“So what’s the deal Gayle?” Meron asked as she leaning over a pile of rusted machinery in the primary engine room of the colony ship – it was bigger than the entire hold of Achilles.
“The hold is flooded, the electrics are fried, the life support is dodgy and the diagnostics are non-existent, so I’ve no idea what else is fucked. Oh yeah and there are no lifePods – apart from that everything is perfect…” he shouted back from his position sandwiched underneath one of the main drives.
“And the drives?” Meron’s voice quavered; this was not her territory and Gayle was learning fast that she became nervous when she wasn’t in control.
“I don’t know yet…I…I think I can save them…with these guys.”
Kode had a couple of engineers in his employ and they had been called down and directed to assist in the recovery. Gayle had assessed them pretty quickly from poor to useless and in the end gave them non-critical tasks.
“Well, we haven’t got all day!” Meron added; though he couldn’t see her he imagined her eyes rolling.
Gayle swore under his breath as he slid out from under the drive, “Hesu, I can’t perform miracles! Why don’t you go do something useful like find me some equipment – we can’t fix the damage to the superstructure without a laser welder.”
He was about to continue his rant when Saran appeared from behind Meron, she had a gangly boy whose long arms and legs didn’t seem to match his body. He burst forward to gawk at the drive. In her uniform she had looked dour and matronly, but now, with her chocolate-coloured hair free-flowing down her back and her clothing accentuating her curves he couldn’t help but stare.
“Hello again Gayle,” She smiled. “Oh, this is my son Dylan – though everyone calls him Beetle.”
The boy grinned, “Is it really a FTL drive?”
Gayle caught off guard by his enthusiasm patted the drive casually, “Technically she can’t do light speed kid, not quite – that’s impossible. This one is powered-”
“-by a helium-3 isotope fusion core!”
Gayle raised his eyebrows at Saran who shrugged.
“He spends all his time at the spaceport, he’s obsessed with anything that has an engine.”
“Hey kid, you know what a turtle spanner is?”
“Sure, I got my own, you wanna borrow it?” The boy opened a bag that was filled with all sorts of tools, some of which even Gayle had never seen.
Gayle laughed, “I think I can use you, kid.”
Under perfect circumstances it would have taken a whole team of engineers a week or more to get a ship the scale of The Ares flying again, but here he was expected to get the crate up and running in less than half a day, with only a few hands and in a dark, damp hole in the ground. Gayle sighed.
“Beetle! Pass me that wrench, then you better get to work on the life support. Got any ideas there?”
“I’ve fixed a few old crates ’round here Mister, I’m sure I can figure somethin’ out.” Beetle said in his strange outer-system drawl.
“Hello?” Saran appeared through the hatchway carrying a makeshift tray with some drinks, “I thought you boys could do with something?”
“Thanks, at least someone appreciates the work we do here.” Gayle winked at Beetle who beamed at him.
Saran gave him a shy smile, “It’s not much I’m afraid.”
Beetle bounded over to her and snatched one of the cups and a protein bar and retreated to a corner to consume them.
“It’s plenty. Thanks. I don’t remember the last time I ate,” He said flicking a dread-lock back over his ear. He found his eyes wandering and had to check himself as he bit into the protein bar. She definitely had an attractive figure, full and broad but still shapely.
“So…err…are you and Meron…you know?”
He almost choked on the bar, “Gee, you don’t muck around do you?”
“I just like to know where I stand before I put my foot in it,” She shrugged.
“No, well…truth is I’m not exactly sure.”
She laughed, “we woman can be like that.”
About an hour later Meron and Ty returned carrying a heavy-duty laser-welder. He was both surprised and impressed that they knew what one looked like let alone find one in this off-the-radar base. Gayle shooed them away with his best ‘now run along’ look; when it came to fixing things he had a habit of treating others less mechanically-minded with a level of contempt usually reserved for spaceliner staff – he figured he had that right given the shit he had to put up with day to day.
While he and Beetle worked on the critical issues he had, the other engineers work on a makeshift system to remove water from the hull. In the end they ingeniously adapted pumps from the ship’s waste disposal system to clear it. Looked like no one was going to be taking a crap for a while, not using the regular facilities anyhow.
