Black Petals Issue #80, Summer, 2017

Survivnign Montezuma
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Andrew's War-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Down at the Hardware Store-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Excision-Fiction by Paul Strickland
Rise-Fiction by Mike Mulvihill
Surviving Montezuma, Chapters 9 & 10-Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
The Bugbear in the Darksome Chamber-Fiction by Charles C. Cole
The Critter in the Tin-Fiction By K. B. Updike Jr.
Bondegezu, Tree Kangaroo and 3 other poems by Richard Stevenson

Continuing Fiction, Chapters 9 & 10-Kenneth James Crist

space-station.jpg

SURVIVING MONTEZUMA, Ch. 9 & 10

By Kenneth J. Crist

Heading home

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Deepspace salvage vessel Coyote made a minor course correction on its sixteenth day outbound from Mars, en route to the dry docks at Earth Station. In tow was the mining ship Iron Maiden, on the end of a four-mile tether of Kevlar-reinforced cable. The Maiden, disabled a year earlier, had been found adrift near Saturn. It had been processing a half million tons of beryllium ore while in transit from Jupiter’s second-largest moon, Europa.

The Glassies had taken no interest in its cargo or its processing machinery—just in its human crew. Mining ships were traditionally unarmed, only recently having been allowed personal arms aboard for the use and protection of the crew members. These had proven worse than ineffective. Their use by the crew in an attempt to defend themselves had resulted in the crew being killed to a man, dismembered, and displayed throughout the ship in various grisly ways. The head of the captain was found propped up on his logbook on the bridge. At least their end had been relatively quick and they had not been taken for food.

When the Iron Maiden was found, she was taken to Mars, where the atrocities were documented while she was in orbit; then she was cleaned up and her cargo secured. Her ore-processing machinery was restarted and she was taken in tow to be returned to Earth for repair and off-loading of her cargo. She would doubtless be returned to service eventually. Almost any flyable ship was much too valuable to scrap.

Captain DeForrest, of the Coyote, lounged in a padded command chair on the bridge. The Coyote was not a luxury vessel and there was little danger that a visitor would ever mistake her for one. Not one square inch of carpet was to be found anywhere on her decks, and most of her interior paint was buried beneath grime. Her bulkheads were rife with the graffiti of crewmen long dead and her spaces were aromatic with the smells of unwashed bodies. Captain DeForrest combated the smell with one of his own: he harbored within the grubby confines of his face a stub of a particularly evil cigar.

He was scratching his chest with two fingers, none too clean, inserted between the absent buttons of an ancient uniform shirt, when the helmswoman sounded off.

“Captain! Nuclear signature! Closing all shields!”

“Shields closed, aye!” More alert now than usual, he watched all of the ship’s screens shut down. They would remain that way for a few moments, until the initial glare of the nuclear explosion died away.

Shortly the helmswoman reported, “Clear, Captain. Shall I open shields?” She was new on this trip and the Captain had not yet had a chance to sample her in any way except visually.

“Roger that. Let’s see what happened. What’s the energy level?”

“Pretty small, sir. Five, maybe seven kilotons.”

“Hmmm... Tactical nuke or a small missile, maybe.”

“Begging pardon, Captain, but this is way too dirty for a weapon. It’s more like a ship’s reactor or somethin’.”

“Well, somebody’s ass is dead, that’s for sure.”

“Radar contact, Captain! Bearing 174 relative and four o’clock.”

“174 and four o’clock, aye,” he replied. Although more concerned, he made every effort to appear nonchalant. As master of this fine vessel, he believed it imperative that he always give the appearance of being totally in control. From his hip pocket he extracted a flask, took a nip, then put it away and produced a grayish handkerchief, all the while closely examining the fit of the young helmswoman’s coverall uniform, especially the manner in which the tailor had taken in the seat. He proceeded to blow his nose, then examine and deliberate over the result for some time. Finally, he put it away and stood, somewhat unsteadily, and stepped to the helm. The radar contact could mean another ship, perhaps the ship that had caused the nuclear detonation. He examined the contact on the radar screen and commented, “Too small to be Glassies. What’s its course?”

“Appears to be headed to Earth, sir, though it’s only making ‘bout forty thousand miles per hour.”

Captain DeForrest thought as quickly as his alcohol-marinated brain would allow, then said, “Give ‘er a hail. See who it is.”

The tall blonde keyed her mike. “Ahoy, ahoy, unidentified craft. This is deep salvage vessel Coyote, from Mars station. Do you copy? Please identify.”

After a few moments, the Captain said, “Mebbe they’re all dead…or asleep. Use the wailer.”

The helmswoman reached to her console and once again keyed her mike, while holding down a red button. There was a piercing siren warble for a few seconds, then she again hailed the unknown. “Ahoy, ahoy, unidentified vessel, are you in distress? This is deep space salvage vessel Coyote, from Mars station. Please give us your craft and ID.” Again, there was no reply.

“Reckon maybe it’s a derelict, Captain?”

