Emmel Waltman, or more correctly the brain that had once been Emmel Waltman suffered through the agony of transplantation stoically. His mortal remains had been left on Earth, all except for the unique few pounds of brain tissue that made him Emmel Waltman and Earth's most powerful telepath. When he had decided to cooperate with the men who had snatched him from the care home, he had known there would be pain. Immense pain. Until they had explained the procedure to him, he had never known such things were possible. That a human brain could now be transplanted into an electro-mechanical body, in effect creating a generation four android, was not widely known and was considered both risky and experimental by those who did know about it. Emmel's choices had been simple: Choose the transplant, endure the pain and eventually have a new, supple, high-powered body- a new lease on life. God knew he needed it. Or, the nice men in the Brooks Brothers suits would merely kill him. Death or life. A no-brainer, really.
Recent developments in surgery techniques and drugs had made it possible to regenerate nerve tissue, freeing many from lives in wheelchairs and other, more complicated devices. It was merely the next logical extension of this technology that allowed the human brain to be connected to an electro-plasmic device, routing brain impulses to the electronic computer servers and back.
Waltman had learned that the nice men who made him the offer he couldn't refuse had made many such offers and many generation four androids. Of course, not all of their attempts had been successful, especially early in the program. But by the time Waltman "joined " the program, the procedure was becoming almost routine. The surgeons who performed the procedure were themselves generation four cyborgs and mistakes were held to a minimum.
Waltman lay in a standard fluid-filled hospital bed as he made his recovery from the most invasive surgery ever to be performed on a human. Drugs were administered to kill pain and as the pain gradually diminished, his system was weaned away until the day he could emerge and join their team as the syndicate's second most powerful telepath.
The clinic and headquarters of the cyborgs were housed in what had once been a Navy troop carrier, a huge ship of the line that had officially been sold for scrap but never broken up. It had taken millions of credits to refit the huge vessel, so much money that the military had considered it economically unsound, preferring to spend their budget on newer vessels that incorporated better technology. The ship was concealed inside the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, in fact being anchored permanently to a chunk of rock about seven miles in diameter, its bulk hidden quite effectively in a crater. The Syndicate ran its deep space operations from here, including all forms of piracy and smuggling, theft and kidnapping for ransom. Its gambling operations were set up elsewhere, on smaller ships that were constantly on the move to avoid detection, the deep space version of the floating crap game.
By the time the men came back for Joey and his parents, Charlie Ramos had torn down the wire mesh from his overhead light bulb. He had taken the chemical toilet apart and used a piece of steel rod from the flushing mechanism to hook and pull down the mesh. It had taken numerous tries, but Charlie was long on patience.I
t had taken more patience to fashion a lock pick from the wire and to pick the complicated lock. Of course, in the process of tearing down the wire mesh, he had broken the light bulb. That made it necessary to use his eye lights. These consisted of two lighted rings built around the eyeball itself that provided enough light for low vision within a few feet. They made a considerable power drain for no more use than they were. Charlie considered them a frivolous piece of design most of the time and had considered having them removed. Now he was glad he hadn't.
His patience and perseverance had paid off. By the time the men returned, he was ready to kick some ass. The door was unlocked, and he was watching through a tiny crack he'd allowed, so he could see what was going on. It was almost a disappointment when the men didn't even bother with him. He heard one ask another if they weren't going to check on "that guy Ramos".
"Hell no," the other replied, "we hit him with enough drugs to kill two men. Unless you just wanna take time to go bury him."
"Okay," the leader said, drawing a small pistol from his pocket. He pointed it at Alice Blanchard's head and said, "Let's move it out, folks."
Charlie followed at a discreet distance, far enough back that they couldn't hear him, yet close enough that he could keep track of where they went. It got a little dicey when they took a large service elevator up to the surface. Charlie had to wait for the elevator to come back down for him and he was sure he'd lost them. But when he got to the first level, he found he'd come up inside a space craft hangar and as he watched, the craft was being readied to fly. Men, or androids, Charlie couldn't tell, were loading supplies into a small ship commonly known as a "Saturn Weekender". Since a weekend on Saturn would run about thirty days, this was apt, as it could carry fuel and supplies for about that long.
Charlie glanced around and saw that no one was paying any particular attention to him, but he knew if he continued to remain inactive, someone would soon question what he was doing. He needed a phone and a way to get aboard the ship. His worst problem was that he was wearing only pajama bottoms, as that was what he slept in.