The bigger issue was finding the breaches in the hull which had allowed water to enter the ship in the first place. If they tried to enter the vacuum of space with even the tiniest of holes they would all be crushed as the ship imploded. Although they could seal off access doors which he expected to be airtight in a ship like this.
Norton had directed them to a storage room within the ship and by some luck it hadn’t been flooded. In the room they found, along with a few other instruments, a portable hull scanner and while the energy cells in it were dead a quick bit of moding brought it back to life. So, by pumping air into the hull they could detect air leaking from the exterior. Using this method three minor breaches were detected and repaired in good time.
Gayle took a five minute break to savour an orange that Norton had given him. He marvelled at its rich colour and intense smell – he’d only seen a real one once before, it had been his thirteenth birthday present. Thinking now it must have cost his parents a month’s savings or more. That had been just before the war began.
The Major, sitting hog-tied nearby, commented in a haughty tone, “You know command will be sending troops out to look for us before too long.”
Ty, who had become involved in the welding of hull plates, lifted up her protective visor, “Maybe, but they’ll get a shock when they find were ready for a fight, and besides you’ll tell ’em to stay away wont you dear?”
Seething, Major Field turned away.
It was thirteen hours later when The Ares was finally raised from the depths and its true size revealed. The dome at the top, the glasshouse, was only a fraction of the whole structure; it resembled a turtle without legs. The whole mass must have been about ten times the size of Achilles.
It turned out the gravity generators were still functional and once the fusion core was back online they kicked in and the ship slowly floated up to the surface, water streaming off it in falls.
Once the weight of the water was removed from the hold and other debris cleared – two centuries of detritus which had washed down the drain from the colony above – the ship came to hover just above the waterline. This allowed Gayle’s engineering team to check and repair the underside of the outer-hull while the pumps finished the job of removing water from the hold.
“Hesu! I never thought you’d do it Gayle.” Meron said, hands on hips; awe filled her voice.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” He yawned, he was tired beyond belief.
“Will it hold together?”
He shrugged, “We’re gonna have to try it to find out.”
“Good work, get some rest while you can.” She said with only the slightest of smiles but it made him flush with pride. Damn it, he thought; it had been a long time since he last felt pride and longer since he deserved it.
He lay down on a pile of equipment, which was about as comfortable as a pile of rocks, and closed his eyes.
The control deck of The Ares was large and impressive with a plexiGlass screen that presented a panoramic arc of the area in front of the ship. There were controls and panels foran innumerable number of decks and subsystems. With the sweep of her forearm Meron wiped away a thick layer of dust covering the main console. She prodded at an antique keyboard from which a few keys were missing, having to press several times on one key before it registered her command.
“This is going to be interesting.” She said as lights began flickering in a noncommittal fashion before deciding to cooperate. It sparked to life with a discomforting buzz.
Gayle glanced over her shoulder, “So you think we’re just going to fly this thing out of here?”
He watched her experiment with various controls, her mouth twisting up – he was beginning to recognise that look of uncertainty. “That’ll be the main thrusters,” he corrected her hand away from a ubiquitous double-lever.
She shrugged his hand away, “I got it.”
“They’ll just blast us out of the sky!” Weavel cried. Meyconte’s henchman had turned up with Meers and Ty, the latter escorting the Major.
Meron continued her exploration of the controls, “that’s where our friend the Major will help.” She nodded towards the Major.
Meers joined the rest of them, shuffling on his wounded leg up the broad stairs. He shook his head, “I don’t think she has the authority to let us fly out of here.”
“He’s right, even if I wanted to help you I couldn’t. My clearance might get you as far as the port but that’s it, I only have authority over smaller vessels, nothing as grand as this. You might as well give yourselves up now.” The Major’s look was smug.
Ty pushed her gun to the side of the woman’s head. “So if you’re no use then maybe I should just blow your brains out now.”
Meron held up a hand, “wait a second. She can only clear small vessels. So we could get out on Achilles before they worked out what was going on?” Meron asked.
