Authors: Ian Whates
The stream of lethal munitions continued. Bullets slammed into walls and ricocheted off the metal steps way above Drake’s head, with no attempt at accuracy. Equipment and fittings shattered and fell to the floor and splinters were thrown in all direction as whole sections of wooden crating were chewed to pulp, while a heavy chain that hung from a gantry danced to the bullets’ refrain. Beside him, Bren squatted down, head bowed, arms across the back of her neck. Belatedly, Drake followed suit, realising that they were more at risk from rebounds and shrapnel than they were from a direct hit, and such secondary threats could come from any angle.
The sound was deafening. It had to be reverberating throughout the length of the ship, and the rest of the crew couldn’t fail to hear it. Drake only hoped this didn’t bring them charging in to investigate, straight into the hail of fire.
Still there were no demands and no attempt to actually board.
Drake suddenly realised that they weren’t serious. No, that wasn’t right. Of course anything that involved bullets being sprayed around with complete abandon was serious, but they weren’t intent on seizing control of the ship or even killing anyone, not really. This was a warning, or perhaps a gesture; a sharp, violent gesture. So what were they after? What was the point of such a brutal display?
The three crewmembers weren’t armed – why would they be? This was New Sparta, the heart of civilised space. Drake, however, was. He’d held back up to this point, not wanting the situation to escalate, but he was beginning to reconsider when the shooting stopped. The sound echoed around the cavernous room, or perhaps within the confines of his head, for several seconds before he could be certain that it had indeed ended.
Car doors slammed, the sound penetrating in a distant, muffled fashion. He risked peering around the corner of the crates and was just in time to see the vehicle pulling rapidly away. At the same instant the metal staircase above him rang to the tread of heavy footfalls. Pelquin appeared, with Anna and the doc a little behind him. The captain was carrying a hefty-looking energy gun. The cavalry, arriving too late.
Drake heard a gasp from beside him. “Monkey!” It was Bren’s voice.
Only then did he register the form of the diminutive mechanic, curled up in a foetal position behind a cluster of crates far smaller than their own. Monkey wasn’t moving.
Drake’s respect for Pelquin grew in the moments immediately after the one-sided fire fight. The
owner checked on his crewmember first, ensuring Monkey was still alive, before standing aside and letting the doc examine him. Only then did he turn his attention to discovering exactly what had happened here, inviting Drake, Nate and Bren to describe in turn what they had seen and heard. Next it was the welfare of the cargo and equipment. He tasked Nate, Bren and Anna with checking every item and every crate for bullet holes and other damage. Nate had suffered a flesh wound where a bullet had grazed his left arm but he was otherwise unhurt. The doc sprayed the resultant gash with something and slapped an antibiotic skin patch over it, then left Nate to get on with things.
Monkey was another matter entirely.
Pelquin turned to the banker and said, “And that was it? Really? They simply shot the place up and then left, without attempting to board or take anything.”
“Yes,” Drake replied, realising that the captain was merely looking to reaffirm what he already knew and that the question was all but rhetorical. Pelquin nodded, as if he now understood fully what had just happened.
Drake suspected that he did too, now that he’d had a chance to analyse events. He just hoped the captain was as sharp as his reputation suggested.
“Anna,” Pelquin called. “Forget the damage inventory for now, get up to the controls and start the engines. We can finish this off once we’re underway. Nate, shut the bay doors and prepare for lift off.”
?” the doc looked up sharply from where he knelt beside the wounded mechanic. “You can’t. We need to get this man to a hospital.”
“Out of the question. We’re leaving. Now.”
“Put him in stasis.”
condition?” Bren said, staring at the captain. “It’ll kill him.”
“Maybe, but I doubt it. He’s stronger than he looks.”
“Pel, this is
The captain ignored Bren and addressed the doc. “What’ll happen if we don’t put him into stasis and don’t get him to a hospital?”
