matapam (pamuphoff) wrote,

_Outlaws of the Solar System_ Part 11


Chapter Seventeen

Oleg turned from the Vid-Screen that was reshowing the take-off of the President’s shuttle on its way up to the UEES Arthur Neville Chamberlain. The security details that had been gone over three hundred times by the President’s security staff and Oleg Ori Orbitals own security department were enough to drive any sane man to drink. Tons of work and no one but OOO employees seemed to be forbidden access to the ship. The press shuttles had been searched and the reporters and tech crews screened at LEO1. Presumably their equipment had been vetted as well. Tactfully, no doubt, the President didn’t want to offend the press.

Only the minimum legally required crew was on board to operate the life support equipment and in case of emergency. None of his security people. Then adding insult to injury, OOO station was crawling with government agents pretending to be newsies.

Hell, the President didn’t even want him there. As the Press rarely got a chance to record any images of Oleg, the President felt it would create a sideshow type of atmosphere if he was there.

"The Buzzard’s afraid I might steal some of his limelight." Oleg grumbled under his breath. "Fat chance. The sooner I get rid of these," He hunched his shoulders hunting for a suitable insult, "cockroaches the happier I’ll be." He hated cameras, hated the loss of privacy they represented.

Oleg started to pace near his desk, there was something going on, he could feel it. The security was too lax, not enough checks to protect the President. Anyone with Press credentials could get onboard. How the head of the President’s security department had felt about the arrangements would never be known. He had been killed just yesterday morning in an accident on his way to work. It was the sort of occurrence that should have had the new head of security taking sudden extra precautions. Instead, the new man, Marlin, seemed puffed up and trying not to look pleased. No alarm bells there!

He tried to settle down to work, but kept returning to the output of the vid cams that covered most of the Chamberlain. Everything was going smoothly as the United Earth President’s security teams took their assigned posts.

"Something is still not right!" Oleg slammed his fist into the middle of his desk. "Why would the Presidents Security people turn down the help of trained men and women who know the facility and how to work the security systems?" Once again Oleg started pacing beside his desk. "Computer, put the video from the security cameras aboard the Chamberlain on the wall screen, in split screen format." The wall behind the desk was suddenly full of 20cm views of the interior of the UEES Arthur Neville Chamberlain. Everything appeared to be going as planned. All of the skeleton crew was at their posts. Adele was escorting the new head of the President’s security and a man/ichimp team into the Fusion Laser Control Room, as he watched. At least there was one reliable person on board. Clever Adele had signed off on her employment contract that afternoon, and ‘just happened’ to drop by to say good bye while that puffed up fool Marlin was there. Two bats of her eyelashes and the poor fool had practically been on his knees begging her to show him the Chamberlain, ‘since she was no longer an OOO employee, she of course wasn’t banned.’ Idiot. He’d hustled them off through his private egress to his personal shuttle with relief. Adele had him well under control.


"This is one of the most important rooms on the ship," Adele told the Commander and his security team. She followed the ship’s XO into Life Support, certain that Commander Marlin’s eyes would be on her ass in her tight skin suit. "The air circulation and oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange equipment will definitely need a guard."

The Commander got his eyes back where they belonged, and frowned at the crew. "Do you need this many people here?"

"Yes. If there is a problem with the ship’s air . . . " Lieutenant Rock let that trail off. However much Rock desired command, these circumstances had him wishing this circus was over. Or better yet not started at all. He was a highly experienced ship’s officer, but presidential security was new to him. He did not look like he was enjoying his up close exposure.

Commander Marlin frowned, "I was under the impression this ship was state-of-the-art automated. How often do you have problems with the air systems."

"We’ve worked the bugs out of the system, and haven’t had an alert for six months, now. But with the President aboard, we want an experienced crew on hand." Adele shrugged, "With all the press here, and the President’s insistence on no ID checks, we thought security should make sure no unauthorized people get in here."

"Of course," nodded the Commander. "I’ll leave a guard detachment here in the room, as well as down the corridor to limit access to the bridge as well."

