“Navigator, port engines ahead full, starboard engines back full, one eight zero degree starboard turn,” David ordered.
“Port engines ahead full, starboard engines back full, one eight zero degree starboard turn, aye aye, sir.”
Amanda turned to face him. “Tell me you know what you’re doing,” she said.
David could understand her worries, for if he was wrong he was giving the freighter a chance to disable them almost instantly by allowing them a free shot at the Zapata’s engines. “Trust me,” David said and smiled.
“Isn’t that how they say sod off at the High Command?” Amanda asked as she turned back to her station.
As the Zapata came around David opened an intercom channel. “Starfighter command, conn.”
“Starfighter command, aye.”
“Launch the ready flight on my mark,” David ordered. “Tell them to keep the ship between them and the freighter as much as possible, but when they launch they’re to split into wing pairs and approach the freighter from both sides. Their orders are to shoot to disable, so that means guns only. No torpedoes.”
David turned his attention back to his screens and noticed that the ship had completed her turn. The freighter had maxed her acceleration and was fast approaching the battle cruiser. “Tactical, stand by countermeasures,” David snapped. “She may pop off another couple of missiles at us.”
“Stand by countermeasures, aye aye, sir.”
“Navigator, maneuvering thrusters. One eight zero degree port rotation. Let’s show them our belly.”
“One eight zero degree port rotation, show them our belly, aye aye, sir.”
Amanda turned to face her commander as the wisdom of David strategy hit home. Like every other Dreadnought class battle cruiser, the Zapata had her flight deck on her dorsal hull, some hundred-odd meters behind the bridge. By rolling the ship, David was giving the fighters cover for their launch by putting the ship between them and the freighter. If the freighter took advantage of the opportunity that David was giving them and concentrated their attention on their exposed belly, then the fighters would be able to hide behind the Zapata and pounce on the freighter from two sides without being seen. She shot a feral grin at David, which he returned in kind as the ship completed her roll.
The freighter was now close enough to fire her own guns, which she did. She peppered the first salvo into the engines, making the larger ship rock and buck from the impact of the weapons fire but doing no real damage. She didn’t have a chance to go back and pour more fire into the engines, though, as she was well past the engines by that point, so she continued to fire into the ventral hull, cutting long furrows into the armor.
David gave the order to launch the fighters and then leaned back in his chair. It was out of his hands now. It was up to the fighters to bring that freighter to heel.
* * *
Just like every other Dreadnought class battle cruiser in the Imperial Navy, the Zapata carried one squadron of twelve Fury class star fighters. The squadron was divided into three flights of four ships each.
One Flight, under the command of the squadron leader, was poised to launch on the flight deck when the starfighter commander gave the word. He yanked his throttles back to full military power and soared through the magnetic containment field at the mouth of the flight deck and into open space, his wingman right beside him. As they peeled off to the starboard he turned and watched the other half of his flight mirror their maneuver, turning to the port.
“One flight away,” the squad leader reported. “We are proceeding to target.”
The four fighters followed the flanks of the Zapata until they reached the point where they were effectively alongside the freighter. The squad leader clicked his comm microphone twice, and the two wing pairs pitched their noses up in perfect unison and crested the ventral hull of the Zapata.
The fighters did have the element of surprise going for them, but it wasn’t quite enough to help them. Somehow the freighter saw them coming. She came to a stop above the battle cruiser’s ventral hull and turned in place, bringing her bow about to face one of the wing pairs.
The squad leader felt a chill cascade up and down his spine as he realized what was about to happen. He opened his mouth to call for evasive maneuvers but it was already too late. There was a flash of light from the bow of the freighter and an instant later two of the fighters were nothing more than rapidly expanding balls of fire. He cursed as he saw the guns coming around to track him. He rolled his fighter onto its port wing and peeled away. His wingman duplicated the maneuver but not fast enough, and quickly joined his companions in death.
He heard the voice of the starfighter commander ordering him to withdraw and stand by for reinforcements, but at that point he really didn’t care, for he had nothing to lose.
The squad leader reversed his turn and came about to attack the freighter. The guns on the freighter tracked him and fired, but by the time the gunner pulled the trigger the squad leader had already rolled his fighter onto its back and descended below the plane of fire for the gun. He rolled his fighter level again and darted between the freighter and the battle cruiser, loosing a salvo from his own guns in passing.
More through luck than skill the barrage thundered into the exposed hull of the freighter, tearing loose hull plates and exposing sections of the cargo and engineering deck to open space. The holes made were just large enough to allow a few rounds from the fusillade to tear into the freighter’s engine core, tearing her propulsion systems to shreds and leaving her adrift and helpless.
