Vitalumous Hexen Run
By Julieann Adolf
Mark looked around the tidy and shiny cockpit of the new freighter with an appreciation completely different from how he had looked at Princess only a few hours ago, before Chief Anderson called them out for duty. The corner of his mouth quirked as he put that thought out of his head and focused on business.
"Yes Sir, what you see here is the beginning of a new age of interstellar commerce." Captain Holstead said, his voice reflecting his pride, absently brushing his graying beard with a hand. The Captain nodded his head slightly as his brown eyes scanned the cockpit. "26 individual climate controlled shielded cargo holds, the newly designed Time Warp engines, 4 power generators and a state-of-the-art navigation computer system."
Mark heard Princess softly giggle at the words "Time Warp engines", and he smiled. The Phoenix had been installed with the new engines for over a year, enabling them to respond to emergencies on other planets with a speed that had shocked Spectra the first time they had used them. From his study of the Taurus Rising's plans, the Time Warp engines being used were a different version of what the Phoenix had. While the Phoenix had speed, the Taurus had the raw power to take into space vast weights.
"And, we have that new outer skin designed by your G-Force scientists, plus 4 high-power laser cannons. Spectra, or anyone else for that matter, will find us a hardy foe." Captain Holstead continued.
Mark picked up the implication and said smoothly, "It's our job to make sure they don't get a chance at you. The loading proceeding well?"
Keyop bounced into the cockpit, ducking under Mark's arm as he immediately began looking around. A brown haired woman with a headset on looked up in surprise as Keyop stopped to look at her station. Mark considered reaching out and yanking his G-4 back, but the woman relaxes and looked back to wink at Mark before looking back at her console. Keyop gave her a cheeky grin before moving on to study the next console.
Captain Holstead's second in command, Commander Carson, smiled tolerantly at the G-4 from his station at the pilot seat. "Loading is on schedule."
Mark mentally ran through the names and pictures of the crew from the Captain down to the cook. All had passed 7-Zark-7's security check and were reported as solid men and women with plenty of experience. So far Mark had to agree. While meeting them individually, he had yet to come across any that he felt suspicions about.
"The Vitalumous is already on board, so all we need are the remaining food and medical supplies. Then we're off to Hexen" Captain Holstead said.
Mark mentally grimaced at the thought of Hexen. Trouble had plagued that colony since its founding 25 years before. First cut off by the Spectra invasion, then hit by two plagues, and now slammed by a solar flare that had wiped out most of the farming land, as well as contaminated most of the food stores. The people had survived the flare in the bunkers built in preparation for a Spectra attack but if food, supplies, and the Vitalumous needed to revitalize the farmlands were not delivered soon, mass starvation would race across the planet.
As a colony so close to Spectran space, the planet had been invaluable as a source of information, providing numerous intercepted messages and observations that had been quite useful to G-Force in their past missions. Galaxy Security considered keeping the colony alive and functioning a high priority.
Then there was the Vitalumous. Several entities wanted it. The Black Market, several rogue planets, and then there was Spectra. Shortly after the Federation Council voted to ship out an emergency supply of the precious substance, Zark intercepted a coded communication sent from Earth to a known Spectra base on a nearby human colony world. The code was still in the process of being cracked, but both 7-Zark-7 and Chief Anderson were sure that Spectra would try to intercept the shipment.
"The last of which is being loaded tonight." Mark said with a nod. Keyop stopped to stare with great interest at the bright colors of the life support system console. Somehow, Mark had a suspicion their ground crew would be asked to change the displays on the Phoenix to something similar. "We'll be here to make sure nothing delays you."
"If you need any help, just let us know. The crew is now staying on board full time, to prep for launch." Captain Holstead said.
A half hour later, the team gathered outside the main hatch of Taurus Rising.
"Not much to see." Jason said as he watched the activity around them. "The crew looks like a competent bunch."
"And not all of them think we are needed." Tiny added.
"They don't know what we do." Mark said quietly. The sun started to set, lighting up a line of distant clouds in bright red and pink. He allowed himself the brief luxury of enjoying it. "If Spectra plans on doing anything, it'll have to be soon."
"Most likely under cover of darkness." Jason said. As if in response, the powerful floodlights surrounding the freighter blinked on, momentarily blinding them.
"Spread out, search the grounds. Look into anything the slightest bit suspicious. The Colonists can't wait for us to be delayed." Mark said, as the sky finally began to darken.
"**Won't be any left!**" Keyop said.
"Thank you, Mister Morbid." Princess said, pushing his head gently with her hand. "Let's go see if we can find anything."
Keyop gurgled in protest as she led him away.
"Tiny, I need you in the Phoenix scanning the area. We need to know ahead of time if anything is heading towards us."
"Aw, man!" Tiny complained. "I thought I was going to have a chance to hunt the grounds!"
Mark smiled, "Maybe later. It's going to be a long night."
"I'll spell him in a couple hours." Jason said as Tiny shuffled off dejectedly towards the Phoenix. A moment later Jason headed towards one of the warehouses.
Mark sighed as he headed towards the one area still uncovered. He passed by one of the gunner jeeps standing watch around the perimeter and nodded at one of the soldiers.
With the sun down, the air temperature dropped a few degrees, giving the air a refreshing crisp quality. Mark was glad to be out in it for a while, knowing he would soon be cramped up on the Phoenix with only the smell of recycled air to enjoy for the next several days.
The soft glow on the horizon disappeared, leaving only the powerful lights of the secured loading area illuminating the activity. From a place deep in the shadows near an unused forklift, Mark watched as a steady stream of crates passed from warehouses to the cargo holds of the Taurus Rising. The Phoenix sat several hundred yards away, the size of the freighter dwarfing the Phoenix several times over.
