Here are the first three chapters of P. S. Corsair. It's the first book in the Skipjack story and another Game Within tale. P. S. Corsair is SF and, starting in the fourth chapter, what might be termed futuristic urban fantasy. (Did I just coin that term or hear it somewhere before?) It takes place in the same universe as Jorgan's Saga, but waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down the timeline.
Hope you enjoy!
--GKW, Seaford, July 2013
Here are the first three chapters of P. S. Corsair. It's the first book in the Skipjack story and another Game Within tale. P. S. Corsair is SF and, starting in the fourth chapter, what might be termed futuristic urban fantasy. (Did I just coin that term or hear it somewhere before?) It takes place in the same universe as Jorgan's Saga, but waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down the timeline.
Hope you enjoy!
--GKW, Seaford, July 2013
* * SPECIAL NEWS 5-9-17 * *
FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO HAVE
ENJOYED READING PS CORSAIR:
THE BOOK IS NOW COMPLETE AND AVAILABLE
BUT ITS NAME HAS BEEN CHANGED TO
SKIPJACK AND THE BALEFUL BANSHEE.
Some of the character names in the early version still printed below have also been changed. Sorry about that.
In the front of the published book I’ve included a list of characters for your convenience.
HOPE YOU ENJOY!
Skipjack, Book One:
P. S. Corsair
(a Game Within tale)
by G. K. Werner
My critics accuse me of simplistic constructs and closed-mindedness. And they’re quite correct. (Hesitant laughter.) Simple truths are often profound and far-reaching; and to know the truth and yet remain open-minded would be a form of insanity. No? (Applause.)
My critics’ high opinion of me compels me to submit the following for your consideration today: (Laughter and applause.)
The first two humans lived more than nine hundred years and had many, many children. These children warred ceaselessly, one with the other.
The Tribal Age lasted two thousand years. And tribes warred ceaselessly, one with the other.
The Empire Age lasted two thousand years. And empires warred ceaselessly, one with the other.
The Kingdoms Age . . . well, you get the picture.
The Democratic and Corporate Ages were no different.
Then came the World Corporation, humankind’s solution—humankind’s glorious attempt at one-world self-government—just as humans went into space to conquer the stars and find God. And the Corporate Colonies and their stepchildren, the Interior Colonies, dispersed throughout the galaxy and warred ceaselessly, one with the other.
And the League of Democratic Corporations was formed to restore human mono-government. And WorldCorp ruled the League of Democratic Corporations which ruled the human universe…until things completely fell apart.
-- from “Humanity’s Attempts At Self-Government: The Historical Perspective”: Minnie Fiddler’s Arachni University Lectures.
Prior to the Corsair Incident, Saur Station orbited Shach 1 in relative obscurity. Initially, little more than a colonial staging and drop platform, Saur grew quickly into a full service three-ring station and, during the early decades of the Expansion Era, a thriving frontier jump-station. Then the frontier spread in another direction, and the League of Democratic Corporations withdrew funding, leaving Saur to fend for itself on the edge of civilization—which the plucky stationers proceeded to do by persuading a planetside group of wealthy recluses to purchase it.
And so, what had once been a small colonial meet-point orbiting a forgotten planet of isolated agrarian communities, grew into a privately owned city, a trading post and recreational facility frequented by all sorts of interesting (if not always politically correct) people. Against all odds, Saur prospered admirably (though not always legally).
The perfect spot for a little r and r, according to Corsair’s First Officer, Dublin MakFlynn, not ashamed to admit having recreated on Saur once or twice in his questionable past. Which is why blame (along with station paneling and light fixtures), fell on Dub’s head when the crew found themselves caught in Saur Station’s history-making disaster. He strenuously protested his innocence, of course, as did Pilot-Captain Jack Anders, when certain uncomfortable truths surfaced concerning their motives for docking at Saur. It didn’t help at all that he and Jack already had a reputation for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
-- from Legends In Our Time: A Popular History of Renegades
Deep in Saur Station’s bowels, WorldCorp’s Experimental Technologies Division had leased one of many abandoned warehouses and set up their lab levels away from curious stationers, light years away from self-righteously interfering LDC politicians.
The lab supervisor, Dr. Stuart Lipman, and his two sonic-technicians, and the ten WorldCorp security guards assigned to protect them never left their hidden facility. Williams, Saur’s most discrete station steward, supplied them with food and drink, linens and cleaning services. The station’s CEO, Artemis Longfellow, made periodic contact with Dr. Lipman via vidcom, but Lipman only picked up on audio—conversations the lab supervisor impatiently abbreviated. Longfellow invited Lipman to lunch several times and to his private spa, but the WorldCorp lab supervisor curtly declined each invitation. Dr. Stuart Lipman was a busy man with no time to waste on recreating or socializing. Banshee consumed him. Banshee—an innocuous conglomeration of glass wires, circuits, relays, amplifiers, dispersers, cones, dials, buttons and antennas, topped by a single large dish that had to be ready by month’s end and carefully (oh so carefully), transported to the ice-moon of Shach 1.
“Watch it, moron!”
Watch what? Lipman wondered, glancing up at his two techs bickering as always over the vibratron-dish, the device’s delicate trigger mechanism that had almost given him a stroke to install and now must be meticulously (and oh so cautiously) calibrated. One false move would cause a chain reaction, by design, unstoppable.
“You watch it, jerk!” snapped the other tech. The pair had been forced on him by ‘management’ when his personal lab assistant of many years standing took violently ill and was hospitalized—poor replacements, these two, for a seasoned professional like Banning. For highly recommended, highly educated, highly trained geniuses, they acted like a pair of juvenile delinquents.
“That indicator needle is off. Re-calibrate.”
“You re-calibrate. I’m busy.”
“Busy doing nothing if all our readings are off.”
“Fine, pinhead!” He detached the meter from his utility harness and slammed it down on a nearby table making Lipman wince. “Let’s just spend another hour re-calibrating.”
“Shut up and pop the cap.”
“NO!” cried Lipman as the tech’s probe popped the little glass cover into the air. He and his two open-mouthed techs watched the cap winking in the globe-light as it flipped in a slow-motion arc above the vibratron-dish. Each grabbed at it—each missed. Accident victims often reported the same phenomenon—everything transpiring in slow motion.
They say also that in the face of death a person’s life passes before his or her eyes. Amazingly, Dr. Lipman’s professional triumphs did not flash through his mind, or his degrees, awards and honorariums; nor did his sickly childhood, nor did any of his ex-wives or grown children. Instead, he remembered something from his youth—a vid-news reporter’s comment while covering the Home World’s most disastrous earthquake in history, the one in which the Westland’s entire southern coast dropped into the sea: “To think such death and destruction was heralded by a teacup’s faint rattle.”
Or the nightmarish ping of a little cap striking the vibratron-dish.
“Shut it down!” screamed one of the techs.
“How?” screamed the other.
A thunderous crash spun everyone around to face the doorway.
Williams, the station-steward, stood ashen-faced and trembling, his tray of lunch dishes and mugs in a million shards at his feet. He looked stupidly from face to face—Lipman, the two techs, each of the WorldCorp security guards in turn.
“Get him!” someone shouted.
The security team flew at Williams; Lipman and the techs threw themselves upon Banshee. But it was already too late. The chain-reaction had begun.
And Banshee found its voice.
The wail sounded like all the voices in hell crying out for mercy. Then came the jolt. A big jolt.
“HO!” said Dub just before impacting the sleepover’s low plas-steel ceiling with nose, toes and all two hundred and eighty pounds between. On Dub’s re-entry, the upper-bunk’s support structure gave way. His considerable bulk crash-landed atop the lower-bunk’s occupant. Dub grunted loudly in pain. One’s mattress made as lousy a landing-pad as it did a launch pad.
They’d chosen the sleepover for its proximity to shopping and nightlife, its low cost, and its advertised peace and quiet. So much for peace and quiet!
“Gmofma!” Jack’s voice beneath splintered frame, fractured mattress and overweight co-pilot.
“Oh.” Dub rolled off the wreckage and to his feet. “That sound!” He shook head and body like an amazed bear, rudely wakened from hibernation. “Did you hear it?” He lifted a mattress corner and peeked under. “Partner?”
Jack crawled out from between deflating mattresses and used Dub as scaffolding to draw himself painfully to his feet.
“Your nose is bleeding, partner.”
Jack grabbed Dub’s undershirt and pulled the big man down nose to nose. “You ever pull a stunt like that again I swear I’ll—“
“Stunt? What stunt?”
Jack looked around, confused.
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Dub. “I didn’t do anything. I swear. What? You think we’re back in our University dorm and I’ve nothing better ta do than pull pranks on ya?”
Jack tried to remember. They were on recreational layover. He dreamt he was flying. He crashed into something. Then a mountain fell down on him.
And the mountain was still talking: “I was asleep, partner, and dreamt that this noise, like a—WHAT THE?”
If metal had a voice and could cry out in pain, tons of it, this would be its cry.
They covered their ears and actually ducked as though either action would spare them the spine-ripping stab of sound.
Then another jolt. The pair rocketed to the ceiling and crash-landed in a tangle of limbs and bedding and leftover foodpaks, empty wine bottles, table and chairs.
They looked at each other in disbelief. The whole station must be coming apart. What if atmospherics had been breached?
Without a word they scrambled into tab-suits, checked breathers, snatched up pre-packed duffles (their motto: travel light, stay packed). Dub grabbed the still-unit disguised as a vidpak. Jack grabbed his satchel of vidbooks from Saur’s trade-shops, punched the door release. And they bolted—
—out into the corridor, smack into a throng of shopkeepers, customers, station staff, workers, rezzes and guests—men, women and children, most of whom were screaming, shouting, or generally running amok. Station security personnel in bright red jackets strove for order, darting around waving arms, shouting and gesticulating to no avail. The panicked sheep vastly outnumbered the shepherds.
Overhead coms blared the soothing message: “No cause for alarm. Please remain calm.” Admin’s typical response to catastrophe. “Star-Station Saur is secure. Wear your skins till further notice—as a precautionary measure.” Despite the law requiring all stationers and guests to wear the diaphanous, skin-tight pressure suits beneath their clothing, nobody ever did. The things were so miserably uncomfortable. “Station atmospheric integrity has not been breached. Repeat: the atmospheric bubble surrounding Saur is intact. But please remain in your residences or report to safe-zones and strap in. We will be experiencing minor turbulence, though there is no need for alarm.”
“Turbulence?” said Dub. “In space?”
“Lies and disinformation,” said Jack.
“Dock’s four sections from here,” Dub commented, surveying the chaos. Getting back to their patrol ship wouldn’t be easy. Even if it was still in one piece.
Jack thumbed his wrist-com to highest volume and hailed Danny.
“Nav,” a high-pitched voice responded.
“You aboard?” Jack had to shout to be heard.
“Affirmative, Sir. In the nav-pit.”
“Corsair—” Their navigation officer’s voice cracked adolescently. He cleared his throat and started again. “Corsair secure in birth.”
“She get bumped?”
“Docking clamps snapped. Pushed us off ten meters. Gangway and one cable still locked.”
“All systems functional. Hull uncompromised. Scanning internals now.”
“Maintain at ten meters. Do not reconnect clamps. Flexible restraints only.”
“Done.” Danny Holleran—always way ahead of him.
“Who else’s aboard?”
“Go to red. Maddie sits conn.”
“Engineering Officer Madelain MakFlynn’s moment of glory,” Dub commented over Jack’s shoulder.
Jack ignored him. “What’s happening here?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Station under attack?”
“I don’t know, sir.”“Crew respond yet?”
“Got all their blips.”
“Get verbal confirmation. I want status on everyone. Out.” Jack looked around vacantly, jostled by the thinning crowd as people fled the commercial district, heading for residences, child-care centers, private craft, or escape pods.
“This way,” said Dub, as if he knew.
Saur Station CEO Artemis Longfellow was jogging along a station corridor when the first jolt hit. He liked the exercise and he liked mingling with the people. His people. His station. He basked in the acclaim, the awe—the love?—with which his people greeted him. They knew it was his persuasive voice that had obtained planetside backing when everyone else had given up, his innovative ideas that had created expansion, his people skills that had cut government red-tape, and his salesmanship and marketing aplomb that kept Saur financially aloft. He jogged for the lost thrill of a fan-packed stadium.
He was jogging when the first jolt struck. He was running when the second jolt struck. Running past shattered, shatterproof storefronts and supernaturally intact natural stone murals. Running past screaming mothers and blissfully ignorant shoppers. Running through a casino’s chaotic lobby and out the back. Running down ankle-twisting, rubble-strewn corridors and up the polished plas-steel of others—even as his disembodied mellow voice on disc reassured his people over the coms.
Every level the same. As though a tornado had touched down here and there in an unpredictably sporadic path. But no such wind had passed through Saur Station’s self-contained, well-regulated atmospheric bubble. More like an earthquake not following specific fault-lines. An earthquake in space? That was a good one!
Running for the tower and his office, panicked rezzes and guests grabbed at him, shouted questions or demands or sobbed for help. But he dodged and ignored them all, his long strides carrying him further and faster than anyone could match. He could help them best from his office, Saur Station’s nerve center high in the station tower’s executive suite. If still intact.
Reaching the tower, he raced up spiral stairs (not trusting the lifts), through the reception area (ignoring his devastatingly beautiful and now devastated hand-picked admin-assistants), through his assistant manager’s untouched outer office, and into the chaotic ruin of his own. The sight knocked the wind out of him. He stood perspiring in shorts and t-shirt, and gaped—a tall, aging athlete whose well-developed and diligently maintained physique slumped helplessly amidst such perplexing and arbitrary destruction.
The emergency system played a skip-pattern of the disc he had produced years ago naively hoping to calm people in the event of an emergency. Now, in the artificial station-dawn of just such an emergency, mass panic threatened everyone’s security as much as…whatever was going on. His boards still worked, lit up like station corridors on Carnival Night. Everybody demanding answers no doubt, and he had no answers. No explanation. Only a suspicion. A horrifyingly senses-shattering suspicion: The WorldCorp lab. Those arrogant, tampering, elite bastards! Why had the station owners approved their lease? Surely other funding could have been found to keep Saur Station solvent.
He squatted to pull one of his trophies from beneath the wreckage of an antique wooden cabinet, flipped a wavy lock of dark, gene-altered hair from his forehead, turned the Pan-Galactic Games trophy over in his hands, and sighed.
“It’s Lipman’s lab,” Assistant Manager Earl Dickens confirmed, gingerly stepping over the derailed door between offices. He tiptoed through the breakage.
“How do you know?”
“Our steward. I found him hiding in a utility-closet.”
“Some spy you picked.”
His dapper little assistant manager dismissed the blame with a wave of his hand. “They’ve screwed up on their…thing, somehow.” Station Steward Williams called it a doomsday device. “An accident of some kind. Williams was delivering a breakfast tray. Dropped it and ran. Claims their security guards are looking for him.” If so, Williams had every right to be hiding in a closet. WorldCorp Security being weapons specialists, hand picked from among the rigorously trained and massively armed STEL-Force Marines. “Claims they’ll kill him for what he witnessed.”
Longfellow rose, straightened to his full six-foot seven-inch spa-toned, spa-tanned height, and squared his massive, retired-sports-star shoulders. “Well, we’ll just see about that. Won’t we!”
Earl Dickens took out a handkerchief and wiped perspiration from his brow, no doubt desperately rummaging his over-worked brain for an excuse to avoid accompanying his chief down to the so-called Doomsday Lab.
Jack and Dub ran down the station’s wide, central corridor, dodging frantic pedestrians, stray carts and canisters; leaping fallen pedestrians, abandoned luggage and debris; ducking shorn pieces of shiny infra-structure, and ignoring the shouted commands of station staff and security personnel to stop. They turned down a transverse corridor, dropped through a conduit, and kept running.
“Know where you’re going?” Jack asked.
“It’s quicker this way,” Dub assured.
Utter chaos. Everywhere. Intersections were the worst, bucking multi-directional stampedes on a sloping plane.
Danny came back with a bleep squawk: “All crew accounted for, sir, and making way to Corsair. Except Van Ash.”
Lyssa! “She alright?”
“Got her verbal.”
“Ship’s Doctor refuses recall.”
“What? She give a reason?”
“Says she’s busy, Sir.”
“Busy? Doing what?”
“Assisting station med teams according to intercepted station transmissions.”
“Oh yeah? You tell that—” Jack sidestepped a runaway maintenance-cart, lost his balance, careened into a media-pillar that regained it for him, and kept running. “You tell her she’s ordered back. Now!”
“—refuses to acknowledge, Sir.”
Damn that woman!
A security-chief made the mistake of grabbing at Dub and ended up on his head in a conveniently located refuse bin.
The pair rounded another corridor, slid down another conduit and leapt aboard a stalled pedbelt.
“Hold up,” said Jack to let Dub catch his breath. The big man doubled over, hands on knees. A run like this could kill him. Even Jack, trimmer and fitter, wasn’t holding up well. His sides ached and his throat burned with each rasping breath of stale station air. But he worried more about his co-pilot. “You’re carrying too much weight.”
“Thanks a lot,” said Dub between gasps, arms locked to his ample sides.
“No. I mean the still. Let me carry it.”
“I’m fine.” He didn’t look it—red-faced and working like a blow-whale.
“Give me the still. C’mon!” Separate Dublin MakFlynn from his still? Not likely!
“Hey!” Dub exclaimed. “Ya notice something?” No quakes. Not since leaving the sleepover. “Think they fixed the problem?”
The soul-shattering wail sounded again and they were lifted off their feet to be smashed by the pedbelt on their descent.
“I think I’m getting used to this,” said Dub flat on his back.
“We gotta get outta here,” said Jack on hands and knees.
“Sid’s in.” Danny’s voice—high-pitched relief. “Maker and Dace entering dock area. Hobbes not far behind.”
“Where’s Van Ash?” A rhetorical question since Van Ash’s blip on Danny’s screen would tell him nothing without a down loaded station map. Oddly, Saur schematics had not been available from station-comp upon their arrival days earlier looking for the best bars and layovers. A system glitch? Or deliberate oversight? A violation for which a pilot-captain could fine station owners is what it was.
But good ol’ Danny came through for them anyway, and not for the first time: “She’s at Med-Unit, corner of Brickman and Holiday.”
“Intercepted Med-Center transmissions.”
“You’re a wonder, Danny-boy. Did I ever tell you that? Out.” He looked at Dub. “So. Where exactly are we?”
Dub reared up and looked around. Scratched the back of his bristly neck.
“You’re joking,” said Jack. “Tell me you’re joking.”
Dub led him to the next intersection. “We’re on Brickman.”
“I can read that much. Which way’s Holiday?”
“See a vidmap anywhere?” Want some ice cream? Dub could have asked as casually.
“I thought you knew this station.”
“Dub! I swear—”
“This way.” Dub lumbered away at full steam. He’d spotted a med-sign.
Leaving Assistant Manager Earl Dickens to sit on a bench, cowering between a pair of guards outside the reinforced warehouse security door, Artemis Longfellow entered the secret lab surrounded by WorldCorp security guards, the smallest of whom stood a head taller and a massive set of muscles broader than the tall, rangy station manager.
“Get him out of here,”—Lipman’s first response. Dr. Lipman—the most amazing caricature of a space-brained scientist Longfellow could possibly imagine. The white shock of electrically charged hair, the distracted look in close-set eyes, the nettled attitude were completely over the top.
“Doctor, this is my station,” Longfellow began in his most deeply authoritative tone, achieving a dignified air though still in shorts and t-shirt. “And you are my tenants. If I leave here without answers, or not at all,” he glanced at the WorldCorp security guards, “station security comes in after me to forcibly evict your team, and board this place up till Territorial Troopers arrive. We have over one hundred security officers on this station,” he added pointedly.
The five ex-marines smiled at one another as though he’d invited major leaguers to a minor league scrimmage.
The Banshee caught Longfellow’s attention—small for a doomsday device—the size of a large mutated cat with extra eyes and whiskers, and tentacles too, balancing a saucer on its head. Its keepers, a pair of techs who didn’t look old enough to be out of school, reminded him of his great-grandmother’s fairy tales—a light-elf and a dark-elf, tending a magical beast.
“Is the station intact?” the blond-haired tech hesitantly asked him.
“So far,” Longfellow replied. “You want to tell me what happened here, son?”
“No he does not,” Lipman replied for his tech. “We had a small…problem testing some equipment. Nothing to be concerned about.”
The Banshee squalled like a wildcat.
The dark-haired tech fiddled with some dials on the saucer’s lip. “Do you agree?” Longfellow asked this one.
“Get him out of here,” Lipman ordered his security. “Now!”
The all too familiar wail sounded somewhere on a distant level—a lost and lonely voice. The jolt knocked everyone in the lab off his feet.
The device squatted unchanged, an innocent beast bolted to the floor of its den. How could it have caused the distant wail and jolt? The guards, first to their feet, roughly snatched up Longfellow and, as though it were all his fault, held him in vice-like grips that brought tears to his eyes. Lipman and the two techs stumbled to the device and circled it like trainers fearing their trained beast turned wild.
“I thought you dispersed the sub-vibe!” Lipman practically screamed.
“It coalesced on a new path,” the light-elf snapped back.
“It’s the fail-safe.” The dark-elf moaned. “I told you. The sub-vibe creates its own links. It can’t be dispersed. And he knows it.” Meaning Lipman.
“All we have to do is track it,” Lipman said. “And negate it at a relay.”
“How?” sobbed the dark-elf. “Once set in motion it re-enhances with each burst. That’s the whole point. It’s the way that maniac Ripley designed it.”
“Can’t your goons here vent it or blow it up or something?” Longfellow’s deep voice boomed through their bickering.
“Lock that man in my office,” Lipman ordered his security. “And don’t let him touch anything,” he called after them.
Ship’s Doctor, Lt-Commander Lyssa Van Ash, was not at the med-unit on the Corner of Brickman and Holiday when Jack and Dub arrived. A harried med-tech in bloodied smock told them she had accompanied a rescue team to the park where an entire solar-house had collapsed trapping hundreds within a mesh of plas-steel and porslstone.
“I know where that is,” Dub panted.
“Oh yeah?” replied Jack.
The sea of people rolled rimward now, headed for escape pods and docks, commercial and privately owned craft, whatever would take them aboard. Jack and Dub could have ridden a wave dockside, except now they were headed in the opposite direction. Damn that woman!
Two more minor quakes and one major rocked the station before they found her, the eye of the storm, lean, regally tall, blood-covered, and serene as ever; standing between a pair of field-operating tables, administering a stenshot to one victim’s neck while feeling for a pulse in another’s. “Scanner!” she shouted into the wrack swirling around her. “I need a scanner here. Stat!”
“What the hell are you doing?” Jack yelled into the din of screams, shouts and sirens.
“This isn’t your job.”
“Of course it is,” she replied, dropping her voice to an even calmer level.
“We have to launch.”
“So go.” The surgical skullcap always made her finely chiseled features look colder, her mass of dark curls tucked beneath it.
“I’m not leaving without you.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“Where’s that scanner?” This to a wide-eyed med-tech flashing by.
“On its way, ma’am,” he shot over-shoulder.
She crouched to attend other victims at her feet.
“You’re our doctor, Van Ash. Not theirs.”
“My oath didn’t specify patients.”
“Station’s got its own doctors.”
“When was ‘Emergency Surgical Response’ deleted as our primary mission?”
“When they have their own damn doctors, Van Ash!”
“And when the place is coming apart at the seams,” Dub added.
“Look, Jack. Dub.” She rose and spoke evenly, a mother to her children. “I’m a doctor. You understand? These people need me.”
“They need to be evacuated,” said Jack. “Now. And doctored later.”
“I agree.” She looked at him levelly. “Let’s evacuate them.”
He’d been manipulated! The damn woman had manipulated him. Again! He stared needles at the severe but not unattractive face staring back at him.
“Well?” she queried.
Why did he put up with this?
But, what choice did he have? She was right. The healthy stationers deserting the station like rats scurrying to shuttle, yacht, or pod, had some chance. The injured and sick had none. Corsair had life-support capacity for five hundred passengers, short-term, and damned uncomfortably. But what the hell! ESR was P.S. Wing’s primary mission. Besides, it was the humane thing to do.
WorldCorp security guards took Lipman’s instructions literally. They handcuffed Longfellow’s arms and legs to Lipman’s desk-chair. An ex-marine loomed over him, and another stationed himself outside the locked office door, back to frosted plexglass.
“Of course, this violates your lease.Your boss realizes that? Now I’ll be forced to evict all of you and keep your security deposit.”