The Captain, standing behind her and looking over her shoulder, was now checking the tailor’s work in the area of her chest. “Dunno, but, with Big Mama back there on the tether, we can’t slow enough to check.” Slowing or stopping would require that the salvage tug turn a full 180 degrees and fire its main engines for many hours while the towed vessel was allowed to stream forward on the tether. It was either that or cut the cable and hope to later catch up and reattach. Captain DeForrest wasn’t about to do anything like that for a derelict that didn’t answer.

“We’ll have to report her position, course, and speed, sir.”

“Yeah, dammit. Wish we weren’t too engaged in tow to pop on over for a look. Could be big-time salvage. Oh, well. Call down to radio and have ‘em send her coordinates to whoever might be interested.”

“Roger that, Captain.” She smiled over her shoulder at the master of the vessel.

A few hours later the Coyote and the Montezuma passed within four thousand miles of each other, while Lieutenant Kinkaid and Gunnery Sergeant Hatcher slept like the dead and Captain DeForrest continued his contemplation of his subordinate’s ass. 

 

The office of Sub-Commander Clifton Brierly was located in the sprawling Space Defense complex known as Earth Station. Brierly was a failed West Pointer who was hanging on by his fingernails to a command he should never have had in the first place. It just served to show how tough things were in the military, that he had a command at all, let alone one so prestigious. An obese little man, he was a tyrant despised by those who worked in his command. It was common for him to rag on his troops and at the same time suck up to his superiors. The clones and specialized or engineered people in his command had it the roughest. He was devoutly prejudiced against anyone who wasn’t a “natural” human, even though he had a girlfriend who was a clone. Somehow it satisfied some deep need within his psyche when he slept with her, which was often, here of late.

It was 0810 hours on a Tuesday when his rather mannish secretary knocked in military fashion and came into his office. She rendered the required salute and cast her eyes downward as required by protocol.

“Yes, what is it?” The wattles of his fat face quivering, his tone was impatient and waspish.

“Sir, I’ve received a memo I feel reasonably confident you’ll want to see...”

“What’s it about?” he snapped. “You’ve doubtless read it.”

“Yes, sir. It’s about a nuclear detonation in space and a possible ship or derelict headed this way from near Mars’ orbit.”

“Let me see.” The sub-commander reached for the memo. He read for a moment, then gave a short bark of laughter. “Hah! Did you see who reported this, Lieutenant? Bill DeForrest, the biggest lush in the goddamn solar system. And the biggest letch, I might add. The man’s notorious for screwing and drinking his way all over the known universe. He was probably three-fourths in the bag when he sent this. Probably caught a meteorite on his radar and figured he’d shake up his crew of tarts a little. Derelict, my ass!”

“Sir, they report it’s between a quarter-mile and a half-mile in length. Every object of that size has been mapped and...”

“Do we have any ships that have come up missing? Any that aren’t accounted for?” He had her pinned with the scathing look she hated, but she gamely stood her ground.

“Only those lost in battle, sir, but there was the report...”

“You’re wasting my time, Lieutenant.” Now Brierly was positively glaring.

“Sir, there was the Montezuma.” For a moment she was sure she had overstepped her protocol and would be made somehow to suffer by this little man. After all, it was he who had made the decision to send the second fleet into the Glassies’ trap. The result, of course, had been the loss of the Montezuma and her compliment of Marines, not to mention the loss of so many others from other vessels.

Almost in a whisper he asked, “You think that object out there going forty thousand miles per hour could be Montezuma?”

“Well, sir, there was that report from Lunar Raven that it had disappeared and that they found an energy signature...”

“Another goddamn bunch of salvage rats. I wouldn’t put much stock in anything they might report.”

“Still, sir, you could send a patrol that way, just to check...”

“Negative, Lieutenant. I think not. All patrols are engaged with protecting fleet deployments. No patrols are allowed to fly solo. Solitary patrols are too easily lost to the Glassies. You know that.”

“If it’s so dangerous, why do we allow salvage ships to go it alone, sir?”

“Watch yourself, Lieutenant. That was not my decision, anyway. Are we finished, here?”

“I suppose so, sir. If you’ll not reconsider...”

“No. I will not send a patrol to investigate a possible derelict that might be a meteorite, or a so-called nuclear detonation that might have been a figment of some drunk’s imagination.”

With that, he made a move that would ultimately end his military career. He tossed the memo into his shredder.

“Carry on, Lieutenant.” he said.

“Aye, aye, sir.”

 

Marla Kinkaid spent the best part of the next two weeks recovering from her injuries. Her head wound healed nicely and the effects of her concussion faded. Her whiplash injury was more persistent, and her neck seemed to stiffen up whenever she slept. Billy took care of her, waiting on her hand and foot, until she thought she would go bonkers.

In that two weeks they talked about and relived their ordeal many times, and Marla was tired of hearing him say how he thought he’d lost her. It was over and she was getting to where she wished he’d just shut up about it. But in the confines of their quarters, there was little else to do but talk, and she didn’t want to risk offending him and getting the silent treatment.

