|storyTitle>[''Body Of Evidence'']
|storyAuthor>[By Mike Everley]
//Far beyond Andromeda's Rim, in the emptiness of deep space, the starship lay becalmed, like a silver fish stranded on the shore after the tide had receded. Captain Jarrad didn't care. He was dead. As were the rest of his crew. For them caring had ceased.//
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In his office on top of the Western Tower, the tallest building under the dome of the Mars Colony, Sars Lothwick was a worried man. The already greying hair of the CEO of Zenna Holdings was a discernibly whiter shade. This was the third lost starship this month. All of them fitted with the Corporation's new Hyper Drive. At least this last one hadn't exploded, like the other two. In his heart he knew what needed to be done. The other starships fitted with the Hyper Drive needed to be grounded and a full investigation begun. It would cost money, a lot of it! But, failure to act and a rising number of accidents would jeopardise the whole future of the Corporation. He also knew who had to be sent to the becalmed starship, his son-in-law Thomas Peterson who he had sacked two years ago for insubordination. Peterson was a brilliant engineer and investigator as long as he could be kept away from the drink that had ended his marriage and broken Lothwick's daughter's heart.
Peterson lay out on the hard wooden board and looked at his hands. The tremble had gone along with the sour taste that had always lingered in his mouth. For three months he had abstained. Taking a retreat at the Monastery of the Forsaken God on Callisto, one of the four Galilean moons that formed part of the Jovian system circling Jupiter. The harsh conditions suited his need to punish himself for a ruined marriage and career. Peterson felt good, although he knew that he had no right to feel so.
The Monastery bell tolled the hour. Before Peterson could leave for the communal mess room his communicator buzzed. "Lothwick on one" the automated voice of the communicator spoke without emotion. Just a flat monotone carrying no nuances of love or hate. An emotional eunuch. "Damn!" thought Peterson, "what could he want?"
Peterson pressed the 1 button and Lothwick's image flashed onto the small screen. The communicator's buffer system gave the illusion of instant communication over distances measured in light years through modulating light with the sound waves of speech and storing the message for a short time delay before playing. In effect you were replying to a message received a few seconds earlier.
Lothwick had built his reputation and his corporation by pioneering the technology involved and patenting it. However, the distances it was becoming possible to travel, due to the Hyper Drive, threatened to make the communicator obsolete. A new form of communication would need to be developed.
Lothwick and his small team of experts were already developing it. So far without success. This failure, along with the Hyper Drive problems, kept Lothwick up at night.
"What do you want", Peterson asked grouchily. His stomach was empty following the night's fast and the morning's workout. He was in no mood for small talk. "The last time we met you sacked me".
"Another starship fitted with the Hyper Drive has gone down". Lothwick used words, like his praise for others, sparingly.
"What a second". Peterson's reply was grudging. "Sounds like a coincidence".
"Keep up!" Snapped Lothwick. "This is the third".
Peterson realised that his stay at the Monastery had isolated him from the main news sources. After all, that was the point of a retreat.
"Sounds like you have a problem, Houston". Peterson paraphrased the catchphrase from ancient space history. "What do you want me to do about it!"
"The third one didn't explode like the first two. I need an engineer to go and have a look".
"Gee. And you thought of me Dad. I'm touched".
"I wouldn't normally touch you with a bargepole after the way you treated Loraine. But, you're the best engineer and investigator in the business. When you're..".
"When you're sober". Peterson interrupted him. He owed less than nothing to Lothwick who he blamed for his marriage break-up. He had been winning Loraine around with his promise to sober up, until her old man had stuck his oar in. On the other hand, the problem with the Hyper Drive intrigued him as an engineer. He had after all been involved in its initial design.
"Yes, well. Let's forget about past differences". Lothwick's insincerity was evident. He would say anything to get what he wanted. That was what made him a good businessman and a lousy human being. "Are you onboard, Tom?"
Peterson thought for a moment. The false familiarity behind the use of "Tom" almost made him refuse. But, the engineering challenge proved too tempting, as Lothwick knew it would.
"I need to pick my own crew", was Peterson's reply.
"Who do you want?"
"Chris Owenson for pilot". Peterson knew this would irk Lothwick. Owenson was a fine pilot but obstinate and opinionated, that was why Peterson liked him and Lothwick didn't.
"Julia Sedgwick for technical support and Coms". Peterson knew he would get no argument there. She was one of Lothwick's assistants and an expert in her field and several other fields as well.
"Lastly, James Tyler in case we hit any problems". Tyler was a weapons expert and also highly trained in martial arts. Softly spoken, but useful to have in a tight corner.
"We'll pay you your old salary for the duration of the job".
"Double it, and pay the others the same".
The fact that Lothwick agreed rapidly told Paterson he could have held out for more. "But, what the hell" he thought.
"So, what's the plan?"
"I have sent a transport ship to pick you up and take you to the space station near Titan. It should be there tomorrow morning.
"So Lothwick assumed I would accept before calling me. I must try and be less predictable", Peterson thought grudgingly.
"I'll contact the people you selected and have them meet you at the space station as soon as possible. In the meantime I'll send the Kestrel to Titan with a skeleton crew. You can take charge when she arrives.
The Kestrel was Zenna's fastest non Hyper Drive ship. Sleek and elegant she was Lothwick's pride and joy. Another indication of how desperate he was becoming.
"With luck it should take you about a month to get from Titan to the last known location of the stricken starship beyond Andromeda's Rim".
"It would take an awful lot of luck to find the starship in deep space. It would be like looking for a needle in a thousand haystacks", thought Peterson. But he said nothing.
"Well, if that's all I'll leave you get your food, or whatever they serve as food in that god-awful place".
Before he could answer and ask about Loraine, Lothwick had signed off. The communicator's screen flickered for a moment and then went blank. Peterson headed for the mess room. He couldn't function for long on an empty stomach.
(button:)[[Chapter Two|Chapter Two]]
Space Station SH1 was tethered by gravity, in close orbit around Titan, one of Saturn's great moons. It was of an early rudimentary design. comprising a massive outer ring tied to a central hub by alloy struts. In many respects it resembled a tyre. It reminded Peterson of the bicycles that he had seen as a child in museums on Earth. Few called the station by its full title, the majority of visitors preferring to use the abbreviation SH1. Some, less enamoured by the facilities on offer, referred to it as Shit Hole 1.
Peterson was quartered in a room whose curved window was made of fused silica and borosilicate glass. It stared out into the blankness of space with shutters that would close automatically if its computer control sensed the presence of micrometeoroids. Rooms with windows that faced toward Titan were reserved for those considered more important. While rooms with windows facing inwards, towards the blank, metallic features of the central hub, were occupied mainly by junior members of the station's staff or used for storage.
Peterson had been on SH1 for what on earth would have been a week. Although here time was a more abstract concept, with the dimming of the lights at set times replacing the natural onset of night and day. He was bored senseless. Even the usual distractions of the several bars were denied him as he was determined to remain sober. "Thank God", he thought, "the others arrive today, or whatever passes for today".
The Kestral was ready. He had spent hours familiarising himself with her controls and ensuring she was prepared and stocked for the journey. He had despatched the skeleton crew back home in the first available transport ship. Now all he had to do was wait. And waiting was the most dangerous time for a reformed drunk.
Peterson lifted his muscular frame from the single, metal-framed bed. He was in good shape. The retreat had cured him of the flab that alcohol had started to produce. He considered visiting the station's gym one more time, to tone up. Kestrel was a fast ship, but her small size left no room for any such facilities. She was equipped with four cabins and a communal room in addition to the flight deck and engine housing. Comfort had been dispensed with in favour of speed and style.
Loraine Peterson sat in the room whose picture window overlooked Leicester Square. It was almost real. The remote control offering a range of vista that could be selected or shuffled at set intervals. Loraine preferred Leicester Square as it reminded her of home. It had been kind of her father to buy her this apartment, in the up-market sector of the Mars Colony, after her marriage had disintegrated. Although, she suspected this was also so he could have her near. He had become more clingy since her mother's death.
The furniture in the room was modern in design, constructed mainly of chrome and biodegradable plastic. However, an old fashioned escritoire occupied one corner. Thomas had bought her that not long after they had first met. It was totally out of keeping with the rest of the room. But she loved it and would not part with it.
Unconsciously, she twisted the strands of her long raven hair as memories of the past flitted through her thoughts, lingered for a while, and were gone. She knew that she must stop this dwelling on the past and get on with her life. But that was easier in theory than in practice.
The small, round red light at the bottom of the large plasma screen flashed and the image of the Kandinsky painting transitioned into an image of her father. He looked tired and haggard. Not the father she remembered from her childhood.
"I thought that I should tell you, he's agreed to go".
A cold shiver passed through her as she heard his words.
James Tyler was a short, wiry man with a crop of blonde hair shorn into a crew cut. His luggage consisted solely of a rucksack containing a few personal items and a battered paper copy of Sun Tzu's //The Art of War//.
Tyler preferred the texture of paper to the more popular electronic versions with their holographic images. He was a traditionalist. Perhaps a Buddhist by nature rather than by inclination. Although, he had studied the //Four Noble Truths// as part of his martial arts training in Tibet.
As he left the docking bay and entered the semi-circular main passageway of SH1, he wondered just what he had let himself in for.