The guard had no comment, and the next wailing jolt shattered Longfellow’s false-bravado, leaving him beneath chair and ex-marine.
The guard picked himself up, then Longfellow, chair and all, as the office door-locks disengaged and Lipman came in wearing an ear-com. “Dr. Anton Ripley is on-line.” Lipman looked rattled. “He’s the Experimental Technologies Director, and—”
“Your boss. I know who Ripley is.”
“He wants to talk to you.”
“Well, I have a thing or two to say to him as well.”
At Lipman’s request, the guard turned Longfellow to face Lipman’s vid-console.
The image on Lipman’s screen turned Longfellow’s blood to ice: A man sat in a high-backed chair. The chair, an ornately carved white bone antique, would have engaged Longfellow’s expert scrutiny were it not for the repellent spectre it contained—a tall, lean, middle-aged man with one well-tailored leg casually crossed over the other, a cigar pedestalled by elbow and forearm. His sharp features beneath slick, jet-black hair would have been austerely handsome were it not for his complexion and eyes—emotionless eyes transfixing Longfellow to his chair tighter than the handcuffs, dead eyes staring out of a smiling face the deathly white pallor of a corpse.
This was not Dr. Anton Ripley. From vidnews, Longfellow instantly identified his caller: Dr. Damion Stark, WorldCorp’s Executive Board Chairperson. The most powerful single individual in the universe, before whom even the leaders of worlds metaphorically bowed. His corpse-like appearance not just the result of a lifetime spent in labs and offices, plants and factories. Reportedly, he suffered from a rare blood deficiency for which even his vast scientific empire had found no cure.
“Mr. Artemis Longfellow.”—his voice a smooth, warm contrast to his appearance. “Dr. Ripley had to step out for a moment, so I thought I’d speak with you myself.”
Station Manager Artemis Longfellow listened attentively to everything Damion Stark had to say, eagerly nodding agreement at every opportunity, his tanned face shifting from red to ashen to the corpse-white of Stark himself.
Patrol Ship Corsair floated in its berth, fed rented power by a single umbilical, its sleek, silvery length glistening in the harsh light of station’s dockside floods; cruiser, orbiter, and light-booster all mercifully intact.
Danny key-coded the gate for them, and Jack and Dub clambered up the flexible gangway into Corsair’s decontamination chamber, down the corridor and, not waiting for the lift, climbed the inset ladder up into the cramped bridge-cockpit.
All was well here at home. The top of Danny’s curly mop could be seen above the nav-pit’s rim, and Sid’s red ponytail flicked back and forth as she scanned her consoles and screens in the com-nest above Jack’s pilot seat. In the adjacent co-pilot seat, Maddie’s butch-cut sported a com-set.
“Shove over little girl,” said Dub, grabbing the overhead bar to vault into the co-pilot seat and wedge down between Maddie and its cushy back, boosting her to her feet with a belly-thrust. “The professionals are back in town.”
“You bastard,” she spat—golden eyes burning out from under a cap of straight brown hair—the medium-sized tomboy he’d known and adored all his life.
“Here, I’ll need those, little cousin.” He snatched the com-set off her head. “Thank you.”
“You’re a dead man, MakFlynn.”
“Yeah, yeah. ‘Cept you love me. Don’t ya, cuz.”
But Maddie MakFlynn loved her engines more and, freed of conn, stomped off to check on them, cursing Dub all the way.
“Great job!” Danny called after her, passion raising his voice an octave. “Sitting conn. I mean.”
“Gimme a break!” Dub groaned, never missing an opportunity to rib their navigator for his crush on Maddie.
“Well she did,” said Danny, voice slipping still higher.
Jack slid into the pilot-seat. “Talk to me Danny.”
Lt. Daniel Holleran shook his infant-like disproportionately big curly head. “Station’s been hit hard, Sir.”
“No data.” Cradled in the nav-pit between and forward of pilot and co-pilot seats, Danny’s eyes roamed the dizzying array of screens and lights encircling him. His fingers flew over the myriad touch-pads, buttons, and sensors like a master-organist in an ancient orchestral pit. “We lost uplink to station data base a while back. And the tower’s still playing the tape. Instructions to sit-tight and don’t worry. Station space is dangerously congested with debris, escape pods and in-system craft. Even though no one’s been cleared for launch.”
“Oh well,” Dub commented. “Won’t be the first time we launch without clearance.”
“And stations not under attack?” asked Jack.
“No sign of incoming, Sir,” Danny responded. “Three merchant class vessels deep-routed. Local traffic dropping planetside. Nothing else out there.”
“Who’s in port?”
“A tanker, embarking without clearance, two in-system merchanters still moored, several private yachts and a mess of shuttles, some launching now.”
“Get me profiles on the tanker and merchanters. Anything planetside?”
“Nothing, Sir. Not a peep. No sonics. No infras. No hot spots. Nothing.”
“Where’s Doctor Van Ash?” asked Ensign Sidney Butterworth from the com-nest at Jack’s back—concern disharmonizing with a jealous note the name of her rival for Jack’s affections normally invoked.
“She’ll be along shortly,” Jack told her. “We’ll be taking on passengers, Sid. Alert the others. Make preparations.”
“How many?” asked Sid.
“Five hundred or more.”
“Injured plus station med-techs. Who knows who else before this is over. Danny, alert Hobbes and Maker. We’ll need sickbay and all OR’s up and standing by.”
“You’re a wonder, Danny-boy!”
“Not me this time.”
Van Ash! She’d sent Hobbes or Maker on ahead to prep long before clearing it with him—never even dreaming of clearing it with him. Damn that woman! “Sid, we’ll need all passengers fully logged in.”
Sid went red as her ponytails and bangs. “All of them?”
“Absolutely. Van Ash’s coordinating. Link up with her. And get me station control. I want an owner to talk to. Or at least the Station Manager. No one less.” He felt Sid’s eyes boring into the top of his head. “Now!”
“I’ll try, boss.” She rolled her eyes back to her communications board. “There’s no open frequency.”
“Jam through. If they won’t talk to me I’m declaring martial law and shutting this place down.”
“Ooh!” said Dub. “I love it when he talks like that.”
“Yeah, well money talks,” Jack retorted. “Or, in this case, it’ll be the lack of it.”
“Problem is, partner, someone’s way ahead of ya in the shutting down department.”
“Captain MakFlynn’s right,” said Danny. “Just registered another big one. Looks like two sections hanging by threads farside. Correction. One’s floating. Passing beyond the atmosphere-bubble. We got pods and small craft in vicinity thick as fleas off a drowning—HOLY SMOKE! Station lost torque. Just a blink. But if their gyro’s failing they’ll go null-grav without warning.”
“Inform Van Ash, Sid,” said Jack. Without gassups or grav-boots she wouldn’t make it. “I want her boarding, stat. With or without company.”
“On it, boss.”
“How’s our gangway holding up?”
“Intact,” Danny informed Jack. “The merchanters are cutting out, by the way.”
“Yo,” came back at Jack over open com.
“How’s our big one, Maddie?”
“Purring like a kitten.”
“All systems up,” Stetson Dace responded from his board.
“We are good for go,” Dub crooned.
“Run the checklist again.” Jack was relentless. “And full diagnostics.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” piped Danny, in his element.
“Have I got a link to the tower, Sid?”
“We’re through to their public relations department.”
“They say the station manager is conferencing with officials planetside.”
“Inform public relations—”
“Now I have the Assistant Station Manager, Earl Dickens.”
“Patch me through.”
“Hello? Hello?” Static and feedback garbled the voice in Jack’s ear.
“Mister Dickens?” asked Jack.
“Working on it.”
“Mister Dickens!” asked Jack.
“Mister Dickens. Earl Dickens is it?”
“That is correct, Sir.” The poised diplomat.
“Mister Dickens, before I claim martial law, I’d appreciate a vid-conference with the station manager and/or owners.”
“The owners are not in residence, sir, but I can assure you that you are high on our CEO’s agenda.” The lying diplomat. “He has asked me to—”
“Mister Dickens, I’m about ready to send a marine squad to your door with orders to arrest your boss and bring him to me in irons.”
“Marine squad,” Dub echoed. “Do we have one of those?”
“Sir, you have no authority t —” The crack of diplomatic armor?
“Mister Dickens. I am in direct contact with STEL-Fleet Command, the LDC President, and Madame Chairperson of the LDC Senate.”
Dub whistled appreciatively.
“If I am not in full direct contact with—” Jack snapped fingers over-shoulder at Sid.
“Artemis Longfellow,” she whispered at the top of his head.
“—Station Manager Longfellow by the end of this sentence, you and he and your entire staff will be on their agenda. Understood?”
“Captain Anders.” A new voice, deep and soothing. The voice from station coms.
“Who’s this now?” asked Jack.
“Station Manger Art Longfellow, Sir. At your service. I apologize for the technical difficulties in reaching you but I assure you—”
“Technical difficulties my ass.” Jack didn’t have time for this. None of them did. “My Ship’s Doctor, Lt. Commander Lyssa Van Ash, is at this moment directing your medical teams.”
“She’s dockside,” Sid whooped triumphantly, forgetting her jealousy momentarily.
“P. S. Corsair stands ready to evac sick and injured,” said Jack, “not to mention you and your staff Longfellow, but I want some answers first.”
“Captain Anders. I appreciate the timely intervention of your highly qualified ship’s doctor, and your magnanimous offer. But please understand. We are not evacuating Saur Station.”
“You may not be evacuating, Mister Longfellow, but the rest of your personnel, rezzes and guests damn well are. The void’s full of ‘em.”
“Still linked, boss.”
“This is an internal affair," said Longfellow, "and I assure you—”
“Your internals are rapidly trading places with your externals, Longfellow. Are you a blithering idiot or am I not speaking with the real station manager?” The thought suddenly occurred to Jack.
“I have a call I have to take on another line, Captain. Excuse me.”
“Screw ‘im,” said Dub. “Soon as the good doctor’s aboard we blow outta here.”
“Another one,” Danny heralded.
They heard the hellish wail even within their own hull.
“Give me Van Ash, Sid.”
“You’re on, boss.”
“Still alive out here. Atmospherics holding. The gangway’s unsteady—” but never her voice “—slowing progress. Those who can walk are boarding first.”
“Give me an estimate.”
“We haven’t got that long.”
“I’ll do what I can, Jack.”
“Source Danny? You get anything that time? Anything at all?”
“Nothing, Sir. No blips. No anomalies. No points of origin. Nothing.” Second verse, same as the first.
“Within the station itself?” Jack asked.
“I think I’d see that too, sir. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Scan station. Infras. Check on evac’s progress.”
“Done, sir. I got life readings in the tower. Not much else. Small animals. Dr. Van Ash’s company dockside. No further pod launches.”
The 'call' Longfellow had 'to take on another line' was his assistant manager, Earl Dickens, going to pieces next to him.
“What are you doing?" Dickens cried. "We can’t stay here.” The latest jolt to rock the station had thoroughly convinced Assistant Manager Earl Dickens of that. It blew out the tower’s observation deck windows and ruptured the saucer-section where the company shuttle and Longfellow’s private yacht were docked. He watched it float free on one of their few remaining active screens. “I don’t care what Stark told you,” shouted Dickens, “we’re going to die here.”
“What are you doing?" Dickens cried. "We can’t stay here.” The latest jolt to rock the station had thoroughly convinced Assistant Manager Earl Dickens of that. It blew out the tower’s observation deck windows and ruptured the saucer-section where the company shuttle and Longfellow’s private yacht were docked. He watched it float free on one of their few remaining active screens. “I don’t care what Stark told you,” shouted Dickens, “we’re going to die here.”
“Shut up, Earl! I have to think.” Longfellow stared blankly at his stat-boards.
“Maybe that’s precisely what Stark wants,” said Dickens. “For us to die. Did you consider that? Artie? While you’re thinking!” Earl had never spoken to him like this before. But then, in their long association they had never been together on a space station rattling to pieces.
It didn’t make sense. Why would Stark want them dead? He’d hinted of generous reward and political favor if Longfellow did his best to contain the “negative effects” of this “unfortunate accident”. A man could do worse for his career than pleasing a powerful man like Damion Stark. He could do worse by crossing such a man.
Or by ignoring common sense. After Stark’s vid-call, Lipman had assured him his team would have Banshee under control long before the station could loose gyro or atmospherics. So far there was no evidence of success. Gyro had cut out once and atmospherics could be hanging on by a thread for all they knew. The station tech staff had deserted their posts. Lipman had probably been shuttling planetside as he and Earl had been making their way back to the tower.
“The saucer-section is completely cut-off, according to one of the merchanter captains.” Dickens wore a headset and kept in contact with his communications desk. “It’s passing out of the bubble. Our only hope is Corsair. For the love of Mercy man, call Anders back. Do it! What are you waiting for? Get us out of here.”
One of Longfellow’s model-sleek admin-assistants poked her tear-streaked face into his office and quite calmly announced Dr. Lipman, who barged passed her followed by his blond-haired tech.
“We need to evacuate,” he said.
“Oh really, Lipman? Your fear of death finally won out over your fear of Stark?” But Longfellow spoke for himself as well as Lipman, lashing out in frustration over his own lack of backbone.
“Don’t argue with me, you ass,” said Lipman. “Where’s your shuttle?”
Longfellow, towering over Lipman, smiled blandly, and spoke to Dickens. “Corsair on hold, Earl?”
“Corsair?” cried Lipman.
“Corsair of the P.S. Wing,” Dickens patiently explained while Longfellow re-donned his headset.
“P. S. Wing?” Lipman grabbed a fistful of frizzy white hair and tugged. “We can’t board a skipjack!”
“It’s STEL-Fleet, man,” said Dickons.
“You don’t understand!” cried Lipman.
Longfellow and Dickens stared at him as though expecting him to froth at the mouth next.
“Ship’s sinking,” said Longfellow. “What’s to understand?”
Lipman released his hair, slapped his thighs, and took a deep breath before speaking. “Where’s your company shuttle?”
Longfellow floated his hand floorward in a slow backhanded motion.
“Don’t you have anything else?”
“Afraid not, sport,” said Longfellow. “Thanks to you and—” He was staring past Lipman and through the shattered glass walls of Dickon’s office into the outer offices and reception area. His devastatingly beautiful assistants all stood at their desks staring expectantly back at him, but it was Lipman’s dark-haired tech who had caught his attention. Amazingly, the boy appeared to be casually propositioning his youngest office worker. Then something very disquieting occurred to Longfellow. “Where are your security people, Lipman?”
Lipman glanced at the blond-haired tech next to him, then back at the outer offices, measuring the distance between himself and the dark-elf. “They didn’t make it,” he whispered.
Longfellow put a large hand over the mike at his lips. “Didn’t make it?”
Lipman took another deep breath. “Gentlemen. I’d like to make you an offer regarding our mutual safety.”
Longfellow smiled. This kind of thing he understood perfectly well.
“But he can’t know about it,” said Lipman, indicating the dark-elf with a discreet sidewise glance.
“Longfellow, boss,” said Sid patching Jack through.
Jack paused momentarily. Let the bastard sweat. Then: “Need a lift, sailor?”
Longfellow laughed congenially. “As a matter of fact, Captain Anders… well, this is embarrassing… but, despite my better judgment, I have been ordered to evacuate Saur afterall, and it seems my private launch as well as the company shuttle were lost in the saucer-section collapse. And apparently all operative pods have been—”
“Ordered by whom?” Jack was enjoying this.
“Who ordered you evacuated at long last?”
“The famous powers that be, sir.” Typical bureaucratic non-answer. “They are overly concerned for our safety and—”
“Want you dead. Apparently.”
“Look here, Captain— ”
“Why cover for them?”
“I…I am not covering for anyone.”
“Then what changed, Longfellow? Why now?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you do. What did you find out? What did they discover?”
“Your superiors. Your personnel. Whoever.”
“Captain, we really don’t have time for this.”
“You’re telling me.” Jack had noted a break in Longfellow’s deep, mellow tone.
“Once aboard your vessel I shall be happy to review— ”
“You’ll tell me now or I’ll grant your superiors’ wish and leave you to the long walk.”
“My superiors?...Why, they want me evacuated… they…”
“Never bluff a bluffer, Longfellow. Especially the one time he’s not bluffing.” Jack took a long shot.
And hit the mark: “Fine, Captain. Have it your way. Our lives are in your hands regardless.”
“Talk to me, Longfellow.”
“Dissident groups on the station have— ”
“What dissident groups?”
“University students. Conscientious objectors to colonial war. I don’t really know. We think they smuggled a device through customs.”
"A devise? Where would University students get such a devise?"
“We’re not sure. Please Captain.” Now he was saying please. “Time is of the— ”
“Your security can’t locate this device?”
“Well, as a matter-of-fact— ”
“Yes. But it is well protected by encoded fail-safe interventions and progressive program loop something or others. I don’t really know! Alright? Can we just—”
“Will it blow?”
“My techs don’t think so. They say its designed to sonically disrupt… er…”
“What does that mean?”
“How come we never had one of those at University?” asked Dub.
“Look. Captain. I’m not tech oriented but you’ll get all your answers once my people and I board your skipjack.”
Not likely! But Jack couldn’t have their lives on his hands. “If you and your people are not down here in ten, I’m leaving without you.” He cut transmission.
“And going where?” asked Dub. “Planetside? With over five hundred casualties.”
“According to Dr. Van Ash, Shach 1 has nothing to handle this kind of business,” Sid reported. “She says they used to send everyone up here to station-hospital, and Corsair is better equipped than Saur is…was.”
“Her recommendation?” Jack asked.
Sid asked Van Ash. “She says our own Base Hospital at Far Cry is the closest of the best.”
“Works for me,” said Jack. “Better phone ahead for reservations.”
“On it, boss.”
“Maddie,” said Jack, punching engineering.
“I want a nice easy cruise out of here. No fender-benders. No civvie lawsuits. Then I want light.”
“Before clearing the system?” Maddie asked.
“Absolutely. A ten over ten accel to L8. Sid, tell Van Ash and the others we need all passengers secure for rapid burn an hour out, tops. Danny, chart us a course for home-base.”
“What about Longfellow and his choir-boys?” Dub queried.
“They’re coming with us,” said Jack. “I want answers.”
“Longfellow’s office is assuming transport planetside,” said Sid, mike in fist, her voice characteristically dripping with irony.
“He doesn’t like our company,” opined Dub.
“Confirm in some way that gets us out of it later,” Jack ordered.
Sid scrunched up one side of her face and tilted her head disapprovingly. “You want me to lie?” she asked out the side of her mouth.
“You know how I hate lying. Why do you always make me do this?
“I don’t want you to lie.”
“Then how am I— ”
“You’re the language expert. Speak bureaucraticeez.”
She turned her back on him, a flip of auburn ponytails.
“We’re in.” Van Ash on ship’s com. At last!
Jack collapsed back into his seat, took a breath for the first time, and let it out slowly. “In five, people.”
If they had five left.
The Night of Strange Bedfellows
On the night of the Saur Station disaster, the League of Democratic Corporations’ Crisis Council held an emergency meeting via security-encoded holo-vid. The minutes, broadcast a day later, revealed only that they met to discuss the Colonial Space emergency, coordinate rescue operations, and initiate an investigation. Partisan discussions concerning political damage control, and exchanges of accusations were carefully deleted, and yet somehow leaked to the press. Those in attendance were listed in descending order of age:
Madame Ela’ Constance DeSwayla—Home World Peoples’ Affiliation Representative
and LDC Senate Chairperson
Fleet Admiral (Retired) Senator Roderick BeauChamp—Home World Representative
and Defense Committee Chairperson
Dr. Damion Stark—WorldCorp Board Chairperson and majority stockholder
Dominick Mears—WorldCorp’s Executive Board Secretary
Director Rolland Sanford—WorldCorp Representative and LDC Executive President
Senator DeWitt — CC Representative
Senator Makeshift — CC Representative
Representative Carson — IC Congressman
Representative Palmer — IC Congressman
Senator Wainwright — WorldCorp Representative and LDC Senate Safety
A conservative number of trusted aides were also present but did not merit listing. Apparently, neither did WorldCorp’s Experimental Technologies Director, Anton Ripley who had been personally summoned by Damien Stark An unexpected summons he did not dare ignore.
In reality, little more took place than the media reported. WorldCorp execs disseminated disinformation and politely requested Senate feedback, relying as always on LDC factionalism to prolong Senate debate beyond any reasonable timeframe for effective response.
Stark shut down the holo-vid leaving only the three WorldCorp executives and their aides physically present at the massive conference table dwarfed by the huge plas-steel chamber deep within the massive edifice known as Humanity’s Keep—the World Corporation’s Home World headquarters. He stared down at his well-manicured white fingers, frozen above the keypad projected on the marble table.
An oppressive silence hung in the chamber’s high-vaulted vastness.
Until: “I don’t really think we have anything to worry about,” said Rolland Sanford.
Stark turned his cold gaze upon the LDC Executive President.
“In the long run,” Sanford felt compelled to qualify.
“Oh really?” asked Stark, ever so softly. Sanford reminded him of a bulldog with a lap dog’s disposition. Stark despised such weakness, despite having curbed the man himself. “Do I look worried to you, Rolly?”
Sanford squirmed in his chair, ran a hand through thinning hair and frowned deeply.
“Do I look worried, ladies and gentlemen? Do I?”
Everyone around the table glanced nervously at everyone else around the table. They hated it when he got this way.
“Do you think I look worried, Reginald?”
The senior aide looked from face to face, pleading for help.
The senior executive smiled and made a non-committal gesture with his head.
“What about you, Anton?” Stark swiveled his ornate white-bone chair to view Anton Ripley, his Experimental Technologies Director, a severe man in shaven head and white lab coat who had remained strategically off holo-vid during the conference as well as off the minutes’ attendance list—Anton Ripley, who had not only invented the Banshee, but had also hired and highly extolled the virtues of one Dr. Stuart Lipman. “Do I look worried to you, Anton?”
Ripley's left eye twitched. For a man reputedly as unemotional as his machines, as heartless as his formulas, the E-Tech Director was no match for his superior’s deadeye stare.
Stark turned back to the others. “Because, I would really hate to think that I looked worried just now to our friends from the Senate.”
“You were the essence of authoritative poise, Mr. Chairperson.”
“Thank you Rolly.”
Rolland Sanford sat back in his chair and confidently puffed out his chest. He’d made his superior happy.
“Though I have to wonder, now that Rolly broached the subject—should I be worried?”
Sanford’s chest and shoulders slumped.
Everyone glanced nervously around the table again.
“Should I, Rolly? Do you think?”
Without turning his head, the LDC Executive President looked aside to the immense chamber’s immense doors, measuring either his answer or the distance, then: “Absolutely not,” he confidently reaffirmed, a blind and deaf captain going down with his ship.
“What about you, Arthur? Do you think I should be worried?”
“No sir,” the aide replied, supporting his president.
“Not at all, sir.”
All the aides were vigorously agreeing before he could get to them.
“Anton?” Stark turned back to the Banshee’s inventor. “Do you think I should be worried?”
Anton Ripley thoughtfully consulted the radiation detector on his lab-coat’s lapel, un-removed in his rush to the council meeting. “The Banshee disintegrates beyond recognition at the apex of its—”
“How clever, Anton. Incriminating evidence that self-destructs.”
Ripley opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it with a snap.
Stark turned to the scholarly, middle-aged man seated to his right. “Mr. Secretary?”
Dominic Mears, in the bowtie, tweed jacket and shoulder length hair of an academic theoretician seemed least likely to offer practical advice.
“What do you have to say? Should I be worried?”
“Yes,” Dominick Mears replied through clenched teeth.
Noises of shock issued from parted lips around the table.
“Ah,” said Stark. “At last. A man of character. To say nothing of insight.” He rose and leaned forward, carefully placing his open fingertips on the one-piece marble table. He peered around the conference table, over at Ripley, and back. “I’ll tell you all a little secret. I am worried. Ask me why.”
No one spoke. No one blinked. No one breathed.
“I am worried when a top secret experimental weapon, vital to our defense, is treated like a toy. I am worried when some IC spy has obviously gained access to said device. I am worried when undisciplined skipjacks are somehow coincidentally present during a disaster of this magnitude. And all of you ought to be worried as well. Extremely worried.
