Book of the Gods
AND BEHOLD, a door was opened in the heavens, and a great Throne was set out for all to see. Ten gods sat upon the Throne, one to rule and nine to follow, and they were clothed in suits of iron and glass. They wielded power over all that was in heaven and on the ten precipices. In the right hand of She who sat upon the Throne, a Book was sealed with ten seals, one for each god upon the Throne. Inside the Book were the names of the Faithful Five Thousand who traveled to the Promised Land.
IN THOSE DAYS, the Five Thousand slept. They had confidence that one day they would arise once more at the Gate Beautiful.
FOUR BEASTS crawled out of the Throne, wielding great weapons of destruction in their hands. They wished to claim the Book as their own. In time, the door opened a second time, and a lesser throne appeared. The four beasts were banished to the lesser throne.
SHE WHO SAT upon the great Throne spoke, saying: Behold, the last of the ten seals will not be broken until the end of time has come.
AS SHE WHO sat upon the Throne prepared to break the final seal and read the names of the Five Thousand, the four beasts shattered their bonds. They bound all of Creation, from the smallest grain of sand to the vast expanses of the cosmos, into one tightly-held fist, threatening to crush it all, leaving the Five Thousand without hope or reward.
SHE WHO SAT upon the Throne flashed anger from her eyes, and she caused Time to stand still. A great war erupted in the heavens. The four beasts wreaked havoc upon Creation, and for an eon and more, the skies were left bruised and streaked with blood. The ten gods and the four beasts tumbled from the sky in The Great Falling, and the Faithful Five Thousand fell with them.
SHE WHO SAT upon the Throne vowed that one day She would triumph over the beasts who stole Paradise from the Five Thousand. Time would be restored, and the fist binding all Creation would be released. All things would be restored to their rightful place in a great conflagration such as had never been seen before.
IN THE DOING, the world as we know it will be consumed by lightning and fire. Selah.
― Part 1 ―
The Drive Glitches
It was one day since departure, and already trouble brewed.
“Oy vey iz mir!” Engineer Levitson swore disgustedly, keying in a series of taps on his console. Engineering’s massive overhead display twinkled, the image shifting and reformulating into a simulated image of the ship as it would look if seen from outside.
As if the ship could be seen from the outside. Not at the rate they were traveling, a hundred days to cross a hundred light years, with five thousand corpsicles safe in her hold until they could be delivered to their new home.
“Pah! We’re flying a tchotchke,” Levitson muttered, tapping the board and watching the image expand to reveal the central space between the ship and the Cassel-Jackson Magnetic Resonance Drive.
“Who’s flying a tchotchke?” First Mate Wendy Honda leaned in the door.
“I didn’t know anyone was listening.” Levitson didn’t turn, keeping his eyes on the display. His hand moved, and the patterns overhead adjusted, the colors changing slightly.
“I’m always listening.” As Honda spoke, her words repeated themselves faintly. She tapped her ear, and they ceased. “Are we up to speed?”
“And how. Too much up to speed.” Levitson touched the board again, and a series of numbers scrolled along the bottom of the screen, the smaller place values flickering as fast as the eye could see, and the larger ones changing at a slower pace. The largest, a dozen decimal places over, remained stationary for a long time before clicking over once.
“That’s good, isn’t it?” Honda was bright and cheerful, almost chirrupy, like a kid at fourteen wanting the world to like her. With her short, black hair in a close-cropped pixie cut, her pert nose, black eyes, and tiny waist, she looked about fourteen. Her looks were one of the tools of her trade. No one who crossed her would ever be fooled a second time. “Like, we can get there early, right? I could use a little rest and relaxation.”
She released the door, and it slipped shut with a soft sucking sound, the seal hermetically separating the corridor from the workspace. No sense in everyone dying if a micro collision caused decompression in another part of the ship. Live another day to die another time. Wasn’t that how it went? There would be no dying on the Higgs, however. She had five thousand colonists to deliver, and then it was back home again with a shipload of whatever was produced on Deneb 4 Station.
“Look here.” Levitson touched a roller, and a bubble appeared over the area just between the magnets separating the nose of the ship and the Drive, expanding it in a fisheye fashion. He enlarged the bubble until the center was clear and the fisheye effect was pushed to the edges. After Mission Control in Florida was breached by unknown hostiles just as their mission was getting underway, he’d been cautious about anything that seemed out of line. “What does that look like to you, Firstie?”
More numbers scrolled across the lower half of the bubble, pale blue and slightly translucent. One, many decimal places down, occasionally shimmered red, as if the computer couldn’t quite tell if something was making it ill but didn’t want to whine about it.
Honda put her elbows on the edge of the console and rested her chin in her cupped hands, peering at the image, her eyes narrowing in concentration. Her lips pursed in thought, making her appear about twelve. She began to smile and reached a finger towards the console, glancing Levitson’s direction.
Levitson paused, taking a deep breath. His eyes relaxed, and he chuckled. “Sure. Why not? It’s not like we’re going to die.”
“Thank you.” Honda tapped the console once, then rapidly several more times. The entire display rotated and magnified, sucking them in like a ship at light speed traversing a star field. Four meters tall, the display now centered on the magnets between the two sections of the ship. A grid erupted, as if netting the power emanating from the drive, and it shimmered with the magnetic field put out by the Casson Drive. Two bars had trouble aligning, the lines flickering repeatedly.
“There, that’s your problem.” Honda smiled pertly, as if the situation had required only her presence to resolve itself.
“Been working that spot for the last twenty minutes,” Levitson growled, although he smiled to soften the comment. “That seems to be the reason for our phenomenal and unprecedented increase in speed. If only Deesy were here. He’d have this bagged and tagged. He was the best at tweaking the drives.” He tapped an icon, shifting the image slightly, and shook his head.
“Until that decompression blowout at Earth Station. Never understood that. He wasn’t assigned to Level C.”
“A shame, but when it’s your time. Still, he could work out anything just by feeling the control board. My question is, what if I can’t decipher this before we need to reverse the drive to disembark our passengers?” The ship didn’t jump through space, like in old movies. That far-fetched concept had been proven a fallacy long before. The Higgs slipped through real space, just very fast, in a warped quantum field—a warp bubble—powered by the ship’s rapidly spinning drive kernel. When you went fast, you had a lot of slowing down before you could stop.
“I suspect no one on board’s worried about that, me least of all. You, Asher, have our utmost confidence.” Honda touched him gently on the nose and stepped to the door, hardly pausing as it released its hold on the wall and slipped aside to allow her egress. “I’ll be at the Gym, if anyone needs me.” With a wave, she was gone, and the door closed with a whisper.
Levitson leaned over his console again, and he typed a long series of entries, once using his finger to swipe a display and erase a section, then reentering a slightly different configuration of numbers and symbols. As if hesitating, he held a finger over a red square, then with a grimace, dropped it and triggered the sequence. The numbers on the display blinked, and the two errant lines, fighting like disgruntled children earlier, seemed to shake hands and agree to get along for a time. Levitson smiled and leaned back in his chair, inordinately pleased with himself.
“I’m good,” he whispered to the empty room. “Thanks, Wendy. You, girl, are an inspiration.”
He stood, gathered his things, and reached his hand to blank the screen when he noticed a blinking information icon in the lower corner. Touching the roller, he enlarged it and tapped. A new series of numbers appeared, revealing the grid coordinates for another section of the drive configuration. He slid the display sideways to expose the new location, and he sat heavily in his chair. Two different children were now fighting. He tapped a bubble onto the display, and numbers pulled up. One far down the decimal register flickered red for a moment before turning translucent blue once more.