Glancing quickly around, he saw a small office area to his left and some crates and pallets that would screen him momentarily. He slipped behind the cover and made it to the office area unnoticed. In the office, which was pretty untidy, Charlie found a nasty pair of greasy coveralls, and some old boots which fit him poorly, but were better than pajamas. Once he was in the coveralls, he snatched up the phone.
He ran his phone list file and called the Hilton desk and left a message for Ben, calling him, "my brother, Ben Ramos", then he dialed the cops. When he got through to detective Harms' desk, he was told Harms was out. He paused for a moment, wondering what to do, then he heard footsteps coming and it sounded like high heels. Hurriedly he told the secretary, "Have Harms find Ben and check the Hilton desk for a message." He hung up the phone just as a small, pretty woman entered the office. He read her name tag and said, "Hi Barb, how ya doin'?" and stepped past her. As he went out the door, he heard her say, "Ya know you guys aren't supposed to use the phone in here."
"Sorry!" he called back, and stepped back out into the hangar. Now came the tough part. He moved up to the area of the ship. There was a supervisor with a clipboard checking off items as the men put them aboard. Charlie moved up and grabbed the next item in the stack, some dehydrated food in a cardboard carton.
The supervisor said, "Where the hell you been?"
"I hadda go piss, man." Charlie said.
"Yeah, next time you ask, okay?"
Charlie walked up the ramp and into the ship. As soon as he was in a position where he was not in anyone's direct line of sight he stepped off the main corridor and started looking for a hiding place. By the time the ship's engines were started, and it began rolling out of the hangar, Charlie was deep in the cargo bay, snuggled amongst boxes.
Detective Harms' car phone rang a few minutes after he and Ben left the police building. They had decided to go back to the Hilton and go over Charlie and Ben's suite, in hopes of turning up a clue.
He picked up the phone on the second ring. "Harms."
He listened for a minute, then asked, "When'd he call?"
There was a brief reply, then he said, "Okay, we're almost there now, Thanks, Frankie."
"Who's Frankie?" Ben asked.
"Our secretary. Your boss just called in, but he was in a hurry. Said he left a message for you at the Hilton desk."
"Where was he?"
"I don't know. He didn't say."
Moments later, they pulled up in front of the Mars Hilton and Detective Harms threw a police ID plaque on the dash to scare away parking cops, and they trotted inside. At the desk, Ben asked for messages. The clerk looked in the box for their suite and asked, "Are you Benjamin Ramos?"
Ben hesitated less than a heartbeat, then said, "Yes. Yes I am."
The clerk handed over a sealed envelope.
Ben and Harms stepped away from the desk and Ben opened the message. He read: "Blanchards going off planet unknown destination. Reg. Number N1556BL. Am going along. Tell Harms NOT military."
Ben read it to Harms, who looked bewildered for a moment, then said, "Doesn't matter if they're military or not. I can't do anything except call the Feds."
"Can we call someone and have the ship stopped?"
For an answer, Harms pulled out a tiny radio and called the dispatcher, asking that the spaceport be checked and the ship held.
Ben glanced at the message in his hand and referenced his internal clock. The message was time stamped.
"It's been twenty minutes. Probably too late."
Soon, the radio crackled and the dispatcher advised Harms that the ship in question had departed Mars' control area, outbound towards Jupiter.
"Take me to the spaceport, will ya?" Ben asked.
Harms looked defeated as he answered, "Yeah, Ben. I guess that's about all I can do for ya."
Enroute to the spaceport, Harms made the call that would officially take the case out of his hands and put it into the jurisdiction of the Federation Police. After he hung up the car phone, Ben said, "Is there a Federal Police Barracks or station here?"
"Yeah. It's on the spaceport. That where ya wanna go?"
"Yeah. We can fill 'em in on the case and maybe I can talk 'em into lettin' me go along."
Aboard the Saturn Weekender, the Blanchard family was given a comfortable cabin to themselves. It was carefully explained to them that they were not to be harmed, but delivered safely to their destination. They were advised to settle in and get as much rest as possible. A pleasant female nurse was assigned to take care of a rather nasty head wound Joey's father had sustained when their house was invaded.
