Copyright 2016 Louis Shalako and Long Cool One Books
Design: J. Thornton
The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person living or deceased, or to any places or events, is purely coincidental. Names, places, settings, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination.
Table of Contents
Astrogation was dependent on a lot of higher maths. The success of their mission depended on human psychology, and in being at the right place at the right time.
It was a simple equation.
Chimera arrived at 55 Cancri f, on time and on schedule, materializing impressively close to the only inhabited objects in the system.
It was a breathless moment.
The place was a hive of activity with ships in port, ships inbound, outbound, and pursuing their own individual courses back and forth. Visually, it wasn’t much, but infrared, RF and EM signatures flared all around them.
Voices chattered on the intercom as the harbour pilot steered the ship into her assigned berth, retros and stabilizers firing intermittently.
She came to a halt.
They were right on the numbers.
Her Majesty’s ships Viper and Vixen were the regulation thousand kilometres away, a bit up and off to starboard.
The Confederation and the Dominium were at war, but Cancri was a neutral port. Most parties had replenish, refit and repair privileges. It was a strategic way-station, outbound and inbound.
So far, its neutrality had been respected by warring sides. It was known to be an uneasy situation for the Cancrians. There was no way to know how long that might last—or who might move first.
There would be a thousand pickups and sensors turned Chimera’s way, including the Cancri authorities.
The Dominium’s forces were very professional. The Confederation was outnumbered, out-weaponed, and had few resources. They had scrambled to design their own advanced technologies when the split with the mother-culture had finally come. The Coalition and the Alliance, perhaps a few other players, could be assumed to have at least some assets in place, sentient observers or merely just automated observation of a passive nature—information which could be accessed, one way or another.
They could stare all they wanted—Chimera was studying them just as intently and for them there was perhaps much more to see.
Chimera was a small ship, almost too small for the job that was to be done. In her former role as a prospecting vessel, there was just sufficient room and enough power to be useful as a scout. She was unarmed in the conventional sense although properly marked and registered as a ship of war.
In any serious encounter, her only hope was to run. Stripped down and considerably strengthened, she would have the legs on pretty much everything out there. She could out-fly and out-turn anything known to exist.
She would never survive in battle against even the most humble Dominium official vessel.
Commander Rayn Martin studied the men before her.
Both big in the shoulders and upper legs, they had an air of brush-cut confidence.
Hopefully, just this once, this equated with competence.
They were only nominally subject to her, in fact their mission took precedence. So far they hadn’t demanded anything she couldn’t reasonably give. She’d been thoroughly briefed and had agreed with the mission—an important concession.
The crew went about shutting systems down and getting ready for some minor maintenance and repairs—all illusory but a necessary part of their cover. They would take on food and water and use the shore facilities for what would normally be billed as recreation.
“As of our last communication, Operation Vermont is a go.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
Miles Jonas nodded. Jim Bianchi was the senior member of this team and Miles usually let him do most of the talking.
“I would suggest that you avail yourselves of all available information.” Her thin lips were pursed.
She was under orders. Her ship was at risk and she wasn’t quite sure if she approved of them.
Yet it was one hell of a plan.
All audacity and so-called luck.
The odds were they were both going to die. Maybe her own crew—if things went horribly wrong.
If they knew that, which they probably did, they showed no signs of it.
“So, what do you think?”
“Panacea is due to arrive in about thirteen-twelve hours. It’s a grain ship.” It was twenty-five thousand metres long and five thousand in diameter.
Total mass, five-point-four million metric tonnes.
It would pass between Chimera and the enemy ships Vixen and Viper, proceeding directly up the starboard traffic lanes, under the orders and steerage of the harbour pilot and shepherded by auxiliary tugs.
For a ship that size there would be a half a dozen tugs at least.
Her cargo was urgently needed. It would be unloaded, transhipped, and transported on, to a dozen other worlds in the surrounding sphere of twenty light-years or so. Cancri’s needs were miniscule, for the planets of the system were all uninhabited.
It was all orbital, based on the discovery of the ice-planet, Thule.
She would have made one hell of a target in her own right.
Panacea was strictly off-limits in a conflict that depended as much on public opinion as might, or right, or weapons of war and battles won or lost.
