Gayle was surprised to find how large the glasshouse was. It had more than a dozen large gardens, each with a different variety of foliage. In one were temperate trees, in another, under blazing sunlamps, were desert cacti and in yet another were a variety of tropical plants. In each garden the old man showed them many which were edible, and occasionally he handed them a sample to try, but Gayle noticed he was always conservative with what he took; it was after-all his only source of food.
At one point, while Norton was busy pulling some orange tubers out of the ground, Meron whispered to Gayle, “Do you think this thing will be flyable?”
Gayle shook his head; he looked up examining the superstructure, “The glasshouse may be sound but if the rest of the ship has been underwater for as long as we think then it is probably in poor condition.”
Meron touched her chin, “We need to find the control deck.”
Gayle put his hands on his hips, “yeah, we can try a diagnostics – if I can work it out. Don’t forget this thing is two-hundred years old; might as well be speaking Trojan.”
Gayle had never really thought that they would find the ship let alone whether it would be flyable. It was an antique, albeit superior technology to what he was used to. He’d salvaged vessels in open space before; in the vacuum of space corrosion wasn’t an issue but in an atmosphere like this, and under the corrosive effects of water, he doubted the thing would be salvageable.
“You know you remind me of a daughter I once had,” Norton said, appearing out of the undergrowth; he held up an orange tuber in a gloved hand and offered it to Gayle. “Yes, I was trying to think earlier why I thought I knew you.”
“Really?” Meron said. She looked to Gayle; he shrugged uncertain where the conversation was going.
Norton’s face fell, “She died many years ago. She was a pretty thing; just like you.” He looked up at her and smiled, his rheumy eyes brimming with water.
“I’m sorry.” Meron stuttered and Gayle saw water well in her eyes but she turned away before he could really see. This reaction surprised him.
Maybe She is human after all, he thought.
“Not to worry, it was a long time ago.” Norton turned and busied himself brushing soil out of his pants.
They followed the man as he went about his duties for about half an hour, at one point he disappeared into a forest of trees which were twisted over at their peaks where the roof was too low to accommodate their growth – they had no doubt been only saplings when they had been planted and the intention had been to transplant them. He returned some minutes later and appeared startled by their appearance.
“Hesu, you surprised me! Who the hell are you?” He frowned.
Meron and Gayle looked at each other confused, had the man forgotten them so soon? Gayle spoke first, ”Mr Wipple, I’m Gayle we met—”
Norton however cut him short, “—my God! Kieda, is it you?”
Meron shook her head slowly and stepped back, confusion clouded her face.
“Please, sweetpea, your mother will be so pleased to see you.” Norton reached out to her.
“Yes, yes, your daughter. This IS your daughter.” Gayle lied. “And she’s come back to you now.”
Meron winced, “I…err…I…”
Gayle whispered in her ear, “go with it – if he thinks you’re his daughter he might help us out.”
“I’m not comfortable with this,” she replied with a hiss.
“Eh?” Norton stared at them, “I can’t hear too well – you’ll have to speak up.”
Smiling, Gayle stepped between them and reached out for Norton’s hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you sir – Kiera’s told me all about you.”
“It’s Kieda, not Kiera.” Norton scowled.
“Yeah, that’s my pet name for her.”
By this point Meron had pulled herself together and came around, “Yes, father – Gayle here is my friend.”
Norton smiled broadly, “Friend eh? Tell the truth, he is your mate
no? I can see it in your eyes!”
Both Gayle and Meron turned red and did not speak.
“Come! We’ll celebrate, I make a wine, rough though it is it packs a punch!” He dragged Meron by the hand down an isle towards an open doorway. He turned back to her, tears again welling in his eyes, “Oh my sweetpea, I’ve missed you, All these years I thought you were dead. But my heart knew you would come back someday.”
Norton turned and with a show laid both his hands on Gayle’s arm, “Forgive an old man such sentiment. When I saw her board that colony ship I thought I’d never see her again.”
Gayle couldn’t hide his confusion, “Colony ship? You mean the ones that left two hundred years ago?”
“Yes of course,” Norton waved a dismissive hand. He puffed up proudly, “My girl graduated first in her class and won her position aboard The Possidon as junior botanist. Followed after her father she did.”
