Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction/Fantasy
“Well,” Mueller said. “It would seem that Commander Jones was right.”
“It would seem so,” Stell agreed. “Nars went through all that stuff with Jones just to lay some legal groundwork. The way he's got it set up, the whole thing happened after he fulfilled all of his legal responsibilities. He even warned us to protect ourselves. And you can be damned sure he had his vocorder turned on when he did it.”
Mueller mournfully nodded his agreement. “It's all my fault; I should have known.”
Stell snorted. “Bullshit. They just outsmarted us, that's all. But the game isn't over.”
The little man seemed somewhat cheered. A few minutes later, Stickley and Gomez returned.
“I can't find anything wrong with this rig, sir,” Stickley reported, “but I can't find any manual controls, either. So I don't know if it's broken or not.”
“Guess it doesn't much matter if we can't make it go,” Stell replied evenly.
“The radio's definitely belly up, sir,” Gomez added. “There's a whole circuit board missing.”
“And just to make things more interesting,” Mueller said, “if I'm not mistaken, the atmosphere's going bad in here.”
Suddenly Stell realized it was getting hard to breathe. “Okay, everybody—seal ’em up,” he ordered. Evidently, Kance-Jones and Nars wanted them to die outside. Under his breath, he said, “If I ever get my hands on you, Nars, they're gonna have to round up some incredibly strong pall bearers. Or maybe a robolift.” The thought cheered him considerably. For some strange reason, now that he knew Kance-Jones was a robot, he couldn't get mad at it, although he would certainly like to have a conversation with its owner.
With no breathable atmosphere inside, there certainly wasn't any reason to linger in the bus. Once everyone was outside, Stell got a reading from each on their oxygen supply. The lowest was his own—seven hours, sixteen minutes to go. So that was the amount of time he had to work with. As he thought, his eyes roamed the horizon. Since it was a hundred or so miles away, the spaceport was obviously out. And even if they found some way to reach Nars, it seemed unlikely that they'd get any help from that direction. Suddenly, he became conscious of a metal disk hovering almost directly over him. That sonovabitch Nars was watching them with a robospy!
Pretending he hadn't noticed it, Stell turned to Stickley. “Don't look now, Sergeant, but there's an airborne robospy overhead. Keep track of it, and be ready to take it out on my command.”
Stickley nodded. “Yes, sir ... on your command.”
Let the sonovabitch watch for a while, Stell thought to himself, as he turned his attention back to their surroundings. His eye was caught and held by the elevated monorail that passed by a few hundred yards to the right.
It wound its way between the huge power grid and a foundry, before disappearing toward the east. Moving slowly along it was a featureless, black power unit, followed by a heavily loaded train of open ore cars. They were heaped so high with crushed rock that some dribbled over the sides as the train went into a banked curve. The train was at least two miles long. As a result, the power unit was a bit overmatched, even under Fabrica's light gravity, and the whole thing moved quite slowly.
Then he noticed a flash of motion further out toward the east. There was a belated roar of sound from his external audio pick-ups, as a self-powered cargo pod blasted off. Stell imagined it clearing the atmosphere, being snatched by a tractor beam, and then being reeled in like a fish on a line. Suddenly he grinned, slapped Mueller on the back so hard the small man almost fell over, and said, “Sergeant Stickley ... let's lose our eye in the sky.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth, when Stickley's weapon flashed, the small metallic disk exploded, and tiny bits of hot metal rained harmlessly down to spatter against their armor.
“Nice shot, Sergeant,” Stell said cheerfully, “now let's get out of here. Our train awaits!” With that, Stell started jogging toward the monorail. Because of the light gravity, he made good time. Mueller was right behind him, followed by the troopers and Sergeant Stickley, who had automatically assigned himself the rear position. When they reached one of the massive pylons supporting the monorail, Stell saw that, just as he'd hoped, there was a ladder attached to it.
As he put his foot on the bottom rung and began to climb, he realized the ladder had been constructed for the convenience of maintenance robots, and not humans. The rungs were wider than necessary and spaced too far apart. So it was necessary to reach up, grasp the next rung, and do half a chin up before he could get his feet on the next step. Due to the light gravity, it didn't take a lot of strength, but it did help to be tall. Looking down, he saw Mueller was having quite a bit of difficulty, until Gomez starting allowing the smaller man to use his shoulders as a step. Shortly thereafter, Stell heaved himself up onto a durasteel platform attached to the side of the monorail. The noise of the passing train was deafening. He turned down the level on his external sound pick-ups. Looking toward the back end of the train, he saw they didn't have much more time. There was only about a quarter-mile of train left.