The plan was the sort of thing that someone somewhere had come up with after a few stiff drinks, and a cost-benefit analysis.
There was nothing to lose but a couple of mules and their crews. There was much to be gained if things went well.
In the end, this had been pared down to one mule and two men, unmarried, highly-trained but ultimately expendable.
Jim and Miles had volunteered, but then guys like them always did.
It was better than sitting around with their thumbs up their asses, as the saying went.
A small service tender had rendezvoused with Chimera.
They were presently engaged in pumping grey and black water from her holding tanks.
Chimera’s crew consisted of nine people. It had been close quarters for their six-week journey.
Cancri, like any other recognized polity, was entitled to a full light-year of space in a bubble that represented a useful resource base. Within that there were populated worlds, although nothing like the societies on the inner planets and some other capital worlds.
It was their exclusive economic zone.
They would act accordingly.
Most of the crew, along with their harbour pilot, had gone ashore in the dinghy. This was a small pod equipped with thrusters, standard equipment for most vessels including civilian craft.
The former equipment bay, snuggled in between the landing gear, was the real scene of action.
The mule was a captured Dominium machine, although the registration markings had been modified in paint at both ends, and the tracking signature had been modified to read malfunction—something that Intelligence said wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary. In fact, it might lend validation to their scheme. They had a cover story and proper registration number if some officious person insisted on their getting it fixed—why, they would hem and haw and do just that after a bit of discussion. They would hack away at it and discover something they couldn’t immediately fix. They could always apologize and ask to call their boss. They’d gamed it all out, in as many ways as they could think of.
The men were suited up in Dominium suits and colours, with small variations as would suit individual personalities. Jim had a sexy teddy-bear on his helmet, Miles had some snarky stickers, culled from a recent cereal-packet promotion on the enemy world, stuck all over his upper left chest area. This may have been overkill. The highly reflective blaze orange stood out for miles against the deep indigo backdrop of space, showing up in even the most uncertain light.
There were various suppliers, but ultimately they all looked the same out here…
The captain’s voice was crisp in their ears.
“Panacea, inbound. Her bow is crossing our initial point now.”
On the screen, the enemy cruisers were slowly being obscured by Panacea.
“Open the doors, please.”
The panels lowered away and Miles, in the driver’s seat, edged his lifter throttle in reverse.
The clamps let go and she came down out of her cradle.
“Good luck, gentlemen.”
Adding a bit of forward, they moved down and away from Chimera.
The bulk of Panacea was between them and the enemy.
Viper and Vixen, V-class cruisers of about seventeen thousand metric tonnes of mass each, were engaged in replenishment and maintenance. Equipped with missiles, offensive and defensive, directed-energy weapons, scout craft of their own and numerous other small-scale, in-close defense systems, they were formidable to look at.
Word was, they’d been in quite a battle, not so much with the enemy as with the elements.
They’d been watching all day, unable to sleep with all the excitement. Small teams were working on the hulls, just as anticipated—Intel being right again.
Miles held her at about two-thirds throttle as the distance closed.
The Panacea sailed along, majestic, unstoppable, and the mule accelerated under Miles’ hand on the throttle, towards the wall of thin aluminum that was Panacea’s hull. Jim was keeping his mouth shut. There were something like three people in something not much bigger than a trailer, perched on the mid-upper hull closer to the rear of the great ship. Ships were never unmanned, but the vessel was mostly automatic, running back and forth on a track that had of necessity been contracted a century before…there were tugs front and back, robotic and luckily, intent on their own business.
The thing was to get close, duck under or over, and then approach, lights off and radio out.
The glare off the side of Panacea in their faceplates was pronounced. They were linked by hard-line, plugged into the jacks and so they could talk.
They’d killed all ship-to-shore feedback links and checked carefully for back-ups and fail-safes.
That’s not to say they knew everything.
They fact was they probably didn’t.
“Everything looks good, Stanley.”
“That’s good to know, Oliver.”
Their thermite-based weapons, peel-and-stick limpet mines designed to resemble hull plating, had a radio-controlled fuse that could be set for hours or days. It had a good, long memory…
There were three rows of fake, painted rivets around the edge. With a bit of luck, they might get them on and their own asses out of there in a half an hour or so.
