Chapter 14 The Micro War
There was a pause, as the three on the bridge assessed the reality. Ten against three, shortly to become twelve against three...

"You know, it's not twelve against three at all - we've got thirty-odd prisoners on the cargo deck who I'm sure would like to help out," said Winston, looking for a bright side.
"We've got to get there first," replied Landis.
"And not all the guards will come - some will have to stay back to guard the prisoners"
"Still at least ten against three."
"We need to find their weaknesses and use our strengths. If we can get fear on our side, we may just be able to spread chaos through their ranks. They don't know what they are dealing with yet," said Winston.

The sound of the alarms abruptly cut off.

"Look, we don't have much time," said Winston urgently.

He grabbed two hand rifles that had fallen on the floor during the earlier struggle, throwing one to Albright and the other to Landis. He grabbed another rifle. There was one left over. He decided to pick that one up too. You can never have too many weapons, he thought...

"OK, here's the plan. I'm going outside the bridge. I'll find somewhere to hide, and I'll attack from the rear as they come in. You both hide behind something and open fire from the front. No pussyfooting around. Set those weapons to maximum power and shoot to kill," said Winston quickly.
"Wait - " started Landis.
"We've got no time, just do it," hissed Winston, as he ran out of the bridge.

  Winston entered the bridge access corridor and looked around. The corridor was about five meters long. It had two doors off the side, and one at the end. He began walking towards the door at the far end. Looking up, he saw a ventillation duct. It wasn't very big, but he thought he might fit with a squeeze. The corridor was quite low, so it wasn't much effort to pull the grille off the duct exit. He threw his two guns up inside, and reached up. With some effort, he squeezed in and slid back up the duct a little, retrieving the guns and grille from the ducting on the other side of the hole he had crawled in through. He carefully replaced the grille, to make sure it looked like nobody was hiding there.

He waited. The trap was now set, or so he hoped...

  He didn't have to wait long. Winston was now on his second adrenaline rush of the day, as three guards and two others, probably the ship's engineers, entered through the door at the far end of the corridor. He quietly slid out of sight as they passed the grille, then moved forwards to see what they were doing once they had passed the entrance.

"Chaldry, you check that door. Michaels, take that one," said the lead guard.

  Winston watched as the two guards gingerly opened the doors on the corridor sides. They readied their weapons, then touched the panel that activated the door. One after the other, the side doors quietly slid open. The two guards visibly relaxed when they saw that the rooms - the captain's quarters and his ready-room - were unoccupied.

"They must be still on the bridge, sir" said one of the guards.
"OK, carefully open the bridge door. Assume nothing. Keep your weapons pointed inside, and stay low," instructed the lead guard.
"They may be hiding behind things in there," he predicted.

  Winston also noticed the three guards were wearing anti-energy weapon armour - personal shielding. It would take a few shots to deplete it. That wasn't good news. The hapless two crewmembers who had no protection were unlikely to survive. All five were armed with the same rifles that Winston was carrying.

"OK, stand back," said the lead guard, activating the door. The other four flattened themselves against the corridor.

The bridge door, quitely and without fuss, opened.

Nothing happened.

  Winston waited, ready to knock out the ventillation duct grille. The lead guard sidled into the bridge, sweeping the area with the muzzle of his gun. All the bridge lights were off, and the only illumination came from the viewscreen. Winston slid over the grille into a good firing position.

Nothing continued happening.

"Get down low," whispered the lead guard, "and follow me. They've got to be in here, there's nowhere else they can be"

  The five moved slowly into the bridge. The three guards entered first, followed by the two crewmembers. They loitered, crouching down by the bridge doorway.

"Where d'you reckon?" hissed one of the guards, so quietly that it was only at the threshold of Winston's hearing.
"You take the left side with Johanssen. I'll take the right with you two," whispered the lead guard.