He had managed to get her to the bridge only once during that two weeks to check their course. It was several degrees off, either due to something the Glassies had done or because of the explosion when their ship went up. Billy and Marla both knew there would not be enough fuel to correct it, but Marla had not said how far off target this would put them. She didn’t seem to be up to doing the math right now.

After two weeks, Billy had taken to prowling the wreck. He wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but after he had been out for a while, she always seemed happier to see him return. He would go to the launch bay first, to make sure the Glassie fighter was still there, then he would just wander more or less aimlessly through the remains of the vessel. The Montezuma was a large and complicated ship and, even though a lot of it was gone, there were still interesting places to see. It was not all that unusual to find a desiccated corpse here or there, but Billy never mentioned them to Marla. She was on edge enough as it was, without the mention of more deaths.

 

The existence of the two survivors aboard Montezuma gradually fell into a routine. The lieutenant’s injuries healed and she again began going to the bridge every day to chart their course. They would be even farther from their intended rendezvous with Earth now, and neither of them could think of a way to remedy that. As time passed, they found the confinement and lack of anything meaningful to do a constant irritation. It seemed, for all the size of the ship, that they couldn’t find any way to get far enough apart at times. Then, they would have times when they couldn’t get close enough together. Their emotions were swinging from cautious optimism to bleak despair. Their conduct toward each other ran the range from loving entanglement to scathing avoidance.

Then there were the dreams. Billy had been having them all along and suspected Marla was too. He dreamed constantly of the rain forest aboard the Glassie hiveship and of the singing. Sometimes he would wake up frustrated because he was unable to join in, high in the peacefulness of the immense trees. Marla had complained about him grinding his teeth in his sleep. Billy couldn’t understand why that one particular aspect of their confinement aboard the hiveship had stuck with him so tenaciously. The rain forest and the songs...

Against the backdrop of the indifferent universe, life aboard Montezuma hung grimly on.

 

Earth’s war against the Glassies went on as well. It appeared that the Glassies’ newest campaign would involve using the dynamics of the planet’s weather as a weapons arsenal to kill the population of Earth gradually. The Glassies’ latest gambit was to cover the ice of the Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic Continent with a black, sooty substance that absorbed sunlight. The polar caps were melting and coastal cities were gradually being swamped with rising ocean levels. Huge storms were perpetuated by the temperature changes of the oceans, making the El Nino cycles look tame by comparison.

The Space Marines were still carrying the battle to the Glassies, whenever and wherever they could find them. Mars had at last been secured, but it was feared that the aliens had merely moved to the asteroids, where their hiveships could be more easily hidden, while they raised a new crop of warriors for a fresh assault. That this would take mere months, rather than years, was another disadvantage for Earth. Earth was running out of people suitable for use as a fighting force and, worse, running out of materiel and money. Resources were being found every day, throughout the solar system, but getting it home was a dirty, dangerous game with death the reward for the losers.

Mining colonies were routinely attacked and wiped out, and Space Marines could not be spared to guard them. Transfer ships were boarded, their crews killed, and their cargoes scattered or destroyed, as ships were blown up or set adrift. The bureaucracy of government ground along at its usual snail’s pace, serving those in need poorly and itself not much better. The days of becoming rich through politics were over. Those in authority hung on as grimly as everyone else.

 

                                                

Chapter 10

 

Coyote was outbound from earth station. It had been seven weeks since Captain DeForrest and his skanky blonde helmswoman had spotted the object in space and the nuclear detonation. He’d had another of his crew of harlots and misfits figure about where that object should be by now. He’d started thinking of it as a ship. In his alcohol-marinated mind, it had become an abandoned treasure ship, laden with gold or jewels or something priceless. Little did he know!

The more he thought about the ship, the more he was unable to stop thinking about her. Ah, she would be beautiful—a luxury-class liner the military had missed when they refitted every luxury tourist ship to military specs. There had been some wondrous ships in service before the Glassies came along, great liners that had plied the solar system, some for as little as thirty years, with crews in the hundreds and passenger lists that included Earth’s wealthiest society names. It had been in vogue to travel space then, to see Saturn’s rings close up and to swoop low in a flyer over the deep canyons of Mars. Captain Bill DeForrest was old enough to remember them and to dream...

She’d be huge, a mile long at least and all intact, but abandoned and free for salvage rights. He’d take her in tow and claim her as the prize of the century...if he could just find her again. His last salvage would just about pay for the fuel, if he was lucky and, if not, he really wasn’t any worse off.

In his impatience, he prowled the interior of his grungy ship, pacing like a caged animal, until one or another of his crew would take him in hand and settle him down for a while.

 

When salvation came at last for Billy and Marla, they were asleep. They came awake to banging and clanging sounds, and instantly flew into a panic, hurriedly suiting up and grabbing weapons. Billy wasn’t sure what he expected. It could be that something had gone drastically wrong with the atomic energy plant or some other part of the Montezuma’s hulk. Or it could be that they were being boarded. Somehow, Billy was sure it was not Glassies.