The colonists of Hexen had been lucky in that the Taurus Rising had just completed its final checks for duty when the emergency happened. No other freighter near Earth could provide the tonnage capacity needed for all the supplies.
Mark moved towards one of the larger warehouses being constructed to the east of the activity area. For security reasons, construction had halted while the freighter was being loaded and the area was unlit. Knowing Spectra's liking for hiding things in dark places, he investigated every nook and cranny. Jason passed overhead on one of the upper scaffolding. Looking down and spotting Mark, Jason gave him the all-clear sign. Leaving the upper areas for Jason to scout, he silently continued on his walk, working his way back towards the active loading area.
As he approached one of the larger warehouses he saw Princess out of the corner of his eye standing near the door of the farthest warehouse, talking to one of the loading crew. Keyop flashed in and out of sight, disappearing inside one of the smaller warehouses. He turned towards an older warehouse, rust showing through the paint of the outside metal slating. Several piles of crates sat outside the central doors, waiting to be moved.
He moved aside as two forklifts rushed by, quickly picked up several crates and then moved rapidly towards the freighter. He mentally matched up the faces of the drivers with the faces in the files of those working on the grounds. So far, no strangers. But then, with Spectra, that didn't always matter. How many times had Zoltar himself tricked them with his disguises?
An odd click caught his attention, and Mark jerked his head to the left. A bolt rolled in front of a crate, where it circled and then shuddered to a halt in a small crack in the pavement. Moving in a blur, he circled around to the other side of the pile of crates, and found nothing.
Someone was near, his senses told him, and his hand automatically pulled out his sonic boomerang, holding it ready. His eyes probed the dark shadows left by the high-powered spotlights highlighting the Taurus. Something moved in the corner of his eye, and the Boomerang flew.
"Dammit, Mark!" The shadow yelled as it ducked.
"I thought you were at the other warehouse!" Mark yelled back at Jason as the boomerang arced back to him.
Jason came fully into view, with a deep scowl on his face, made even fiercer with the stark light and shadows caused by the powerful floodlights. "I was, until I saw someone skulking around over here."
"Not sure. Somewhere around here."
Mark motioned for Jason to move around one pile of crates, while he moved around the other side. Jason nodded and merged into the shadows again, with his cablegun in his hand and at the ready. They moved quickly from one pile of crates to the next. The forklifts returned and removed several more, and Mark took the opportunity to once again look at their faces.
As they left, Jason joined him. "I'm not seeing anything, but I know I saw movement."
Mark looked back at the warehouse and at one of the open freight doors. "One more place to look."
Lifting his left arm he said quietly into his communicator, "Princess, come to the Warehouse 48 and check out the rear loading area. Make sure all doors are locked and secure. We may have an intruder."
"Big Ten." Princess acknowledged.
Jason and Mark split up and headed in opposite directions. They began checking the metal roll-down doors one by one, slowly moving towards the center. Mark found each one firmly closed. Meeting Jason in the center with the only open freight door between them, they hugged the wall on either side. With a signal of his hand, they both moved in unison.
In a flash they were inside and in the shadows.
Waiting only a second to gain his bearings, Mark moved again, and then again, to settle near a cluster of tall industrial shelving. Only a few lights illuminated the inside of the warehouse; one over the open freight door, one a little farther in, and one in the administrative offices. Mark studied the area near the roll-up freight door and then at the administrative offices. Slowly moving his visual search farther into the interior of the warehouse he could see no movement or oddly shaped shadows.
Needing a better view, Mark shot forward, moving without a sound as he did. Jason did the same, keeping close to the shadows, checking the doors of the administrative offices as he passed, only to find them locked.
Mark snapped back into the shadows as a forklift startled him. He watched as it rolled inside with practiced ease, picked up a large crate almost as big as the forklift itself, and then rolled back outside.
"I haven't seen anything moving." Jason said as he joined him.
"We'll move farther in. There are a lot of places to hide in here." Mark said.
Rows of different sized crates waited in rows in near darkness towards the back of the warehouse. Mark and Jason split up, each going down a row and meeting at the end.
It was Jason who saw the gleam of light glinting off a sliver of wire at Mark's feet as they split up again. With a tackle that left him gasping for breath, Jason forced them both to the floor as laser fire raked the air above them where Mark had just stood.
"Someone just ran the security checkpoint." Princess reported over the communicator. "Keyop is pursuing. All doors to the warehouse are locked and secured."
"We were set up." Jason muttered, as they crawled away from the trap. He stopped as he rounded another row of shelving and spotted several cylinders tied together and strapped to a support beam. His voice husky, he said, "Make a run for it, this whole place is wired to blow!"
Mark didn't ask questions. Both were on their feet and running for the one open door. Mark relayed the warning as they sprinted out of the warehouse.
Princess hit a panic button. Immediately, an ear piercing alarm rang out over the loading area. The forklifts came to an immediate stop, the crates on them tipping slightly, as the drivers hopped off and began sprinting towards designated safety areas. The hatches of the Taurus Rising slammed shut and sealed. As Mark and Jason cleared the warehouse the sounds of the Phoenix engines powering up joined the sound of the alarm.
As one, Jason and Mark flew over one of the concrete barricades protecting one of the entrances to a small underground bunker. A split second later the bomb went off. They hugged the wall as the ground beneath them shook. A moment later debris flew overhead. Through the hearing protection of his helmet, Mark felt sure he heard up to 3 distinct explosions, not just one. No doubt, there had been multiple bombs place in the warehouse.