The Major frowned, “I suppose you might get away, but you won’t take this ship with you.”
“Meyconte will kill us and feed us to his dogs if we don’t bring this ship back.” Gayle said.
Meron thought about this for a moment, “It’s not the ship he wants, he wants the drive technology.”
“I’m not sure he’d be happy with just a drive.” Gayle replied; he made a mental note to download the ships manuals he found earlier onto the thumbChip in his uniTool.
Meers changed the subject, wincing in pain as he shifted off his leg, “Maybe we can create a diversion?”
“Yeah, a ruckus of some kind – I could shoot a few more troopers,” Ty nodded.
Meron didn’t look convinced, “With enough confusion it might work.”
“I don’t know if I like the word ‘might’,” Gayle said out of the side of his mouth.
Kode spoke up, “They got two listening posts on the surface. Attacking them would make ’em send out patrols. Far as I know they have only eight working interceptors and they always send ’em out in threes.”
Meron did some quick accounting in her head, “that would leave two to deal with when we make a run for it.”
Gayle frowned, “That’s two too many for us. We have nothing to defend ourselves with, this ship has no armaments.”
“No, but Achilles does.” Meron said.
“What? That little gun?” Gayle couldn’t help but scoff. Achilles’ laser cannon was laughable, it could be used effectively against a few ground troops but was no match for professional fighting craft like those interceptors, it would just bounce off their shields.
Meron gave him a dirty look as if he’d called her first-born a dog.
“Maybes we can give it a little upgrade?” Kode offered with a wink to Gayle. “I’m sure my genies have a few spare parts lying around.”
“Well, here goes nothing.” Meron said flicking a few switches and pulling down on the main thrusters. With an almighty roar and groan the ship responded under them, slowly rising away from the water and the landing platforms.
Looking through the plexiGlass window Gayle watched the figure of Kode recede away; he was holding a comDev close to his mouth. His voice cracked with digital distortion, “My men will meet ya up top at platform eighteen got it? That’s eigh-teen; it’s close to Achilles. Oh, and don’t forget to send me through the code when you’re ready for the fireworks.”
Gayle gave him the thumbs up as the ship began to turn in a slow arc. Rather than travel with them Kode had elected to go off on his own and organise the diversion. In the meantime they had to get the ship up top to the main base where they could pick up Achilles.
Meron guided the ship through the forest of columns, narrowly missing several as she got used to the steering lag time. Below, the artificial lake stretched like an inland sea and above them the ice ceiling vanished off into mists produced from thousands of oxygen fumaroles that peppered the surface.
As they flew above it Gayle was struck by the grandeur of the chamber. He imagined the thousands of workers who toiled to produce it and the great landing platforms as they once must have looked, arrayed with the colony fleet. Until recently it had all been a fairy tale to him, now he was flying in one of them.
Norton must have read his thoughts as he touched Gayle’s shoulder. “It was something to see I tell you, the grandest moment in human history! As far as you could see this long gallery was lit up like the sun. Twelve thousand souls, along with every known plant and animal species aboard twelve ships – the finest ships ever made – no expense spared!”
“Look, there’s the main shaft.” Weavel said as ahead of them a great hole opened up. Down here is was substantially wider than at the surface, maybe a few miles across.
“Alright, here we go.” Meron said pulling back on the thrusters. The ship responded with a stutter that had everyone looking at each other with concern; the whole superstructure shook like it could tear apart at any moment.
Meers, who had taken up the co-pilot’s chair, touched her arm and yelled over the deafening roar, “Steady, remember this is an old girl.”
Meron glanced sideways at him as she gripped the controls. “Maybe it’s an old boy?” She replied ignoring his warning and ever-so-slowly the ship began to arc upward.
“If it were an old boy it would have fallen apart by now.” Ty added with a wry sneer.
It was a short vertical ride before the flickering lights of Icarus base appeared out of the frozen blackness of the shaft. Moments later the ship shot out of it and Meron rapidly reversed the thrusters to stop them overshooting the base, a manoeuvre which pushed Gayle’s stomach into his mouth; involuntarily he closed his eyes waiting for the impact which never came.
