Chapter Twenty One
Major Woods, surveyed his new, and unfortunately temporary, squad of Space Marines. They looked incongruous in the civilian docking module of the L4 Station. They were in full combat gear, power armor, plasma rifles, pulse lasers, and the ever despised stunners. They most likely didn’t like having to take orders from some Criminal Investigation Major, even if he was a former Marine. They knew he was now in the criminal branch, so it looked to be a messy assignment. The only time they were issued this weapons mix was when they were to go up against an unknown force armed with unknown weapons to pull some hostages out of harms way. The plasma rifles and the pulse lasers were used to get close to where the hostages might be held then they had to start using the stunners. Every terrorist and Vid addict knew that even minimal shielding made the stunners useless. A damned phased sonic shield powered by a simple flashlight battery blocked eighty percent of the stunner's effects.
"Major, all present or accounted for!!" Sgt Helen Freeman reported over the company circuit. "Heavy gear stowed."
"Thank you, Sgt Freeman." Woods responded. "Let’s get them aboard the ship. I will want all of the NCOs at my first briefing about this mission." Christ, he’d run into her and her squad offloading from a tug when he’d been ship hunting. He’d sent them for a quick meal while he finished the paper work and Tsau rounded up the squad he’d had for all of three days. Bet they caused a real riot down in the restaurant district. No doubt they’d be hearing from a livid Chief of Police, but Captain Carpenter was going to have to deal with it, he was going to be the sole marine left in L4CI.
Picking up his own plasma rifle, he started towards the boarding ramp. He had hated the practice of the Space Navy having one boarding ramp for the officers and another for enlisted, but he'd learned long ago to follow the Navy custom if he wanted Navy officers to listen to his requests. At least he didn’t have to worry about that, with this civilian ship.
It also didn't help his sense of foreboding that he was the only Space Marine who could have used the officer’s ramp. And while they had given him one of the Advanced Combat Vehicles, only two of the troops in his command could pilot one. He wondered if Freydon or Bastone could fly it? Looking around the cramped interior of the ship, his heart sank further.
"Christ, airliner accommodations? This is going to be a six week trip, easily."
"Well then go find another ship!" snapped Mic Freydon, through the open door to the pilot’s tiny cabin.
"Sorry, Mic, but this is the only long range ship available and ready to go at L4. You should be thanking me for leasing the ship so quickly after you’d repossessed it, instead of whining." Woods leaned to his left and snagged Corporal Wolfe as he flew by.
"Whoa, thanks Major! I thought it would be, like, faster, you know, to float instead of walking. Wow, I guess I need more, you know, practice."
Chuck spotted Doctor Huang up front and joined her. "Sure you don’t want to change your mind?" he asked.
"No, you’re going to need a doctor," she smiled, "I may be a bit rusty at hands-on medicine, but I’m better than nothing." She sobered, "And I need to try to finish this."
Chuck nodded understanding, and turned back to the troops, "Where’s Sgt Tsau?" then spotting him, "Is your squad aboard?"
"Yes, sir, ready to go." He was grinning at the prospect of action.
"And that’s another thing!" Yelped Freydon, "You’ve hired my pilot out from under me! I need him for other stuff!"
"But, Mic," Woods purred, "Didn’t I make clear that you were coming with us? You’re a deep space rated pilot, too. I need a backup."
"What! You can’t do that!"
"Oh, yes I can. This is an Alpha One Emergency. I can do damn near anything."
"Alpha One!" The new Sergeant had been taking it all in silently, but that startled her out of her reticence. "What’s happening, Sir?"
"At 1500 hours today, three hours ago, the UEES Chamberlain was hijacked with President Bussard aboard. At this point, it looks like she’s headed for Venus, and it looks like we’re in for a long chase."
As the hatch sealed behind the last marine, the ship detached from the station. Bastone called over his shoulder, "Acceleration in two minutes, strap down, please."
Woods gestured at the front row of seats, "Sergeant, won’t you step into my office for a briefing?"
Chapter Twenty Two
"Mr. Ori." Major Woods nearly succeeded in keeping the irritation out of his tone. "If we dock simultaneously we can put twice the manpower onto the Chamberlain at once. While it looks like the ship is seriously undermanned, they’ve nonetheless got somewhere in the vicinity of two hundred people on board, as well as possibly sixteen hundred or so ichimps. If the alarm goes up before we’re both docked, the second ship may find itself dodging shuttles while the first group faces bad odds in an armed confrontation, even if ichimps are useless in battle."
Sgt Freeman, listening from out of range of the vid pickup, shook her head pessimistically. She had stopped even trying to talk to Ori’s ‘Thug in Charge’ as she’d taken to referring to her counterpart on the other ship. She had opined that Ori’s ‘troops’ were an uncoordinated collection of bouncers, bullies, and Mafia hit men. She was not alone in her opinion. Cherry Huang had attempted to coordinate with Ori’s ‘medic’. ‘The Doc’ as the troops had taken to calling her, had since promised to save all pain killers and anesthesia for the marines, but maintained that it would still be her duty to operate on Ori without them if necessary.