The silence after the explosion in itself was deafening. Cautiously, they looked out. The warehouse they had come out of was in bad condition, some of it missing altogether. Two forklifts lay on their sides, with crates haphazardly strewn about the loading area, some intact, some shattered.
"Was this to delay the flight enough for a mecha to arrive, or was this aimed to destroy the supplies?" Jason wondered.
"Or maybe to kill us specifically? We won't be waiting around to find out." Mark said somberly.
An hour later, some of the mess around the launch area had been cleared up, but the main focus remained to load the freighter as fast as possible. The loading crews worked feverishly, bringing in loading equipment from other areas of the spaceport, moving in and around a new squad of soldiers that had been quickly positioned in and around the area.
Keyop arrived a short time later, upset he had found the vehicle that had run the security checkpoint, only to find no one in it. Galaxy Security was continuing the search, but Mark didn't hold much chance the person would be found.
The explosion had showered the Taurus Rising with debris, but no damage had been done to its tough skin. For Mark, the sooner they were off the ground, the better. With the new scanner installed in the Phoenix in the last week, they would have a better chance of seeing any enemy approaching once they in space. On the ground, there were too many chances for sabotage.
Chief Anderson agreed that the Vitalumous remained the most important part of the mission, and agreed that the damaged supplies could be replaced and sent out on another cargo ship within the next few weeks.
Two hours later Mark stood in the cockpit of the Phoenix, watching the last of the forklifts leaving the area. The engines of the Taurus Rising glowed softly in the darkness, the marker lights blinking red, green and white.
"We have clearance for launch and a clear departure path." Princess reported.
"Good." Mark said, moving to take his chair, "Tiny, take us up a little. Jason, see if the scanner picks up anything."
Tiny lifted the Phoenix into the air smoothly, stopping to hover 500 feet above the launch position.
"We're clear." Jason reported.
"Princess, tell the Taurus Rising that they are cleared for launch."
The launch itself went smoothly. Tiny moved the Phoenix from one side of the freighter to the other, giving the scanners clear views of all sides as they rose to low Earth orbit. 7-Zark-7 checked in with them as they powered out of orbit, clearing them for Time Warp.
"We're awfully close. Wouldn't take much for a collision to happen when entering Time Warp." Jason remarked as Tiny typed in the last of the coordinates for the jump.
"We need to be close by and ready in case anyone is waiting on the other side." Mark said. "After the bomb, I think we can expect trouble."
"*** Ready for it! Come and get it! ***" Keyop said, bouncing in his seat.
"Seats, everyone." Tiny warned. The computers of the Phoenix and Taurus Rising synced, and a short countdown began. "Dangerous or not, here we go!"
The Phoenix and Taurus Rising accelerated sharply in unison as the Time Warp engines flared. Compared to the g-forces of space launch, however, this was short. Mark felt a strong pressure pushing his body into the back cushion of his chair, firmly holding him there, and then let up.
"That's it! We're in Time Warp." Tiny announced.
"And now the boring part." Princess sighed.
Mark silently agreed. The time while in Time Warp were thoroughly monotonous. Then came the shorter tense intervals in normal space while they waited for the engines to recover for the next jump.
The route had been planned only a few hours before. With the distance directly to Hexen too long for one jump, several had to be made. The voyage was made even longer by using little known or utilized star systems, as well as skirting a nebula where the Spectran presence was known to be almost non-existent.
Both the team and crew of the Taurus Rising shifted into a pattern familiar to long-distance voyages. System checks, rest periods, preparing dehydrated food and playing computer solitaire occupied their time. Captain Holstead checked in at regular intervals, using a closed-beam communication system for secure short distance transmissions.
Mark looked at the new Time Warp scanner at Jason's station every time he passed. For the past few days the scope remained clear, occasionally showing a passing planet or star. Usually Time Warp affected scanners, making them fuzzy and unreliable, but so far the new display had stayed clear.
The crews were ready and alert at their stations each time the ships exited Time Warp. Each time they found nothing waiting for them. Even so, they made the jump into Time Warp as soon as possible as Mark didn't want to give anyone a target.
By the last jump Mark thought perhaps they would arrive at Hexen unmolested after all. The turn-around had been quick, only 2 hours until they jumped back into Time Warp. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief.
When Keyop decided to practice with his bolo's in the cockpit, and narrowly missed his own head, Mark decided to take his rest period first. A loud bonk and a howl of indignation as he reached the bunk room confirmed his decision.
Settling into a lower bunk, he closed his eyes and composed himself to sleep. Just beginning to drift off, he was startled to hear Jason's voice over the intercom.
"We're coming out of Time Warp, Mark. Better get up here."
Mark rushed to the bridge just as Tiny brought the Phoenix out of Time Warp, still trailing the Taurus Rising. Mark grabbed the back of a chair to steady himself at the fast fluctuation in g-forces, waiting for the floor beneath him to stabilize, "What happened?"
"One of the compartments on the freighter began depressurizing. One of the crew is injured. Captain Holstead is asking if we have a hyperbaric chamber on board." Princess relayed.
"I'll get it ready." Jason said, getting up from his seat.
"Keyop, head out in your buggy. Start a visual inspection of the hull, see if something pierced it." Mark said. Keyop ran out of the cockpit.
"So much for the new skin." Tiny muttered.
The Phoenix moved forward and then slowed until it matched the speed of the Taurus Rising. A docking corridor extended from the freighter and Tiny carefully brought the Phoenix into a hard dock. Princess followed Mark and Jason into the airlock and then into the Taurus. The injured crewman had been brought to the airlock on the stretcher, blood dripping from his ears and nose.