Doc hesitated for an instant and then said, “He’ll die.”
die if we don’t put him in stasis and
die if we do, yes?”
The doc nodded.
“Did you follow that, Bren?”
“Yeah, you made your point. I’m angry, not deaf.”
“Then quit yapping and get on with it. The sooner Monkey’s in a cryochamber the better his chances of surviving.”
Bren’s glare looked hot enough to melt steel. The two of them locked gazes. The woman broke first. “You’d better be right about this, Pel.”
She crouched down, scooping Monkey’s deceptively frail form up in her arms.
“Be careful with him,” Doc said.
The anger hadn’t fully left her eyes as she straightened up, but evidently her trust in the captain had won out. She left without saying anything further, the doc hurrying in her wake.
Pelquin watched them go and then looked across to Drake, perhaps expecting the banker – such an acknowledged symbol of officialdom – to object, but Drake had no intention of doing so. He sensed that the
captain had reached the same conclusion he had. Logically, the raid could only have had one purpose: to delay them. This was New Sparta, where order was paramount and any disruption stamped down on mercilessly. Local security would already be on the way. The first thing they’d do was impound the ship and lock everything down until the situation was clarified. The
and her crew would be stuck here for a long time while red tape coiled around them and questions and suspicion crystallised in the blink of an eye. Extricating ship and crew from the resultant quagmire of bureaucracy could take months.
So it was now or never. And yet…
, wouldn’t this be exactly how a shrewd enemy might expect Pelquin to react? Was Drake missing something here?
He dismissed the thought; there was too little evidence from which to draw a conclusion. Getting the ship off world was his priority here, or First Solar would never see a return on their investment.
“You were a witness,” Pelquin said. “If questions are asked later, you can confirm that we were attacked and I took us up for the safety of the ship and crew.”
Drake hesitated. First Solar couldn’t be seen to be involved in anything illegal, but up to this point he could claim to have been no more than an innocent bystander swept up in events beyond his control. Letting things continue meant stretching his remit to the limit, but the alternative was to close things down now and lose the chance of securing a significant Elder cache. The potential reward more than justified the risk.
None the less, he chose his words carefully when replying. “I’m only here to safeguard the bank’s investment, Captain, but I’ll do what I can should it ever prove necessary.”
An empty promise, one which sounded supportive without committing him to anything, but it was evidently enough to satisfy Pelquin, who acknowledged the comment with a curt nod.
Falyn de Souza stared out the window as the world sped past. All those insignificant people scurrying around in pursuit of whatever their inconsequential lives demanded. They were no more than blurs at this speed, an impression of outline, a smudge of colour – a surrealist’s painting that suggested shape rather than defining it and left imagination to fill in the rest – though in this instance each was replaced by the next before his mind could begin to fill in any detail, even had he felt inclined to do so.
The buildings though, they were a different breed entirely. Solid, resolute, meant to last, housing corporate entities which the scurrying folk were slaved to feed and serve. Here beat the financial heart of humanity’s star-spanning society, and within these towering edifices dwelt the minds responsible for shaping and redefining humankind’s destiny.
De Souza relished these visits to New Sparta, loved the decadence of the hotel suites his position afforded him and loved rubbing shoulders with the corporate bigwigs even more, as if some of their glitter and success might inadvertently rub off on him. Oh, he knew that Jossyren were just one of many corporations here on New Sparta, whatever standing the company commanded out in the fringe worlds, but he felt an affinity with the movers and shakers, with the whole ethos of the place. He didn’t doubt that one day he would have an office in one of the ostentatious buildings that flashed past him as the car sped through the city centre. Perhaps with Jossyren perhaps with somebody else – loyalty to an employer only stretched so far – but, one way or another, he would be here. It was his destiny.
He’d been neglecting his guest, ignoring the man sitting beside him in the car’s plush upholstery for long enough. Deliberately so, but he judged the moment now right to turn his attention away from the wider world.