“Humanity stands at the threshold of either extinction or a marvelous new age. I do not need to remind anyone at this table that, while Corporate Colonies suffer unprecedented economic depression, plummeting one by one into bankruptcy, and their governments threaten the League with secession—the Interior Colonies extend franchises to rogue corporations and space-faring pilgrims who in turn push back IC frontiers, extending IC territorial influence and control to the very Rim itself, thereby increasing exponentially their natural resources and indigenous wealth.” He took a breath. “With CC senates cozying up to the IC Congress, all their leaders need is precisely the sort of excuse presented by this Saur Station incident to propel them into each other’s arms—a union that would leave WorldCorp and the Home Planet isolated, vulnerable to embargos, importation taxes and surcharges sure to follow, perhaps even bankruptcy. Even now I can here them crying reckless endangerment, misappropriation of funds, unauthorized actions, malicious intent.” He paused for a breath and a glare. “This thing must be contained, people. Until it is, I expect all of you to be worried. Damned worried! Meeting adjourned.”
Everyone scrambled to gather up discs and portacomps and carryalls and aides while the Executive Board Secretary, Dominic Mears, for the first time opened his portacomp, booted it up and projected three keypads onto the table top.
Ripley was first to the door.
“Stay!” Stark stabbed with his bony white finger.
Ripley shrank back to his chair.
“Do not hesitate to call me, gentlemen,” said Rolland Sanford, as though an inner-cadre exec among peers. But his legs carried him toward the door faster than he could control. “Night or day, if I can assist in any way.”
Mears ignored him.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” Stark replied with admirable courtesy on his way to the refreshment tray. He poured himself a tall drink and sipped thoughtfully while the chamber emptied and the huge old-fashioned double oak doors closed with a solid thump. He and Mears had gone fishing with the Banshee as bait. But what had they caught? Was Corsair the fish they were after? A rogue predator more likely, out of territorial waters and scaring off the game.
“Drink?” he asked his Board Secretary, knowing full well the man never drank—the one thing about Mears that worried Stark. Well, there was not one thing.
Already lost in his computer-realm, Dominic Mears raised a hand distractedly passing on the drink, and subliminally indicating that he did not wish to be disturbed, busy with his networking, mumbling rapidly to himself as usual. The man mumbled more in five minutes than most people spoke in a lifetime.
“Ripley?” Stark inquired, rattling a glass of ice in his direction.
“Thanks. No. I really should get back to the lab if—”
“We need you here, Ripley. And, I warn you, it’s going to be a long session.”
Ripley’s heart sank. “I’ll have a chem.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Stark tapped off the overhead globes, leaving only a single lamp lit at Mears’ chair.
“Frugal bastard,” said Mears under his breath, the barest ripple in a mumbling stream.
“Pardon?” said Stark, returned to the table, a ghost moving through chambered darkness to sit with the living in semi-light. “This promises to be a messy one,” he said, pausing in mid-stride to speak directly to Ripley who felt as though a knife had gone into his chest. “I can feel it,” said Stark. He sat down next to his chief scientist, opposite his chief information specialist. “So what have you got for us, Dom?”
“Precious little,” his secretary replied.
As a student of the human psyche, Damion Stark appreciated the tendency of suffering people, confused by events, threatened by circumstances beyond their control, and barraged by a multitude of contradictory voices, to follow anyone who self-assuredly seemed to know the way and set off striding it with confidence. Damion Stark had made himself that voice of authority. Damion Stark had appointed himself that confident pathfinder. Damion Stark was determined to lead the universe into a new age, a more peaceful, safe and, yes, profitable age. To this end he had dedicated himself and his inheritance—WorldCorp’s vast technological empire.
And to the extent that he counted on Senate voices to drown in their own sea of factionalism, Damion Stark would have been dismayed to learn that during the LDC Crisis Council’s emergency holo-realm meeting, the leaders of two such rival Senate factions had inhabited the same physical realm: the communications-room of Madame Ela Constance DeSwayla’s ancient stone mansion on her ancestral country estate in the mountains south of Atlantia in the Home World’s Westlands.
“Damion Stark, together with his Executive Board and all their directors,” Senator DeSwayla declared, perilously waving her full champagne glass above the fine linen, “and the best they can come up with is University dissidents?”
“It is a bit thin,” her dinner guest, Senator BeauChamp concurred.
“A bit? Why, pray tell, would any dissident group, making a political statement, choose a remote target like Saur Station?”
Retired Fleet Admiral Roderick Stevenson BeauChamp smiled tightly. “Surely Madame Chairperson does not believe the illustrious WorldCorp Board Chairperson would lie to us.”
“I believe things concerning Damion Stark that would turn your magnificent head of wooly hair gray, if it weren’t already.” She smiled winsomely through wrinkles. “Can you imagine what our corporate friend would say if he could see us here in bed together?” Her rich laugh ended in a high-pitched sigh. “Figuratively speaking that is.”
“Something provocative, Madame. I am certain,” replied BeauChamp, praying the ancient Senate leader was not propositioning him. A woman her age! A woman with her reputedly undiminished appetites—that worried him the most.
They studied one another across her silver inlaid dinner table.
His elegantly gowned, richly bejeweled, and stylishly over-coifed hostess was a study in contradictions: physically a dwarf, politically a giant; ruthless toward enemies, compassionate toward friends; a gruff, manly bearing in public, and womanly tastes in private; the granite faced seriousness and the twinkle in the eye; the expansiveness of speech and gesture, and the self-control that confounded him on the Senate floor. Only her shrewdest friends and enemies saw beneath the good ol’ girl mask; her Arachni University doctorates in anthropology, ancient civilization, linguistics and psychology, received almost a century ago, mostly forgotten by supporters and detractors alike.
But she had never fooled Roderick Stevenson BeauChamp—the reason she liked him, he suspected, despite being diametrically apposed on so many issues.
“Do you recall our first meeting, Admiral?”
A public debate. “Of course.”
She smiled fondly. “All those years ago. My goodness, how your headlong charge into politics impressed me.”
His forced retirement from STEL-Fleet had provided ample motivation, he could have said. “You won the office, madam, as I recall.”
“Not easily as I recall. Ah those were the days, weren’t they?”
He tilted his head as a bow. Compliments from his old rival made him nervous. And her flattery!
“The moment I met you, Retired Fleet Admiral Roderick Stevenson BeauChamp, I was infatuated. Do you mind my saying so?”
“Not in the least, Madame,” he replied, resisting the temptation to shift uneasily in her high-back cherry wood chair.
“Why I remember how my trained ear discerned the trace, how ever faint, of Western Ocean Islander in your speech—the long vowels and mellow tones, the precisely clipped enunciation that betrayed both your island birth and a lifetime military career, and I was lost. Completely enchanted.” She laughed up and down a scale.
His ancestors had been kings on the Southern Continent. It was still there in his bearing, in the relaxed authority transcending even that of a military officer. The discipline that kept him from betraying his amazement at this speech of hers—he hoped.
BeauChamp had accepted Madame DeSwayla’s one-on-one dinner invitation against the advise of top aides and close friends, and with no few personal reservations. Their first private meeting in over a decade of political adversity, interrupted by the Crisis Council’s unexpected emergency meeting. What did she purpose in meeting privately with him? A mere flirtation? Not possible.
“Come, Fleet Admiral,” she said, rising from the table and taking his arm to guide him from her regal dining room. They strolled into her spacious hall where BeauChamp’s security chief met them and discreetly signaled the all clear. His security team had been sweeping the mansion’s library. So had DeSwayla’s. A touchy business, neither wishing to insult the other. Madame DeSwayla’s shields blocked long-distance snooping, but the latest microscopic bio-surveillance devices could be planted so easily, someone was always viewing, listening, or both.
“Shall we adjourn to the library, Admiral? I have some rare old editions I’m sure you’d appreciate.”
Conversation in the dining hall over five exquisite courses had been frivolous and bantering—then flirtatious. He supposed their conference, scheduled for her library, under the strictest technological security, would now turn serious. But, she actually did show him some fine books before getting down to business: first editions, centuries old, printed on paper with colorful illustrations and engraved covers. One even concerned an ancestor of his who had lived in the age of world-bound exploration and continental discovery. A famous historic figure of some importance, Boo Jillyman had also been a scurrilous rogue according to family tradition. The library tour also included antique dolls and a priceless Crystal Dancer collection that particularly interested him.
“Oh do pour me a drink, dear boy.”
Dear boy? No one had called him that in a long, long time. But, at nearly twice his seventy-five years, her endearment was not wholly inappropriate. Old as she was, her flirtations made him feel young again.
He opened her liquor cabinet and examined its impressive contents, the servants having been dismissed after dinner for reasons of privacy and security. “Sherry, Madame?” Her usual in public.
“Whisky, please. And have a cognac. That’s a particularly old and valued bottle there. No, the smaller one.”
An 88’ Mida. “I am honored, Madame.”
“That I share prized cognac or know your secret preference?”
“I have made a study of you in recent years, Admiral.”
“Really?” he replied, handing her the whisky.
“Oh come now. We’re both fully aware of each other’s intelligence efforts.”
“Touche’.” BeauChamp raised his glass to her.
“As to our respective purposes…”
“Of late, Madame, they would appear to be on convergent courses.”
“I am delighted you noticed, dear boy. And convergence, as you know, breeds redundancy. I do hope a remedy to this remarkable turn of events is among your reasons for accepting my dinner invitation.”
“And what if certain members of our respective alliances were to discover a pair of old rivals such as ourselves in private conference? Or if word of our collusion leaked to mutual enemies—”
“Roger.” She put a small, heavily ringed hand over her heart. “My staff is devoted.”
They both laughed.
“When you assert that we are in collusion…why it makes my heart go pitter patter.”
“Perhaps I was getting ahead of myself.”
“Just tell me one thing, Admiral BeauChamp.”
“Only one thing, Madame Chairperson?”
“To test the waters.”
“Did you send Corsair to Saur Station?”
“No, Madame, I did not.”
“Then what, pray tell, were they doing there?”
“That, I intend to find out.”
Dobbydown was an agrarian world, always had been, seeded, stocked, and settled for centuries. A world of open fields and impenetrable forests, free-flowing rivers and deadly rapids, dirt roads and log homes. A world of snow-capped peaks and deep fertile valleys filled with cows and pigs and chickens. A world where dogs guarded flocks of sheep, and horses still ran wild, where wolves still howled on the borders, and bears meant business when they chanced upon strangers. A world like the Home World of a millennium ago that may or may not have ever existed. The most unlikely place in the universe to have birthed the second most powerful human in the universe—the Interior Colonies’ chief executive, Martha Reynalds-Sheppard. A changeless world, Dobbydown. Despite her birth. That was why she loved Dobbydown so much and returned home whenever she could. A reality check, peopled by practical, down-to-earth, plain living, hard working, cussedly stiff-necked folk who rejected pretentiousness, resisted change, and could spot a salesman or politician light-years away and felt it their duty and birthright to set the fool straight. Here, she could be plain Martha-May, the back-world, home grown Martha-May that had existed for too short a time.
Little Lil screamed with delight each time Hody caught the wooden disk in mid-air and raced back for another throw. Hody, twice her size, could have flattened her like a lily in a combine’s path, but never once did he fail to stop and freeze inches before Lil’s nose and drop the disk inches before her toes—a barely sitting, tail wagging set position, a deafening yap of appeal.
The deft flick of a child’s wrist, and again Hody launched into flight. He was tireless. His favorite game in the world. Lil’s too.
Martha clapped her hands, the laughter of her deep joy echoing like a song in the hills of home.
The sort of domestic scene the vidpress loved. Their darling President entertained by simple pleasures, watching her granddaughter playing fetch in the meadow with the family mascot. Except the press hadn’t been invited. Never would be. Not here! Not here. Her farm was officially, unofficially, and in all other ways definitely, totally, and completely off-limits.
Even her staff had been left in orbit this trip. Even Ben and Valanna. Bad enough the Presidential Voyager hovered over her head like a dark cloud orbiting Dobbydown.
She had momentarily escaped duty, obligation, life and death decision-making, and politicking. And no one was going to ruin it. Her peace of mind depended on it. Perhaps, indirectly, so did the galaxy’s peace.
Plain old Martha-May, old Bill’s daughter, sat on the picnic blanket beneath the ancient, wide-spreading picnic tree and helped her daughter Mary unpack their picnic basket: cheeses from Dale, local cider fresh from the recent festival, her daughter’s fresh-baked bread (beyond compare). Real eggs!
She and Mary chatted idly of crop yields and births and Lil’s first year at school and other domestic matters while their contented horses ripped grass nearby, and the huge ancient combines fed on man-high grain, crawling across the lower hillsides away in the distance.
Mary groaned when the jam lid refused to budge. Tried again. Cursed and hurled the jar downhill. It bounced once and splashed into the brook.
Martha studied her daughter’s frown. Put a hand on her forearm—a mother’s gentle touch. Mary yanked the arm away.
It would be their old conflict—the spectre haunting all her visits, ever materializing to open old wounds and drive them apart.
“One more,” said Martha. “Then I’m home for good. I promise.”
“Oh thank you! What a concession. A third term is all you’re allowed, Mother.”
“I can’t desert the IC now. Too much is happening. IC freedom is threatened as never before.”
“When isn’t it, Mamma?”
“This is different.”
Mary turned her back on her.
Martha wanted to run a hand through Mary’s golden curls, so much like her own at Mary’s age. People still commented on how much they looked alike. And Martha never tired of hearing it. Trim, medium-sized women with the straight posture and lifted chin of frontier fighters, a twinkle in almond eyes that could also blaze with passion or anger. But for Martha’s fine age-lines and streaks of un-regenerated grey, they could have been sisters. She touched her daughter’s hair.
Mary looked back at her. “Ten years, Mama? Another ten years? Lil will be nearly grown!”
Something wet and hard dropped into Martha’s lap. Something wet and cold slopped her ear. Hody had retrieved the jam jar. They both laughed despite themselves.
“Come with me. You and Matthew. Lil’s old enough. Heaven knows my cabinet could use some fresh perspectives.”
Mary shook her head in disbelief.
“You and Matthew have much to offer. Matthew’s organizational ability. His business and financial sense. Our farm has never been more prosperous. Your brothers can handle it on their own now. They’ve wives to keep them in line and I need a new Secretary of the Treasury. I’m sure you’ve heard.”
“I don’t keep track of government openings.”
“Politics is in your blood no matter how you try to hide from it. You grew up aboard the Presidential Voyager and in the Congressional Dome. I need you. Your father and I spent a fortune on your law degree and political accreditation.”
“Mother! How dare you? You can’t buy my soul with a University degree. Pop must be rolling in his grave to hear you say such things.”
Hamilton! She needed him the most. Now more than ever. He should have been the Colonial Congress’ first president, not her. All those years fighting in the War of Liberation, planet by planet—a lifetime of battles WorldCorp officials still referred to as the Colonial Wars, as though IC independence were not a settled issue. And he dies of a massive brain hemorrhage the day after he signs the Inter-Stellar Peace Accord. The day after victory! Never sets foot in the newly completed Congressional Dome. Never sees his Presidential Voyager designs off the drawing board and launched in space. His engineering genius lost forever. His military genius lost to the present generation here on the edge of the dark abyss.
“I should drag my family into the void, Mother? Give Lil the same empty, man-made world to grow up in that I had?”
“Your father’s man-made worlds—”
“Drifting from planet to planet in the Dome? Flashing through emptiness aboard the Voyager? No thank you!”
Her daughter fought as tenaciously as she ever had when it came to what she believed in.
“I’ll give Lil the life you rejected, Mama. Here on Dobby. Before the wars. Before the politics. The simple life your mother had and hers and hers.”
Sheltered, she almost shot back. Ignorant of the sacrifices made by others to keep it so. Sacrifices she herself had made—not least of which the loss of a close relationship with her little girl and sons, and now their children. The WorldCorp was right. The war wasn’t over. When would it be?
Valanna Day Anders appeared on their picnic blanket, one shapely foot in their picnic basket. The light breeze passed through her lustrous brown hair that tumbled about her shoulders without lifting a single strand, nor did it stir the hem of her fashionably short, executively cut skirt. “Your pardon Madame President, Lady Randal,” a curt nod to Mary whose glare in return could have seared a boar. “Forgive the intrusion. A level two emergency has been declared and—”
“None of you can survive more than two days without my mother?”
Valanna glanced kindly down upon her rival then back to her mentor. “I would not disturb you, Madame, if it were not a matter of utmost urgency.”
Your surrogate daughter, Mary called Valanna when feeling particularly malicious. Not that she resented Valanna’s education, intelligence, or physical beauty; having generous portions of all three herself. Nor Valanna’s noble birth and breeding in the socially elite House Anders; not caring a snap for such antiquated and typically WorldCorp class distinctions. And she certainly did not resent Valanna’s position as her mother’s Deputy Chief of Staff; having fled such a life.
Martha watched her daughter through the corner of her eye. It should have been you, Mary—fighting by my side—like your father. But spoke to Valanna. “This evening. I’ll check in with the cabinet later this evening. Whatever it is—”
“Can’t wait, Madame. We must hurry.” We—as though Valanna’s holo-image would board a lander with her or they’d both beam up together on the same holo-vid frequency. “It’s a shaky situation.” The agreed upon codeword for an Operation Banshee emergency. Was the boy in danger? He’d always be a boy to Martha. Will Green. The boy she’d sent into deep cover, the dagger at WorldCorp’s heart. A young man now, still close to her heart, assigned to Lipman and the Banshee project. A clever mind. An eager, dedicated spirit. A man’s job to do.
“Madame President,” Valanna urged.
“Get your foot out of our basket,” snapped Mary.
Valanna looked down at her reality obscured foot and, as though it had substance, lifted it out of the picnic basket to awkwardly step aside, then glanced at the pair, embarrassed to have fallen for such a cheap trick.
But Mary’s eyes were humorless.
Martha covered her amusement with a deft stab of napkin to lip. Then cleared her throat as she always did when she had something distasteful to say. “It appears I’ve no choice, dear.”
Lil was watching her from a short distance away, the disk forgotten in her hand, tears welling in her bright eyes. Old enough now to understand. Hody squirmed at her side as though life were nothing but a big game.
“You’ve always a choice, Mama,” said Mary. “And it’s always the same.” She strode off downhill toward the horses, snatching her daughter by the hand, causing the child to stumble after her. Lil looked back at Martha. Her lips mouthed Gram.
“I’ll dispatch a lander to one hundred meters north of this tree,” said Valanna, turning to the side and leaning over, fingers spider-stepping an invisible keypad.
“No!” Martha spoke more sharply than she’d intended. “Not here,” she softened it. “I’ll ride to the pad in town.”
At last, able to free himself of the bridge, Jack went looking for Van Ash to reprimand the woman for her latest presumption—ordering Hobbes and Maker to prep Corsair for patients before clearing it with her captain. Blast her towering arrogance!
Barely able to make headway along over-crowded corridors, he stopped at the cabin assigned to Longfellow and his staff and decided to check in on the bastard. That’s where he found her—safe among strangers. Too bad he wasn’t angry enough to embarrass her in front of witnesses.
As Jack squeezed into the cramped passenger-cabin, the stench that assailed his nostrils made him gag. Nausea—a common problem for maiden light-voyagers. Among other things. “Everybody ok?”
“They made it into light commendably well,” Van Ash reported, then introduced him to their unwilling guests.
Longfellow towered over Jack, an imposing figure, fitness and health come to life. He made Dub’s height look ordinary. Longfellow’s staff was composed entirely of women (all young and attractive, Jack noted), except for Assistant Station Manager Earl Dickens (a natty little man, worried as a mouse), two office clerks (a slim, fair-haired boy, and a short dark haired boy), and an older man (who looked like a white bristle-brush on a stick and was introduced as their janitor).
“We are not on our way planetside, are we Captain,” said Longfellow, mistaking Jack’s hand for a grip-strengthener.
“That is correct, Station Manager,” replied Jack, trying to ignore the pain.
“I hope there is an explanation for your change in course, Sir.”
“Change in course?”
Longfellow dropped chin to chest to look down on Jack in reproachful disappointment.
“Oh that,” said Jack. “Well…” In the hubbub of clearing station traffic and an in-system burn to light, Jack had left behind the excuse he’d prepared for Longfellow. In person, Longfellow had an overwhelming presence, effectively placing Jack on the defensive.
Van Ash unexpectedly came to his rescue. “In an emergency of this kind, LDC regs require immediate evacuation of key personnel to the nearest STEL-Fleet facility for debriefing.”
The wild-haired janitor clutched Longfellow’s sleeve.
The tall station manager shrugged him off. “We can’t go to a STEL-Fleet base,” said Longfellow.
“Well, that is…perhaps can’t is too strong a word, Captain, but—”
“I thought your planetside superiors wanted you dead.”
“Are you still on about that Captain? They never wanted me or my staff to die on the station.”
“No? Then who did? Why the aversion to STEL-Fleet?”
“Simple, Captain. We are a privately owned and operated station and any STEL-Fleet hospital would frankly over-charge us for services. We have no policy with LDC Med that covers—”
“You have some five hundred sick and critically injured aboard and you’re worried about the bill?” asked Jack.
“Make no mistake, Captain. I am overwhelmingly concerned about the health and well-being of my clients, staff, and citizenry, but —”
“The regs leave us no choice in the matter,” said Jack, firmly reiterating the out Van Ash had provided him. “Orders are orders.”
Van Ash rolled her eyes over Jack’s sudden desire to follow orders.
“Well, Captain, I am not subject to STEL-Fleet orders. I am the chief operations executive of a private corporation. An independent territorial corporation, Captain Anders. Subject only to Territorial Authority and—”
“Look, Longfellow.” Van Ash made his name sound vaguely obscene. “Nothing on Shach 1 is equipped or prepared to deal with the victims of a disaster of this magnitude. They’ll be swamped by those who made planetfall in over-crowded vehicles and pilot-less craft. The only hope these people aboard Corsair have is a STEL-Fleet facility. And I have absolute authority in this matter by LDC mandate and Territorial Law. We go to Far Cry.”
Nobody could stand up to Van Ash when she’d had enough—apparently not even Longfellow. He ran fingers through creamy black hair and glanced from wall to wall of his steel-grey confinement, loosing his initial momentum to Van Ash’s rapid burn.
The janitor groaned and slid down the bulkhead to fold in on himself, face in hands.
Jack gave Longfellow a What’s the matter with him? look.
“He has family on Shach 1, Sir. So do most of us. Families who will be concerned over our abduction.” Longfellow had lost speed but refused to brake.
“You’re not being abducted, Longfellow.” Not exactly. “We’ll contact your families on Shach 1 just as soon as we drop out of light.”
“When will that be?” asked one of Longfellow’s comely staff members.
“A few days from now,” Jack replied, causing a flurry of astonished exclamations, objections, and a curse or two. “I apologize for any inconvenience.”
“Can’t we call our parents now?” asked a long-legged blond.
“Not possible. Vid transmissions distort at light speed. When we dump into sub-light, a few days out from the P.S. Base at Far Cry, everyone will have ample opportunity to contact their people back on Shach 1.”
“I’ll need to contact family on the Home Planet,” said one of the office clerks, the dark-haired youth with sly pale eyes.
The janitor shot him a wary look.
“Fine,” said Jack. “Whatever. Just be patient. This’ll all be over before you know it.”
The elvish office clerk grinned in agreement.
Deep in the high-vaulted darkness of Humanity Keep’s conference chamber, isolated in the glow of a single table lamp, Ripley watched Stark who watched Mears.
Mears hunched like a vulture over his portacomp, working his several keypads, and mumbling to himself like a befuddled comp-wiz.
Stark sat still as a corpse.
Ripley fidgeted with the cuff of his lab coat. Why had he been forced to stay? What did Stark want from him? What did Stark suspect?
“Corsair appears to be on course for the P.S. Wing Base on Far Cry,” said Mears.
“Ah!” Stark responded. “Now, if only we had that much information on our tech-team and the illusive station staff. To say nothing of our highly touted Banshee device,” he raised a lean eyebrow at Ripley, “which may or may not have survived the stress to its habitat.”
“This just in,” Mears announced as though a newscaster. “I have Longfellow and his staff confirmed aboard Corsair.”
“Alive and well?”
“He was told to sit tight. I really hate it when people disobey my orders.”
“Even when they don’t work for him,” muttered Mears.
“I beg your pardon.”
Mears keyed from screen to screen, searching, mumbling, accessing, querying, mumbling, hacking, crosschecking, and interminably mumbling. He had spies everywhere. Even a remote outpost like Saur Station. Riply figured if the little wizard didn’t work for them, Stark would have had him killed years ago. “Here’s something,” Mears shouted suddenly. “I’m accessing station-planet transmissions. Interesting. This Longfellow chap apparently felt he could safely defy you.” He shook his head in amusement over his own findings. Amusement was not easily discerned in Mears’ countenance. His University students had called him “the late professor”, and not without good reason. They never saw a smile warm his face, though occasionally (as now) one lit his eyes. “According to my intelligence, Longfellow received assurances of personal safety from the planetside station owners.”