“You’ve got some chutzpah,” Levitson muttered, frowning, as he rapped his knuckles on the console.
Alarms Shatter the Silence
A massive floor-to-ceiling viewscreen surrounded the Bridge, offering the crew a 360-degree panorama of space and the stars around them. It was nearly blank. Then, the nature of space is to be empty. That’s what space is, a vacuum. Nothingness. Planets suspended in a void near blazing balls of fire.
With nothing better to display, the five crew on duty had sections of the screen claimed for their own; small, vivid worlds of idiosyncratic beauty—or not—revealing their distinct and very different personalities.
Ranson Charles, Communications Chief (and sometimes esteemed and overworked technical advisor), bobbed his head as he worked. Barely nineteen, he was young to be aboard the ship, but his perfect ratings at the Academy—and at seventeen—had opened doors few other people ever stepped through. His red hair stuck straight up in a dozen directions, and the undershirt protruding from his uniform was even brighter than his hair.
Just above Charles’ terminal, four sections of screen pulsed with blistering images, one of a Rez concert in full flower, with flashing strobes and flames; another showed two figures—not entirely human—involved in an intimate encounter; the bottom right was a live battle scene on a disturbingly alien world; and the last was the most bizarre: Jade lightning shattered a bruised sky, leaving ruby necklaces of blood running down the screen. Brightly colored ear buds told of music no one else could hear. He wasn’t watching any of his personal Views, but he smiled when especially brutal scenes flashed overhead. His hands were busy inputting coded messages into a terminal that seemed more intelligent design than computer interface.
Weldon “Welly” Clarkson manned the Cybernetics Terminal. He was a big man in his forties, with graying, receding hair and perpetual rosacea across his cheeks and nose. Officially a Mission Specialist, Clarkson’s primary job was anything to do with the colonists. His claimed area of the screen scrolled through all five thousand biometric readouts, one for each one, telling of ship’s resources keeping them alive and how they were adapted to being a corpsicle. The passengers were grouped in fifties, so that a micro-collision or a failure in a supply line didn’t doom the entire mission. It was better to lose fifty than an entire payload. Clarkson didn’t intend for any to expire on his watch.
He paused the scroll with a laser pen, backed it up a few rows, and pointed to one. Clicking, it filled his section of the screen, showing a CorpseCase with a clear, frosted window and a boy about eight inside. He seemed at peace, as if sleeping, although he’d never wake if Mother’s shunts, pumps, and resurrection fluids didn’t cycle life through his veins at just the right moment as they neared Deneb. Day one on the trip. Ninety-five days until Wake-Up cycled on. It was nice to give the passengers a couple of days awake before arrival, although the ship would be crowded the final days before docking. Twenty-five kilos. Clarkson adjusted the nutrient feed. The boy was using too much. Didn’t want him to be sick when he woke. It was better to lose a kilo or two than be a balloon upon arrival. He moved his pen, and the display began to scroll again.
Payload Specialist Imani Okotie-Eboh had a video game running. Her duties would commence when the return cargo was loaded in the hold. The trip out was a hundred days of playtime to her. In a skin-tight StretchSuit of shimmering purple Lycra, Okotie-Eboh thrust virtual weapons and dodged scorchingly fast images dancing above her. Bioelectric pickups studding the StretchSuit conveyed her every motion into the game and returned simulated—and very painful—feedback when she failed to defend her position.
At one point, she stumbled. On the overhead, a light flashed, red globules splattered the screen dead, and Okotie-Eboh grabbed her side, cursing loudly. Everyone except Charles looked her direction for a moment then casually tuned her out. Okotie-Eboh slammed her fist on the console, blanking the screen, and took the time to twist a length of cloth around her hair, leaving it a fountain of jet fireworks pirouetting ceilingward. Stepping into a circle on the floor, she worked her shoulders, put her hands on her knees, and thrust one leg forward. The display flashed into life with a blaze of color, and a hand dripping vitreous slime seemed to reach into the room for her. Okotie-Eboh ducked and slashed, and a gleaming sword appeared on the screen, severing the arm. The game was on.
Pilot Frederick Nielson was the old man of the group. Nearly fifty, he was a ramshackle scarecrow of an officer, with long limbs and wide features. His shoulders suggested contact sports in his past, although his hips were those of a runner. His face had gone craggy decades before, but his eyes were whip-sharp, and nothing got past him. He gazed at the same scene Engineer Levitson had pulled up earlier in Engineering. Nielson had access to anything aboard that impacted the operations of the ship, and he was certain no numbers should be red, not even for a moment. When the errant number resolved itself, he smiled. He figured First Mate Honda had joined Levitson on his shakedown. It felt like something she would do. As he moved to disengage the feed, he watched the image shift to another section of the drive. A blue number blinked red for a moment, and Nielson withdrew his hand, watching with a new level of fascination.
The fifth crewmember on the Bridge was positioned strategically in the most prestigious location, the Commander’s Chair. Jebena Pollock had captained two previous starships, and the Higgs was a step up for her. Literally. She intended to do this run twice—two years of her life—and then move into the more prestigious Centauri run. At less than five light years, the trip was only five days each way. Commander Pollock wanted to start a family, and that wasn’t happening when one run ate two-thirds of a year. She’d just crossed thirty, and she was still attractive enough to snag a man, once she got off these god-forsaken deep-space assignments. Her blonde hair and pert breasts didn’t hurt, either, especially as she’d had both augmented just out of the Academy. Part of the job. It’d gotten her this one, anyway, one night with Admiral Lebo Eriksson, a small price to pay for being a stone’s throw closer to the Centauri run.
Pollock watched a virtual screen just in front of her as she spoke rapidly into a VoiceCone. The Cone used active noise control engineering to absorb Pollock’s voice, effectively giving her a very narrow cone of silence, if she didn’t turn her head too far to the side. It was no help against lip readers, but her conversation wasn’t private, just very animated. The virtual screen flickered on her face, at times rapidly, and often in response to something Pollock said. It looked like an argument, and it didn’t seem to be working toward a quick resolution.
Four stations were empty, their portions of the 360-degree screen painted with jet, and only the occasional image of a distant quasar or supernova like a reverse inkblot on black to mar the night. Science Officer Jameson Kirkpatrick was in his science lab doing science-y things, and Interplanetary Education Liaison Liam Schlegel spent more time in the ship’s Virtual Learning World than he did on the Bridge, but that was to be expected. Their duties involved little that required Bridge time before nearing Deneb Station. Flight Doctor Elisabet Minkovski had no permanent station on the Bridge, and her hundred days were planned in precise detail as she studied the effects of Hyper-Flight on age-accelerated rodents, hoping to be the first to conclusively document the God-gene that offered hope for extended and perhaps eternal life. If it was discovered anywhere, she insisted to anyone who dared listen, it would be on board the Higgs. Men would one day live to see the end of the known Universe and perhaps view the ensuing Big Bang that would usher a whole new Universe into being.
Commander Pollock’s armrest blinked red, and she frowned, pushing the Cone away. Her virtual screen became clear, and she thumbed the light to see Levitson appear before her. She smiled despite herself. He was cute, in a nerdy sort of way. Not advancement material, God, no, but still, a man was a man, and she did respond to them. Who could blame her?
“Yes, Engineer?” Keep it cool. She always did.
“Commander, Firstie was just here, and there’s something we think you should be aware of.” Levitson barely glanced at her before looking down. It appeared he was inputting something into his terminal, then his eyes jumped up, knocking about at something she couldn’t see.