When they at last ventured forth from their quarters, with Glassie weapons at hand, it was to find a salvage vessel alongside, magnetic clamps already in place. A crew of salvers with hand-held computers were moving all over the Montezuma, taking inventory of everything that was still useable, checking items against known current prices, to see if the wreck was economically feasible to salvage.

They caused quite a stir, when they appeared in their space suits, which were radically different and much cleaner than those of the salvage crew. In fact, Billy and Marla scared the crap out of two of the salvage crew at their first encounter. The salvers were at the launch bay, standing and staring at the Glassie fighter craft housed there, when they became aware of Billy and Marla moving up behind them. The presence of the alien craft had made them jumpy anyway, and weapons were brandished on both sides but not fired. Then there was an awkward moment when they sought a common radio channel to talk on. Finally, conversation was established.

“Who the hell are you guys?” one of the salvers asked.

“Lieutenant Marla Kinkaid, Space Marines, and Gunnery Sergeant Billy Hatcher. I’m the navigator of this vessel. Now, who are you?”

“We’re from the salvage vessel Lunar Raven, under command of Captain Arthur Griswold. We’re staking salvage rights to this vessel.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not? Any vessel abandoned in deep space...”

Marla cut him off. “Montezuma is not abandoned. It’s still a ship of the line, manned by military personnel and under way.”

The salvers looked at each other for a moment, then one of them said, “Maybe you’d better come on over to the Raven and talk to Captain Griswold.”

 

“I’ve invested a lot of time and money into this salvage operation,” Captain Griswold said. “I’ve tracked this ship for months, starting with the energy signature you left when you first fired its remaining engine. You don’t really expect me to just bugger off and leave now, do you?” He was peering at them over the tops of his bifocals, looking across a semi-clean wardroom table. As soon as they were aboard Lunar Raven, the crew had helped them unsuit and the Captain had invited them to join him for apple pie and coffee.

Billy thought nothing had ever tasted so good. He was on his second slice and third cup. Raven’s crew numbered near a hundred and included several damn good cooks.

“We can’t just turn Montezuma over to you, Captain. For one thing, we haven’t the authority,” Marla said.

“Look, Lieutenant, I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll set you down anywhere you’d like and give you a good start. The Service abandoned you, for God’s sake. Why do you care about this war? Look at you, Gunny. It’s cost you an arm, and for what? Did it make any difference? Will anyone ever say ‘Thank You’?”

“I’d like to think we’ve made a difference,” Gunny Hatcher said.

Just then, there was a warbling tone from an overhead intercom speaker and a voice said, “Captain, radar contact, bearing 179 relative. Closing slowly from thirty-three thousand miles.”

The Captain turned in his seat and picked up a hand-mike from a clip on the wall and depressed the send button. “Bridge, what’s it look like?”

“Too small to be a Glassie hiveship, sir, and too large to be a fighter.”

“Okay, squawk it and see if it’ll respond.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

“Put it on the overhead, so I can hear it.”

From the speaker they presently heard the bridge hailing the unknown ship.

“Ahoy, ahoy. Unknown vessel, please identify. This is deep space salvage vessel Lunar Raven, Earth registration, calling.”

“Ahoy your own self! This is deep space salvage vessel Coyote, Mars registration. Git the hell away from my salvage!”

The Captain was again peering at Marla and Billy over his spectacles. “Looks like the Montezuma got real popular here, all sudden-like.”

“Yeah,” Marla said, “ya go for months with no visitors, then everybody wants to drop in at once.”

The Captain again keyed his mike and said, “Bridge, patch me through to that vessel.”

“Aye, Cap’n, go ahead.”

Coyote, who is in command of your vessel?”

“That would be me, Captain Bill DeForrest. And who might you be, sir?”

“Captain Arthur Griswold.”

“Ahhh, shit! I might have known. Okay, Art, what’s this gonna cost me?”

“I think it cost you whatever you spent to get here. This sucker’s mine.”

“Nope. I spotted her first, eleven weeks ago. She’s mine.”

“Did you file a claim or even board her then?” The Captain was smiling now.

“Nossir. We had a tow and couldn’t stop, but we reported her position and speed and profile. We can prove we was there.”

“Well, when ya get here, Bill, come aboard. There’s some other complications we need to discuss.”

“What complications?”

“Not over the radio, Bill.”

“What ship is she?”

“Again I say, not over the radio.”

“I’ll see you within the hour.”

Captain Griswold hung up the mike and chuckled. “Yeah, if his old crappy ship doesn’t blow up or if he doesn’t die of the clap first. S’cuse me, ma’am.”

“Oh, hell, Captain, I’ve heard worse.”

“Who’s...Bill DeForrest?” Gunny asked.

“The worst example of a salver ever to light a plasma drive,” Captain Griswold answered, “he has a crew that’s exclusively women, all pretty much sluts, and keeps a hell of a stock of liquor aboard. Drinks and...well...services his crew and jumps on anything that’ll make him some money. Be damned if he’ll get this one.”