"Real lucky to have gotten out." Captain Holstead was saying as Jason began checking him over. "A tool case just happened to hit the hole, allowing the pressure to stabilize enough for him to get the emergency bulkhead door open."
"We need to get him into the Phoenix." Jason said, his voice authoritative.
"**Found the hole!**" Keyops voice announced from Marks communicator.
"Commander Carson and an engineer are already suiting up." Captain Holstead said, "Our engineers were specially trained to repair the new skin. Not that we thought that would happen this soon."
"Keyop can guide them to the damaged area." Mark said, picking up one end of the stretcher while Jason picked up the other end.
The medical bay of the Phoenix was small, and yet contained medical equipment most hospitals would be jealous of. The unconscious crewman was quickly placed in a multi-use chamber inset in one wall. In seconds the pressure began to decrease. Jason hooked up the IV and medical sensors to the man with a robotic arm.
Knowing they were in the way, Princess and Mark headed back up to the cockpit.
"Scope is clear." Princess said as she sat down.
On the main screen they watched as an airlock opened on the Taurus Rising and two men in spacesuits with mobile packs on their backs appeared.
"We have your men in sight." Mark reported to the Taurus Rising.
"Roger that, Phoenix." the Taurus Rising said.
"This is Carson in suit 1." a voice said over a crackly transmission. "Phoenix, do you copy?"
"We hear you fine." Tiny said back. "Head directly aft of your position."
"Roger, Phoenix. I can see your little buggy hovering. Can you give us an idea of how big the hole is?" Carson asked
"**Small, 5 centimeters long.**" Keyop reported.
"Roger that." Carson said.
Tiny patched into Keyops camera, and then amplified the area on the Phoenix view screen. As the small gash grew larger, Mark started to frown. Tiny muttered, "What one little asteroid can do. And we skirted all the mapped asteroid fields!"
"It wasn't an asteroid." Mark said, perplexed.
"What are you talking about?" Princess asked from behind his chair. "Think it was an internal explosion?"
"Look at the edges. If it had been a meteor, the edges of the hole should show some angling with the projectile. If it was caused from the inside, the edges should be pointing out."
"Instead, all the edges are clean and even." Princess said slowly, realizing what Mark meant.
"Yeah, it looks like some of the hull just disappeared." Tiny said.
"It's a new ship!" Princess exclaimed.
With frustrating slowness, the two men moved down the length of the freighter towards the damaged area of the hull.
"Mark, I just had a blip at the edge of our scanner range." Princess suddenly reported.
"What is it?"
"It showed up for only a split second. All I got was a power reading, so I know it's a ship."
"Great." Mark glanced over at the weapons status screen. All the indicators displayed steady green.
Mark heard Princess hit something, "And now the whole screen is blank!"
Mark jumped out of his seat and hurried to Jason's station. Princess slipped several switches, but the scanner scope remained filled with snowy static and random shapes. In frustration she hit the scanner display, and the scope cleared to display normally.
Jason entered the cockpit. At Mark's look he shrugged, "He definitely has decompression sickness. I've increased the oxygen, and the nitrogen bubbles seem to be restricted to his legs. I've done all I can."
Mark nodded and motioned to the scanners, "Looks like your equipment has a few problems."
Jason quickly moved forward, and Princess gave up the seat while explaining the problem, and the unknown power reading.
"The blip could have been a part of the malfunction." Princess said.
"Can we find out for sure?" Mark asked.
"I don't think it was." Jason said quietly as he started to work at the keyboard again. "Starting diagnostics."
Princess returned to her station and relayed to the Taurus Rising the condition of their crewman. Mark returned to his chair and watched the progress of the two crew members as they came to a stop at the damaged area of the freighters skin.
"We'll have this patched up within 20 minutes." Carson reported.
"Roger." Captain Holstead responded.
"Dammit!" An angry voice yelled over the airwaves.
"Captain Holstead?" Mark inquired.
"We may have need of your medical assistance again, Commander."
"Jason!" Mark said, but he was already on his way to a cabinet for a medical kit.
"Princess, keep an eye on those scopes." Jason said as he and Mark ran out of the cockpit.
Mark and Jason quickly headed to the airlock. Captain Holstead and Deck Officer Kearny waited for them on the other side.
"An electrical fire on the second deck, near the secondary food storage area." The Captain said as he led them into the ship, "Two men were in there and they have not been answering the intercom. We've shut down the power to the area and the fire suppression systems have activated. We have limited medical supplies for serious burns."
"Let's hope they don't have any." Jason said seriously.
"How long have the members of this crew worked with you, Captain?" Mark asked as they walked quickly down the passageway.
"Been with all of them now and again over the past 15 years or more. No new ones on this voyage, couldn't afford to make this a training run with all that is riding on it." Captain Holstead paused at a closed bulkhead while Kearny opened it.
The only light in the compartment was one emergency light above the door. The strong acrid smell of burned fibers, insulation and plastic hung in the air. Captain Holstead and Deck Officer Kearny switched on their hand lanterns and swept the inside of the compartment.
"There they are." Kearny said pointing his light at two bodies against one wall. Smoke roiled out from the wall nearby. He set down his lantern and pulled a fire extinguisher from the wall. Jason ran forward as he shot the foam into the midst of the smoke.
The first man opened his eyes at the light of the lantern in his face roused him. "What happened?" he asked, his voice full of pain.
Jason tore fabric away from where the cloth of the manÕs uniform had burnt away, "You tell us."
The man only moaned.
Mark kneeled near the other man, who had struggled into a sitting position. "What happened down here?"
"Sir, I have no idea. We were checking the cargo holds, when the panel just blew up next to us! No warning or anything." the man said, shaking his head.
