OK, lets fire off the other four." He frowned at his comp, "This one with the wave diminishing. I think." A third red spot disappeared, and a white dot popped up nearly opposite the first model. "Ha!"

"Hey, Monkey boy!" Spider called from the front, "I hope you did something entirely different that time!"

"I did!" Simon yelled back. "This is great, I might even be able to go the direction I want!"

Kirby sat back and watched as the last three were sent off, well, two. The fourth one sat in place, discharged. But the fifth jumped forward, as Simon predicted, and the last one backwards, again as predicted. "Okay, lets round my chicks up, and take them home!"

She stayed out of the way while Spider maneuvered the ship and Simon in the airlock grabbed his models and sensors. It was just slowly sinking in that she really had seen a test of a potential faster than light space drive. Pretty funny that the breakthrough was happening on a slow interstellar voyage. Proof that God loved irony, perhaps.