“Over confident frontiersmen!” shouted Stark. “Do they think they live beyond my reach? And now a P.S. ship has him. He’s probably trading his observations for sanctuary.”
“We can have STEL-Fleet hand him over to us,” said Ripley, trying his best to be helpful.
“You think?” said Stark. “And do you consider the P.S. Wing part of STEL-Fleet? Or, more to the point, does that pack of radicals consider themselves part of STEL-Fleet?”
“Here’s something,” said Mears. “When Longfellow failed to appear planetside, the owners filed charges with the Territorial Authority and the LDC”
“Already? Now that’s the kind of motivation I like to see.”
“They charge STEL-FLeet with kidnapping senior station personnel and have initiated suit against us for the failure of WorldCorp customs screening equipment we sold them. How dare they use our own cover story against us?”
“I love it. Our execs ought to be so aggressively and imaginatively expeditious. How much do they want?”
“Cost of rebuilding Saur.”
“That’s all? I want a meeting with our legal mercenaries tomorrow. Early. In the meantime, at the risk of sounding like a program loop, I want Lipman and his team. Dead or alive. Then, with Longfellow and his staff and Corsair’s crew collected and Banshee in unidentifiable pieces, we can put the public aspects of this matter to rest by incriminating and arresting a few handy University dissidents, and none the wiser.”
“Unless Ripley lied to you,” Mears muttered.
Stark turned melodramatically to Ripley. His dead eyes penetrated Ripley’s soul. “Is it possible? Could Ripley lie to me?”
“Lie?” Ripley couldn’t take any more. Ignored, accused, then spoken to in a condescending manner. “To you? Why? Why would I do that?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out,” said Stark.
“The Banshee destroys itself if triggered by anything other than the coded initiation sequence,” said Ripley. “Not in pieces—atomized. It’s our fail-safe. You know this. I’m not making it up. It’s what happens.”
“Don’t fence with me, Ripley.” Ripley opened his mouth to protest, but Stark raised a white hand for silence. “How many years have we known each other? You’re not this naive. That I do know. So don’t insult my intelligence and your own.”
“This was clearly an accidental triggering and the Banshee—“.
“I’m not talking about the Banshee’s propensity for self-destruction, Ripley, but your own.”
Ripley worked his jaw a couple of times before getting out: “How? How then have I lied to you?”
“Who has knowledge of our Banshee project?”
“The project-team members and myself. As well you know.”
“Then how is it our operative in Martha Sheppard’s cabinet learned of the Banshee project?”
Mears has a spy in the IC presidential cabinet? Ripley considered his cuffs most closely. He was a scientist, not some blasted intelligence officer. How was he supposed to follow Stark’s complex machinations? “So we have a traitor among us too?”
“Must be,” said Stark.
“And the Banshee was triggered by a traitor to us?”
Ripley considered all this the best he could. “So that’s why, against my advice, you sent Lipman to Saur Station to test the Banshee? A gambit?”
“You risked the Banshee project out in no-man’s land, knowing we had a spy planted in our midst?”
“Very good, Ripley. Very convincing. Don’t you think he’s convincing, Dom?”
“You really don’t trust me, Damion? After all these years? I worked for your father. And you put me to the test?”
“Mears here likes the subtle approach. The gambit was his idea. But, like my dearly departed father, I favor the direct approach. That’s why you’re here now.”
“And the reason Banshee knowledge is in enemy hands,” Ripley dared.
“That remains to be seen,” said Mears.
“Isn’t it possible Lipman boarded Corsair with his landlord?” Ripley asked.
“Of course it is,” Stark answered. “It’s also possible Corsair’s presence is simply the freak anomaly of a carefully conducted experiment.”
Mears said “Hah!” through his nose.
“I don’t believe it either,” said Stark.
Mears flipped screens. “Here’s something. Planetside search and rescue stat-messages are available now. Lets take a look. Hmm. Looks like minimal loss of life. No corpses matching Lipman or any of his staff. No recovery of inexplicable debris. This is interesting.” Mears hunched still closer over his portacomp. “Hmmm.” If he peered any closer at his screen, it would need a nose-hole.
“Well, Mr. Secretary? Do we have to guess?”
“I have matches for six of our security guards among the corpses.”
“Shach 1 Search and Rescue id them as WorldCorp personnel?”
“Yes.” Mears shook his head gravely disturbed. “They’ll use our marine presence as leverage to win their bogus law suit.”
“Obviously. These guys are good. You have to give them that. We better pray they don’t have Lipman or any Banshee parts. And that Corsair doesn’t either.”
“Where is Lipman?” Mears asked his portacomp.
Ripley feared he was about to find out.
Ensign Sidney Butterworth made painstakingly slow progress through the packed ship, corridor by corridor, individual by individual, logging id’s into her hand-held and additional records whenever possible. Not what she signed on for, as she had reminded Jack before setting off on ‘her mission’—a University Honors Linguistic student turned Communications Officer, now busted to census technician, cursed and ill-used by injured passengers who were in no mood to be logged or questioned.
Several passengers had lost their id hand, forcing her to take retinal scans (a tedious process thanks to her recorder’s temperamental view-plate and image analyzer). Verbal information was next to useless. Most people couldn’t remember their number let alone any account, bio or med data stored on their lost chips. And, nobody wanted to deal with her. The healthier they were, the more obstinate they were. And Station Manager Longellow’s office clerks had been the worst so far. “I lost my chip,” said the fair-haired boy. “Me too,” said the dark one. Both with perfectly whole hands bulging their pockets like little boys hiding candy. She sicced Dub on them.
And she’d yet to log the bodies. The cryo-tubes were filled with those who had a chance at life when they reached the hospital at Far Cry, but were too far gone to survive at a normal metabolic rate. The dead, several adults and a child who died of massive injuries soon after boarding, had been left to rot in storage lockers. She wasn’t looking forward to that. The living-packed corridors smelled bad enough—sweat mixed with vomit from the burn to light, and a touch of baby urine and excrement.
One kid, strapped into an impact seat, had a set of lungs an opera singer would envy. He wailed ceaselessly despite being arguably the healthiest person aboard. The mother in leg and arm splints slept beside him on the floor, miraculously oblivious to everyone shouting at her to stifle her kid. He yelled in Sid’s ear, inflicting deep pain as she leaned over him to reach the mother’s id hand. Sid needed both hands to fit the mother’s hand into her recorder and her nose to press the read key. Sure enough, in this vulnerable (though impressively acrobatic) position, someone rear-ended her.
She sprawled across screaming kid and still sound asleep mother, but swallowed a curse when she saw who it was.
“Sorry Sid.” Jack helped her up. “Didn’t see you until it was too late.”
“No problem, Boss.” She straightened an auburn ponytail. “I rather enjoyed it.” And the other ponytail. “And it’s never too late to get bumped. By you that is.”
Jack frowned at her and wagged a scolding finger.
“Well a girl can dream.”
He tapped her recorder. “Almost finished?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“You’re doing a great job, Sid. How many more to go?”
“Only a few hundred. I’ll be finished sometime next year.”
“Lost in space.” A ship’s joke.
“I told him to get a recorder and help you.”
“Yeah well—” she dismissed Dace with a flip of the hand and a “Phffft!”
Jack found him with Maker inside an engineering storage locker. Maker’s moaning and Dace’s high-pitched singing led him straight to them. Tangled in limbs, half-removed tab-suits, and Maker’s long black hair, the pair nearly crippled each other when Jack kicked the door open.
“Ah-Ohhhhhhhhhh!” sang Dace, and dropped it a few octaves into “Can’t a man have a little pri—” before realizing who it was and scrambling to his feet, covering himself as best he could, his clothing being in the state it was in. Maker languidly came to her feet without worrying too much about the state of her clothing.
Jack tried to ignore her body, a classic figure, dusky, and moist from exertion. “The two of you are on report!” A thing he often threatened but never followed through with.
Maker pouted, thickening her lower lip.
“Don’t give me that stuff, Maker!” Who’d ever believe her to be a strong-arm nurse, their surgical assistant, pharmacist and bouncer. “Aren’t you on duty in OR?”
“I’m on break. The only one I’ve had in hours.”
Probably true. “Report to OR lieutenant.”
“But Skipper—” whined Dace.
“And you! You’re supposed to be helping Sid log passengers. As our resident computer genius, do you think you could handle that?” Then Jack’s eyes went to a small mountain of metal drums at the pair’s back, and widened. “What the devil’s this?”
“What?” Dace looked around and feigned shock when he saw the drums.
“Dace,” Jack warned.
“Oh! Them. Those…well…”
“It’s the paint.”
“Well, my paint, to be exact.”
“The paint you said I could buy at Saur.”
“In the middle of a catastrophic space-station disaster you bought paint?”
“The ship’s so drab.”
“And stored it aboard while everything around us was falling apart with all hell breaking loose?”
“Oh no. No, no, no. Before that. I—”
“But you said.”
“I said you could re-paint your quarters. There’s enough paint here to do seventeen ships.”
“They had great colors, Skipper. Multi-colors. Wanna see?”
“Are you nuts?”
“Well I could do the mess too? How about it, huh? Gray is really bad for digestion you know.”
“Fine. Your quarters and the mess. But not till the mess we’re in is over.”
“What about the gym? Can I paint that too?”
“Fine! Your quarters, the mess, and the gym. But that’s it! Understood?”
“You know the bridge is—”
“That’s it Dace! I can’t do this right now, alright? Get topside. Get a recorder and help Sid.”
Dace looked longingly at Maker’s bare thigh.
Dace moved, stumbling into a hopping run as he finished dressing.
Maker sidled past Jack in a sulk (and not much else). She and her wiry little oddball made the least likely couple Jack had ever met. The weirdest and wildest.
Alone, Jack surveyed engineering, cherishing the emptiness, the lulling hum of Maddie’s beloved engine. Too bad he couldn’t live down here for the next week. Oh well! Back to work—a captain’s traditional job, seeing to his passengers’ comfort. Then he’d see to Longfellow’s discomfort. Till he got some answers.
Senator BeauChamp and Madame DeSwayla sat in her library’s comfortably sheik bandow chairs. Her library, all leather and antique woods, flaunted the entirety of Home World’s conservation legislation while offering a breathtaking view of the fertile Savahn Valley through a wall of floor to ceiling antique glass windows.
As the evening progressed, BeauChamp found his guard slipping further and further, fenced by so charming a hostess. The Charmer—that was what they called her in the back rooms of certain political houses. Best to keep that in mind.
Madame DeSwayla sipped her whisky thoughtfully. “You puzzle me, Admiral.”
“Is it possible?”
Her bright little eyes danced with delight. “A one-world hawk, you would have us believe.”
“Have you believe, Madame?”
“For over two decades now, beginning the day you advocated the use of military force against the IC”
The World Corporation had taken humans into space and founded colonies. Over the centuries, as Corporate Colonies proliferated their governments began contracting out sub-colonies, launched to settle and mine planets closer and closer to the galaxy’s star-congested, unknown center. Sub-colonies spun out from sub-colonies in an ever widening web of stars, planets, and loyalties. WorldCorp considered these sub-colonies likewise subject states. But, as Corporate Colonies grew restless under the WorldCorp thumb, sub-colonies came to view themselves as independent states, Interior Colonies, beholden only to their own planets of origin the governments of which supported such a relationship for obvious economic reasons.
This hotly contested issue played for centuries on senate floors throughout the galaxy, WorldCorp striving to keep control of its desperately needed resources without alienating its colonies, a balancing act that culminated in the formation of the League of Democratic Corporations—a galactic government composed of two equal member states, the Home Planet’s World Corporation and the union of Corporate Colonies, leaving the Interior Colonies an open issue.
An open issue to everyone accept the Interior Colonies who also united, formed a Colonial Congress and declared independence, cutting all ties with corporate sending-planets, the LDC and its nucleus, the World Corporation. An act of war according to WorldCorp and the LDC. They deployed troops to key planets while Hamilton Sheppard, Martha Reynalds, Bennett Chase and their rag-tag Army of Liberation fought tooth and nail against LDC star-carriers and STEL-Force planetary marines.
Then, rumors of a Colonial Fleet spread, and the LDC immediately initiated a massive build-up for full invasion—war on a galactic scale to reclaim its own. A war that never took place.
“I have never desired war, Madame.”
“The true soldier detests war and treasures peace, more so than any other citizen.”
“Then the peace accord must have delighted you. The one you tried to block!”
BeauChamp frowned. “The poorly negotiated peace accord that left WorldCorp and the Corporate Colonies in economic depression, saddled with the expense of an un-fought war?” Things could not have turned out better for the fledgling IC if the rebel trio had concocted Colonial Fleet rumors themselves—as BeauChamp had always suspected.
“An economic depression caused by antiquated import-export tax systems,” said DeSwayla.
“Compounded by dependency on self-sufficient colonies the accord declared independent entities with the power to price-fix Home World into subjection.”
“Would Sheppard allow that? She is not Stark.”
“No, she is not. She lacks his power. Her Congress is composed of radical, unpredictable elements at best. Mollifying IC ambitions by recognizing its Congress as a legitimate government possessing LDC membership on equal footing with WorldCorp and the CC will prove as counter-productive to peace as was mollifying CC ambitions a century ago by forming the LDC in the first place.”
“The military’s over-simplified critique of history. Did you memorize it, Roger?”
She laughed—the strumming of a chord.
“And if we stand by and do nothing, Madame, or worse yet act with indiscretion, we will end by propelling the CC and IC into Shephard’s proposed mutual protection pact, an illegal independent extra-alliance outlawed by LDC Constitution, and history will once again have repeated itself.”
DeSwayla sighed as though admiring a performance. “That is precisely what puzzles me, Admiral. Publicly, you still maintain that IC planets legally belong to CC governments, and wistfully view the CC itself as a WorldCorp possession, yet—”
“WorldCorp, if I may interrupt, was formed to bring unity and peace to the Home World and, by extension, the human galaxy.”
“Yet, as I was about to say, you father the paramilitary Patrol Ship Wing.”
BeauChamp regarded her carefully. “I fail to see the contradiction.”
“Placing deadly force in the hands of protestors, ex-patriots and dropouts.”
“Highly trained and resourceful officers, trained for a war that never took place, and—until the Wing’s formation—wasted in routine missions and fruitless pursuits.”
“Now armed with light-driven vessels that can out-maneuver STEL Fleet carriers. Why Admiral, will you arm children next?”
BeauChamp shrugged. When the LDC, driven by senatorial doves, gutted defense spending, even as remote Colonial Colonies seceded to the freer and more attractive IC economic climate, STEL-Fleet claimed insufficient funds to crew, fuel and supply its fleet. His hostess had charged WC and its ‘puppet-fleet’ with fabricating an excuse to cut off and punish selected colonies. “Madame, should we not have developed an alternative to STEL-Fleet’s mammoth carriers with their six light-engines each and thousand plus crews?” The then newly retired Fleet Admiral had spear-headed just such a project, designing an in-system vessel with a single, re-tooled light-engine booster and a crew of eight to fourteen multi-certified officers and technicians. “I am simply a one-world hawk, repatriating ex-patriots and reincorporating dropouts. If society’s rebellious generation will unite with us in common cause, a stumbling block on the road to peace through unity will have been removed.”
DeSwayla clapped her small hands. “Bravo! Bravo, Admiral BeauChamp.” She leaned forward over her whisky. “But I don’t buy it. Skipjacks, after all! A regulation resistant, peacetime experienced, rag-tag collection of non-conforming adventurers who have every other military analyst shaking his or her head in profound disbelief, even dismay.” DeSwayla shook her own head and clucked in mock disbelief. “Skipjacks uniting in common cause with anything? The PS Wing is a rather curious brainchild for retired Fleet Admiral Roderick Stevenson BeauChamp, wouldn’t you say? The oldest most by-the-book warhorse I know, recruiting Summer School graduates?”
BeauChamp smiled grimly. Had she figured it out? How much did she know? “Just what are you implying, Madame? Would I lack humility if I pointed out to you that over the last five years the P.S. Wing has acted as a life-line to hundreds of colonies, supplied life-saving tech and meds to colonies that could not afford them, conducted countless rescue operations like this one at Saur, formed an unprecedented, swift and far-reaching communication network from Rim to Rim, engaged in reconnaissance and courier services, transported countless scientific research missions, made friends of—”
“And no few enemies, Roger, flaunting STEL-Fleet regs when it suites their purposes—”
“And saves lives, Madame.”
“Running illegal sub-market operations for personal aggrandizement.”
“Rumor and speculation, Madame.”
“The bane of administrators throughout the known galaxy, Roger, every bureaucrat’s nightmare. Despised by Carrier Captains and old line Fleet staff who—”
“A paramilitary necessity —”
“To whom you extend open credit and have covered for politically on countless embarrassing occasions.”
“Save it, dear boy. I’m told whenever the P.S. Wing subject is broached or anecdotes repeated of the antics of skipjacks like this Jack Anders and Dublin MakFlynn, that tight, straight-line smile of yours typically precedes any disapproving utterances.”
“You stoop to repeating gossip, Madam? That is not in character for the woman I have come to so deeply respect.”
“The Patrol Ship Wing and its renegade skipjacks are out of character for the retired Fleet Admiral I’ve come to know and respect. You used your charisma, hero status, military contacts, and political allies to get your precious Wing approved, built, staffed and crewed, operational and deployed in record time. You transferred a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants military misfit like Flight Admiral Walter Hutchins to ramrod it. A man with whom you’ve had a string of differences— ”
“But who has my utmost respect.”
“And who is the most dark-horse counterpoint to yourself imaginable.”
BeauChamp displayed his palms to her.
“For a man who values mono-government, who would see us return to the days of WorldCorp dominance with even the CC stripped of hard won rights, you have, with uncanny ease, introduced to us yet another rogue element. And Roger, I’ve come to believe you did it on purpose.”
He smiled his tight smile. The first step in his galactic campaign had indeed been a monumental success.
The Presidential Voyager swept from orbit the moment Martha Sheppard’s lander locked in; its long, tapering length wide enough to house office suites and residences for the President, her Cabinet, Executive Staff, Aides and Advisors, Star Command and a Star-Guard contingency, plus many of their families and the starship’s crew itself—yet flat as a razor, a mere three decks deep and smooth as glass to deceive deep-space sensors. Its own sensors, armaments, and computer array rode the cutting edge of IC technology, a technology, her advisors assured her, to rival WorldCorp’s, thanks to true scientific freedom and a booming economy. Like an enormous arrowhead, the Presidential Voyager shot into the void, and disappeared.
Valanna and Ben met her in the docking bay.
“The Cabinet’s assembled,” said Valanna.
“Enjoy your holiday?” Ben asked.
“Enjoy a sock in the nose?” Martha asked.
Ben smiled charmingly, a handsome man, still trim and naturally dark haired, his years betrayed only by a slightly receded hairline and a hard confidence behind the smile.
She knew how much he missed her whenever she was away. More than a suavely sophisticated man like Bennett Chase would ever admit. She and her Chief of Staff went way back. All the way back. To a time before mutual protection pacts and LDC membership. Before peace accords and Liberation Wars. Before a Colonial Congress or even an IC. Long before present days of war without war. Of sending children like Will Green into harms way, into deep, deep cover behind enemy lines to fight the unseen, the unimaginable. But then, she and Ben and Hamilton had also been children in the old days, when it all began. She prayed Will was still alive and somehow in control of things.
Valanna updated her on the Saur Incident as they briskly walked her to her office. Nothing classified that could be overheard—just information gathered from news-services and intercepted transmissions.
“We’re bringing him out,” said Martha—a decree.
“That’s the plan,” said Ben.
“Just so it’s still the plan.” They had discussed leaving Will planted after snatching the Banshee, Ben extolling the benefits of an agent so deeply placed. She’d have none of it.
“We have to find him first,” said Ben, unperturbed.
“We took the liberty of briefing the Cabinet,” said Valanna.
“How’s morale?” By which Martha meant—Had her Cabinet accepted having been left in the dark regarding Operation Banshee?
“As expected,” replied Ben. “Need time to change or wash up?”
“Do I look like I need it?”
“We have very little time,” said Valanna. “Take-hold for the burn to light is less than two hours away.”
“Let’s get this over with,” said Martha.
The other six members of her Cabinet awaited her in the small conference room behind her office—mostly handsome young men and women, vigorous, healthy, well-educated visionaries the media called Martha’s Minds and her opponents labeled Sheppard’s Sheep. They were scowling. Even Dell, their perky Media Liaison. Hardly sheep! But her opponents would never know. Martha’s house security constantly and minutely swept the conference room, a comfortably furnished chamber with well-stocked refreshment carousel.
“Should we move to the Situation Room?” asked Brace Delvington, their Information Specialist, always fearful of moving too far from food and drink, and the only one whose waistline showed it.
“Not yet,” Martha replied. “Let’s keep it private for now.” No need to involve the Star Command hawks.
Vincent Barnes, their Special Projects Coordinator, opened, characteristically blunt and first into the fray, articulating the thoughts of her brilliant young minds. “Why weren’t we told, Madame President?” His dark brow furrowed, his brown eyes challenging.
“Quite simply, Vincent, for your protection. I don’t have the luxury of tyrants like Stark who rules WorldCorp with ease thanks to Home World’s mind-set, cultivated by emperors, kings, lords, barons and corporate dictators down through the millenniums. He answers to no one. I answer to the people of IC space. And they’ll ultimately judge me hero or villain for my scheme to steal Banshee. This thing could go either way. The only political career I’m willing to jeopardize is my own.” A response she, Ben and Valanna had scripted months earlier at Operation Banshee’s outset, preparing for the inevitability of just such a meeting as this, and the possibility of it coming at just such a moment.
“We stand and fall together,” said Dell Somerset, the Cabinet’s sentimentalist. “As always.”
“I fear that’s now the case, dear.”
“I fear you’ve played into WorldCorp hands,” said Vincent, and several others nodded. Lean, darkly handsome, and sharp as a tack, when Vincent spoke, the others listened. “With an election coming up!” At which time he served as her campaign manager. “You’ve been the idol of millions, Madam President. Their hero! But the populous is fickle. We can’t take anything for granted. ‘What have you done for us lately?’ is the usual question during election years. And your rivals in the Dome have the answer, castigating you for the proposed CC Defense Pact they term ill-advised and illegal, with polling statistics that supposedly prove majority opinion against—”
“We’re not here to plot a campaign,” Valanna cut-in.
Ben raised a hand to forestall sibling rivalry. “What do you mean, Mister Barnes, ‘played into WorldCorp hands’?” he asked.
“I believe we’ve been set-up.”
Ben raised eyebrows at Martha. The possibility they’d feared from the start. “Why?”
Vincent had everyone’s full attention. “Consider. WorldCorp, which for centuries conducts secret tests within their own citadels, underground, or aboard their own space stations, suddenly tests their latest weapon aboard a privately owned station far from their usual safe-guards and controls.”
“Our agent told us Ripley was unsure of its destructive potential,” said Martha. “The extent of its reach. Perhaps they were reluctant to endanger their own property.”
“So why not an uninhabited planet,” asked Vincent.
“Cost prohibitive, setting up shop on an unsettled planet,” said Martha.
“How do we know this Banshee device even works?” asked Vincent. “Or was ever meant to?”
“I trust our agent.”
“His honesty or his judgment?”
“In this case, both.”
“Who is he? This paragon of insight and virtue?”
Everyone stared at Martha, Ben and Valanna whose wall of silence condemned Vincent’s question. Then they accusingly stared back at Vincent.
“Alright. I understand.” Vincent raised his hands in surrender. “But did any other intelligence sources cooborate?”
Martha and Ben glanced at each other. Will Green had not been their first spy sent to infiltrate WorldCorp. “We had cooboration,” said Ben.
“So, you’re convinced Banshee’s real?” asked Vincent. “A real threat?”
“I think we have sufficient proof of that at this point,” said Valanna.
“Saur Station rattled apart,” Delving confirmed. “All my information from readings and independent sources bear that out. It wasn’t blown.”
“And this wasn’t a sabotage mission?” asked Vincent.
“Dr. Stuart Lipman, whose profile you have all received, contacted us through a mole. Our agent’s mission was to join Lipman’s team and get him safely over to us along with the device, if possible.”
“Aboard P.S. Corsair,” said Vincent.
Martha raised a palm. “We provided several viable options.”
Ty-Ban Man-Tu made guttural noise deep in his throat. Retired General Tu—the Cabinet’s reticent warrior, military advisor and strategist in whose veins flowed the blood of Home World’s Far Eastern legends—and the only elder on the cabinet.
