"There are two thousand of us, and less than two hundred of you. Why should we share power?" Ivan D. Terrible crossed his arms and studied Beringar, who appeared to be well on his way to having a heart attack.
The conversation between Simon and May Huang fell silent as they both openly eavesdropped. Ivan, keeping her in his peripheral vision, was relieved to see that she looked amused; her wrath was one of the few things he feared.
"This is my ship, you stole it!" Beringar glared.
Ivan snorted. "Legally speaking, it’s Oleg Ori’s until the United Earth Government pays for it. At the moment, de facto ownership appears to be up for grabs." He glanced over at Major Woods, "I suspect the government is going to default on their promise to pay."
Woods, the putative host of this ‘informal organizational meeting’ in the semi-neutral territory of the docking bay, smiled thinly, "UESA refused final payment on the grounds that the ship was not delivered as specified. The Space Division bought her, and I am, legally, if not operationally, in command." The major smiled benignly at Beringar. Beringar glared back. Huang’s eyes twinkled, but she appeared to be staying out of the argument.
Ivan smiled thinly. The humans were divided into three, or possibly four opposing camps, which suited him to a tee. Woods and Huang were both genengineered, so Beringar…well, Beringar was behaving better than he’d expected, but it wouldn’t do to forget his prejudices. At the moment it really didn’t matter. He had the engines and Beringar had the AI. They must both focus on getting out of the Solar System. Later, they would have to deal with their mutual incompatibilities.
"I think we need to share control, for now, Beringar. We both want to get to Alpha Centauri, he wants to stop us." He nodded at Woods, "But I’ll bet he doesn’t have enough trained people to run the Chamberlain."
Huang cocked her head at Woods. "Why did you stay aboard? Did you think that you had a chance to capture the ship with twenty marines? The Pure Gene Poolers and the ichimps have burned their bridges behind them. They can’t go back, ever. Do you really think that the ichimps would return to Earth? Even a promise of freedom and equal rights wouldn’t be enough. The way most of them were raised they can’t compete against humans, and frankly most of them don’t want to ever see humans again."
Woods frowned at her, "We control a third of the forward section, including the control room and the shuttle dock. We hold the forward parts of one of the main support elements including the tram and two Living Spheres." He glanced over at Ivan, "The number one truss contains the main fiber optic communications between here and the Engineering section, in case you’re wondering."
Huang winced, but nodded confirmation to Ivan, who was suffering from a sinking feeling. "We would have a very difficult, if not impossible task, rerouting the cables. We don’t have anywhere near enough cable to replace it." She shrugged. "I was hoping they wouldn’t notice. Cocoa’s got vids watching for any EV activity of theirs, but I doubt we could stop them."
"We?" asked Woods, leaning towards her with a predatory grin.
She grinned back. "We. I always take the side of the antigovernment forces. Always."
Beringar seemed to find her statement reassuring, "I agree with you, Ivan, the two of us need to continue to co-operate. And while we’re this close to the sun, I suggest none of your Marines try sabotaging the ship, Major. We’ll be far enough away in three weeks to drop you all off to return to Earth, although you’ll have to arrange for a refueling rendezvous. After that, well, you’re onboard for the duration. I suggest that you give some thought to the fact that of your twenty marines, only five are women. Not the best gender ratio for a colony. So why don’t you go back home and start all over? Hmmm?"
"Because we’re not here to start a colony, we’re here as representatives of the United Earth Government. While I’d personally prefer to arrest a batch of criminals and return some stolen property, my superiors have decided to sanction this trip." growled the Major.
"Hard case," muttered Beringar, then raised his voice. "Think about it. You could be stuck onboard for twenty years, and even then you won’t be home, you’ll be in another planetary system that maybe will have a habitable planet. Think about it."
"We’ve thought." Woods told him. "And we’ve consulted with Earth. Some of my people will be leaving in about three weeks." Major Woods added, "We have our orders. A contingent of volunteers will remain onboard." The major glowered at Beringar and Ivan, "There will be an official representative of the United Earth Government on the first interstellar manned ship." He gave them a nice big toothy grin, "Me."
