Chapter Fifty Two
Chuck watched the ghostly lace of the comet remnant shrink on the vidscreen with both satisfaction and discontent. The Chamberlain was under acceleration again, and truly and finally leaving the Solar System. By the time he got home tonight the els would have been spun out again and he could sleep in a proper bed, even if it still lacked a proper bedmate. Which might well be part of his discontent, note to self: hustle those wedding plans along, but frankly, it was the presence of the piggies, and their possible sabotage of Ursula’s airhose, not to mention their possession of laser pistols, that was bothering him.
He could feel the prickly atmosphere at the control stations. The bridge crew had never integrated. The piggie pilots and navigators had resisted all attempts to draw them into socializing outside of work shifts. As Captain Freeman strolled over and paused beside him as if admiring the view, she muttered, "I’d happily go back to double shifts and lose the lot of them."
"Can’t." He muttered back, not bothering to elaborate. She knew why better than him. Half of the pilots were piggies, and more than half the flight crew were trainees. Not good. They did have a few reserves, Spider had never piloted the big freighters, but most likely could fly her without a problem, and he’d grown up navigating all over the system. Monkenstein could both pilot and navigate, although he’d never been licensed and was out of practice. Kirby had told him that there were some good ichimp prospects coming up and that Monkenstein was slanting his advanced math classes toward navigation and engineering. They’d be in great shape . . . in five or ten years. If the piggies hadn’t gotten off their high horse by then, he damn well would marginalize them.
He glance over at the sound of the hatch sliding open, and nodded to Ivan. "Ready to run out the els?"
"Yeah, everyone’s as ready as they ever will be." He rolled his eyes.
Chuck grinned, "I’m glad you’re the one with two thousand civvies to pamper, not me."
"Insensitive war monger!" Ivan sniffed, "My poor civvies have been upchucking for nearly eight weeks, spin them out slowly and gently, please. Then," he added glumly, "they’ll start breaking ankles and wrists because they’re not used to gravity."
"Then we do it all over again in about six weeks."
"And we thank you." Ivan growled.
Hearing a bit of a rustle, Chuck turned a bit to get the pilot and navigator stations back in his peripheral vision. The pilot trainee was brushing off her sleeve, no doubt because Flintstone has touched it. Freeman had two people at each station, wanting both to have experienced people on deck and to give the trainees actual experience with maneuvering the huge ship. In six weeks they’d shut the engines down again long enough to deploy the scoop. That would be the last maneuver until they started to decelerate, somewhat past halfway, so Freeman had allowed the trainees to actually maneuver the Chamberlain away from the Iceberg and reset its course.
"The best and the worst of them." Chuck muttered under his breath, knowing Ivan would hear. "Pity Prissy can’t do personality transplants."
"Cherry complaining about you again?" Ivan asked blandly. "You humans are ridiculously slow at your courting. I’ve had my tux ready for the big event for three months now."
"We decided to have it after we left the system, The First Wedding in Interstellar Space, and so on." Chuck growled, "It sounded romantic—several months ago."
Ivan just kept grinning, turning around to nod politely to Freeman as she joined them. "We’re steady on course and ready to run out the els, unless there’s a problem?"
"You may proceed, Captain." Chuck told her formally.
Ivan seconded it, "Please."
She stepped over to the engineering console, usually unmanned. The ichimps dominated the engineering department, and mostly ran it from down there. However, two of them had come up for this maneuver, probably a quiet way of responding to piggie snipping about the ichimps not pulling their weight on the crew.
The chimes sounded for a shipwide communiqué. "The runout of the living spheres will commence in one minute. Lateral thrust to spin the ship will commence in forty five seconds."