Julia Sedgwick had no such doubts. She had been fully briefed by Lothwick and knew exactly what was expected of her. Her pessimism extended to most things, particularly men, but she was optimistic about her work. After all, there she was in control. She was tall, middle-aged and twice divorced. The men in her life consistently failing to meet her exacting standards. She was a perfectionist and paid a heavy emotional price for this failing.
She left the transport ship through the air lock and entered the docking bay of SH1. She was ready to begin work.
Chris Owenson had already caused problems on his transport ship. Criticising the pilot for his take off and general handling of the craft. He was noisy and half drunk. Arguing that he needed drink to overcome his anxiety whenever anybody but himself was in charge of the flight deck. Stocky and good looking, he usually got away with things through a cheeky sense of humour that disguised many underlying issues.
He swayed a little as he walked along SH1's passageway. "Got to get the old sea legs", he mumbled to himself. "God I could do with another drink!"
Peterson was waiting for them in his room. Tyler and Sedgwick arrived first and Owenson staggered in later, obviously the worse for wear. Peterson was worried that he had made a mistake in selecting him. The last thing he needed was to be in close contact with a notorious drinker. But, there would be no drink available on Kestrel and he knew that once Owenson sat behind her controls, his professionalism would take over. Owenson was only a problem when he had nothing to do.
"Ok, skip", although soft, Tyler's voice cut the atmosphere like a knife. "What's the plan".
"I've taken the liberty of dividing the space around the sector the ship's last message came from into grids". Sedgwick pressed a button on the small circular globe she carried and a hologram appeared revealing the grids. "We could search each in order, starting from those nearest to the ship's last position and then moving outwards".
"Thanks Julia", Peterson said. "I knew you wouldn't let us down".
"Clever as well as pretty". Owenson moved closer to her and she could smell the Oluvian Rum on his breath.
"Whereas you are pretty and drunk" she snapped back.
Owenson smiled. "I think we are going to get along" he said.
Peterson sensed things were getting out of hand. "We'll head off first thing after what counts for dawn in this place. I suggest we rest up before then." To Owenson he quietly added "and sober up".
Owenson handled the Kestrel's controls perfectly as she left SH1 and Titan far behind. "You would never know that he could hardly stand up straight a few hours ago", Peterson thought to himself. "Nothing was worse than being around a drunk when you were as sober as a judge".
Kestrel approached light speed and, for a moment, everything went dark. Time itself appeared to stop. Then, passed the barrier, everything returned to normal. Well, not quite everything.
(button:)[[Chapter Three|Chapter Three]]
"Course set for the Andromeda Rim". The feminine voice of the onboard computer was soothing. Peterson knew the psychobabble that such voices kept you calm even when imparting bad news.
Peterson also knew the truth about this particular voice, it was that of Lothwick's late wife. Rumour had it that he spent hours on the flight deck just listening to her.
"Grief would do that to you", thought Peterson. "Perhaps it also explained why Lothwick had taken his eye off the ball with regard to the Hyper Drive. Rushing it into service before it's final tests were completed".
As it was, they would be listening to the voice that lay behind that grief for the next month or so.
Jak Carson sat behind his large oak desk and imagined himself a feudal baron. In his mid sixties he had wiry grey hair and startlingly emerald eyes. He held no personal animosity towards Lothwick, it was just a matter of business. As publicity about the Hyper Drive failures increased, Zenna Holdings' stock plummeted and Carsonic's stock soared. He had built Carsonic from scratch with nothing but determination, hard work and ruthlessness. "All the qualities needed for a feudal baron", thought Carson.
In true mediaeval style, Carson enjoyed the trappings of power almost as much as the power itself.
Owenson was a little concerned. The ship wasn't responding quite as he intended. It was as if the ship itself was fighting against him rather than conforming to his will.
"Run a systems diagnostic" he requested of the computer.
"All systems normal" came the soothing voice a few seconds later.
Something was wrong. Owenson knew it as clearly as he knew his own name. That the computer didn't know it, was a matter of major concern.
Peterson was worried as well. Following Julia' s grid method would take months and he wasn't sure that they had enough supplies and fuel. Also, four people trapped in such close proximity for that long could lead to serious personality clashes. Particularly with someone as headstrong as Owenson onboard. There had to be a quicker method of locating the stricken ship.
Lothwick sat with his hands around his head and used his fingers to massage his tired eyes. Trading stock had reached an all time low, work on the new communicator had ground to a halt for lack of fresh ideas and Peterson was now out of range for communication. The Kestrel was alone in the vastness of deep space. A vastness almost as great as the void that had descended upon him and caused him to cease to function. He swam in a sea of grief and could see no way out.
Julia Sedgwick undid the securing clips and removed the side panel from the flight desk. She examined the circuitry beneath carefully before inserting the probe of her program scanner into the test socket. From the scanner's menu she selected the C3 Computer's stored program and ran a comparison check against the ship's computer. It only took a few seconds for the problem to be found.
"A few extra lines have been added", she said.
Peterson wondered if Lothwick had carried out any last minute modifications before the Kestrel was sent. "Do we know when it was added" he asked.
"Fortunately, the person who added the lines wasn't techno-savy enough to remove the date stamp. It was added after we left SH1".
Peterson and Owenson froze. The only other person onboard was Tyler. The most dangerous of them. And they didn't even have a brig.
"Can you remove the extra lines", Peterson asked. Julia nodded. "Then I suggest you do that and we say nothing at the moment. Where is Tyler anyway."
"Sleeping in his cabin, I believe", replied Owenson.
Jak Carson was a happy man. The delay he had arranged for the Kestral would mean even more profits for Carsonic. And all because he knew how to motivate people. He rubbed his short, podgy hands together greedily.
Sandra Lang, known in the industry as Syd as she came from Sydney, was an investigative reporter with Global News. A petite blonde whose good looks hid a scalpel sharp mind as many politicians had discovered to their cost. The joke was that for every political career she ended, Syd carved a notch on her bedpost. It wasn't far from the truth.
Lang currently was preoccupied with the Hyper Drive fiasco. Her journalistic instinct told her there was more to the story than had so far been revealed. Lang's instinct was unerringly accurate, much to her rivals' annoyance. "Where Lang led, others followed" had become a slogan well known throughout the news industry. At the moment her instinct was on high alert.
She had managed to persuade her editor, Larry Jordan, to let her travel on Global's despatch ship to the Mars Colony. It was thought that Jordan was more scared of Lang than he was of his shareholders and would do almost anything to keep her happy. At the spaceport she had hired a hover cab and sped along the mainway on a cushion of air. The great dome was slowly becoming darker as artificial night drew in. LED street lights slowly began to cast downward white light onto the mainway and the walkway that ran beside it. Offices revealed pearls of light through Perspex windows. Shops, restaurants and bars threw gaudily coloured rays of light against the increasing darkness. The Colony was coming alive. And Lang was on the scent.
Tyler knew the game was up. The way Owenson look at him was enough on its own. But the Kestrel was making too good progress for the plan to have worked. Tyler had few choices. Own up and take the consequences. Brazen it out. Declare war on the others in deep space. He asked himself: "What would Sun Tzu have done?"
The answer was obvious. "Be flexible in your methods, but not your results".
He would admit what he had done, but not for the real reason. He would then find another way of slowing the Kestrel down. As Sun Tzu said:
"Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting".
(button:)[[Chapter Four|Chapter Four]]
Harry Snyder was unhappy. He felt, as head of the Space Safety Agency, that he should have been formally informed about the starships failure. Although, strictly as they were commercial freight carriers with no passengers they fell outside the purview of the SSA. At only forty, Snyder was the youngest head the Agency had ever appointed. He was still young enough to be ambitious and also to feel a little intimidated by his elders.
Personally, he thought Sars Lothwick was losing it. He hadn't been the same following his wife's death. Snyder decided he needed to start asking questions, if just to protect the Agency from the increasing scrutiny into its role. Particularly from Global News and its reporter Syd Lang.
Pressure was also being brought to bear on the Agency from senior politicians, who were becoming alarmed at the public unrest and unwillingness to risk travel to the colonies. Space travel formed the economic bedrock upon which the Republic was built. Without trade, taxes could not be levied. Without labour, the colonies couldn't function. The //Back To The Earth// movement was already growing significantly. Demanding that Earth cut its ties with the colonies and close its spaceports.
Snyder was aware of all this and knew he needed to take action. To be seen to be doing something. After all politicians didn't care about facts, just about the way voters perceived and interpreted the facts. He ran his fingertips along the knife sharp creases on his trousers. Image was important, and Snyder was all about image. He had to look his best if he was to appear on Global's main news programme.
Tyler threw the flat, silver device onto the table in the communal room.
"Ok, you got me" he said. "Carson at Carsonic asked me to infect the Kestrel's computer with this. He said it would just slow Kestrel down for a bit".
"But, why?" asked Peterson.
"So he could make more money I suppose. It's no secret that he wants to buy Lothwick's company".
"Not why Carson did it". Owenson snapped. His face growing redder. "Why did you do it?"
"Oh!" Tyler seemed genuinely surprised that they were interested. "He had bought some gambling debts that I had run up and threatened to call them in unless I played ball".
"Men", Sedgwick mumbled to herself.
