“Now here’s what’s gonna happen,” drawled the Greenpernt Interceptor Captain on subspace comm. “I’mma send my man Bill over there to take a look round your ship. If’n he likes what he sees? Then we’ll retrieve that there jump-buoy, remove the artificial gravity well, and you fellers can be on your way.”
Weber Jiix raised a single eyebrow; Captain Black shrugged. “And if Bill doesn’t like what he sees?”
“Well, then we’ll have to attach the tractor bolts from these here interceptors to your ship and lug you all the way back to GP4, put you up for a night in the ‘grey-bar hotel,’ and tomorrow when the Magistrate is done with his mornin’ coffee, we’ll go see him. Then you’ll tell him your story, the bear will tell him his story, and magistrate’ll sort it out. Magistrate’s a pretty smart fella, though, he’ll have this all figgered out quick as an Affronter’s wink.” A pause “Aight, I’mma give y’all ten standard minutes to puzzle things out, then you let me know whatcha wanna do. Sound good?”
“Doyle, what’s the status on Dr. Wagner’s new patients?” Black asked.
The taciturn man shrugged. “The one Weber shot came out of surgery, she’ll be fine,” Doyle said. “The other, he’s been sedated since we pulled him from the crate.”
“All right,” Black said. “Doyle, tell Doc to stay with the passengers – you stay with him too, and take Betsy with you.” Doyle nodded and exited quickly. “Weber, got anything left in your bag of tricks?”
“I might,” said Weber wryly. “I just might at that.”
Bill proved to be an amiable sort of fellow, and he looked at the sedated kidnappers, the cryo-pod alongside the rest of the cargo. He listened to Weber’s explanation – most of which was more or less the actual truth – and then sat down heavily on a grav-couch in the wardroom.
“Say, y’all don’t have anything to drink on this ship, do you?”
“Of course we do,” Weber said, producing a bottle of Kui Xing’s scotch. He poured two, sat down and pushed one toward the Greenpernt inspector. Bill took a sip.
“Ahh, good stuff,” he smiled, nodding at Weber.
“Thank you, Bill,” said Weber with a long smile. “So, what do you think?”
Bill cocked his head to one side thoughtfully. “Well, I’ll tell you, you make a pretty compelling case! But I’ve gotta admit, I’ve half a mind to take this to the magistrate, if only so that you have the opportunity to tell your story, ’cause it’s a helluva tale.”
Weber refilled the drinks, and filled a third glass for the captain, who had been leaning against the bulkhead, listening. “Bill, as you can imagine, we are in a big hurry – cargo to drop off at Giclas 87, then off to Mirabilis to bring that frosty fellow back to his employers, and you can imagine they don’t want to wait.”
“Oh, I can see that’d be the case,” Bill said. “Commercial considerations are supremely important here – supremely. You’re busy haulers! And just imagine how things must be for me and mine, processing all the interstellar traffic in- and out-system, managing an orbital dock that can handle almost 12 million tonnes of shipping at once, plus service – it’s a logistical-damn-nightmare, I ain’t ashamed to say…”
Weber reached down into a small satchel underneath the table, withdrew Kui Xing’s 20 KCr in Greenpernt scrip, and placed it onto the table in two large stacks. With a nod, he slid it across the table.
Bill selected a sheaf of notes, still in it’s plasticene band, and riffled the edges. “Now I have to say, Weber, this is awfully neighborly of you – awfully neighborly indeed. I feel we’re, you know, sympatico on this.” He smiled a bit ruefully. “But as you can imagine, I have people I report to, and they have people, and I just down’t know that this here stack is going to travel the distance we need it to…”
Black almost laughed at the use of the word “we.” As shakedowns went, he thought, this one was almost collegial.
“Tell me Bill, about how much more would it take to solve our problems?” asked Weber. Bill thought for a moment, then place his outstretched hand over the stacks, about twice as high as the top of the cash.
Weber nodded. “Djinn, do me favor?”
“Of course, Mr. Jiix.”