Chuck and Ivan both watched the pilot console. The maneuver was programmed out by the trainee Coltrane. Flintstone nodded his approval as he authorized the move, but sat back and let the trainee carry it through. Not as exciting as a small ship, too computerized, Chuck thought. He barely felt the tiny lateral acceleration, but the fading shadow of the sail on the vid wall slid sideways and was lost. Chuck wandered over to the control panel. The display wall was for spectators not the crew, and he could play with it as he wished. He switched to a forward pickup, watching the lesser stars circle around the bright spec of their destination. "Eighteen more years."
"I hope there’s a habitable planet there, somewhere." Ivan grimaced, "Better yet, two." He turned to watch the Captain.
"Pilot, lock controls. Navigator, confirm course."
"Controls locked, Captain." Coltrane reported.
After a slow minute, "Course confirmed, Captain." Trainee Drake reported, echoed by a miniscule nod from Lieutenant Perris.
"Separation maneuver successfully completed, Colonel Woods." Freeman told him officially. "We are on course and returning now to standard cruising status." She returned to the engineering station to watch the engineer releasing the locks on the els and letting them pull just a few meters away from the ship for the first check. Then they were slowly let out, the elevator connections stretching, the cables steady and without sway. The entire process would take several hours, with constant monitoring.
"Everything green, Captain." One engineer reported.
"Excellent." Freeman walked back to stand behind the flight crew as she scanned their displays.
"Very smooth." Chuck congratulated her, "Your crew is working up very nicely." Technically correct.
"Thank you, Sir."
Chapter Fifty Three
Beringar leaned back, trying to look comfortable and relaxed. He didn’t want to alarm the youngsters, they weren’t in on the entire plan, and there was no reason that they should be. Ignorance gave the best impression of innocence, after all.
"Thank you for coming," He smiled around the table, "I hope I’m not interfering with your sleep." He didn’t make it a question, he knew damn well he was, but an appearance of politeness and caring for people’s well being was always a good idea.
"No, sir." Henry Gant was an experienced Earth-to-Lunar-orbit navigator, and had flown his shuttle to the Chamberlain after the first hijacking. "They keep us penned up on the first two shifts. They run the third shift light, with trusted people only."
"Well, we’re going to have to change the power equation soon," Beringar said. "We could nearly run the ship by ourselves." There, slide the idea out as if it were an observation, not an immediate goal.
Sharp, the pilot, frowned, "Not quite, we only have two navigators, and three pilots. And the ichimps are still refusing to accept any engineering trainees." He looked pissed about that, as well he should. Those freaks had no right to deny them the training. One of their priorities though was going to be making sure Ann Cocoa wasn’t killed. With luck a few of the young Marine trainees would switch their allegiance to him once he’d dealt with the abomination that had them under his thumb now.
He dragged his mind back to the meeting. "Well, that will change with time." Shrug, "The ichimps are so genetically crippled that very few of them are capable of advanced training, so we will be taking an ever growing role in the running of the ship. So," he looked at the youngsters further down the table, "I take it training is going well?"
The girl that May Huang had imitated spoke first, "We’re doing very well. I’ve finished the flight time requirements for the pilot’s license training I started on Earth, so I finally get to stand watches without that creature telling me what to do." Her nostrils flared a bit.
Gant shook his head in disagreement, "Flintstone’s actually been a very good teacher, Eva. After watching him, I have to say I believe the rumors I’ve been hearing about human-ichimp hybrids. He may be uglier than sin, but he doesn’t act . . . limited, like most ichimps do."
"That has been my objection to ichimps all along." Beringar said. "They are a deliberate mutation of the human genome, a deliberate and evil attempt to limit mankind’s potential by creating a race of barely intelligent slaves. God only knows what the Foundation was thinking of." He made a chopping motion with his hand, "I won’t get up on my soapbox now though. We have better things to discuss. How is the navigation training coming, Ross?" He forced himself to smile at the self-conscious young man.
"Fine sir." His voice wavered a bit, "May Huang’s been training me, so I don’t have the problems Eva has." He hurried on, "I’ve passed the written tests and just need flight deck time, now. May Huang says they’ll occasionally take the shuttles out to keep them in good running order and give us lots of flight experience."