"You don’t think you can run the ship all by yourself?" asked Beringar.
"No. We will maintain physical possession of the bridge, but I recommend that we all pool our available flight crews and work out how to staff it. Everyone associated with the government will stay in LS1, and the Marines will control the top of that tram run."
"We need the control room." Beringar sounded ready to push.
"You will have access to the bridge." Toothy grin. "So long as you don’t try to take it back."
"Live with it, Beringar." Advised Huang, "A cross section of cultures is much healthier than a monolith. Less likely to go to extremes and do something really stupid and obsessive."
"Like what!" Beringar yelped.
"Witch hunts. Ethnic purification, which you already have a problem with."
He glared at her.
"Intolerance." She glanced over at Ivan, "That’s something you’ll have to be very careful of too. It’s easy to go too far when everyone’s over on one side already." She shrugged. "Although most ichimps have more common sense than any five humans. You may not have any problem at all."
"We have plenty of political diversity," Ivan sniffed at Beringar. "But on some issues, we’re ‘hanging together’. Don’t worry about Beringar taking over the ship, we’ve got more engineers and pilots, and we’ve got engineering." He scowled at the humans scattered around the bay. "I would have preferred an all ichimp colony, but perhaps there will be more than one planet. Who knows? If ichimps were ruthless killers, we wouldn’t be in this position now. They have nothing to fear from us."
Ivan turned to the Major, "How many certified flight techs do you have among your volunteers? Can you run the ship yourself?" He challenged.
"I only have two pilots and one navigator staying," the Major admitted with reluctance in his voice, "We’ll cooperate on flying the ship."
Ivan breathed a sigh of relief. Ichimps were genengineered to be non-violent, but for all the superficial resemblance, he was no ichimp. He had been designed to be a soldier and a killer. But he hadn’t yet had to kill one of his own, and for all the Major’s superficial resemblance to the humans, he was probably Ivan’s closest relative. "Perhaps then, Major, Beringar, we should get our flight crews together and work up a schedule that will satisfy both your security and the needs of the ship." They both nodded. "Beringar, with some help from me, has been running the temporary bridge. I’ve been rotating three crews of two engineers in Main Fusion." He nodded across the room at Ann Cocoa. "Adding your three to the rotation will enable our people to get some much needed down time." He sighed. "I lost a few critical people in your assault, and most of Beringar’s people were left behind."
"Hijacking just isn’t the best way to plan an interstellar colony." Major Woods remarked.
"No, it’s the only way. If the Government weren’t anal retentive about space exploration, we could have done this openly." Beringar snorted. "You’d think they were afraid of Little Green Men."
Chapter Thirty One
The second time he awoke, it was hunger that drove him. He must have tranced for weeks. The stump of his arm was lumpy, sore and it itched. He hissed a bit in thought. It would take another four months for the arm to regenerate. Since neither humans nor ichimps regrew lost body parts, he'd have to avoid notice for that long. After that, if anyone saw him . . . the body he'd been eating was one of Beringar’s people. They’d recognize him, and think he should be dead. Or would they? Humans had odd memories, they might just think they’d made a mistake. That would allow him to move around with a fair degree of freedom, get supplies from other els if he needed them. Yes, he'd stick to eating the one man and take on his appearance, then if questioned, he'd just say he'd been hiding out. They'd believe him, what else could they think?
As he opened the freezer and broke off a chunk, he consciously noticed what he'd been doing all along - walking in 1/10th G. The ship was under acceleration.
He frowned at the speaker on the wall, then pushed the button marked receive/general. It was silent. How could he get information? He microed the chunk enough to defrost it, then hunted down a plate and knife.
Slicing off a bite and impaling it on the knife, he nibbled as he wandered over to the food lab. The cultures were doing well, they'd be of harvestable size in just a few more weeks. He was busy starting a few more when the sudden sound of music brought him around and running—oh, it was the comm speaker. Apparently the noise was to alert people that an announcement was coming up, because after a few minutes, the music stopped and the appallingly perky voice of a human female came on.
