"Commander! We’re loose from our anchorage!" the frantic hail over his ear ‘phone answered all his questions.
"Get the President back to the shuttle, NOW! And shoot any one that tries to stop you!"
He started to throw himself toward the door, then stopped, to look back at the screen. "The Chamberlain has been cut loose from its anchor, I’m getting the President back onto his shuttle, and we’re leaving." Without waiting for a reply, he shoved away.
"Wait, that may be what they want!" He ignored it.
"Ok, our speed and directions looks good, but we’re cart wheeling and spinning, and not all that slowly." Fred’s eyes were on his instruments, not the vid pickup that was transmitting his image to engineering.
"Just as well, at the moment," May told him, "It makes us harder to board, until we get the engines lit." She noticed, in the background of the control room, that the ceiling had collected the unconscious crew members. "About half the passengers are still on their feet, most of them with their skin suits sealed. They’ve already had a high enough dose to put them out, so it shouldn’t take more than about five minutes until they’re all snoozing." She watched on another screen as Marlin and the remaining conscious guards hauled the President out of the center, and as they turned the corner, floated toward the shuttles. The guard holding the President’s right arm let go suddenly, starting to drift, limp. He wasn’t the first to go. They ignored him. As another guard came up, the left guard, drifted limply into the President. The President shoved him away, and paid the usual penalty of finding himself moving as well.
"May, we’re ready for startup." Cocoa’s suddenly, sharp voice pulled her attention back to the engine room. "The magnetic bottles are steady." Han and the ladychimp, Barbie, were intent on their screens.
May rescanned her boards quickly. "All lasers show ready. I’m slaving to your board." May abandoned one station for another. "Initial electrical pulse building, ready to fire in fifteen seconds, fourteen…thirteen…"
Marlin felt woozy, but not nearly as bad as everyone else. Fifteen minutes on the tour of the engine room, and the conference with TSI had limited his dose. Hopefully enough to get the President out of here. The President shoved off another collapsing guard, which meant in near zero g, that the President sent himself floating backwards. "Sir, please don’t do that!" He shoved off another guard himself to move back toward the President. Who twisted around and planted a foot in his face. Accidentally. Or would have if the skinsuit hood hadn’t been in between. Fortunately, the hood was both tough and resilient, and the President only retreated further. This is a nightmare! Like dreams about trying to run from danger, but only being able to move excruciatingly slowly. The President collapsed in midair and began to snore. He looked around, and felt the hair lifting on his neck. He was the only one still conscious. Marlin made himself relax, drifting with the rest into the ceiling. He lay still a long moment. How long would someone continue to watch on a vid, once they were all asleep? Through the wall, he felt the sudden shiver run through the ship. They’ve started the engines. Fat granny and THAT WOMAN! Or is she in the control room? For damn sure she’s on the ship somewhere. They slowly began to drift away from the ceiling. Stopping the rotation. Marlin considered grabbing the President, and making a run for the shuttle, but he could see dozens, more like hundreds of floating bodies between him and the dock. He eyed the door to the ring corridor. The control room.
The unconscious now littered the floor of the control room behind Fred. "On course, acceleration holding steady at 98 centimeters per second squared, sir. "May didn’t bother correcting the ichimp on gender appropriate titles. "George is worried about people suffocating if their skin suits run out of air while they’re sealed. I’ve got everyone I can spare working on that, but there’s over two thousand of them . . . " He let that trail off.
May looked at Cocoa in interrogation, who answered, "Everything’s fine, here, now. Go ahead. I’d much prefer a bloodless hijacking, myself." May studied her. The engineer was obviously relaxed, scanning her multiple boards like a vid junky watching eight shows on valium. At least there wasn’t a book in sight. Han was whistling under his breath while the little ichimp was skipping from station to station and nodded confident agreement.
"OK, I’ll be right up, Fred. And I’ll send up a bunch of helpers from el seventeen."
When the door slid open, Marlin barely kept himself from leaping for it. With his eyes open just a slit, he watched as two chimps, a man and a woman, began rolling unconscious bodies over and unsealing their hoods.
"Here’s President Bussard!" called the man.
"Just leave him, for now," answered one of the chimps. "We’ve got to hurry, before everyone's air starts to run out."
Marlin felt a chill as he realized what the chimp meant. The air supply for a skinsuit was limited. An hour maximum. Less for a large man. He lay limp as hands fumbled at his throat, then peeled back his hood.