Peterson had doubts. This didn't seem to fit Tyler's profile. He picked up the device, it had evolved from the flash drives used in an early part of Earth's history. More sophisticated, it did not need to be plugged into a computer system to infect it. Just to be placed close to it. He threw the device to Sedgwick.
"Check that out Julia. Make sure it doesn't contain any more surprises".
"What do we do with him?" Owenson piped up.
Peterson knew he hadn't much time. The bodies of Owenson and Sedgwick were drifting away. Too far to save. Holding his breath he grabbed the line as he passed it. This anchored him near to the Kestrel. He knew he wouldn't have the energy to hold his breath while pulling himself along, he only had one slim hope.
"Talk is of a series of accidents that will kill space travel dead in the water". Masa was enjoying himself. Basking in the attention like an old time informant spilling the beans to a cop. Or, in this case, a journalist who had paid him well over the years.
Peterson placed his feet against the Kestrel's hull and pushed as hard as he could.
Newton's Third Law of action and reaction moved him towards his goal of the dead starship. At least it had oxygen from their last visit. Tyler thought that the oxygen would increase the force of the explosion, but it might now serve as Peterson's salvation. All he had to do was get in and deactivate the timer. But, that was easier said than done.
An energy wave from Kestrel's engines rocked Peterson and almost knocked him off course. Tyler would report back that the explosion had killed the rest of them when they explored the ship. He had been left behind to man the Kestrel. It was plausible enough to be believed.
Peterson knew his face was turning blue. The effort to keep breathing in was becoming excruciating. He longed to let out a breath. But, he knew, it would be his last. He had to stay alive somehow to avenge Owenson and Sedgwick.
Then, suddenly his head silently banged against metal. If only he could manoeuvre towards the docking bay door. "Gently does it", he thought. "Too much force and Newton's Law would send him hurtling into the void".
Pressure was building and his lungs felt as if any moment they would explode. He was drowning in nothingness rather than water. "Did it matter, after all, whether he lived or died?"
Lang was growing annoyed. She had been parked outside the Zenna Holdings building for what seemed an eternity. The majority of staff had left either for their homes or for the delights of the Mars Colony. Not known for her patience, she decided that instead of waiting for Lothwick to emerge, she would beard him in his den.
Ready to spin some story about a pre-arranged interview to the security staff, she slipped into the building. There was no need to try. The sole security guard was engrossed watching some inter-colony sporting event on the large plasma screen usually used to display company information. Rather than attract his attention by using the elevator, Lang used the stairs. It would be a long walk to Lothwick's office on the top floor. but, Lang was fit and the exercise would do her good.
When she eventually reached the office, red in the face and a little out of breath, she paused for a moment to recover and then pushed open the door that was already slightly ajar. What she saw inside gave her a shock. Lothwick was sat at his desk with his hands nursing his head. His eyes were open, but it was evident that they saw nothing of the exterior world. He was locked inside his own head.
For a moment Lang was unsure what to do. She was trespassing after all. Should she slip away? Call security? Then the answer came to her. She took out her communicator, searched its contacts' database and selected the one she was looking for.
"Loraine", she said. "You don't know me, but I think you need to get to your father's office immediately".
Lang put her communicator away and thought to herself: "If I can't interview the father I can always interview his daughter".
"Ok, I was a naughty boy. But, what's the harm. At worse it would have meant a short delay. And that starship's going nowhere in a hurry. No real threat existed. Just time".
Peterson listened. He didn't trust Tyler, but what was the alternative. They had no weapons. They could rush him, but Tyler was an expert in unarmed combat. Even if they did overpower him, what could they do with him? Lock him in his room? Hardly a secure prison.
"You lied to us!" Owenson was close to snapping. Peterson realised that matters could escalate dangerously unless he defused the tension.
"We are in a small craft in deep space", Peterson said. "We have to work together or we will all die".
"I won't work with him!", Owenson raged.
"I've work with liars before", Sedgwick added. "Hell, I even married two of them".
"So, let's all get back to work". Peterson wasn't happy with the arrangement, but in the circumstances it was the best he could do. Tyler looked contrite enough, but a small doubt still nagged at the back of his mind. "Gambling didn't quite fit Tyler's profile", he thought to himself. "But then, did we ever really know someone else".
Loraine Peterson arranged for the medical team to take her father away. Some sort of mental breakdown they thought. Further tests at the Medical Centre would tell them more. Then she turned to Lang.
"Thank you so much. It was lucky you were here."
"It was a pre-arranged interview", Lang lied. After all Lothwick was in no position to contradict her. "If you have a moment. Perhaps we can have a quick chat".
Snyder was pleased. The news programme had gone well. The interviewer had been a last minute stand in for Lang and hadn't a full grip of the facts. As a result he had run rings around her.
Tyler was alone in his room. He had pulled it off thanks to Sun Tzu. But things had changed. Unfortunately, Plan B would now have to happen. A tragic accident would have to replace delay. "But", he thought, "it was all for the greater good".
(button:)[[Chapter Five|Chapter Five]]
It was Owenson who came up with the idea that if the Hyper Drive had failed then it would have leaked small amounts of hydrogen that Kestrel's sensors could be tweaked to measure. Then, like a bloodhound, they had stalked the starship to its resting place.
Sedgwick wasn't happy to have had her thunder stolen, but in the end even she had admitted it was a good idea. "Perhaps Owenson wasn't just a pretty boy after all", she reluctantly thought. Although, she would never admit it.
As they stared across at the starship through Kestrel's windows, they imagined what it must have been like for the crew in an immobile ship, running out of oxygen and with no hope of rescue. Owenson touched the artificial wood of the flight deck for luck. Old superstitions never died.
Peterson was reluctant to leave Tyler alone on the Kestrel, so he took him and Sedgwick across to the starship, leaving Owenson to man the Kestrel until their return.
As they donned their pressurised suits for the crossing, Peterson had a sense of unease. He shook it off as best he could. Tyler would cross the void between the two ships and attach the line that the others could then use to ferry themselves, their tools and the oxygen cylinders over to the starship. At least he couldn't get up to much if they kept him occupied.
Lang was beginning to form a picture in her mind, and it wasn't a pretty one. If Masa was right, there would have to be a conspiracy involving some powerful people to have been able to pull this off. And powerful people meant one thing, danger. Even to someone of Lang's reputation.
At the last moment, Loraine's face floated into Peterson's consciousness. Partly in a dream and partly in a kind of stupor, he opened the docking bay hatch and climbed inside. He managed to close the hatch before collapsing in a heap on the docking bay floor.
Larry Jordan put down his communicator. He had just received an encrypted flash message from Lang. She was either going mad or on the verge of a story that could make Global's reputation or destroy it. Should he give her free reign or spike the story? Even though spikes hadn't been used in newsrooms for centuries, the term, with its associated visual imagery, had stuck.
"The ball was now in Jordan's court", Lang thought. Masa had come out with a name. A name Lang knew only too well.
Peterson knew he had problems as he pulled himself together. Firstly, find the timer, then find a solution to the oxygen problem as the cylinders would run out quite quickly. Lastly, find a way of making this starship mobile. "One thing at a time", he said to himself. "If I don't find the timer, the other problems will be hypothetical".
Carson was delighted. He had heard the news about Lothwick's hospitalisation. Now was the time to begin his take-over bid, with no-one at Zenna's helm to block his move.
Lang wasn't satisfied. What she had learned from Loraine Peterson had told her very little more than she already knew. Would they have to wait for the Kestral's return to find out more? She set her communicator to play a recording of the last Global News broadcast and was greated by the face of a gloating Harry Snyder. "Had this trip been a waste of time", she thought angrily to herself. "I wouldn't have left him off the hook so easily".
"But, while I'm here, I might as well dig a little dirt". Lang engaged forward gear and drove the hover cab towards the //Red Planet// bar.
As he moved forward, hand over hand along the steel line, Peterson's weightless body followed behind. The starship's silver hull shone in the floodlight from the Kestrel. The others were already inside as Peterson crossed the last few feet and hauled himself into the docking bay. The hatch closed silently behind him.
"Oxygen's already on", Sedgwick reassured him. Peterson removed his helmet and switched his suit's oxygen supply off. As he looked around he was reminded of the ghost ships he had read about as a child. //The Mary Celeste// and //The Flying Dutchman// sprang to mind. The crew were sitting strapped in at their stations. The ship looked normal. But, they were all dead. From oxygen-starvation presumably.
Sedgwick knew about hypoxemia caused by lack of oxygen, as the levels dropped the crew would have suffered shortness of breath, fast breathing, rapid heartbeats, coughing or wheezing, headaches, a feeling of confusion or disorientation and the blue coloration to the skin, lips, or fingernails that was present.
"Still", she thought. "Nothing could be done for the crew. Her job was to recover the computer data in order to piece together what had happened".
Peterson, meanwhile had headed to the engine section to inspect the Hyper Drive.
As Lang entered through the swing doors of the bar, a hundred eyes turned in her direction. She wasn't the sort of woman normally found in this part of the colony, let alone in this particular bar.
A smell of spilt alcohol and the acrid stench of the Arcarda Plant hung like a cloud in the air. Smoked it was said to induce hallucinations of pure ecstasy.
Lang ignored the eyes. She looked for Masa and found him sitting alone in a far corner. Masa wasn't his official name, that was Andrew Mason, but he had been called Masa for so long that even the authorities referred to him by it.