"Once we are all on board, we can split our forces." Woods fought to keep a straight face as Freeman and Tsau nodded enthusiastically from beyond Ori’s image. "You can take the bridge and regain control of the Chamberlain, while I grab the President. The hijackers will have to split their forces and thus be at a numerical disadvantage." Depending on how many noncombatants they have, he did not say out loud.
"Well," Ori drawled, "That depends on whether they even bother to defend the President. If they’re keeping him anywhere handy, all you have to do is take out a few guards, mission accomplished." He sneered, "Why should they even try to get him back? They only took him in the first place to prevent the Earth Gov from launching a missile attack on the Chamberlain before it could get out of near Earth space. They’ll probably be delighted to see half of their attackers babysitting him, while they hold the bridge. And I don’t share the common view that ichimps can’t fight."
"All the more reason to wait for a simultaneous attack." Chuck pointed out. "If we can rescue President Bussard that quickly and easily, be assured I will release half or more of the company for other targets. The Life Support controls come to mind, as does the AI, the trams and Engineering." Woods told himself firmly to stop letting his dislike of Ori cloud his judgment. "Recapturing the Chamberlain is my second priority. As soon as Bussard is safe, we’ll be right there helping you." Freeman grimaced in the background, and mouthed Help HIM!
Another channel buzzed for his attention. He cued the comm to accept and record compressed data, then curled a finger at Private Baker, "The data you wanted is here."
"Oh, good!" she perked up, "It’s just a wild idea I had," she apologized. "Oh, maybe it wasn’t so wild after all. See, the three main frame members of the Chamberlain? They will fit exactly the three frame members of the Venus High Atmosphere Scoop. Richard Beringar is building an interstellar ram ship." She brought up a different screen, "See this trajectory? They could maneuver just a little as they pass south under Venus and then loop north over the Sun, where they will begin to accelerate as they swing south for Alpha Centauri." Brooke’s eyes seemed to glow.
"Holy…." Woods looked over his own shoulder at the comm screen to find Oleg concentrated on his own calculations.
Oleg looked up, tight lipped. "She’s right. It all fits. Only they’re not going to have enough forward speed to collect all the hydrogen they need to run the ram."
Brooke hesitated, then suggested, "How about if they meet the Iceberg. They can refuel there. That will give them the needed velocity."
Oleg looked enlightened. Woods felt baffled. "The what?"
"Beringar’s Iceberg," snarled Ori, "he shifted the orbit of a comet several years ago to show that it could be done. That nutcase Reverend Vorp," he jerked his chin at Chuck, "organized massive protests and got the project shut down, but not soon enough, apparently! Government fell down there, didn’t they?"
"Vorp’s not government," Chuck growled.
"He’s attacked every project the government wanted shut down. Bears a rather striking resemblance to a covert ops agent." Ori sneered.
"I wouldn’t know." Chuck replied shortly, "Okay, I remember the fuss. Beringar fooled around with the comet, wanted to shift it into a circular orbit in the Asteroid Belt. When it looked like they were going shut him down, he accelerated it, right? Where is it now?"
"Way out of the Solar System, it’s way past escape velocity, it was a long period comet anyway." Baker frowned. "I thought at the time it was about the worst comet he could use. He must have had this in mind all along." She turned back to her comp and started punching numbers.
"How much do we know about the Alpha Centauri system?" Tsau asked, "Enough that they would risk just going?"
"We’ve known for years that there are planets around all three of the stars," answered Woods, "Some of the spectral analyses indicate that some may have ozone and water vapor in their atmospheres, although some astrophysicists think those readings may be from the system’s Oort cloud."
"The resolution’s too low to determine size, but some of the planets are definitely smaller than gas giants." Cherry put in, from behind Tsau. "Of course, there hasn’t been any new data in decades; since the long baseline array broke up, in fact." Her voice was very dry, "The government doesn’t seem interested in spending money on pure science. Or anything else in space. The Chamberlain is the first manned outer planets ship in fifty years."
"The government has been limiting development in space ever since the Union of Asteroid Miners told the United Earth Government to go screw itself." Oleg put in from the comm. "You wouldn’t believe what I have to put up with to stay in business." He glared at Chuck. "Or maybe you would." He scowled at the screen. "All right, we’ll coordinate our attack. It looks like we’ll have to catch them here and now, because they’re not going to be hanging around." The screen darkened as he signed off.
Cherry slid out of the comm corner, and back to where her equipment was ensconced in a row of seats. Early on, Sergeant Freeman had carefully maneuvered the Advanced Combat Vehicle out of the main cargo hold and mated its belly hatch to the Martian Express’s top cabin hatch. Three quarters of the marines (the men) had then moved into the hold and jury rigged latrines and showers, which frankly seemed to work better than the permanent facilities in the cabin. The female contingent had taken over the back half of the cabin, leaving the officers and pilots the entire front to split up as they liked. Cherry’s sick bay was centrally located, but had fortunately not been needed.