“It’s not up for salvage, anyway.” Marla reminded him.

“Yeah, we was just discussin’ that when we was interrupted.”

 

Captain Bill DeForrest squeezed his bulk into the wardroom and, predictably, sat next to Marla. She immediately wrinkled her nose and tried to find some way to move away from him, to no avail. She and Gunny Hatcher had been shown to cabins and given the opportunity to shower and put on clean coveralls and fresh paper deck shoes. They were dressed in faded blue with the Lunar Raven logo above the breast pocket.

DeForrest solemnly offered his hand to Captain Griswold, then as introductions were made, to Billy and finally, to Marla. Though she didn’t care to touch him, she gamely offered her hand. He held on way too long, in her opinion, and it was clear that he was fawning over her. She knew exactly where he was headed and wondered how long it would take before he made her an offer.

“These are the complications I spoke of, Bill,” Captain Griswold said. “These nice folks are not part of my crew. They’re military. In fact, we took them off that ship.”

“What ship is she?”

Montezuma, a Marine troop carrier. She was holed...”

DeForrest held up his hand and said, “I know her history.” He turned to Marla. “You’ve been trapped aboard that hulk since last September?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I admired you as soon as I met you. Now I admire you even more. Over five months riding a wreck like that...”

“Five months? It’s been that long?” Marla stared at DeForrest.

“But, you see the problem, Bill?” Griswold interrupted.

DeForrest was gazing into Marla’s eyes, almost mesmerized. “Hmmm? Oh, yeah. I see the problem. Military vessel. Military personnel. Still occupied. Yeah, it’s a problem, all right.”

Marla was gazing right back, and then the spell was broken as the cigar butt fell out of DeForrest’s mouth into his coffee cup.

“More coffee, anyone?” Captain Griswold asked.

“Sure, I’ll have some more,” Billy said, “been a while since we’ve had coffee, huh, Ell-Tee?”

Marla smiled and nodded, still sparring with DeForrest with her eyes.

“There’s more pie, too, or, if you want something more substantial, I can have a cook in the galley in ten minutes.” Griswold was really playing up his role as host.

“I think we’re fine for now,” Marla answered.

“Well, tell us then, how in God’s name did you survive all these months in that hulk?”

“Yeah, I’d like to hear about that, myself,” DeForrest chimed in.

Marla moved around in her seat a little, aware that the grubby captain had been looking down her cleavage, then began telling about their survival on the Montezuma.

To Billy, it seemed that her voice soon took on a droning quality, then a hollowness. He kept shaking his head, trying to stay awake, but his eyelids were weighted with anvils and he soon slumped against the bulkhead. Marla stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Gunny Hatcher, awareness of their situation just starting to dawn, then she succumbed also and slumped forward, bumping her head lightly on the table.

“Took long enough for that stuff to work, Art,” DeForrest observed.

“Yeah, and they won’t be out very long, either. Let’s get some crew up here and get ‘em suited up.” He reached for his hand mike.

 

Billy’s head was throbbing and he kept hearing a hissing sound. It took him a while to realize that he was in a space suit, seated upright and somehow restrained. When he at last forced his sleepy eyes open, there were stars all around and above him. Then he began to focus and saw odd controls that were somehow familiar to him. Soon, as his head cleared, he knew exactly where he was. He was in the pilot’s seat of the Glassie fighter craft and they were once again in space. He closed his eyes momentarily, not wanting to deal with this.

Then his eyes flew open again, as he realized the extent of the danger he was in. How much time did he have?

“Suit, say readings!”

The soft voice responded, “Suit readings, oxygen, four hours at present rate of consumption. Battery life, four hours ten minutes. All systems function normally at present.”

He relaxed a little and glanced around as best he could in the bulky suit. In the canopy, he could just make out the reflection of a figure in the back seat. So Marla was with him. The way she and DeForrest had been playing eyeball tag, he was surprised the grubby salver didn’t keep her.

There were also what seemed to be air bottles wedged into the cockpit here and there. It was a good thing that the Glassies were so much larger than they were. It made for a nice, roomy cockpit. So Griswold and DeForrest hadn’t intended to kill them, just get them out of the way, so they could have the Montezuma for salvage.

Well, it could be worse, he supposed. They couldn’t be that far from Earth Station or somewhere they could find help. There probably wasn’t that much fuel left in the craft but there should be enough to get them moving along, if he could figure out which way to go. He needed his navigator. He cut on his suit radio and started trying to wake Marla up.

“Hey, Ell-Tee. Ya awake?”

“Hum-m-m-m?”

“Wake up, Marla. We’re in trouble again.”

“Whaa.” She was not very articulate.

“I think they drugged us.”

“Where we at?”

“In the Glassie ship…out in space again.”

“Hiveship?”

“No, the fighter. They put us in here and kicked us loose.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah. I need you awake, to navigate.”

“Nav’gate?”