Aged in his mid thirties, his features were so ravaged by drink and drugs that he looked twice that age. He was untrustworthy and dangerous. But, he knew just about everything that went on in the Mars Colony and, for a price, he traded that information.
Lang recalled the Priestland quote from her training: "Journalists belong in the gutter because that is where the ruling classes throw their guilty secrets".
Peterson was shocked. The Hyper Drive had been deliberately sabotaged. The main pipe leading to the compression chamber was badly ruptured. But, more importantly, it was of the wrong gauge. It was a time bomb that could have ruptured under the pressure exerted whenever the Hyper Drive was deployed. Normally the rupture would have allowed oxygen to have been rapidly sucked into the chamber causing an explosive reaction. In this case, the rupture had folded in on itself and blocked the oxygen flow. Obviously, that hadn't happened on the other two starships.
Peterson knew that they had to get back to the Kestrel. It was important to convey this message back to Lothwick as soon as they were in range for communication.
Peterson looked around, he suddenly realised that there was no sign of Tyler.
Lang took the bottle of Martian whisky and two glasses over to Masa's table. The bartender had looked her up and down as he served her. But, Lang merely stared back at him without blinking. He quickly backed down.
Masa looked up at her as she placed the bottle in the middle of the table and gave him a glass. "Long time no see", he said in his slow drawl.
Lang thought, "This is going to be a long night".
"He's gone back to the Kestrel", Sedgwick said. "He had something urgent to sort out. I told him to wait for you, but I couldn't really stop him".
A cold feeling swam over Peterson. Something was badly wrong.
"There's a lot of noise about the Earthers". Lang thought Masa had watched too many old 2D films and tried to copy the jargon they used. "Seems they are pushing a new initiative. We don't hear much here, being a colony they particularly hate. But a few of them drop in from time to time. The Arcarda makes them talk as they dream".
Lang pushed a folded greenback across the table. "And what do they dream about, Masa".
Peterson followed Sedgwick back along the line. At the Kestrel they disconnected it before entering the docking bay hatch. It hung, discarded, behind them.
In the docking bay they were greeted by a white faced Owenson. Behind him stood Tyler with a laser pistol.
"I should have guessed that a weapons expert would smuggle a weapon onboard", thought Peterson.
"I'm sorry, but I have no other choice, remove your helmets" as he spoke he aimed the pistol in Peterson's and Sedgwick's direction".
"Perfect choice of weapon", thought Peterson. "Powerful enough to kill, but not powerful enough to seriously damage the ship".
Sedgwick and Peterson removed their helmets and dropped them to the docking bay floor.
"He's a bloody Earther", Owenson spat out. "He's told me all about it. He played Carson like a fiddle".
"Enough!" Tyler's soft voice was strangely incongruous. "As I said, nothing personal, but you've left me no choice. I've rigged a timer in the starship that, with the oxygen now onboard, will trigger an explosion that'll destroy all evidence. Sadly, you all died in the accident."
Tyler moved his hand and pressed the docking bay hatch switch. It opened and the oxygen onboard blasted three bodies into space". Tyler, closed the hatch and made his way to the flight deck. "Job done", he said. His soft voice hardly breaking the silence of the empty Kestrel.
"Plot a course for Mars".
"Yes, sir". the feminine voice of the ship's computer replied.
(button:)[[Chapter Six|Chapter Six]]
"It wouldn't be on the flight deck, as Julia was there", a mixture of anger and sorrow clouded Peterson's judgement for a moment as he recalled Owenson's and Sedgwick's bodies floating away into even deeper space. "But, the time for mourning was not now".
Peterson pulled himself together. "The timer wouldn't be in the engine room either", he thought, "as he had been there. Tyler hadn't time to go far, and he wouldn't have worried too much about concealment as he didn't expect anyone to return". Therefore, he decided to search the three rooms leading off the flight deck and which would have been obscured from Sedgewick as she worked.
He didn't know the delay Tyler had allowed. But, suspected it would only be long enough for him to take Kestrel clear of the blast. He had to hurry. Sweat broke out on Peterson's face and slowly ran down his cheeks. He prayed to a God that he didn't believe in, that his reasoning was sound.
Reginald Madding was Deputy President of the Republic. In the past he would have earned a title or honorary letters after his name. But Madding didn't care about such fripperies, he was only interested in power and he had that in spades.
However, he was slightly perturbed. The journalist Lang had contacted his personal assistant and requested a meeting. "What was she digging into", he thought. "No matter. She could easily be dealt with".
Madding opened the touch screen menu on the large, curved screen that sat on top of his oak desk. His long, thin fingers scrolled down the list of yellow names until he found the one he wanted.
Peterson had almost given up hope. The first two rooms had turned up nothing, just the usual storage spaces for the accumulated junk associated with ships on long journeys. Panic was starting to set in as he entered the third room. "Time must be running out", he thought. "At least I'll know nothing about it when it goes off".
Aryndale Jones was surprised when his communicator informed him that Reginald Madding wanted to speak to him. He had never met the Deputy President, let alone spoken to him. Madding was far above him in the food chain, and Jones liked it that way. He operated quietly and efficiently in the Investigations Branch. "If they don't know what you are doing, they are less likely to interfere" had been the slogan of his old boss. Jones had taken it to heart. Now one of the biggest interferers in the Republic was contacting him directly.
Then Peterson saw it. Tyler had selected this room on purpose. It contained a small armament of weapons and ammunition. Commercial cargo vessels were subject to random attack by space pirates and the knowledge that they were armed acted as much as a deterrent as a means of defence. "Tyler must have had plans of the starship's layout", Peterson thought. "He couldn't just have stumbled upon this ideal location for a timer by luck".
If the timer went off with it's small explosive charge, it would set off a chain reaction that would rip the starship to shreds and scatter debris over a vast area of space. As Peterson approached he could see the flickering timer display (text-colour:yellow)[00:02].
For a moment he was too stunned to think. The display changed. (text-colour:yellow)[00:01]. Peterson grabbed the timer and ran to the docking bay. He opened the hatch and threw the timer into the darkness beyond. The hatch closed just as the timer exploded. The starship rocked sharply in reaction to the blast wave. Peterson lost his balance and fell heavily to the floor.
Aryndale Jones wasn't happy. Madding wanted him to carry out a covert surveillance operation on a well respected journalist. This had the makings of a disaster and Jones knew whose head would be on the chopping block. Certainly not Madding's, as he had ensured no formal authorisation could be linked back to him.
Peterson picked himself up from the floor. Fortunately the timer itself had contained too little explosive for any serious damage to have been done to the starship's reinforced hull.
He could no longer stand the sight of the dead crew. So one by one he carefully unstrapped them from their seats and dragged them into one of the storage areas. He was loath to jettison them into space unless he was forced to. Their relatives would appreciate their return in order to grieve properly. That was, of course, if they could return. Otherwise, once the oxygen ran out, he would be joining them in this metal tomb.
(button:)[[Chapter Seven|Chapter Seven]]
In the early days of space travel, ships carried their own supply of oxygen along with a backup system. However, as journey times and distances increased this became impractical. Also, it ran a major fire and explosion risk.
Three methods were developed to overcome the problem: oxygen generators, pressurized oxygen tanks and solid fuel oxygen generators. The main system of oxygen generation involved electrolysis, where an electric current passed through slightly salted water and was split into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas. However, this process involved copious quantities of water.
More recently, the process had being refined so that the water could be recycled and an additional unit allowed the conversion of the crews' urine into water and even for the capture of the water vapour when crewmembers breathed out.
Peterson knew that such a system was on-board the starship. It would be powered by solar panels on the hull. But, this deep in space, they would be of little use. He needed to find an alternative power supply and fire the unit up.
Masa wasn't one hundred percent aware. The money Lang had given him had been put to good use. But Martian whiskey and Arcarda was never a good mix.
Not only had Lang been generous, but a couple of strangers had also come over to his table with a few more drinks for him. "For old time's sake", they had said. But, for the life of him, he couldn't remember who they were.
Aryndale Jones put a team together for the surveillance. He was annoyed. He had enough on his plate shadowing possible terrorists without wasting manpower on a journalist. Six people a shift, rotated four times a day was the minimum requirement for a successful operation. Twenty-four operatives tied up on a whim of Madding. "Bloody politicians!"
Peterson rigged a temporary supply to the oxygen generator from the reserve battery. He calculated that would provided enough power for about 24 hours before the battery ran out. The downside being that the lights would then fail as well. He needed to get the engine running. The Hyper Drive was a write off, but he might be able to cobble together a more traditional engine from what was left. It was a slim hope, but his only remaining one.
Slowly Masa's head slumped towards the table. This was not an unusual sight at the //Red Planet// so little notice was taken, except by the two figures that made for the door. Their task was completed.
The oxygen generator complained and then spluttered into life. Peterson closed the valves on the cylinders. "Might as well preserve what's left", he thought. "Might need it later".
Aryndale looked at the image of Lang on his monitor. She was a striking woman. He wondered what she had done to annoy Madding. Aryndale was in his mid-thirties, over six feet tall and heavily built. A slight thin line marred an otherwise handsome face. The result of a knife fight in his youth. He often wondered what would have happened to him if his old chief hadn't recruited him from off the street. Seeing in him something that Jones himself had failed to recognise.
