Shivering in reaction, Beringar dragged himself through the tram airdoor, keeping a grip on something all the while. Ms. Stick followed and slid it shut behind her.
"I don’t believe that." He said, his voice higher than usual. "There can’t have been more than two dozen marines. There can’t have been, dammit, they’re on the bridge, they’re piloting the pods, there can’t have been that many."
"Oh, shut up!" Stick snapped. "Most of those people we were hiding from were just construction workers looking for the bombs. Which I trust you can still detonate? I would recommend," she added frostily, "that you do so right now."
"Right. I can arm them through the net and start a five minute countdown." He looked around, and gritting his teeth, let go and shoved off toward the el entrance. He flubbed it like a newbie, grabbed a panicked handhold and hauled himself through. "There will be a public access comp in here somewhere."
"Which el is this?" Stick asked frowning, "I thought it was one of the empty ones."
"It’s number four, right under the marines’ el." He looked around, frowning himself. "It looks like someone’s been here," subliminal clues lined up in his brain, "It looks like a teenager crash pad, or a zero G redneck trailer park." He fended off floating debris, and looked in at the few food tubes growing in the lab. "Nothing but meat?" he muttered.
A flicker of movement caught his attention, but he saw nothing when he turned.
"This is spooky," Stick verbalized his thoughts, "But probably a better cover than we could ever manage on our own." She nodded to the right. "There’s a comp in the kitchen."
"Great, this will keep them too busy to bother us for a while." He saw Stick jerk around and looked toward the door himself.
It was small, child sized and child shaped, but feathered and furred bizarrely. It climbed like a monkey, comfortable in zero G. He tried to convince himself that it was a child in a costume, but his hindbrain was in full panic mode and wasn’t listening. He started to scramble to his right, to the door to the freezer. They could bar the door…except that there was another thing there, this one black and white. It smiled, bright white teeth gleaming. Beringar noticed numbly that the black and white one seemed to have a double set of long sharp canines as it closed in.
They entered as quickly as they could, as quietly as airlock operation would allow, and fanned out, surrounding the passageway to the el. Chuck smiled hungrily as he heard faint voices. This el should be empty. He took point, ignoring Wolfe’s glare. May brought up the rear, no fool her, with no armor.
"No. Not another bite." The unfamiliar voice was oddly flat and unaccented. Chuck shoved off the wall, aiming for a spot just short of the open kitchen door.
"I told you, do not kill humans!"
Chuck froze a moment, ichimps? Maybe he’d better call Ivan in.
"And NEVER, EVER eat them? Remember?"
He boggled for a moment, then oozed carefully around the corner. There was blood everywhere. The kind of coverage that only happens with major arteries and zero G. Two of the three people within were covered like the walls. The third was almost shocking in his normality, pale skin and brown hair, tee-shirt and sweatpants, one toe magged to the deck while he talked. Chuck’s eyes drifted back to the other two. No mistake, those were neither human nor ichimp. Even covered with blood. From the dismembered bodies floating about. His eyes followed a drifting head.
The movement of the three as they suddenly turned to face him drew his eyes back. They looked poised to attack. But settled back suddenly. He felt the faint draft on his back, and a quick gasp behind him.
He cleared his throat, "Would you happen to be the aliens whose communications we’ve been intercepting from Alpha Centauri and other systems?"
The human one, the human looking one rather, Chuck could see some odd mottled greenish coloration to his complexion, answered. "Yes. My people have a post there, although I am myself out of touch with them."
"Well," Chuck’s eyes once again drifted off toward the feathery looking one. It was holding an arm with what looked like bites taken out of it. Diplomacy. Lots of diplomacy. Couth. Manners. "While we appreciate your assistance in dealing with these saboteurs, I’m surprised to find you here. Are you monitoring our space exploration?" Do you have a Prime Directive? Can you talk to us? Or are we the primitives that are good for nothing but snacks? Which SF movie are we in, here?
"Not at all." The large one said. "We were unaware of your people; in all our years of space travel we had never met an intelligent species." It shrugged, a very human expression, even the green color was fading, "I was unexpectedly stranded, and was unable to summon assistance, so I got myself aboard this ship." His voice was still flat.
"You are out of touch?" Chuck bit his lip, "The communications we picked up stopped a number of years ago. Why? Because something happened to you?"