Ben turned back to Vincent Barnes. “And what do you think Stark’s purpose would be in setting us up?”
“A gambit to expose spies would be my first guess. But there are easier ways to expose spies. And the spies you suspect are often more usefully left in place to funnel misinformation.”
“Where do you get this stuff from?” asked Dell.
Martha laughed with the others, but Vincent’s spy savvy secretly pleased her—she and Ben having recently assigned him to a secret investigation aboard ship, there being evidence of a WorldCorp informant among them.
“Too many spy-vids,” said Delving.
“Go on Mister Barnes,” said Ben.
“I vote for the subtlest reason. WorldCorp wants Madame President discredited during an election year. Stark…he wants her to look like a fool in the Dome.”
Miscellaneous noises around the room condemned Vincent’s strong language. But Martha reprimanded the noisemakers with a raised hand, as ever valuing honesty and debate. “How could Stark accomplish this?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Beyond the obvious. So let’s not be too hasty in publicly accusing WorldCorp of reckless endangerment or anything else.”
“At least till we have more facts,” said Delving.
“Agreed,” said Martha.
“So what do we know?” asked Ben. “Let’s go over it.”
This was Delving’s specialty—the gathering and categorizing of facts. “I’ve made a preliminary division of our information base into initial reports, confirmed reports, and safe inferences.”
Delving’s hard facts were maddeningly few, and Will Green’s safety and whereabouts not among them. Debate resumed over Delving’s ‘safe inferences’ category.
“So our agent either has the device, or part of it, or proof of some other kind, or he doesn’t,” said Vincent.
“And he either got aboard Corsair or he didn’t,” said Valanna.
“Corsair’s presence does not comfort me as it does you,” said Vincent.
“I trust my brother,” said Valanna.
“What did you tell him?”
“I asked him to check out rumors of a WorldCorp experimental weapon’s test.”
“You told him that much? Are you out of your mind?”
“He needed a valid reason to help us.”
“And you didn’t mention our agent or his mission? Or his secret codes?”
Valanna favored Vincent with a withering glare.
“I too cannot believe you invited him to Saur,” said Ty-Ban, shaking his head. When he spoke unsolicited, it was an occasion. “A third party can only complicate matters.”
“I thought you thrived on complication.” Rose loved ribbing her husband. “Besides, neutral third parties often provide stabilization.”
“STEL-Fleet is hardly a neutral third party,” said Ester, their youngest, wise beyond her years. “And the P.S. Wing is hardly stable.”
“In theory,” said Dell, “STEL-Fleet serves WorldCorp, the CC and IC equally.”
“In theory,” said Delving. “But STEL-Fleet is one hundred percent composed of WorldCorp and CC citizens.”
“The PS Wing is paramilitary,” said Valanna. “And has served IC interests in the past.”
“From what I’ve heard,” said Vincent, “your brother serves himself first, last and always.”
“Well he gave me his word he’d be there on standby, and he was there, wasn’t he Vincent.”
“He’s STEL-Fleet, Valanna, whether he believes it or not. Where he goes, STEL-Fleet goes. And trouble follows.”
“Well I for one pray our agent is safely aboard my brother’s ship. The alternatives are grim.”
“Were those his instructions? To board Corsair with Lipman and the device?”
“Of course not! Well, only if…” She glanced around the room. “…things went wrong.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Ester.
Everyone looked at Martha and Ben.
“Suggestions?” Ben asked the group.
“There’s nothing we can or should do,” said Vincent.
“At the moment,” said Ty-Ban.
“Until we hear from our agent or my brother,” said Valanna.
“Madame President?” asked Ben.
“Alright,” said Ben. “We wait.”
Martha’s eyes betrayed heart-felt concern for Will Green—her weakness, according to Ben—getting involved. They’d invested enormous time and money over the years, supporting Will’s deep cover, and this was the pay-off. But, all she remembered was the little blond-haired boy, eagerly going forth into battle, ignorant of its cost.
“He’ll be in touch,” said Ben.
“Not if he’s aboard Corsair in light-transit.”
Ben smiled. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
She stared at him. They all knew she could read him like a printout. “You didn’t!”
“What can I say, Madame President? I’m getting soft in my old age.”
“You gave him a trans-light com?” said Valanna, also a good reader.
Ben shrugged. “I thought it might come in handy.”
Everyone stared apprehensively at Ben.
“What if…?” Delving couldn’t bring himself to utter the words, Dell had her hand to her mouth, and Ty-Ban’s throat was emitting guttural noises again.
“We need to talk,” Martha told Ben.
“Now we know WorldCorp’s gambit,” said Vincent.
Like Saur Station and the Presidential Voyager, STEL-Fleet vessels kept Home World time. So as Stark and Mears searched for their lost bait, DeSwayla and BeauChamp fenced into position, and Sheppard met with her miffed staff; Pilot-Captain Jack Anders made his rounds during the second watch of the morning in the unaccustomed glare of full ship’s lighting—a precautionary measure with so many strangers aboard. He had greeted, encouraged, consoled, or humored over five hundred and forty nine passengers and twenty three over-worked med-techs and twelve doctors by the time he reached sick-bay, where the twenty six most critical cases had been crammed.
There he met up with Van Ash again, las-sealing a patient’s leg she’d outfitted with a set of fabricated bones.
“You’re a real smooth operator, Doc.” He had had every intention of giving her hell, but it came out a compliment. “Can’t turn around on my own ship without tripping over a stationer.”
“You’re not going soft on me are you?” she asked, wiping more blood onto her smock before shucking it into a refab bin. An unexpected retort. “I hear you’ve made quite an impression on our passengers,” she went on. “A STEL-Fleet captain, personally welcoming civs and actually listening to their troubles as though he cared?”
“Guess they never met a skipjack captain before.”
She smiled wryly, arms up to the elbows in the chem-steamer, sterilizing for the next operation. How many would this make at a single stretch? Only a few years his senior, she looked much older this morning, haggard, with dark circles beneath tired eyes. She and Hobbes must be clinically exhausted going at this pace, one emergency, one critical operation, after another. Twenty-four hours of it without rest. Stars, she was magnificent!
“Listen I…back on the station…”
She waited, drying her hands in the jet.
“Well, if it weren’t for you, these people—”
“You are going soft on me aren’t you.”
He smiled, innocent denial. Then surveyed sickbay. Critically injured jammed the suite, attended by too-few med-techs and station doctors. Hobbes hummed to himself as he often did while sealing a patient, a deep, soothing melody of his tribal ancestors. Maker flirted with a patient before tranking him for major surgery. “They going to make it?” Jack asked Van Ash.
“Most will,” she replied. “How’s Corsair’s life-support?”
“Maddie says it’ll take us to Far Cry.”
She passed her hands through the plas-sealer. The coating glistened in the operating theater’s white light. Magic hands that knew their calling, held their skill beyond exhaustion.
“The boy’s prepped,” a station med-tech called to her.
“You need rest,” said Jack.
She ignored him, donning yet another smock, cap and mask.
He could order it. And a lot of good he knew that would do.
“We need to talk later,” she said.
She spoke in a low voice beneath the med-equipment hum. “About Longfellow’s janitor.”
“The white-haired scarecrow?”
“He’s never in his life worked a maintenance or service crew.”
“Oh yeah? How—”
“I’m a trained diagnostician, you know.”
He pondered the significance of a janitor, not a janitor, as he watched her move to the table where a battered teenager lay unconscious beneath vital-feeds tentacles, monitors, and charged lasers.
“We’ll start with the kidney,” she told the med-tech.
Voyager’s burn to light-speed left Martha Sheppard light-headed. Must be getting old. Her mind and body wanted to sleep through a Dobbydown night, but it was mid-morning by ship’s-time and Banshee Operation, added to the demands of a hectic election year presidential office, drained her still further. Never used to be so tired, no matter what the excuses. She used to be able to throw off acceleration, time-changes and stress with a fast handball game or Ben’s famous massage.
Now Ben had gone lunatic on her, handing off their most secretive and valuable tech apparently without a second thought. It wasn’t like him. And how could he have jeopardized the trans-light com without her ok—or even her knowledge? It was something they’d discussed, but rejected. As far as they knew, WorldCorp had nothing like it—totally lacked the technology to communicate with vehicles at light-speed. A significant tactical advantage to IC Star Command, not worth risking—even as much as she cherished Will. And in private conference following the cabinet meeting, Ben had offered no explanation beyond a devilish ‘oops’ look on his stupid face and a feeble “because you were so worried about him” excuse. She’d practically thrown him out of her office as the take-hold alarm sounded, so shocked and frustrated had she been with Ben’s abnormal disregard and negligence. Of all times for Bennett Chase to be falling apart on her! Or was he?
She signaled Middy, her admin-assistant, to hold all calls, slumped into her desk-chair, let her head fall back against the headrest, and fretted over Will Green’s possible fates, several of which her tired imagination played out in gruesome detail.
Perhaps her daughter was right and it was time to step down, leave it all to the next generation. Let the Valannas, the Vincents and others fight for their future the way she and Hamilton and Ben had for an IC union and Colonial Congress to exist in the first place.
But that wasn’t right. Stark was her enemy and Ben’s, not theirs. The One forbid—not theirs! The youngsters had no idea. An old devil like Stark could not be left to the young. He was the unfinished battle. The last battle—One willing. She and Ben and their allies must end it. Then she could step down. Then she could rest. Be a grandmother. Perhaps even a great-grandmother, the One permitting. Sit on a shady porch or a blanket in a sunny meadow, farming on a forgotten world.
That was where she went in her dreams.
Her old-fashioned office door burst open like a thunderclap. And she was back, bolt upright, fully alert, her hand in the desk drawer where she still kept a pistol, a reminder of the old days.
“He’s on!”—Valanna, covering the distance from door to vid-console in three long-legged strides.
“Get Ben in here!” Martha shouted to her secretary before the door sprang shut.
Valanna swung into the communication console’s chair and connected with Delving’s feed. “I hope it’s secure,” she breathed.
There was no picture, but Martha remembered Will’s voice, its delicacy and passion. Will Green, the vid-search confirmed against voice-files. “I’m here, Ram.” No names. Just in case. “Are you well?” she asked the blank screen.
“****aboard Corsair***bound for Far Cry***Station Manag****Wiz****” Wizard was Lipman.
“Can’t you do something about this?” whispered Valanna on-line with Delving.
“Do you have our present?” Martha asked.
“***activated and ************”
“Delving!” Valanna hissed as Ben came in to stand at Martha’s side.
“Tell me what happened Ram?”
“***to trigger it.”
“What? Who triggered it?”
“I had to.”
Her mind reeled. Banshee’s activation—not an accident? Will had put all those lives in jeopardy? She had? “Those were not your orders, Ram.”
Ben’s hand closed on her arm just above the elbow—cautioning.
“Wizard*** cold feet***himself up. Couldn’t stop***would have lost***sabotaging present***only way.”
Why couldn’t Delving get better reception? “Are you in danger?” Martha’s voice was not entirely emotionless.
Valanna glanced up at her seniors, the worried sister.
“***be when we reach Far***if they hand us over to STELL-Fleet.”
“Does Brother know your identity?”
Martha looked down at Valanna.
“Tell him,” Martha ordered Ram. They needed as few involved as possible, but there was no other way. Jack Anders was very resourceful—possibly Will’s only hope. “Let Brother contact us if he insists. Anything he wants.”
Valanna punched the console screaming “Delving!”
“Signal cut out.” Delving’s voice over the com.
“Get it back,” said Martha.
“Don’t give me that crap, Delving.”
“There is no signal, Madam President. It’s dead at his end.”
They’d lost him.
Jack’s typical state of paranoia, having been recently boosted by Van Ash’s cryptic comments concerning Longfellow’s ‘janitor’, landed P.S. Corsair’s crew on Alert Rotation—which meant eight hours on duty, followed by four hours off, four hours on, four hours off, two on and two off; instead of the Normal Rotation of eight hours on duty and sixteen off. Van Ash, of course, was immune to all Corsair duty rosters. As always, she kept her own hours, which over the past thirty-seven had meant straight duty at the operating table—the freedom and drawback of her chosen profession. But then she, Maddie, and Danny Holleran were Corsair’s resident workaholics.
Jack logged Danny into nav-com’s first off-duty slot. “But, sir. I’m in the middle of a crucial systems crosswalk and—” Jack had Dub physically drag him out of the pit and boost him into a cabinward trajectory. But Danny Holleran, a certified Star-Class Navigator, had no difficulty adjusting his trajectory to target the auxiliary cockpit instead of his cabin. Technically, he was disobeying orders, but rationalized such out of character behavior with his definition of rest and relaxation—more work on his beloved nav-programs.
Things had settled down in the crowded corridors and cabins since his last surveillance check. Many passengers were sleeping now and the shouting and clatter and moaning had died down to a murmuring, rustling, and snoring.
He climbed the spiral stair to the auxiliary cockpit and coded open the hatch lock. The body-heat sensors must have been malfunctioning because the light was already on over the nav-console. He squeezed between the pilot and co-pilot seats and nearly had a heart attack.
A trim, blond-haired young man sat on the floor beneath the counter.
“Hey!” Danny’s high-pitched voice broke adolescently, undermining his authoritative tone. “What the heck? This place is off-limits to you guys.”
The man made no response.
“Hey!” Danny approached cautiously. “You!” He touched the tech’s shoulder and the youth fell back, flat out with a sickening thok as his head impacted the steel deck.
Danny backed up a step, then two, horrified. There was no blood, but the face was frozen in surprise, staring dead-eyed at the ceiling. The hands clasped a small device of some kind, held to the chest as though cuddling it. Had it killed him?
Danny knew he should report immediately, but curiosity got the better of him and he moved closer to examine the hand-held device. It looked like a communicator of some kind
He never heard the dark-haired youth stepping to his back.
Mercifully, he never felt the blade.
Madame DeSwayla’s dinner invitation had turned into an all night conference in her library. And contrary to BeauChamp’s expectations, the evening had proven to be entertaining, enlightening and promising. Madame DeSwayla either knew, or was very close to knowing why he had created the Patrol Ship Wing. The sharing of such a deadly secret brought relief mingled with trepidation. Especially with a political rival. Former political rival? “I don’t know what to say, Madame.”
“Well I’d say there’s a new you lurking beneath the veteran WorldCorp hawk.”
“And I would vehemently deny such a preposterous accusation.”
“Of course you would, dear boy. Publicly. But here we are, all alone in my inner sanctum. Which, as you know, has been swept clean of those nasty surveillance mites. So you can confide in me, Roger.”
“Have another drink.” She again handed him her empty glass.
“A tactical miscalculation, Madame. Plying a space-navy man with old brandy in the hopes of a revelation.”
“Roger! What a preposterous accusation. Do you think I don’t know my navy men after all these years?”
“Forgive me, Madame.” He handed her the whiskey and resumed his too-comfortable chair. “I forgot to whom I am speaking.”
His diminutive hostess laughed and got up and dragged her chair over to his, arm to arm. She sat down and placed a hand on his. “If we are to accomplish anything, Admiral, we must come to trust one another.” The fine bone china of her small hand, satiny with age, lay atop the deep gray of his big coarse hand. “We really must, you know.”
“Let us then proceed at a steady pace, dear lady.”
Madame DeSwayla beamed. “I’ll share a tidbit of gossip with you if you’ll share a tidbit with me. Just to lay in a course, you understand.” She sounded like a little girl bursting to share a big secret. “Saur Station hosted a top secret WorldCorp project.” If she’d been holding a hand-fan, she’d have fluttered it beneath her lashes at this point. “Possibly a weapon’s experiment.”
BeauChamp considered this. His military contacts remained fully intact despite his retirement. Little happened in STEL-Fleet, top secret or otherwise, without his knowledge. If WorldCorp was involved in weapons manufacturing, they were doing it on their own this time. But how would she know?
“Now its your turn, Roger.”
“Saur Station is no longer in one piece,” he offered. “Not even in hundreds of pieces.”
“Oh my.” She was genuinely surprised. “They said it was stressed. Buckling. Not that it…Roger, you didn’t—”
“No, Madame. I had nothing to do with it.”
“Do call me Constance, dear boy. Madame makes me feel positively ancient. And I hate feeling my age. So how—”
“The report I received—”
“From Corsair’s automated cams and sensors, before she went to light. The vids recorded the station’s demise in detail.”
“Your communication network is much faster than mine, Roger. I freely admit it. Congratulations. I am enthralled. Do go on.”
“For want of a better way to summarize my intelligence team’s analysis—the station simply rattled apart.”
“Hah! Our bad little corporate boys were playing with fire-crackers and they’ve blown a finger off.”
He looked at her disconcertedly, smelling a gambit. “I thought your tidbit was solid fact.”
“What can be certain in this day and age, Roger? So what sort of fire-cracker was it, anyway?”
“The corporate finger was shattered. Sonically, to be precise.”
Madame DeSwayla slapped her thigh in open-mouthed astonishment. “An entire space station? How?”
“I’d certainly like the answer to that question.”
“This is too delicious, Roger. If only we could share our knowledge with others. I know the Colonial Congress would be delighted.”
“Now Constance, how could they possibly find out?”
“I really couldn’t say.” She smiled craftily. For a woman hard as nails, her smile could thaw the ice-moon of Shach 1. “What proof do we have or can we get of WorldCorp culpability?” she asked.
“Saur Station Management and staff are aboard Corsair enroute to the P.S. Wing Base on Far Cry. Perhaps they know something we do not.”
She clapped her small hands, and then raised her whiskey glass to toast BeauChamp. The ice tinkled merrily. “We have simply got to talk to those boys. You will keep them safe, Roger. Won’t you.”
It wasn’t going to be easy.
Home World’s morning sun warmed the ancient stones of Humanity Keep to a rosy hue; but, within the cavernous, windowless conference chamber, cold night still ruled, broken only by a lamp at the end of the long marble table where a wary Experimental Technologies Director silently observed a weary WorldCorp Board Chairperson who still waited for his industrious Executive Board Secretary to locate their missing bait.
“I am downloading Corsair’s files,” Mears intoned to no one in particular.
“Swell.” Damion Stark downloaded his tenth drink—a straight chem-shot. He’d switched from tall spritzers to chem-shots with his third. Ripley meanwhile had joined Mears in abstinence, preferring to meet his fate critically alert to his options—if any. “We must eliminate all possibility of this getting out,” said Stark, pointedly. “All possibility. As distasteful as certain actions might prove to be.”
Mears shook his head—the disapproving professor.
Stark glared at him over the monitor. “What?”
“We must proceed with due caution.”
“Caution is a luxury time does not afford us in this matter, Dom.”
Mears flopped back in his conference chair, his tweed jacket soaked with perspiration, his bowtie still neatly bound around his neck. His fingers dropped from his keypads for the first time all night and all morning. “Never-the-less,” he said, swiveling his monitor to face Stark.
CORSAIR: SHIP’S ROSTER
Last Name/First Name/Number/Rank—Assignment//
Star-Class Pilot/Star-Class Navigator/Star-Class Helm
Star-Class Pilot/Star-Class Navigator
Star-Class Engineer/Star-Class Pilot
Star-Class Navigator/Star-Class Communications/Pilot First Class
Star-Class Communications/Computer Tech 1
Dace/Stetson/08398/Computer Systems Specialist First Class—Systems Engineer/Armscomper
Star-Class Pilot Third Class/In-System Navigation
Van Ash/Lyssa/99977/Lieutenant-Commander—Ship’s Doctor
M.D./Star-Class Surgeon/Star-Class Bio-Chemical Engineering
M.D./Star-Class Surgeon/Star-Class Bio-Lab Tech 1
Maker/Randy/ 35473/Lieutenant—Surgical Assistant
Surgical Assistant First Class/Pharmacy Specialist/Lab Tech 1
Stark’s pale eyes locked on the Captain-Pilot’s name, and blinked slowly—Anders! He took the news better than he would have without chem. He raised his arm, about to hurl the shot glass against a stone wall, but controlled himself with evident pain—the engraved crystal being part of an expensive collection he’d purchased from a Pallavarian museum. “Why didn’t you tell me this hours ago?”
“I didn’t want to upset you.”
“Is our skipjack pilot closely related to Senator Anders?”
“His First Heir.”
“Damn!” Mears had correctly assessed the need for caution. Jonathan Anders X—House Ander’s Elder Lord Baron, the Merchant Confederation’s Senior Officer, and the LDC’s Trade Commissioner—Stark’s wealthiest and most politically powerful and influential rival, next to Madame Ela Constance DeSwayla herself, and Martha Sheppard—his enemies, semantics aside.
Mears keyed into the son’s professional credits and recited them to Stark: “Galactic Law Degree with top honors from Arachni University; commercial First Class Pilot’s license; flew shuttle craft, loaders and landers for House Anders’ merchant fleet; Star-Class Pilot and Star-Navigation and Helm certifications from the Rapid Deployment Flight School, top five percent of his class; downgraded to lander pilot when the war failed to materialize; pogosphere pilot attached to inter-stellar carrier Gallant, with over eight hundred drops and twenty two in-system missions; promoted to Junior, then Senior Helmsman aboard inter-stellar carrier Intrepid; and lastly, recruited into the PS Wing as PS Corsair’s Pilot-Captain, where he has served for the past five years; twice decorated for valor, thrice fined for reckless endangerment of STEL-Fleet property, and nine times reprimanded for insubordination. Another sterling example of Summer School training.”
“Senator Jonathan Anders’ boy,” Stark intoned resignedly. “Well, at least that explains Corsair’s presence at Saur Station.”
“How could Anders have known?” asked Ripley, his voiced echoing strangely in his own ears.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Anton. Every body has spies everywhere!”
“Nothing is explained,” said Mears, “till we have Corsair’s crew and passengers at our disposal,”—the kind of curtness that, in another, would have won deadly reprisal from Stark. But Stark simply winced, undoubtedly chalking it off as he always did to Mears’ graceless academic background—the testy ex-professor.
Besides—his Executive Secretary was correct. “Nice choice of words, Dom. How soon can we manage the disposal, er…debriefing? Who do we have in range of Far Cry? We need a patriotically loyal, no-nonsense, rigidly authoritative, fully authorized Carrier-Captain under LDC executive orders, of course, to transport our friends directly here for top-secret technical debriefing in a matter of utmost urgency to universal security.”
“Or whatever. You word it. But we get a carrier to Far Cry before Corsair gets home.”
“I’ll see who we have out there,” said Mears and disappeared back into his portacomp.
“PS Corsair of the PS Wing.” Stark’s speech slurred only slightly as he unknowingly paraphrased Madame DeSwayla: “For an advocate of law and order, BeauChamp has masterfully gifted us with the perfect agency for chaos.”
“Hold on!” cried Mears. “I have something here.”
“A sympathetically loyal Carrier-Captain?”
Mears’ fingers abandoned all but one of his keypads and blurred with speed.
“I have something here!”
“I have something here.”
“Stop saying that!”
“Are we secure here?”
“Is this room secure? Swept clean?”
“Of course it is, Dom. It’s our in-house conference chamber. What’s the matter with you?”
“Our agent on Lipman’s team is making contact.”
Stark shot to the edge of his seat. “From where?”
“Impossible!” cried Ripley, leaping to his feet, heart-rate quadrupling.
“They’re in light-transit.”
Stark and Mears smiled conspiratorially at each other.
“How can it be?” Ripley asked, standing over the pair, ear cocked for the speaker. “I mean, it’s theoretically possible. I’ve had a section working on it for years. But where would your spy get such technologies, Mears?” A thought occurred to him. “Have we—?”
“No, we don’t,” said Stark. “Calm down.”
Ripley lost all thought of self-preservation in his excited state—“You two haven’t been holding out on me?”
“Of course not, Anton. Where would we come up with anything your people didn’t invent?”
“Quiet!” snapped Mears.
“*****from the auxiliary cockpit of P.S. Corsair, outbound from*******bearing *********Far Cry.”
Their operative’s voice struggled through static with occasional dead spots, but Mears’ program easily confirmed his identity, and they listened to a status report they had apparently despaired of hearing, Stark’s smile growing from ear to ear.
Mears nodded as though this were nothing more than he had expected.
Ripley’s eyebrows attached themselves to each other and his jaw dropped.
“I have some questions and instructions for our young spy,” Stark told Ripley. “Need to know basis. You know? Be good enough to wait out in the ante-chamber, will you? There’s a good man. Thank you.”
