ContagionBy Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 22
The Free Trader ship Alamo screamed into Auron's stratosphere like a banshee with its tail on fire. Her captain, former Space Commander Travis clenched his teeth, struggling to hold the ship on course as midair bursts from the planetary defense system vibrated through the ship's heavily armored superstructure, rattling her captain and crew like dice in a cup. Normally Travis would have preferred Valkyrie's speed or Balkis's maneuverability for this kind of planetary shuttle, but at the moment he was grateful for Alamo's heavy-duty armor which was the only thing keeping their crew and cargo in one piece.
Turning an icy glare towards the gunnery controls, Travis snarled, "Listen, you fuzzy-brained excuse for a gunner, stop that next missile before it gets a fix on us . . . or if we survive this barrage, you'll clean the carbon scoring off our hull with your tongue."
Taking the Kyrenian's guttural hiss for his usual ill-tempered acknowledgment, Travis turned his attention to yellow warning lights blinking red all over his controls, then growled on the intercom to engineering, "Where the hell are my stabilizers, Akema? Jenna and I can't keep this ship on course with our bare hands."
"You might want to consider burning jets out of here, Cap'n. Me and the lads are holding this ship together with mantras and spit. I think it's fair to say that the Auronar are not interested in our cargo any longer."
" Jenna's trying to get through to the Auron Council right now, Engineer. Keep her steady on her gyros another two minutes."
Jenna pounded her fist on the comm in frustration, trying to reason with the blandly officious planetary controller. "But we have a special landing permission from the Council, you daft idiot. I've already transmitted the emergency clearance. If you have a problem with that, take it up with them."
As another near miss threw Jenna against her restraint harness, she erupted in a venomous outburst of profanity that would have done credit to a platoon of Federation Marines. But judging by the controller's unblinking reaction to her vitriolic assault on his parentage, manhood, and sexual practices, Travis was inclined to believe the image was pre-recorded and the missile attack an automatically programmed countermeasure.
"Endit." His voice was hard enough to shatter rock. "Stop wasting your breath on a recording."
Jenna turned to him, hazel eyes blazing and Travis made a deliberate effort to soften his tone, trying to avoid lacerating Jenna's stubborn pride any further. "Akema's got the right of it. Why risk the ship . . . and our crew's necks? Abort this run and dump the cargo . . . or find a buyer in the salvage market. If the main spaceport is warning off incoming traffic with missiles, something's seriously wrong down there."
"Cally said it was just a 'small outbreak'," Jenna muttered to herself. "Why do I get the feeling the situation is much worse than she thought." She shook her head in frustration and grimaced. "I've never dumped a legitimate cargo yet . . . and I promised we'd make this delivery. No matter what."
"And we owe Cally." Travis acknowledged wearily, wishing for once that Jenna was a little less staunch regarding old friends. Of course, it didn't help that she was still trying to prove herself to her uncle . . . and the Enclave.
He turned to their navigator, a plump woman with a mop of curly dark hair and a queasy expression, and ordered, " Brita, locate a suitable area for Alamo to put down. A safe distance from the spaceport's automatic defenses."
"On it," Navtech Brita Rocklin nodded, wiping futilely at the sweat trickling down her cheeks as she adjusted the coordinate grids on her navigation console.
"Nothing fancy," he growled. "Any flat piece of terrain will do . . . minus the ground fire."
Travis glanced around at their bridge crew: Phrath hunched over his gunnery controls, whiskers arched at a predatory angle, Brita struggling to gulp back her nausea, !tsach, one of Akema's apprentices, hands flying as he updated the data feed to the engineering deck. A good crew, who had proved their loyalty to Jenna and him a dozen times over. They deserved better than this . . . a low profit, high risk mission that Jenna had taken out of a sense of obligation.
He glanced over at Jenna, "Did Cally have any suggestions about where to deliver these supplies . . . now that our consignee at the spaceport has bailed on us."
Muttering to herself, Jenna studied the grid projected on her console. "Last I heard, her clone sister Zelda was head of the Reproductive Facility at the BioReplication Center. They should have the lab facilities . . . and trained personnel . . . to make use of our cargo."
"You get that, Brita?"
"Aye Captain," she acknowledged, moments later. "Transferring landing grid to main helm control . . . now."
With coordinates in their computers, the two Free Traders turned their attention to the atmospheric maneuvers necessary to get their ship and crew safely grounded. Landing without the guidance beams available at the spaceport was a touchy proposition, but they had grounded ships under much worse conditions and despite their disagreement about this mission, they still worked well together, anticipating each other's moves with a minimum of discussion. It was an ideal situation since the roar of Alamo's landing rockets made conversation almost impossible until they touched down.