It was getting late even for the //Red Planet//. Most of the customers had left. The bartender wanted to lock up and get back to his pregnant girlfriend. He tapped Masa on the shoulder. "Come on, time to go". Masa didn't answer. He would never answer anyone again.
Lang drove the hover cab around the Capital Building for the second time and checked in her rear cam for the yellow lights. "Yes, there they were". She was definitely being followed. "Should she stay in the built up areas or try and lose the tail in the more remote parts of the colony". The bars and restaurants were slowly closing as the long night drew on. Soon their signs would fade and only the dim light from the street lighting would remain. Would the darkness bring safety or danger?
Madding brought up the //Earthling Manifesto// on his monitor, although he knew it by heart already.
(text-colour:red)["Earth's culture was being eroded by the influx of people from the colonies with other traditions. People who were born elsewhere, owing no allegiance to Earth. There was an urgent need to close Earth's borders after repatriating all colonists. Space travel needed to be halted. Space Ports to be closed. A breathing space must be created for Earth, and its people, to be reborn."]
The message was messianic and growing in popularity amongst Earth's masses. Madding switched off the monitor and the screen faded to blankness.
Peterson took the toolkit out of the storage locker in the engine room. He would need to cross all his fingers and toes if this had any chance of working.
Lang parked the hover car in the hotel car park. There was a faint hissing sound momentarily as the air released from the undercushion. The cab sank to the ground. Lang walked quickly across the forecourt and through the wide glass doors that sensed her approach and opened automatically, like arms before a hug. It was darker inside and it took a little while for Lang's eyes to adjust. Then she heard the glass doors behind her open again.
Peterson knew that the designers wouldn't be happy with the modifications he was making. He was probably breaking numerous space safety regulations and placing materials under stresses they were never intended to bear. It reminded him of the old //Heath Robinson// cartoons he had seen on Earth. "Well, if Heath Robinson gets me home, I'll buy him a drink", he joked to himself.
At best it would be a short term fix. It would never last long enough to get him anywhere near civilization. But, he hoped, it would last long enough to reach a trade route, where, if lucky, he could hitch a lift on a cargo carrier.
Lang took the room key off the receptionist. One advantage of being well known was that you didn't have to ask for things. They were just given to you. She was aware of someone coming close behind her so she took the stairs. She didn't want to be caught with them alone in the elevator.
As she was climbing the stairs a dark shadow fell across her. She span around and pressed the control on the small device she held in one hand and pressed it against the man"s chest. He staggered and fell backwards. Lang ran up the remaining stairs and along the corridor to her room.
Jordan's safety measure of providing his journalists with portable tazers had paid off. It was the first time Lang had used it.
She pushed a cupboard in front of the locked door, for extra security, and collapsed on the bed. Her hands started shaking uncontrollably. Fear wasn't a stranger to Lang, but this was at a whole new level.
Reports from the Mars Colony began to filter through the system and to reach Aryndale Jones' desk, or rather his security cleared monitor. One was a report of the suspicious circumstances around Masa's death, which had originally been put down as accidental due to drug misuse. However, the post-mortem had revealed the presence of a rare narcotic previously not seen on the Mars Colony.
Then had come the report of the attack on Lang. The attacker having fled the hotel after falling down a flight of stairs. Local officers had found blood and D.N.A. samples on the stairs which were now in the database. So far no match had been found.
Jones was beginning to wonder if Madding had asked for Lang to be placed under surveillancee to monitor her or to protect her? Either way, he would be glad when the surveillance team was in place.
The sweat began to run down Peterson's face in the cramped area within the main engine housing. Using tools was difficult and the atmosphere was getting heavy as he used up more and more of the oxygen in the confined space. He would have to stop soon or collapse from oxygen deficiency. This was going to take much longer than he thought.
For the first time in months, Peterson craved a drink.
(button:)[[Chapter Eight|Chapter Eight]]
One thing about deep space. It gave you plenty of time to think. Tyler had obviously played Carson like a puppet. Pretending to work for him while setting him up to take the fall should things go wrong. A ruthless businessman rather than the Earthers blamed for the crashes.
Tyler couldn't have known Peterson would have picked him for the mission. Obviously he would have had a contingency plan. An accident to the first choice perhaps and Tyler turning up on Titan at a convenient time. But, Peterson had made it easier for him. He cursed himself for his mistake.
The starship was making slow but steady progress and Peterson had found the food supply. Enough to last him until they hit the trade routes. Then he was in the lap of the gods.
Lang picked herself up from the bed. She was ashamed of her breakdown the night before. The attack was proof that she was onto something. "Who knew that she was coming to the Mars Colony" she asked herself. Another question also popped into her mind. "Who knew about the Earthers?" The answer to that was obvious. Roger Seldon, her mentor when she had started her internship at Global News. He would talk for hours on various conspiracy theories to anyone trapped and having to listen. Lang felt a pang of guilt as she had often let his words drift over her head without taking their meaning in. "He was a bit of a conspirator himself", Lang had often thought. But now his knowledge would come in handy.
Seldon was long retired and living as a recluse in a beach hut on a remote Pacific Island. "Beach hut" was Seldon's own term for an imposing property with majestic sea views. She had received an e-card from him not long after his retirement with the property proudly displayed. An encrypted message had invited her to visit. Lang had not replied.
She started to pack. She had a long journey ahead and hoped the invitation still stood.
Madding ran his fingers over the round dome of his scalp. He had lost his hair prematurely at thirty and been bald for longer than he had his thick brown mop of curls. But, habit remained. Absentmindedly He stroked the non-existent curls in the way an amputee still feels the ache in their missing limb. It was a habit that always surfaced when he was worried. And Madding was very worried now.
He had decided that he needed a walk. The physical movement helped put his ideas in order, step by step. His favourite route took him alongside the rive that snaked through the city. Tall buildings had sprung up on either side of its banks in recent years, cold, heartless monstrosities of glass and steel. The few remaining older buildings had become dwarfed. Needing to be sought out down side streets away from the political and economic hub. But, Madding knew where to find them and, for him, it was a pilgrimage to return to them from time to time. They reminded him of what had been sacrificed in, the ever quickening, drive for efficiency and productivity.
It was hardly surprising that today he found himself looking up at the rounded dome of Wren's majestic masterpiece. Although diminished in size by the bland modernity of the surrounding buildings, it was still the most imposing and could move in him something that the others could not. "Was it awe?" He wondered.
But, this hadn't been a random visit. With a heavy heart he pushed open the large Great West Door and entered into the dimly lit body of the cathedral. Elliot’s words sprang into his mind, although that was another cathedral and another time:
//Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.//
The man he had come to see was sitting silent and immobile at the far end of a row of wooden pews. His stillness was unnerving as if at any moment he might dissolve into the stone pillars that stood behind him. His features were carved out of granite and as emotionless as stone. Madding sat down next to him and took out the thick paper packet from his inside jacket pocket.
"If he were Warwick, the King Maker," Madding thought, "this other man would certainly be Walsingham".
He looked across at the stony impassivity of the face as he handed him the package. The other man stood silently and with the graceful movements of a ballet dancer, or assassin, left without uttering a sound. Madding was left sitting alone beneath the great arched dome.
Raz set the controls to auto and leaned back in the flight deck chair. He was twenty-seven, ruggedly handsome and a space pirate. Growing up on the Lorenz Colony he had idealised Hans Solo from the ancient Star Wars stories that were on continual loop on the one broadcasting system that the colony boasted.
Anti-Authoritarian, Hans had proved the perfect role model for a streetwise youngster like Raz. Whether stealing hover cars or dealing in contraband, Raz had done it with the swashbuckling style of his hero. A couple of spells in a youth correction facility had done nothing to curb his style. Rather it had enhanced his skill sets and widened his vision. Now he piloted a stolen spacecraft along well frequented cargo lanes looking for plunder.
As he lay back in the chair, Raz felt her long fingernails caress his neck. Tanya stood behind him. She was tall for a Veluvian at just short of six foot. Slim with emerald green hair. They had been together for five years and Raz hoped that it would be for at least another five more. But, Tanya was a free spirit. She would stay as long as she wanted, and on her own terms.
The flashing light on the console snapped Raz out of his reverie. There was a ship nearby. Perhaps today would be a lucky one after all.
(button:)[[Chapter Nine|Chapter Nine]]
Peterson awoke to find that he was lying on a hard metal bunk. As his vision slowly cleared he saw a green haired face staring down at him. He tried to move and discovered his hands and feet were tethered to the bunk by wide leather straps.
"Don't worry". Tanya said on a quiet soothing voice. "Raz will be here soon. He's just storing the last of the useful stuff from your ship".
Peterson struggled against the leather straps.
"You are lucky to be alive. A few more hours and you wouldn't have survived."
Memory slowly eased its way into Peterson's mind. The long, tedious trek back. The sudden engine failure. The oxygen shortage. Then blackness.
"You are pretty."
Peterson felt with horror her long fingers exploring the lines of his face. Then the sharp talon nails dug deep and drew a line of blood across his cheek.
"But not as pretty as Raz".