She may not be able to maneuver, the squad leader thought, but she still has power. Let’s see if I can’t do something about that.
The squad leader cleared the freighter and came around in a sweeping turn, bringing his guns to bear on the freighter’s unprotected bow, but instead of firing he looped up above the freighter and dove down on the ships aft end like a pouncing wildcat. His next shots took out the power distribution systems, and then the fight was over.
* * *
Amanda turned away from her station and faced David. “Sir, the freighter has been disabled.”
“Very well,” David answered. “Bring that fighter aboard and have Starfighter Command launch the second flight for combat air patrol.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Amanda answered and turned back to her board.
“Navigator, maneuvering thrusters,” David ordered. “Lateral thrust. Come port five hundred meters. Begin maneuvering to dock the freighter with our Number Four Airlock.”
“Maneuver to dock freighter with Number Four Airlock, aye aye, sir,” the Navigator answered.
David tapped the intercom controls on his console. “Garrison Command, conn.”
“Garrison Command, aye.”
“Send a platoon of Marines in full combat armor to Number Four Airlock to secure the freighter that’s about to dock there.”
“Platoon to Number Four Airlock, aye aye, sir.”
David leaned back in his chair, settled in to watch events unfold on his screens. “Now we wait,” he whispered to himself.
* * *
The Marine lieutenant commanding the platoon gave his men one last cursory inspection as they stood assembled in the corridor outside the Number Four Airlock. The freighter was just about docked and the Navy rating manning the Airlock controls watched his screen intently, waiting for just the right moment to extend the cofferdam that would link the two ships.
The lieutenant finished his inspection, was pleased to note that all his men had their weapons, and that the telltales on their armor were all showing green lights. He leaned back against the bulkhead and closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He was always nervous before an action. Truth be told, the lieutenant imagined that he would probably think that something was wrong if ever there was a time when he wasn’t nervous before an action. His nervousness kept him alert, sensitive to the events happening around him. It had probably saved his life on more than one occasion.
The rating turned away from his monitors. “That’s it,” he reported. “They’re docked.”
The lieutenant straightened up and walked up to the rating. “Right, then, this is where you take a hike,” he said.
The rating frowned. “What do you mean?”
“What he means, son,” the company sergeant cut in, “is that he doesn’t want you in the line of fire when it hits the fan, and neither do I. So we think it would be a good idea of you toddled your little butt round that there corner and let the professionals handle this.”
“Absolutely,” the lieutenant seconded. “You did your job, now let us do ours.”
The rating obediently double-timed it around the nearest bend in the corridor.
“I love putting the fear of God into the swabbies,” the sergeant commented.
The lieutenant made a series of hand gestures, causing the platoon to split up and line up either side of the airlock door. One of the Marines reached into a satchel and extracted two smoke grenades, which he primed as the lieutenant watched. The lieutenant nodded when the grenades were primed, then slapped the control to open the door. The platoon stepped into the airlock and closed the inner door, allowed the mechanism to cycle. Then the lieutenant opened the outer door just as the outer door on the hull of the freighter on the other end of the cofferdam opened and a human head peeked out.
The Marine with the two smoke grenades pressed down on the mechanism that would cause them to detonate and then tossed them down the cofferdam as the lieutenant closed the outer door again. The man on the other side of the cofferdam saw the grenades coming and retreated back into the relative safety of his airlock and closed the door. One of the grenades managed to sip past the threshold as the door closed but the other clattered uselessly against the outer door.
The lieutenant opened the outer door again and gestured his demolitions expert forward. The Marine double-timed it down the cofferdam and slapped a shaped explosive charge against it, keyed in a timing sequence, and double-timed it back to the airlock. The lieutenant slapped the door closed as soon as the Marine was safe. An instant later the charge detonated. The lieutenant waited until the concussion from the blast had abated, and then looked up at the telltales that showed the atmospheric status of the cofferdam. All the idiot lights glowed green, so the lieutenant opened the outer door again and gestured his men forward.
The platoon entered the freighters airlock but the inner door was locked so the demolitions man had to use another one of his explosives. A moment later the Marines were pouring through the airlock onto the freighter.
The first Marine cleared the inner door and stepped over to his right, swept the barrel of his rifle around and did a visual inspection of the corridor. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the barrel of a weapon peek around the corner and a flash of light. By that time it was too late for him as the particle bolt tore through the Marine’s combat armor and carved a smoking hole in his chest. The Marine went down with a howl of agony.