Joey tried to read some of the thoughts of the men who held them captive. He found some he could read easily and others he could read not at all. When he asked his dad about them and why there should be any difference, his dad told him that some of them were androids. Suddenly, Joey knew why he had been unable to read the man in the cell next to him.
He quickly came to understand that these were not good men and that their leader was variously called "boss", "the big guy", and "the big man". From their minds he saw flashes of where they were going and what was to happen to them. He knew he would be approached about using his gift for their purposes and if he didn't cooperate, they would use force.
At the New Pittsburg spaceport, Harms pulled the car up to the gate and showed a pass to a guard, then pulled on in.
"I don't know what you're gonna do now, Ben, and I'm not sure I wanna know."
He had been on the car phone and his dispatchers told him it would be a minimum of four days before they could expect federal help.
"I don't know, either. But I've got to find a way out to wherever Charlie's headed. I need someone with a ship."
"Got your passport?"
"Yeah, got it."
"Ben. There's a tavern over there that looks out on the field. It's called 'The Pitts'."
"Go there. It's the kind of place where you might find someone needing money, but be careful." Harms reached across from the driver's seat and offered Ben his hand.
Ben shook it and Harms said, "You're all right, Benjamin 2108. Glad I made your acquaintance."
"Same here," Ben said, "thanks for your help."
Harms shook his head and drove away. Ben walked toward the terminal to go find a ship and a pilot as crazy as his boss.
"N1556BL is a stolen out of Earth sector. Taken May second, 2137 by unknown persons. Wonder why they didn't change the registration numbers?" the young Corporal at the helm of the Federation cutter Nimrod asked, almost to himself.
"Why bother?" the Captain said, "what's that been, almost four years? And we've just now gotten our first lead on it? And we're better than four days from Mars and it's got a head start on us. We'll never see it."
"One can always hope, ma'am," the Corporal said.
Captain Mamie Hollister looked out at the vastness of the cosmos from her command chair, at a universe so huge that their speed of 86,000 miles per hour was indiscernible. She often wondered why she had chosen to waste her life out here, pretending to enforce laws in such a hostile environment, instead of marrying some guy and having fat babies. She couldn't remember the last time they'd made a bust, let alone got into a scrap or used weapons. The Federation Police was a sham and everybody knew it. Just an agency, existing to keep the honest people honest. The bad folks ignored them and went on about their business. Space was just too vast. It was too easy to avoid detection. Hijackers and pirates were common and a kidnapping deal like this one? Hell, the Blanchards were just screwed, that was all. But still, the taxpayers expected them to try and so they would. She crossed her arms over her chest and made a decision.
"Helm, make ninety percent."
"Ninety percent, aye, Ma'am. Captain, you're aware of what this'll do to our fuel reserve?"
"Yeah, Corporal, I'm well aware," Hollister said, "and there's a family out there somewhere that needs us to help them. A family with a little boy. Now kick it up."
The cutter Nimrod gradually accelerated to just under 100,000 miles per hour.
Ben walked into The Pitts and had to turn up his vision enhancement. Much darker and he would have needed infrared, he mused. To his right was a clean, polished bar with the inevitable huge mirror and brass rail. At the far end of the room an antique Wurlitzer jukebox that still played plastic CD's. To his left about nine booths and in the middle about ten tables. There were six people in the place, counting the bartender. Three of these were females and Ben supposed they were probably hookers. He walked to the bar and ordered a scotch on the rocks that he had no intention of drinking. When the barkeep brought his drink, Ben said, "I need to find a pilot."
"I don't care, I just need off Mars."
"You in some kinda shit?"
"No, but a friend of mine is. I need somebody with a fast ship."
"Nope. Just the opposite, in fact. I'm a private investigator. I just need transportation and I need it fast."
"Not much," Ben admitted, "but I've got damn good credit."
"Sit tight." The bartender said and walked to the other end of the bar and picked up a phone, turning away from Ben while he dialed and talked. While his back was turned, Ben leaned over the bar and carefully poured the scotch into the sink on the bartender's side.
When the barkeep came back he said, "Be about ten minutes. Guy named Olsen. Freshen that up?"
"Sure." Ben said, pushing the glass across.
Ben ignored his second drink while he waited. It was eleven minutes, thirty-two point nine-six seconds by his internal clock when the door opened and a tall string bean of a man walked in. Not that Ben was counting.