The stench in that room had been overpowering. Raz could not shake it from his nostrils. The crew had obviously started to decompose once the oxygen had been restored. That and the cobbled together engine suggested trouble. The hairs on the back of his neck started to tremble. The hairs were never wrong and had saved Raz many times. This was obviously the missing hyper drive ship and that meant questions, lots of questions, from authorities Raz did not care to deal with. He would just take some useful items that probably wouldn't be missed and leave the ship for others to find.
But the survivor had posed a problem. He couldn't leave him; Raz wasn't a cold-blooded killer. Also, he was curious about what had happened. This man would have answers. So, in the end, it was Raz's curiosity that had saved Peterson's life.
Loraine Peterson's communicator buzzed furiously.
"That bloody journalist!"
She had ignored the previous two calls. Annoyed, she picked up the device and saw it was from Scot Murray Head of Research at Zenna Holdings.
"Sorry Scot" she mumbled. " I didn't know it was you."
"That's alright lass. Just a quick call to tell you that they've found the ship drifting in the cargo lanes."
Her heart missed a beat.
"It was deserted lass. No one on board except the dead crew."
She knew she still had feeling for that great lummock, but now she knew how deep they ran.
"Where the hell is he!" She blurted out.
"I don't know lass. The merchant ship that found her just transmitted back her location and brief details. We've sent an investigation team and should know more when they send a report. I just called to keep you informed."
"Yes, of course, thank you."
The communicator screen went blank and she was left alone with her thoughts.
Jack Carlson was worried.
"That damned fool Tyler had failed. How the hell had the ship found its way back to the cargo lanes?" He thought. "There better not be any evidence linking back to Carsonic."
He reached into his desk drawer for the bottle of bourbon reserved for such occasions and took a swig straight from the bottle.
"He was supposed to destroy the evidence, not bring it back".
The liquid warmed the back of Carlson's mouth and throat as it passed down into his stomach where the acid was already at work on breaking it down. He knew that his ulcer would play up later.
"But, what the hell! This was no time to be cautious. His entire empire was under threat. He needed to contact Tyler quickly and find out what had happened. He needed a contingency plan, just in case."
He opened the contacts list on his second, unofficial, communicator. The one with a form of AES-256 (Advanced Encryption Standard) that he had developed and modified himself to be virtually uncrackable as it used 28 rounds rather than the usual 14. He scanned the list, found Tyler's details and pressed send. The communicator returned the dull sound of a non-existent number.
"What the hell was going on?"
Terrance Riser looked around the engine room of the stricken spacecraft. As Chief Technical Officer at Zenna he knew that only Peterson could have cobbled together the monstrosity that had served as an engine. To have gotten the ship this far was a miracle in itself. But, of Peterson there was no sign. Riser was a pragmatic man, as suits an engineer, and not prone to flights of the imagination. Short and wiry with uncontrollable black hair that framed a round face with a stubby nose, he was often underestimated. It was a quality that he often used to his advantage, particularly when playing poker. His father had taught him to read cards at an early age while touring the nuclear plants where his father worked. He had learned physics from his father at the same time. Making him the youngest frosh at MIT of his generation.
But Riser was puzzled and that worried him.
The ship's log and computer memory had been wiped. So any messages Peterson had left had been lost. A device had been used that over-wrote the original data before wiping it, so that no amount of technical wizardry could ever restore it. Also, certain key components had been removed after the ship had come to a halt, as they couldn't have been taken when the engine was still running. But, most serious of all, there was evidence that sabotage had caused the initial failure. Riser wondered if this was the reason for the failure of the other hyper drive ships as well. If so, things didn't look good for Peterson and the rest of his team.
The starship rocked side-to-side, throwing Riser heavily against the engine housing. He rushed into the control room where the rest of his crew were working and stared dumbfound at the large screen. The X had fired a proton torpedo at the research ship and blown it into pieces. The energy wave from the explosion had slammed against the starships hull. Now the Kestrel was preparing to fire directly at them.
"Damn Peterson to hell!" Shouted Riser.
(button:)[[Chapter Ten|Chapter Ten]]
Tyler had stopped at a secret Free Earth outpost to refuel when he heard the news. He had fitted two proton torpedoes onto the Kestrel, the maximum payload that she could carry and hurried back to the cargo lanes. The evidence needed to be destroyed and destroyed it would be. On the return journey he had monitored transmit ions and knew no signal had been sent back from the research team. There was still time.
When the ships came into view he lost no time locking the first torpedo onto the research ship and firing it. For a second nothing happened and then a violet glow filled the space where the ship had been and a shock wave of energy rippled outwards into the space around. When it finally dissipated, nothing was left of the target.
"Now for the next", muttered Tyler. His face a mask of concentration.
Riser had to think quickly and, fortunately for him and his crew, that was what he was good at. Peterson had made a mistake. He should have taken the starship out first. Now he had precious seconds to act. He fired up the crippled engine and opened the exhaust port. As he hoped the engine exploded and spat a burst of red-hot plasma out into space. The starship almost disintegrated under the force of the blast, but Riser, with fingers crossed, had calculated correctly. The ship held together... just.
Tyler's last view was of the stream of plasma streaming towards him. Then he and the Kestrel were gone.
Riser turned towards his crew who all stood open mouthed. Transmit a message back. We will need another ship to pick us up. Add that sabotage was involved and that Peterson was behind it. Probably for revenge for his messed up love life. He's dead now so we probably will never know his reasons.
Raz sat next to Peterson. Slowly he undid the leather straps holding him down.
"According to Global News you are dead and were a dangerous criminal...Welcome to the crew!"
Peterson sat up slowly feeling the numbness easing in his hands and feet. He could hardly believe what Raz was telling him. Putting things together it became apparent to him that Tyler was dead. For this he felt no pity having suffered at his hands. But, it caused a major problem. How could he clear his name? Just turning up would achieve little. However, if everyone believed he was dead then he could do more. No one would be looking for him and that presented opportunities. But first he had to get off this ship. Perhaps playing along with Raz would be the most prudent course, in the short term at least.
Loraine Peterson was distraught. She didn't believe for a moment in her husband's treachery. There had to be another explanation and she aimed to find it. She thought for a moment and then searched through her contacts list for the journalist's number. If anyone could help sort this out it would be her.
Carlson wasn't completely happy. He guessed that it was Tyler behind the failed attack on the starship and that Tyler had disposed of Peterson and his crew. Tyler's death was a double bonus in that it saved him having to pay him his last instalment and nicely tied up a loose end that could have led back to him. However, the starship being intact and containing evidence of sabotage wasn't so good. But, if people could be persuade that Peterson was behind it out of some sort of crazy revenge, that would stop them looking elsewhere. Sometimes you had to settle for second best.
Riser had started to have doubts. After the adrenaline rush of the moment had eased, he had time to think more clearly. Something didn't make sense. If Peterson had wanted to destroy the starship in order to cover up the evidence of his crime, why had he worked so hard to bring it back to the cargo lanes? Why not destroy it in deep space and claim it was an accident? Also, where would Peterson have gained access to those military grade torpedoes? Riser's mind was swimming with questions and, at the moment, he had answers to none of them.
Syd Lang was puzzled. After she had tricked Loraine Peterson into giving an interview when her father was ill, she thought she was public enemy number one. Now she was being invited over to her flat for lunch and a talk. Lang’s investigative antenna was buzzing furiously. No doubt this would be about her husband. The human-interest angle of a woman caught up in a tragic love affair? Somehow, Lang doubted it. Loraine Peterson didn't seem to be the sort of woman who would exploit such a tragedy and over the years Lang had met plenty who were. No, she sensed that something else lay behind this request and that intrigued her.
Madding twisted the non-existent curls on his bald head. Things were getting out of hand. Sabotage meant the involvement of the police and the military. God knows where that would lead. It was becoming more and more difficult for him to contain things. If what he knew leaked out too soon, there would be a major scandal and irreparable damage to the Republic.
Raz docked his craft at the Port Royal space station. This was a rusty, flea-ridden hellhole of a place named after the pirate capital of the past. It was located in an area of space no one claimed jurisdiction over and, as such, was left alone. Ma Johnson, a crusty octogenarian, who had been born on the station, ruled it over, with a rod of iron. All the bars, restaurants and shops paid ten percent of their profits to her and in return no questions were asked about the goods and services provided. There was just one golden rule. No trouble on the station itself and the punishment for breaching this rule was death. So even sworn enemies put aside their squabbles for the time being. Eyebrows might be raised by nothing else. Ma Johnson and her enforcers made sure of that.
Raz, Tanya and Peterson walked along the steel corridor that led towards the central hub where the sleazy bars and street food kiosks jostled each other for trade. Scantily clad females paraded outside the numerous clip joints in an effort to attract weary travellers to the dubious pleasures to be found inside. Tanya looked at them with scorn. She had no time for women who demeaned themselves by pandering to men's baser instincts.
"Sluts" she muttered under her breath.
Peterson was trying too hard to look inconspicuous and this was making him conspicuous to the trained eyes that scanned him deliberately. The clothes didn't help. They were way too big. Peterson hadn't asked Raz where he had got them or if their previous owner was still breathing. Some things you just didn't ask. Raz had dyed Peterson's hair a sort of non-descript mousy colour. Even out here Global News played on big screens, and Peterson's face would have been plastered all over it. Enough to have attracted Ma Johnson's attention and Raz didn't want attention; he just wanted a quiet visit and some profitable business.