"They would not care if I died." The alien seemed to hesitate. Thinking? "There are several reasons they might have left this region. It is not noticeably rich in resources. Nor in planets my people can live on."
Damn! That doesn’t sound good. A delicate hand with polished pink nails floated gently past him. But maybe I’d better stop being quite so diplomatic.
"I hope people are not the only thing you like to eat."
"No, we grow meat in food tubes." The alien looked back at the two smaller ones. One stopped chewing abruptly. "The young of my species are not intelligent. They are dangerous hunters. These two are still at a growth stage where their hunting instincts can still overcome their emerging intelligence." He hissed something at them, gesturing, then turned back to Chuck. "They must be avoided by your people for some time. They are learning, their brains are growing, they will be in control of their instincts in perhaps another year." There was something tense about his stance, and his skin was growing green again.
Protecting his young? Green for aggression?
"Why do you look so human? They don’t." Too blunt! Diplomatic. Remember?
"My people have natural camouflage, we look like what we eat." The alien said. "I grow human muscle tissue in tubes, in case I need to go among you. The newts prefer beef and chicken."
Chuck eyed the two small ones. Feathers on one, short hair on the other. Under all the blood. They now had plastic trash bags and were reluctantly gathering body parts. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one sneak a bite. Ulp!
"Perhaps we should leave now, with the, um , remains." What remains of the remains! "and speak tomorrow. I need to finish dealing with another problem, and perhaps you need to . . . speak with your youngsters." God, I can’t just leave! "Would you join me and my staff for," Chuck quickly edited what he was about to say. Not dinner. Bad idea. "A meeting tomorrow at noon? In the el up from this one?"
"Certainly." The Alien turned and hissed at the, had he called them newts? More orders apparently, they approached and tendered the garbage bags.
Chuck took them, and handed them off behind him. "Thank you." He nearly stuttered halfway through the automatic response.
They both glared, "There goes dinner." The hairy one said.
"Chicken’s better anyway." The feathered one muttered as it retreated.
Chuck heard a snort from behind him, but whoever had the sick sense of humor didn’t speak. He backed away, all the way down the passage, and into the airlock, not turning his back on the aliens.
As they sealed their suits again, he finally spoke. "This is not an auspicious way to meet an alien species. You will not speak of it until I’ve had time to think about it." He wished heartily that he could beat his head on something. "Or until I wake up in sick bay after a horrible stunner dream."
Wolfe held a garbage bag at his arm’s full extension. "This is the grossest thing I’ve ever seen. If it were anyone but Beringar and Ms. Stick I'd be very upset."
Spider shot back into the room, and took a look under the now soaked sheet Kirby had wrapped around herself, "Oh my GOD! That’s GROSS!" He looked around frantically, "We’ve got to dock. Now!"
"I don’t think the baby’s going to wait that long!" Kirby curled up around her belly.
Spider frantically tried to decide whether just a tiny bit of acceleration might be good. "Could you handle acceleration? I don’t think we want to do this in freefall!" He shot back up to the pilot’s cabin.
1/20th G. Just enough to stick them to the floor.
"I started to read about this, but I didn’t get very far." For the first time since he’d met her, Kirby sounded scared.
"I started reading about babies, not this part," he confessed. "What should we do? In all the Vids, pioneer docs always want to boil water, but damned if I know what for."
"Umm, to sterilize it? I guess we’d better," her voice got strained as another contraction hit, "wash?"
Spider removed his horrified gaze from her laboring body, "Wash, right, I’ll be right back." His said breathlessly. Kirby sounded like she was hyperventilating a bit, herself.
He came right back and took a quick peek under the sheet. "I can see the head!" He reached gingerly in and supported the baby’s head then with a last contraction, suddenly found himself holding the whole baby. He wordlessly held it out to Kirby, who hastily grabbed a corner of sheet and wiped its face, trying to clear the nose and mouth. The baby sucked in a breath and expelled it in an indignant wail, and Spider suddenly found himself cuddling the baby close and protectively. It gazed back with a puzzled frown, as if wondering how it had gotten here.
"It’s a boy." He vaguely heard Kirby’s voice, then helped as she tried to fasten a plastic tie off strip around the umbilical. He carefully maneuvered number four arm around and snipped off the cord.
"Isn’t he kind of, well . . . big headed?" He whispered.