“Watch your right!” the sergeant snapped as he stepped through the inner door. The sergeant led with his weapon, firing quick bursts down both sides of the corridor before taking up position on the opposite wall facing to the right. The next Marine out the airlock took up position next to the sergeant but facing to the left so that the two men stood with their backs to each other. One by one the rest of the Marines filed out of the airlock.
The lieutenant stepped out into the corridor and looked around. The smoke from the grenades was starting to be cleared by the air scrubbers so visibility was quite good. Both sides of the corridor were clear. The lieutenant made a series of hand signals, motioning for his platoon to split into two groups. One group, led by the sergeant, would go aft and secure the freighters engineering and cargo spaces, while the lieutenant would take the rest of the team forward and secure the cockpit and crew spaces.
At least, that was the plan.
Just as the lieutenant finished the last of his signals a pair of blood curdling war cries echoed down both sides of the corridor. The lieutenant turned just as one of the freighters crew came tearing down the corridor, a jagged length of metal in his hands and murder in his eyes. Another of the freighters crew approached from the other side, similarly armed.
The lieutenant stepped forward and met his opponent halfway. The crewer made a roundhouse swing with the metal bar, aiming for the lieutenant’s neck. He parried with his rifle, slapping the metal bar out of the crewer’s hand, pivoted and rammed the butt of his rifle into the mans chin. The crewer took a step back and shook his head.
On the other side of the corridor two Marines stepped forward to engage their target, one a little bit ahead of the other. The deranged crewman rammed his fist through the faceplate of one Marine’s helmet, shattering it and driving his fist into the Marine’s nose. The Marine dropped to the ground and did not move. The second Marine pulled a stunner off of his belt and pressed against the crewman’s neck, pressed the button. There was a faint electrical snap and a smell of burning skin, and the crewman dropped to the deck.
The first crewman got his wits back about him and came forward, spun on his heel and side-kicked the lieutenant back into his platoon. The sergeant stepped forward and dropped his rifle, meeting the murderous crewman halfway. A quick flurry of blows and parries were exchanged before the sergeant was finally able to slip through his guard and drive his fist into his throat. The crewman made a strangled scream and dropped to the deck. The sergeant dropped to his knee and pressed his own stunner into his neck.
The lieutenant managed to pick himself up off of the deck just as the platoon finished placing their two prisoners in binders. He tasked two of his men with tending the wounded and calling for reinforcement to take their guests to the brig, and ordered the rest of his team to proceed according to the plan.
The lieutenant and his men stepped into the crew lounge and saw the third crewman leaning over the technical station. In unison they brought up their weapons and took aim. “Get away from that console!” the lieutenant commanded. The crewman turned to face them and leveled his sidearm, but he never got a chance to get a shot off. He was dead before his body hit the deck.
The lieutenant stepped forward and scrutinized the displays on the console, felt his eyes widen as he read the screens. He slapped the communicator control built into his sleeve as he sat down at the console. “Control, One. Freighter crew is in custody, but we caught one of them programming a self-destruct. The program is running and the clock is at sixty seconds. I am attempting to disable destruct sequence.”
* * *
David cursed and slammed his fist down on his chair arm. “Tell garrison command to get their people the hell off of that freighter, and I mean now,” he snapped.
“Aye aye, sir.”
David turned to Amanda and shook his head. “If they’re not aboard in fifteen seconds we have to retract that cofferdam and leg it out of here,” he said.
Amanda nodded her unhappy agreement and stepped forward to have a word with the navigator.
* * *
The rating who had been manning the airlock hadn’t gone as far as the Marines would have liked, for he felt that he would have been abandoning his post. So he stood around the corner, leaning against the bulkhead and listening to the comm chatter. Every now and again he chuckled to himself as he imagined the things that a team of trained Marines would be capable of doing to some recalcitrant freighter crew.
Then the self-destruct call came over the intercom and suddenly the whole world was changed.
That freighter was going to blow itself up and some idiot jarhead was trying to abort the sequence? Hell, he was just as likely to blow the ship up before the countdown was up as he was to stop the sequence!
The rating charged around the corridor and slapped the controls to open his side of the airlock. He stepped in and cycled the mechanism, looking out the window just in time to see the platoon file through the outer door of the freighter, dragging their wounded with them. He slipped past them despite their objections and met the sergeant at the outer door of the freighter lock. He brushed past the sergeant and cycled the mechanism.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” the sergeant demanded.
“Saving this ship, sarge,” the rating snapped as the inner door snicked open. “No offense to your lieutenant or anything, but I don’t exactly have a lot of faith in his ability to stop that countdown.”