“Hurry up!” he shouted over the command channel, and started climbing up the rungs of the latticework bridge spanning the monorail, that gave the maintenance robots access to the other side. Behind him, the rest did likewise. Moments later he reached the top horizontal walkway. It didn't have rails. Evidently, robots didn't need them. Twenty feet below, the open cars rumbled by, one after the other, each heaped high with reddish ore. There were damn few left. Glancing back, he saw the others had now joined him. “Come on ... let's go!” he shouted, and jumped.
He hit hard. But the ore was soft enough to absorb some of the impact, and his armor took care of the rest. He rolled over a couple of times and then struggled to find his footing. When he managed to stand and look back, he saw that only two figures remained on the bridge. One had to be Stickley, and the other was a trooper. Why didn't they jump? God damnit, there were only two or three cars left! The trooper must be scared ... and Stickley was trying to talk him through it. Stell chinned his mic switch on just as he saw Stickley give the trooper a shove and jump after him. They landed together in the last car. He gave a sigh of relief, and then said, “Report.” One by one, they reported in. When they were finished, he found there was a sprained ankle, a ripped suit that had self-sealed, and a lost weapon. Not good, but not bad, everything considered.
“All right, people,” he said, “start working your way forward. I'd like everyone to join me up here in the VIP lounge.”
There was scattered laughter, and Stickley said, “Yes, sir ... I hope the bar's open.”
“Sorry, Sergeant,” Stell replied, “but it's temporarily closed. The seats are comfortable, however, and the view is unbelievable.” And it was. The monorail twisted and turned its way between smokestacks, factories, and slag heaps. It looked like a high-tech version of hell. Carefully, he scrambled to the crested top of the ore and craned to see where they were headed. Far off in the distance, he saw another cargo pod hurl itself up toward space. It appeared as though their train was headed for the launching area, or at least close by. That was good. But how long would it take? Hours, at the very least. He chinned a switch, and watched as the suit-status display flashed on just above his visor. He had five hours and twelve minutes of oxygen left. He sat down on the crest of the ore and remembered something Bull Strom used to say. “It'll take as long as it takes son ... and there's not a damn thing we can do about it.”
The train jerked to a halt two hours and seventeen minutes later. Stell didn't bother to calculate how much air he had left. He knew he wouldn't like the answer. In front of their train was another just like it. It disappeared into a large building of some sort. There was a flash of light, followed by a tremendous roar of sound. He looked up to see another cargo pod hurling itself skyward. He'd been watching them for some time now. They departed at regular intervals from a launching facility just beyond the large building. “Well, Sergeant, what do you think?” Stell indicated the cargo pod, now a mere dot of light in the sky. “Should give us one helluva ride, don't you think?”
Stickley looked up, then at Stell, then up again. “No doubt about that, sir,” he said evenly. Then he added dryly, “I can hardly wait.”
Stell laughed, “Well, come on then—we don't want to miss our flight!” And with that, he scrambled down the side of the ore car and jumped to the ground. For the last ten miles or so, the monorail had descended to hug the surface. Setting a brisk pace, he started walking toward the distant building. He would have jogged, but there was no way that Trooper Klien, with his sprained ankle, could have kept up, so a fast walk would have to do. Meanwhile, Klien was making pretty good time—with the help of Fabrica's low gravity and two of his buddies.
As he walked beside them, Stell realized that the ore cars looked somehow familiar. At first, he couldn't quite put his finger on it, but the next time a cargo pod took off he looked up, and realized what it was: the ore cars were half cylinders. And now that he looked more carefully, he saw that they rested in cradles, which, in turn, were locked onto the monorail itself. So, if you lifted one of the half cylinders out of its cradle, attached an empty half cylinder, a nose cone, stabilizers, external tanks, and rocket pods, you had a self-propelled cargo pod! Each unit probably had its own built-in microcomputer and guidance system. Instead of transferring the ore to a shuttle, they simply built a shuttle around it, launched it, retrieved it, and used it again. Very efficient. And he planned to turn that efficiency to his own purposes.