  At that moment, the bridge exploded with light! Albright and Landis stood up, their weapons in full power, full automatic-mode, and opened fire. Incandescent plasma trails seared across the bridge. There was a cacaphony of noise as stray shots slammed into the back wall of the bridge! The five adversaries were about to open fire as Winston chose the moment to come crashing through the ventillation grille, landing on the corridor floor with a loud thud. From his position lying down, he opened fire on the two figures he could see standing just inside the bridge, using both of the guns he was carrying. Light blossomed as the energy bolts slammed into the armour of one of the guards. The other man wasn't quite so lucky. As Winston thought, he had no shielding. His body literally exploded, and his weapon clattered to the ground.

  There was a lot of shouting, and a couple of thuds as the four crewmembers of the "Revenge" sought cover, not expecting the attack from the rear. However, the surprise attack had rather unbalanced them. Winston scrambled to his feet, and ran towards the bridge. Albright and Landis appeared once again from behind the weapons station. Winston ducked as in the excitement, Albright pointed his gun at Winston and fired. The shot grazed Winston's leather jacket, leaving a slight smoking hole. He felt a slight burning sensation, too.

  They quickly forgot the friendly fire incident, and opened up on the four remaining crewmembers of the Revenge. One of the guards had dropped his gun in the panic. Landis mercilessly let a fusillade fly, searing through the guard's armour. Winston with his two guns attacked one of the other guards, who was hiding behind the captain's seat, setting up to send Albright to oblivion. The guard made the fatal mistake of trying to turn around and fire back at Winston instead of running.

Two guns will quickly deplete personal armour.

This discovery was fatal for the guard, as the energy tore through his torso. Albright's gun was still sounding. There was a dull thud, and then his gun was silent.

There was still one unaccounted for...

Albright cautiously peered from behind his hiding place near the centre of the bridge. In the darkness of the bridge, he knew things looked grim, and didn't want to imagine what it was going to look like when the lights turned on. Landis began to stand up slowly.

"Phil, get down!" yelled Winston.

Landis suddenly dropped back down to the floor. Nothing moved.

  I only count four down, thought Winston to himself. He stayed low. The grim reality of a close gun-battle presented itself. The floor was awash with blood and small pieces of flesh from the man who had exploded. This was nothing like space combat. It was much more personal, brutal and messy. Then Winston heard a sound - the sound of someone vomiting. He crept towards its source. There was a clatter of a gun being dropped.

   Winston darted towards the location of the sound, hidden behind a storage locker. Albright had the same idea, and from his position, was close to the area. They both screeched around to the corner of the bridge where the dropped weapon was visible. In the shadows was a crouched shape. Both Winston and Albright pointed their weaponry at the shape...

  Landis turned on the bridge lights. Winston shielded his eyes from the unaccustomed brightness and looked down at the figure.

   In front of them was one of the unshielded crewmembers. Winston lowered his weapons slightly. The man, wearing an engineering uniform with "Vega's Revenge" embroidered on the left breast pocket of the baggy overalls, couldn't have been more than seventeen years old. He looked terrified. There was a large burn across his left arm and shoulder where he had been hit, but he wasn't bleeding.

"Please... don't...", he whimpered, staring at Albright, whose weapon was pointed at the young man's head. Albright lowered his gun.

"Shit," said Winston, quietly under his breath.

The man was now defenceless.

"Jim?" asked Albright, looking over at Winston, "what do we do with him?"
"Hey Phil, do we have any more locks?" asked Winston.
"Yeah, we have about fifteen of them left."

   Landis went to a locker at the other side of the bridge, opened it, and removed a QuickLock. He carefully stepped over the dead bodies and tried to avoid the worst of the carnage splattered around the bridge entrance as he walked over to Winston. He gave the restraint device to Winston, and looked at the captive.

"Stand up," Winston ordered.

The man stood up slowly, holding his hands in the air.