"Looks like the main electrical conduit, sir. The conduit arced, it's almost cut in two." Kearny said, shining his light into the rapidly thinning smoke.
"How could that happen? This is a new ship!" Captain Holstead said, frowning furiously.
"I need this man in the Phoenix medical bay immediately." Jason said, interrupting, "He has extensive first degree burns and is going into shock. Your medical bay should be able to handle the other."
Once again, the gurney was brought out, and the man put on it. Mark and Jason each lifted an end as Captain Holstead helped the other crew member towards the Taurus Rising Medbay.
As they entered the Phoenix, Princess met them at the airlock.
"No new blips on the scanners, but there is something definitely wrong with the equipment. But I haven't been able to find out what yet." she said as she followed them to the Medbay.
As they lifted the man onto a trauma bed on the same wall as the chamber, Mark said to Princess, "Get down to where that fire started and see what you can find before a repair crew starts working on it."
Princess nodded and quickly left as Jason set out to tending the burns. As Jason started a drip of morphine, he nodded to Mark, "I can handle it from here. You have bigger problems."
Mark nodded and headed back to the freighter.
"How bad is it?" Captain Holstead asked as Mark joined him in the still dark cargo compartment. The smoke had cleared from the damaged panel, but still hung in the air.
"This keeps up, we're going to run out of room in the Medical Bay." Mark said with a wry face, "Both are heavily dosed with painkillers. This last one should be in a burn trauma unit."
"But he'll live?"
"Jason thinks so. He's a good medic, your crewman is in good hands."
Captain Holstead nodded and sighed.
"Keyop?" Mark asked at the darker smaller birdstyle hunched next to Princess holding a flashlight.
"**Hole repaired.**" Keyop burbled, "**Brought crew back myself.**was faster**"
"Finding anything?" Mark asked Princess.
"Not much, other than questions. It shouldn't have failed in this area." Princess said. She rose to her feet. "I can't tell you why it did."
Keyop sneezed in the acrid air, while looking at the conduit with the flashlight.
"Is this going to affect your ability to Time Warp?" Mark asked Captain Holstead
The Captain shook his head, "We'll switch to a backup system and divert power around this area completely."
"Keyop, what are you doing?" Mark asked, watching the little fellow crawl along the edge of the wall, making grabbing motions with his hands at the floor.
"**Space ants!**" Keyop looked at Mark disappointedly, "**missed**"
"We don't have time to catch new pets." Mark said, knowing what Princess's reaction would be to a jar full of ants being brought on board the Phoenix.
"Great, now we need to be fumigated. How did those blasted things get on board so fast!?" Captain Holstead demanded.
Mark grinned at the CaptainÕs outburst, "Prepare for jump. We'll be on the Phoenix waiting to hear when you are ready."
The Captain nodded absently at them.
"Nothing out of the ordinary?" Mark asked Princess as they walked down the corridor towards the airlock with Keyop trailing behind them.
"The fire did a lot of damage in there, so it's hard to tell. Looks like part of the conduit vaporized. It must have been a huge electrical arc to do that." Princess said, with a worried note to her voice.
"No reason for a new cable to do that." Mark agreed.
"Something weird is going on with this ship."
"**Ghosts!**" Keyop offered.
"Well, if you see any of them, tell them to knock it off." Princess said crossly.
Tiny looked back at them when they came into the cockpit, "How soon can we jump to Time Warp?"
"They're in the process of switching to backup power systems. How's it going in here?"
"Nothing much except that stupid scanner cut out again. I'm going to have words with the engineering crew when we get back." Tiny said with disgust.
"And no, I still haven't found anything wrong with it." Jason said to Mark before he could ask. "And yes, our newest patient has stabilized. At least as much as he can."
Mark shook his head and collapsed into his chair, his mind running through the events of the last few hours. He thought about his meeting with each of the crew before the Freighter launch. They looked like solid dependable people, and yet Mark had to consider if one of them might be a saboteur. Or perhaps someone on the ground, from before the launch?
"Systems are back online." Captain Holstead reported, "Starting up engines now."
Mark opened a channel back to the Freighter, "Roger that, Captain. Requesting permission to undock."
"Permission granted. Thank you Phoenix."
Mark nodded to Tiny, who then went through the motions of preparing the Phoenix for disconnect from the Freighter. A thump from behind the cockpit signaled that the docking corridor had detached cleanly from the side of the Phoenix.
"Undock successful. Powering up main engines." The freighter reported.
"System check." Mark ordered.
"Engines go." Tiny said back.
"Scopes are clear." Jason answered.
"**Computers, navigation good**" Keyop piped in.
"Communications, sensors a go." Princess reported.
"Okay, let's power up the engines." Mark ordered, reaching for his console.
"Phoenix, we have a problem." Captain Holsteads voice said over the radio.
Mark suppressed a groan and leaned back into his chair, but Jason let loose with a string of colorful and descriptive complaints. Tiny simply reached for the radio and asked with a depressed tone, "Go ahead Captain, what's the problem?"
"Main engines won't start up. The engineer is down there now, but he's not finding anything obvious. Isn't your G-3 familiar with the design?"
Tiny looked at Mark, who exhaled and nodded. "Taurus Rising, we need a re-dock." Tiny said.
"Engine power-up sequence won't initiate." Princess muttered to herself as she started gathering tools, "That's a lot to go on."
By the time they confirmed hard dock Princess had commandeered Keyop to carry two toolboxes, while she carried yet another and a mobile computer. As soon as the docking corridor pressurized, Princess was through the airlock with Keyop close behind.