Eight hours into Alert Rotation, Van Ash appeared on the bridge and collapsed into the vacant communications-seat. Ensign Sidney Butterworth held Danny’s seat in the nav-pit, Engineering Officer Madelain O’Flynn sat co-pilot in Dub’s place; and Jack, sitting backup, swiveled his pilot’s seat to face Van Ash.
They measured each other a moment in silence.
“So,” said Jack. “Miss Diagnosis.” He grinned. “A janitor who’s not a janitor. Care to elaborate on your suspicions?”
“I suspect you know a whole lot more about him than I do. A whole lot more about everything that’s happened.”
“Why did you want out, Jack. Off-station so fast. It’s not like you to strand civilians in need. Not even you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“No? You went to Saur to pick him up, didn’t you.”
“You were snooping.”
“Come on, Jack. You always repeat key words when you’re thinking up a lie.”
“You’ve got this all figured out, eh?”
“Not all of it. Level with me, Jack.”
“Level with you?” He couldn’t help himself.
“Start with why we were there.”
“You’re nuts, Doctor.” Level with her? Why should he ever do that?
More silence. She was very good at silence. Her steady gaze eroded his relaxed pose. He spoke to camouflage his unease and thereby lost the contest. “We just happen to be on layover at Saur Station when all hell breaks loose, and you’re blaming me…for what exactly?”
“You tell me, Jack.”
“There’s nothing to tell.”
“I’ll find out sooner or later.” Her calm was unnerving. “You know I will.”
She always did. “It wasn’t my idea, remember? Dub recommended Saur.”
“Your father didn’t put you up to it?”
“Why would I spy for my father? You know me and my relationship with him better than that.”
Sid concurred with a loud snort from the pit.
“Who said anything about spying?” asked Van Ash.
“You. You said I was snooping.” She wasn’t going to catch him that easily.
“There’s a big difference between snooping and spying, Jack.”
“Oh yeah? Why don’t you tell me about it.”
“Spying is snooping with purpose,” said Sid.
“Stay out of this Butterworth.”
“I couldn’t have defined it better myself,” said Van Ash. “Thank you, Sid.”
“Don’t mention it, Doc.”
“And come to think of it in those terms, you were definitely spying, Jack. You and Dub were all over that station.”
“This is preposterous!” Jack wasn’t a quitter. You had to give him that.
“You know something weird?” said Sid.
“Van Ash and her suspicions,” said Jack.
“Those two station clerks. This janitor business just reminded me. They gave me a hard time when I logged them. Had to get Dub to persuade them to cooperate. It made me think they had something to hide. So later, I checked the data from their ring-chips. Everything was in order, but you know what I discovered?”
“They’re aliens,” said Jack.
“Kinda. They’re WorldCorp techs. A Will Swiftback and a Guy Radnor.”
Jack was honestly flabbergasted. What had his sister gotten him into? He’d agreed to check out rumors of WorldCorp weapons testing and now he had two of their creeps aboard his ship. And a janitor who wasn’t a janitor according to Van Ash. What the hell? “As our communications officer, Sid, you think you could communicate important stuff like that to me a whole lot sooner?”
“I’ll try, Boss.”
“What’s going on, Jack?” Van Ash grew calmer than calm. “We have a right to know.”
“It’s top secret.”
“Whose top secret?”
“Let me think.”
“Who’s the janitor? Sid, did you check out the janitor?”
“No, Doc. But I will right now.”
“Somebody was poking around engineering’s outer shell earlier,” said Maddie.
“What?” Jack asked. “Who?”
“I don’t know. Said he was lost. I told him to get lost.”
“When was this?” asked Jack.
“Just before I came on duty up here.”
“What did he look like?”
“Real young. Slight build. Good looking. Dark-haired.”
“Did he have a hair-line scar above his left eyebrow?” asked Van Ash.
“I think he did.”
“Guy Radnor. One of Longfellow’s office clerks,” said Van Ash. “Or should I say, one of our WorldCorp passengers?”
“We got ‘im on cam?” Jack asked.
“It was after we lost surveillance,” said Maddie.
“We’ve lost surveillance?” asked Jack.
“Only internals,” said Sid, still scanning for the so-called janitor’s stats.
“But the discs were wiped,” said Maddie.
“Deliberately wiped,” Sid added.
"Probably right after we lost internal sensors,” said Maddie.
Jack spread his arms wide to embrace everyone on the bridge. “You know, once in a while somebody around here could keep me a little informed.”
“It goes two ways, Jack.” Van Ash was dangerous when she got this calm.
“Bingo!” cried Sid. “The janitor’s a WorldCorp Tech Specialist, First Class.”
“This is unbelievable!” said Jack.
“Is it?” asked Van Ash. “Try us.”
She was right. They had a right to know, and it wasn’t like him to keep his crew in the dark. “We’ll ditch ‘em at Far Cry,” he said.
“This is scary,” said Sid.
“No harm done,” said Jack.
“As long as they stay away from my engines,” said Maddie.
“No. I mean, this is scary.” Sid sat forward and straight in her seat like a cat poised to pounce. “I thought it was an anomaly at first. But it’s a transmission—encoded—I think. I didn’t really notice till it blipped off.”
“How can that be? We’re in light.”
“I don’t know, Boss.”
“Our backup com?”
“I don’t know. Sure isn’t one of our frequencies.”
“How can this be?” asked Maddie.
“It can’t!” said Sid.
“Can you be a little more precise on direction?” asked Jack.
Sid twisted her lower lip to blow stray hair off her forehead. “Running a trace now, boss. But without being able to triangulate, don’t expect precision.”
This was maddening. But, at least, Van Ash had been put off the scent.
“Some kind of new tech?” asked Maddie.
“But who?” asked Van Ash.
“Sid, hail Danny and Dace,” said Jack. “Get ‘em up here on the double.” Sid was out of her depth. With the computer twins on it, he’d get answers.
Van Ash sat and stared at him in icy silence.
“I don’t know anything about this,” said Jack to fill the void. “I swear!”
The iceberg was unmoved.
“Danny’s not responding, boss. Dace’s on his way.”
Danny Holleran not responding? Not possible. Jack felt it like a blow to the chest. “Punch all-hail. Find him!”
Jonathan Anders stood on the balcony outside his office and rested his eyes on the dramatic view spread below his fortress’ northern tower.
On either hand, ice-peaked mountains plunged pinewood-green, wilderbells-red, and rock-brown into Brin Fiord’s calm blue depths. Away in the crisp distance, beyond the fiord’s mouth, a hint of endless sea. Gulls hung with relaxed confidence above the fishing villages. Not a vid-screen either—the real thing, his balcony open to the elements. His breath froze in the pure, upper air. Tel Fortress had no use for the atmospheric bubbles that protected cities of industrialized worlds from pollution and weather whims. His Fiordhaven ancestors would have felt right at home here on Telaire’s northernmost continent, a safe haven for ancient House Anders, late of the Home World’s legend-steeped Northland.
Jonathan watched the white sails dotting the fiord’s flat surface. If only he had more time to race the long, sleek ships his maritime engineers had replicated. If only he had time for many things. Time for Jack to accept his heritage. Time for House Anders to complete its two thousand year old destiny. Time for humankind to survive. More time. Without knowing it, the Ancient had time on his side. And time, like the old song said, flowed over the fall faster than ever, though its spring would soon run dry.
Duffson, his House Steward, stepped onto the balcony and softly cleared his throat. “Madame Constance DeSwayla will be available momentarily, Sir.”
“Thank you, Duffson.” He tore himself from the healing panorama and followed his lean, middle-aged House Steward to the holo-vid room to take the call his secretary had been attempting to get through all day. He settled into the holo-chair and donned its paraphernalia.
Separated by a thousand light-years, he sat in Constance DeSwayla’s holo-vid room in the chair Senator BeauChamp had physically occupied some twenty hours earlier; and she sat in his holo-vid room and smiled slyly into his clear blue eyes.
“You’ve been a busy girl, Madame Chairperson.”
“Forgive me, dear boy. I haven’t been avoiding you. I promise. There’s simply so much to do before we’re back in session.”
“Including the wining and dining of political adversaries?”
“Have you gone out of your mind, Constance? BeauChamp? In your own home? Physically?”
“I could do worse for stimulating conversation.”
“BeauChamp? What exactly did you find to talk about with him?”
“Oh, a great deal, Jonathan. You’d be surprised.”
“I’m sure I would. Care to enlighten me?”
“Well, for one thing, my illustrious dinner guest confirmed our suspicions concerning a certain WorldCorp weapon-test.”
“Why would he have done that?”
“Hard to say. But, there’s more to him than meets the eye, as we used to say down here. I just got to thinking the other day, perhaps we’ve misjudged him. Perhaps he’s not the enemy after all.”
“If he isn’t, he works for him.”
“I don’t know. Jonathan. As I’m sure you recall, Stark forced his retirement.”
“Constance. I can’t believe you didn’t discuss this with me first.”
“You would have been as negative as you are now.”
“Well, I would have appreciated the opportunity to—”
“I think we should have this discussion in person, dear boy. Do come down for a few days before the new session. Life will be so dull once the Senate re-convenes.”
“This frequency is secure. My people are monitoring—”
“Mine too, Jonathan. But my conversation with the retired Admiral is really much to dull a topic without sharing a drink or three.”
“Now it’s a dull topic?”
“How’s Jack these days, by the by. Haven’t seen that handsome son of yours since he joined the PS Wing.”
“I don’t see him much myself.”
“Still don’t see eye to eye on his future? Let it go, Jonathan. The boy has to sew his wild oats. You remember how it was. He’ll be there to take the reigns of House Anders when the time comes. Or I don’t know him as I do. And I’ve known that rascal since he was born.”
“He works hard. Being a Skipjack is no easy job. I do hope he gets plenty of rest and recreation. All work and no play, you know.”
“You do encourage him to take a vacation once in a while I hope. A few day’s layover. Somewhere peacefully remote.”
“Of course you do. What am I thinking? I heard he had an interesting layover at Saur Station recently. Was that the result of your advice, Jonathan?”
“No it certainly was not.”
“Oh! That reminds me. I spoke to Martha Sheppard recently. Thought she might be interested in the particulars on the Saur Station disaster since she missed the Liaison Council meeting.”
His old ally had his full interest now. “Was she?”
“Well, oddly enough, Madame President didn’t sound surprised when it slipped out about WorldCorp’s weapon-test—”
“—and who all is aboard your son’s ship.”
“Who exactly is aboard my son’s ship?”
DeSwayla confirmed his own intelligence, which did nothing to console him.
“And you think she already knew?” Jonathan asked.
“And you think she already knew?” Jonathan asked.
“Didn’t bat and eye. Figuratively speaking. It was an audio link.”
“To say the least.”
“Did you see the Executive President’s simulcast?”
“Oh well, Jonathan. Stark has already assured the Liaison Council we’ve nothing to fear from the University dissidents—”
“—who sabotaged Saur. He’s even been calling me periodically with investigation updates.”
“How considerate. You know, Madame, I think I’ll accept your invitation and join you planetside in a few weeks for those drinks.”
“You will sweep up for me.”
“Of course, Jonathan. What kind of hostess do you take me for?”
“A most fascinating one, madam. And informative too.”
“Why Jonathan. You say the dearest things.”
The I.C. Presidential Voyager slipped through the void, a sliver in darkness, her course and destination known, as ever, only to a select few.
The President’s Cabinet re-convened in the private conference room behind Martha Sheppard’s office.
“He isn’t necessarily dead,” said Dell, optimism being one of the prerequisites for a Media-Liaison Chief. “He can’t be.” Self-delusion being the other.
Collectively, they spontaneously observed a moment of silence for Will Green, IC’s latest unsung hero in the non-war against WorldCorp, each lost in his or her own thoughts. Then Delving shared what little he had interpreted from the sudden disconnection.
“We are blind,” said Ty-Ban, shaking his head. “It is not good, going blind into battle.”
“We have to contact Corsair,” said Valanna.
“Not officially,” said Vincent.
“Of course not,” said Valanna. “But we can’t make decisions without data.”
“And we cannot allow Corsair to reach Far Cry,” said Delving. “That’s certain. My intelligence sources confirm that Star-Carrier Defiant has been re-routed to the PS Wing base under classified orders.”
Rose whistled. “How do we counterman a patrol ship’s orders?”
“Intelligence has it, Corsair isn’t under orders to return to Far Cry,” said Delving. “The decision must have been made by Pilot-Captain Anders or the med-team because of the Saur casualties aboard. The hospital at Cale’s Gambit on Far Cry is probably the best non-Home World facility.”
“So,” said Rose. “How do we divert a patrol ship without causing an inter-galactic incident?”
“Who knows,” said Delving. “But I agree with Valanna. We must contact her brother.”
Vincent came to his feet. “Any message-passing between our President or any member of her staff and PS Corsair under present circumstances will most assuredly cause an inter-galactic incident.”
“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” said Ester, and everyone stared in dismay at the young Bartabian beauty whose dusky complexion went red.
“Suggestions?” asked Ben.
There were none.
“I received a vid-call from Madame DeSwayla,” said Martha.
Her cabinet’s astonishment amused Ben.
“She and I have been in periodic contact over the past few months, discussing certain matters outside normal diplomatic channels.”
“Is there no end to what you haven’t told us, Madame President?” asked Vincent.
Martha smiled sheepishly at him. “DeSwayla knows about WorldCorp’s experimental weapon-test, and who boarded Corsair just before it left Saur. Which means Jonathan Anders also knows. Perhaps Valanna could get a message to her brother via her father. Merchanters have ways of deep-coding exchanges. Assuming he has a basic knowledge of the situation, their conversation could be conducted discreetly enough to delay interpretation if over-heard by hostile parties.”
“There’s only one problem,” said Ben. “We have to wait until Corsair drops out of light off Far Cry. Valanna?”
“It’ll be close,” said Valanna. “But I think Father could warn them off in time. The Merchant Fleet’s communications system has no trans-light tech, but it is otherwise unsurpassed.”
Vincent made a skeptical sound with his lips.
Lieutenant Madelain MakFlynn still sat conn in Dub’s seat. Ensign Sidney Butterworth kept vigil up in her com-nest. System Specialist Stetson Dace now occupied Danny Holleran’s nav-pit, having been volunteered by Jack to monitor ship status and decipher the mysterious trans-light transmission Sid had picked up. Everyone else searched for Danny.
“Just holdin’ your seat for you Danny, m’lad,” Dace kept saying out loud, unnerving others, tears streaking his impish face. Dace’s fingers skittered over the boards, occasionally miss-keying, and trembling whenever they paused. He shook his head back and forth nonstop, moaning and sighing as he studied the recorded readings, tracing the transmission’s intricate trail, analyzing invisible residues for which few would even know to look.
He and Danny were buddies—the outgoing, bizarre little computer specialist and the pleasant little introverted navigation officer. They shared a passion for programming, system development, and taller attractive women (though unlike his energetic romps with Maker, Danny’s shy infatuation with Maddie remained unconsummated). “Any word?” he called out to Sid.
“Not yet,” she replied, not for the first time.
“It’s been over an hour, hasn’t it?”
“Yes. It has.”
“Corsair’s not big enough to be lost in for an hour.”
Sid and Maddie exchanged glances.
“Why?” he moaned. “Why did the surveillance cams have to cut out now of all times? Why did we let all these passengers aboard? Sensors could have pegged Danny’s location instantly without all these extra bodies.”
“Got anything yet?” asked Maddie to distract him. Weepy men made her uncomfortable.
“Not a whole heck of a lot, no. The transmission held up in light. Receiver’s gotta be somewhere in CC space. And there was an earlier transmission too.”
“Outbound also?” asked Maddie. “What direction?”
“IC space. Maybe the Bal System.”
“Not much? Dace, that’s great!”
“I’ll tell Jack,” said Sid.
“Tell Jack what?” asked Jack catapulting onto the bridge.
“Dace figured out—”
“Find ‘im yet?” asked Dace.
“Not yet,” said Jack, sliding into his seat.
“So are you giving up or what?”
“We’re not giving up, Dace. Not ever. Maker and Dub are still searching. Hobbes is thoroughly scanning the auxiliary cockpit.” That was the wrong thing to tell him.
“Scanning? Scanning for what? What’dya mean? Like blood?”
“Danny’s cabin didn’t look like he’d been there recently. It occurred to me he might have headed for the auxiliary cockpit when I banished him from his beloved nav-pit. You know how he loves running sims in there, playing space cadet. If there was foul play—”
“Foul play? Foul play? So he is looking for blood. I don’t believe this.”
“Take it easy, Dace. We’re just eliminating possibilities.”
“Oh yeah, right! Eliminating possibilities. You think he’s dead now, don’t you. Just admit it.”
“Captain.” Hobbes on bridge com. “I found something.”
“You still in auxiliary, Doctor?”
“That’s affirmative. I’ve got some blood traces here by the communications console. Two sets. One matches Danny’s.”
“Oh no!” cried Dace. “Oh my! I knew it! I knew it!”
Maddie and Sid meanwhile launched a volley of questions.
“Now let’s just simmer down a might, people,” said Hobbes, ever the voice of reason; mellow-toned, calm and steady. “Let’s not jump to any unsubstantiated conclusions just yet.”
“Recommendations?” asked Jack, long accustomed to seeking Franklin Hobbes’ advice and, amazingly enough, listening to it (listening to advice not being one of Jack’s strengths).
“I suggest all members of the crew meet on the bridge as soon as possible.”
“Works for me,” said Jack. “Sid—”
“Gotcha Boss.” She punched all-hail.
“Just give me a bit to finish up in here,” said Hobbes.
“You got it. Dace, tell me what you’ve got on that transmission.”
Cold and painfully contorted, Guy Radnor lay on his back beneath Jack Ander’s feet, having wormed his way into the cramped space between decks. Voices carried through the steel flooring without electronic assistance, and now, in addition to being in pain, what he heard chilled him to the bone.
Guy Radnor had been keeping tabs on his blond-haired counterpart for a long time. His mission controller, the Executive Secretary himself, had been right about Swiftback. Radnor had followed his tech partner to the auxiliary cockpit and caught him in an act of treason—consorting with the enemy (even if WorldCorp’s war with the IC was a cold one). Unfortunately, Swiftback turned and spotted him before he could overhear the person’s or persons’ identity at the other end.
Then the nav-officer showed up.
Forced to work fast, Radnor instantly killed them. No telling when someone else might show up. He nabbed the odd-looking com in Swiftback’s hand, and then quickly and methodically ransacked the tech’s clothing to find the Banshee’s trigger mechanism in a false-heel—How original!—and its design-disc in the vest’s lining—How lame! Whoever was running Swiftback lacked expert training.
Radnor sprayed and wiped everything down to destroy prints and telltale DNA—this Hobbes must be damn good—dragged Swiftback’s body through the air duct system and, after hiding it, contacted Mears using Swiftback’s com. After that, he returned for the navigator’s body.
Gone! He ducked back into the vent and slid off as fast as he could, assuming the ship’s crew had recovered it. The body sure hadn’t gotten up and strolled off—he was far too thorough for that.
So he had wormed his way into the ‘tween-decks to hide and overhear what he could. And the conversation above him, combined with the cold of ‘tween-decks, set his teeth chattering. They were still looking for him—the officer no older than himself with the nav-patch on his uniform? Even if the boy was miraculously alive, why would he skip out or hide and not contact his friends? Radnor shivered superstitiously—the kid lurking in the ship’s ‘tween-decks along with him—alive or dead? It gave him the creeps!
They sat full alert stations awaiting Hobbes’ arrival. The others filtered in as Dace reviewed the little he had. Then Dace discovered indications that the earlier transmission signal had originated in the auxiliary cockpit—which made him go crazy again. “That’s where Danny… Danny may have..”
“Alright Dace, alright!” said Jack. “Take it easy. How about repairing ship’s sensors so we’re not working blind? Dace? You hear?” Had to keep him busy.
“I can’t, Skipper. Gotta find something on Danny, some trace, some clue.”
“Fine, Dace. Stay on it.”
“Aye, aye Skipper. I’ll do Danny proud. Yes sireee! Nothing’ll get past me.”
Dub rolled his eyes. “We need help,” he said, leaving open to interpretation whether he meant Dace or all of them.
“We’re three days out from Far Cry,” said Jack.
“Hauling a shipload of suspects,” said Maker. She sat on the nav-pit’s rim, massaging Dace’s sternocleidomastoid and trapezius in his neck. “Not that anything has happened to Danny that we have suspects aboard at all,” she added in Dace’s ear and then bit it.
“We have suspects involving foul play back at Saur Station,” said Van Ash, and she brought the others up to date on their undercover WorldCorp passengers. “Anything you’d care to add, Dub?”
Jack scrutinized his boards—your turn, pal—to be Van Ashed.
“For instance why you chose a layover at Saur from clear across the territory?”
“Whiskey and women, Doc. I’d cross Rim to Rim for whisky and women.”
“You and Jack get plenty of both anywhere.”
She grimaced. “Why Saur?”
“She’s fishing,” said Jack, braving a supportive comment.
“With a pretty thin line,” said Dub.
“Oh I don’t know,” said Van Ash. “You two poked into every corner of that station.” Van Ash’s questioning held everyone’s attention.
“How do you know, Lady?” asked Dub.
“Did you two find what you were looking for?”
“Were you following us, Doc? I think she was following us Jack.”
“What were you looking for, First Officer?”
“What were you looking for, Doc?”
She wasn’t going to trap Dub. He was far too wily. Jack on the other hand was easy. Jack she could paralyze for some reason neither she nor Jack could ever figure out, Jack being as hard to corner as Dub for most people. So Jack just sat back and let Dub fend for himself.
Van Ash raised an eyebrow and sighted her overgrown target. “I asked you first, Dub.”
Dub smiled. “You know me, Doc. Whisky and women, like I said. What else?”
“Something capable of destroying an entire space station? Something that could destroy countless lives?”
Dub glanced at Jack, then at his instrument panel, suddenly sobriety and guilt personified. “I suppose it could,” he said softly. “In the wrong hands.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Well it’s a bad combination.”
“You know. Some things just don’t mix. You take a weak personality. Put unstable chemicals into her hands. You’ve got yourself a volatile situation.”
“Whose hands are we talking about?”
“You said her.”
“I was generalizing. Not all women are like that.”
“Like what? What are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about, Doc?”
Van Ash stared flatly at Dub.
He looked confused. “I thought we were talking about whiskey and women.”
Everyone except Van Ash found him amusing. Her eyes appealed for help to Hobbes who had just entered, but Captain Hobbes fought to keep a straight face. “In the interests of personal safety,” Van Ash’s eyes took in the rest of the crew, one after another, stifling laughter like a knife smoothing butter as she scanned the bridge, then leveled again on Dub, “would you grow up and tell us just what you were looking for on Saur? Would it happen to be a WorldCorp exec and a pair of techs—”
“Not my types,” said Dub.
“—or something they had?”
“Like a social disease?”
She was smiling now too, always a bad sign. “Something they want back? Something worth killing for?”
That hit the mark. And drained the batteries. Now Dub really did look guilty. Danny had been loved by all. Had been? Jack swallowed dryly. How could he let himself think such a thought?
“Well let’s quit talkin’ about it and drag those lousy WorldCorp bastards up here,” said Dace. “We’ll pound the truth outta them.”
“What about the rest of our passengers?” said Maddie. “We can’t rule anyone out, can we?”
“Yeh,” Sid agreed. “Who knows who all we swept up before—”
“Now hold on a minute,” said Hobbes, probably the sanest member of Corsair’s crew, his weathered brown face grave and comforting at the same time. “We can’t even be certain of foul play at this point. Our blood samples are sub-microscopic. There is no physical evidence to support violence. Not in the auxiliary bridge.”
“So we just let ‘em all go when we reach Far Cry?” said Dace.
“I didn’t say that.”
“We should hand them over to the Constabulary in Bingham Town,” said Maddie. “It’s a big city, with inspectors trained to get to the bottom of this sort of thing.”
“We can’t wait that long,” said Dub, Van Ash’s eyes still draining him. “Danny can’t.”
“That’s right,” said Maker, who had served a tour as M.P. on Dallion during the Fire Riots. “Missing person cases are solved in the first few hours or not at all.”
Dace groaned loudly.
“How could we lose anyone on a ship this size with over five hundred witnesses aboard?” said Sid.
“In ducts and maintenance passages,” said Maddie. “Not to mention spaces between hulls, bulkheads and decks. There’re plenty of places to hide.”
“Or be hidden in,” said Dub, and Dace moaned louder still.
“We don’t know what we’re dealing with here,” said Hobbes. “Do we have two victims or one who put up a struggle? And just who is the second?”
“Maybe Danny nicked himself shaving before going to the auxiliary bridge?” said Dub, to give Dace hope.