“I’m listening.” She pressed her lips together for a moment before relaxing them. Levitson never looked at her, not really looked. Maybe it was part of what attracted her to him. The challenge of a disinterested man.
“I’ve made this trip half-a-dozen times—”
“No stories,” she interrupted. “What should I be aware of?”
“There’s a drive thing going on. It’s getting ahold of it that’s stumping me. Firstie’ll be glad to tell you about it when she gets there. She stopped at the Gym on the way to the Bridge.”
As Levitson talked, Pollock had her eyes on Nielson’s personal display. It was an image of the ship’s drive. She tapped a spot in the air, and a second virtual display appeared before her, mirroring Pollock’s.
“I think Nielson’s onto it. He might know—”
“Maybe, Commander. I don’t think so, though. Ahh, not again,” and he twisted away from her view, disappearing for a moment before dropping heavily back into his seat. “You’re not going to believe this. Commander, how fast do you want to get to Deneb Station?” He looked at her directly through the display as he ran his hand across his hair, his fingers causing it to stick up in a comical fashion.
“Pretty fast,” she said with an uplift at the end, like it was a question. “Just tell me, Levitson. I’m a big girl. Nothing much surprises me.”
“This might,” he said, his eyes still locked on hers.
“And?” She studied his, thinking, God, he really does look eighteen, sometimes. It’s those eyes, black, with that nose. No one would mistake this man for a WASP. He was as kibbutz as they came. Her breath surged a little faster, whether because of the intensity of his upcoming revelation or that he was actually looking at her, who knew?
“We’re one day out, Commander, and we’re at 160 percent of speed.” His eyes grew bigger, and he licked his lips.
“Hundred-sixty percent.” She had to think. Top speed, one light year per day, making 100 light years in 100 days. Of course, that was the average. They traveled much slower at the beginning and end of the voyage, so along the middle they might easily be at two, three, or even four per day. She really had no idea. Still, it was fast, faster than any other ship out there.
“And increasing.” Levitson’s mouth was a hard line.
“And increasing,” she repeated, trying to put his words into context. “You have it under control, of course.”
“Commander, I’m just the engineer. I’m trying to decide why we’re going so fast. Nielson, maybe. He might can answer that. I’m just passing on the word, so when we break the speed record, you knew it was coming.” He blew out his cheeks, and in the image, he reached to something off screen and tapped the console. He glanced back and whispered, “One sixty-five, Commander.”
“Painted clear as day. Thanks, Levitson.” She hit the light, now green, on the arm of her chair, leaving just Pollock’s viewscreen mirrored before her. She noticed the red number. “My God,” she murmured, reaching to the virtual image and enlarging one section. The numbers for their speed were increasing at a blurring rate, one she couldn’t make out except as a bigger number replacing the one already there.
She touched another spot on her armrest, and across the room, the border of Nielson’s display blinked once. He turned to her as if he’d been expecting her communication. He nodded, and as he began to speak, the entire 360-degree viewscreen began blinking red, and klaxons blared three times.
“Lockdown, lockdown. Security alert. All security doors are now sealed and operable only with Triad voice and retinal prints. Commander, if you are still alive, please reply.” Ship’s computer blared the instructions into the room.
“What the devil,” Pollock let fly.
“Commander acknowledged. Thank you. First Mate, please reply.” There was a short pause, and the computer said, “First Mate acknowledged. Science Officer, please reply.” After a pause, the computer repeated, “Science Officer, please reply.”
“Where is Kirkpatrick?” Pollock muttered the comment under her breath and was irritated to hear the computer reply, “Location unknown, Commander.”
Then the computer rang out, “Science Officer acknowledged. Commander, your presence is required in Weapons. Please proceed to the retinal scanner for secondary confirmation.”
Pollock stood. All eyes were on her. She took a deep breath, putting a confident expression on her face. She looked good, and that was important. She didn’t know what was going on, but she was the one the crew looked to for answers, and she intended to get them. If they believed she had the balls to do so, whatever the cost, they’d support her to Deneb and back.
“Chief Charles, when I return, I want to know just what’s going on. Got that?”
“Yes, Commander.” His ear buds rested on his console, and as he spoke, he brushed them into his lap. Even subdued, his eyes carried an eagerness that said this was exciting, and he was ready for the ride.
“Good man.” She strode to the door. It didn’t open, and she peered into the retinal scanner on the wall. A light flashed, the door opened, and she disappeared through, the lift opening sealed once again before she could turn around.
The hush she left in the room was deafening.
Weapons Brings a Surprise
The interior of the lift flashed gently, washing Commander Pollock in a shadowless glow, each time in a different color indicating the levels of the ship: pink for Quarters; blue for Recreation; gold for Medical, yellow for Stores; silver for Cryo-Storage; and amber for Weapons. The lift dinged. The Commander paused before the retinal scanner, and the door slipped aside with no more than a pucker of released air. Even the elevators were under environmental lock, separated from the rest of the ship when in use. No one dies today. It was the ship’s motto. Dying was for tomorrow, and not on anyone’s watch. Pollock’s eyes covered the corridor both ways. Lockdown. What next, replicators chewing holes in the sides of the ship? She shook it off, glancing at the video pickup in the ceiling, knowing everything she did was observable to anyone who cared to look. With determination, she pulled herself briskly towards the main Weapons bay.
“Commander.” Science Officer Kirkpatrick appeared from an adjacent corridor. The lift that direction meant he’d been in the lab, just where Pollock would expect. He sidled in next to her, quizzing, “What’s up—”
“Not now.” She shook her head the barest amount, but her true feelings came out in her arm. It jerked into the air, cutting him off.
“Replicators, again?” Kirkpatrick had the nerve to grin. He referred to an old joke from the Academy.
“Stuff it, Kirkpatrick.” She whipped around and stopped him in his tracks, hissing, “Not now means not now. Hear that?” A rising and falling crescendo filled the silence, and it didn’t belong. “You think this is a drill? Spit it out, if you do.”
“No, sir.” His mouth had gone straight, his neck newly pale.
“Good. Let’s pick up Honda and find out what’s going on.” She smiled as she turned, remarking, “Sorry for the gruffness. This has me off kilter, the not knowing.”
“Me, too, Commander.” He didn’t sound convivial.
“I said I’m sorry, James. I should have been less forceful.” She glanced his way but didn’t slow down.
“Thank you.” He seemed to let something out and sounded less distant. He pointed, “There, sir. Honda!”
The petite First Mate dropped out of the ceiling as he spoke, settling gently to the floor in a crouch, her black hair catching up with her as she stood. She released two suspension bands, and they withdrew into the ceiling just before the drop chute overhead slipped closed. She was in all black, with workout trainers on her feet and a martial arts belt around her waist.
“Training, Commander. Sorry. I dropped in directly from the Gym. I was afraid I’d miss you, otherwise.”
“I had no worries, Prime. You have a clue?” Pollock nodded at Honda’s earpiece. The crescendo was about the same but more concentrated closer to Weapons, and it continued to grate on her.
“No, sir, but I’m ready to kick some butt.” Her device whispered confirmation, the sound a soft echo in the quietness of the corridor. “Hold, sir.”
The three paused as Honda tapped her earpiece in a broken pattern, a shortcut system that spoke of long usage with the small device and kept her input private from anyone who hadn’t bothered to learn her special code. Her eyes went back and forth between Kirkpatrick’s and Pollock’s. “Stowaways, sir?” Honda looked incredulous.
