Another Saturday, another chapter. Let’s get to it!
The craft rotated ninety degrees and Jo had to brace herself for a moment against the sudden acceleration. This was always the worst part, the final docking. Station Control’s guidance systems were always more jerky than when a pilot was running things himself, or even when the onboard autopilot handled ship’s guidance. Someone must have left out consideration for the crew and passengers when he designed that algorithm; no doubt that designer had never been on a small transport craft, or cared about much except getting the code completed ahead of schedule so he could get the bonus stipulated in his contract.
Definitely a government operation.
Beside her in the cockpit, Carl winced as the thrusters fired to arrest the craft’s rotation. “Hate this part,” he muttered.
Jo worked hard to keep an amused grin from her face. “Shut up,” she said. She still had to be in character, for his safety.
Carl shot her a withering glance. He was good at this game.
Too bad they would never be able to sit down over a drink to reminisce over this one. It would have made a good story to tell.
The craft lurched as the docking apparatus locked on from above. Then the only sensation was that of a small forward acceleration as the mechanism overhead began to pull them into the waiting hangar bay.
Unlike larger ships, which could not be accommodated in a bay, orbital transport craft like Carl’s were always docked within one of hundreds of bays in the station’s administrative support rings. It made onload and offload easier, with g’s in place and an atmosphere to breathe. It also made for less of a jarring transition for the planetbound who travelled to and from the surface of the planet below. For the purpose of this trip, their hangar bay assignment was ideal: number 657, on the “upper”-most ring, closest to the starliner mooring facilities. The less real estate she and her team had to cross with the incubator, even bundled up so as to look like just another piece of cargo, the less chance they would be waylaid.
The craft came to an abrupt halt and a humming sound reverberated through the hull as the hangar bay doors slid shut behind them. Then came a louder hiss as atmosphere – not Earth normal, but breathable for a good long time without bad side effects – flooded into the bay. Then the craft slowly lowered to the bay floor, and the grapple released them and retracted into the docking mechanism proper, where it remained housed in the ceiling directly over the craft.
“Well,” Carl said, eyeing her with thinly-veiled contempt. “We’re here.”
Jo frowned and shook her head, but kept the pistol pointed at him. “I’m sorry it had to be this way, Carl,” she said.
In truth, there was no other way to have it, not without jeopardizing his safety. But she hated to have their last interaction play out this way, feigned or no. Because it would be their last interaction, ever. Whether she was successful or not, whether she got the eggs onto Agrippa and away, whether the aliens killed her or not, whether she returned victorious to Earth, he would not be alive to see it. Jo found herself biting back pre-emptive tears for the loss of such a dear friend.
Carl’s only reply was a cynical smirk.
Jo waggled the pistol at him. “You first.”
He complied, getting up from his seat and leading the way back into the small passage between the cockpit and the passenger compartment, where the crew access hatch allowed ingress and egress. Past his shoulder, Thomas, Grant, and Malcolm were on their feet at the front of the passenger compartment, waiting to get moving.
Carlton feigned shock at Malcolm’s presence. “Malcolm,” he gasped. “How? Why?” He looked between Jo and the once-dead man and managed to look convincingly dumbfounded. She never knew he was such a good actor.
“It’s a long story, Carl,” Jo said, “and we don’t have time for it. Open the hatch. And then I must apologize, but we’re going to have to tie you up and leave you here.”
Carl reached out and activated the hatch controls at Jo’s command, but froze at the mention of tying him up. He had been frowning for most of the last hour. Now he was frowning. Carl shook his head, but before he could say anything, Grant sprang at him from behind. In seconds, the brawny Aussie had Carl pinned on the ground. Less than a minute later, Carl was back on his feet, his hands bound behind him with zip-ties. He worked his jaw slowly, his frown now an all out scowl.
“I’m sorry, Jo,” he said, softly.
That took her by surprise. What did he have to be sorry for?
A moment later, she found out.
* * * * *
Through the open access hatch, the thud of booted feet running carried, followed by a terse shout in a deep baritone.
“The craft is surrounded. Release the crew and come out with your hands up!”
The shouted command was like a smack across the face. Jo had to stop herself from cringing away from the force it exerted on her psyche. How? She gave Carl a forceful look, the one she knew from experience would break even the hardest of space dogs from their silence.
“What did you do?”
Carl met her gaze for a moment, but that was all, before turning his eyes to the floor of the craft. “I tuned the transponder to the hijacking code.”
“Son of a bitch!” Thomas growled through gritted teeth; he looked ready to kill Carl right then and there. His brother looked the same. Malcolm was not far off.
Jo could sympathize, but she was in command. She had to remain cool, in control if they were going to get out of this with their skins intact, let alone if they were going to accomplish the mission.
“Why, Carl? You were going to be free to go your own way. There was no reason…”
His snort cut her off. He looked back up at her fiercely, his eyes narrow and burning with a deep anger. “Like hell. If I didn’t turn you in they’d find out. They’d know, sooner or later.” Jo opened her mouth to protest; they had given him all the cover he would ever need. But he beat her to it. “You’re leaving, Jo. I have to live here, and I’m not going to do it as a fugitive.” He looked away again, but Jo could tell it was more out of defiance than from shame. “I won’t do that to Alison, or my boys.”
It stung. More than that, it filled her with a fury that she had seldom felt before, and even then not in years. But…
But he was right.
It was dreadfully unfair of her to ask this much of him. She could run roughshod over the law, because she was leaving. Malcolm too. Thomas, Grant, Jörgen and Courtney, the others in CFL…they had all volunteered, decided of their own free will to join the cause, without having to be asked. Carl and Alison though were content to live their lives in Boston and neither bother nor be bothered. Until she had imposed on them. The fact that she had no alternative did not matter; she had upset their lives, and she could not blame Carl for doing what he thought was best for his family.