Jack and Hobbes exchanged glances. Hobbes had already thought of that and checked Danny’s cabin. “Clean as a whistle,” he’d reported to Jack, but not now for Dace’s sake. “Let’s try and match the second sample,” Hobbes said. “We’ve collected plenty of blood samples. All of them labeled by name and number. And we can get the rest. We’ll tell passengers its part of a routine exam.”
“Works for me,” said Jack. “Let’s start with the WorldCorp boys. Maddie and Sid stay on stations. Dace, keep working on that transmission. Maker, issue side arms—to be worn concealed—and I want you on patrol, Maker, appearing anywhere, anytime. Dub will join you after he, Van Ash, and I interview our WorldCorp friends. Individually, like on the cop-vids. But we’ll start with Longfellow.” He looked at Van Ash. “I’ve a hunch he knows a whole lot more about what’s going on than he should.”
“If nothing else, the two of you can compare notes,” Van Ash retorted.
Jack swiveled his seat away from her. “We’ll regroup here in two hours to discuss what we’ve learned.”
“I got Longfellow on com, Boss.”
“Thanks a lot, Sid. I wanted to surprise the bum in person.”
“Yeah well.” She glared at the top of his head, adoration and indignation vying for dominance. “He called you. He’s requesting a conference. Says it’s an emergency. And he’s here, below our hatch with his janitor.”
Longfellow had Lipman in tow, his big hand locked on the skinny upper-arm. He wasn’t going to let Lipman out of his sight again. Not ever! And Lipman’s glassy-eyed pain mollified Longfellow only slightly as he dragged his erstwhile accomplice into the bridge’s cramped situation-room and sat him forcibly in a chair the skipjack solemnly indicated.
Lipman popped back to his feet as though he had springs for legs.
“Sit down!” said Longfellow with a shove.
“Siddown!” echoed MakFlynn with a shove, toppling Longfellow, even though taller than himself, into the seat next to Lipman. MakFlynn loomed over them, daring them to rise.
The skipjack raised a hand for peace, reprimanding his first officer with a scowl; their act straight out of cops and robbers vids, the skipjack playing good-cop to his co-pilot’s bad-cop, and the ship’s doctor—a tall, serious looking dark haired beauty—playing…he couldn’t determine what she was playing, but her manner worried him the most.
“You wanted to talk to us?’ said Jack Anders.
Anders? Could he be related to the Merchant Confederation’s senior officer and Senatorial Trade Commissioner? “I have a problem, Captain, that—”
“You have a problem!” boomed MakFlynn at the top of Longfellow’s head.
“A problem that concerns ship security,” Longfellow continued with a glance at Van Ash whose eyes bore into his skull.
He knew he had Ander’s attention. Anders sat down across the table from him and leaned back in his chair—a pose.
“My assistant, Earl Dickens is missing,” Longfellow continued. “He went to the lav with this man,” indicating Lipman to his left, “and never came back.”
“Sounds like you need a plumber more’n us,” said MakFlynn.
“What I need is a straight answer from Lipman here.”
“Lipman?” asked Anders, playing dumb very poorly.
So they already knew something. But how much? “Gentlemen.” Longfellow sat back in his seat took a deep breath and placed his palms firmly on the conference table as though about to reveal marketing strategy at a board meeting. “This man is not who he seems.”
“Not who you introduced him to be?” asked Anders in shocked tones.
“Gentlemen, I apologize for the subterfuge—”
“Lie,” MakFlynn translated.
“But, er, circumstances forced me into—”
“Lying!” boomed MakFlynn, pounding the back of Longfellow’s seat.
“Do you mind, sport.” He spoke quietly over-shoulder, then turned back to the pilot-captain. “As Saur Station CEO I was principle liaison to a top secret WorldCorp project being conducted on the premises—all top-secret, hush-hush, etc.—and this man, Dr. Stuart Lipman, was the lab supervisor in charge of a device—”
“That destroyed your station,” said Anders.
“What happened to the infamous university dissidents?” asked MakFlynn.
“WorldCorp suggested that possibility. I—”
“And WorldCorp expected you to go down with your ship,” said Anders.
“Well, yes. As things turned out.” He smiled his best ‘boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar’ smile for them.
“So why cover for him?” Ander’s thumb indicated Lipman.
“He came to me—”
“I needed his help,” Lipman blurted. “One of my techs sabotaged the device—”
“I thought it was an accident,” said Longfellow.
“I don’t think so,” said Lipman. “Not any more. The tech convinced me that Stark would have my head for—”
“You work directly for Stark?” said Van Ash, her cold stare enough to freeze Longfellow’s blood.
The WorldCorp lab-supervisor shrank back in his seat, a spindly spider avoiding a beak. “Ripley. I work directly under Ripley. Worked! Not anymore. Thanks to my tech I’m running for my life.”
Longellow cleared his throat. “The tech told him he should—”
“Let ‘im speak for himself,” growled MakFlynn, pounding the seat again.
Longfellow let it go with a roll of his eyes.
“My tech—” Lipman continued.
“One of the young men Longfellow here introduced as his office clerks,” Anders qualified.
“Will Swiftback is his name—or maybe not—he said he had contacts in IC space. That he could get me immunity and sanctuary if I went over to them.”
“And you agreed to go with him?” asked Anders. “Just like that?”
“I didn’t have a choice. He proceeded to kill all the security guards in the lab with a multi-point weapon I’ve never seen used before. Smart bullets of some kind. Pre-programmed. He was very fast. It was over before I could blink.”
“Persuasive fellow,” said Anders.
“I was incriminated already. The Banshee, that’s the device, was my responsibility. Stark is a very unforgiving man, I assure you.”
“Is he?” said Van Ash evenly.
“But first, we had to get off Saur,” said Lipman.
“He came to me with most of this story,” said Longfellow, “and asked for my help. He was badly frightened. I felt sorry for him. And, as you so astutely surmised, Stark was preparing my head for the same platter.”
“Swiftback offered him a post on the IC frontier,” Lipman clarified. “Apparently, they pay station managers quite handsomely.”
“Well, I’d lost my command, so to speak,” said Longfellow. “And now, I’ve lost my assistant manager.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Lipman.
“You were with him.”
“I thought he was behind me when I left the lav.”
Anders held up his hands. “Where’s this tech…what’s his name again?”
“Where is he now?”
“We don’t know,” said Longfellow sarcastically.
“I don’t!” said Lipman.
“He works for you!” said Longfellow.
“Oh really? Apparently not!”
“He’s your responsibility!”
“I’m not his keeper!”
“Shut Up!” This from MakFlynn with hands spread as though about to bang their heads together. Lipman flinched as though he had.
“So you’ve got two people missing,” said Anders. “Swiftback and your assistant manager. Where’s the other tech?”
Longfellow looked at Lipman who mirrored his ignorance.
“You’re kidding!” said Anders. “Three? You gotta be kidding! Oh, you’re a great pair! You consistently lie to me, then come begging my help. How’s he involved. This other guy?”
“He’s not involved,” said Longfellow. “Is he?” turning to Lipman.
“He’s a company man,” said Lipman. “Loyal to WorldCorp as far as I know. He wasn’t with us when Swiftback killed the security guards. Later, Swiftback convinced him to go along with our masquerade on Corsair in order to protect WorldCorp from negative press.”
“A little late for that!” said MakFlynn.
“And he knows nothing of your little pact?” asked Anders.
“No,” said Lipman and Longfellow together. “I hope not,” Lipman amended.
“And now he’s missing too?” asked Anders.
“No,” Lipman replied. “I don’t think so. He’s around.”
“And what’s his name?”
“I want him found,” said Anders, glancing up at MakFlynn.
“The sooner the better,” Longfellow agreed, though Radnor was probably harmless. Best to get on the skipjack’s good side if he could somehow manage it. Admittedly a long shot. “You know, captain,” said Longfellow, flashing his wining smile, “as manager of a remote station like Saur, I was privy to information inaccessible along conventional channels.” Anders sat back and countered with an awe-shucks grin as Longfellow continued. “From what I hear in inter-galactic management circles, IC has some prit-ty cushy posts to offer spacers with navigation and command experience.” Longfellow knew people. He prided himself on knowing people. And he felt he had this skipjack accurately pegged. “Tell you what I’d be willing to do—”
MakFlynn’s big hands fell heavily on his broad shoulders. “Tell you what I’d be willing to do, Mr. Big Shot,” MakFlynn spoke into his ear. “I’d be willing to throw your sorry ass in the brig along with your prit-ty friends here and anybody else who endangers lives aboard this ship.”
Anders leaned forward and he wasn’t smiling now. “Let’s get something straight here, Longfellow, Dr. Lipman. The last thing you two want is to be handed over to STEL-Fleet.”
“Because Lipman here fears for his life and you, being out one station, want to capitalize on that.”
Longfellow relaxed beyond his usual pose and smiled sheepishly. Yes, Anders was a rogue at heart. He could see it in the eyes. The skipjack wanted to make a deal. Anders could be managed.
“The only thing I can’t figure out,” Anders went on, “is why the IC would be so interested in a pair of losers like you.”
“I am a top ranking WorldCorp scientist,” said Lipman, insulted despite everything.
“But you only want out,” said Anders. “You just want to live. To survive WorldCorp vengeance over your blown gizmo. What have you got to offer?”
Lipman clamped his jaw.
Longfellow rolled his eyes. Anders’ intent was obvious, yet this WorldCorp nincompoop fell apart on the first try. Then again, why fight it? Lay the cards on the table. “He smuggled the trigger mechanism aboard,” Longfellow stated nonchalantly. “And a disc containing Banshee’s designs.”
“This just keeps getting better and better,” said MakFlynn.
“A bomb component? Aboard my ship?” Anders shouted.
“It has nothing to detonate,” said Lipman.
Anders went critical. His bad-cop routine out did MakFlynn’s. He rose and reached across the conference table grabbing up Lipman by the ears as though he were a puppy. “You have it on you?” he shouted in Lipman’s face.
“Swiftback!” Lipman cried. “Swiftback’s got it.”
“The missing tech?” said Anders ever so softly now.
MakFlynn pounded both their seats.
“Search these guys,” Anders ordered his second in command.
Guy Radnor smiled broadly. His slender index finger pressing his ear-jack against his ear. He squatted, a little more comfortably now inside a maintenance conduit. In the half-light of his pocket-lamp, his pale, finely chiseled features and jet-black hair slicked back from a widow’s peak actually did take on an ethereal, elf-like quality (as Longfellow had observed when first seeing him), a ghostly presence in ‘tween-decks darkness. The microprobe he’d planted on Longfellow’s lapel broadcast a strong, clear directional signal, piercing numerous bulkheads between the ship’s situation room and his present position without triggering any of Corsair’s sophisticated detectors. Of course it did! A state of the art WorldCorp product—best tech in the universe.
Or had been till now.
Guy’s hand went to the trans-light communicator in his trouser leg pocket. He took it out and examined it yet again—a device beyond anything WorldCorp had yet developed; revolutionary tech beyond price if it could do half of what he suspected. Whoever floated it on the black market could buy a planet and retire. If he lived. And it had already cost two lives. So had the trigger and disc in his pocket—almost equally valuable.
None of which mattered to Guy Radnor. First of all, unlike Lipman, he would never betray the Corporation—his family, home and religion rolled into one. The Corporation’s interests outweighed any personal consideration, its well-being worth more than any single life—his own included. He had been corporate reared and dedicated to the cause of mono-sapious-dominus. So why should not others be sacrificed to the Cause as Assistant Manager Earl Dickens, the IC spy Swiftback, and Corsair’s bridge officer already had?
Dickens had succumbed to the mind-baring drug Radnor had used on him, but not before revealing Lipman’s treason and theft—testimony confirmed now by the confrontation in the situation room. Lipman was a traitor and a very bad liar. He and Swiftback must have been in collusion, planning their defection from the start.
Radnor was proud of himself. Mears had sent him to find the mole in Lipman’s team and he’d found a traitor as well. But now what? The nav-officer crossed his mind again—the missing body. He had not reported it to Stark or Mears. He had not had time, and thought it wise to avoid contact under present circumstances—the reasoning he would use when debriefed anyway. In reality he preferred waiting till he had a success to report, counterbalancing his failure.
He listened carefully to the exchanges over his ear-jack as Dub strip-searched the pair over their protests. What was this Captain Anders going to do about his treacherous passengers? About Longfellow’s offer? Would Anders turn them over to authorities at Far Cry as was his clear duty? He might just as easily desert to the IC. Damn independent-minded rogues, these skipjacks—wildcards in the orderly conduct of universal business. But surely Mears was sending a STEL-Fleet carrier, a real officer and his team to Far Cry to intercept Corsair, take control of the situation. Stark had not said so; but, of course, they would not reveal such plans to a behind-the-lines agent who might be captured beforehand. Or did Mears and Stark foolishly trust the PS Wing to obey them?
Guy Radnor decided he couldn’t leave Ander’s plans to chance. Banshee must not fall into enemy hands. Stark had been quite explicit on that point. Obviously, he must seize the ship.
Jonathan Anders sat at his library’s central desk in the heart of Mount Tel.
Set in rock deep below Tel Fortress, the library contained books. Real books. A cavern full of books. And more: parchments, scrolls, letters and tablets. House Anders’ library reached back into the Home World’s Age of Empire. It was here that the Ancient lurked, the means to discern him, and the means to crush him. Or so Jonathan Anders earnestly prayed.
His father, Jonathan Anders IX had married into House Tel and brought the library along with the entirety of House Anders to Telaire where he had carved out this man-made cavern to guard their heritage safely off Home World—even should the restored fortress above, or Mount Tel itself be blasted and the planet’s surface razed by his enemies. The library, its carefully preserved primary documents and fragments, its vid-logged copies and latter day records, represented House Anders’ past, present and future—its history, its curse, and its destiny—bequeathed to Jonathan Anders by his father and all the fathers before him. He vividly remembered the star-spanning relocation, his father supervising the library’s emplacement.
And he remembered the day not long after that his father brought him down into the library to reveal the Stewardship of House Anders, the two thousand years of waiting and watching—and Jonathan’s life changed forever. He had been ten years old. And his father had not survived the year.
The awesome burden dropped on a ten-year old House Baron’s shoulders had only increased upon entering his majority, marrying, siring an heir, raising a family and establishing his personal political power base—and then increased a thousand fold the day he suddenly after years of study recognized the time in which he lived. Had his father been the Ancient’s first victim upon re-entering the universe?
Nowadays, Jonathan spent every spare moment pouring through the sea of parchment, paper, tape and discs, monitoring political developments and profiling current players.
Duffson’s quiet ahem drew Jonathan from historical depths. There had always been a Duffson—not a servant, but the faithful friend who chose to serve. Jonathan’s Duffson, he who had also served his father, stood in the doorway, com-set in hand. Lean and athletically wiry, Duffson’s sixty-something years only showed in the speckled gray of his close-trimmed hair. How did the man stay so fit? When did he find time to work out amidst self-imposed duties that would monopolize the life of even the most energetic and highly organized administrator? Which he was. “Your daughter, Sir. A deep space transmission from the IC Presidential Voyager. She used the code phrase for urgent / audio only.
“Thank you, Duffson.” Audio only on a security encrypted cloak-ban to preclude even lip-reading should the signal be compromised was only used in extreme circumstances. He donned the com-set and thumbed send: “So you finally broke down and called your old man.”
“Father, I miss you.” Her customary greeting from the heart.
“I wish I could see you as well as hear you, dear,” and he truly did, “but our vid system is temporarily inoperative.” That to assuage any listener’s suspicions. “Well, I’ve missed your voice. At least I get that.”
Valanna asked if he had any news of Jack and the Saur Station disaster, a subject father and sister would naturally be aware of and concerned over; and she buried the heads-up code-word for symbolism into the exchange—more to follow.
“He’s safe, praise the One,” said Jonathan. “I’ve heard that Corsair got free just in time.”
“Know his heading, Father? Stop that! Sorry, Father. The cats are playing around breakables, crazy as usual.”
“Just like some madmen I know.”
They understood each other perfectly.
“So will Jack be anywhere nearby for our family reunion later this year?” she asked to cover her previous inquiry concerning his flight path.
“He’s heading for Far Cry, dear. From what I understand.”
“Look out!” There was a clatter and crash and static at her end. Then Valanna came back. “Sorry, Father. The cats broke my floating server and scared the snot out of my puppy. He was bolting straight into the heating unit.”
“That could hurt.”
“Had to head him off.”
Valanna did not like dogs and had only one cat, the laziest cat Jonathan had ever met. Her rambunctious kid brother was ‘all the puppy’ she needed, she used to say. The pup—that was her name for Jack all throughout her teen years.
“You shouldn’t encourage the pup to play with the older cats you know,” said Jonathan, correctly guessing the reason for Jack’s involvement in the Saur debacle in the first place.
“I…you’re right.” She couldn’t lie to her father.
“Well, I hope to be talking to your brother soon. It’s been too long since hearing his voice as well.”
“Give him my love, Father.”
“You’re both in my prayers,” said Jonathan.
“Tell him to call me sometime,” said Valanna.
The urgent message having been heard and understood, they chatted for some time before breaking contact, exchanging updates on personal matters. He really did miss her.
Although he should be angry with her. Valanna knew full well what she had just asked—the lord-baron of an elder house (a Merchant Confederation house, the Merchant Confederation’s Senior Officer and LDC Trade Commissioner’s house no less), to become complicit in some ill-conceived IC cloak and dagger operation that had already embroiled a patrol ship’s pilot-captain, by warning said skipjack against returning to base where an undisclosed threat lay in wait for him (never mind house-baron and skipjack being father and son). When Jonathan Anders acted, the Merchant Confederation acted. Therein lay the danger to House Anders and all associated with it. Valanna had asked a great deal, knowing, of course, that, no matter what, he’d stop Jack from sailing into harms’ way. And it would not be the first time the Merchant Confederation intervened in a matter of galactic security, or Jonathan Anders in a matter of Jack’s security.
A decade ago, in a sea of economic depression and a planetary rebellion making the present crisis seem tame in comparison, the Merchant Confederation launched an unprecedented bid for power and influence. STEL-Fleet brass, in the throes of a massive funding crisis brought on by the LDC Senate’s fiscal irresponsibility, parked two-thirds of its carrier fleet in Home World orbit and shrugged their collective shoulders at the universe’s loss of peace and safety.
Stark asked for Senate cooperation in mollifying STEL-Fleet demands. Key Corporate Colonies would be lost with impunity, he argued. How was peace to be maintained without a Stellar Fleet presence in an ever expanding human occupied territory? How was the union of all humankind to be preserved? How were diplomatic ties to be maintained? Who would supply tech, meds and rescue operations to the colonies that could not afford them? Who would conduct reconnaissance and guard against the possibility of hostile alien contact?
Oh posh! Madame Chairperson Constance deSwayla had responded on the Senate floor. Hostile alien contact? What next? I suggest STEL-Fleet empty its coffers brimming with funds squirreled away during their centuries-long funding holiday.
STEL-Fleet and the Senate bickered at an impasse. Clearly, something had to be done. And Jonathan Anders, the Merchant Confederation’s Senior Officer knew what it was.
Merchant Houses stepped into the resulting power vacuum, commandeering the Fleet’s role as diplomatic liaison, territorial safety patrol, and medical lifeline to humanity’s ever-expanding realm—using the opportunity to disengage itself from WorldCorp and LDC restrictions while tightening relationships with IC and CC governments alike. The Merchant Confederation gained access and authority originally limited to STEL-Fleet ships and personnel—a dangerous development, opponents such as Senator Roderick BeauChamp and others maintained in LDC chambers, he and other WorldCorp representatives already nervous over the confederation’s independent political bloc and mercantile monopoly.
Retired Fleet Admiral BeauChamp had offered his own more recent solution with two-thirds of STEL-Fleet still in space-dock.
Meanwhile, Jonathan had further expanded House Anders’ political ties the day Valanna married into an old IC family and, following her husband’s premature death, ascended her own political ladder within Martha Sheppard’s administration. Her decision to stay on in the free, bright new world of her late husband had seemed like a good choice to Jonathan, she being heir to a Home World family’s Northland heritage valuing freedom and independence. A good idea at the time.
Now he wasn’t so sure. And he missed her terribly as he handed the com-set back to Duffson. “I fear Valanna may have gotten Jack in over his head.” And if Jack lost his commission, never mind his freedom or citizenship, House Anders would lose its future. Valanna was not interested, never had been, in leading House Anders.
With House Anders’ power base having expanded to straddle IC and L.D.C. governments, Jonathan had hoped to place his son in the Itinerant Justices Department of the Stellar Judiciary, the reason he’d spent a small fortune on Jack’s tuition to Arachni University’s Law School, grooming him for a political career that would ensure House Anders’ future as a political powerhouse and secure their trade routes and status within the Merchant Confederation for yet another generation—possibly humanity’s last.
But Jack had had other ideas. A bright though restless student, upon graduation he rejected the political appointment out of hand. Likewise the L.D.C. diplomatic-aide post that Jonathan next arranged for him.
At first, Jonathan blamed Jack’s poor judgment on the negative influence of his wild roommate—a minor cousin’s son within House Flynn, House Anders’ chief trade rival, a house almost as ancient as Anders. But even Dublin MakFlynn, without strong family connections, obtained a legal aide post in WorldCorp’s Colonial Liaison Division—a prestigious position albeit within a corrupt government. Meanwhile, what does Jack do? He obtains a commercial pilot’s license and flies shuttlecraft, loaders and landers for House Anders’ star-hopping vessels. The rebellious son of a confoundedly rebellious generation caught in a universe plummeting toward war.
And a year or so later? He and Dub meet up again in Summer School—STEL-Fleet’s Rapid Deployment Flight School—joining a pack of grown children, restless and dissatisfied, seeking adventure—Jack having discovered how much he loved flying and Dub having discovered more about WorldCorp politics than he cared to know (that to his credit). Both made Star-Class Pilot.
A nightmarish time for Jonathan Anders who stood to lose everything while Merchant Houses gambled all in their dangerous game of shifting alliances, the Merchant Confederation risking its neutrality in the clash between LDC and IC interests, standing to lose commercial rights and routes should WorldCorp declare martial law—Jonathan standing to lose his only son to a war he believed shouldn’t be fought and couldn’t be won.
But Dad, war heroes are assured LDC political office. Wouldn’t you flip on that?
If you survive!
But the war never happened and Jack and Dub were relegated to pilot and co-pilot of a pogosphere lander, flying inauspicious missions off the inter-stellar carrier Gallant. Bored to tears and looking for a challenge, Jack accepted Jonathan’s intervention, meddling he called it, when he pulled strings to gain the pair prestigious tours as third-shift navigators aboard the inter-stellar carrier Intrepid where Jack, based on his admittedly impressive skills, eventually rose to Star-Navigator First Class and received a first-shift post while still looking for a way out of his father’s dreams.
A way out for Jack and Dub that finally arrived in the form of BeauChamp’s Patrol Ship Wing. And Jonathan had intervened one last time to ensure the Fleet Admiral’s recruiter would pass Jack over. But Jack, tenacious when he wanted to be, and now highly qualified, went directly to BeauChamp, his father’s political enemy, whose House ironically had close Home World historical ties with both House Anders and House Flynn.
And now, the undisciplined freedom of his Pilot-Captain commission had succeeded only in snaring him in his older sister’s political machinations.
“I know it’s late, Duffson, but could you arrange to have our communications staff meet me in the com-tower, say within the hour?”
“Will you be dining tonight, sir?”
“No. There’s no time.” Which meant the communications staff would not be dining tonight either.
“I’ll have food and drink sent up to the control room, sir.”
“Thank you, my friend.”
“Will you still be meeting with Nightwhisper’s bridge crew tomorrow morning?”
“Yes. Are we on schedule for departure?”
“Nightwhisper stands ready sir. Engineering completed the checklist just before our daughter called.”
“We’ll make this call to her brother in transit to light.” That would provide additional interference for STEL-Fleet monitors working to decipher a conversation that would have to be just as veiled in symbolism as his and Valanna’s had been. And just as fraught with political peril.
They searched the ship for Swiftback, Radnor and Mears now, as well as Danny, leaving Dace alone on the deserted bridge—a tech with no on-duty bridge officer—against regulations which required two on-duty bridge personnel at all times; and, during flight, one had to be a conn officer. In emergency situations, the tech was optional, not the conn officer. Dace pulled treble duty, keeping an eye on ships course, another on ship’s vitals, and both on his never-ending search for clues to Danny’s whereabouts.