They had decided on the minimum of time for the fuses, three hours tops. They needed to find a section of hull, perforated but not yet repaired, not yet scheduled to be repaired, not yet scheduled for inspection. Not too many other people around. Luckily, they had all that data thanks to a friendly citizen employed in the work—presumably, for they really weren’t privy to that sort of information.
Let us hope they were friendly…
There was always the possibility of betrayal.
Ducking under Panacea, the back end and those hot motors spewing radiation all over the place even when idling at minimum power output, Miles pulled up so as to keep between her bulk and the enemy ships.
Miles pulled to port, trying to close the gap and get in close before their background cover inevitably moved out of position at her current rate of deceleration.
“Two hundred kilometres.” The ships were two thin silvery lines, with other small vessels and utility vehicles surrounding them above, below and on both sides. “A few more seconds. Hang on.”
As they got closer, tiny bright dots showed there were crews indeed working on Vixen.
Presumably the same was true of Viper, now out of sight for the most part, ten thousand metres away on the other side of her sister ship.
Miles turned on the cameras. It was rare to get this close to the enemy and there were rumours of new weapons and some unusual modifications coming in from some sources.
Decelerating, he turned to port when they were few kilometres out. There were several work-vehicles ahead, heading to the port facilities in a stable but low orbit above the planet.
Twisting in their seats, it looked like a couple more were headed this way. There was also traffic coming back out in the opposite direction. He turned on the navigation lights as a precaution.
They exchanged a quick glance, tension mounting as course directions lit up the forward navigation display. Miles touched the one labeled Tool Crib and let the machine steer itself.
They would be there in two minutes.
There was much that could go wrong, but these days, spies and saboteurs were more often exchanged than executed. On neutral territory, if captured, the odds were they would simply be interned for the duration…that’s not to say there wouldn’t be a little torture first, because there probably would be.
The Cancrians would do their best to wring them out.
It was something to consider.
They waited out in front of the hangar deck on Thule-2, one of several such facilities in orbit.
There was a gaggle of other machines and workers. The airlock cycled through, some people came out, and then they were inside, as yet more people arrived from all points to patiently wait their turn to get inside where they could at least get a fifty-credit sandwich and a ten-credit cup of coffee.
The prices around there were outrageous, as they well knew from media coverage studied long since…
It gave them something to talk about, which was useful in a new environment.
The mule was stuck to the steel-mesh floor of the gaping hangar bay, lost among any number of other units. The load was about one-third of a gravity, maybe a bit less by the feel of it.
Men and women in their safety gear and tool-belts milled around. It was just like any other big construction site or building project. They were waiting for something, or someone, some instruction. They were looking for other members of their crew or perhaps just dogging it. They’d learned how to make it through their day.
The hours were long and it was tough enough to make it through a shift. The suit weighed a good sixty pounds at one gravity. The new ones were stiff as hell and the older ones prone to blowout.
Virtually all of them leaked to some degree and the warranty was gone after one year.
The tool crib was down a short, wide passageway.
The people ahead shuffled off, lugging a compressor and some polishing or painting equipment.
It was their turn.
“All right, boys, what can I get you?”
“Ah, we need six tubes of heat-melt glue, aerospace grade, Taxon-four-thirty-five. We need the squeeze-gun, and if you got ‘em, the protective gauntlets.”
“You need scrapers, spreaders, anything like that?’
The tool-crib attendant nodded, just turning away when Miles elbowed Jim and gave a little cough into the microphone.
“Ah. Wait. We need, uh, a couple of one-eighth drill bits, high-speed twist drills.”
The being turned back, having caught this part of the action.
“Okay. What company.” The employee stood on the other side of the counter, tapping that all into their pad and waiting.
“Bartholomew and Sons.”
“Right.” He held out the pad, bottom end towards Jim, who obligingly typed in the blanket purchase order number the firm was using.
He must have gotten it right, as the humanoid person turned and went to the racks, floor to ceiling, in the caged space behind him.
There were more people in line, and yet there were no problems at all.
Their attendant was right back, with two other employees talking and consulting with other workers on either side of this line.
The attendant scanned the product codes.