“Where?” Pollock was furious. No, not on her ship. By the stars above, how could there be stowaways? “Maybe one of the colonists wasn’t chilled properly. Kirkpatrick, is that possible?”
“Umm . . .” He looked perplexed. “Maybe, but I honestly don’t think so. Levitson would be the one to ask. No, Clarkson. Yeah, Welly would know, if anyone would. You want me to . . .” He tapped his comm indicator on his uniform, with a question mark in his eyes.
The computer interrupted their tête-à-tête, stating, “Centrifugal Thruster Guns now coming on line. Weapons hot in three minutes.”
“Shut them down!” Pollock barked the command.
“Unable to comply. Override initiated. Will attempt to bypass Weapons egress for your convenience.”
“You mean we’re locked out?” They had Triad permissions. Weapons was just in front of them. The retinal scanners were green. They couldn’t be locked out. Pollock was incredulous. No one had higher authority than the Triad, not even the computer.
“Yes, Commander. I am attempting backdoor access. Be prepared. You may access retinal scans as you wait. My access window may be brief, and you will need to be prepared.”
“Me, first.” Honda was already there, her face to the scanner. When finished, she pulled Kirkpatrick after her, slapping him playfully on the shoulder and remarking, “Don’t be a pansy. Step up, Jameson.”
He stuck his face to the scanner, then Pollock took his place, afterward indicating ready positions in front of the door. She pointed to Honda, indicating she would go right, then to Kirkpatrick to head left. A roll of her hand confirmed her direction was the bold one, straight into the fray.
“Computer,” she whispered. “Anytime.”
The band around the door blinked amber one time, and the door whispered aside, revealing four figures cloaked in quantum camouflage. The light bending around them was barely noticeable, just a slight shimmer at the edges. The massive Thrusters were the giveaway. They weren’t camouflaged, their matte casings stealing light from the suits, revealing the hands and the barest image of the interlopers directly next to the weapons. Each weapon showed five blinking lights out of ten. They would be fire-ready at six.
“Go,” Pollock hissed, leaping and dropping into a roll. She had to do the unexpected, or she’d be dead as soon as those guns locked on her. She kicked as she reached the first intruder, taking out an ankle. A feminine oomph hit her ears just before the sound of the gun tumbling to the floor. A second gun rattled, telling her another minion was down. Pollock already had an arm around the neck of her prize, and she used the downed criminal as ballast to kick the feet out from under a camouflage suit turning a Thruster her direction. The weapon flew into the air, and Honda spun, kicking it to the far side of the room. Kirkpatrick had already disabled his culprit’s suit. Pollock grabbed the neck of hers and pulled, ripping the contacts apart, and the suit flickered once before dying. She elbowed its occupant upside the head and was relieved when the woman went limp.
“Kirkpatrick, Honda, where’s the fourth?” Pollock realized she was breathing hard. Honda seemed at ease, even relaxed as she held her charge’s arms behind his back. Kirkpatrick? His face was red with exertion, but he was holding his own. He’d pulled the strap off the weapon and tied his gangbuster to a locker.
“In back,” Kirkpatrick whispered. He’d swung a terminal input from the wall and was tapping furiously. “I’ve . . . about . . . disengaged the gun . . . now!” He pushed the terminal aside and stood, calling, “Your weapon’s no good. It won’t fire. You might as well come out.”
“Before we make you. You won’t like it if we do.” Honda kept her captive’s arms locked, as she barked her demand.
“Magill?” A pause. “Zealander? You there? Hollis?”
“Kaseem, take them out!” The man in Honda’s arms got a hard elbow to the temple, and he fainted dead away, leaving Honda free to push him aside and begin moving down an aisle to intercept the final invader from the back.
“Star-sucking,” they heard, as the weapon clicked uselessly. “Fire, frag you.” Something banged several times, probably the weapon against a locker.
“Enough, Kaseem. We’re through, here.” Pollock stood with a smile, motioning Kirkpatrick to join her. “You’ve got no weapons and no rights. Make it easy on yourself.”
A wet oomph told of Honda’s success, as the fourth Thruster clattered to the floor. Honda appeared, dragging the limp intruder into the open. His face was cratered with long scars that seemed to run under his tunic. She dropped him roughly, his head banging to the floor and bouncing once before lying still.
“That’s gonna hurt.” Pollock turned to the one infiltrator still conscious, and she crossed her arms, tapping her index finger broadly and plainly against her skin. “Okay, interrogation time. Let’s see what this one has to say.”
He slid back against the locker as she walked his direction. Kirkpatrick grinned. Honda shook her head and laughed, looking away.
This was going to be fun.
Confusion Weds Dismay
“What mishegas! Are all of them nuts?”
It was Engineer Levitson, and he leaned forward, peering into a scene being broadcast to any crew who wanted to watch. It was inset into his larger screen, and an orange button glowed on his console, labeled Temporary Override. His search for the trouble in the drive system was on hold. The four insurrectionists were in the brig—more precisely an unused stateroom reserved for the colonists when they awoke in ninety-five days, but lockable, so doing double duty—with their hands tied behind their backs and bruises on their faces. Chief Charles, Specialist Okotie-Eboh, and Liaison Schlegel were with Levitson in Engineering observing the interrogation. Mission Specialist Clarkson had demurred at the impromptu meeting and was with the colonists on an inspection tour, making sure no surprises caught them off guard.
“I didn’t know what to make of it.” Okotie-Eboh still wore her StretchSuit, although she’d pulled the feedback sensors out, revealing a taut figure, toned and with little to no fat obscuring her muscular frame. Her hair still towered skyward. “The whole trip with nothing to do, and then this. I was shivering with fear.” Her hair quivered as a shudder ran down her body.
“Nah, seen it a dozen times.” Schlegel blew at the nails on one hand before taking his file and starting on the other. “The bad guys never win. Never. Trust me, I know.” He blew again.
“Still,” Levitson murmured, “what if they’d gotten the weapons charged? What would they have done, blown the ship up?” He was already on edge, first the drive configuration out of whack, and now this.
“Nah.” Schlegel laughed. “Couldn’t happen. I got me a direct line to a higher power. We’re protected.”
“You mean that boy you rescued back on the station and had the doc stitch up? Be serious.” Levitson shook his head dismissively.
“Said he was a priest, the real deal. He was, if you ask me, on the station with no chip, then disappearing like he was never there.”
“Crazy people do that, Liam. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“Means the bad guys never win.” Schlegel grinned.
Charles sat at the back, out of the conversation. His feet were propped in a chair, and his earbuds were bright spots in his ears. A terminal filled his lap, with the ever-present virtual display hovering just above it. Pollock had demanded answers, and he was pulling them from the system, hidden or otherwise.
Only two of the condemned were alert. Kaseem Abdullah was still out, reflecting Honda’s hand-to-hand expertise. His feet were splayed in front of him, and his head lolled at an angle across the back of his chair. His arms were hidden behind his waist, and a black strap across his chest kept him from rolling to the floor. Crystal Hollis swam in glazed soup, but her eyes were at least nominally open. She might have a concussion, if Dr. Minkovski pronounced it that way. The crew didn’t much care at this point. Hollis had tried to kill the ship. Shank Magill had been Kirkpatrick’s conquest, tied to a locker instead of being conked on the head, and he was alive and spitting fire. His arms were twisted behind his chair, and Kirkpatrick was behind him with a weapon at his temple, forcing him to play nice. Honda had ripped into Raytheon Zealander on the way to Abdullah, and the man had taken a hard hit. He wouldn’t likely be alert for some time. One eye was already swollen, and with his crooked ankle, it was doubtful he’d walk anytime soon. Just as well; there was no place on the ship he’d be welcome, no matter his story when he woke to tell his lies. He was also strapped to his chair.