"Good morning, everyone! It's 0800 Zulu, Monday, September 19th, 2111.
"We have good news, this morning! Betty Crocker and George Odie Jungle are the proud parents of a beautiful baby girl! Mother and daughter are doing fine! Let all give a big welcome to Marilyn Monroe, the newest member of our crew!
"For those of you keeping track, we are now out just a bit further than Mercury's orbit, although, of course, we're a good deal south of the ecliptic.
"Major Woods has announced that the repairs to the bridge are complete. After testing, all navigational and piloting functions will be returned to the bridge. This is expected by next week. If everything checks out, we’ll run the Living Spheres out on their tethers and spin up one gee.
"The Farewell party for the people departing for Earth is tonight at 1900 in LS one . Everyone's invited to come by and say bye! Yes, even you, Beringar." The perky voice had a brief sharp note. "Especially if you and your people want to join the travelers." There was a pause, a bit of rustling in the background.
"Now for the news from Earth. The day after his return to Earth, President Bussard announced that active exploration of space will be accelerated, starting with the rebuilding of the Long Base Line Telescope Array. So, it will be an information race! The big telescopes in the Solar System, versus our own smaller telescopes, as we move closer and closer to AlphaCentauri.
"President Bussard’s popularity rating remains so high, he's considered a shoo in for re-election. His Conservative Party opponent, Emerald Gray has accused him of staging the hijacking/kidnap. Mr. Gray has demanded a financial audit of President Bussard’s private accounts to investigate the possibility that he hired NSU and PGP to steal the Chamberlain.
"In other Earth news..."
Vorp listened with half an ear as he pondered the underlying assumptions of the onboard news. Some people were leaving. The humans and ichimps had reasonably good relations with each other. The controls were repaired. Excellent. He sighed in relief. He was on his way home. Once they reached Necon Base, he could get a replacement scout and go all the way to Cinnab. Think of the status! Showing up with samples of an intelligent species, not only the first ever found, but one starting to explore space! And the overblown, excessive camouflage response to the Earth DNA, with the right handling, it could become the latest craze! It would be eighteen years until this clumsy ship made it to Necon. He had plenty of time to plan a takeover, in, say, fifteen years.
Yes, that would be about right.
But he would need help. Could he fool a group of humans into following him blindly, as he had before? Probably not. Especially since there were more ichimps than humans on board. He shuddered at the thought of becoming one of those hairy creatures. At least the humans were mostly hairless.
He frowned, thinking about the aquaculture tanks. As a periodic hermaphrodite, he could probably, through several breeding cycles, manage to self fertilize. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. Earth days had been so short he had just stayed in the usual neutral pseudo-male state, but here, he would be able to simulate Cinnab spring day length.
He speared another chunk of meat and walked down the ramp to the bottom of the sphere. The tanks were big, taking up most of the floor and about 10 meters deep. Fresh water. He dredged through his memory for the chemical balance of Cinnab’s oceans. This was going to take quite a bit of chemical adjustment, eggs were rather sensitive to salt ratios. He found the filter controls and opened up the maintenance program. Yes, it could be set for salt water. He hissed a bit in surprise, Earth oceans were that salty? This was going to take some reprogramming.
And food. What combination of Earth foods would be appropriate for the swimming larvae? He called up the files of cryoed aquatic life forms, and searched for things that could live in brackish Cinnab conditions. Not much. Some plants, shellfish, a few fish, so the larvae would have something to hunt. Yes, this could be made to work. And there were land forms, mostly birds, cryoed also, that the newts could hunt until they matured enough to start developing intelligence and could be trained. He’d better start some plants growing as well, for hiding and stalking practice. He looked up, surveying the jutting balconies of the apartment platforms. The bottom four levels would do nicely for a free range for the newts. He could seal off the ramps and keep them down here where they wouldn’t bother him.
Chapter Thirty Two
"So after all our planning, we’ve ended up with one hundred and forty three people?" Beringar ran his hands through his hair in frustration. "I should have killed Mata Hari when I had the chance."
Ms. Stick didn’t reply immediately, studying her note pad.
"Alright," he said, "what’s the next piece of bad news?"