“Please transfer twenty kilo-credits to Bill’s account.”
There was a short pause, then: “Transfer accepted, Mr. Jiix.”
“Welp, I don’t see anything here that’s magistrate-worthy,” said Bill with an air of finality. “All this seems on the up’n up.”
Weber stood. “Thank you Bill! We appreciate your consideration in all this.”
Bill had already put the remainder of the cash in the various pockets in his flight-suit, but as he stood he also snagged the bottle of scotch, still three-fourths full, and made his ambling way toward the iris lock a deck below. “My pleasure, Weber. Look forward to seeing you again in our fine system.”
“Looking forward to it myself, Bill,” said Weber as he escorted the Greenpernt inspector down the corrugated steel stairs.
As soon as the jump-buoy had been reeled back in and the artificial gravity well had dissipated, Black ordered Tamm to power back out to the Lagrange sphere (actually a toroidal ellipse, but nevertheless) under fusion-drive and Djinn to enact the jump sequence as soon as they were clear. “I don’t want them coming back for seconds,” Black observed.
The week-long trip to Giclas 87 (colloquially known as Remulak) wasn’t entirely uneventful. The only real excitement was after they’d fallen out of jumpspace, and Dr. Wagner, at the captain’s request, woke up the un-shot kidnapper. His name was Yresh.
“Look, I’m strictly support – I don’t know where they get these people, I just keep the cryo supported during transfer and then overseeing the thaw,” Yresh said. “That’s all.”
Yresh had a freshly broken nose, courtesy of Doyle’s intolerance for dissembling, and a dribble of blood had soaked through the black whiskers above his lip. He sniffled incessantly. Doyle glowered but remained silent.
“How many times?” This from Weber, good cop to Doyle’s bad. Black and Tamm watched from the bridge via pin-cam, while Dr. Wagner stood nearby, the pistol grip of a pneumo-injector hanging loosely in his hand. A thin ampule of pale blue ketamine-analog was already pre-loaded.
“Not many,” said Yresh. “Six, maybe eight. Look, the money was good so I didn’t ask any questions. It’s not against Greenpernt law! Kykbandiirz coordinated the whole thing, it was his show. I just took my credits and kept my mouth shut. I don’t want to get spaced over it! It’s not against the law!”
“Look, Yresh,” said Weber amiably. “Security Chief Doyle would just as soon toss you out the nearest airlock…”
Doyle scowled at Yresh.
“… but I’m of the mind to let you go at Remulak. We’re already in-system, and we could drop you off when we unload our cargo. Djinn, how far from the orbital are we?”
“Approximately eleven hours under fusion drive at current deceleration, Mr. Jiix.”
“Eleven hours, perfect,” Weber turned back to Yresh. “All right, you’re going to tell us what you know – about the kidnappings, about Kykbandiirz, about the woman I had to shoot – and then if all goes well, we let you go at Remulak’s orbital.”
“And if things don’t go well?”
Weber shrugged and turned to look at Doyle.
“C’mon, he already broke my nose!”
“And I’ll do a lot more that than unless you tell Mr. Jiix everything he asks,” Doyle growled. “And if we do let you go, and you run back to Greenpernt and talk? I will find you.”
Yresh shuddered. “What do you want to know?”
Weber smiled benevolently.
Cargo delivered, the G&T fusioned out away from Remulak’s inner system, crossing the ecliptic with a stately grace toward the coordinates that Palmer had steganographed under the subspace message he’d sent to Weber. It took hours – the distances between Remulak’s core systems and the immense asteroid belt that dominated the outer edges of the system were substantive. For this asteroid belt – really an enormous ring series around a large but somnolent gas giant – the distances were part of the attraction. Well out of range of even the powerful orbital-based system scanners, the belt provided everything that the wealthy might ask for in the way of privacy – lots of iron-nickel asteroids to hollow out and build within, with stable orbits and plenty of room. This is where Palmer’s “summer house” was kept, and the G&T’s fusion drive spat neutrinos as they burned the hours toward the system’s edge.