"I'm checking on our patients." Jason announced, heading towards the rear of the Phoenix.
Mark moved to the scanners. Even as he sat down in Jason's chair, the scanner display turned into snow and intermittent bands of black and white. In frustration, he hit the screen with the flat of his hand. The second time he hit it, the screen cleared. Tiny looked back at him.
"Let's do our own system check while we're waiting." Mark said.
"Some voyages just aren't meant to be easy." Tiny remarked as he started the pilot system check.
Mark bit his tongue to keep from answering.
"Nothing happened, nothing at all!" Engineer Vedstok said, throwing up his hands. "Computers, fine. Generators, fine, Power cables, fine. But no engines!"
Princess nodded, keeping her face serious at the mans grand hand gestures. "So, the engines themselves, then."
"New engines!" Engineer Vedstok said with renewed frustration, throwing up his hands again.
"Obvious areas to start, alternators and wiring harness, and the Carbon Engaging Couplings."
"Take the alternators. I will have to climb down into the engine for the couplings."
Princess nodded and headed down into the engine bay. Squeezing into a narrow access area, she bent to one knee and set down the small portable scanner she had been holding.
"**Space ant!**" Keyop said.
"Yes, yes." Princess said distractedly as she pulled off one of the large access panels, shivering a little, "I hate ants. We're not taking any home."
Keyop complained about that as Princess pushed a few bundles of wires out of the way and looked at the cubical alternators beyond.
"**Okay from outside**" Keyop chirped as he angled a light in.
"Yes, it is." Princess murmured, looking into the still brightly clean area. In a few years it would be covered in the grime and dust of a working freighter, but for now, the components practically sparkled. She started to reach for the scanner, "Aim to the lower left."
She suddenly paused, a glint catching her eye. Then, in a flash, her hand darted to the tool case and a screwdriver flew free, striking straight as a cobra at its prey. Keyop jumped in surprise. Princess took the light from him and aimed it into a corner of the access panel. A tiny ant lay on its side next to a bundle of wires snaking to one of the alternators.
"**Space ant!*** Need fumigated**"
"I don't think pest control can do anything about these." Princess said slowly.
Pulling out tweezers and a flat piece of plastic from the repair kit, she leaned in and gently retrieved the ant. She studied it while Keyop aimed the light directly over it.
"**Metal**?" Keyop asked, surprised.
"A miniature robot. Say hello to our saboteurs." Princess said, "Mark will want to see this."
A short time later they were back on the Phoenix. Mark studied the small motionless ant, metal and tiny wiring showing through its damaged side as Princess held it up to him. "Look at those jaws. What do you want to bet these things were responsible for chewing through the electrical conduit?"
"**And ship skin!**" Keyop added.
Mark nodded. "Now we know. Who knows where else these things have been gnawing." Mark shook his head, his lips a thin line, biting out, "Spectra. Think you can figure out how it works, to stop them?"
"I can try."
"Get on it. Tiny, get me the Captain."
Princess hurried to the medical bay, nodding at Jason as she came through. She pulled out from a wall cabinet a small table with a microscope attached. Out of a drawer came a small kit with numerous small tools. Moving the ant under the microscope, Princess pulled a small chair to the table, and then began to slowly and carefully dissect it. Jason walked over and watched over her shoulder, and then leaned up against the wall to get a better view. Princess ignored him, concentrating on the little robot before her.
The more she worked, the more confused Princess became. Something about the components didn't sit right. True, Spectra was extremely inventive in their science, but this was different from what was usually seen in their robotics.
On a whim, she extracted several metal components and set them aside. Even with the limits of the small lab on the Phoenix, it wasn't hard to get the test results she wanted. And they were conclusive.
She rolled the seat away from the table. Princess turned to look at Jason, who had remained silent the whole time, and said, "Not Spectra, Tromulous."
With his ever-serious face he nodded. Princess turned back and continued her analysis, with the new information in mind.
"Princess, one of your little beasties got in here!" Tiny yelled through their communicators.
"Must have come in through the airlock." Jason said.
"We can expect trouble on the Phoenix now." Princess said depressed, getting up, grabbing the tool kit.
When Princess walked into the cockpit Tiny sat glaring murderously at a small stationary speck with a shuriken sticking through its body. She quickly removed it from his console and moved it to hers.
"The freighter crew are finding the ants all over the place." Mark told her as Princess examined the the new ant. Keyop looked over at her from Jason's chair as she poked it with one of the small tools. Opening it up, she pushed at a few components.
Bored, Keyop turned back to the scanner and then pointed, "**a blip!**....**Wait, it's gone**"
"This is the same design as the other one." Princess said as Mark scowled at the scanner.
"All I'm concerned about is stopping them. Have you figured out how they work yet?"
"Basically, yes. Especially once I narrowed down where they came from." Princess looked at Mark, "Tromulous."
Mark looked at her in surprise, "Are you sure?"
"A metal analysis was conclusive. The metals have several impurities that are found only on Tromulous. They've used robotic ants before." Princess reminded him.
Mark looked grim, "I'm going to go and speak with the Captain. There has to be a way to stop them."
"**Locust flute!**" Keyop said with a grin.
"These aren't locusts, Keyop. I'll see if I can get into their main processor, find out what the targets are. That would help a little." Princess said.
Mark left and Tiny motioned Princess away, "Get that thing outta my cockpit. I want them off my ship!"
"I'll need to be up here. I need the Phoenix computer to access the processor."