The man stopped at the far end of the bar and the barkeep went to him. There was a muted conversation then the man pulled back and looked down the bar at Ben.
"An android? You called me down here to do business with an effing android?" he was glaring at the barkeep, who appeared apologetic.
Here we go again! Ben thought.
Emmel Waltman was now in therapy. It couldn't be expected of anyone that they might have a full-body transplant from an old, human body that was addicted to alcohol and tobacco into a new, cybernetic body, without some adjustment.
There was pain, to be sure, but there was also wonder. His new body was taller, larger and stronger, and much more supple and handsome than his old. As he struggled through each day, painfully learning to control his new body and build a relationship between it and his still-capable mind, his respect for these men who had saved him from death increased. He was and would forever be indebted to them. He already had reconciled himself to being in their employ as long as they needed him. And he was not kidding himself about what might be required of him. It would not be his new body they would want to use. It would be his mind.
Charlie Ramos would have plenty of time to get himself well concealed for the arrival at wherever the Saturn Weekender was going. He had no desire to get caught creeping around the ship, so he remained in the cargo hold. He opened a packing case of the correct size that he could occupy and removed the contents, some common kitchenware. He installed himself inside and shut down to minimum power to wait out the trip. One thing about androids-they had lots of patience and their muscles didn't cramp.
The man in the bar was glaring at Ben and Ben was glaring right back.
"What the hell you lookin' at, 'droid?"
"I hoped I was lookin' at a decent pilot who was up for makin' some money."
"I don't work for 'droids."
"Then I guess you just missed out." Ben turned back to his unwanted scotch.
"Hey! Don't turn your back on me!"
"Yeah, yeah. Bite me."
When the heavy hand slammed down on his shoulder, Ben spun with lightning agility and snatched the man off his feet and hurled him backwards over the nearest table, where he landed in a flailing heap of arms, legs and chairs.
Murmurs from the whores in the back. "Jesus. Sucker's strong. shit, man."
Then the pilot was slowly picking himself off the floor while Ben stood, hands on hips, watching for weapons and assessing his next move. But the man wanted no more rough stuff and started to slink toward the door. Ben stopped him with three words.
"Fifty thousand credits."
The man turned and looked at Ben. There was pain on his face and he was slightly bent at the waist. Slowly he straightened up and wiped the back of one hand across his brow.
"Who do I hafta kill?"
Ben grabbed two chairs up off the floor and turned one around for the pilot.
"Sit. What do you drink?"
"Nothin', when I'm flyin'."
"Good. You just passed your first test." Ben stuck out his hand. "I'm Benjamin 2108, and I'm generation two. Never doubt that I can kick your ass any time I want to and we'll get along fine. You don't have to like me, just don't disrespect me."
The pilot took Ben's hand reluctantly and said, "I haven't spent much time around artificials. This will take some getting used to."
"We'll be going outbound, looking for another vessel. I have the registration number, but not the destination. Is your ship fast?"
"It's an old Federation Cutter refit. It's fast and it has generation two cloaking."
"Oh. You a smuggler?"
"Me? Heavens no!" the pilot's look of total innocence was the first funny thing Ben had seen all day.
"We need to leave as soon as we can. Where's your ship?"
"At Mars Station. Ya don't just land a cutter, you know."
As they stood up to leave, Ben said, "Do you have a name?"
"You're kidding," Ben said.
"Yeah," Olsen replied, "it's safer that way."
The shuttle from Mars Spaceport to Mars Station was starting engines when Olsen and Ben sprinted from the Port Authority patrol vehicle to the ramp. Their tickets were checked and they hurried to seats as the high performance craft taxied to the active runway. The shuttle was a variation of a design used for almost a hundred years. Four huge reaction thrust engines were mated to a thin, round fuselage with a variable sweep wing arrangement. It was not designed for comfort, as it was not normally aloft more than one orbit. It incorporated braking and steering rockets in the nose, tail and wing tips and had heat shielding for reentry. There were three of the shuttles based at Mars Spaceport and many more at other ports around the solar system.
Ben and Olsen were squeezed into narrow seats along with seventeen others and a crew of three-they were at capacity. Ben had ridden down from Mars Station on this shuttle or one exactly like it.