Weber was a bit trepidatious. He hadn’t seen Palmer for a couple standard Sols, and when last they’d spoke in person, they’d had a disagreement and parted with a measure of rancor. Weber hadn’t mentioned that to the rest of the crew, and he fervently hoped that the good-naturedness Palmer showed in his subspace message would return in person. Black was serious about getting some firepower for the G&T, and Weber didn’t want any legacy antipathy to clusterf the deal.
On the bridge, Tamm bent to the controls of the fusion drive, focused on threading the narrows and dealing with the occasional long-range proximity alert. Captain Black was leaning back in his gravity-couch, watching his scopes and idly monitoring the ship’s functions. Gently, Djinn bonged an alert over ‘lace.
[Lace code: + = Djinn | ++ = Tamm | +++ = Black | ++++ = Jiix]
+ Captain, Mr. Tamm, I have long range scans of the location to which we are proceeding, and there are some anomalies. +
+++ What sort of anomalies, Djinn? +++
+ The coordinates provided by Mr. Jiix’s acquaintance are in order, the asteroid is there, but there are several debris clouds at various points around it, moving slowly outward. +
Black raised an eyebrow, and Tamm turned to look at him.
+++ Give us a vector scan of the debris clouds, Djinn +++
+ Particulates of iron-nickel, ceramics, various lesser metallics, plus a fair amount of frozen gas – oxygen, nitrogen, dioxides of carbon and sulfur… +
+++ Atmosphere? +++
+That would be my interpretation. Particles range in size from molecular to several kilograms. Some of the ceramics still have some ambient heat, five to eleven degrees Kelvin higher than the surrounding vacuum. Everything is moving outward from the asteroid at approximately 1.35 meters per standard Sol. +
+++ Based on those speeds, the radius of the cloud, how long ago did whatever generated the clouds occur? +++
+ Approximately 4.2 standard Sols, Captain. +
++ Any lifesigns, Djinn? ++
+ It’s… difficult to tell, Mr. Tamm. There are no obvious life signs on scan, but there’s a fair amount of anti-scan shielding emplaced. However, there are significant portions of the asteroid that are depressurized. My scans can penetrate the shielding at those points, and I am not detecting lifesigns in those areas. +
++++ Captain, although I’m worried about my friend, my first thought is for the ship. Djinn, are there any other fusion drive signatures in scan range? ++++
+No, Mr. Jiix, i am not detecting any fusion drive emissions nearby. The nearest detectable fusion signature is approximately .78 AU away, or about 117 million kilometers. +
++++ Safe enough, I’d say. Djinn, would you also begin pinging Palmer via subspace? ++++
+ Subspace hail enacted, 20 second repeat. So far no response. +
+++ Anything else on scan, Djinn? +++
+ Some. This craft does not appear to be jump-capable – there is no jump-drive signature in any the areas of the craft into which my scans can penetrate. However, I am detecting several very small emission sources that do look somewhat like jump-signatures. They cannot possibly be jump drives, Captain – each is less than a meter in size. It’s registering as partially non-Baryonic matter… +
Aboard the shuttle “Slice of Lime,” Black, Tamm and Jiix slowly approached the Bettendorf. In the viewscreen, the breaches to the asteroid were increasingly apparent – slow moving clouds of rock and frozen gas, moving outward from what were clearly impact sites.
+++ Djinn, are those weapon impacts? Can you tell if one of these matter clouds was once the bridge? +++
+ Unknown, Captain. This remains in large part a heavily shielded vehicle. One cloud, however, does seem to have once been a docking ring. +
++Captain, I can’t dock there, to much rubble cloud. I can gravity lock the shuttle to within about 50 meters though. ++
+++ Do it, Tamm. +++
The trio exited the shuttle and, small guidance jets on each suit propelling them forward, made their way toward the eviscerated Bettendorf. A small jagged rock drew a slice across Jiix’s suit, soliciting a few bubbles of gas into space. Jiix quickly slapped a patch atop the slice and continued on.
