Bewildering Stories

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by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.

“Vessel” began in issue 106.
Part 5 appeared in issue 109.

“Shut up.” Parker said, opening Masdok’s black jacket and rummaging through the alien’s pockets. “I knew I’d find it.” He held up a small glass wafer. “I may not be a perfect human, but one thing I’ve learned about Bad Guys of any stripe. No matter how smart they believe themselves, they always end up doing something incredibly stupid.”

“What is that?” Dawes asked.

“It’s my access chip, you stupid bovine.” Masdok snarled. “It overrides all but the highest security functions on this station.” He stared at Parker. “Well, what are you waiting for? Use the damn thing.”

Parker inserted the wafer into a slot on the control panel and pressed the green button. The car’s lights flared bright and the motors started. Three more levels passed on the overhead indicator before the car stopped and the doors hissed open. “This is going to suck big time.” He muttered as he pulled the wafer out.

The three of them stepped out of the lift in time to see several human marksman aiming black sniper rifles down at them from an above catwalk. Parker spied OPS emblems on each of their grey uniforms. “After today, the word NO becomes my official slogan.” He spotted a small boxy freighter on the launch cradle. “That’s our ride out of here.”

“When did you learn how to fly a spaceship?” Dawes asked. “You used to hate driving a city car.”

“I don’t.” Parker admitted. “But I’m about to get a crash course.” He looked up at the snipers. “If you want to see this man alive, you will stand down right now.”

An OPS officer stepped up to the catwalk’s railing. His face was partially hidden by a dark riot visor but his voice was clear. “Release the hostage and surrender yourselves, Inspector Parker. I give you my word that no harm with come to you or Ms. Dawes.”

“Like that has any coin.” Parker said. The boarding hatch to the freighter grew closer. “Clear the freighter of its crew. If you try to stop us, Masdok is the first to go down. I don’t care what happens to me.”

Several tense minutes passed as they stepped closer to the docking hatch with no shots coming from above. When they got there, there was a frantic shuffling from the catwalk. The officer accepted a comm handset from a subordinate and spoke into it. He lowered the handset. “Inspector Parker, I have Captain Grant on the comm for you. He says that if you surrender right now, he will personally guarantee your safe return to Earth.”

“Get in there and do what you can to get this ship ready to launch.” Parker told Dawes as the last of the freighter’s crew ran out of the ship. He waited for her to get inside before shoving Masdok to the deck. “Adios, Masdok.” He jumped inside as shots began ringing off the freighter’s metal hull. He fumbled with the hatch’s lock before running up to the vessel’s cockpit. “I hope piracy’s worth whatever’s stuck in your head.” He said as he jumped into the pilot’s chair.

“It’s not exactly in my head.” Dawes said, slipping on a headset and weaving a spectacular tale of an explosive device connected to the freighter’s fuel tanks to the Station’s Docking Control Center. “Before I left Srista the last time, the information files were encoded onto bits of my DNA. Only Senator McKeen knows the process to unlock the data.”

“Clever.” Parker sweated as he fought to understand controls that he’d never seen before. “My mom wanted me to join the Navy as a pilot when I was a kid. I sure wish I’d listened.”

Dawes craned her head to look out a cockpit side window. “John, they’re moving heavier artillery in here. You’d better do something fast.”

“Hell.” Parker looked around and finally moved a small silver lever forward. The cockpit trembled as the freighter’s engines ignited. He grabbed the pilot’s headset and slipped it on. “Marshall, this is Parker. You better open those doors now.”

“Stand by, Mr. Parker, there is incoming traffic. We will clear you as soon as the way is clear.”

“Nuts, Marshall.” Parker grabbed the silver handle and flung it as far forward as he could. The freighter’s engines surged and they watched the rear of the hangar shrink behind them. Ahead of them, the large bulbous hull of a Sristi ore hauler was closing the distance. He grabbed a knob on the control panel in front of him that he hoped was the control module. “Hang on; this is going to be close.”

Parker turned the knob to the left. The cockpit tilted as the ungainly little freighter turned away from the oncoming alien ship. The windows of the Sristi spaceship expanded in front of them until it looked as if they could see right into the freighter. Alarms bracketed their ears until at last, the range between the two ships expanded. He found a small wire bound manual floating on a tether and pulled it down. He opened the cover and was disgusted to find that it was written in Sristi glyphs. “Oh great, something else I can’t make sense of.”