The ship settled evenly over the landing fields and Meron turned to the Major who was tied down to a seat behind them, “play this the way I said and I’ll see to it you’re treated fairly.”
The Major snorted, “I won’t be able to delay for long. You can’t bring a ship this size into base without a lot of questions being asked.”
“You’ll think of something,” Meron replied.
“Tell them we have a coolant leak from the fusion drive – that stuff can be deadly. Tell them it is venting inside the ship. That should keep them at bay for a while.” Gayle suggested.
Ty nodded, “That ought to buy us an hour or so before the shooting starts.”
“The commander of this base is not stupid.” The Major added, though her voice suggested she believed otherwise.
“We’ll have to take our chances.” Meron said with a forced smile. “Give her the comDev.”
Gayle held it in front of the Major, who contemplated it for a moment. She glanced from Gayle to Meron, “Why should I do this? They’ll execute me anyway for failure of duty once all this comes out?”
“You can die now or die later.” Ty growled as she grabbed the woman by the hair. “It’s no skin off my nose.”
Meron looked her in the eye, “Look, I can always put in a good word for you with Kode, they could use someone with inside knowledge. This place is ripe for a revolt.”
The Major looked aghast, “Revolt?”
“You say it like it’s a dirty word,” Meers chuckled. “Just think of it as a change of government…”
“…or I can kill you now.” Ty reminded her.
Gayle interrupted, “Whatever you’re going to do you better do it now, here come the cavalry.”
Through the plexiGlass screen three interceptors were rapidly approaching. The ship’s comDev crackled to life and a monotone voice broke through: “Unidentified vessel, this is Lieutenant Archer. Please identify yourself.”
The Major paused, Gayle supposed she was deciding what her future would be; to live or die. She nodded to him. He held down the transmit button and she spoke into it clear and authoritatively, “Lieutenant Archer, this is Major Field, id:12855, clearance level 14. I request authority to land this vessel, we have a critical issue with our coolant system…it’s leaking into the ship.” She paused, “And Lieutenant, I haven’t got all day you understand?”
There was a pause then the pilot responded, “Apologies Major… I will clear you at once! Please standby.” The Lieutenant exclaimed and the three interceptors flew over and past The Ares.
“Well, that was easy.” Weavel grinned.
“Don’t be so sure,” The Major replied. “That lieutenant, despite his pandering to me, will be reporting to Commander Nesbit as we speak. A ship of this size will send alarm bells ringing. Particularly as we appeared out of nowhere into the heart of the base.”
With some careful manoeuvring The Ares was brought down safely onto the near-deserted landing field; a blurry red number eighteen showed through the ice. Through the fogged-up window Gayle made out Achilles less than thirty yards away, the hull streaked with rusty marks that he was beginning to appreciate like his own collection of bumps and scrapes. Had he not known better he would have said it was an abandoned vessel.
Weavel got up and stretched his legs, he rubbed his hands together greedily, “Meyconte’s gonna give me a nice fat bonus for this. Maybe my own ship!”
“I wouldn’t bet on it, he didn’t get rich by giving it away to men like you,” Meers warned as he examined one of the control panels.
“What would you know old man? This ain’t the war anymore.”
“I know Meyconte can’t be trusted, he cares more about that drive than you I guarantee you that much.”
Weavel sneered but didn’t look less sure of himself and turned to fidget with a gaudy ring on his index finger.
“Well I hope you get what you deserve Weavel.” Ty added with a barbed smile.
While the others sparred, Meron leaned in close to Gayle so that no one else could hear them. He couldn’t help but glance at her lips as she whispered: “We need some insurance, Gayle. Once we hand over this ship Meyconte will have no use for us and I would bet he is going to want to keep this business a secret – do you get my meaning? We need something to ensure our survival.”
Gayle nodded, “What have you got in mind?”
“We remove a drive from The Ares.”
Gayle had already thought it through, it was the only logical thing to do; he glanced at Weavel who was continuing to yabber. “Meyconte will be psychopathic when he finds out, but yeah I can do it. We better keep this quiet from the others though.”
Meron nodded, ”see it done.”