Inside what looked to be a small atrium, festooned with frozen and desiccated plants, the three men observed the broken hull.
+++ You getting this, Djinn? +++
+ Yes, Captain. Visual analysis suggests this damage is the result of a weapon impact. Suit sensory telemetry is seeing tritium and deuterium residues, which would be consistent with a very small fusion drone warhead. +
++ That’s laser fire scorching ++
Tamm pointed to the wall opposite the impact site.
++++ A boarding party? ++++
++ That’s my thought. ++
+++ Let’s move south. +++
The bulkhead irises were wide open to vacuum, and other laser scorches were in evidence along the walls as they made their way through the reclamation center and deeper into the Bettendorf. A large scorch covered the floor, much larger and less linear than the laser marks. This, Tamm thought, was the mark of a breaching charge. As Black let his suit the remnants of the breaching explosives for Djinn, Tamm’s eyes wandered about the room, taking in the damage, speculating on cause, when something caught his eye: cunningly hidden, but facing directly into the room where the Captain stood, was an anti-personnel device – a space claymore.
++ Oh, shit! ++
Black froze and the claymore exploded. The directional charge missed Tamm entirely – the entire loadout blew into the room where Black stood. Suit gasses began to vent into vacuum and Black was blown backward into the bulkhead. Jiix thrust forward and began slapping patches onto the Captain’s suit.
+Suit breached in several places, Captain, and there is some damage to internal armor. No blood, but you’re outgassing nitrox at a concerning rate. +
Tamm moved forward to assist in the patchwork, but gasses kept leaking around the sides.
+++ Feeling a little light-headed, gentlemen. +++
++ That’s another mine – let’s get out of here. ++
Back in the shuttle, Djinn pressurized the cabin and Tamm and Jiix got Captain Black out of his suit. He was conscious, if a little blue around the eyes and under the fingernails, but he was breathing normally. The other mine detonated inside the Bettendorf when the away team was still jetting toward the shuttle.
Jiix removed his own helmet. “Someone left bombs for us??” he said aloud.
Tamm was still checking the Captain’s vitals. “The first claymore was motion-sensored. It was meant for someone, but not necessarily for us.”
+ Agreed, Mr. Tamm. Further, the small size and fragmentative composition of the devices would indicate they were anti-personnel, rather than anti-ship, weapons. +
Black began changing into a new vac-suit, when Djinn laced them again:
+Mr. Jiix, I’m getting an odd query from a subspace frequency that is not often used. It’s coming from inside the asteroid, and it’s addressed specifically to you. It’s audio only, no video or data. +
++++ Play it. ++++
“Weber… Weber is that you? It’s Palmer! I’m still alive in here. Come and get me, lad, I don’t know what happened, I’ll explain everything when you get me. I’m in the medical bay, in my little hideaway. It’s shielded so you probably didn’t see me, but you can get in here. Weber, can you hear me? Is that you?”
++++ Djinn, can I answer him? ++++
+ I can relay data back along that same subspace frequency +
++++ Tell him that we’re trying to mount a rescue but that someone’s booby-trapped the hell out of the place and we don’t have a blueprint of where we’re supposed to go. ++++
A moment passed, then Djinn fed the returning audio. “Booby-trapped?? For hubbard’s sake. Weber – get me off this thing, get me off this asteroid, and we’ll talk a righteous deal. Get me out of here, my man. I’m in my pod, in the medical bay – you can find me. And bring a suit! I don’t have a pressure suit with me…”
++++ Tell him we’re on the way. But also tell him we don’t know where he is.” ++++
“I’m in Medbay, but I don’t know where you’ve come in, lad. Medbay is on the western portion of the asteroid… my pod is shielded, but shielded in a way so that I don’t know what happened. My pod sensors indicate that there’s atmos on the other side of the seal. Hurry! I don’t know how much longer I can remain in the pod, it’s been days already…”