“You must have been very proud.”
The old man was smiling like he was far away, “Of course! It was a chance of a lifetime.”
“A chance for a lifetime.” Gayle said under his breath. Being trapped in a crate for twenty years was not his idea of a life even if at the other end was the garden of bloody Eden – or so the story went.
“I would have gone myself on The Ares,” Norton indicated the ship around them, “but at the last minute there was a fault with the navigation system and the admiral ordered us to stay behind on Sedna, most of the crew were accommodated on other vessels but someone had to stay and care for these precious plants for which there was no room.” A sad expression clouded his face, ”There were a few others, maintenance folk mostly, but they died off over the years – some by their own hand or by accident, others by those savages.“
“So, let me get this straight…you’re two hundred years old?” Gayle tried to get his head around the fact.
“Two hundred and sixty seven to be exact, though the last hundred haven’t exactly been a party,” Norton replied rubbing his back. “Give or take a decade, I’ve kind of lost track of time down here. That reminds me I need to take one of my pills.”
Meron took his arm and assisted him though the doorway into a small spartan room with a single cot and a mish-mash of furniture. ”Take a seat …err…father.”
Norton sat down with a heavy groan and, opening a draw, withdrew a pillbox from a dresser beside his cot. “Despite these pills I feel somehow thinner and thinner each day. They extend my life but not my spirit.” He sighed and smiled up at Meron, “Ah but now I’m restored my sweat-pea has returned!”
From outside the ship came the unmistakable rattle of automatic gunfire.
“Oh, no! That doesn’t sound good.” Norton got up and raced over to an antique-looking vidCom and switched it on with the press of a button. The other pair huddled around the tiny screen as it took a few second to come to life. “Troops from the base, why are they here?”
Meron grimaced, “Norton, I’m afraid they are after us.”
“Oh, my dear, what have you done?” His voice betrayed his fear.
“There’s no time for explanations now, we’ve got to go!” Gayle said watching the screen as about thirty troopers gathered around the airlock through which they had entered the ship earlier.
Norton pulled anxiously at his ear, “I know just the place, come quickly!”
He led them to a tubular ventilation shaft that scaled the wall of the greenhouse like a caterpillar and traversed the roof. The shaft looked completely sealed but with little effort Norton dislodged it from where it attached at the floor, it looked impossibly small to Gayle. “This vent frequently gets blocked with leaves and such. Quick, down you go!” Norton ushered them.
Meron paused and kissed the old man on the cheek whose expression was somewhere between a frowned and a smile, “Go!” He ordered and she dived head first into the hole, sliding out of sight.
Gayle, not liking the idea of going head first, placed his feet into the hole as Norton instructed him, “Follow the vent down, there’s a small chamber down there under the floor where the vents meet up, if it’s not flooded you should be safe there. I’ll put them off.” With a nod Norton slotted the vent back over him.
It was stuffy and a very tight fit for Gayle and he had tried to wiggle his way downward with limited success. Above he heard a familiar voice enter the greenhouse, “You, old man! Where are they?” It was Major Field.
Norton whimpered, “who do you mean?”
“Don’t play games Wipple! I know they’re here somewhere, I traced them here on the scanners.”
Gayle, wedged in the vent, found he couldn’t slide any further once he hit an angle. He felt a tug at his foot which must have been Meron below him. Gayle spoke urgently, “I’m stuck.”
“Shhh, quiet. Don’t move!” Meron hissed.
Above them they heard the heavy footsteps of the troopers.
“Fan out! Search every micron of this place,” the Major ordered. ”They’re here somewhere.”
Gayle could hear the troopers above him slashing and ripping through the forest maybe only a few meters away when he heard Norton cry out. “Please be careful those plants are delicate. I don’t know where these people are! Please, stop!”
“Get out of the way Wipple,” the Major ordered. “You’re a traitor and you’ll meet your end over this!”
“But I’ve done nothing!”
“Speak up now if you want to save you’re hide.” The major growled at him.
Norton’s voice wavered, “I don’t know what you mean!”
“Fine. Tear this place apart!”
“Please, just stop destroying my plants – I’ll tell you! Just stop!”