“Yeah. C’mon, Ell-Tee, wake up!”

“Lemme sleep...”

“No, hey, Marla? Don’t go back to sleep, babe. I need ya.”

“Where we at?”

“Yeah, that’s what I need ya for. Look around. See if ya recognize anything.”

“That’s Sol, behind us, over there...” she still sounded drunk. “Tha’s Mars, there, so...that should be Earth, there.”

“Where?”

“Bear left—er—to port and up. See it, there? That bluish blob, there.”

“Holy shit, is that really Earth?”

“Yup. Now can I sleep?”

“Damn right. Go for it. I’ll wake ya if anything happens.”

“You do that.”

Billy reflected, as he pulled the nose of the craft into alignment with Earth, that she was still a last-word type.

 

“I can’t believe those guys did this to us. Damn it! Don’t they realize what the consequences could be? Purposely setting two government employees adrift in deep space in a vessel that’s marginal and poorly equipped....”

“I don’t think they care, Marla,” Billy said. She had been awake for twenty minutes and on a rant for nineteen. She was pissed and Gunny Hatcher was getting an earful.

“Well then, I don’t care what happens to them, either. I hope they get caught and hanged.”

To Billy she sounded like a petulant child in a ‘get even’ mode. While she was still asleep he had expended the last of the Glassie fighter craft’s fuel, accelerating toward the distant blob that Marla was sure was Earth. Now, there was no way to slow the craft. They would just have to hope for interception. Billy had no idea how fast they were going but the fuel hadn’t lasted very long and, using a base velocity of forty thousand miles per hour, they couldn’t be doing more than twice that.

He had also pressurized the cabin using bottled air, and their suits were open. He felt it would be best to save the suits’ air and batteries as a last resort. Now there was nothing to do but listen to Marla bitch and wish the fighter would move faster.

Soon, her anger wore itself out and Billy got sleepy again. It was uncomfortable in a space suit, sitting in the pilot’s seat that was designed for a large insect but somehow he still managed to get a few hours of rest. 

 

By the time forty-eight hours had passed, Billy’s ass was numb and his mind was not far behind. Twice the air had become so foul that they had been forced to seal up their suits and crack open the canopy and vent it into space, then re-pressurize the craft. Boredom and an inability to move around much was wearing them out. They had talked over their situation to the extent that they were now just going around in circles.

They knew that at some point they were going to get picked up on somebody’s radar and hailed. When they did not respond, things would begin to get a little dicey. With the Glassie war in full swing, they would be lucky not to get their asses shot off, especially since they were in a craft that was clearly of enemy origin. Until they were discovered, though, there was little they could do but sit and wait.

 

The supervisor of the Earthnet Defense Team tracking station, located on Earth Station, looked up quickly as he heard an alarm sound, four or five stations down from where he was sitting, relieving one of the operators. Earthnet was responsible for tracking and identifying all objects traveling within the orbit of the moon, but often their radar looked much farther. Apparently someone had a “bogey.”

It was probably just a routine shipping contact that was a tad off course. They handled several bogeys a day and it was no big deal, but they still treated all unknowns as hostile until they were identified. Usually this was just a matter of asking the unknown for a transponder “squawk”, which would put the ship’s code on the operator’s computer screen. Then the ship was no longer an unknown and everything would settle right back down. The operator returned from her break and the supervisor moved on down the line.

“Whataya got, Rick?” he asked the young operator on station three. There was a flashing icon on his monitor with the word “unknown” beside it. It was a hundred ten thousand miles out from the orbit of Luna and making fifty-two thousand miles per hour. It was tiny, probably no more than twenty or thirty feet in any dimension and it could be a meteoroid but they couldn’t take chances. If there were more than one, it would call for an automatic intercept launch and patrol craft would be sent to look them over and possibly destroy them. But launching patrol craft was expensive, so it wasn’t done for single objects no larger than this.

“Another unknown, sir. Second one for me this week. Not very big. Could be most anything. Debris or whatever.”

“Okay, keep an eye on it. Let it get in closer and we’ll hail it for a squawk.”

“Yes, sir.”

The supervisor headed across the room to the coffee pot. He had a new girlfriend and she’d been keeping him very busy whenever he was off shift. He wasn’t getting enough sleep. He’d just filled his cup, when the alarm sounded again and Rick called, “Sir? That bogey? It just changed course.”

The supervisor carried a steaming mug back to Rick’s station and looked the situation over. The bogey had made a course correction of less than one degree, but was now on a course that would intercept Earth’s atmosphere at a shallow enough angle to keep it from burning up on entry. He knew he could not allow any unknown vessel to enter Earth’s atmosphere without an identification code or an intercept, yet was still reluctant to initiate a scramble on his own authority. The object had not fulfilled all of the elements of his protocol for that. Finally, he picked up a red phone and called Earthnet Headquarters to get authorization for a launch.