"Excellent," She smiled up at him, being sure to brush up against him as she moved past, and up to the work stations. She glanced at the human part of the security team, "Let me show you what you can expect, in the way of normal operations. This," she waved at the wall full of vid pickups, each with a screen full of readouts below, "Shows what part of the system is being monitored, at any given time. The auto checker runs through everything, every fifteen minutes. See how it flickers through them? Occasionally, if there is an aberrant readout, and also randomly, the system pulls up a section for a detailed diagnostic." Her fingers flicked across the keyboard. "Like this. The computer checks the equipment and makes a detailed atmospheric analysis. Every station is checked every day, it doesn’t mean there is a problem, so don’t be alarmed." She hesitated, glancing at the Commander, "Are any of the reporters going to be smoking? That’s not ordinarily permitted."

"Reporters? Smoke?" Marlin snickered, "Like chimneys, doll. After all, they’re the press, they write the news, they don’t believe it. Is that going to set off alarms?"

She pressed her hands to her cheekbones."Yes. Good grief. Perhaps we could turn down the sensitivity a bit?" She split a glance between the Captain and Ginger Paulson, the head of this shift’s atmospheric team.

"Do it," ordered the Captain. Ginger sketched a salute, before turning to her keyboard.

"With so many people aboard – all in the forward section – and some of them smoking," Adele added, "the system may need to release oxygen from the storage tanks. That will set off another set of alarms," she glanced at the ichimp manning a secondary station, "George, could you give us a demo?"

George nodded, a gleam in his eye, and tapped in the commands. The ‘alarm’ was a polite chiming accompanied by a flashing ‘OXYGEN DEFICIT DETECTED’ message, quickly followed by ‘OXYGEN RELEASE UNDERWAY’ and a chart showing percentage gas mixtures. He keyed it all off.

"If," Lieutenant Rock spoke up, "Oxygen levels don’t normalize quickly, we will have to ask some of the press to reboard their shuttles, so they’re breathing on the shuttles’ systems. Not ours."

Marlin’s brow was wrinkling, "Why is this necessary, I thought this ship was made to carry over five thousand people?"

"Yes," Ginger sighed, "but not all of them in the forward section at once. The air system is designed to support two thousand, and it can tap reserves from the Living Spheres as well. But only four of the eighteen spheres are active, at this time."

"You must understand, Commander," said Rock, "The Chamberlain is scheduled for its shakedown cruise next month. We had to rush to get her ready for the Presidential tour."

"And," added Adele, "The President’s staff doesn’t seem to interpret ‘maximum’ or ‘only’ in quite the same way we do. We said one thousand people, there are two thousand hovering out there now; and that’s in addition to the Presidential party, which, including," She nodded to Marlin, "Your security teams, number over three hundred. The air situation is safe, but the safety margin is not as large as I like."

"And they smoke!" Ginger muttered into her terminal, shaking her head.

"Let me show you the tram system and the Engineering section." Adele said, glancing at the Captain.

Rock nodded, "I’d best stick to the bridge, with those shuttles coming in to dock soon."

Marlin assigned a man/ichimp team for the room, and a man/ichimp team for the corridor.

"The President will be giving his speech in the center," Adele pointed down a cross corridor to the large open center of the forward section. "We can close the airtight doors at the end of the radial corridors, but, for safety, we can’t lock them. In addition, if you wish, we can close the airtights on this ring corridor, so the press have no access to the bridge, atmosphere room, or the trams." She glanced at him, "I suppose your teams could watch the doors from the outside, instead of the inside."

"Yes," Marlin nodded, "then they can keep an eye on the crowd and will be available to me, in the center, if needed."

Waving up his remaining teams, he spotted them at the doors from the ring corridor to the open center. The large round room was indeed the center of the forward section; the roof, thirty meters above, was retractable, and large enough for the largest of the instruments mounted on the exterior of the ship to be brought in for repair or alteration. They circled the room, stationing guard teams as Adele closed each of the doors to the radial corridors. Only the doors in the larger passage that led directly from the docking bay to the center were left open.

Marlin nodded in satisfaction, as the closing doors simplified access to the President’s route.