Princess quickly gathered a few tools to her station, and started working. The ant Tiny had killed was less damaged than the one she had been working on before, so she focused on it. She set aside three components she thought might be the main computer. Then came the problem of getting into it. Sending Keyop to the Medical Bay to get the other ant, she farther dissected it and recovered an undamaged power unit. She paused a moment to plan how to wire the small piece into her console. Formulating a plan, she carefully began attaching several small wires, and only then, attaching the small power unit.
"**Darn snow**" Keyop said frustrated.
Princess only glanced over at the snowy display before returning to her task.
The first try the computer display was blank. Obviously, she had connected something wrong. Princess disconnected the power unit and rearranged two of the wires.
"**Now clear again**"
Princess shook her head as she reattached the power unit, pleased to see two lines of code come up on her screen.
"**ARGH**!!" Keyop yelled in frustration.
"That thing is getting worse all the time!" Tiny complained.
Princess froze, her eyes wide. Licking her lips, she disconnected the power unit. Instantly the scanner screen cleared up. Reconnect, the snow reappeared. Princess started to smile even as Keyop hit the scanner display with his fist in frustration.
"There is no way we can kill all these things." Captain Holstead said. "They can get practically anywhere. We've been seeing a lot of them around the life support systems."
Mark nodded, looking at the tangle of life support coils in the room. "I know, and we're working on that. At least we know the cause of all your problems now."
"If they keep going after the life support system..." Captain Holsteads voice trailed off as he shook his head.
"Mark!" Princess shouted out as she ran down the corridor, her scanner in swinging from her left hand.
"You found something? What was in the computer?" Mark asked quickly.
Princess slid to a stop, "No, nothing in the computer. A transmitter, I stumbled onto a transmitter. The computer inside was just for interpreting the orders it received through the transmitter."
"Transmitted from where?" Mark asked.
"That's what this is for. The transmitter is what was causing the Phoenix scanner to act up. Anytime an ant was near it turned to snow. I thought we could follow the signal back to the computer giving the orders." Princess said with a smile.
"Lead the way." Mark said with a hand flourish.
The crew moved out of her way as Princess began to walk. Occasionally, she would pause, only to move forward again. Little by little Princess narrowed the area, until she stopped at one of the cargo holds. She looked back at Mark, "It's in here."
Captain Holstead brought out a card key to open the door, and Princess continued to narrow the search. In the end, they faced an average size crate bearing the sign of medical supplies.
"We need to open this." Princess said to Captain Holstead.
"Do whatever you need to do."
Mark helped a crew member open the crate. At the top were tightly packaged boxes of bandages, ointments and sterile needles.
She passed the scanner over the packages and nodded. "It's in here. Best clear the compartment. Just in case there is a self-destruct trigger." Princess said.
Mark compressed his lips and nodded. A minute later the door was sealed, and everyone was safely down the corridor behind a bulkhead door.
"I think I can get into the box safely. Stand by." Princess said once Mark gave her the all-clear over the communicator.
Mark leaned up against the wall of the corridor, looking every bit the unflappable and calm Commander. Inside, he was tensely waiting for Princess's update, or the sound of an explosion. Captain Holstead and the crew shifted nervously, sometimes glancing at him. The seconds on his watch slowly ticked away. Mark hated how time always seemed to slow down in situations like this.
"Got it. They are shut down." Princess said over his communicator.
Mark let out a his breath, and breathed deeply again. "Good work, Princess."
The crew in the corridor broke out in nervous laughter and cheers.
"All right, let's get busy. We have a colony waiting for us." Captain Holstead said over the noise.
Captain Holstead opened the blast door as the crew began to disperse. Princess walked through the door of the cargo hold, looking at the scanner.
"We just got another blip on the scanner." Jason said through the communicator.
"Stand by." Mark looked at Princess as she stopped in front of him, her eyes still on the scanner, "What can you tell me?"
"I think life-support was one of the last points of attack. It looks like it was then scheduled to send out a signal...Oh great, they did something to the Taurus's aft power generator." She looked at him, "It's going to take time to repair all this."
Mark nodded. "As long as they think we are still alive and viable, that their robots haven't completed their job, we have the upper hand. Any idea what they have done on the Phoenix?"
"Life-support, computers, and any generator, if they could find it." She grinned at him, "They didn't have the blueprints of the Phoenix to go on, the computer here had to guess what was vital. Give me a few more minutes and I can give a detailed list of damage for both ships."
"Great, I'll be on the Phoenix looking at the life-support systems. Call when you have that list."
She nodded and turned back towards the cargo hold.
Once back on the Phoenix, Mark organized Keyop and Tiny into checking the computers and life-support, while he went to check on the various generators. Princess called in a short time later with a detailed list of the damaged areas. Jason set up a remote viewer to keep an eye on the two patients in the medical bay while he went to work testing power conduits.
After replacing a third circuit board on one of the smaller generators, Mark returned to the cockpit. "How are repairs going on the Freighter?"
"So far so good." Tiny said, "Captain Holstead says Princess was able to use some of the robot ants to do some of the repairs in hard-to-access areas of the ship. "
Mark smiled at that, "Well, why not make good use of what meant to destroy us?"
"We've had two more blips." Tiny said.
"They're getting anxious." Mark said. "Wonder how much longer they will wait?"
"They'll be in for a surprise if they try." Tiny said with a wicked smile, patting the console.
Mark slowly began to smile, "How true, Tiny. Get an estimated time for completion of essential repairs from the Captain. I'm going to talk with Princess."
Tiny raised an eyebrow, "Are we planning something?"
The two ships drifted close together, completely dark, slowly tumbling, the glow of the engine exhausts faded.
A new dark colored ship slowly approached the two, four massive engines glowing at the rear. A bloated mid-section alluded to its cargo carrying capacity, but the gun and missile turrets gave no question that it was designed for war. It nearly matched the length of Taurus Rising. Shying from the smaller ship, the new ship approached Taurus Rising from the other side of the freighter.
