Chapter 13 Angst And Anxiety
  THE bridge remained dimly lit. In the back corner, chained to a piece of ducting, were the inert, QuickLocked bodies of the bridge crew. In the captain's seat, Landis slouched comfortably with a can of Slice in one hand, the other hand free to gesture as he spoke. Winston sat in the weapons officer's chair, the chair turned on its swivel to face Landis. Albright sat in the First Officer's chair with his feet resting comfortably on a nearby console, drinking a can of unidentified sugary beverage which proudly proclaimed to have "double the caffiene of normal colas".

  Over an hour had passed since the tumultous hijack carried out by the three against the bridge crew of the slaver ship, "Vega's Revenge". The huge Panther Clipper laboured on, accelerating through the inky blackness of space. Two Osprey X fighters flew a loose left echelon formation beside the behemoth, unaware of the fate of the Revenge's crew. The hijackers - Phil Landis, James Winston and Charles Albright - had been idly chatting for the last hour. It was mostly between Winston and Landis, catching up on the years since they had last seen each other. Of course, Winston had told Landis a brief story of everything that had happened to him since they last met, suitably embellishing the stories. The only thing he didn't mention was about the AJNIB for whom he now worked.

  Phil might have been a good friend, but he now worked for the Federation. Whilst the Federation and Alliance might not have been enemies at present, they were highly suspicious of each other. The last thing that Winston wanted his old friend to know was that he was actively serving with the opposition. Landis had however revealed something stunning about his personal life...something that Winston would have never guessed...

"You? Married?" said Winston, at last.
"Yes, just over two months ago," enthused Landis, pulling out a holopic of his wife.

Winston shook his head in mild disbelief. How things had changed! Not only had Landis given up hacking, he had settled down!

"So when are you gonna get hitched?" asked Landis.
"I don't know," said Winston, as he thought wistfully about Pam Gilmour and what could have been. "I'm too young for all that," he said with a smile.

Landis chuckled.

"Besides, I don't think I'm really cut out for all of that settling down stuff, I've been out here too long. I've sort of grown used to the solitude of space. I think I've got a terminal case of batchelorhood. Besides, who'd take a bounty hunter?" added Winston.
"Another bounty hunter, maybe," replied Landis, mischieviously.

Winston couldn't help thinking of Pam. His mind began to wander. His musings were quickly interrupted.

"Jim, I've got a serious question for you. Please give me a straight answer." It was Albright's voice, and he sounded...different. He hadn't said much over the last hour, and it sounded like he had taken a fair amount of courage to speak. His voice was edged by the effect of frayed nerves.
"What's up?" asked Winston, casually.
"How many of your co-pilots survive?"

  Wow, where did THAT question come from? thought Winston. Albright sounded really stressed out.

"So far - all of them," replied Winston, truthfully.
"What was that about few of your copilots surviving... you know, you told the captain that you didn't care...none of us survive," said Albright.
"That was..."
"and you sounded like you'd let them kill me," added Albright. Winston thought he detected a betrayed edge to Albright's voice.
"It's called bluffing. I knew they wouldn't kill you - the captain knew that any agressive moves would result in his death. I was making the captain believe with every fibre that I was totally insane. I think I succeeded, too," replied Winston a little mischeivously.
"But you were gambling with my life..." Albright's voice trailed off. His green eyes radiated not fear, but now a clear look of betrayal.
"Look, Chuck," said Winston, in a reassuring voice, "I value my copilots. Really, I do. But ours is a high-risk job. You must remember that. If you are ever in the same position as I was an hour ago, I would expect you to do the same. You have to be sincere when you're bluffing. If you want to take missions like this, you've got to take tough decisions - "
"- decisions, some of which are calculated risks. I'll add that you did very well, you didn't panic, and that signal of yours saved us," Winston finished, remembering the well-placed kick he had made against the crewmember who was trying to QuickLock him.

There was a pause. Albright's stare left Winston, and headed for his boots.

Landis broke the silence. "Besides, I can assure you you'd rather be dead than what Vega had planned for you"

  Albright relaxed a little. Winston looked quizzically at Landis, who had just opened a packet of beef jerky, and had begun hunting around the interior for a suitably sized piece of teriyaki seasoned meat.