Maker appeared in the lift and paused, head tilted to study her poor frazzled lover isolated in Danny’s nav-pit. He was pushing too hard, feverishly trying to solve the transmissions mystery. He needed soothing, deep soothing—a task to which she was exceptionally well suited—a dangerous task here on the bridge where anyone might arrive unexpectedly. How delicious!
She trailed a finger down her suit’s chest-tab, playfully revealing a deep valley. Dace called her voluptuous. He liked that word. Voluptuous! He liked repeating it rhythmically in her ear with ever increasing urgency. Voluptuous. Voluptuous! Vol-up-shew-us! A strange man. And lucky to have her. She appreciated strange. Too bad the others lacked what the two of them had. Dub loved Sid who loved Jack who loved Van Ash (though he would never admit it), and Danny loved Maddie who only loved her engines. But she had Dace and Dace had her—a love-rocket to the stars!
She kicked off her boots and tiptoed barefoot up to the nav-pit, slid into it at Dace’s back and nearly gave him heart failure, so intently had he been scanning his readings. “Shhhhhh!” She massaged his shoulders, digging her thumbs into the teres minor muscle folds while licking his ear’s tragus, antitragus, and concha in general.
Dace moaned. “Not now! I’m busy.”
She ran her fingertips up the nape of his neck and into his curly hair, inserted her tongue into his ear.
He tried to reach back and swat her away.
She bit his earlobe.
“Not now, Maker! I’m telling you! Don’t you want Danny found?”
“Of course I do, pookie. But you need release or you’ll fuse your systems.”
“Hey, did I tell what I found out about the second transmission?”
His ear muffled her response.
“It lasted longer than the first. I triangulated it the old fashioned way once I determined the broadcast’s origin-point along our trajectory.”
“And its reception point?” she asked, pausing in her ministrations for the first time.
“Yeh! And with minimal distortion too! Even though we were in light transit. Pretty amazing huh?”
“Your pretty amazing,” she whispered hotly in his ear and slipped around to straddle his lap, blocking his view of monitors and displays.
“Hey! I’m working here.”
“C’mon rocketman! Light my boosters. Lay in a course for super-nova.”
Dace gave in. “Oooh yeh! We’re a love-rocket to the stars!”
“Shut it down!”—Jack, above them on the narrow walkway between pilot seats. “Get outta there Maker. You’re supposed to be searching the ship.”
“I couldn’t find anyone, Jack. They’re nowhere.”
“Get off him and look again.”
Jack climbed into his seat to let her by as Sid and Dub and Van Ash returned.
Maker paused at the lift to hear their updates.
“No luck,” said Dub.
Jack’s fist hammered his armrest.
“Why didn’t you make Lipman or Longfellow tell you where they are?” asked Dace. “Rough ‘em up and get some answers.”
“Jack did the right thing,” said Van Ash. “They don’t know where the techs are. They want them found as badly as we do. And we couldn’t ask about Danny without upsetting the passengers or giving away our own weakness.”
Hobbes returned to the bridge and told them he had a match for the second blood sample found in the auxiliary cockpit.
“My poor old brain’s slowin’ down a might in my old age. I finally recalled that all WorldCorp employees’ id chips include a complete blood profile. The Banshee tech, Will Swiftback was near the communications panel at approximately the same time as Danny.”
“That tells us something,” said Dub.
“But what?” asked Dace. “You think he’s another victim? Or tried to hurt Danny? Or what?”
“We have no answers to that, just yet,” said Hobbes.
“Just more questions,” said Dub.
“Too which we must diligently apply ourselves,” said Hobbes, soothingly, a cautioning glance at Dub, trying to keep Dace calm. “There’s always an answer. We just have to look in the right place.”
“Where’s Maddie,” asked Van Ash.
Sid hailed her. No response. Tried engineering links, bit the side of her lower lip (the worried Sid look) and went to all-hail.
“Oh no!” wailed Dace. “I don’t believe this.”
“Take it easy,” said Jack.
“How do we keep loosing people like this?” said Sid.
“I’ll find her,” said Maker, and dropped down the lift rails on ankles and palms.
“Nooooooo!” cried Dace. “Somebody stop her!”
Martha worked late into third shift. She had dismissed her admin-assistant hours ago, feeling it unfair to impose her schedule on loyal Middy who would have stayed had she not insisted. Swell planning, Martha—she reprimanded herself—choosing an election year in which to wage a major counterintelligence campaign. She really needed to put everything aside at some point and tackle her political campaign. Her thoughts strayed to Vincent, just as he appeared in her office doorway—a workaholic like herself.
“Are you a mind reader, Vincent? I was thinking just now—we really need to get serious about our election strategy for this go round. What?” He looked so grim standing there, a file-disc clutched in his hand. “What is it Vincent?” What had happened now?
He crossed to her desk and sat down in the facing chair, his expression—a mixture of despair and resolution? Had he discovered their flight plan? She and Ben had still not revealed it to anyone—sworn the bridge crew to secrecy. Vincent would have a cow if he knew where they were going. But, more likely, it had something to do with his secret investigation.
“Just tell me Vincent.” She had overburdened him as well as herself. From time to time over the past year, information had leaked to industry and the press. She and Ben had begun fearing the worst. They had always inspired fierce loyalty among their people—and yet, somehow, a spy had infiltrated them—somebody’s office clerk or household personnel perhaps? And so, months ago, in addition to his other duties, she and Ben had assigned Vincent the daunting and potentially devastating task of identifying the mole aboard the Presidential Voyager. That’s what this was about. He’d found something.
He placed the file-disc on her desk.
“The mole?” she almost whispered.
“Sorry it took so long,” he said, “but I didn’t want to come to you with this until I was absolutely sure.”
“Ben will want to hear this too,” said Martha, reaching for the call-key. Vincent’s warm brown hand intercepted hers, captured it, held it like a parent cushioning bad news—a role-reversal for them.
“What, Vincent? What is it?” His look scared her.
“It’s worse than we thought. The mole has been feeding intel directly to Humanity’s Keep.”
She heard herself gasp.
“I intercepted…it’s all here,” he said, tapping the disc.
“Who is it?”
“I have dates and times, recordings. Redundant confirmations. Scanned for signs of tampering. Stark, or someone very close to him has been wooing our man for some time, apparently.”
“Ben.” His lips had moved but he had not even said it.
She gripped the edge of her desk; a cold hand gripped her heart. Yet why should it? Preposterous! she wanted to shout. But Vincent looked so disheartened.
“I couldn’t believe it either,” he said. “At first. But the proof…it’…incontrovertible.”
“Ben? A traitor? No matter what you’ve found, I…Ben’s been with me from the beginning.”
“Always in the shadow cast by Hamilton and Martha. His words. On one of the intercepted transmissions. Stark played to his ego.”
Martha shook her head. Not possible. How could it be? Was it Vincent? His ego at issue here? Almost as monumental as Ben’s. Was it sour grapes on Vincent’s part? Did he resent being kept in the dark regarding the Banshee operation? Could he be…incriminating his boss?
She looked him in the eyes—the frank, unwavering brown eyes that had endeared her to him—steadfast as ever. Framing a rival? That was not Vincent Barnes. Not his way. And Ben had always been his hero.
She trusted Vincent absolutely—and Ben like a brother. How could such twin trusts be reconciled? “Is no other conclusion possible from the data?” she asked. “Documents, even holo-vid, can be faked so easily these days.”
“I can run it passed Delving.”
“No.” She almost didn’t even want the answer. Almost. “Not yet.”
“You’ll see that the evidence speaks for itself, Madam President—the conclusion unavoidable.”
They stared at each other across the desk for a long terrible moment. She had never seen this coming.
“Will you give me a little time?” she asked.
He stood. “Of course.” He turned and walked slowly out of her office.
Vincent would refuse to keep such a thing as this quiet indefinitely—if Stark had not compromised his well-known morals, that is. If Stark had—she had even less time to sort it out.
Why had she not seen this coming?
Maddie had continued searching after everyone else quit. She scanned and eyeballed every square centimeter of engineering, worried that one or more of the bodies had been crammed into vital machinery, the fouling of which could be the death of them all. And then, when even she was ready to quit, she recalled engineering’s lead-lined storage tubes.
The stench overwhelmed her when she lifted the seal, a combination of urine and decaying flesh. Maddie almost lost it. If she’d had time for food in recent history it would be all over the infrastructure.
Her first thought should have been to thumb her wrist-com and alert the bridge, but instead she leaned into the tube, pocket-flood in hand. Two bodies: that smarmy little station secretary, and—someone lifted her by the ankles and propelled her head first into the tube. She landed atop the bodies with a squishy thud that would give her nightmares the rest of her life—if she didn’t die here and now.
She scrambled off the bodies and drew her sidearm, skooching out of sight as far as possible. She held her breath, weapon pointed at the opening, and waited for her attacker to appear.
A boot scraped against the steel catwalk. A hand appeared on the rim—a head—Maker!
“Get down!” Maddie screamed. “Someone attacked me. Pitched me in here.”
Maker’s head disappeared and Maddie heard the click of her sidearm being cocked. “Come out,” hissed Maker. “I’ll cover you. You’re clear.”
Maddie sprang, grasped the rim with both hands and scrambled up. She dropped to the catwalk at Maker’s side. Maddie shuddered—her tom-boyishness, so dear to cousin Dub and would be-lover Danny, smothered in the knowledge of what lay at her back.
“Who’s in the tube?” asked Maker, wrinkling her nose.
“Not Danny,” said Maddie. “Dickens and that tech kid with the blond hair.” She hailed the bridge and informed Sid.
Jack came on. “Did you see who it was?” he asked.
“No. The creep snuck up behind me quiet as a mouse.”
“It has to be Radnor,” said Maker.
“We don’t know that for sure,” said Jack. “Get to cover. Dub’s on his way.”
“Arriving now,” said Dub on the same frequency, stepping through the hatch at the end of the walkway. He and Maker reconned the vicinity.
“Nothing!” Dub came back to Jack over wrist-com. “The place’s clean. ‘Course why would the scum hang around?”
“Don’t touch anything,” said Jack. “Hobbes is on his way.”
When Hobbes arrived with two stretchers, he and Maker recovered the bodies from the storage bin.
“Does the tech have the you-know-what?” asked Jack, back on com.
“Nah,” said Dub. “He’s clean. Picked clean.”
“Cause of death is not apparent,” said Hobbes, anticipating Jack’s next question. “I’ll have to examine them in the lab.”
“Copy that,” said Jack. “Maker stays with Maddie. I’ll notify Van Ash you’re on the way.”
“I don’t need babysitting,” said Maddie off-com.
“He’s just trying to ruin my sex life,” said Maker.
Retired Fleet Admiral Roderick Stevenson BeauChamp had returned to his office-residence in the southern quad of Moon City’s Senate District.
Calling the compound a city district was like calling a seed its fruit. Moon City had been a WorldCorp installation before the League of Democratic Corporations’ established their Senate House next door. The city had grown up around Senate installations and WorldCorp laboratories. Easy access in low gravity was the argument used for its establishment on Home World’s single moon, but everyone knew the real purpose: Force Corporate Colony representatives back to Home World if they wanted to usurp WorldCorp’s prerogatives and deliberate on humanity’s fate. Let their statesmen be reminded of their roots, of where the true power still lay—the source of Moon City’s life-support. Let them come home within WorldCorp’s easy reach, lest they forget to whom they belonged.
Retired STEL-Fleet Ops Major Earnest Sims, BeauChamp’s indispensable Chief of Staff, had the day’s reports and mail sorted on his portacomp, and a stack of correspondence that certain colleagues and constituents only trusted to couriers. Mara, BeauChamp’s tireless housekeeper, had tea, fresh orange juice, sandwiches and vitamin tabs on a tray attached to his desk. They stood by, momma and papa hen, as he settled at his desk and punched up the LDC House monitor to see what might be transpiring on the Senate floor regarding the Saur disaster.
“Thank you,” he told them.
“Anything else, sir?” asked Sims.
“No. Thank you both. I’ll be some time catching up with things.”
“You need rest, sir, is what you need!” said Mara. “Up all night with that Swayla woman, for better or ill as the saying goes! Sleep’s what you need more’n anything. Important as I’m sure it all is on them boards o’ yours, it’ll keep till afternoon, sir, if you don’t mind me saying. You must have your rest, sir, at your age, pardon my saying so just like that there, but—”
“Peace, Mara. I’ll obey your wishes soon enough. Give me an hour here, that’s all I ask.”
“Very good, sir,” said Sims, as reserved as Mara was garrulous. But they still stood like stones on either side of him.
He pushed his chair back to regard them each in turn. A pair of extremes: Sims tall and lanky, Mara short and stocky—Sims’ long silver hair caught back in a ponytail, Mara’s short-cropped curls as dark as the void—Sims’ skin as pale as hers was black. Sims and Mara! They’d been with him so long. What would he do without them? “I’m fine. Really.”
The com bleeped—an incoming call on one of the roving channels he reserved for cloaked, repeatedly scanned conversations between himself and allies.
“Shall I get that, sir?”
“No thank you Sims. I’ll take this myself.”
The pair reluctantly left as he picked up—his latest ally, Madame Ela’ Constance DeSwayla: “Roger! Long time no see.” She laughed merrily at her own humor, her face filling the screen.
“Always a pleasure, madam.”
“I take it we have a secure line?” she asked.
“You probably already know, but in the interests of our freshly established détente, I thought I’d relay some pertinent info.” He did know, of course; Star Carrier Defiant has been dispatched to Far Cry by the Executive President’s order. “President Rolland has personally assured me,” she continued, “that Starship Captain Stricklin will act with neutrality in policing the alleged terrorist action and any misconduct on the part of Corsair’s crew. Furthermore, he promises that all parties will be remanded to the Senate for public questioning, and to the LDC’s High Court in the event legal action is recommended.”
“Madame, I have the utmost regard for your opinion. But I must advise caution in trusting Rolland Sanford. He is surely nothing more than Damion Stark’s pawn.”
“Admiral. When do you believe I began trusting WorldCorp types? And I’m not about to begin doing so at my age, believe me.”
He acknowledged her wisdom. “Now, this Star-Captain Stricklin of the Star-Carrier Defiant, is another matter entirely,” he said. “True to his reputation, he is a strict but fair disciplinarian, a highly effective administrator, a brave and resourceful soldier, and thoroughly sympathetic to WorldCorp interests for reasons not least of which include the fact that Stark’s factories and labs produce STEL-Fleet’s technology.”
“That’s a very generous assessment, Roger, given that Stricklin’s counsel may have been influential in your forced retirement. Forgive me, Roger, for being blunt on a sore subject.” Stark had forced BeauChamp’s retirement in order to place his own man in Fleet Admiralty—Howard Boniface, Stricklin’s former CO and mentor—the reason BeauChamp decided to develop a counter force—the Patrol Ship Wing. Of course, BeauChamp had exercised his revenge on Stark for some time now, having gotten himself elected to the LDC Senate and appointed Defense Chairperson, the civilian office outranking even the Admiralty in military oversight.
“A moment, Madame. Forgive me.”
His chief of staff had buzzed him: “The WorldCorp Board Chairperson on-line, sir. In the holo-vid room.”
“I’ll take it on audio, Sims. Thank you.” At least he wouldn’t have to look at the phantom. “Forgive me once again Madame, but a mutual friend of ours is calling.”
“Not Rolly Sanford!”
“Better still—Damien Stark.”
“What an honor, Admiral. You must take it by all means. But promise to regale me with his conversation at your earliest opportunity.”
“I shall, Madame. Till next time.”
Officially, Stark had called him to elicit aid: “We’ve got an explosive situation here Roger—pardon my choice of words—and frankly your expertise and influence would be appreciated—invaluable.”
“I’m sure you overestimate my abilities, Dr. Stark.”
“Nonsense. What do you know about our boy Anders? We think some of the University terrorists might have snuck aboard Corsair among the casualties.” Stark still selling the dissidents story. “Is Anders up to handling something of this magnitude do you think? The politics involved?”
“He has surprised me in the past.”
A pause for assessment? “Well that’s reassuring. How would you describe his loyalties?”
Stark was direct. You had to give him that. “To whom?”
“That’s what I’m asking you, Roger.”
BeauChamp vividly remembered the animated young man—his political adversary’s eldest son—bursting into his office, insisting on a post with the newly forming P. S. Wing. He had followed Pilot-Captain Anders’ avant-garde career ever since. “Jack Anders is fiercely loyal to friends, from what I understand. His politics are none of my business.”
“We need to disembark Corsair with maximum safety,” said Stark. “Lives are at stake here. The LDC has dispatched Star-Captain Stricklin’s carrier to deal with the situation. But P S Wing’s your baby, Roger. You know those skipjacks best. You could talk them out of any, er, self-serving inclinations they might be toying with. They respect you.”
“I’m a private citizen these days, Dr. Stark.” Thanks to you!
“You’re the Defense Committee Chairperson!”
“With no jurisdiction in STEL-Fleet’s day to day operations.”
“This isn’t exactly day to day, Roger.”
“Flight Admiral Walter Hutchens is P S Wing’s CO. He is the one with whom you should be speaking.”
“But I’m interested in hiring you as a private consultant, Admiral BeauChamp.” It was Admiral BeauChamp suddenly. “For a reasonable fee, of course.”
Bribing a statesman now? “Conflict of interest, sir.”
“It’s in everyone’s interest to peacefully resolve this situation.” Stark’s tone developed an edge. “We don’t want to lose lives in order to ensure public safety, do we?”
Did he really believe he could destroy Corsair and weather the political fallout? “Sir, I respectfully submit, there is obviously more to this incident than has been presented to us in LDC chambers.”
“What I haven’t told you needs to be kept in strictest confidence, Admiral—for your ears only, understood?”
BeauChamp made no reply.
“Our intelligence confirms that the terrorists have stolen a top secret experimental weapon, and that it may be aboard Corsair. The patrol ship could well become a terrorist’s missile. Sacrificing a few for the many does not seem so unreasonable in that eventuality, does it Admiral.”
“I do not know how to respond to such a hypothetical situation, Dr. Stark. Clearly, the present situation must be explored still further before coming to any catastrophic conclusions.”
“Well, we are certainly doing just that. I assure you all options will be fully explored.” Stark’s tone softened once again to its usual bantering pose. “Think about my offer, Roger. That’s all I ask. For the good of all concerned.”
“I will certainly consider things, Dr. Stark. Thank you for your call, sir.”
“Thank you for your time, Admiral.”
And that’s how it ended. Constance will be amused, he thought.
Star-Captain Abel Stricklin’s appointment to the Saur Station disaster mission confirmed BeauChamp’s worst fears—and yet Stark had either purposely or inadvertently given him an excuse to become involved. And more than that—even should P S Wing fail BeauChamp’s ultimate aims, it had afforded him this—Damien Stark had come begging to him.
Hobbes and Van Ash arrived on the bridge, and Jack got his full-staff meeting underway. “Let’s review what we’ve got.”
“Skipper,” said Dace. “The thing before I was gonna tell you back when me and Maker were…well, you know…and you interrupted us and all and—”
“Damn it, Dace!”
“Well, Skipper, I discovered the second transmission’s destination. WorldCorp!”
“What? From here?”
“And you waited till now to tell me?”
“But Skipper, I was busy. I mean…not with Maker, but afterward—”
“Never mind. Give me the details.”
He hadn’t much beyond ascertaining the point of origin—the auxiliary cockpit—and its destination—Humanity’s Keep, Home World.
“The first transmission went the other way,” Sid reminded them.
“So what have we got?” asked Maddie. “Two transmissions by the same guy or two different guys?”
“Two transmissions—two WorldCorp techs!” said Dub.
“Working at cross-purposes?” said Maddie.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said Dub. “Two spies for two enemies—WorldCorp and I.C.”
“But which one’s which?” asked Sid.
“What’ve you guys got on the dead one,” asked Jack, turning to Hobbes and Van Ash.
“Swiftback died of a fast acting drug, administered to the base of the skull with a needle-sized blade,” said Hobbes. “In fact they both died of the same drug’s overdose. A truth-serum of some sort. But in the case of Longfellow’s secretary, our friend Earl Dickons, it was administered in doses graduating to lethal level. Best I can tell.”
“Administered by that fiend, Radnor!” cried Dace.
“We don’t know—”
“He’s the only one still at large!” Dace wailed.
“The ship’s bustin’ at the seams with civvies!” said Dub. “Who knows who else—”
“Oh my stars! It could be anybody!” whined Dace.
“Ah snap out of it,” Dub ordered.
Everyone considered matters silently for a few moments.
“I lean toward working with known quantities,” said Hobbes.
“So let’s assume Swiftback makes the first call, Radnor whacks him and makes the second,” said Dub. “How does Danny fit in?”
But they all knew the answer, voiced by Maddie: “He walked in on them.”
“And Radnor’s still got the in-light com device—” said Jack.
“And the bomb parts,” Dub finished.
“And he spies for WorldCorp,” said Sid.
“What’re we gonna doooo?” said Dace.
“We’re dropping into Far Cry, right?” said Maker, “We dump the whole thing in brass laps.”
Van Ash had been listening apprehensively to the exchanges. Jack could have sworn she almost winced at the prospect of dumping back into Fleet hands. “What?” he asked her. “You don’t think going home’s a good idea anymore?”
She scowled at him. “We have no choice. Too many lives are at stake.”
“But you’d rather not.”
“Drop it, Jack.”
He raised his hands in surrender. What was eating her now? “Alright. Anything else? Anyone? Anything else anyone’s forgotten to tell me?”
They’d had almost no sleep in days. Everyone looked at each other vacantly, wearily.
Except for Franklin Hobbes. “With a covert hostile aboard, our gravest danger will occur between braking and docking.” Starships normally dumped g’s on a system’s rim and leisurely approached port, maximizing safety to sub-light vehicles, and affording a station time to prepare docking and housing facilities. “That’s when he’ll assuredly make his move.”
“I agree,” said Jack. “So we keep looking for Danny and Radnor in shifts—in pairs or threes—no less. And we dump into base the quick way.” Which meant pinpoint in-system targeting beyond the usual markers, and rapid g-dump, hopefully avoiding traffic, planetary objects, and debris.
“Except we’re missing our expert navigator,” said Dub. Without Danny in the nav-pit, the smallest outdated and discarded satellite could hole Corsair as she drops in at light.”
“Dace navigates,” said Maker. “He’s a pro. Aren’t you pookie.”
“Well,” said Dace, resentfully glaring at his lover. “Actually, that is to say, so to speak—”
“What?” asked Dub. “Spit it out.”
“Well sure…I can navigate.”
“Star-navigate?” asked Jack.
“I didn’t know you had star-nav certification,” said Jack. It wasn’t in the file Fleet had given him back when—only in-system.
“It’s a commercial license,” said Maker.
“Great!” said Jack.
“No,” said Dace.
“Yes,” said Jack. “That’s great!”
“But…well…it’s kinda revoked,” said Dace.
“No problem. Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I was afraid you’d make me do it.”
Jack hesitated. “What was it suspended for?”
“You don’t wanna know.”
“A minor accident,” said Maker. “Wasn’t his fault!”
Jack waved it aside. Dace was a comp wizard—with star-nav experience it turned out. “Run through procedures on the sim a few times,” said Jack. “You’ll be fine. It’s a routine entry.”
“Yeh right!” said Sid.
“And send me the readout on your sim practice,” said Jack, just in case.
“Will do, Skipper. But, oh please, find Danny.”
Jack ordered the search for him back on.
Radnor allowed himself an ironic smile at the words in his ear-jack. They thought they had it all figured out.
Well, actually, they almost did—except for their helmsman. That had Radnor baffled too. A body didn’t hide away in a ship’s infra-structure all on its own. That thought was good for yet another shiver down his spine.
A spine connected to a brilliant scientific mind his handlers had hired for highly technical and intricate espionage operations. Supernatural speculation had no place in rational, scientific though processes. One of those radical crew members had to be lying to the others. That was the only logical, the only acceptable explanation. And all the more reason he had to commandeer Corsair. The reason he’d been very busy splicing wires, inter-phasing signals, and installing slave devices tied to his slim pocket-comp.
Although he still hoped seizing the ship wouldn’t be necessary. He felt confidant that STEL-Fleet would be waiting for these jokers at Far Cry—and not just the shoddy P. S. Wing, but the real STEL-Fleet in the form of an executive officer with orders directly from Stark himself, or from the Executive Secretary to pull him in, debrief him—reward him?
Of course, serving the Home World and its charismatic master was reward enough.
Copyright 2006, 2013 Geoffrey and Virginia Werner. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2006, 2013 Geoffrey and Virginia Werner. All rights reserved.