“Pollock’ll fry ’em. Just watch.” Schlegel was onto his third nail, and he pointed to the screen. He’d yet to look at it, as if the sound told him all he needed to know. “She’s got the balls to do it, if anyone does. Seen it a million times.”
“Christ, Liam. Virtuals don’t count. This is the real thing.” Okotie-Eboh shuddered again. “Why would they want the Thrusters? Everyone’d die. What’s the point of that?”
“Not if they used a Daughter.” Levitson tore his eyes from the screen, and he searched his companions’ faces. “You don’t think—” He slashed into his terminal, his breathing growing hard, his fingers dancing on the input sensors. His large screen blanked, becoming a neutral backdrop of undulating pixels. As he worked, various points of light brightened and faded in tandem with his jabbing fingers, a visual representation of his queries as he probed the ship’s databanks.
“Think what, Ashe? Don’t tease then leave us in the dark. What’r’u thinking, something bad?” Okotie-Eboh dropped into a chair, her voice climbing higher and higher in pitch.
“Found it,” Levitson cried, his voice triumphant.
“Found it,” Charles called at almost the same time, pulling his earbuds from his ears. Faint music thumped from the devices, a punctuated background to his announcement. His hair was a flame of excitement.
The two stood and faced each other. On the screen at Levitson’s side, Hollis spat a wad of saliva at Pollock, and Kirkpatrick cuffed her upside the head as the commander wiped her face with her sleeve. “You bilge-head,” Pollock muttered clearly over hidden speakers before motioning, and Kirkpatrick yanked up on the woman’s arms, forcing her forward, causing Hollis to yelp in pain. The ship’s medic was off to the side, but she made no move toward her. Her eyes were on Pollock, and there hadn’t been a request for help.
“What’d you find?” Schlegel asked, finally looking up. He grinned, as if he thought all this amusing. “Ashe, Liam? Who’s first?”
“You go,” Levitson pointed, with a wave of his hand at the Communications Chief.
“You called it. Those jerks are in custody. Mine will wait. Go.” Charles dropped into his chair, realized his keyboard was under him, and jerked up before removing it and seating himself more carefully.
“Yeah, okay. Well, see, a Daughter’s already powered up. These guys knew everything. They weren’t leaving anyone to rat on them.” His face was pale, and it glistened with sweat. “What’d you get, Ranse?” Levitson dropped into his seat, blowing his cheeks out and running his hand across his face. He’d passed his conceptual threshold on the reality of imminent death about an hour before, and this wasn’t helping.
“Anyone heard of the Society of Serpents?” Charles grinned. Of course, they had.
“They took out the London Eye back in ’98, didn’t they? They were ramping up for the 200th birthday celebration, then it was gone.” Levitson seemed to sulk. Of course, Charles’ discovery was better than his. Of course.
“And about 80,000 partiers. The reason why is what’s important to us. It was payback for defunct British colonialism in Africa three centuries before. No matter that the people killed weren’t alive then.”
“So, what have we done?” Okotie-Eboh was interested. Her family lived in Africa, and life still wasn’t good in many places. She’d emigrated a lifetime before and had no hard feelings. The crew were her friends, or as close as she got, with her 100 days of play while they were working their butts off.
“I can’t be certain, but I ran the corpsicle list, and we’ve got a possible target. American Klu Klux Klan. Extinct now, of course, but those old farts had children, and they liked to intermarry. We’ve got a tribe of descendants in Section 8. I suspect all four of them,” he indicated the interrogation on the far side of the screen, “have strong Serpent ties. No matter how you draw the lines, it looks pretty connected.”
“We should let Welly know.” Levitson reached for the comm switch. His hand hovered, and he waited for confirmation. His response was understood. There were a thousand freezer pops times five. Specialist Clarkson was there now, and that was a lot of popsicles to cover. However, any grease on his feet would be a bonus to everyone.
“My onus. I’ve got it covered.” Charles stood, gathering his earbuds and slipping them into a pocket. He set his keyboard to the side, twirling once and pointing at the others, calling, “Later, dudes and dudette.” Laughter followed him out the door.
“The London Eye?” Okotie-Eboh had her feet in her chair and her arms around her knees. She rocked. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Hey, Africa-born. Check this out.” Schlegel had out his Kinnect, and he unrolled the screen and held it in front of him. “Pull up London Eye, year 2000.”
It responded, “London Eye, Cantilevered Observation Wheel, Great Britain, CE 2000. Once located on the Thames River, it was destroyed in CE 2198. See attached image file.”
Schlegel tossed the Kinnect her direction, and she caught it, shaking the screen flat. An image of a Ferris wheel-type device towered over a glittering night skyline, and it was lighted in bright pink. The colors shimmered in the Thames.
“That’s beautiful,” she cooed. “Pink. I love it.”
The Kinnect responded, “The Eye attracted up to 5 million visitors each year before its demise. It was closed from 2113 until its grand reopening in 2117, after river water undermined a footing, and the structure developed an alarming tilt. A popular petition to stabilize the Eye at 3.5 degrees of tilt was rejected, and the tower was righted to 0 degrees. After its destruction, the five undamaged capsules were permanently installed at Hyde Park in London as a memorial to those killed in the blast.”
“Oh, my God,” she whispered, without looking up. “At least there was a memorial. We would have had nothing. Space junk. No one’d come to see that.”
“It’s a good thing they don’t have to,” Schlegel remarked, standing and retrieving his pocket computer. He slipped his file in his jacket and exited the door after Charles. He didn’t bother to send his farewells.
“What’re you going to do, Imani?” The scene with Pollock still played on the video. Minkovski was injecting Abdullah in the arm, and Zealander was rousing. He sported a spot in the crook of his elbow indicating the doc had already gotten to him. Levitson watched, interested and not. The grand adventure was winding down, and with the Commander fully in control. They had ninety-eight days of boring before unloading at Deneb. It was fun while it lasted, but it was over.
“Don’t know.” Okotie-Eboh still looked rattled.
Levitson turned to Okotie-Eboh and grinned. “I’d like to get my hands on one of those camo suits. Take it for a stroll when the popsicles wake up. A little quantum fun, find out what they really think of our delivery service.”
She laughed, the ice water fright from the thwarted attack finally warmed. “Find out the truth. They know we’re lazy pudzos, and they’re too polite to say so.”
“Some of us, anyway. The rest get no sleep.” He winked, the expression barely there, given especially for the Payload Specialist. He might not notice Pollock’s overtures, but Okotie-Eboh was a gaming vixen, and she’d been on his radar since she boarded two trips past.
“I pay my dues.” She stood and blew him a kiss, her payback for the wink. “Wait till we get there. I won’t have time to wipe my own backside. Bye, Asher.” She slipped out the door.
Levitson tried to place what he’d been on when the alarm had sounded. The tall screen overhead shimmered, the pixels telling of inactivity from his terminal. It had been a long day filled with entirely too much excitement. He shook his head and clicked off the scene in the brig. His stomach drew his attention, and he stood, adjusting his uniform to head to the Mess. He realized he’d missed lunch. Everyone had, except perhaps Pilot Nielson. God knew where he’d gotten to during the fray. Still piloting, Levitson presumed, even as the interlopers tried to do the dirty on board their ship.