"Commander Dougy had intended to place guards in the engineering section also." Adele asked, "do you still wish to?"

Marlin frowned, reluctant, perhaps, to praise an old rival? "Yes, Commander Dougy was more experienced with space installations than I. If he thought they were needed, they are."

Adele raised her eyebrows at him, "I suspect you’re being modest. You seem very at home up here." She led him and the last team through the now guarded doors, to the tram station just outside the bridge. "The trams are code locked, only crew can use them." She tapped the pad by the sealed sliding door." If you need to use them, today’s code is eight-six-seven-six. "The door popped slightly as the vacuum seal broke, then slid open. The tram station was enclosed, the windows showing only the blank walls beyond them. They could feel the pressure change as the tram door closed simultaneously with the ship door. "You just punch in your destination, same as an elevator." The blank walls slid upward and ended in a panorama of crisscrossed beams and close packed spheres. A few stars managed to peek through the spaces between. "The little spheres are the living quarters. As you see from this first one, they’re actually very large." The tram slid through an enclosed section, not stopping at the access.

She pretended not to notice that his hands behind him were locked on the rail as he tried to project an aura of nonchalance. She kept a straight face as he swallowed nervously, staring across the empty central axis of the frame, comparing sizes and realizing the distances involved. The human guard, on the other hand, looked around with interest, and no sign of nerves as the tram slid through another terminal. The ichimp guard appeared to be enjoying Marlin’s reactions.

"Since the ship is five kilometers long, I’m afraid the ride takes almost five minutes. It’s going to be a real commuters nightmare when the ship is staffed, and the trams stop at fourteen spots each. If you’re going between spheres, unless they’re both in the same vertical stack, you’ve got to go to either go all the way forward, or all the way back to engineering and change to another tram run."

The ichimp guard was studying the rails. "One tram per run?"

"Well, only one in service. We’ve got spares, in case of breakdowns, down in engineering. Most of the scientists will work in their own spheres, and a lot of the personnel on board will be support workers. Life support, food labs, gardeners and so on."

"Gardeners?" Marlin looked surprised.

"Oh, yes." Adele waved at the ship, "Theoretically, you can do everything with mechanical carbon/oxygen exchanges and food labs, but for a ship that stays out as long as this one will, it’s a very good idea to have a biological system as well. While many of the benefits are psychological, plants are also very efficient at removing toxins from both air and water."

"I have hay fever," muttered the guard.

Adele grinned, "We’re very careful about what plants we bring into space. And we’re deathly serious about mold and fungus."

"Ha," snorted Marlin. "I thought you needed them to breakdown wastes."

"Oh, yes. But they have to stay where we want them, which is not growing wild all over the ship." This time when they slipped into a tunnel, they stopped. The tram quivered as clamps and seals attached, then the door slid back.

"This whole section is taken up with the laser fusion chambers and the startup power storage and generators." Adele steered them into the control room.

An impressive array of screens covered the arc of the opposite wall, computer workstations spread out below. The lights were dimmed, one screen of static figures shedding a faint glow to the far corners. A bright focused light before one station lit the pages of a paper book. The reader looked up as they entered.

"Hi, Del, what’s up?" The plump, middle-aged woman stuck a finger in the book to keep her place, and swung her feet down from the desk. An ichimp at another console looked around and slipped headphones off her head, and nodded a greeting to the ichimp guard.

"I’ve brought you some more company." Adele barely kept her face straight, watching Marlin’s reaction. "Anything going on?"

"Certainly not!" The woman’s blue eyes looked offended behind her archaic bifocal glasses. "I’m here to see that nothing does." She nodded decisively, fluffy curly brown and gray hair bouncing around her face. "Who are you?" she asked Marlin.

"I’m Commander Marlin, head of the President’s security." Marlin sounded stunned, as he turned to Stuben. "They’re the only ones here?"

The woman blinked owlishly, "I’m Assistant Fusion Engineer Ann Cocoa", she reluctantly put down her book, and stood, "Would you like a look around?"