“Stand down!” The major yelled and the place descended into quiet.
“Spit it out, what do you know?”
Gayle squashed into the ventilation shaft felt himself slipping; his boots squeaked against the sides, he hoped the men above hadn’t heard. He closed his eyes and prayed to a greater being that he didn’t believe in, Hesu, please Hesu, help me Hesu…
He heard footsteps approaching the vent and sucked in a breath so that his chest expanded, holding him firmly against the shaft walls. The trooper was so close he could have reached out and touched his boot.
Norton spoke nervously, “They tried to hide in the greenhouse but when they heard you coming they left via the top airlock.”
“You, Trooper, check it out.” The Major ordered.
Gayle heard footsteps receding away from him and opened his eyes with relief; Norton had not given them away. He slowly let out his breath which unfortunately loosened his position in the shaft and he slid down the shaft, crashing into Meron who was hovering below in a pool of stale water.
“What the hell was that?” The Major cried. ”Over there!”
Meron scowled at Gayle holding up a single finger. Above them they heard many footsteps gathering and then they heard the vent shaft torn away.
“Ma’m, look!” A trooper cried.
There was a pause as she approached, Gayle could pick out her footsteps, they were sharp and deliberate, uncompromising.
“Alright, I know you’re in there. Come out or I drop an incendiary in there.” She yelled into the open shaft.
Meron’s face was twisted when she looked to Gayle shaking her head.
“You’ve got five seconds!”
Gayle closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
Gayle thought about the life he’d had up to that point and generally how shit it had been and figured that it could only get better from herein…but only if he lived.
He heard the faint ping as a pin was pulled – she wasn’t kidding.
He decided to live. “Alright, we’re coming out!”
“For fuck’s sake Gayle!” Meron swore and punched the sides of the vent with her fists.
Gayle, first out of the hole, saw Norton whimpering against the wall. For the most part the forest was intact though the metal walkways were littered with leaf matter. The smug face of Major Field gloated over him. “A wise decision, but I’m afraid you should not expect any lenience – the penalty for espionage is death.”
Behind him Meron was roughly assisted out of the vent by two of the troopers, one of which unnecessarily manhandled her. She struggled briefly kicking one of them in the groin and was rewarded with a vicious slap from the other.
The Major wrenched her forward by the hair. “I’m going to enjoy torturing you,” The major said lingered over her.
“I’ll tell you nothing!” Meron spat.
“I don’t really care what you tell me, it makes no difference.” The Major glared into her eyes, their noses almost touching. Her tone was chilling as she whispered, “I just want to see you squeal. Your friends have nowhere to run; no spy has ever made it off Sedna alive.”
Gayle smiled, so the others were still free.
“I’ll wipe that grin from your face little man.” She waved the troopers forward to take them. “Bring them back to base for interrogation.”
Just as they were led through the airlock gunfire erupted, laser and projectile fire blazed over their heads. Gayle’s instinct was to drop to the ground as the front two troopers took direct hits, the remaining escorts scattered like rats, taking cover around the ring of barrels leaving the pair out in the open.
“Its Meers!” Meron roared, standing erect like a frontline general surrounded by deadly hail. “Stay on your feet; we’ve got to run for it!”
Gayle wasn’t a coward but he wasn’t a fool either. “Hesu! How do I get in these situations?”
“You think too much!” Meron shouted, hauling him forward through the line of barrels. “Suppressing fire, it’s our chance!”
“Kill them, kill them all!” Behind them the Major was screaming but Gayle dared not look.
The friendly fire was being laid down from Gayle’s left, the opposite direction from which they had reached the greenhouse. Lit up by the flashes of gunfire he made out Meers taking cover behind a pillar. He was waving and crying out something to them, but was drowned out by all the noise.
“It’s Meers!” Meron said over-eagerly; Gayle couldn’t tell if it was just relief.
They darted across the zigzag of walkways halting wherever they could find cover. The troopers had got their act together and were laying down a deadly barrage or laser fire; no matter what Gayle thought of them they were trained soldiers and he knew it was only a matter of time before they found their mark.
Gayle was the first to reach the platform where the defenders were arranged behind a ragged blast-wall. Just as he was stepping through a bolt clipped his arm, sending him spinning to the ground.