“Well, when you put it that way...”
* * *
“The platoon is aboard,” the signals officer reported, “all except the sergeant, the lieutenant, and Bosun Tomlinson.”
“What’s Bosun Tomlinson doing aboard the freighter?” Amanda demanded.
“Apparently he’s gone aboard to help the lieutenant stop the countdown,” the signals officer replied.
“No time for that now,” David snapped. “Seal that airlock and retract that cofferdam.”
Amanda looked down at her status repeater. “It’s already been done, Commodore. There’s nothing holding us to the freighter anymore.”
“Very well. Navigator, take us out. All ahead point zero one c.”
* * *
“Zapata has detached and is maneuvering away,” the sergeant reported.
“Smart move,” the lieutenant commented, turned back to the Bosun. “You realize that if you fail you’re going to get blown up with us grunts,” he commented.
“Well, I always wanted to go out with a bang,” the Bosun answered.
* * *
David sat silent in his chair on the flag deck of the Zapata, one eye on the status repeater and the other eye on the clock. They were well away from the freighter and there was less than fifteen seconds left in the countdown. In the back of his mind David was wondering what he was going to tell the Bosun’s family and the families of the Marines. He wondered how he was ever going to be able to explain it all, and he knew that ultimately he would not be able to.
Then the signals officer snapped upright and turned to face him. “Signal from the freighter!” he reported. “The self-destruct has been aborted. The ship is secure.”
David let out a sigh of relief. “Navigator, bring us around in a nice, tight circle that ends with us behind the freighter. Maintain your current speed. I want to bring that thing onto our flight deck. Signals, tell the freighter well done.”
* * *
Two hours later David was sitting in one of the chairs in Cale’s guest quarters, watching as Cale read through the after action report displayed on the data pad that David had given him.
Cale grimaced as he put the pad down on his lap. “You paid a high price for that freighter,” he commented. “You lost three fighter pilots and two Marines. The freighter had a crew of three. One was killed by the Marines, one died from injuries to his throat suffered from a punch by the platoon sergeant, and the third committed suicide by biting into a cyanide tab that was surgically implanted into his cheek.”
David nodded grimly. “All we have is the freighter and the contents of her data base, which I’m having downloaded to the computer here as we speak.” He gestured at the data pad. “Did you read the conclusions from the preliminary autopsy?”
Cale nodded. “Your doctor thinks that his guests were genetically altered, although he hasn’t found any medical indicator as of yet that would support that conclusion.”
David shrugged. “I think it’s pretty well proven, based upon what happened aboard that freighter. There isn’t any way on God’s green Earth that a normal human being would be able shatter the faceplate of a Marine combat helmet. “
Cale set the data pad down on the low coffee table and leaned back in his own chair. “Does that mean you think I’m onto something?” he asked.
David shrugged. “It means that I think you could be,” he answered. “The question is, is that enough?”
Cale cocked his head. “Is it?”
David smiled a wan smile. “You always answer questions with questions. Have I ever told you how much that annoys the hell out of me?”
Cale grinned. “I get that a lot,” he said.
David leaned back in his chair and turned serious. “I’ve been thinking about our agreement, about how I wouldn’t take you in if you could prove to me that your concerns were valid. Given what we saw happen today, I’m inclined to say that they’re valid, but we still need to see what’s contained in the freighter’s data banks and what the rest of your battle group has turned up. “
David looked up at Cale. “I sent a message to Jeff telling him that we were on our way back, that we found what we were after. We’re on course for the rendezvous now. I’m going to keep my word to you. I’m going to help you find out what’s going on with these clones and who’s responsible for it. As soon as we get back I’m going to meet with my captains and give them the same choice that you gave yours. They deserve that.”
David stood up and stared daggers at Cale. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy about all this. I’m not. And if we get to the end of this little adventure and it find nothing then I’m going to be even more unhappy. When I’m that unhappy I usually need to take out my frustrations on some kind of target. Under those circumstances I’m not above targeting a fellow Fleet Commodore. You understand what I am trying to tell you, yes?”
Cale nodded solemnly. “It’s not nothing, David,” he assured his long time friend. “I can feel it.”
David and Cale shared a long look, and then David turned on his heel and left the cabin. There really wasn’t anything more to say on the issue, at least not for a while. Only time would tell if David was making a mistake by trusting Cale.
Cale steepled his fingers in front of his face and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and began to pray. He prayed for strength, he prayed for wisdom, he prayed for guidance. And he prayed that there was a genuine target at the end of this trail.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J A Tyzuk