As the door closed behind him, a section of the screen came to life, showing a red band reading, “Attention required. Acceleration now reaching 7,250 percent of normal speed. This is outside the safe operating parameters of the ship’s design.” Silently, it began to repeat, “Attention required . . .”
“That machine’s gornisht helfn!” Levitson tossed his supper tray onto a table, the forward motion carrying it just to an empty spot on the far side. Frost formed a winter scene on his cubed turkey, with a ski slope of gravy waiting to be thawed.
Three booths were in arched niches, giving a bit of separation to the all-white space. Overhead, the ceiling arched with lighted insets hidden in the folds. There were no windows, either walls, ceiling, or floor. Quarters were overhead, and below was Medical. Windows were reserved for the private spaces in Quarters and those in the Observation Bubble. Okotie-Eboh had Levitson blocked, and he put one hand on the back of the bench seat and leaped over, sliding deftly into place.
“I would have moved. Why’s it beyond help?” Okotie-Eboh smiled at Levitson. The crew were familiar with his casual Yiddish and understood most of what he said, the intent, if not the actual words. She had changed from her StretchSuit into a diaphanous robe that revealed chocolate limbs and a neck that never seemed to end. Her hair was tucked in a knit bag at her neck, imprisoned by a jeweled tie with sparkling bangles. With no outstanding duties, she was the one crewmember who could get away with such flamboyant dress. She smiled at Levitson, and her face was that of an effervescent goddess.
“Nah, the food.” He pulled a steam cover from above and slipped it over his tray. It hissed; released, it retracted, leaving his ski slope a steaming brown river. “I wanted a burger. Seems someone got the last one until Tuesday.” He worked at a mound of gravy-covered flesh as he glared at Kirkpatrick across the table.
“Hoy! I got here first.” He held up both hands, as if to say, keep your complaints on your side of the table, mate. His burger was half gone, anyway. “You can have my chips, if you want.”
Levitson took one, scooping some catsup on the way. He turned when Honda, Nielson, Pollock, and Charles walked in together, bantering loudly. Pollock had on a fresh tunic. Honda was laughing.
“Magill’s regretting coming aboard about now, and you, Commander, look fine, as always.” Honda raised a hand to those already seated. “You got the last burger, Kirkpatrick, as usual? Two days out, and what’s that, six, already?”
“Six!” Levitson glowered. “I haven’t had one.”
“Poor baby.” Pollock put her hand on his shoulder, as if in commiseration, holding it there too long for something so simple. “The rest’ll cycle up soon.”
“Thanks, Commander.” He tore into his food, keeping his eyes down until the hand was gone. He grinned at Okotie-Eboh. “Can’t wait.”
Charles was at the AutoVend searching the menu. His ear buds dangled from one pocket, and his hair was in greater disarray than normal. He tapped turkey and gravy, and added a double tap on the roll icon. When his tray slid out, he did it again, this time choosing chicken pasta with mixed vegetables. He placed the chicken across from Okotie-Eboh and nudged Honda, pointing, as he fell into the adjoining booth with his turkey. He pulled his table’s steamer down, and it began to hiss. Pollock sat without anything in front of her. She looked at Levitson, and the lines around her mouth revealed her tension.
“Space the lot of them!”
The crowd turned to see Clarkson flood the doorway. His face was redder than usual, and he looked angry. He carried a canvas-covered pack with him, and he set it hard in front of Pollock. He blew his cheeks out and tightened his jaw, his eyes narrowing.
“And this is?” Pollock tore her eyes from Levitson and hit Clarkson with them.
“Open it,” he said, his voice hard, and his words curt. “I can’t even speak.”
“Doing pretty well,” Kirkpatrick said, with a smile, “if you ask me.”
“Chief Charles, if you’ll do the honor.” Pollock nodded at him. The Mess was normally off limits for work, and her look said this had better be good.
“A Christmas present, for me?” He grinned and pushed his plate aside. He pulled it close, unzipped it from one side, across the top, and down the other. He separated the top before leaping from his seat, jarring the table, and bumping hard into Clarkson, only stopping once he was across the room.
“Thought you might like it.” Clarkson snorted his satisfaction.
“It’s a . . . it’s a . . .”
“Don’t worry. I disarmed it.”
“I didn’t expect you to actually . . . find one.” Chief Charles tried to laugh it off. “You sure it’s disarmed? I mean, it looks so real.”
“It is real.” Clarkson pulled the bag away to reveal a block of explosives, together with an ignition device. “Right there in Section 8, exactly where you suggested.”
“Feh!” Levitson started, but stopped when Okotie-Eboh placed her hand on his arm. His snow scene turned running river was mostly gone, and he pushed away the rest. “We would’ve been dead. What would have been the point, killing five thousand people?”
It was more than that. For weeks before the corpsicles had been dropped into their cryo-cylinders, there had been opportunities for the prospective colonists to meet the crew. They’d still been on Earth, then. A few had shown up at every meet-and-greet. It was them Levitson was thinking of, and heads nodded, whispering names of several they remembered fondly.
“Five thousand and ten, but let’s not quibble over the details. The next question is, what do we do with them? We can’t let them loose, and we don’t have enough drugs to sedate them the whole trip. Besides, it’s not fair to Doc Minkovski to be forced to baby-sit. She’s got an agenda planned. Ninety-eight days lost? She won’t like that.” Pollock still hadn’t touched the canvas pack, and except for a brief glance, hadn’t looked at it, either.
Nielson cleared his throat. He had coffee in front of him, and the steam swirled. It was one of the few items that came out of the AutoVend fully prepared and ready to consume. Nielson was nothing if not a man of economy, both in words as in action. The room quieted, waiting.
“Maybe Welly’s right, but it wouldn’t be proper, would it? Doing to them what they’d have done to us is just another way of showing who’s in power.”
“We could do that, space ’em?” Okotie-Eboh seemed surprised.
“You bet.” Commander Pollock stood, using the table to push herself up, and she took a deep breath. “Out here, I’m king, and Prime’s my queen. You’re the court, and Doctor Minkovski and Liaison Schlegel, of course. You, Payload Specialist, you have full rights, also. We get to live with our decision, and that’s the hard part. Any other options? I agree that using our store of drugs and committing Minkovski to jailer duty isn’t my idea of okay.”
“Drop ’em in CorpseCases for the rest of the trip?” Liaison Schlegel stepped through the door. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop. It was so interesting, I didn’t have the heart to interrupt.”
“No spares.” Clarkson was seated, and he ran a hand through his receding hair.
“We always have spares.” Honda was bright with enthusiasm. “Right, Imani?” Everyone looked the Payload Specialist’s way.
“Usually.” She smiled apologetically. “We’ve got some special cargo on board. The colonists paid extra to transport two simians and two canines.”
Schlegel laughed. “I could manage a monkey for a pet for the next three months. Anyone want a dog? What would be so bad about that? Surely the corpsicles won’t mind, so long as their pets arrive in good condition.”
“They’re pregnant,” Okotie-Eboh explained.
“Yeah, that’d be great, Liaison Schlegel.” Pollock finally laughed. “We’d have two dozen puppies under our feet, and anyone know how many young that monkeys have? Our food stores would run low by the time we reached Deneb.”
“They may anyway, with four extra mouths to feed.” Nielson took a final drain on his cup. “We need something better, hopefully without spacing our friends down on Medical or raising a couple litters of pups aboard the ship.”
“Can we spare a Daughter?” Levitson didn’t look up. It was a very bad option, but the Commander had asked.