Dawes grabbed the manual and began reading. “Lucky for you, I can read Sristi.” She thumbed through the thick book before stopping at a section toward the middle. She pointed to a small round grey device bolted to the overhead between the two seats. “John, that’s the Hyperspace Computer. If I’m reading this thing correctly, it’s already programmed with Earth’s coordinates.”

“Turn it on.”

“Aye, aye.” She said, reaching up and flipping two switches. A bank of lights changed color from green to red. “That should be it.”

The cockpit shook and the hull clanged as several smaller ships closed the distance behind them.

“I knew it couldn’t be that easy.” Parker said. He grabbed the control module and twisted it. “Nothing’s happening.”

“We’re locked into the transit.” Dawes said. “We have fifteen seconds until we reach the gate.” She noticed a large yellow light blinking for attention. “We’re getting a comm signal.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“This is Marshall Security, Wing Three-Niner, to Freighter Omicron. You are ordered to cut your engines and prepare to be taken into custody.”

Parker turned to Dawes. “Should we tell them that we just figured out how to turn them on?”

“Mr. Parker, Ms. Dawes, this is Masdok. If you do not reverse your course and return to the station immediately, these men will open fire on your ship. You will not survive this encounter and Ms. Dawes cannot return to Earth. You have fifteen seconds to comply.”

Dawes shook her head. “We’re at least ten minutes from the programmed gate and this tub is at its rated maximum speed. Surrender may be our only option.”

Parker grabbed a small fire axe from the floor and cut the power cable to the hyperspace computer. The freighter began veering toward the pursing ships.

“Are you crazy?” Dawes said as the round bubble cockpits of the station security ships grew larger. “You can’t be thinking of fighting?”

Parker turned on her. “For the past two weeks, I have been shot at, drugged, stunned, and had a tunnel brought down around my ears. And for what? Because you got yourself mixed up in something and couldn’t trust me enough to let me in on it. We run, we die. We fight, we probably still die, but at least I get the satisfaction of knowing I hurt that bastard Masdok. If you’re in, figure out how we can do it. If not, there’s an escape pod in the back. Jump in it and no hard feelings. What’s it going to be?”

Dawes studied the manual again. When she was done, she put the book aside. “Let’s kick his ass.”

Parker keyed his headset. “Masdok, I know you’re out there. I’ll make you a deal. Send the rest of your cronies back to Marshall and I’ll take you on, one on one.”

“I think not, Human.” Masdok said. “This is the part where you try to appeal to my vanity and I succumb to base emotion. I refuse your offer, Mr. Parker, and instead remind you that my five ships are more than capable of disabling your ship. Give up.”

With Dawes’s help, Parker searched the control displays until he found the one that controlled the freighter’s asteroid shield. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Dawes nodded. “He’s jabbered enough for me to get a fix on his signal. Hit him with the asteroid shield on and he should go boom. Theoretically.”

“Theoretically.” Parker turned the ship and pulled a large chrome plated lever. Around the ship, a metallic shield extended outward in a funnel. “And theoretically, we could go boom, but that’s a given.” He pulled the safety harness over his head and buckled it up. “I won’t say it’s been a pleasure, Madelyne, because it isn’t. You’re one galaxy-sized pain in the butt.”

“Why John, that’s so...” A blast from a station fighter interrupted her sentence. “They just took out the hyperspace engine. That’s odd, Masdok isn’t moving from us.”

“He probably thinks we’re coming to surrender.” Parker said.

“Decelerate at once, Mr. Parker.” Masdok said. The engines on the alien’s fighter glowed a bright red. “Ramming me will not work.”

“Who said anything about ramming you?” Parker said. “I just wanted to get you within range.” He turned to Dawes. “When we get close enough, jettison all our fuel in his direction, and then turn the communication laser on his ship.”

“We’re in Space, John.” Dawes said. “Nothing burns in a vacuum, remember?”

“I don’t want to burn anything.” Parker said. “Something that rascal Qezbek said to me back in the tunnel system. The escape ladder we tried to use had been subjected to a chemical that rendered the metal brittle. The only known substance that caustic is the fuel that the Sristi use in their engines. Without a crystal liner, that stuff would break down almost any metal out there. We spray down his ship armor, fire the communication laser at it, and then let explosive decompression do the rest.”

“That’s crazy.”

“If you have a better idea, I’m open to hear it.”

Dawes working the comm laser controls. “I don’t so we’ll have to follow yours.” She reached over and armed the fuel ejection panel. “Ready when you are.”