"Okay," started Winston in a quiet, and hopefully unthreatening tone, "just let us know who else is on board."
"Chief Engineer Bradley, and the cattlemarket guards, four cattlemarket guards, that's all sir," replied the young man, his voice wavering slightly.
"Just the guards, sir, the chief is looking after the ship," he said.
"What's your name?"
"Greg Varriens, sir"
"OK Greg," said Winston, trying to sound sympathetic, "I'm afraid we're going to have to restrain you and turn you over to the Federal authorities. Working for a slaver is a serious offence. You have, however, escaped with your life. Turn around, please"

Varriens did as Winston instructed. Winston pushed the QuickLock into his back, and pulled the trigger. The young man was wrapped in the restraint film. The sedative quickly took effect, and he collapsed.

Albright helped Winston drag the man to where the other inert crewmembers lay, all still restrained by the QuickLocks.

  Albright turned around after they had dragged the man into position. For the first time, the carnage on the bridge registered with him. He began to feel ill. This was not like the three-dee movies where people died cleanly. The reality was horrifying. Blood was splattered over most of the rear half of the bridge. All that was left of the hapless individual who had exploded was a severed arm. The three guards lay sprawled and burned on the aft floor of the bridge. There was a strong stench of scorched flesh and clothing. Albright also had began to notice a slightly numbed wetness down his left arm. He moved his arm, feeling dulled pain as he did so. Looking down, he saw a thirty centimeter long burn through his clothing and beneath, his burned flesh! A slow ooze of blood was trickling out of the partially cauterized wound, and soaking his clothing. Some part of his mind wondered why the wound didn't hurt like hell. Another part of his mind tried to stop his vomit reflex from asserting itself.

"Oh shit, man, I've been hit!" he exclaimed. He turned around to show the other two.
"You'll survive," said Landis, grimly, "but it might hurt for a few days. We can get some antiseptic at the med station once we've dealt with the rest of the guards. There's doctors at the base who can get it fixed"

Winston examined his shoulder, where Albright's stray bolt had hit him. He could see a little raw flesh, and some slight bleeding.

"Phil, are you OK?" asked Winston.
"Yes, I'm fine. No one hit me," he said, looking at the hole in Winston's jacket.
"Well, it looks like us two will survive long enough to get to the cargo deck. We need to free the prisoners before we face any more trouble - the Osprey crews are surely still coming," said Winston quietly. His shoulder had started to throb quite painfully.

  Landis walked over to the weapons cabinet and picked up four QuickLocks. They then left the bridge, stepping over the gore. There were several holes in the walls where stray shots had penetrated. It was lucky none had gone right through the hull - ships were shielded from hits coming from the outside, not the other way around! The door at the back of the bridge access corridor opened into the crew messhall, just as it had on the Clipper that Winston had captained during the Sirius Templar mission. They quickly moved through the empty hall. Winston remembered the back door of this area opening into the corridor to the crew's quarters, and then to the equipment area. This turned out to be correct.

  They entered the equipment area on the upper deck. The flooring was made from latticed duralium and narrow, metal grid catwalks like most ships. Everything was painted either dark grey or light green. The narrow catwalks went between shield generators. Through the latticework, Winston could see a large, cylindrical object that must have been a 100MW laser. The thing was vast, and stretched back out of sight underneath the cargo bay.

"Looks like the cargo bay is pretty modified," said Winston, eyeing the life support units, and the stacked bays.
"Yes, five stacked bays, they hold up to 30 prisoners each. We are lightly loaded, only the upper bay is filled. The others are waiting...ahem... customers," replied Landis.
"One hundred and fifty slaves!" said Albright, in horror.
"Yes, Vega's illegal operation was extremely lucrative. Some slaves he traded in cryo-canisters, most are the crews of hapless trade ships he attacked," said Landis, the disgust evident in his voice.
"Traders? Why did they pick on us?" asked Winston.
"Well, when I walked on the bridge, Vega was getting finished talking to someone on the ground. I heard this person offer a substantial reward for the capture of two guys. I thought it was very out of character for him to attack a ship that could actually defend itself"
"This guy, he didn't, like...look official? Short, grumpy looking guy?"
"Now you mention it, yeah."
"That bastard," said Winston, "is going to pay."
"Bunn?" asked Albright.
"Yes. He's definitely hiding something."
"To do with the ship?"