Beringar sighed, but decided not to point out that Huang was also an abomination. She’d be dealt with soon enough. "I understand that we’ll be coasting for a week to deploy the scoop, then get underway and test it. So perhaps you’ll be able to get more experience handling the Chamberlain." That sounded benign, not like he was trolling for information.
Massey, the other pilot trainee nodded. "I’ve been told I’ll get some of the maneuvers, this time." He frowned, his eyes sliding toward Coltrane, "although it won’t be complex stuff like leaving the Iceberg." He sounded jealous.
"Well, you’re ahead of the new crop of trainees, eh?" Beringar diverted him. "They’ve yet to set foot on the bridge." He split a look between the experienced pilot and navigator. "How are they shaping up?"
Sharpe answered, "They’re coming along quickly, sir. The training modules are quite good, especially for simulating handling a big ship like this. They don’t have the feel of the small ships, the shuttles or pods, but that will be easily remedied if they take the small ships out for training. Remember that we have one long range shuttle that is ours, not theirs."
Gant cleared his throat, "The new batch of trainees are still doing their course work, sir. Some of them are having problems with the math."
"That’s because you make them work it out with pen and paper, Henry." Sharpe told him. "You don’t have to be as medieval as the Academy, you know."
"It’s a long trip to Alpha, gentlemen," Beringar inserted. "Taking your time and being thorough is not a problem." So long as they can stand watches under straight acceleration starting next week, he didn’t say out loud. "Well, that’s all I wanted to see you about," he told them, "I’m glad to hear that your training has gone so well." He stood then and they all stood as well and filed out when he held the door for them, "John, could I see you for just a moment?"
"Of course, sir." Sharpe looked surprised, and a bit wary.
Beringar closed the door, leaving the two of them alone. "I want you to be on the bridge when we accelerate after deploying the scoop. I will need some time for a special project of mine. Specifically, I need two hours between the last of the ichimp workers getting inside and the start of acceleration."
Sharpe opened his mouth, then shut it carefully. "Two hours . . . shouldn’t be a problem, sir." He hesitated, "They’ll be testing the stability of the scoop under the barest whisper of acceleration at first, will that be a problem?"
"Not if the ship isn’t rotating, with the els run out. Even the usual tenth G wouldn’t be critical, so long as no one slips, but it would slow us down and make us more visible."
"OK, sir. I’ll be on the bridge and by double-checking everything the trainees do, I’m sure I can get you that two hours."
"Excellent." Beringar gave him a razor edged smile. "If there is any change, I’ll let you know."
When he had left, Beringar crossed the room to the opposite door. "OK, gentlemen, I believe we’ll have our two hours, do you have everything you need?"
Chapter Fifty Four
The concentric rings of the shallow bowl of the scoop showed diagrammatically on the control room wall. The excruciatingly slow movement of the rings was invisible to the human eye. The coils of microscopically fine field wires were paid out gently, the support posts telescoping out under internal gas pressure. Ivan kept one eye on the piggies, and another on the engineering station that was monitoring all the construction workers out on the scoop. His people were horribly vulnerable, but he couldn’t think of anything the piggies could do that would hurt them without causing damage to the scoop. Now, after it was deployed and before everyone got inside . . . that would be the time to watch them. And worry about how many of them were on the bridge. Students indeed! Eight people with, apparently, ground school and simulator training that wanted to watch the maneuvers. Eight! Like finding smart people was no trouble at all. Ivan seethed. The things these humans did to my people! They try anything now, they’re dead. Looking back at the wall display, he could finally see the elongation of the bowl. There was an ichimp at every expanding support and every wire coil, risking their lives to get this right, as they had risked, and lost, their lives building both the ship and the scoop. Beringar could speak of ownership all he wanted, but ichimps had built it and by sweat, blood, and yes, violence, it was theirs. Even the Marines wouldn’t stand in his way. If he had to dump every single human on board, he by damn would. His gaze wandered in the direction of Major Woods and May Huang and he snorted a bit with abrupt internal laughter. Some of them I would ask to leave very politely, with plenty of supplies to get them home. He grinned to himself, shrugging off the last of his anger. Beside, I need to keep Prissy, so I’ll just fantasize about ditching Beringar with a short air supply.