The airtight doors that were the usual egress from the tram into the el were now the inner airlock door. Chuck jetted gently in and positioned himself beside the door. "So they wised up and surrendered?" The rest of the troops followed and when they were all in, Wolfe tapped the controls.
"Hysterically." Chuck could picture Ivan’s wide grin through the comm link. "Somehow they got the impression the killer chimps were on the way."
A plate slid across the aft end trapping them in a box.
"Goodness, I wonder how they got that idea?" He felt the changing pressure mainly through the adjusting joints of his armor. Even though still fully loaded with the jet packs, they’d have better flexibility in atmosphere. The doors slid open with an audible hiss, and he eased forward and touched down in the empty room. Almost empty. There was a woman cowering back, hands raised.
"We, we surrender." She squeaked, wild eyed and trembling. There was no one else present.
"So we understand. Where’s everyone else?" Chuck asked, prowling over to look down the empty corridor to the el proper.
"We’re all in our rooms. All of us that are left. Those killer chimps have taken over the tech office." Her voice went higher and faster, "We didn’t know what was going on. It’s not our fault!" She gulped a bit, "Mr. Beringar just said to stay home and then those horrible killer apes came. I always knew those things were dangerous!" she wailed, "Mr. Beringar was right to not trust them, don’t let them kill us, please, we’re people like you, we all need to stick together, you should protect us from them." She barely paused for a breath, "Did you really kill Mr. Beringar? Why?" her voice went wobbly.
Chuck looked at her with disgust. "Because he and his commandos were putting limpets all over the outside of the ichimp els." He shook his head, "when someone attempts cold-blooded murder, someone had better be prepared to receive the consequences." He stalked over to the intercom, and called the central operator to request an el-wide broadcast.
Simon von Monkenstein answered, "Relax, they’re all hiding. It’s like attacking a Clueless and Helpless Club. No wonder Beringar could influence them. They don’t have any brains. Ivan’s prowling, in case they get any bad ideas."
The airdoor cycled again, behind him. May swept the room, then turned and removed the control panel beside the door. "I can reset the tram from here, if you’d like."
"Let’s wait a bit, in case more hostiles are spotted outside." Chuck replied, then, walked down to the tech office to take over the comm. Ivan joined him there as he called for the surrender of all weapons. "Put them outside your door. Stay in your room until we tell you to come out. I don’t give a shit whether you were involved in the attempt to sabotage the ichimp els, and murder over two thousand people, or totally ignorant. You give us any crap, you are dead. Now. Weapons on the floor outside your door. Close the door and keep it closed. You open it, we’ll assume you’re going to shoot us. Eventually we will let you out. One at a time. If you don’t open your door when we ask, we will damage it and come in anyway." He shut off the comm before he started to repeat himself, again. His subconscious apparently didn’t think these people were very bright.
In the end, it was just an exercise in collecting stunners and a surprising number of kitchen knives. Ivan snickered about that.
"Aww, you scared the poor little pansies."
Chuck snorted his comment, then reached over and keyed the comm, having decided this was as good a command post as any. "All right. I understand that four civilian policemen are in the el. I want the policemen, and no one else to come to the tech office, right now. Thank you." He glared as Ivan snickered.
Wolfe, now without his gory garbage bag, stuck his head in. "May has a suggestion for you. Wanna hear it, like, now?"
"Sure, what’s up?"
"She says she’ll run the numbers but she’ll bet one of the shuttles, with a long range tank and a bit of a spin boost from us can make it back to, well, not Earth, but, you know, close enough for the Navy to grab them."
"What a wonderful idea." Chuck thought it over. "Damned wonderful."
Ivan gave him an odd look. "Are you sure you want to dump three fourth’s of the remaining humans?"
"Yes." Chuck nodded decisively. "Bunch of trouble makers, and frankly, have you paid any attention to von Monkenstein’s experiments?" Ivan nodded his comprehension. "God knows you need a planet of your own, but we humans can either join you or return home, or search onward." He stopped suddenly to reorder his thoughts. "There’s one other . . . odd complication, umm, I think you’d better sit in on this meeting I’m having tomorrow. Come over about ten hundred and I’ll give you a brief."
Ivan raised his brows but nodded without comment, stepping back and frowning as the first of the policemen edged nervously in from the corridor.
Chuck turned back to business.
Chapter Fifty Seven
Chuck shot a glance over his shoulder at May. "What?"