“Here we go.”
Jim took the tubes and the gun, Miles grabbed the gauntlets in their clear plastic bags. The drill bits went into his bulging tool belt.
“Well. We are out of here—thanks, Buddy.”
The fellow nodded, eyes already on the next gaggle of customers. Going by the patches, they were from the well-known Ukutsu Inc.
“So. Want to grab a coffee while we’re here?” Jim was proceeding according to plan—and the script, simple enough as it was.
So was Miles.
“No, but you go ahead—I could sure use a dump though.” It was too good a chance to look around.
Surely there would be other missions, here and elsewhere. Anything they could learn was good.
Jim nodded. Stopping off at the mule, there was no one paying them any particular attention and he stowed their materials in the rear lock-box. There were a few curious looks, but that was the great thing about the suits. Everyone looked the same, other than the company logos and the name and number on the helmet. Everything was just exactly how the source said.
As if he wasn’t scared enough, the thought brought another little shot of adrenalin—
“I’ll see you back here in fifteen minutes.”
Miles nodded, clapping him on the shoulder.
“All righty, then.”
Struggling in and out of the suit, alone, in a toilet that was terribly cramped and then taking a dump, would take all of that time and maybe more. There was a certain discipline involved.
It was all in your head—here they were and they were getting away with it.
The key was to relax. Good advice if you could take it.
Breathe in, breathe out.
The truth was he did have to go, and the other thing was to be completely natural. In this sort of unionized crowd, guys in too much of a hurry to get to work, guys who sweat just a little too much, or walked, or got things done a little too fast would quickly make themselves unpopular because they made everyone else look bad.
You do not want to stick out in a crowd. You want to blend in.
When he came out of the booth, helmet still in his hands in this pressurized section of the station, his heart almost stopped when he recognized a cop in their black and yellow, armoured shore uniform.
The Cancrian woman’s back was turned, her visor was up and she was just washing her hands in one of the row of sinks lined up on the far side. Catching an eye in the mirror, Miles gave her the barest nod, and then, standing off to one side but just inside the inner pressure-door, he put the helmet back on and carefully checked the clamps. Pressuring up, everything was good.
Putting a hand on the pad on the wall, the door opened and then he was gone.
She hadn’t even looked at him twice, and she wasn’t bad-looking, either.
No time for that, boyo.
They drifted along, obeying all speed limits and traffic guidelines.
There were work-boats, mules and such ahead and behind. Approaching Vixen first, they made their way below the bridge up high on the nose, along the keel, staying well away from other work crews. In some sections, the plating had been completely stripped away, exposing lattice-work beams that had always reminded Miles of a dirigible airship of three or four hundred years previously.
Other crews were patching pin-holes, squeezing out a bit of goop and smoothing it off with their plastic spreaders as quickly as possible before it hardened in cold vacuum—they were on a deadline.
More permanent repairs could be made later.
In a proper atmosphere, at anything up to a few atmospheres, anything approaching room temperature, it would have boiled off instantly. In fact, the material had to be produced off-planet at extremely low temperatures, and stored under heavy refrigeration, or as a product, it couldn’t exist.
They had a map of the ship’s hull and each of its individual, numbered plates. Thinner than a beer can, with the usual nominal pressure of about one-third Earth-standard in terms of breathing gases, a perfect storm of dust particles traveling at a significant fraction of light-speed had beat her up pretty bad.
The display beeped and Miles put her into parking mode.
With the mule holding just below the hull, they could reach up and work at arm’s length.
Jim turned and opened up their tool bin, unpleasantly surprised to see another individual, riding a fluorescent orange, one-person scooter, coming up fast from behind. It was all he could do to keep moving, as the person was making a bee-line straight for them.
“Trouble coming up…”
Miles turned and had a look.
Jim made the universal gesture for radio failure as the person came up alongside. It wasn’t a cop or security, it appeared to be a regular foreman. They could hear him cussing as he rummaged around in a small compartment on the dashboard.
Finally he had it, a universal patch cord. He plugged in on both ends and they could finally talk.