As had quickly become his habit, Chuck wandered after her and draped himself over the next seat. "Does making an outer planets exploration ship into an interstellar colony ship sound like something your sister would do?" he asked her.
"Right up her alley," Cherry laughed, "Totally mind boggling. Didn’t that report of yours mention the school trip to China?"
"You mean the one about a fifteen year old tourist compromising the internal government computers so badly that they thought there was a widespread insurrection? An army gathering outside Bejing? Causing an all out artillery and aerial bombing on their own concealed missile base?"
"Yes, that’s the one. Did it also mention that she brought back copies of all the genengineering that had been done? That resulted in us?"
"Yep." He hesitated, "Did that information result in the US’s super soldier project?"
"Yes." There were suddenly tears in her eyes, "When the news of the raid, all you babies, came out, that’s when May swore she’d never help any government again."
He hesitated, "I’m, um, eighty four. You must be close to thirty years older. Have you ever needed rejuve?"
"Never. I’m one hundred and eleven."
"You look barely twenty."
"I know, it was hell until rejuve came out. I could not get bars or restaurants to believe that I was old enough to drink once I hit thirty." Then answering his puzzled look, "They thought I must be borrowing someone else’s ID. At twenty five they were merely doubtful. Now they just go ‘wow, you must be one of the first rejuves!’" She shrugged. "There are plenty of people older than May and I. Nano tech has caught up with us, we’re nearly ordinary."
"Never that." He assured her.
Chapter Twenty Three
"Spider, don’t you know what a comm is for? It’s bad enough that you hang up on me but this is . . . " Beringar’s voice trailed off as he took in the state of SpiderJohnny’s ship. "You’re the best," He tried to start again but his voice failed him.
SpiderJohnny shoved wearily back from the disemboweled instrument panel. "Beringar?" he hissed, "Do you have a really fucking BIG rat trap?" His organic eye was nearly as red as the cyber implant, his scruffy hair was spiked and disorderly. He pulled a limp damp rag out of his pocket and dabbed at his raw, red nose. He…did not seem to have bathed lately. "Tempted though I am to take your credit chip and shove it up your rectum," Beringar had the distinct impression that Spider would have preferred to yell, but his voice seemed hoarse, "I’m going to allow you to pay me double, if you will get that FREAKING OBSENITY," his voice managed a painful squeak, "of a goddamned manufactured, purified, essence of the evil attributes of four shit ass worthless species off my ship, out of my sight, COMPLETELY AWAY from me," he dropped his voice to a hiss, "And its pet human as well." He jabbed a finger aft, "The sweet lil’ darlin’ from Hell is locked in the head.IT is lurking somewhere. GET THEM OUT OF HERE!!!!"
"Oh…kay, Spider," Beringar made calming motions with his hands. "I’ll take your, ah, passenger, off your hands," he frowned at the sight of a small paw reaching out of an opened panel. "Do you have rats, Spider?"
Spider’s head snapped around as the paw grabbed something and flashed out of sight. "AAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!" His voice broke as he started coughing, then sneezing, curling up into a miserable ball in mid air.
Beringar hesitated a moment, then floated carefully down the aft corridor. An outward opening door on the left was closed and secured by the simple expedient of jamming a bar across the corridor.
He had to brace himself to budge the bar. Although the damage it might do, floating around loose seemed superfluous, he shoved it back across the corridor away from the door. He opened the door with trepidation. "Hello?"
The first thing he saw was the…no, it wasn’t a gun. It was a shower head. Complete with hose. It trembled. His eyes rose from the small hand holding it, to the wide, frightened eyes of its wielder. As his appearance registered, her mouth opened as well, "Oh, oh!" she flung herself at him, "Save me! Keep that horrible thing away from me!" Fortunately she was small, so her momentum only shoved him back against the far wall. She wrapped her arms around his neck in a death grip. "He tried to kiss me!"
"I did not!" croaked a hoarse voice from the bridge. "I just freaking ASKED! I didn’t DO anything!"
"Keep him away from me," she wailed.
"Keep her away from ME!" croaked Spider, "And make her take that motherless rodent with her!"
"Farengi!" She relaxed her death grip enough to turn and glare at Spider, "What have you done to…oh, baby!" She made kissy noises at the wiggling snout that appeared beyond Spider’s shoulder.
Spider curled up in a ball, in a paroxysm that appeared to be compounded of equal parts cough, sneeze and heave. A ferret like creature bounded out of the control panel, swooping accurately into the girl’s outstretched hand.
Beringar pushed her gently in the direction of the airlock, frowning at the sorry state of his zero G contractor. "Spider, why don’t you, um, clean up a bit and get some rest. I’ll use a tug to dock your ship with mine, and talk to you in, say, twelve hours."
SpiderJohnny uncurled enough to croak something vaguely affirmative.