She nodded slowly. “I understand.”
The other members of her team looked at her incredulously. All except Malcolm. His expression had softened as Carl spoke, and he nodded at Jo’s words. He understood as well.
“We’re going to have to gag you, Carl,” she said.
Jo looked at Grant. “Do it. Don’t make it too tight.”
The fighting man scowled and grabbed Carl by the scruff of the neck, then dragged him into the passenger compartment. The soft sound of scuffling issued for a few seconds, followed by Carl crying out, “Ow” momentarily before his voice was muted by the gag. After another brief period, Grant rejoined them next to the hatch.
He gave Jo a quizzical look in response to her glare. “What? He’ll be fine.”
Jo rolled her eyes.
Thomas had taken up position just inside the hatch. He peeked out for a second, then hurriedly pulled his head back under cover. “Half a dozen men,” he reported. “Looks like station security regulars. Riot Gear and rifles.”
Malcolm frowned. The worry in his eyes mirrored Jo’s own. “Can you handle them?”
Thomas just grinned.
* * * * *
Jo would not have believed it had she not seen it with her own eyes.
Grant and Thomas, working as one and moving with a speed and precision that she could not begin to comprehend, took down the assembled security forces with apparent ease. One moment, the law men were ringing the craft. The next, and almost before the two flash-bang grenades the brothers threw out had finished going off, they were down, unconscious, with their hands zip-tied behind their backs and their weapons gathered into a tidy pile at the base of the craft’s boarding ladder.
It was all Jo could do to avoid gaping like a schoolgirl. As it was, she was certain her jaw was going to be bruised from striking her upper chest so hard before she could get herself back under control.
“How the hell did you do that?” Malcolm sounded breathless, and as stunned as Jo was.
Grant smirked. “Jervis didn’t send us along for our good looks.” He did not have a scratch on him, and he was not particularly attractive, at least not to Jo’s taste. But right then she could have kissed him, and his uglier brother too.
Instead she just rolled her eyes. Or she would have, if she was not still looking from unconscious body to unconscious body in amazement.
Thomas broke her out of it. “They’ll be sending backup. We need to be out of here in three minutes or we’re screwed.”
“Right.” Jo shook herself and slung her pack over her shoulder. Then, holstering the plasma pistol she had held on Carl, she darted down the boarding ladder into the hangar bay.
It was not a spectacularly large space. About twenty meters long and thirty wide, long enough to accommodate a basic orbital transport like the one Carl picked them up in, it nevertheless was as well-outfitted as the larger bulk transport hangars. Along both side walls hung fuel hoses, hoses for O2 and water replenishment, and those for sanitary pumpout. At the front of the bay was parked a mechanized loader alongside firefighting gear.
And, of course, there was a windowed-off control space, about five meters up the front wall. It was fully manned, of course, and Jo could see a number of pale faces watching them with wide eyes. Three pale faces, actually. One of them, the supervisor, no doubt, was obviously shouting something, but the other two just stood there as though struck dumb. And considering what Grant and Thomas had just done, Jo could not blame them. Finally, the supervisor shoved one of the other two and punched down, probably activating a communications circuit. He began yelling again. Jo couldn’t hear him, but he was no doubt calling for help.
“Everything’s under control here, situation normal,” Grant said, his tone highly amused as he watched the supervisor’s antics from Jo’s side.
She glanced sidelong at him, perplexed. He caught her gaze and rolled his eyes. “No one remembers the classics anymore,” he muttered. Then, more loudly, he pointed at the loader. “Get that thing started up!”
Jo moved to obey and was halfway to the loader before she realized that he had given an order and she had taken it. That was not right. She was in command, not…
She looked back and saw that the three men were gone, vanished into the cargo hold in the back of Carl’s craft. Of course, it made sense. They were all stronger than she. It would be difficult enough getting the incubator out of the craft with all of their muscles. If Malcolm or Thomas were driving the loader instead of she, it might be impossible.
It still stung a bit.
Whatever. There was work to do.
If you’ve seen one loader, you’ve seen them all. That was what Jo had always thought, and she was not disappointed with the unit in their hangar. Its controls were simplicity itself – and it did not require a database implant to start it, thank God. In less than a minute, she had it running. Thirty seconds later, she met the men at the bottom of the cargo ramp.
Between the three of them, they could just barely lift the incubator, but it was a good thing they did not have far to go to meet her, or they would have either dropped it or been forced to lay one end down and drag it to her. Jo had no idea how delicate the incubator’s innards were – not very, she would wager, based on how well it had kept running through all the abuse the lab rats had put it through – but she knew enough about complex mechanisms to know they were designed to function at a certain attitude, and if you tipped them over or left them at a bad angle for long enough, that could cause trouble.
It was a moot point now. After another few seconds of moaning and groaning, along with a goodly number of curses from all three men, they had the thing secured onto the loader’s twin arms.
There was no time for the wicked to rest on their laurels though. No sooner had they gotten the incubator squared away than Thomas and Grant hurried over to the main hatch leading into the station’s innards. Malcolm paused only to pick up a pair of plasma rifles from the small pile at the bottom of the boarding ramp. He handed one to Jo and shouldered the other, then ran to follow the two brothers.
Jo put the loader in gear and floored it. The damn things were not all that fast, but she easily caught up to the men as they ran down the adjoining passage toward this level’s central corridor. From there it should not be too far to the access tunnel to the Station’s central hub, where further transport lifts would take them to Mooring Level Three, where Agrippa was docked.
It was all coming together. They just needed their luck to hold out for a little bit longer.
* * * * *
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