Miles kept his hand on the opposite side, out of sight. He was all set for the lunge. The knife nestled in his palm just in case they had to kill this fucking asshole…all of this had been foreseen to some degree, and every eventuality had a place in what should have been a nice, simple little plan. Up, out of the seat and one quick jump. He mentally rehearsed it, over and over…
“Hey. Who are you guys with?”
“Bartholomew and Sons. Why?”
“Is that a ball-peen hammer in there?”
Really? How in the fuck did you see all that from way back there…
“Uh—yeah, so what?” Jim nailed the tone, it was perfect.
“That’s an ironworker’s hammer. Show me your union cards.”
“Why in the hell should we?”
“Because I’ll have this jobsite shut down in five minutes if you don’t.”
“Like fucking hell, you will.” Again, Jim nailed it.
Miles shook his head in disgust, still letting Jim handle it.
He was better with the language, a strange mix of English, Russian, Hindi, Mandarin and a couple of others.
“Aw, for fuck’s sakes.”
Even this, or some variation upon a theme, had been foreseen—mostly.
That was what the knife was for—one brief moment of panic and then run for it…
The pair dug around in their breast pockets and pulled out their plastic badges, with names, home addresses and membership numbers prominently displayed.
“Argh. I knew it—you guys are pressure-vessel engineering technologists. What fucking company are you with?”
“For fuck’s sakes, I told you. Bartholomew and Sons.”
The guy reached into the bin for the hammer but Jim gave the arm a smack and it retreated.
“Hey, asshole—talk to our rep, okay? You leave my fucking personal property alone.”
Even through the smoky plastic of the face-plate, the guy’s anger was apparent.
“You boys haven’t heard the last of this.”
Jim pulled the jack or the guy would have driven off without undoing it, the results of which would, at the very least, have been to snap the cord or damage the jack. Depending how strong that cable was, he might very well have taken out both machines.
“Well. I guess we’d better get a move on—”
Jim stepped off the seat and onto the magnetic running boards which also served as a work platform.
“All right. Let’s get these fuckers on and get out of here.” Miles undid the straps holding their cargo in place and pulled off the plastic backing from the first of their hull-plates. “I got a funny feeling that one’s going to be back.”
Jim watched the fellow.
He seemed to have gone back to the working party a hundred metres closer to the bow. Scanning through the frequencies, they were on fifty-seven. He could hear them talking it up pretty good, but so far not doing anything really official about it. The ass-wipe, Starkey, seemed pretty mad, although his co-workers were mostly just uncaring.
They didn’t seem to think too much of the guy.
The odds were that he was just an asshole, too big for his britches and trying to score a few points off of a rival contractor.
Deciding quickly, they moved to the topside-forward-starboard of Vixen, laid a couple of more thermite-bombs, and headed over to Viper.
There was a minimum of talk, monosyllables and grunts the order of the day. It was all very clear in their heads.
They quickly un-stowed their last three limpets. These went all in the same place, right under the engine-rooms of Viper. They stuck solidly in place, the colour a bit too light but hopefully that would go unnoticed.
So far, no one seemed to give a shit.
She didn’t seem to be nearly so damaged as Vixen.
As a bonus they got a couple of really good, tight shots of some mysterious new antennae amidships before aimlessly heading off in the vague direction of the tool-crib and repair complex.
One more time…
They were just clearing the bow of Viper when a blue scooter zoomed past, turned abruptly and came back around.
“Hey. You guys—”
Jim and Miles waved their hands up around where the ears were inside the helmet. This one had a cable as well, and as they puttered along in the slow side of the lane, they plugged it in.
“What’s the problem with you guys? I have a complaint of unauthorized tools.”
This was a job for Jim in the back seat.
He couldn’t help but grin inside the privacy of the helmet.
“Some asshole came zooming up, started snooping around in the tool bins and found himself a ball-peen hammer.”
Miles spoke up.
“We’re pressure vessel engineering technologists. We’re patching pin-holes with black goop. Fuck, we never use that thing.”
“All right. Gimme your names and membership numbers. I’m Darby Hector, by the way. You’re right. Them guys can be real assholes sometimes.”
Apparently Mister Hector was their union representative. Hopefully he wasn’t going straight back to the office. He tapped their names and the other information into his pad…
Miles waited with asshole clenched but no alarms, no flashing lights, no bells and whistles popped up and that was good.