As Jenna shut down the engines, Travis gusted out a sigh of relief then hit the comm controls to their Cargo Master's station.
"All right, Sarcar, get that cargo offloaded now. Your crew will have to jury-rig a pulley system since we don't have the benefit of the port's facilities . . . or work crews. Dragoon some of the engine gang if you need help."
"No worries, Captain sirs," hissed their Orphidean Cargo Master. "Prepared we are for any and all difficulties. Groundside thy cargo will be in less than an hour."
Travis grunted an acknowledgment and turned his attention to his bondmate who was studying their power levels and fuel consumption readouts. Her expression was grim.
"That course change burned up two-thirds of our remaining auxiliary fuel for braking and maneuvering. If we can't refuel here, we may have a problem getting back to Sanctuary."
Travis shook his head in disgust, "Damn little chance of refueling, with the spaceport using us for target practice. Aren't there any refit yards in this sector?"
"Auron's always been isolated, off the beaten track. No neutral ports within three parsecs . . . that I know of."
"Bring up that quadrant map again. Something about the cometary field on the outskirts of the system looks familiar."
He traced his finger along the chunks of rock and ice orbiting at heliopause of the Auron sun, then suddenly spotted something about ten times brighter than it should have been in that graveyard of planetary debris.
"That's a beacon marking a Federation fuel dump. With a minimum fuel liftoff, we can use the rotation of the planet to give us enough of a boost to coast into the cometary belt, then all we have to do is locate the dump and help ourselves."
"Alamo's not a Federation ship," Jenna protested. "How do you know whatever's at that dump will be compatible with our engines?"
"Fuel dumps like this supply everything from high-velocity pursuit ships to long-range deep-space probes. There's bound to be something Akema and his crew can adapt for our engines."
Jenna's expression was troubled. "One of the first things I learned out on my own was that nothing's free in this galaxy. That fuel could wind up costing more than we can afford."
"Consider it payment for services rendered," Travis answered in a dead flat tone. "I've given them their 'pound of flesh' . . . and more. Besides Samore still owes us for our part in that little scrap with Servalan."
"I guess," she shrugged. "I'm just worried any Federation troops we cross paths with might not see it that way."
She gazed at the map again, tracing a low-fuel trajectory past the comet belt.
"There are rumors of an Amagon souq ship somewhere in this sector. I know Tarvin once mentioned wanting to establish regular trade with the Aurons."
Travis snorted in exasperation, "Our last run-in with the Amagons involved blaster fire, not bloody tea and crumpets. They'd sooner hijack this ship and peddle it and our crew to the highest bidder, than sell us fuel . . . even at bootlegger prices."
Before Jenna could answer, there was a burst of static on the intercom, as Sarcar interrupted them. "Captains Sers. To the cargo area soonest please be coming down." Their normally imperturbable Cargo Master actually sounded flustered, a situation that had Travis glancing around the bridge for some kind of weapon more powerful than the hand blasters that he and Jenna normally carried.
"What's the matter, old snake?" he questioned, stalling for time as Jenna rummaged through storage bins, looking for anything that could possibly be jerry-rigged as an explosive device.
"Militia . . . with weapons."
Sarcar grunted hoarsely as though someone had jabbed him very hard with the barrel of a gun, "Thirty seconds to come out has thou . . . unarmed, or apprentices will kill, they say . . . starting with the youngest."
Jenna froze in dismay, letting the weapon in her hand drop to the deck.
"No," she whispered, her eyes haunted." I won't lose another one, not so soon."
Travis caught her shoulder as she started out the door, "Jenna, wait, it's a bluff. They're Aurons, pacifists by nature."
"I suppose those rockets they fired at us at the spaceport were bluff, too?" She tossed her weapon belt aside, although Travis noted she did not discard the miniature pulse pistol hidden under her shirt or the pair of knives in her boots. "If the Aurons are shooting at legitimate cargo vessels, we need to find out why."
Travis groaned to himself before asking in a disgruntled tone of voice, "I thought you'd given up sticking your nose into other people's problems?"
Jenna glared back at him, hands on her hips. "They've fired on our ship, taken our crew hostage, and will likely confiscate our cargo without paying for it. What more does it take for you to consider this our problem?"
Snatching the gun from his hand, she gave him sidelong glance, "You still have some of those strontium mini-grenades, don't you?"
"And a few other tricks," he admitted with a cold smile. "What's your plan? Let 'em lock us up together, then blast our way out?"
"Not right away. I'd still like to talk to whoever's currently in charge and find out why one of the more peace-loving races in the galaxy has started shooting on sight. Whatever this problem is, it's likely a danger to other Enclave ships."
Jenna grabbed Travis by the elbow. "We better not keep them
waiting too long . . . or our apprentices will be white-haired by the time
we get there."
* * *
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