May strolled idly over and scanned the readouts. "I wish I knew where Beringar is right now." She breathed, barely loud enough for even his ears. "I’m going to check my bugs, and have a paranoia attack in private." She wandered around a bit, looking over the pilot and navigator readouts, then wandered out the door. With so many people on the bridge, Chuck had locked the door in the open position, ostensively for ease of movement and more air circulation. Ivan suspected he had some of his troops close to hand.
Ivan strolled over to the wall display again. The separation of the rings was larger now, the bowl stretching out toward the wide mouthed vase shape it would need for effective operation. Packed, it had seemed sturdy despite its size. Opening out, it was looking thinner and more delicate already. At full extent it would be beyond gossamer.
Captain Freeman nodded a greeting, "After the rings are secured in their working position, we’ll run some very careful acceleration tests, then crank up the ionizing lasers and get underway." Her voice was pitched so that everyone in the vicinity could hear. A few of the new Piggies frowned at him and shifted away. Freeman hissed just a bit under her breath, Ivan barely heard " . . . tired of these damn . . . "
"You have to put up with this crap everyday, don’t you?" he commented, quietly.
"Yeah, Damn good thing Flintstone doesn’t have any temper to speak of. In his shoes, I’d have pasted the little snots by the third day."
"He parodies them something awful, down at the mall." Ivan told her, "It helps to make them objects of ridicule, rather than hated."
She glanced at him in surprise, but nodded. "Good idea." She shot a glance at the piggies clustered around the control stations. "We have to do something about them."
With one ear cocked toward the speaker she’d dedicated to listening in on the piggies, May Huang searched her apartment with unaccustomed irritation. There was a babble of complaints about zero G from the commons, an occasional rustle from Beringar’s apartment, just enough to indicate he was probably in residence, nothing worth noting at all. Except that she couldn’t find the purse she’d carried on her trip to fetch Prissy. "I can’t have left it there. Jeeze, I’d better not have left it there." She muttered, then gave up and headed for the clinic.
"Cherry?" she spotted her sister, scowling grumpily at her micromanipulator. "When Simon hauled me in here, did I have a big brown purse?"
"Your accessories were not high on my list of things to notice, Mata Hari." Her sister’s voice was dry. "Although I did notice the wig. I don’t think blonde is your color."
"The purse had my undeployed bugs, a little EMP pulse generator and some extra disguises. I’ve got a horrible feeling that I may have just left it there." She dug her fingers into her scalp. "Which means Beringar knows I’ve bugged him, and he has my neato little gadget to play with. Although," she admitted, "I really don’t know what he could do with it."
"I almost hate to ask, but what do you do with an EMP pulse generator?"
"Oh, it’s perfect for shutting down security systems, fries electronic locks and so forth." May shrugged, "You leave a pretty good trail of where you’ve been so it’s useless for serious sneaking. I guess," she admitted, "that I just hate to admit that I walked off without it."
"You were badly injured, whether you want to admit it or not." Cherry snapped. "I can’t believe you made it as far as you did before you collapsed. May!" it was Cherry’s turn to clutch her head. "Please, please, don’t do things like that. And stop worrying about the stupid gadget. What can he do with it?"
May clicked her feet off and on the floor in irritation. "Nothing, I guess." She looked at her watch, "I guess I’d better head out, I’ve got pod duty, in case of accidents outside. I might as well go early as climb the walls in here. See you." She shoved out the door, shaking her head. "I can’t believe I left it," she growled under her breath.