“Hey, mate. Don’t even suggest that.” Kirkpatrick hissed the words. The Daughters were their shuttles for runs to and from a planet’s surface. There were two. Similar in design to Mother, they were also their backup ships, and like Mother, could achieve relativistic speeds with independent Magnetic Resonance Drives. Launching while at speed, no telling how much acceleration a Daughter would be able to attain. They were their hope if something happened to the main drive, their only hope.
“Spacing our guests, not really an option.” Pollock grimaced and looked to Nielson, as if she’d considered it before he’d laid out the moral boundaries for everyone to see. “Running out of food probably wouldn’t happen, although we might need to consider short rations the second half of the trip. Can we manage with one Daughter? Levitson, what’s your opinion?”
“I’m just Science Officer, Commander.” He laughed deprecatingly. “Freddie or James,” he motioned, “could say better.”
“You’re the one that brought it up. Why, if you can’t commit?”
“Oh, that’s easy.” He brightened, now more confident. “One’s powered up, already.”
“By whose orders?” Pollock’s ire bled through, and her eyes darted around the gathered crew.
“Sorry, Commander.” Charles took charge of explaining. “Levitson found it while you were in interrogation. Our friends in camo were planning it as their escape route, we think. We hadn’t had time to make a report. I think that’s the only reason Asher mentioned it.”
“Then, anyone. Can we manage with one Daughter?” It was Pollock’s first trip as Commander, and her question was a good one. The crew who knew the ship understood what she needed and what she didn’t.
“Never been tried. We might be able to use the rail launcher to avoid conflicts in the two Casson Fields. That’ll be the real issue.” Liaison Schlegel had his arms crossed. His tunic appeared freshly pressed, and he looked confident and in his element. “I could run a simulation, have the ship download current conditions, dovetail it into Virtual. You want?” He shrugged.
“Maybe, if we can’t resolve this here. We’d still have one for backup. How would this work?” Pollock was considering it. “Levitson, you have an answer for that?”
“We could set the controls to anywhere we wanted, lock out the drive computer, and someone else could take custody.”
“And turn them loose to try again.” Honda brought attention to the elephant in the room.
“Okay, put them in a Daughter, but not to any particular location. How fast can we set the drive?” This was why Pollock was Commander. She was good at nosing out the difficult options and making them palatable to people who were good and moral.
“Starting at current speed?” Levitson considered. “If we tweak the settings for the resonance field, unrestricted acceleration is possible. The problem isn’t the speed but slowing back down.”
“If we don’t want them to slow down?” Pollock fought a smile.
“They’d have to slow down.” Levitson looked to Okotie-Eboh and back to the Commander.
“Humor me. What if?”
“Let me.” Nielson, as Pilot, saw what she meant. “If we push her out of flat space, time dilation will resolve our issue. Get fast enough, and inside the ship, time’ll slow down, living out maybe, what, a week, two weeks of relative time, while a couple of centuries go by out here. They become a problem for the distant future, and all with plenty of air, water, food, and fuel. That what you’re getting at, Commander? Moral issues resolved, with no deaths on our hands.”
“If we consider this, we have to be unanimous. We do have other options, and I won’t go forward without everyone committing.” Pollock saw those considering it. Crew were catching each other’s eyes, with nods of agreement. “The only one not here is Doctor Minkovski. If we’re agreed on this, I’ll speak to her, see if she’s willing to trade nearly a hundred days of babysitting for one Daughter.”
“She won’t care.” It was Clarkson. “She’s already got mice to mind. I’ll vouch for her.”
“I’ll ask, anyway. Thanks, Welly. You want to get this out of here? And no,” she smiled, putting her hand on the bomb, as if it were nothing, “you may not reset it and stow it on the Daughter, if we decide to follow through on this. We’re not taking any lives, not if there’s any way to avoid it.”
With the matter resolved as much as it could be for the time being, calm settled over the Mess. Clarkson set the bag in the corridor for later removal and chose a fine meal of beef stew, with hot peppers and garlic bread on the side. Pollock pulled a chef salad with chicken strips, flash frozen and best eaten cold. Kirkpatrick and Honda regaled those not present with the juiciest details of the interrogation and more, to everyone’s delight, including moving the injured and uninjured detainees to the Medical level, where the Doctor had given them serious sedatives and was making necessary repairs to those injuries that needed them. It seemed that Magill had mysteriously managed to break a wrist in transit; Hollis hadn’t known when to keep her mouth shut, resulting in a split lip; and Zealander might need a bone in his ankle pinned. Abdullah? That concussion of Hollis’? Attitude deemed Abdullah needed one, also.
The real conversation during dinner wasn’t taking place in the Mess. It was one-sided and happening on Engineer Levitson’s full-wall monitor. The ship, well-designed and fresh from a complete refit, worked seamlessly. There was no sense of acceleration or speed while traversing the emptiness of space. The micro-adjustment that Levitson had found earlier wasn’t affecting the ship’s stability. Rather, it was allowing the massively powerful magnets between the drive module—with its rapidly spinning drive kernel trapped in a warped quantum-containment field—and the nose of the ship to draw infinitely closer together (normal when under controlled acceleration), thereby bypassing the computer’s fail-safe warning system. Silently, the red band, hoping for someone’s notice, announced repeatedly, “Attention required. Acceleration now reaching 145,600 percent of normal speed. This is outside the safe operating parameters of the ship’s design.” The numbers changed, growing larger, as the words scrolled again, “Attention required . . .”
Taking the Path Less Traveled
“A piece of cake! Right!” Crystal Hollis’ eyes were clear, too clear, and she vomited her fury over Shank Magill’s relaxed form. She was a vixen with her thick, dark hair, darker eyes, and olive skin. Her naturally red lips and flashing anger did nothing to detract from her beauty. “We were set up to head back to Earth, and we wind up here. How the proton flush did that happen? I knew I should’a gutted that kid when I had the chance.”
“Relax, Hollis. We’re not done here, yet. The kid’s gone, and you think they’re gonna space us? This joint’s got more weak links than a kid’s swing set. You’ll get home, yet.” Magill was smug, and with his pale latte skin, he was hard to read. He claimed African ancestry, but she couldn’t find it, and that infuriated Hollis more. He had no right to pass for white, when she’d been ridiculed for her skin all her life. What she liked about him was his life’s mission: Eradicate the devils that had enslaved his forebears.
“Get up, Kaseem! Do something about that space turd.” She glared at Magill as she hit Abdullah hard on the side of the leg. He was on a bed, his arms behind his head, watching the fireworks, and he claimed he still felt dizzy when he stood. “I thought you were with me. You becoming a wuss, too?”
He looked away and ignored her.
Raytheon Zealander—no one knew his real name—was to the side on his own, practicing martial arts moves. His ankle was taped, and he was being careful with it. He was probably doped up to be on it after the damage it had taken. It was rumored, quite believably, that he was on the lam after killing a woman on the mat, and that he had taken the names of his last four victims for his own. By the size of his arms, they knew better than to mess with him when he wanted left alone.
Magill stood, his ancestral heritage coming out in his long legs and smooth walk. “I got backup plans in here. That kid might have screwed with our plans, but there’s always options.” He tapped his forehead and moved to the door, placing his hand on the access panel. It blinked yellow, and he slapped his hand against it. He stood for a moment, breathing hard, before regaining control and turning with a smile. “Just gotta work it out, that’s all. It’ll come to me. We got 98 days. Ain’t nobody stopping us.”
“At’s what you said when we donned those camo suits. In there, sweatin’ like pigs, and you said they wouldn’t know what was coming. Well, they did, space turd.” Hollis had a hand on one hip, and the other dancing in front of his face.