“Glad you could make it.” A familiar, female voice said. As he writhed in pain Ty grabbed his ankles and dragged him behind the cover of the blast-wall just as Meron arrived.
“So you’re telling me that greenhouse is the ship?” Meers said, looking doubtful.
Meron looked through a gap in the blast wall towards the illuminated greenhouse. She bit her lip, “Yes, and we need to take it now if we are ever going to.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Weavel said cowering lower than necessary behind the blast-wall. “They’ll blast the hell out of anyone who gets close!”
“If we don’t do it now then we’ll have to fight many more of ’em,” Gayle agreed nursing his wound which Ty was now bandaging. It was only a scratch; he winced as she tightened it with an evil grin.
Meron pointed through the gap, “the Major will be calling in support as we speak.”
Though they hadn’t had time to hear the full story, Meers and the others had detoured around the complex avoiding several nests of troopers; they’d captured one lone guard who’d given them some vague directions to the launch facility and – with some persuasion – directed them to a weapons locker. They had arrived as the guards had turned up but hadn’t known that Gayle and Meron were inside the greenhouse until they had exited at gunpoint.
“We don’t have anywhere near enough firepower,” Meers said. He fired off a few blast to keep the troopers at bay.
From behind them, where the complex entered a crag way, came the sound of boots on ice.
“Troopers!” Ty hissed and they all rolled out of the way but there was little cover to be had on this side of the blast-wall.
Gayle decided the best thing he could do was play dead and wait for the command to attack, he closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable boot in the ribs.
He heard the crunch of the boots hit the metal floor of the platform; there were at least a dozen of them. He tensed his muscles ready to attack when a boot took him in the side. Although it was lighter than he might have expected he could hardly suppress an audible grunt.
“Jeez, I thought you were dead.” It was a familiar drawl and Gayle opened his eyes to the toothy grin of Kode.
Gayle returned the grin and lay flat as the others came out from where they were hiding in the shadows. Kode had about a dozen others with him. They were a rough-looking bunch who slunk in and took up defensive positions along the length of the blast wall.
“You started a fight or somethin’?” Kode frowned glancing over the barrier. He thumbed behind him, “We could hear this shit miles away – lucky for you we was in the area.”
“Yeah well, we could do with a few extra guns.” Meron said with a half-smile.
“I figured you idiots would get into trouble,” He shrugged.
“So you’ve been trailing us?” Gayle asked.
“Well, I can’t let a good investment go to shit can I?”
Kode beckoned towards a surly-looking woman. She had deep-set eyes and was armed with a wicked-looking automatic rifle. “Tas, take a handful down the left, me and this lot will take the front. Start laying down fire when we start up.”
“Yeah Boss.” She replied mechanically and tagging a few of the others darted off along a walkway that followed the outer wall of the cavern.
Kode turned back to the them, “So what’s so fuckin’ special about that greenhouse anyways?”
Meers looked at Meron expectantly who grimmaced. Her mouth twisted up as she calculated how much she should reveal to the underworld figure.
“Yous ain’t been straight with me have ya?” Kode frowned raising the gun. Around him his team also raised their weapons.
Meron shook her head slowly; she raised her arms, “That isn’t a greenhouse.”
“What do ya mean?”
“It’s a ship.” Gayle said. “Half submerged under all this muck.”
Kode’s expression flickered for a moment with doubt. “A ship? What sort of ship?”
“A colony ship, one of the originals.” Meron replied; she dropped her face into her hands and sighed. “Meyconte ordered us here to retrieve it for him. Hesu knows what he intends to do with it.”
Kode still looked confused, “A colony ship?”
Ty stepped in, “Look shit for brains, that ship is that last of its kind – its capable of light speed. We haven’t got time for this!”
Kode visibly rocked back, “for real?”
In unison the crew of Achilles nodded. Gayle pipped in, “But I doubt it will fly, all this time sitting in this swamp.”
“Is this worth fighting over then?” Kode asked.
“If the drive still works: yes.” Meers said. ”Even if we can just salvage that.”
Clenching his teeth Kode nodded slowly, “Alright then, let’s blast these fuckers.”
“At my command.” Meers said giving Ty a sharp nod.