 

Billy and Marla were starting to feel excited about getting home. The Earth now appeared as a disk about the size of a quarter, and Billy had figured out how to work the navigation system of the Glassie fighter. It was powered up and the display was showing where their present course would take them. When Marla saw the display on her own screen in the back seat, she told Gunny some bad news.

“Gunny, if we don’t do something we’re gonna die.”

“Huh?”

“Yeah. Look at our course. We’re gonna bingo our own planet dead on. We’ll burn up from air friction or slam into the planet. We’re goin’ way too fast.”

“Yeah? Well, we’re screwed then, ‘cause we don’t have any more fuel to slow down.”

“Steering rockets?”

“Yeah, we still got them. Don’t know how long they’ll last, though.”

“Okay, let’s change course a little. If we can get it just right, we can use the atmosphere to slow us until we get our speed down enough to land safely.”

“You really think Earthnet is gonna miss us or let us get through?”

“Probably not, but let’s just set it up so if they do, we won’t die.”

“Gotcha.”

“Okay, come right very gently. Just barely bump it. Good! Hold it there for a while. We’ll see what that looks like as we get closer.”

 

General Rayford Nelson didn’t appreciate being bothered while he was in quarters. When he found out it was some supervisor up on the radar deck bothering him, he listened to about half the story, then said gruffly, “Hey, just launch whatever ya need, Okay?” and slammed the phone down. Then he went back to the sweetness of the young female clone who was sharing his bed.

 

Over the sound of a klaxon, an amplified voice rang out through the ready room. “Attention, attention, launch bay Alpha. This is a scramble! This is a scramble! Pilots to your spacecraft! This is a Defense Command Intercept!”

Cigarettes were left burning in ashtrays, coffee cups were spilled, and playing cards scattered to the deck as two pilots and two RIO’s leapt to their gear and ran for their interceptors.

Out in the launch bay, yellow rotating beacons on the ceiling spun, warning of an impending launch, while space-suited crewmen detached liquid oxygen hoses and start-cart cables. The aircraft commanders already had the birds running as the pilots came running up the steps to the gantry platforms.

The crews checked over the pilots and Radar Intercept Officers and helped them into the cockpits. Breathing equipment was checked, intercoms plugged in and instruments checked, then each officer received a tap on the helmet, a thumbs up and a salute from the catapult officer.

The crew members stepped back into blast-proof booths, which slammed shut and sealed, protecting them from hot engine gasses and the vacuum of open space. The “cat” officer threw a switch and huge doors slammed open to show the starfield of empty space. Then he lifted the cover on a red button and pressed it firmly.

There was a rumble of hydraulics and a scream of engines felt through the deck and both fighter-interceptor craft shot down their guide rails and out into space. The cat officer threw the switch back to close the doors and pressurize the launch bay, then he called command to report the launch time. The entire launch sequence had taken less than two minutes.

 

“Defense Four, this is Tiger Flight, Tiger Leader. We are off station at 19:21 with a good launch, full armament, full fuel, and four souls. Request vector to target. Talk to me, control.” The young Major’s voice was lazy and confident. He did this several times a week and it was just another walk in the park.

“Tiger Leader, Defense Four. Change to button six for vector.”

The Major changed his radio to “button six”, a pre-set frequency, and again contacted Defense Four.

“Tiger Leader, come left to 221 and 71,000. Target has changed course twice in last ten minutes. Target is a single, possibly small attack craft. Target is not, I repeat, not a meteor or debris.”

“Roger that, Defense Four. Will treat target as hostile.” 

 

“We should be getting hailed by now,” Billy said over the suit intercom.

“Yeah, or receiving company,” Marla answered. “Anyway, if they hail us, we won’t hear them.”

“Well, no. Not over a suit radio. How’s our course look, Ell-Tee?”

“I’d leave it alone for now. We may need to make a last correction, if we get that far.”

Just then, red lights began flashing on Billy’s panel and two specks started glowing on the display. “Looks like they’re coming, Ell-Tee. Gonna check us out.”

“I just hope they look before they shoot.” she replied.

 

“Defense Four, this is Tiger Lead! We have a single, repeat single, Glassie fighter craft! Are we cleared to fire?”

“Tiger lead, that’s a roger! You are cleared to engage.”

“Roger that...stand by, Defense Four, something strange here.”

 

It didn’t take long for the two Earth Station interceptors to close with them and make an identification pass. Their closing speed was close to a hundred thousand miles an hour and they barely caught a flash of each other but it was enough. Behind Billy, the Earth ships started a turn that would require sixteen thousand miles to complete and a few minutes of time, before they were ready to shoot.

“I think we’re in trouble, Ell-Tee. If we don’t do something to identify ourselves, they’re gonna kill us.”

“What can we do? Can’t wave a flag.”

“Turn on your distress beacon. I’ll turn mine on, too. We’ll just have to hope they catch it before they get close enough to stick a missile up our ass.”

 

“Defense Four, Tiger Leader. We got a...stand by…make that two suit distress beacons coming from the Glassie craft. We’re gonna hafta close up with them and look ‘em over.”