“Coming up on him.” Parker said. He glanced over at her. “You have a nice butt, you know that?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.” He said. “I just thought you’d like to know.” He glanced out the cockpit window. “Get ready... we’re almost there.”

Her hand was poised over the ejection controls. “Give the word.”

His hand rose as the angular fuselage of Masdok’s fighter filled the windows. “Damn, he’s moving. Dump em!” He turned the control module. As they turned, he could see a fine mist of fuel envelope the other ship. “Now, fire the laser.”

Dawes aimed the laser using a small monitor. She flipped a switch, enhancing the image so she could see the laser beam as it traced its way across the other ship. Her vigilance was rewarded when she watched the cockpit bubble burst. “Oh yuck.”

Parker let go of the control module as the engines fell silent. “One down, four to go. Unfortunately, we were dead when we started.” He keyed his headset. “Security Three-Niner, we surrender.”

Before the Wing Commander could reply, another voice broke in on the channel. “Inspector Parker, Ms. Dawes, this is the Terran Navy Cruiser Braithwait. Heave to and prepare to be boarded. Security Three-Niner, you are ordered to return to base at once. Comply or we will take you under fire.”

“Terran Navy?” Parker asked. “When did we get one of those?”

Without a word, the remaining security fighters turned and left.

Parker watched as the long, cigar-shaped warship opened up a cavernous landing bay and swallowed them up. He watched Dawes turn on the freighter’s landing field as the cruiser’s hangar closed. “Oh boy, I hope we haven’t jumped into the fire.”

The hatch cycled and two rifle carrying sailors wearing combat armor entered the cockpit. “Senator McKeen sends his compliments and requests that you join him in the Wardroom after the Medical Officer has had a chance to check you out.”

Parker released his harness. “Best offer I’ve had all month.” He followed Dawes out of the ship.

“This is quite a ship you have here, Captain Brandt.” Parker said as they walked into the Braithwait’s wardroom with the cruiser’s captain. Adorning the walls of the room were images of other ships that carried the name. “When was she launched?”

The Captain’s chiseled face smiled as he puffed out his chest underneath his white uniform. “We’re mighty proud of her, Inspector Parker. She left Orbital Shipyard Three six years ago as part of the revived FTL program. The news services were only fed enough information to keep the story from being too newsworthy.”

Senator McKeen hurried into the room carrying a large black leather briefcase in his slender hands. “My apologies for being late, but the data extraction from Inspector Dawes took longer than we thought.” He took a seat at the long dining table and opened his briefcase. “Please have a seat, Inspector Parker. Captain?”

Brandt shook his head. “I must take my leave, Sir, and return to the bridge. The Sristi have lodged a complaint over the existence of this ship and are threatening to keep it from returning to Earth.” He touched the brim of his black uniform cap and left.

Parker turned to McKeen. “Senator, how’s Madelyne?”

“She’s resting comfortably in the Medical Bay.” McKeen said. “Inspector Parker, you have done the human race an invaluable service and for that, I thank you.” He held up a small box containing several crystal data disks. “The information we’ve acquired will allow us to take the next step in dealing with our erstwhile Sristi friends.”

“Which is?”

“The Sristi have been softening up us for years, waiting for us to die off so that they can move in. We now know their Achilles heel. With my influence in Committee, I intend to use their addiction to our silicon as a basis to force them to undo the damage they have created.”

Parker frowned, not liking where the conversation was going. “What if the Sristi should decide to use force to get what they want?”

McKeen waved his hand around to take in their surroundings. “These new ships were designed using acquired Sristi information and technology. No one wants a war, but if they come in force, we will be ready.” He leaned close to Parker. “Inspector Parker, how would you like to come and work for me? I need someone in the OPS who can keep me informed on matters that aren’t always reported over official channels. Naturally, you would be paid for your efforts.”

“Was Qezbek ever located? He vanished after I was abducted and taken to Marshall.”

McKeen scratched his chin. “Yes, that is quite the puzzler. My people are working to locate him, but if he has returned to Srista, we may never find him. Now about my offer?”

Parker opened his mouth as Dawes came into the wardroom. She looked tired and small as she slumped into one of the chairs. She wore a dark blue medical robe with the Braithwait’s emblem over the left pocket. He smiled. “I’ll have to think on that, Senator. Madelyne and I have some unfinished business together.”

Dawes looked at him and smiled. “Yes, I believe we do.”

Copyright © 2003 by Wallace W. Cass, Jr.

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