Everyone had agreed Meers should take command of the attack. It was a no-brainer with his long years of military service.
He had formed up a plan to move towards the enemy. Ty and Kode would dash forward under suppressing fire to a small barricade about halfway to the greenhouse. Then they would provide cover fire while the others came forward in pairs. Meanwhile, it was hoped the other team, led by Tas, would provide additional support – It was a simple plan but a functional one.
At the command Gayle, who’d been tossed a sidearm, began firing wildly towards the glasshouse as Ty and Kode took off. With the pain of his recent wound affecting his aim his shots were hopelessly wild of their mark but he kept firing as best he could. Luckily the others seemed to be finding their targets as he could see through the gap in the wall that the enemy fire had dropped as they took cover behind the barrels.
As promised fire erupted from the left flank and the dwindling enemy fire changed direction to face the new threat. Even Gayle felt more confident at this.
Reaching his new position Kode waved his gun indicating that Weavel and Gayle should move forward next.
“Ladies before gentlemen,” Weavel said, his shaking gun-hand giving away his nervousness.
Gayle frowned, “I knew you’d say that.” He waved an acknowledgement to Kode and Ty who immediately began laying down fire. As he broke cover one of the defenders must have noticed them creeping forward as fire immediately came bearing down on him. He chanced a glance behind expecting Weavel to be hot on his tail but he was nowhere to be seen. “Fucker!”
He was stuck out in the open and there was no way of going back. He bolted like he was walking over lava, totally exposed to the bolts burning slashing through the air. A few narrowly sheared his clothing leaving him smouldering as he eventually dived for cover.
“I think you is on fire.” Kode shouted from his crouched position. He angled his gun over the low barrier and fired off a few random blast. The hail of enemy fire was smashing holes and sending disintegrated debris over them.
Ty yelled out, pointing to the left.
The other team, led by Tas, was forging ahead, closing in on the circle of barrels which were now smoking and looking decidedly worse for wear.
“Let’s go!” Ty roared. She took off before either Gayle or Kode could object.
“Ah, shit.” Gayle shook his head but followed with Kode close behind.
Ty charged the narrow space between them and the enemy, dodging and swerving as sporadic fire seared past and firing at a furious rate as she moved. Reaching the line she tumbled over the barrels and kicked one of the defenders flat then shooting another full in the chest.
Gayle followed behind and discharged his weapon at the man on the ground before he could rise. He turned and came face to face with another trooper who raised his sidearm to fire, a triumphant look on his face. It was short lived. Kode came through from behind and blasted the man’s legs from under him.
“You gotta watch your back.” Kode said with a smirk.
By this point the remnants of the enemy, who had also being overrun on the left, had fled into the greenhouse. Glancing back Gayle was surprised by the pile of dead and wounded lying where they fell; the Major was not amongst them however, nor was Norton.
Gayle did a quick count as the others arrived, he frowned as Weavel stepped through the gap, “Thanks for the backup.”
“Hey, my foot caught and I…err…tripped.” Weavel mumbled, shrugging off the implied accusation.
Gayle ignored the lie and reported to Meers, “There must be five or six more inside plus Major Field.”
Meers examined the structure with a critical eye. “They’ll have this airlock marked, are there any other ways in?”
“Up top and maybe somewhere under the waterline.” Meron answered.
Kode, whose weapon was still smoking, stepped over to join the discussion and pulled out a smoke canister with a grin, “Will this help?”
Gayle stood behind Ty at the top airlock as she tethered a line to the outside of the ship. The hatch door was hanging open and he they could see directly into the leafy interior, the floor was some 30 metres down but he couldn’t see the Major or any of the remaining troopers. No doubt they were concealed amongst the foliage ready to ambush them as they entered. He hoped they didn’t guess their plan of attack.
She tied the rope around her waist ready to abseil down then nodded to him. He pulled the pin on the canister and dropped it into the open hatch. Immediately smoke began to pour out and within ten seconds the forest was almost obscured. Below shouts of warning rang out.
“Good luck.” He said as she pushed off and swung out past a landing. She gave him a wink as she descended into the smoke.