"Stay here, Cocoa. I’ll give the tour." Adele waved the three men out. "Such as it is. The fusion chambers take up all the space."

"What is a woman like that doing in charge of, of," Marlin sputtered, "Engines! She looks like pictures of my grandmother, half a century ago!"

Adele took her teeth out of her lip to remark, "Under no conceivable circumstances, will the engines be lit today. They are in complete shutdown mode."

Marlin took a relieved breath, "I see."

Adele laughed, "Engineer Cocoa is very competent. She’s just finished her first rejuve treatment, and her corneas haven’t reshaped yet. She says she works at screens all day; when she relaxes, she wants a real book to read, not more damn photons on a piece of glass." She tried to look serious. "In any case, there’s nothing to do today. She’s only here because it’s against the law to not have a qualified engineering officer on duty on a ship this size."

She opened the only other door in the short corridor, a dark, empty room blinked a few lights on monitors, less active even than the fusion control room. "This is the Electric Power Room, it controls generating power from the waste heat of the fusion system. So, of course, nothing’s going on here at all. You can see why one guard team is enough for engineering. This is all there is."

"Huh," He grunted, turning to the man and ichimp. "Don’t fall asleep." He grinned wickedly, "or let granny get you."

Adele waved at a glassy spot on the wall at the end of the corridor, "I’ll tap into the internal monitoring system, so you can watch them from the control room, if you want."

"Good." Marlin glanced back at the fusion control room and shook his head wordlessly as he stepped back into the tram.


In the control room, Lieutenant Rock was organizing the press shuttles, shaking his head, "Twelve of the damned things, and then the Presidents’ shuttle. And they’re screaming bloody murder because I’m bringing them in under remote control."

Adele grinned, tapping out commands in a corner, "What? You don’t want those hotshot pilots showing each other how to properly dock with a spinning structure?" She looked over at Marlin. "Security channel thirty-four will show the Engineering section, split screen on the corridor and Fusion Control."

"Good, may I walk you to your pod?"

"Certainly," she scooped up a small case and glanced at her chrono, "I’d better catch this one, there are only a few more." Walking through the guarded doors, she glanced up at him. "I’ll be in Paris for a month, before I pick up my next contract, any chance you could make it?"

Marlin brightened, "I’ll make a point of it." He stopped at the outer airlock hatch.

"Call the Hotel du Tour, when you get there." She smiled alluringly as she pressed the close button for the lock. With the pod loading, the inner hatch, and the pod hatch were both wide open.

The pod pilot called impatiently from his controls, "You’re the last, Ms. Stuben."

"Drat," She frowned at her chrono, then the pilot, "go ahead, I’ll catch the last pod." She reached through and hit his close button, stepping back as the pod hatch sealed.

Adele leaned into the airlock and tapped the button to cycle it, but stepped back against the pod’s hatch. The outer hatch of the airlock slid shut and sealed, leaving her between it and the pod. She quickly pulled a recycler from her case and slipping it around her neck. A tug at the back of her collar released the hood of her skin suit, she pulled it over her head and sealed it carefully. She pulled the gloves out of their pocket, donning and sealing them as she felt the pressure change. As her hood inflated, she could feel the sudden constriction as the liquid in the microscopic bubbles imbedded in the material of the skin suit flashed into vapor, expanding the elastic material, and pressing on her skin. The sections around her joints squeezed especially hard, and the collar of the now stiff helmet sealed to her skin. She pulled a climbing harness out of the case, stepping quickly into it and buckling it around her waist. She pulled a clip out on its retractable cord, snapping it into a ring beside the airlock door with stiff, gloved, fingers. She shucked her jacket and shoes, stuffing them into the case and removing magnetic pads for her hands and feet. And waited.

Just as she was beginning to fear the pod was being held for another passenger, it separated with a last puff of gas. She grabbed hastily for the edge of the dock as the spin of the ship tried to throw her off. Her case went sailing, she watched it for a second. "Farewell, Adele Stuben," she called after it. She could feel her mind throwing off the restrictions of five years of acting. She felt lighter than zero g, all pretense gone. Now for the good part!


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