HunterBy Neil Faulkner
Page 1 of 24
No answer. Greasy fingers hammered out the code again, bashing the keys as if that could make the other end buzz louder. "Ooo'Ryyy-an! I know you're there, princess, and what you're doing. It stunts your growth, you know. Now, are you going to answer, or do I press the open channel and tell the whole ship your chest isn't flat but concave?"
<That's you, isn't it, Greb? What do you want?>
"I want you to prick up your ears and listen. Then you can bring that shapely behind of yours down to engineering."
<Greb... piss off. This is my off shift. Nobody tells me what to do on my off shift. I don't hear anything wrong.>
"Correction, my sweetheart, you don't hear nothing at all and that's the problem. We've got a little trouble with the TD drives. A little total pack-up trouble to be precise, and I seem to remember you telling me how you were the chief engineer on this crate. What's the matter? You want to pass up a chance to show us boys what a clever girl you are."
<Greb, all I want is for you to go get ->
"Cap's orders, princess."
Silence. Then: <Okay. I'll be down. Five minutes.>
It was quiet on Liberator's flight deck. Dayna wandered in, looking for something to do. All she found was Tarrant checking the readouts, and none too carefully at that. He didn't need to, everything was doing what it should be doing. He also was simply looking for something to do.
"You like having all this to yourself, don't you?" she teased, as he looked up from a blank detector panel.
"I wish." He grinned. "Actually I'd rather not have any of it right now. It's supposed to be Avon's watch, but there's no sign of him."
Dayna pulled a face. "We ought to go easy on him. He's got a lot to sort out with himself."
"You mean Anna?" It was a rhetorical question. Of course she meant Anna. He shrugged. "I'd be more inclined to go easy on him, as you put it, if he'd only admit he was going through something. Pretending it didn't happen isn't doing any of us a lot of good."
"Tarrant! That's unfair."
"So's life." He checked the course bearings, and found them spot on. "Strange. Never thought I'd want to see Avon his normal cold, brooding self. As opposed to his current abnormal cold, brooding self. What we need is something that'll take his mind off it."
Dayna smiled with him, but with more in the way of true sympathy. "What are the chances of that happening?"
"At the moment, none." He checked the detector panels again. They hadn't exactly changed in the past minute. "There's absolutely nothing out there."
The commbox beeped loud on the bridge. Captain Droge was nearest.
<Cap?> The voice at the other end was high-pitched, nearly squealing.
"Ms O'Ryan? What's the situation with the drives?"
<Er...I ain't got to the drives yet, sir. I've...er...I've...>
Droge drummed his fingers on an instrument panel. "Ms O'Ryan," he said clearly, projecting the full measure of his annoyance down the commlines. Projected it with ease, he had had many years of practice. "Ms O'Ryan, this ship has a destination to go to. It is not going to get there until those TD drives are working again, which is an engineer's job, and you are an engineer. Is that too complicated for you?"
<Er...you don't understand, sir. I've found someone... down here in storage, and...>
"Congratulations, Ms O'Ryan. You should in fact have found two people, namely Grebbins and Storsky. Which is it? I can't believe you only know both of them with the lights off."
<Well...er...I don't know...>
Droge clenched a fist and flashed pugilistic glares at the commbox. Everyone else on the bridge did their best to look busy. Busy, but quiet with it. They didn't want to miss a word.
"Ms O'Ryan, I don't care what you do with yourself in your off duty hours, but when I give you a job to do I expect you to get on with it. Now sober yourself up, find Grebbins and Storsky and -"
O'Ryan's hysterical voice suddenly screamed out from the commbox and echoed round the whole bridge. <Shut up, you bastard and get somebody down here!> Droge promptly turned a dangerous shade of white, and the rest of the bridge crew fell deathly silent.
Listening to the sound of someone being violently sick.
+No further information is available.+
"Thank you, Zen." Tarrant turned away from the computer just as Avon and Vila hurried on to the flight deck.
"We've changed course," Avon observed. "Rather abruptly, too."
"Sorry to shake you awake," replied Tarrant. "I've picked up a distress call, on bearing two-ten by one-forty."
"The way we just come," realised Vila, "or very nearly. I think."
"And you thought you'd take the liberty of putting us on course for it?" Avon swept past Tarrant and stood before Zen. Tarrant cut in before he could utter a word.
"It's from a free trader, the Colombia. Asking for urgent assistance but not really specifying what kind."
"Free trader?" Avon mouthed the words quietly to himself. "That could mean anything. Pirates, bounty hunters, the Federation - anything."
"Damn right," echoed Vila. "I don't like distress calls. They usually mean trouble."
Tarrant ignored him. "On the other hand, it could mean a free trader needing help. And as far as we know, we could be the only ones around in a position to offer it." He climbed up to the pilot's seat and checked over the instrumentation. "From the position they're sending, they're still about two and a half hours away. We've got time to hold a vote if you want."
It was Avon's turn to do the ignoring. "Have you signalled back to tell them we're coming?"
"I'm not a complete fool, Avon."
Avon's face flashed with a brief flicker of a smile. "No, you're not, are you?" He spun round. "All right, we investigate, but at the first sign of it being anything other than it claims to be, we pull out. Agreed?"
"Goes without saying."
"I only wish it did," moaned Vila.
Avon compared the Liberator's current position with their destination. As Tarrant had said, there was a fair way to go.
"Zen, increase speed to Standard by Eight."
Chu-Lao, the navigator, was doing her best to bring a bit of colour back to O'Ryan's face. It was proving to be an uphill job. The reports coming back from the stores section were more than enough to make Droge give the engineer the benefit of the doubt for once.