Winston snorted angrily. I should have expected some kind of treachery from Bunn, he thought. What about the guy in the restaurant before they left?

"What ship?" asked Landis.
"Oh it's an old ... friend ... of ours we are trying to track down," said Albright, trying to see Winston's reaction out of the corner of his eye.
"Yes. That's right. An old friend to whom we are going to award a permanent retirement," added Winston.
"Ah," said Landis, realising the two weren't going to reveal much more about the subject. He knew that bounty hunters tended to keep quiet about their targets...

He also didn't know he was completely wrong that Winston and Albright were bounty hunting.

"Well, I guess we better free the prisoners," said Landis, as if it was something he did on a daily basis.

  The three walked along the grey metal catwalk towards the institutional green cargo bay. They came to a well-sealed door with a control panel.

"You know you noticed most of the prisoners looked subdued, and you felt tired yourself whilst in that bay?" asked Landis.
"They keep the whole room lightly gassed with sedatives. The guards all have respirator masks on. The gas stops rebellion from the prisoners. I'll switch the gas supply off and run some fresh air in there," said Landis, pushing buttons on the control panel.
"Now we have to wait for a couple of minutes. Won't take long to get enough fresh air in there," he added.

  They stood and waited in silence. Winston looked down through the gridlike flooring, deep down into the bowels of the ship towards the main gun. Huge heatsinks flanked the weapon, the cooling demands of the large laser being very high.

"OK, we can go in," said Landis. He punched a few more buttons.
"A password?" asked Winston.
"Why not biometrics?"
"Captain is a penny-pincher. He only used biometrics where he thought there might be a real risk - i.e. the flight controls", replied Landis.
"What a pillock..."
"It wouldn't have mattered anyway, it's certain I would have had access, after all, he gave me the passwords"

Winston nodded. This much was true.

  The door slid open, and Winston could see a couple of the prisoners inside. They still weren't looking particularly alert, but the gun battle that would surely start would be a good wakeup call.

"OK, keep to the sides of this entrance. The guards are on the catwalks. They can't hit us if we stay close in," whispered Landis.
"Nor can we hit them," observed Winston.

  The three sidled in. Landis ducked his head around the corner of the door, and looked up. The four guards were all on the entrance side of the catwalk.

"Drop your weapons and surrender! We have control of the ship! Throw your weapons down, and come out with your hands up!" yelled Landis.

To everyone's astonishment, the guards complied. Albright looked at Winston with surprise. Winston just shrugged his shoulders. The guards' guns clattered down on the cargo bay floor, one of them narrowly missing a prisoner, who jumped.

The guards started down the stairway to the bay floor. They didn't resist as the three walked over to them, methodically applying the QuickLocks...

"Wow," said Albright.

  Winston just sighed. He wasn't relishing the thought of yet another gun battle. His nerves were already pretty much shot to pieces from all the action of the day, and they still had the Ospreys to deal with - and soon.

"Let's not dawdle! We need to get to the airlock to get the Osprey pilots. I'm really not in the mood for another gun battle," he said, wearily.
"I'll show you the way," said Landis.
"What do we do with them?" asked Albright, pointing to the prisoners.

Landis shrugged his shoulders.

"You lot are all free to wander the ship. The crew is under control. If a couple of you would capture the chief engineer, we'd appreciate it," he said.

    Three of the prisoners responded, and started to make for the exit. Winston noticed one of them was the woman he had found himself dumped next to when he had arrived.

"OK, there's two airlocks with docking ports. I'll take one, youse guys take the other. Go down to deck C, it's directly under the cargo bay," said Landis.
"We're on it. Give us a shout if you run into trouble," said Winston, as he made off for Deck C.