“Roger that, Tiger Lead. Be careful, it may be a trap.”

“Roger that...stand by.”

 

Billy and Marla watched as the two sleek, deadly interceptors slid carefully alongside, prepared to break away at the slightest sign of hostile action. Finally, they were close enough that Billy could tap on his helmet and the pilot of one of the craft could see him. The pilot nodded and Billy cut off his distress beacon and powered up his suit radio.

“Ahoy, pilot! Glad to see you guys!”

“Right. And who the hell are you?”

“Gunnery Sergeant Billy Hatcher, off Montezuma, and Lieutenant Marla Kinkaid.”

“And where did you obtain your lovely craft, Sergeant?”

“It’s a long story. We stole it, Okay? Just get us some help. We’re out of fuel. We cannot stop or maneuver.”

“Roger that. Stand by.”  

“Defense Four, Tiger Lead. What we have here is a Glassie fighter, being flown by two Marines. They have no fuel left. Request you launch or divert a tender with grapples to take this ship in.”

“Roger, Tiger Lead. On the way.” 

“Just sit tight, Sergeant. We’ll have ya safe and sound in a little while.”

“Roger that,” Billy said, and began to relax a little.

It was surprising that after so many seemingly unending days in space, their ordeal was over so quickly. A station tender was launched and sent to intercept them, arriving within twenty minutes.

It pulled alongside, gently nudging the small Glassie craft, then locking the smaller ship against its side with padded grapples operated from a small pod in which an operator sat. A pressurized gangway was extended which contained an airlock, and Billy and Marla clambered inside.

In minutes they were taken aboard, then helped out of their suits and decontaminated. While this was being done, the tender was decelerating, still connected to the Glassie craft. By the time they were in clean, comfortable “station” jumpsuits, the tender was docking at the giant Earth Station.

Billy and Marla stepped off the tender and into the custody of military police. They were immediately separated and shown to the Earth Station medical facilities, where they were subjected to cursory medical examinations. More rigorous examinations would be forthcoming, but for now, they were fed, cleaned, and allowed to rest.

When Billy fell into bed, under normal Earth gravity, he expected to sleep like a log; instead, he had dreams about the hiveship, the rainforest, and the singing of the Glassies.

 

In the late part of the twentieth century, the country then known as “Russia” had done prolonged experiments with low Earth-orbit space stations, leaving their “cosmonauts” on their “Mir” station for extended periods of time. From the research done there, along with knowledge gained from Apollo moon flights and the series of Space Shuttle missions, the concept of Earth Station was born.

Construction of the central hub or core had begun in 1998 with seven shuttle missions to lift the necessary components for an atomic reactor and basic living quarters for six persons. The station had been added to each year since, as budgeting permitted. The International Space Station had eventually become Earth Station, a sprawling complex of living quarters, medical facilities, research labs, hangars, and military facilities covering the equivalent of almost 900 acres of area. Its population seldom dropped below 2000 people and, at times, such as just before the fleet went out, could swell to about 11,000.

It resembled the back axle of a large truck, with dual wheels. There was the central hub and two main corridors reaching out to the four smaller sets of corridors. These branched out to the wheels themselves, which contained all of the living and working areas of the station. The whole station turned with enough force to generate one Earth gravity at the rooms nearest the outside walls. Ships were docked and launched at both ends, necessitating a slow roll be put on the arriving ships in order to match the spin of the complex. This was not as tricky as it appeared, modern computers having taken over much of the landing and launching procedures.

The Defense Force detachment on the Station was a recent addition, having been added only after the first Glassie encounters. Its full-time mission was to protect the immense investment Earth had made in the station and to protect the lives of those aboard. Internal policing and investigations were left up to the Military Police. 

Sub Commander Clifton Brierly received a memo advising him of the Space Marine Lieutenant and Gunnery Sergeant who had been rescued from a Glassie fighter craft. Had he read the memo more closely, he might have noticed the reference to Montezuma, but he was in a hurry. He had a pressing engagement for afternoon cocktails with the station commander and his wife. He scanned the memo, along with a dozen others, and put them through his shredder.

To be continued

 

 

Kenneth Crist, blkptls@cox.net, www.blackpetals.net, of Wichita, Kansas, wrote the SF serial (starting in BP #76 with chapters 1 & 2)  SURVIVING MONTEZUMA (+ BP #78’s “Those Other Guys,” “The Big Well” & “Virtuality” for BP #75, “Gift of the Anasazi” for BP #73, “The Weeping Man” for BP #72, “Pebbles” for BP #71, “The Diner” for BP #67, “New Glasses” for BP #61, “Ones and Zeros” for BP #50, & the novelette Joshua) and has edited BP for many years, continuing as Editor Emeritus, then Coeditor/Webmaster. Widely published, esp. in Hardboiled and on Yellow Mama, he also has four chapbooks currently for sale in Kindle format on Amazon.com, Dreaming of Mirages, The Gazing Ball, Joshua, and Groaning for Burial, his latest zombie fiction.

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