Gayle had been instructed to wait for thirty seconds while Ty secured the stairs. He knew the landing below ran across the ceiling towards the far wall where it hit a spiral staircase right near Norton’s room. Below all hell had broken out, he heard more shouts followed by a barrage of shots. He decided not to wait any longer and jumped down.
The smoke had only partially obscured the landing and as he bolted along its length he came under fire. He reached the stairs, and in his haste to climb down he almost fell.
Ty was already waiting at the bottom of the stairs, her eyes wide and animalistic as they appeared out of the mist, “You’re 3 seconds late.”
At her feet were three bodies, one of which had a great hole where his head should have been. Gayle could hardly contain his disgust as he stepped over it, “Hesu!”
From behind them they heard running footsteps and they both turned ready to let off a few blasts when Meers and Meron appeared out of the mist.
Meron glanced at the pile of bodies, “We killed one near the airlock.”
“The others headed that way.” Ty waved vaguely past Meron with her weapon; the doorway into Norton’s room stood open.
“They’ll be holed up with the old man,” Gayle said.”We need him, he knows about the ship.” He added, concerned the old man would be killed in the crossfire.
Meron grimaced, “we’ll have to storm it.”
Before she could turn two troopers appeared in the doorway. Gayle’s mouth fell open but he was drowned out as they fired. Meron reacted swiftly and rolled out of the way. The others, standing bunched together, had little chance however and were easy targets. Meers immediately took a shot in the leg and went down. Another lucky shot clipped Ty in the side, spraying an arc of blood as she scrambled away behind some nearby foliage.
Gayle was left flat-footed out in the open, “Hesu!” It was only by pure luck that he was not hit as bolts passed either side of him. He came to his senses and fumbled with the gun and started firing randomly at the attackers. A lucky shot managed to bring down one of the men who was only a few metres from him.
Kode appeared from the other side and as casual as can be strode straight up to the remaining trooper who was focused on Gayle. He discharged his weapon directly into the man’s chest. The man stood up straight for a moment, so that Gayle could see straight through the hole in his body, before his brain registered that he was dead. His eyes rolled back and he fell forward.
Major Field appeared in the door using the old man as a shield out in front of her. She had a blaster pointed at his neck. “Stop where you are or I’ll fry your father!”
“Father?” Meers gave Meron a questioning glance as she helped him to his feet.
“The old man thinks I’m his daughter, I kind of let him believe it,” She explained.
Meers gave her a disapproving frown.
“What? It was expedient.” She said.
Norton shouted out, “Sweatpea! Help me!”
Meers waved dismissively, “The old man is senile, he’s nobody’s father. Lay down your weapon Major or we’ll be forced to shoot a hole right through him.”
Gayle at Meers side grabbed his weapon arm, “You can’t kill him too!”
“Sure he can.” Ty replied staring down the barrel of her rifle.
“Step aside Gayle.” Meers ordered.
The Major’s eyed darted from one to the other, “You’re bluffing!”
For the split second her guard was down Ty reacted. Her shot was perfect. It passed millimetres by Norton’s head and ripped through the hand holding the gun. The gun spun away and the Major stumbled back looking with shock at her ruined hand.
“Seize her!” Meers ordered.
Kode laughed, “Sheee-iiitt!”
“You could have killed him.” Gayle winced; he surprised himself with his note of care.
Ty shrugged. She stepped in and kicked the gun out of the Major’s reach. She followed through with the butt of her rifle knocking the woman to the ground.
“Alright, that’s enough Ty.” Meron ordered as she charged in to stop a second blow.
A comDev on the Major’s wrist immediately began to bleep, the screen was smashed but the audio came through loud and clear. “Major Field, report!”
Meron looked down at the Major her gun pointed at the woman’s head, “You’ll answer that call exactly as I tell you, otherwise I’ll allow my friend here to entertain you.” She indicated Ty who patted her knife still in its sheath on her hip.
The Major’s bitter glare was so fiery Meron might have burst into flame. She relented with a single sharp nod.
The ship was theirs but exactly how they were going to raise it, and with no more than a few hours, Gayle had no idea but he guessed that impossible task would fall on him. If he didn’t work it out it would be the end of this little foray. Great, things are really looking up, he thought bitterly. His stomach complained.