"Behave Tan”, he snapped at Tanya when she gave a blonde girl an evil look. "We don't want trouble or attention".
Tanya looked at him and scowled. Then one of the girls deliberately sauntered over to Raz.
'Want to buy me a drink, big boy?"
Tanya flew at her with claw like nails that tore strips of flesh from the girl's face. A deathly hush fell over the crowd. Then Ma Johnson's harsh voice sounded from metallic speakers fitted to the roof structure.
"Stay where you are', it ordered.
Two heavily armed men appeared through a parting in the crowd.
"Shit", Raz muttered.
Peterson and the others were ushered into a large, plushly furnished room with dark crimson drapes hanging against the walls as if covering non-existent windows. Ma Johnson was sitting on a chaise lounge with her feet comfortably perched on a stool covered in the same material as the drapes. She looked shrewdly at the girl with the scared face.
"Laura Lee. When will you learn?"
Then she turned her bird like head to look at Tanya.
"And you young lady, learn that men are not worth the trouble. I was young once, believe it or not, and had my dalliances. But, believe me, money and power are far more reliable."
"I know you Raz. You are always welcome her. But keep your she-devil in order. Or I will have to."
Then she turned and looked directly at Peterson, her fiery amber eyes eager and alert.
"Who is your friend? He seems familiar. Has he been here before?"
"She knows", Peterson thought and his blood turned to ice.
"He's my cousin on my mother's side".
Raz's voice cut through the silence. He was a good liar, as suited a thief.
"He's a bit scruffy, but OK. I vouch for him. We picked him up on Proxima in the Alpha Centauri system. He'd got into trouble with the law over some girl".
Ma Johnson studied Raz closely. Then, having reached a decision she waved them all away as if the matter was beneath her concern. But, Peterson could she was still deep in thought as they left.
"She knows something". He was sure of that.
Ma Johnson was perplexed. She was sure it was Peterson, despite Raz's best efforts at disguise. Her shrewd eyes never failed. No, it was him. The question was what to do about it. The authorities thought he was dead. So, she could just turn a blind eye. But, then, the authorities left Port Royal alone precisely because she provided them with tasty morsels of information like this. Ma Johnson had kept her grip on power because she was used to making these hard decisions. Raz was a nice boy, but he was over his head. She would do her best to protect him. But the authorities would have to be informed. There was no other way.
"I tell you she knows". Peterson's voice broke the calm in the room he was sharing with Raz and Tanya.
"I said he was a liability. You should have left him on that damn ship."
Raz was quiet. He was thinking. He too had noticed the expression on Ma Johnson's face when her eyes had scanned Peterson.
"We'll slip away in the morning", he said. "Early".
(button:)[[Chapter Eleven|Chapter Eleven]]
Lorraine Peterson swirled the red liquid slowly around the inverted transparent bell of the wine glass. She looked across the table at where Lang was finishing her apple pie desert. Lang put down her small, silver fork.
"That was great. Now what do you want to talk about. Not baking, I guess".
Lorraine placed the wine glass on the table. A smear of liquid ran down the inner surface and lost itself in the red lake below.
"No. I believe Thomas....", she almost broke down at the mention of his name, "is innocent".
"Was innocent you mean". Lang knew that she could be a bitch sometimes. But, often it was the quickest way to the truth.
"Was innocent", Lorraine corrected herself. "And with your help I aim to prove it.... I owe him that much".
“How can I help?"
“You know people. You were attacked recently, that was hardly a coincidence."
Lang was surprised that Lorraine Peterson knew. Global News had kept the attack under wraps.
“I talk to people”, Lang replied. "Sometimes they tell me things other people don't want you to know. It goes with the territory".
“Here, have another glass. It’s a Chateau Cheval Blanc”.
Lang wasn’t a wine snob. It was just fermented sugar with grape flavouring to her. But, even she knew that the bottle in front of her cost more than Global News paid her a month. She held out her glass.
“Well, if you insist”.
She watched Lorraine fill her glass. Her hand had a slight tremble and Lang knew that she was fighting hard to hold her emotions in check. She decided then that she would help her investigate what had happened. Whether Peterson had been guilty or not, she was sure that something deeper than a lover’s revenge was at hand.
“Ok”, she said. “Let's talk".
After the fourth bottle, Lang knew that she couldn't make it home so she was glad to accept the offer of a spare room from Lorraine. Her head was fuzzy from the wine and spinning with the ideas that had formulated during their talk. Lang knew they were setting out on a dangerous path and felt her excitement rising. This was why she had become a journalist.
With his raincoat collar turned up against the night air, the watcher stood so still as to be almost imperceptible against the high stonewall. He looked up at the third storey window of the large Georgian house where the light had just turned off. His quarry was asleep for the night.
He never asked why his clients needed a person watched, that was why he was used; it was his ratio decidendi.
It wasn't as if it was of interest to him anyway. He was disinterested. Unfaithful spouses, crooked business partners, political rivals, it was all an oneness to him. Client and quarry that was all that mattered to him. Even the money was second to his professionalism. He was the best and he knew it.
Satisfied he went home for a well-deserved rest.
The two undercover Space Federation agents landed at Port Royal on a cargo ship. They intended to operate in a way that would not expose Ma Johnson's involvement. A straightforward extraction operation, identify Peterson and smuggle him off the station before anyone was the wiser.
Ma Johnson had provided them with Peterson's hotel room number, so there would be no problems or mistakes. The agents were confident of success, perhaps too confident.
Using a special key code built into the hotel's computer control system they silently entered into the room and after taking out their Federation issue laser pistols snapped on the room's lights. They stared in disbelief at three empty beds.
In a room further down the corridor Raz listened carefully. He had taken the precaution of moving them into an empty room. The key code system had proved no match for a thief of his calibre. He had stolen from hotel rooms better protected than this many times in the past.
The question now was how to slip past the agents and get back to his ship. Ma Johnson had played it both ways. Informing the authorities about Peterson while also giving Raz a warning. He had to hand it to her. It was little wonder that she had held onto power for so long.
Raz, Tanya and Peterson slipped out of the room and moved silently along the corridor towards the exit. The agents were still searching for evidence and had made the mistake of failing to leave one outside in the passageway.
Once in the darkened main area with shuttered bars and shops, they kept to the sidewalls away from the lights that were still dimly lit. Moving slowly in the shadows they made their way carefully towards the cargo bay.
Overconfidence by the agents again favoured the fugitives, as Raz's ship hadn't been disabled. Peterson thought the agents would be in for a bollicking when they eventually got back.
Raz sat in his flight seat and fired the ship's engines. The noise would notify the agents of their departure. But this couldn't be helped. Without waiting for clearance he took off.
The agents were annoyed. They had rushed back to the cargo bay when they heard Raz's engines fire. No one else was about at this time of night. It had to be them.
They would some catch up with the escaping ship, as their craft was far superior. Perhaps it would be better to make the capture away from Port Royal anyway. They strapped themselves in and prepared to fire the engines. Nothing happened. They looked at each other in amazement tinged with fear. They were in trouble. A botched operation was never looked on favourably, particularly an operation of this magnitude.
Raz sat in his seat with a sly smile on his face. It would take them hours to discover where he had cut the fuel line and hours more to fix it. By then they would be far away.
"What now?" Raz asked.
"Ditch him on the nearest asteroid!" Tanya snapped. "He’s too hot to handle. Especially now they know he's not dead".
"Tanya has a point". Peterson chipped in. "Perhaps it's best if you cut me loose".
Raz was deep in thought. He looked first at Tanya then at Peterson.
"I've no time for the authorities and corporations like Zenna... But, I've even less time for these racist Free Earthers. I was born on a colony and believe Earthers to be no better than us. So, I say we find out just what's going on".
Peterson was genuinely surprised. For a moment he didn't know what to say. Recovering himself he finally said:
"Tyler had a flat on Ganymede colony when I hired him. Perhaps we should start there."
"Sounds good to me", Raz replied as he set a course for Jupiter and its moons.
Tanya said nothing but the scowl she gave Peterson spoke volumes.
Ganymede was the largest of the Solar System's moons. It's colony snuggled under a massive flexiplast dome within which a breathable atmosphere was sustained by gigantic oxygen generators whose low frequency rumble could be heard twenty-four hours a day. For this reason homes, bars and retail outlets has soundproofing built into their structures, windows and doors. When inhabitants ventured outside they invariably wore headgear with built in hearing protectors. Despite this, the colony was prosperous and deep mining for the rich iron deposits returned massive profits. The same iron deposits provided Ganymede with a magnetic field, one of the few moons to possess one.
Although Galileo Galilei first discovered Ganymede in old time 1610, it owed its name to astronomer Simon Marius who named it after the mythological Ganymede, a Trojan prince desired by Zeus, the Greek counterpart of the God Jupiter. Zeus made Ganymede a cupbearer to the Gods so that he could remain with the immortals.
Beyond the dome, Ganymede's surface was barren and composed mainly of silicate rock in light and dark regions. The darker regions were ancient and scarred with impact craters, while grooves and ridges crosscut the lighter regions. It was within one of these lighter regions that the landing bay had been built and connected to the inside of the dome by a mile long tunnel along which shunter trains carried passengers who were arriving or leaving.