Soon, they were pinned back in their seats as the pilot rammed his throttles to full power and in Mars' thin air, it soon grew quiet. The flight to Mars station took only seventeen minutes not counting the docking procedure. Customs took their own sweet time about checking them through, then Olsen and Ben hurried to docking bay #8, where Overdrive's ship was being readied for launch. Olsen had called ahead by phone from the shuttle and had the crew paged and assembled. By the time Ben and Olsen had suited up and made their way through the docking tunnel and were aboard, almost an hour had passed since Ben had thrown Olsen over the table in The Pitts. Safety regulations required the use of suits in the docking tunnels, even though there had never been a blowout. In Ben's case the precaution was even more unnecessary. He could have stood the depressurization just fine and the cold wouldn't have mattered much, either. It was the delay that was chafing his nerves. He was worried about his boss and the Blanchard family and he was also worried about screwing things up. Sometimes he felt artificial emotions to be a definite handicap.
The converted cutter Evangaline broke connection with Mars Station and as soon as it was at a safe distance, fired her main engines and used steering rockets to pull her to the same course that the stolen Saturn Weekender had taken. She would accelerate for at least a week and remain cloaked against radar for much longer. Now that he was actually under way, Ben would have expected to be less nervous and anxious. Instead, the opposite was true. He became a fixture on the bridge and around the decks and soon got to know all of the helmsmen and crew. Eventually, to ease boredom, and because Ben was such an apt pupil, they began showing him how things worked and how they performed their duties. Before long, he would be as expert as they, even though it would be some time before they realized it. Having no need for sleep, Ben also filled the odd hour with research into their destination.
He learned that the area between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter was home to some 44,000 chunks of rock large enough to be termed asteroids. These circled the sun, rather than any other body and ranged in size from a few hundred yards across to the largest, Ceres, at 1,030 kilometers. This conglomeration of irregularly shaped rocks was usually termed the asteroid "belt", though Ben wondered how a mere 44,000 objects scattered over billions of cubic miles of deep space could be termed a belt. He learned that many of the asteroids had no names or even code numbers and that their orbits were not only eccentric but also sometimes steeply angled to the eclectic, or plane of the solar system. It was speculated that collisions between asteroids were common and that most of the stony meteorites striking Earth's atmosphere came from the asteroid belt.
If they were headed out to find another ship in this mess, Ben wondered how it could ever be accomplished, or for that matter, how the persons on the stolen Saturn Weekender ever found their own particular piece of rock.
Joey's father's head wound began to heal quite well after stitches were applied. His spells of dizziness lessened and he began to get his appetite back. He and the rest of the family were still confined to their quarters, under guard, and there was little for them to do but watch television out of Mars station. Most of the feed came from Earth, beamed by microwave stations, but there were local news broadcasts from the Mars affiliate station. They learned that authorities on Mars had turned the case of their disappearance over to Federation authorities and that their whereabouts was unknown. It was hinted that they were off planet, but the New Pittsburg police steadfastly declined comment. One story included information that a 'high-powered investigative team' from Earth had been called in, but no reason was given as to why a kidnapping of a miner, a greenhouse tech and a child would cause that much interest.
Joey spent as much time in front of the TV as his mom and dad, but he saw little of what he was looking at. His mind was occupied with the crew. From their minds he had gleaned information that they were enroute to an unnamed asteroid, where there was a base of some type. Soon, they would be picking up a homing beacon which would allow them to find it in the emptiness of space. Once they were there, he would be separated from his parents and convinced to cooperate. When he got down to that point, that was when he started getting worried. From what he was seeing in the minds of the crew, there was little they wouldn't do to secure his cooperation, including torture.
Emmel Waltman was beginning to feel at one with his new body. His pain was minimal now, nothing at all really, compared to what he'd already been through. He had been briefed on what his role would be when the crew bringing in the Blanchard boy landed. He was sure he would be able to handle his assignment and keep his benefactors happy. After all, it was only a boy. A very special boy, to be sure, but still a child and in his younger days, Waltman was known to have a way with kids.
He had been told that the child would be separated from his parents and kept from them as long as was necessary. He might need to be convinced that they were being tortured. Waltman would assist with this. But most importantly, Waltman would manipulate the child. He would pose as a janitor or other menial worker and befriend the boy by convincing him that the others were their enemies and they needed each other to survive and escape. Once a sense of camaraderie was established, the rest would be easy.