The Phoenix continued its dance with the Taurus Rising, slowly drifting past the heavier freighter. As if more comfortable with the growing distance, the new ship angled for better access at the Taurus Rising cargo holds.
The belly opened up and two robotic arms snaked out. Numerous large diameter tubing followed, moving with a mind of their own, but all aiming for the cargo areas of the dead Freighter.
A point of light erupted from the top of the Phoenix and arced towards the new ship. Moving swiftly and deadly, the missile found its way into the belly of the alien ship, slicing through some of the tubing before exploding. The explosion rocked the Tromulan ship, and the arms and tubing shuddered to a halt, while some of the tubing drifted free into open space.
The engines of the Taurus Rising came to life, piercing the dark with bright points of life. The next minute, it shot forward, accelerated quickly. Two more missiles shot out from the Phoenix as the Tromulan ship overcame its surprise, turning to hide its exposed underbelly, lasers trying to hit a suddenly nimble Phoenix. The Freighter continued its escape, disappearing with a bright spark into Time Warp.
Its prey gone, the Tromulan ship focused solely on the one remaining ship. Several Phoenix missiles bounced harmlessly off the armored nose. Firing a missile of its own, the Tromulan ship turned to the side and enveloped the Phoenix in laser fire, occasionally adding to the barrage with a missile.
Inside the Phoenix, alarms blared, and the lights flickered.
"Controls are locked!" Tiny yelled, "I can't budge them."
"Can you fire another missile?" Mark yelled at Jason.
"Fire it, yes! Aim it, no!"
"We're drifting. Generator 2 is out." Princess said as the Tromulan ship bombarded them with a flurry of new missiles. The Phoenix shuddered at the explosions, and Mark looked worriedly at the alarms and warnings on his console. Stars on the screen slowly moved as the Phoenix began an uncontrolled tumble.
"Hah, gotcha!" Jason said triumphantly. A missile shot out as the Phoenix nose drifted around to face the Tromulan ship. The missile made contact, and for a moment, the laser fire hesitated.
"We have auxiliary flight controls!" Tiny announced.
Mark took the chance.
"Go to Fiery Phoenix!" He shoved the lever to its full position, hoping the other generators were in good enough shape to initiate the metamorphosis.
The Phoenix rose to the challenge, the generators screaming at top power output, as the line on Mark's console pushed into the red. The ship shuddered, and then shot forward, transformed into a fiery bird, screeching towards her opponent. The Phoenix moved with a mind of its own, gliding in deadly grace towards the Tromulan ship. The ship, in a last ditch attempt to protect itself, launched a flurry of missiles from its remaining launch tubes, while laser fire tried to slow down the advance of the flaming creature. Ignoring both, the Phoenix flew forward, and with a scream of triumph, it shot through the heart of the Tromulous ship. The Phoenix cried out in triumph as it emerged from the other side.
The ship shuddered, and for a moment held quiet and still. Small explosions started around the hole left by the Phoenix, and then they began to spread outward. Then, all at once, the ship gave up, and incinerated itself in a blinding fireball.
The Phoenix slowly transformed back into its cold metal form and then promptly began to tumble again.
Mark took a moment to catch his breath, before starting to work through the alarms still showing on his console. "Everyone okay?"
Everyone answered back their own way, while each worked to put the ship back together.
A half hour later, Tiny took them into Time Warp for a short distance before dropping back out again in a small nearby solar system. Taurus Rising waited in silence, and Tiny quickly docked. A few minutes later they had the injured crew members safely back in the Phoenix's Medical Bay. Jason checked and rechecked their condition before finally giving Mark the go-ahead to continue the journey.
"Lets hope the rest of the journey is uneventful." Captain Holstead said as Mark headed for the airlock to return to the Phoenix after a briefing.
"We can only hope." Mark said in agreement.
The blue and brown planet was a welcome sight to the crew of both ships when they came out of Time Warp. With little preamble they landed at the only spaceport.
Instantly they were surrounded by what felt like every official in the government, as well as many high-ranking members of the volunteer defense forces. An ambulance stood waiting, and Jason and Princess helped transfer the crew members into the care of the waiting doctors. Mark and Captain Holstead dealt with the officials, while the rest of G-Force continued repairs and helped the crew of the Taurus Rising begin the off-loading. Within hours, forklifts and trucks were moving around the freighter at a feverish pace.
Several hours passed before the officials left, and the crews were left to finish their job of dealing with the massive amount of freight in peace. Tiny stood outside watching over the refueling of the Phoenix. From under the shade of the wing of the Phoenix, Mark watched as Tiny joked with the driver of the fuel truck. Turning his head, he watched the unloading of the freighter sitting several hundred yards away.
"It'll take a good three days or more to unload everything." Princess said from behind him.
Mark nodded, "We won't have much to do now that the Phoenix is back in shape."
"I bet I could adapt the ants into a nice little repair system." Princess said. "It was nice to use them for some of the tighter areas of the Taurus Rising. Worked really well."
"I'm not going to have robot ants running around the Phoenix." Mark said firmly.
"Not ants. I was thinking ladybugs." Princess said lightly in a voice Mark recognized as Princess at her worst.
He turned to her, an innocent look on his face. "I can see you need to be distracted."
"Distracted?" Princess echoed. She then looked at him through slightly narrowed eyes, the corners of her mouth tilting up coyly, "Are you trying to subvert my inventive inclinations?"
"Not necessarily." He said with an evil grin of his own, taking her hand and pulling her towards the Phoenix.