HunterBy Neil Faulkner
Page 2 of 24
"Smart thinking, Tarrant." Flask in one hand, glass in the other,
Vila picked his way through to the teleport controls. "Tell them who
we are, give them plenty of time to get ready for us. We still don't
know who's really on that ship, but now they'll know who's on this one
and what kind of price we've still got on our heads."
"Orac says the Columbia's still registered as a legitimate trader," said Dayna, relieving him of his glassware. "It's contracted to a respectable freight agency and nothing to do with the Federation."
"And there are three hundred passengers on board," added Cally. "Bounty hunters find that amount of company tends to cramp their style."
Vila remained unconvinced. "Assuming they are passengers. You could end up with three hundred laser rifles aimed straight between your eyes."
"Then I'll do my best to duck," said Tarrant, making sure his gun belt was securely strapped on. "Besides, they'll have had us on their visuals for a while now and would know who we are anyway."
Avon strode in and snapped on a bracelet. "So if they've got anything planned for us they'll be ready and waiting. No point in delaying any longer. Let's get over there." He stepped into the teleport bay and Cally and Tarrant joined him. Dayna shot green eyes at them, twitching.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come across with you?"
"I want someone to stay behind as backup," said Avon.
Dayna positively pouted. "Vila's not going."
"I want someone to stay behind I can rely on."
"Oh, so I'm reliable," she chanted. "Wonderful!"
"Don't knock it," grinned Tarrant. "It's probably Avon's ultimate accolade."
As Vila aligned the teleport coordinates and punched up the transmission codes, Dayna fixed Avon with a withering look. "One day," she said, "I'll get the chance to tell you you're reliable. Then you'll know how it feels."
"Don't bother," he replied. "I already do." The air around him shimmered and then he, Tarrant and Cally were gone. Dayna couldn't be absolutely sure, but she couldn't help thinking she'd seen a hint of a smile on his face before he'd disappeared.
"Sometimes," she said, "I wonder just how seriously to take him."
"Try totally," offered Vila. "Believe me, it's safest."
One moment they were looking at Dayna and Vila at the teleport controls, the next they were in a narrow, underlit corridor with walls in dire need of a scrub. There was nobody else in sight.
"So much for the reception committee," said Tarrant, uneasily, one hand resting on the butt of his gun.
Avon studied the notices on the wall. "We ought to be somewhere between the passenger service section and the bridge. That's assuming Vila's put us in the right place."
The door to their left bore a sign saying: 'No Unauthorised Personnel Beyond This Point'. Underneath it was a smaller sign, bright orange with black balloon lettering. Tarrant passed an eye over it. You don't HAVE to be mad to fly with this ship... He sighed. The door suddenly slid aside and a tall, white-haired man stood regarding them with a mixture of disbelief and polite welcome.
"You must be the Liberator chaps," he said, stepping through and stiffly extending one arm. "Heard about your teleport, of course, but never really believed it. Until now, of course. I'm -" He stopped abruptly, staring past Avon and Cally at the tall, curly-haired man behind them. "Del Tarrant! What the devil are you doing with this crowd?"
Tarrant shifted uneasily. "Well, well, well," he muttered. "Piledriver Droge. Thought you'd retired, Flight Major."
"You know this man?" asked Avon, flatly.
"Know him? He was the terror of FSA Central. Cadets would sooner face a firing squad than a dressing down from the Piledriver."
"Then he's Federation."
"Ex-Federation, actually," said Droge, standing like a drill instructor on a parade ground. "And yes, I do know who you are, and where you stand and who you work for and, no, I don't particularly care. This is a neutral ship and it stays neutral. Understood?"
"Let's hope so." Avon's tone was icy, making it clear he was going to need something more in the way of proof. "Now what's your problem and what can we do to help?"
Dayna and Vila listened with glum faces to Tarrant's report.
"Nine days to get a repair ship out here?" Vila couldn't believe it. Dayna could, but then she had taken the trouble to look at a few star charts.
<Nine minimum,> Tarrant confirmed. <And it really does look like a repair ship job. This isn't routine wear and tear. The Colombia doesn't have the transmission range to contact a repair base, but Liberator does. I think you'd better make that your number one priority.>
"I'll get onto it right away," she assured him. "Or get Vila to do it. No, on second thoughts, I'll do it myself."
<The main problem is the passengers,> continued Tarrant. <They won't just be bored within a week, they'll be peckish with it. And that's on half rations.>
Dayna had a sudden terrifying premonition. "Tarrant, you're not suggesting we take three hundred people on board. I know Liberator's a big ship but -"
<Don't panic, Dayna, I'd already counted that one out myself. What I wanted was a check on our own food stores. How much can we spare?>
"How about all of it?" suggested Vila. "In return for a decent meal for once. Anything better than Cordon Zen, which shouldn't be too difficult."