The plan was simple. All they had to do was allow themselves to be sealed inside an ore shuttle, survive some heavy Gs without benefit of acceleration couches, and manage to reach their own ships once in space. “A snap,” he thought to himself, and laughed out loud. As usual, he realized too late that he'd forgotten to chin his mic off.
They reached the huge building. It seemed to be eating the train, one car at a time. Beside them, the ore cars would jerk forward one car length, pause in that position for about ten minutes, wait for another cargo pod to roar upward, and then the whole process would start over. Looking at the size of the building, and estimating the distance to the launch site, Stell figured there were maybe thirty cars between them and the one that was about to lift off. And they couldn't afford to wait for three hundred minutes—not with their dwindling supplies of air. So they needed to enter the building, locate the point where the cargo pods were assembled, and slip inside just before the lid was welded on. The only problem was that the opening through which the train entered the building was too tight. There were only inches between the edge of the entrance and the train itself.
“Make me a door.” Stell pointed at the building.
“Yes, sir. One door coming up. Gomez, you heard the General ... he wants a door.”
Gomez didn't need to be told twice. Aside from his assault rifle, he carried a mini-launcher and four rockets for it. Each of the other troopers, with the exception of Sergeant Stickley, carried two more rockets. Gomez brought up the short, stubby tube, flicked the safety off, glanced into the sight, and pressed the trigger. With a
the rocket flew straight and true. There was a sharp, cracking sound as it hit the thin plastic wall. When the smoke cleared, there was a hole big enough to drive a troop carrier through.
“Nicely done, Gomez,” Stell said as he walked through it. “You're not very neat, but you're damned fast.”
No sooner were they inside than two maintenance robots showed up and started surveying the damage. They were, no doubt, relaying news of the destruction to some central computer. But, Stell thought grimly, by the time old lard-ass figures it out, we'll be off planet ... I hope.
Up ahead, massive shapes moved in and out of the murky light. Metal clanged on metal, pneumatic tools shrieked, arc welders hissed and threw out showers of sparks. The arm of a robowelder finished sealing two cylinders together and then withdrew, awaiting the next unit on the line. Stell ordered everyone to close on him as they moved forward. Otherwise, they could easily become separated in the darkness and confusion. As they walked, small maintenance robots scurried between their feet, larger models moved across their path, and big robolifts stepped over them, careful not to crush the puny, two-legged creatures that seemed so determined to get in the way. When they reached the car next in line for the robowelder, Stell scrambled up the side and jumped down into the ore. A second after he landed, the car jerked forward. One after another, dark shapes tumbled over the side to land beside him. “Count off!” he ordered. It would be easy to accidentally leave someone behind.
Suddenly, a body fell on him. After a moment of struggle, he realized it was Mueller. “Remind me not to travel with you in the future, General,” the little man panted. “Your idea of transportation leaves a great deal to be desired.”
“Well, it's cheap,” Stell replied cheerfully. “And that's something I'd expect a number cruncher to approve of.” Mueller chuckled as the troopers finished counting off. Everyone was in.
He was just getting comfortable when the car jerked to a halt, and a huge black shape swung over them, suspended from some sort of a crane. It came down with disconcerting speed, seeming to drop the last foot or so. Stell flinched as it hit with a resounding clang that shook the whole car. Now it was pitch black. Reaching up, he touched metal only inches above his helmet. The other half of the cylinder was in place. Though normally not claustrophobic, Stell felt a moment of panic. It was like the lid of a coffin closing over him. He switched on his exterior helmet light. It only lit up the small section of metal right in front of him, but it still helped. He noticed that the curved surface was covered with a maze of electrical conduits, fuel lines, and other stuff. They would tie everything together once the stabilizers and boosters were added. Then he heard the faint hiss of the robowelder as it started its work. A cherry red dot appeared to his right, and quickly became a long red line, as the robowelder's arm moved the length of the pod and sealed the two halves of the cylinder together. Finally, the red line disappeared to his left, as the robot ran the weld down the other side of the car. Forcing an even, cheerful tone, Stell said, “Would anybody care to guess which end is going to be up?”