Beneath the surface of the moon a vast internal ocean swelled. From this deep drilling provided the source of the colony's drinking water, which was high in iron and mineral content. While Ganymede wasn’t hospitable, it wasn’t totally unwelcoming either. Its inhabitants were relatively prosperous in comparison to the rest of the nearby colonies and many establishments had therefore sprung up to deprive them of some of that wealth. Bars, restaurants and less salubrious palaces of entertainment littered the central section and came alive late into the artificial night beneath the arching black dome.
As the shunter train tore through the tunnel, all Peterson could see through the window was a darkness only broken by the occasional yellow glow from a light fitting. He looked across the narrow table towards where Tanya sat. Her emerald hair set on fire by the interior lighting. Next to her sat Raz with a cheeky expression on his face. The documents he had forge had stood up to the cursory inspection at the check-in point.
"They want visitors here to spend their money, so the checks are minimal".
So far, Raz's cynicism had been proven right. Peterson knew that Tyler's apartment was in the Green Sector Tower Block 3. For some reason the colony had been divided into sectors designated with colour names. Green was the housing sector, Black the industrial sector, Blue the administrative sector and Red the entertainment sector.
"It made a sort of sense", Peterson thought. "Unless you were colour blind!"
At least Peterson's clothes now fitted him. Raz had forked out for new ones at Port Royal on the understanding that he would be paid back double when Peterson's name was cleared. This and the cropped dyed hair made Peterson feel less conspicuous.
The shunter train drew into the terminus and the three of them where quickly lost amongst the swirling crowds of arrival and departures. Everyone was too busy with their own journeys to take any notice of the affairs of others. It was the ideal place to become lost.
Peterson had visited the colony briefly a few years before when he had spent most of the time drifting from one bar to the next in an alcoholic stupor. Still, he remembered enough to lead them on foot through the maze of tall office buildings that comprised the Blue sector. Ahead lay the tower blocks of the Green sector, gaunt against the black backdrop of the dome.
They reminded Peterson of the windmills Don Quixote had tilted against in a story he had been taught in school.
Tower Block 3 was one of the first erected and decidedly showing its age. The outer wall coverings were cracking and crumbling in places and rivulets of water snaked down the outside from overflow pipes in bathrooms where the sinks had long past there sell by dates.
A faded notice on the lift proclaimed it was out of order and, by the state of the notice, had been out of order for quite some time. Peterson and the others resigned themselves to a long hike to the sixth floor via the stairs.
"It could have been worse", Peterson thought. "He could have lived on the twentieth floor".
Raz climbed first. He had been brought up in a worse block than this one. Peterson followed and Tanya brought up the rear looking incongruous with her startling hair and modern fashion sense.
"She looks better suited to the catwalk than to the life of a pirate". Peterson kept the thought to himself; he was in enough trouble with her already.
The staircase walls were covered with graffiti and the floor was strewn with litter. A pungent smell of urine stained the air. Half of the stair lights had been broken or had their fittings stolen, so only a dim glow cast faint shadows against the walls and over the edges of the steps. They made their way slowly upward, careful not to slip or to touch any of the contaminated surfaces.
The small sixth floor landing led to three steel doors marked 6-1, 6-2 and 6-3. Peterson wasn't sure which was Tyler’s. Just as Raz was about to break into 6-1 a burly man burst out followed by a woman's angry voice.
"Get to work you lazy bum".
After looking Tanya up and down appraisingly, he turned to Raz.
"What do you want, man"?
Raz took the opportunity and replied.
"We're friends of Tyler, you know what I mean. He said to hook up if we were in town".
The burly man smiled and nodded towards the door of 6-2.
"Haven't seen him in quite some time. Guess you're out of luck".
With another appraising look at Tanya, which she accepted with bored resignation, he scurried off.
"Guess we know which door to try". Said Raz as he busied himself with the door lock.
It took only a few moments for the ancient lock to give way under Raz's experienced touch and for the door to silently open outwards into the landing. Raz was about to proudly enter when Peterson grabbed him and roughly pulled him back. A thin almost transparent wire stretched across the doorway just above floor level. It was lucky that from Peterson's angle he had seen the slight shimmer reflected from the landing light. Raz froze.
"Looks like Tyler didn't want company", he said.
The three of them stepped cautiously over the wire and into the room. Peterson stretched back over and closed the door. The less that the neighbours knew the better, he thought.
Raz traced the wire to an explosive device with enough EPX-1 to have blow them and the whole sixth floor to oblivion. Peterson knew a little about the explosive, which contained pentaerythritol tetranitrate bonded with a nonenergetic thermoplastic binder and plasticized by dibutyl phthalate. What he knew was enough to cause a cold sweat. Raz knew nothing about the chemistry, but he did know that he had been one step away from death.
Peterson disarmed the device and pulled the trigger away from the doorway.
"Safe now", he said without fully believing it. He wondered if Tyler had rigged any other nice surprises for them to discover. On the other hand, the fact that Tyler had set a trap suggested that there was something in the room that he did not want anyone to find.
Raz and Peterson began a slow, methodical search of the room, while Tanya sat looking bored on the bed and staring at her long, sharp nails.
They had searched for about 30 minutes and found nothing. All the books on the bookcase had been removed. Under the bed had been checked. The bureau drawers had been emptied. Nothing. Raz was now sitting next to Tanya on the bed, running his hands through her hair. She did not look pleased.
The bureau, why did Peterson's mind keep coming back to the bureau? Then it dawned upon him. Loraine had dragged him around art galleries, museums and antique shops when they were first together. Trying to knock some culture into him, he supposed. And that was when he had seen it, a bureau similar to this one. He dredged his memory for details.
The bureau was of a golden brown colour. But it was its bun feet that were the give away. As was the sloping front that opened to reveal the inner drawers and pigeonholes that had already been searched, along with the two small and two large drawers at the front. It was a Queen Anne Walnut Bureau and that meant one thing. Tyler was no antique collector; the rest of his furniture was run of the mill. So he had this bureau for a reason and Peterson could guess what it was.
"I've already searched there", Raz said. His hand still playing with the fine green strands of Tanya's hair.
"But, did you know about these", Peterson replied as he removed the tan leather writing surface to expose a covered well behind it. In the well were a small secret compartment and two further hidden compartments behind the drawers at each side.
"Bingo", cried Raz. Leaving Tanya to her own devices as he rush over to where Peterson was standing.
Obviously Loraine's effort to cultivate him had paid dividends, Peterson thought. If there were anything to find, they would find it here.
(button:)[[Chapter Twelve|Chapter Twelve]]
A Global News flash broadcast claimed that Peterson was alive and last seen in the region of Port Royal. Citizens were warned that he was highly dangerous and should not be approached. An old photograph of Peterson accompanied the report, one so old that his own mother would have found it difficult to recognise.
The man at the head of the long oval table clicked the remote and killed the report on the screen behind him.
"Comrades", he said to the group say around the table. "This changes things. But, like all threats it offers a disguised opportunity".
He turned to the man sitting next to him.
"Have we still got the digital records of the financial transactions between Carlson and Tyler?” He took the other man's small nod as assent.
"Then, if we change the account details from Tyler to Peterson we can implicate both in the crimes".
"But, won't Carlson claim it was Tyler he dealt with?"
"I small problem. He never met Tyler, we can doctor the digital document to reveal that Peterson was using Tyler's name as cover. This strategy will have the additional bonus of getting Carlson out of the way. He is a loose end too many".
A small buzz of agreement circulated around the table. Then, one of the group added:
"And if he's killed resisting arrest, all the better".
"That could be arranged", said the man at the head of the table.
"Hell, we can even blame Peterson for Tyler's disappearance. Either they were working together and fell out, or Tyler found out what Peterson was doing. Whichever version plays best with our contact at Global News".
At the end of the meeting they all stood and thrust a straight arm, with clenched fist, skyward, chanting "liberum terra". Then they slowly filed out leaving the man at the head of the table alone in the room.
"Bloody fools!” he thought. "They actually believed in that shit". He, on the other hand, believed in nothing but raw power. He would stop at nothing to get it and to hold onto it.
Carlson sat in his office watching the same report on Global News. Something was bothering him very much.
"Who is the Peterson", he thought. "And where is Tyler?"
He had wiped all records of financial dealings with Tyler from his computer system, so he felt safe on that score. But, he didn't know if Peterson was working with Tyler and also knew of his connection. If so, he would be in deep trouble if Peterson was caught alive. He needed to make contingency plans and to make them quickly!
Syd Lang crawled from bed still in a confused state. Her mouth felt like the grit at the bottom of the birdcage. She stumbled and fell into the living room where she found Loraine looking at a frozen picture of Peterson on the screen. Tears were streaming down Loraine's face. All she managed to mumble in a broken voice were the words:
"Shit" spat Peterson.
They were making their way back through the administrative sector when his face appeared on a large screen affixed to the outside of one of the buildings.
"At least it was an old photograph", he thought. "Probably taken from the yearbook at the Engineering Academy he had graduated from. Age and Raz's hairstyling would protect him for the moment. But not for long now they knew he was alive".
Peterson knew that this image and report would be playing on every screen in the Republic. Soon there would be no place to hide.
Madding snapped off the screen.
"Where the hell did Global get that from?” He snapped out loud although no one else was in his office.
"Obviously from someone with a high security clearance and he intended to root them out."
To be continued ......