“I said,” Magill grabbed the wrist attached to the hand, “ain’t nobody stopping us, and that’s the way it’ll be. Chick, you need to chill.”
“Chill? I need to chill?” With her other hand, she swung and connected firmly with his cheek, throwing his head sideways with a loud crack. Before she could draw her hand away, he had her turned and wrapped in his arms, one around her waist, and the other on her forehead, pulling her head against him and exposing her neck. He laughed.
“Kaseem, what should I do with my prize?” Hollis squirmed, but she didn’t cry out. Magill placed his face next to hers, and he licked her cheek. Her eyes narrowed, and she worked her lips, barely under control.
“You got what you want?” She spat the words.
“Nah, baby. I want some time with you.” He whipped her around and kissed her hard on the mouth. She fought for a moment, then gave in to it. As soon as she did, he pushed her roughly away, laughing. “All women want it. You just ain’t getting it.”
“You . . . turd, you. You just wait!” In her fury, she leaped at him, her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. They tumbled against Abdullah’s bed, the tussle becoming more passionate than vicious.
“Idiots! You don’t know how much I hurt. Get off!” Abdullah pushed them with his foot, and they crashed to the floor, finally separating. “That how you going to take down the man, with a little lovin’ from a woman? Takes more than that to blow up a ship and not die in the process.”
The door whispered aside, two bristling weapons clearing the opening. Even Zealander stopped what he was doing to pay attention.
“It’s about time,” Hollis shrieked. “We got rights, too. Who the jerks you think you are, keeping us in here without a trial. We ain’t done nothing.”
“Yeah, nothing.” Honda was first in. Her weapon was almost bigger than she was, but she moved smoothly, and there was no doubt she ate with it, showered with it, and took it to bed with her at night. All sweetness was gone. She wore a riot helmet with a clear faceplate, giving her an insectoid appearance with the extra-large head on her tiny frame. “Specialist Okotie-Eboh, got the cuffs?”
She stepped in, closely followed by Kirkpatrick. Both wore matching riot helmets. Kirkpatrick’s weapon matched Honda’s, and they covered Okotie-Eboh, as she stood between them.
“You first, Hollis. On the floor.” Kirkpatrick pointed with his weapon. “You others, back. We do this one at a time.”
“You gotta be friggin’ out of your heads.” Abdullah hadn’t moved. “I’ve got a concussion; Zealander, or whatever his name is, is over there on drugs because you broke his foot. He can barely stand. How we supposed to come against you and break your faces?” There was a momentary lull, and in those few seconds, Abdullah leaped like an angry bull for Honda, so fast his body seemed to blur. She was quicker, the butt of her weapon coming around and connecting with his head. He crashed to the floor, with a soft exhalation of air, pausing in a crouch for a short time before collapsing totally.
“Now we know where the scars came from, total stupidity. Anybody else?” Honda barked her question.
Zealander backed up a slow step, moving with a pronounced limp, giving in to his taped foot. He didn’t speak, but his eyes calculated, taking in the open door, the distance between the three crew members, and Abdullah collapsed on the floor. Resting his eyes on the two guns and the riot helmets, he let out a tight breath, and his massive shoulders dropped several centimeters, as if giving in. It was unlike him to cede even the smallest amount. His apparent calm didn’t inspire confidence in his caretakers.
Hollis was a caged tiger, her back riled, and she was next to Magill as her ally of the moment. She began to sidespeak in a pidgin code, her eyes narrowed at Honda before jumping to Okotie-Eboh. If they’d been lasers, she’d have fired already. Her arms quivered with fury.
Magill was a Cool Luke and held up both hands, one in a flexible splint-cast, and spoke in a reasonable and pleasant voice. “Hold on. That wasn’t us.” He pointed to Abdullah on the floor and chuckled. “Even I think Kaseem’s a wild card. We had no idea that was coming. We’re prepared to cooperate—”
“Cooperate?” Hollis whipped around, her hand flying towards Magill’s face. He caught her wrist just in time. “Like hell, we will,” she spat.
“Yes, my sweets. Co-op-er-ate.” He said it like four separate words, slowly. Behind him, Zealander let out a short laugh, his first sound since they’d been locked up together. Magill ignored him, keeping his attention on Honda as the most dangerous of their jailers.
“Cooperate?” Kirkpatrick spat the word. “With camo suits and Thrusters? Hoy, I should just hit you now, save us the food and water you’re likely to consume. Now, you ready to tell us how you got on board? Or you want to kiss your freckle good-bye as we stand here?” Sure enough, the light from a laser sight danced across Magill’s chest.
“It’s been a misunderstanding, that’s all.” Suave Magill, his hair thick and wavy, his dark eyes sincere, worked his devious magic. “We had no idea this was a personnel transport, have no idea how we got here. Colonists. Why would we have any interest in harming innocent families out to better their lot in life? We were told there were terrorists aboard, with ordnance and other such materiel destined for Deneb Station. Even we get incorrect information at times. Who can say? For your peace of mind, we’ll be glad to remain in our quarters for the remainder of the trip.”
Hollis still steamed, furious at his words of betrayal. Zealander’s chuckle said he was following their leader’s intent fine. Magill was giving them an opportunity for a second chance.
Kirkpatrick blew that wide open.
“You’ll keep to your own quarters, all right, just not here. Imani, cuff the one on the floor. You, little woman. You’re next. Hands behind your back; face the wall. I’ve got you covered, Imani. Cuff her next.”
The cuffs were strips that interlocked, one end feeding into the other. It made a ratcheting sound as she pulled it tight around Abdullah’s wrists. Standing and moving behind Hollis, she pulled a second band from her waist and interlocked it around the woman’s wrists. She ratcheted it slowly.
“Tight, Imani,” Kirkpatrick barked. “You saw what she did to the Commander.”
“Sorry,” Okotie-Eboh whispered, as she yanked the strap, causing it to click several more times.
Hollis hissed, “Sniveling boy toy. You gonna kiss his crotch when he says to?”
“Ignore her, Imani. She’s trying to rile you.” Honda kept her laser on Hollis’ back the entire time. She knelt and with one hand snapped a cord onto Abdullah’s cuffs, then walked to Hollis and did the same. Magill offered Okotie-Eboh his wrists in front of him, and Kirkpatrick called him on it.
“Behind you, Magill. These other three might be pawns, but you’ve got some brains. We’re taking no chances. Imani, not too close until he complies.” Kirkpatrick motioned with his weapon, his laser circling as he used it to punctuate his demand.
“So, what’s the plan?” Magill kept his voice neutral, that of cooperation and reasonableness. “Are you putting us to sleep for the duration?” He chuckled as he said it, making it into a joke that was too extreme for belief.
“After a fashion,” Kirkpatrick said. Magill was cuffed, and his laser centered on Zealander next. “You, mate. No fancy footwork. Just let us cuff you, and we’ll be on our way.”
When Honda got the cord latched to the last inductee—and giving them plenty of space—the team marched the four cuffed bandits down the corridor. Abdullah stumbled along with the help of Magill, who swore at his weight and awkward gait. Hollis kicked at Abdullah each time he went down. Zealander limped at the end of the line, his eyes in motion, looking as though he’d already be gone, even with the cuffs, if he didn’t have three people, one of them a cripple, attached to his arms.
“Think they’ve got any idea?” Okotie-Eboh whispered the words to Honda. They tailed the group, Honda’s weapon ready, while Kirkpatrick was ahead. When Zealander looked their direction, Honda shushed her, and they moved silently forward.