"That flat emotionless speech. That alien spoke just like Vorp."
"Really?" Chuck frowned. "Didn’t Vorp come with Beringar? And Oleg killed him?"
"Yes, he was on the same shuttle I came on." Simon confirmed. "I wonder how these other three got onboard."
"If Vorp was one." Ivan injected.
"He was." Mata twitched her shoulders a bit, "I had an opportunity once to analyze the special food he brought along on a tour of the Chamberlain. Minced dehydrated human."
Chuck gulped a bit, and exchanged glances with Ivan. "If I leave suddenly in the middle of the meeting it’s because I had to puke."
"Right. We can take turns."
"Here he is." Chuck straightened as the tram door opened. He’d elected to meet the alien up here himself.
The Alien floated cautiously out, stopping with one hand on the edge of the door. His eyes swept the group.
"I am Colonel Chuck Woods." He paused to see if the courtesy would be returned.
"I am Vorp."
Chuck frowned, "The Reverend Vorp of the Earth is Eden Church?"
"Yes, while I was on Earth it was a convenient cover." The alien seemed to hesitate a bit, but continued, "That was where my ship crashed, and the role grew with time."
Chuck bit back questions and continued the introductions. "My Senior officers, Captain Freeman and Captain Wolfe. Representing the ichimps aboard, Ivan D. Terrible and Dr. Simon von Monkenstein. May Huang, representing the human civilians aboard." Of whom all the rest are going to get ditched real quick. "I thank you for coming up to talk to us." He eased backwards, "Won’t you join us in my office?" He led the way to his spacious suite, complete with a small conference table. He sat at the head of the table. The alien studied his gesture toward the seat to his left and sat there.
Ivan started the ball rolling with his primary concern. "We’re somewhat distressed to learn that the planets we wanted to colonize are already inhabited."
Vorp’s blank face betrayed nothing. "It is not an important system. Colonel Woods, did you not say that communications from there had ceased? Probably no one wanted it and it was abandoned as unprofitable."
"Damn." Ivan muttered, almost inaudibly. What was worse, planets full of man-eating aliens, or no planets at all?
"Without notifying you?" May asked, "or coming to look for you when you didn’t reply?"
Vorp stared blankly at her. "I did not hold my ship from them. They would not come." He seemed to hesitate again, "Cinnabs are very different than humans. We do not group ourselves as you do. I did not owe money or service to anyone there. I had not beaten them, nor they, me." He seemed to be able to read expressions, lack of understanding apparently, for he tried again, "We cooperate only in small groups with a definite hierarchy, generally the leader is much older than his subordinates. The leader is the best fighter, the one who beat all the rest and is thus obeyed."
"Like a wolf pack." Freeman muttered.
Vorp nodded agreement, "We mostly have one person ships, like the one I crashed on Earth. The few larger ships are crewed by the very dominant adults with very young crew. We don’t teach fighting," Vorp added. "Not to the young, it’s just picked up as you go." He hesitated a moment. "We don’t have a military, as you think of it. Some laser armed ships are for hire, to prevent spreading the contagion."
"But what about manufacturing? How do you build space craft, if you don’t cooperate?" Ivan asked.
"We use newts. Anyone can train newts to do things." Vorp’s flat voice paused, "It is like an apprentice system. Training, room, board and a bit of money." Vorp looked around at them. "It’s not slavery, newts can just walk off anytime, work somewhere else. It’s how we live. Young newts are just dangerous carnivorous animals, not people. Anyone who needs workers waits until they start maturing a bit then rounds up as many as he needs and trains them."
"And the adults fight to see who is boss?" Woods asked, "What form of government do you have?"
"We do not have a government. We do as we wish." Vorp paused again, "Very few things really need the kind of coordination you have on Earth. Some people facilitate large efforts for mutual profit. You might call them a government. A Cinnab named Gerv buys spacecraft, rents them to explorers and sells his interest in the planets they find. He is very rich. "
Chuck caught a sotto voce comment from down the table. "Libertarians run amuck." It sounded like Monkenstein.
"You do have police don’t you?" Chuck boggled as Vorp shook his head. "But what about theft? Murder?"
"Might makes right, I think is your human phrase. There is no such thing as an unlawful killing, and most fights are not to the death. Theft is dishonorable. Those who steal regularly tend to be killed. We have banks so you don’t have to carry all your money all the time." Vorp shrugged. "It works for us."