“Fuck, Darby. We’re done for the day. I could use a beer and something to eat.”
Hector gave them a little wave.
“Okay. There’ll have to be an investigation. Basically, I just tell them to fuck off, pass it off upstairs, and let them buggers decide if it’s worth making a big stink about it.”
You could almost sense the cynical grin in there—
Hector gave them a sketchy wave, pulled the plug, and turned about to go scooting back to the job.
With a quick glance, Miles ignored the yawning hangar-bay doors.
Turning to port, he skirted the other hangars, ones for commercial and passenger traffic, then the space-based equivalent of a private luxury marina. He coasted along the curving middle belt of installations for handling larger ships, although the largest ones would be berthed well off from the fragile and rather valuable station Thule-2a.
Population, about three thousand.
“That was handy.”
“Yes, it was.” Miles went another half a kilometre, then turned to port and headed towards Chimera, a small speck of dull grey compared to the massive bulk of the enemy cruisers, and even their smaller vessels, of which a half a dozen were in attendance.
Checking the chronometer, one had to hope that the shore party was or would be back, more or less on time…
The sooner everyone was accounted for, the sooner they could set the fuses and get the hell out of there.
This was the most frightening moment of all.
Now that they had a minute to think.
“Close all internal hatches.”
“Engines at idle.”
“Strap in, all secure.”
“How does the board read, Mister?”
“Board. All green for go. No alarms, not alerts, no advisories.”
“Roger that. Thank you.”
The Commander touched her screen.
“How are you boys doing?”
Miles and Jim were strapped into their temporary lash-up, a couple of high-tech dentist-chairs down in the basement as they were calling it.
“All secure. Ship-shape and Bristol fashion. Cheerio.”
A faint grin softened her tense features.
“Roger that. Hang on for a moment, gentlemen—”
There was a rumble through the seat of the pants as Chimera got underway.
“Sorry. Coming right up—”
The screen on the forward bulkhead lit up as the ship steadily built momentum.
“Ah. What we need now is a little beer—” And popcorn—
The speakers crackled.
“Chimera, come in please.” It was the calm, assured voice of the Port A.I.
“Chimera here, go ahead, please.”
“Chimera, you’ve left your berth. You are not scheduled for departure. Over.”
“No comment. Over.”
The men grinned at each other. Their eyes naturally strayed to the countdown clock.
Jim shook his head.
They stared and listened intently.
Bits of bright light appeared over and under Vixen, and just as the eye began to comprehend that, an even brighter ball appeared, engulfing the back end of Viper, which slowly began to lift, tail-first, into a rapidly accelerating pinwheel as internal gases gushed out, feeding the voracious flames.
Their camera pickup zoomed in, under the control of one of the kids on the bridge.
Vixen spun, nose first, end over end, trailing fire and bright bits of debris.
Some of the stuff tumbling around out there might have been people.
“Chimera. Chimera. Come in please.”
“Chimera. Do you read? Do you read. Chimera, return to port, please. Respond, please.”
“Sorry, Thule Control. Negatory.” She must have hit the button pretty hard, with just the edge of a laugh apparent in her voice. “No can do.”
The speaker crackled, the tone slightly different for internal communications.
“Congratulations, gentlemen. Let’s hope Chimera can keep her end of the bargain.”
They needed to go FTL-plus before hitting the boundary of Cancrian space. There had to be other Dominium units out there….
Alarms sounded the length of the ship.
“Acceleration alert. Acceleration alert.”
About Louis Shalako
Louis Shalako is the founder of Long Cool One Books and the author of eighteen novels, numerous novellas and other short stories. Louis studied Radio, Television and Journalism Arts at Lambton College of Applied Arts and Technology, later going on to study fine art. He began writing for community newspapers and industrial magazines over thirty years ago. His stories appear in publications including Perihelion Science Fiction, Bewildering Stories, Aurora Wolf, Ennea, Wonderwaan, Algernon, Nova Fantasia, and Danse Macabre. He lives in southern Ontario and writes full time. Louis enjoys cycling, swimming and good books.
There's more than one way to skin a cat, or take out a star cruiser in Louis Shalako's short story of the near future. Science fiction, action-adventure.