“Well?” he asked.
“I told you, there was nothing I could do.”
If de Souza had expected the man to feel discomfited by being ignored for such a protracted length of time, he was disappointed. Archer seemed completely at ease, as if it were only natural for a visiting businessman to stare out the window as New Sparta flashed past. Perhaps it was.
“It’s just our bad luck he booked in to see Terry Reese,” the banker continued. “The old bat had Drake assigned to the case before Pelquin had even left the building. No way I could get involved after that.”
De Souza grunted. Excuses. They were all he kept hearing. It was enough to make him wonder why he’d gone to the trouble and expense of securing an insider at First Solar in the first place.
“Let’s just hope there are no further slip-ups, for all our sakes.”
“There won’t be,” Archer assured him. “Drake’s record is exemplary. His presence actually works in our favour. This way we get what we want without taking any of the risks.”
“Indeed,” said de Souza, who hadn’t been planning on taking any risks in any case.
A ping in his left ear distracted him. An incoming communiqué, the caller ID unavailable. He turned his head away from Archer as he answered.
“Speak” he said, knowing who this had to be.
“Job done,” a male voice said.
“Our visitors have left, then?”
“Yes, and in something of a hurry.”
“Good, good. It was so nice of you to see them off.”
De Souza cut the connection, confident that the signal was untraceable and that the voices involved had been automatically scrubbed to remove all identifiers, but he was cautious by nature and so had kept things as brief as possible.
He was already tiring of Archer’s company and asked Gant, his driver and bodyguard, to take the car off the AI controlled grid and find a discreet side street where they could pull over and deposit the banker. Having done so the interior of the vehicle was his own once more. With Gant at the front and isolated behind tinted glass, he could relax. He even managed the shadow of a smile. The game was afoot, or a-spaceship in this particular instance. Pelquin was currently rushing across the stars to claim the ancients’ cache, doing all de Souza’s dirty work for him.
His gaze returned to the buildings that again rushed past. If all went to plan, he might yet be occupying one of them a lot sooner than expected. Now there was a pleasant prospect.
Taking off without clearance was reckless in the extreme, Pelquin knew that. He’d jeopardised the lives of not only his own crew but countless unknown others. New Sparta was one of the busiest of all the human worlds with ships coming and going constantly. The skies were clogged with freighters, passenger ships, exec craft – all manner of vessels – and it required a delicate balancing act to keep all of them in secure orbit and at safe trajectories; an intricately choreographed ballet of constantly shifting performers, which the manoeuvre they’d just pulled would have ripped apart. A rogue ship taking flight without permission on an unsanctioned flight path had to be the port authorities’ worst nightmare. He’d occasionally heard about such things and had shaken his head in bemusement, astonished at the stupidity of those involved. He’d never expected to actually be responsible for something like this, but needs must.
There would be all hell to pay should
ever want to return to New Sparta; which it did, very much. Nor would it stop there. The repercussions would ripple outwards as quickly as ships and gossip could carry news, and events would doubtless be embellished with each fresh telling. A year hence, Pelquin wouldn’t be surprised to hear in some portside bar of how
had lifted from New Sparta one step ahead of the law and leaving a flotilla of police cruisers floundering in its wake.
“Skip, we’re being hailed,” Anna said from the seat beside him.
“Yeah, I can see that. Who is it?”
“A police patrol unit. They’re demanding we stop accelerating and stand down.”
So much for fanciful embellishments. “Can they intercept us before we’re at a safe jump distance?” Gravity was the key here. Too close to a gravity well and a jump would be impossible, but there was a grey area between that and a definable ‘safe distance’ in which a jump
be possible… or a ship could get ripped apart trying.
“Maybe. It’ll be touch and go.”
“How about an
safe jump distance?”
“No. Not unless they’re willing to really chance their arm. They could always take a shot at us but I don’t see them risking it, not with this much traffic around.”