"Of that number only fifty four are female."
He leaned back feeling stunned. "I see. Well, we always knew we’d probably have to use those artificial wombs for humans, not just animals." His thoughts circled quickly to the other humans on board, "What about the marines?"
"Minus the known abominations, they have four women." She hesitated visibly, then added, "I understand that May Huang’s human assistants have all gone over to the marines, including Anne Cocoa, so that’s another natural woman over there."
"How many people do they have, total?"
"They have about nineteen people." She scowled at her pad as if it had let her down, "That doesn’t count SpiderJohnny, who, despite his deformities is genetically normal. There is an ichimp with them, apparently she was an undercover SDCI agent, and Dr. von Monkenstein may be with that group instead of with his fellow abominations."
"Twenty two at the most, then." Beringar rocked a bit in his chair as he thought. "And every single living ichimp on Earth?" He’d ordered all his people to stop pretending the ichimps were animals, rather than deliberately altered, deliberately defective, humans. The power of words was such that after they’d called the genetically deformed by the correct term long enough, everyone would see clearly that they were indeed abominations. But he had to deal with them regularly, at least for now, and had to be diplomatic.
"Yes. The last report I’ve gotten from Earth alleges that even genetic samples are unavailable. They can’t ever clone more of them. I can’t imagine how they managed that."
"Ha! That’s the best news I’ve heard yet." Beringar smiled in satisfaction. "Between the Foundation being so tight with their genes, and NSU on the job, I’m not the least surprised. Well, the Earth is safe. Now it’s up to us to deal with these things."
"There’s a problem, flight crew wise," Ms. Stick eyed him severely. "We only have three pilots, and not a single engineer."
Beringar tapped his fingers, "Okay, we’ll have to wait until we have trained enough people." He looked at his watch, "Let’s call a meeting, I’ll work on the right spin, get people in the right frame of mind, and I’ll put in a pitch for flight crew trainees at the same time."
Chapter Thirty Three
Major Woods eyed the delegation before him with some trepidation. He suspected that May Huang was laughing at him. "So," He summarized their proposal, "in exchange for pardons, you’ll all take contracts with the government, in other words, come and work for me." He leaned back in his chair and eyed the seven women and ten men. Thirteen of them were ex-military and stood at attention. One medic, one cook and a hacker that looked to be jailbait. And May Huang, who had topped the UE’s most wanted list for decades.
"We’d add an engineer, a pilot and a navigator to your inventory. I can do any of the three, but," Her mouth twitched in a suppressed smile, "I’m not actually licensed, having this authority problem, as you no doubt know."
"Yes, Sergeant Freeman reported that you were standing watches." And I’m not sure she’s the worst! What do I do with the cultists? Apparently the Church of Earth is Eden had had some sort of connection to Beringar’s Pure Gene Poolers, a concept that hurt his brain, and Vorp himself had come with these fourteen people to join Beringar’s exodus. With Vorp dead this lot had apparently taken a dislike to Beringar.
"Why?" he asked them, "Aren’t you staying with Beringar?"
"He’s a pain in the ass," answered the oldest man, a retired NASA pilot for christsake, scratching the peeling skin of his cheek. Rejuve, thought Woods.
"He asked why my hair was so red," said the baby hacker, "Like, if it had been gened he’d have kicked me out."
"I’ve got a anticancer addition," said the plump cook. "Why should I have anything to do with a nut like that."
"I was a marine." A man in the back said, "I want to be one again."
The rest of the group was nodding agreement with one reason or another. Damn! I’ll take them. He eyed Huang warily. Even her.
"I’ll be in touch with my command and pass your request upward." He told them, "In the mean time, think about whether you really want to go. You can also return to Earth with my extra troops, with or without the pardons. Your choice."
"Thank you Major. In the mean time, may we move over here? If nothing else, it will make it much easier for you to arrest us all."
How true. "Certainly, Miss Huang." Chuck strongly suspected that arresting her could be difficult, in view of the fact that she had apparently been a very hands-on project coordinator. She could probably move walls without a blow torch. Hmm.