He slitted his eyes. They were working their way into the docking bay. The door to the ring corridor lay open, two meters beyond his toes. The hijackers were busy, facing away from him. Keeping his eyes on them, he picked himself up on his fingertips and slid quietly through the door. The corridor was empty. In the light acceleration he slipped along toward the control room. The door was locked. Was subtlety called for? Or speed? He, along with all the other guards had had to turn in their pulse guns. Not safe in a vacuum environment? I’ll show you not safe. Commander Meyer Marlin was a collector of antiques. Weapons, of course. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, just after the high temperature super conductor electronic renaissance, one of the first rail guns had been made of nearly detection proof plastic. He unsealed his skinsuit and pulled the small pistol from where it had been tucked, its bulge concealed as something tucked into his trouser pocket. The C54 Ghost packed less power than the weapons that came after it, but the little rail gun would be more than enough to take out everyone in the control room, starting with who ever opened the door. As he raised his left hand to the door chime, the tram door beside him clicked, and began to open.
Then the tram door slid open and Mata Hari was stepping through before the man with the gun registered. Reflexes took over as time seemed to slow. She felt the wake of the hyperdart as she dived to her right, spinning her, grabbing the lip of the door at the same time she heard the shriek of air through a hole into vacuum, seeing the man stumble forward into the tram, hearing the pressure alarms wail, feeling the plate at the base of the tram stop slam closed, heard the roar of the emergency air into the tram space. Then time sped up again, as she climbed painfully to her feet, already knowing what she would see. Marlin was pulled flat against the plexiglas, just starting to sag, now that the pressure differential was gone. The far side of the plexiglas was covered in red. As the body sagged, she saw that besides an impressive ruptured hematoma, his head had hit the plex. She checked, nodded as she found a pulse, then left. Half the control crew were standing there, emergency gear in hand, looking at the bloody mess in shock.
She smiled wryly, "That is why you always keep your skin suit zipped, Fred." She flicked the tab that was half way down to his navel, then stooped and picked up the rail gun lying on the deck. "I expect he’ll live, it looks pretty spectacular for not really a lot of damage. And some weapons are a bad idea, too." Fred zipped his suit up to his neck, and quietly re-entered the control room.
"Get underway NOW!" Oleg snapped at the pilot, unable to tear his eyes away from the wall monitor. On the right, chaos reigned, with panic stricken reporters windmilling and frantically clawing their way toward the putative safety of the shuttles in stark contrast to the floating, unconscious security forces. A core of guards was still organized enough to screen the President and move as a unit through the mob toward the shuttle dock. The left side of the wall displayed a tracking plot of the Chamberlain’s vector, detailed enough to show it cartwheeling as it spun away from its anchor.
"Undocking," Razor was clipped and short, concentrating on a fast and poorly prepped departure. She had wisely not voiced her doubts about docking with the wildly out of control Chamberlain.
Oleg barely felt the push of the maneuvering thrusters; glued to the screen, he watched yellow vector change arrows spring up on the Chamberlain icon. "Zoom on Chamberlain." Yes, they were under power, reducing their end for end rotation. He punched the button to the pilot again. "Hurry, they’re reducing tumble, they’ll get underway as soon as they can."
"Yes, sir." Oleg didn’t even notice the nasty tone of Razor’s voice. "Acceleration in ten seconds."
While the transfer shuttles looked much like the orbital shuttles, being aerodynamically streamlined to allow emergency atmospheric re entry, they saved mass with a much smaller laser fusion engine. An acceleration of one third G was more than sufficient for moving between low Earth orbit, L4, L5 or lunar orbit. Oleg wished now that he’d ignored common sense and bought an Orbiter. As the acceleration pressed him gently into his chair, he saw the spreading exhaust fan of the Chamberlain as its main engine fired. The Chamberlain was even more constrained, its acceleration barely one tenth G, but it could keep accelerating for months. The plot on the wall displayed intercept times. Just over an hour. They had enough fuel to make it, but not much over. If they couldn’t catch her now, the enormous fuel reserves of the Chamberlain would take her out of reach.
"Sir!" the pilot yelped, as the maneuvering thrusters shoved them violently sideways, "will you TALK to these people!"
Oleg keyed in to the comm channel, "Stand off immediately we will open fire!"
"Who is this?" Oleg snapped
"This is UEG Security. You will cease acceleration toward the Chamberlain, or be destroyed!" The shuttle’s acceleration stopped suddenly.
"They’ve got multiple missile locks on us, sir," Windy Razor’s voice was shocked.
Oleg gritted his teeth, then unlocked his jaw to speak, "This is Oleg Ori. Those pods you’ve got can’t catch up to the Chamberlain, and will be out of fuel in twenty minutes of trying."
"Don’t tempt me to shoot you out of hand," replied the anonymous voice of the security patrol pod. "You’ve had more opportunity to sabotage the Chamberlain than anyone."
Oleg threw himself back to his office, "Get me Telfona, again." He hissed through his teeth as the seconds dragged.
"What now!" snapped Telfona, talking before the vid resolved.
"The Chamberlain has cut its anchors and brought up its engines. It looks like Adele . . . May Huang . . . has taken up hijacking and Presidential kidnapping for her crime-of-the-day." Oleg lost his attempt at calm, "Tell your fucking security to get out of my way! They can’t catch her, I can!"