"And some people have found a way to make money facilitating. And that’s all the government you have?" Chuck came back around to what he considered an impossibility.
"As to Alpha Centauri," Ivan leaned in again, "You say it may have been abandoned? What is there? We don’t have detailed data." He watched the alien narrowly, "Have you been there, yourself?"
"I hopped through. Multiple stars have bad effects on the gravity waves, so I didn’t go into the system, I just bought water from a distant comet core that was being used for that, much as you used the ‘iceberg’. I believe there are three rocky planets in the liquid water zone." Vorp looked at them and apparently found comprehension, "One had a breathable atmosphere, but the chemical and light conditions were not right for us. We would have to stay indoors under lights and use tanks for reproduction. There was nothing special in the way of ores to be worth the effort. If the entire system has not been abandoned, Chuff will probably be glad to sell it to you. If the system is abandoned, the planets will be yours, by right of . . . rediscovery or salvage . . . I suppose either term will do."
Chuck straightened. "I see. Tell me more about your people…"
"If," Venturia Anniesdotter put all the exasperation in her tone she was capable of, "we could get this meeting underway?"
The noise level failed to abate. It was Erk and Ax again. If she could believe the rumors she’d heard, Erk had added peacock to his usual diet. Certainly his crest of black feathers had a blue-green iridescent edging. He was ribbing his more subdued brother, who could pass as human at first glance, which the same rumors attributed to a diet of buckskin horse-meat. Hopefully not true. Horses were so romantic, and in just a few years they might actually be able to have some.
She took a deep breath and raised her voice in a piercing shriek. "Will the Class of 2130 Prom planning committee meeting please come to order!"
Erk clapped his hands to his ears, "Stars and comets, Vennie, there’s no need for that."
"Oh, yes there is." Venturia told him. "You are not on the Committee. Go away." She looked around for support and the ever-so-handsome Michael Spider rose to the occasion. Oh, he just had to ask her to the prom, he had to!
He just stood up and flexed his muscles. Erk looked unimpressed, but when Sherlock and King stepped up behind Michael he stuck his nose up in the air with a sniff of disdain and left. Venturia bent her firm gaze on Ax.
"I’m the school reporter, remember?" he said. "You do want the decisions in the Frontier High Times, don’t you?" he was probably trying to look innocent, hard to tell, he didn’t do expressions well. And she did want the meeting in the paper.
"Very well," she said, then glanced at her notes. "This is going to be the first graduating class of all space born students. In fact this is the first graduating class," the door slid open and the cousins-from-heck slid in, followed by The Brat. "The first graduating class in four years. Depending on what the probes find, this may also be the last onboard graduating class." She glared around the room, "so let’s make it special. Heidi, do you have a report for us?"
Heidi Wolfe looked nervous and creased her notes, "We can get either the main floor of el three or the council room and the attached meeting rooms in el one, but the auditorium in the Mall is booked solid for months. The University commons are available after May 18th." She lifted her eyes briefly from the notes, "That’s all."
Venturia brushed her curly blonde hair out of her face, "Excellent, Heidi." Poor thing was one of the few pure humans around, and felt so left out. "Marilyn?"
The petite ichimp bounced athletically to her feet. "I’ve gotten tons of corporate sponsors. Everyone’s been really helpful about donating either credit or supplies." She smiled smugly, "including Treetop Deli promising ten of their full sized hot trays."
"That’s excellent!" Venturia exclaimed, heads nodding around the room. Tree top was the best. "Kimberly? Do we have a final head count?"
Kimberly Woods looked mostly human, but dauntingly tall, strong and not pretty to either human or ichimp, with that slab face. Nobody had ever tried to push her around. She nodded, "It looks like there will be two hundred and thirty four of us graduating. That doesn’t mean that many will buy tickets, though." She added hastily.
The Brat, AKA Philip von Monkenstein, whispered something in the other cousin’s ear. She just raised an eyebrow and said nothing. Thank goodness! Pepper Huang’s know-it-all drawl had to be the most irritating…Venturia had thrown a private party when The Brat had been promoted into their class, putting Pepper in second place academically.
She glanced at her agenda. "Alright, we need to vote on an advertising budget; vote on a final location; and decide how we are going to handle ticket sales. Do we have any volunteers for…"
The ship traveled on, decelerating toward the brilliant triple stars.