"All right, Mr Maclain, keep looking, " he snapped into the commbox. "The head's got to be there somewhere."
<Very well, sir,> came back the security chief's easy reply. <Do you want us to bring it up to the bridge when we find it or leave it outside your door?>
Droge fought down the temptation to tell him to give it to catering and ordered all remains to be taken to the medical bay. "And let me know when you find out who it is," he finished. He glowered briefly at Life In General, his deadliest foe for many a long year, before turning his attention to the huddled, quivering, blanket-shrouded woman cradling a cup of well-laced coffee. "Now, Ms O'Ryan, feeling any better?"
The chief engineer shook her head weakly and sunk it even further between her shoulders. Droge patted her gently on the head. Gently for Droge, anyway. "Don't worry, you'll snap out of it. Mr Warren?"
The young communications officer jumped like a startled rabbit. "Sir?"
"Any reply to our distress calls."
"Nothing yet, sir."
"Keep on sending. There has to be somebody out there."
"This isn't a heavily used spacelane," Chu-Lao felt forced to point out. "There might be nobody out there at all right now."
"There has to be somebody out there," repeated Droge. "Dammit, I've got near on three hundred passengers and half a million credits worth of cargo on this ship -"
"Not to mention twenty one crew," added Chu-Lao. "Twenty now, of course. Possibly just nineteen."
"Thank you, navigator. Those as well. And I'm not going to lose them because... because..."
"Because one of your engineers has been bodily dismembered, another has disappeared, and none of our supralight drives are working. Given the circumstances, captain, I think you've got a very good excuse for losing them."
Droge's face paled to the point of matching his hair. He mouthed a few choice words to himself. "Just get on with your job."
"I'm a navigator. Can't do much navigating with a ship that won't go anywhere."
<Sir.> Maclain's voice cut in, ever so slightly warbly. <Sir, we've got enough to confirm the... the remains as Grebbins. Still no sign of Storsky.>
Droge loomed over the commbox like a giant bat. "I see. No sign at all, you say?"
<None yet, sir. We're just about to investigate the drive chamber.>
Droge nodded and looked over the instrument panels, as if they could give him some idea of just what was going on in his engineering section. Chu-Lao sidled up beside him.
"You don't suppose," he wondered aloud, "that Storsky's responsible for this?"
Chu-Lao didn't think that warranted much consideration. "Storsky can't tear open a packet of wafersnax, let alone a human being," she said. "Or Grebbins either, for that matter."
<Sir. Maclain here. We're having to suit up to get in the drive chamber. It's been depressurised.>
"Not from up here it hasn't," snapped back Droge.
<Well maybe, sir, but I've got a red light on the door that says different. Artigrav is off too, so we're taking lifelines through the airlock.>
"Very good, Mr Maclain." Droge had a sudden thought. "Any pressure suits missing from the locker?"
<Yes, sir. One. It's not impossible Storsky's in there.>
"Right. Well, take it easy in there. I don't want any shooting. No point in adding to whatever damage we've already got."
<I'll try and bear that in mind, sir.>
Silence fell on the bridge, all ears turned to the commbox. Maclain kept up a running commentary as he and his team prepared to enter the drive chamber. The airlock was depressurised, although the far door was sealed. Someone had been through without repressurising. They had to wait as the storage section rotated into line, then stopped the airlock ring to move on through.
<No quick exits,> observed the security chief. Droge folded his arms. If an armed Storsky was waiting in there, Maclain and his team would be trapped until the storage section was back in line with the drive chamber.
<I'm opening the door now. Floating through. No sign of any damage anywhere. Wait...>
The commbox fell dead. On the bridge, nobody moved. O'Ryan's hands squeezed so tight on her cup it began to buckle. Droge broke the silence. "You still there, man?"
<Still here, sir. We're getting something in our torch beams. Up ahead, past the kinetic field regulator. A sort of... well, it looks like a red mist. Might be rust particles, there's a lot of maintenance work needs doing here.>
Droge half-turned to O'Ryan. She in her turn looked down at the floor. Not that either of them seriously thought it was rust Maclain was looking at.
<Getting closer now. About ten metres. We need to go over the regulator coil. Signs of damage here, there's... Hold on...>
O'Ryan stood up and walked unsteadily over. Chu-Lao stepped aside to let her through.
<We've got two large rents in the coil casing. About two, two and a half metres long, perhaps fifteen centimetres wide. It's not like any kind of damage I've seen before. The metal's been... the best word I can find is shredded. Torn into strips. No sign of heat scoring, no pitting, no melting. Not any kind of weapon damage I could put a name to.>
"All right, Mr Maclain. Leave it for now, concentrate on Storsky. Any ideas, Ms O'Ryan?"
"I'd have to see it," she said. "But I can't think offhand of anything that could -"
Droge waved her silent as Maclain's voice cut in again.
<Going over the top of the coil now. That mist is pretty thick on the other side. We can't see through it. There's something...floating. Hold on...>
He cut off again, leaving the four on the bridge hanging. When he came back a moment later he sounded very artificially matter of fact.
<I think we've found Storsky, sir. Can't be absolutely sure at this stage, but we're pretty certain it's bits of him that keep bumping into us.>
Chu-Lao raised an eyebrow and put a steadying arm around O'Ryan. Droge took in a deep breath through flared nostrils. Only Warren seemed diverted. He looked up, excited. "Getting a signal, sir," he said. "From..." His mouth dropped open. His cheeks turned red as he saw all eyes turning on him.
"Come on, come on," barked Droge. "Who is it?"
"Well, sir," he stammered. "They say... they say they're the Liberator."
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