  Winston and Albright went down the ladder that connected the equipment bays. Deck C was easy to pick out. All the decks were nicely signposted. The two sidestepped off the ladder and onto the grid flooring. It didn't take long to reach the airlock. Winston peered through the window, just in time to see the flexible tunnel from the Osprey attach.

"Oh crap, they are here already, I hoped we'd have time to prepare," said Winston.
"What's your plan?"
"Well, I spent a bit of time on a Clipper. I've used these airlocks. We can unlock his docking tube, that'll inconvenience him, especially with the airlock on manual override," said Winston.
"You're going to flush him out into space?" asked Albright, slightly horrified.
"Yep. A lot easier than having to fight him," said Winston quietly with not even a hint of malice in his voice.

  The pair watched through the small, thick airlock window. Winston fiddled with the control panel for a minute, trying to remember how to initiate manual override. He finally pulled a lever, and a small control panel lit up.

"Now that's the ticket," he said.

  The outer airlock door opened. Albright watched as the man they had seen on the comm station earlier drifted through the weightlessness of the docking tunnel. He was not wearing a vacuum suit!

"Jim, he's coming, he's unprotected! Blow the tube now!" shouted Albright excitedly.

  Winston touched a few keys on the illuminated display. Albright could see the man on the other side reaching for the airlock control to let him into the Clipper. The man looked up, his gimlet eyes radiating fury and hatred. Albright just smiled, and gave the man the finger.

  Suddenly, there was a popping noise as the explosive bolts blew on the docking tube as Winston initiated the manual emergency docking reject! The man in the docking tube looked around horrified for a second, then desperately scrambled to close the outer airlock door. It was too late. The docking tube separated, and the air rushed out of the airlock. Albright didn't want to look, and moved away from the small window. The snow-haired man quickly asphyxiated in the hard, unforgiving vacuum of space. Winston walked over to the window, and peered through.

"Stupid idiot," he said. "He could have easily used his vacuum suit to avoid that one. Still, one less slaver"
"How can you bear to look at the mess in there?" asked Albright. He had turned slightly white.
"There's no mess, contrary to Jameson flicks, a human won't explode when exposed to hard vacuum"
"In fact, our unfortunate attacker in there probably had a few seconds of consciousness to curse his stupidity in not anticipating a move like that"

  Albright leaned up against the wall, looking only slightly better. They both jumped as the sound of two, distinct plasma gun shots echoed around the equipment bay.

"Quick! Follow me!" shouted Winston.

  Winston dashed down the catwalk, and grabbed the ladder. He remembered that the other docking tube was somewhere on the forward portion of E deck. Albright raced to catch up. Winston climbed the ladder two rungs at a time, and leaped onto E deck, sprinting towards the general direction of the sound. He quickly examined his rifle to see the energy state. It didn't have much left. About thirty seconds later, they arrived at the scene.

  A man in a vacuum suit lay slumped at the airlock entrance, most definitely dead. Landis leaned against a wall. Winston noticed something wasn't right.

"Oh...sweet mother of worlds," he said, as he noticed that Landis's right shoulder was a mess of raw flesh, through to the bone. Blood freely flowed from the open wound.

The colour had drained from Landis's face. He was looking rather faint.

"I got him," said Landis weakly.
"We've got to get you to sick bay, you're in a bad way, man" said Albright, noticing how white Landis looked.
"Let's go," said Winston, trying to support his friend's weight.

  It wasn't far to the sick bay. Albright and Winston laid Landis out on a bed, and instructed an AutoMed to see to the injuries. The AutoMed silently complied. It only had a limited set of repairs it could do - the full repairs would need to be done at a properly equipped med centre. However, the machine could at least stop the bleeding and ensure that the patient would survive.

  Winston sat down on one of the seats in the room, and slumped back, feeling exhausted. Albright sat down on the floor, resting against one of the walls. In just a few short hours, his entire world had changed. All there was to do now though was wait for the Federation to show up. That somehow didn't cheer him up much.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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