"Oh, shut up, Vila," said Dayna, exasperated. Vila could easily irritate her at times. When he opened his mouth, for example. She shoved him away from the communicator. "I'm sure we could spare them something," she told Tarrant. "Are you sure the ship's drives can't be repaired on the spot?"
<Pretty sure, yes. Avon's looking into it at the moment. He says things look 'interesting', which is probably a bad sign.>
"You're the one who wanted him to have something to take his mind off things."
<It looks like he's got it.> There was a pause, and when Tarrant spoke again he sounded distinctly quieter, as if anxious not to be overheard. <I also get the impression we're not being told everything. For one thing I can't believe a ship this size would only have one engineer. I'll keep you posted.>
"Be careful," Dayna warned him. Unnecessarily, as they both knew by now.
<Don't worry. I will. Tarrant out.>
Avon was doing his best to enhance the film Maclain transmitted from the drive chamber while Cally and O'Ryan studied it carefully. Droge paced up and down behind them, probably trying to think of a good order to give someone.
"That's the hole in the hull?" asked O'Ryan, looking at a screen full of twisted metal. "Ho-leee!"
<That's it,> confirmed Maclain. <We found it a couple of minutes after... after we found the other damage. I've not seen anything to compare with this anywhere.>
"Okay, hold it there." She turned to Avon. "Can you improve on that?"
Avon fiddled with the tone differentiation. "Any better?"
"A bit." O'Ryan stared closely at the screen and traced over outlines with a screenprint stylus. "Macki boy, you're not the only one," she murmured. "It's like something's been punched out through from inside."
Avon leaned over to look for himself. Metal plating was buckled outwards, leaving a jagged, slit-like hole into empty space.
"That explains the depressurisation," said Cally. She was watching O'Ryan very carefully, noting every jittery shake of her hand. "And the loss of simulated gravity. The inner and outer hulls have got entangled. The ship can't go anywhere until that's been repaired."
"That's minor grade hass," O'Ryan said, without taking her eyes off the screen. "It's the big component damage that'll take some fixing."
"Stabbed," said Avon suddenly. When the others gave him querying glances he explained more fully. "You said it looked like it had been punched through," he told O'Ryan, "but that hole is too long and too narrow. Maclain, can you give us some precise dimensions on the aperture?"
<Don't know about precise, but yes, it's about three and a half metres one way and maybe one, just under at its widest. I could probably squeeze through but I'd rip my suit.>
"I'm not suggesting you try it." Avon sat back and rubbed his chin. "Is there anything on the ship that could do that to the outer hull?"
Droge stopped pacing and towered up behind Avon. "We are talking here about herculanium-plated vanadium steel. Is there anything on any ship that can cut a hole like that?"
"It's tempting to think there might be on yours," said Avon.
"What cargo are you carrying?" Cally asked the captain. He seemed to her to be the kind of man who felt awkward when dealing with those he regarded as aliens. A confrontational approach with the likes of Droge could often yield results.
"A...variety of things," said the captain, ill at ease. "Pharmaceuticals, seed stocks, textiles, mail freight. A ship like this carries near on anything it's asked to." He recovered his poise as he found safe ground. "We run on a very tight budget, you know. Our basic salaries aren't much to speak of, we depend on commissions from the agency. Or to be more precise, I do, since I'm the one who has to make the books balance. That means we carry anything. Anything within reason, that is."
"Including, I presume," said Avon, scanning a screenful of data he had just punched up, "seven containers of 'machine parts'."
Droge stood stock still and looked ready to throw a fit. "I can assure you," he said, very precisely, "that whatever is in those containers is not the kind of machinery that can tear holes in a starship's outer hull." He reached over Avon's shoulder and barked into the commbox. "Mr Maclain, if there's no further damage to report then make your way up to the bridge."
<Very good, sir.> O'Ryan's screen went blank as the camera was switched off. She had everything taped for future reference if necessary. "Your other man's taking his time down in the stores, isn't he?" she said to Cally.
Cally nodded. "I'd have expected him to call back by now."
"And I did say at the time," Droge pointed out, "that he would find nothing useful down there. If we had the equipment or parts to repair the damage we'd never have sent out a call in the first place."
"Tarrant's a great innovator," said Avon. "He might find something you'd overlook."
O'Ryan got up, indignant. "Are you trying to tell me I can't do my job? 'Cos if you are then I'm telling you to go take a flyi -"
"Easy, Ms O'Ryan," ordered Droge. The young engineer flushed and clammed up with an effort of will. Sweat dribbled down her face. She kicked her chair back and made for the door. It opened before she got to it, and Tarrant came in, propelling a young crewman in white overalls before him.
"Just wait 'til you hear this, Avon," he said, flashing his teeth grimly.
The crewman, evidently a steward or one of the caterers, looked nervously around and faced the captain. "There's...er...there's been another one, sir," he stammered.
Droge's face turned into an impenetrable mask as Avon rose slowly and moved around to look him in the eye.
"Another what, exactly?" he asked.
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