Telfona had paled and dropped his gaze to the computer console. Oleg’s screen suddenly blanked to a hold sign. He shoved his knuckles into his teeth and watched the continuing debacle on the Chamberlain. The last of the guards around the President had succumbed to what ever . . . a gas? Something the hijackers were immune to, in any case. He watched puzzled as the already seriously shorthanded crew spread out, opening skinsuit hoods. Then his expression cleared. They didn’t want any bloodshed. They were worried that people would suffocate with their suits sealed. Bunch of softies. Ichimps, lots of ichimps started showing up, joining with the others opening skinsuits.
"Ori?" he snapped back to the comm, Telfona was speaking, "We’re relaying clearance to the security pods. They should let you through momentarily."
Oleg leaned out to yell at Razor, "We’re getting clearance, go as soon as you can."
And back to Telfona, "My security vids show the hijackers are mostly ichimps. They seem to be taking precautions to not kill anyone. Shit!" The wall monitors was showing white streaks as the transmissions faded with distance. The movement became jerky and uneven. Oleg hastily tapped in instructions for an extrapolation program and focused on two vids, the corridor with the President and the control room. "I’m getting too far from the vidcamms," he told Telfona, "I need to close in on them. The President’s all right, so far." After a few seconds thought, he rebroadcast the corridor picture to Telfona. Might as well pick up a few brownie points with the Feds. He swayed as the shuttle accelerated suddenly. Bringing up the navigational display, he saw that they still were within the intercept envelope. "We’ll catch them," he assured Telfona, who didn’t look terribly reassured.
"Ori, be careful around the President! He’s the important . . . " Telfona trailed off and Ori looked back at the wall screen with a hiss. There she is! Adele . . . May Huang and several ichimps were back to opening skin suits. He flipped through the vidcamms, oblivious to Telfona’s curses in the background, as he followed her through the ship. In the docking bay, the press shuttles were all opened, and presumably anyone who’d gotten that far was also uncanned. After what looked like some comm consultations, the ichimps began loading the unconscious people into the shuttles. May Huang spent some time in each of the shuttles, going systematically down the line. When she’d finished doing whatever she was doing to them, she returned to the President and oversaw his delivery to the sickbay, where one of the few humans Oleg had seen so far joined them. The President was strapped into a bed as the man checked him over. Apparently satisfied, May Huang returned to the control room, where she took over a backup comp unfortunately the screen was out of the vidcamm’s viewing angle. Finally registering Telfona’s increasingly vitriolic language, Ori switched one screen back to sickbay, so the Feds could watch the Prez sleeping peacefully. And ha! That idiot Marlin, unconscious and covered with blood. At least he’d been good enough to put up a fight. Ori scanned through the increasingly sharpening pictures. The ichimps had cleared the forward section of people, the humans all crammed into the first seven shuttles. The few ichimps, security mostly and a few press types, probably camm carriers, were all being taken down the trams.
"See that, Telfona? The ichimps are staying. Bet you anything they’re her clients. Why don’t you check what any other ichimps are doing?"
Telfona glared at him, "we don’t need your advice on how to investigate this, Ori. We do have some experience."
Oleg sneered but refrained from further speech as he studied the navigation display. Ten more minutes! As he turned to tell the security team, a chip of light departed from the Chamberlain. The symbols beside the dot were the ID of one of the press shuttles. As he watched, it decelerated slightly. The comp automatically brought up its predicted flight path. Crossing his. "Razor!"
"I see it! I can dodge it! No problem." She screamed back, them started cussing. Oleg looked back at the nav display to see that yet another press shuttle had undocked.
"What’s the problem, Ori?" demanded Telfona.
"That Bitch is throwing the Press shuttles at us." Ori informed him through stiff lips. "They appear to be under remote control." A glance at the wall confirmed that Ad-May was concentrating hard, her fingers flying over the keys. "We’re going to have to waste fuel dodging."
"They loaded the press into the shuttles before they launched. You’d better start arranging their rescue." Ori told Telfona.
"Do you have enough fuel to continue the pursuit?" asked Telfona, urgently.
"Yes," snapped Ori, over-riding a yelled "No!" from both Razor and her copilot. "I’m not going to quit if I have to chase them halfway to Jupiter!"
"They’re not going to Jupiter! They’re decelerating!" yelled Razor.
"What!" yelped Telfona, "Get me Traffic Control! Are they headed for Earth?"
Oleg scanned the projections of the Chamberlain’s course. "No, they’re outbound from Earth, but decelerating relative to Earth’s orbit. They’re dropping into the inner Solar System." He frowned at the range of projections, "If they keep accelerating . . . no, they’ll coast. They’re heading for Venus, God knows why, there’s nothing there but a construction shack in orbit for…" His voice drifted off as he thought furiously. "Telfona? Find Richard Beringar. If you can."