"And what did he have planned?" asked Winston.

Landis pulled out a slice of jerky, and critically evaluated it in the light of the scanner - turning it this way and that - before chewing it thoughtfully. He finished it.

"Beef jerky, anyone?" he said, offering it around the room. Albright took a piece, but Winston declined.

"Have you heard of Vequess?" asked Landis.
"Yes, it's a system in the Empire. Mainly industrial, as I remember," replied Winston.
"Industrial and mining," added Landis, looking Winston in the eye.
"And mining. What of it?"
"You know who does the donkeywork in the mines?"

Landis let his question hang in the air. There was a pause more pregnant than a female rabbit in the mating season.

"It ain't donkeys," added Landis. He pulled out another piece of jerky, and began to chew on it contentedly.
"Slaves of course...oh no...but I'm hardly physically cut out to be a mine slave - all the mine slaves I've seen are twice my size" replied Winston.
"Exactly. They would work you both to death. Vequess is the Empire's dump for political prisoners too. It is reputed to have the most horrific slave conditions anywhere in the galaxy," added Landis.

There was another pause.

"Most slaves last about six months before they are permanently disabled from the harsh conditions. Radioactivity is high. Once you're no use, they cast you out into the upper levels where you freeze to death. It's purposefully designed to be as unpleasant as possible as its primary mission is to punish those who are critical of the Emperor," said Landis rather matter-of-factly.

   Silence descended back on the bridge. Winston thought about Vequess. Would the AJNIB come and rescue them? Probably not...they probably wouldn't even know what happened to them. Intelligence officers disappear from time to time. It was an accepted fact of espionage. It even said so in the briefing package Saunders had given them.

"Captain Vega was very annoyed with you for damaging his ships. He was going to make sure you both ended up on Vequess. He just wanted to beat you up a bit first," added Landis.
Albright spoke up. "Well, then it worked out OK. What are we going to do with him, anyway?" he said, indicating the captain with a broad gesture. His battered confidence was slowly returning.
"Oh him? We rendezvous with three Federation Asp Explorers in a couple of hours. They'll arrest the crew, and remove the guards who are looking over the prisoners in the back," said Landis.
"And the Ospreys?"
"Will be destroyed, yes," said Landis calmly. He turned back to Winston. "Your knife trick saved us a lot of trouble. We were going to have to directly attack the flight. It was my job to stop them from hyperspacing. I couldn't believe it when you showed up on the bridge"
"Me neither," sighed Winston.

It had been a very long day. Much too long and much too exciting...

"Incoming message," chimed the bridge computer of the Revenge.

"Oh crap," hissed Landis, who ran over to the comms console.
"What?" asked Albright, who was sitting nearby.
"One of the Ospreys wants to talk to us!"
"Can we stall them?" asked Albright quietly, as if to stop the mic from picking up his voice.
"We'll try and fob them off with text only. See if they'll believe the comm system is damaged."

  Landis began messing with the comm station's controls to put it in text-transmit only. He then got up, and walked over to Winston, who was dozing quietly in the weapons officer's seat.

"Winston, wake up," he hissed, nudging Winston's legs with his boot.

Winston's eyes sprung open in surprise. He then relaxed and rubbed his eyes.

"What's up?" he said at last, sleepily.
"Osprey wants a chat"
"Our wingman!"

Winston looked confused for a second. He had that horrible moment of waking up, not remembering where he was. The events of the last few hours suddenly reasserted themselves in his mind with a sickening thud.

"Oh shit!" he yelled, darting to the comm station, finally realising the magnitude of the potential problem. "Can we fob them off..."
"with text mode?" completed Landis. "We'll try. We'll tell them that the comm system was damaged in the battle"

  Landis began to speak to the comms console to record a text message. "Sorry, we are text mode only due to system damage. Pass your message", he said. The computer dutifully turned his voice into plaintext and transmitted it.

There was a pause.

A message began appearing on the console...

"We are getting a good feed from your ship. I think we can turn your comm system to full mode from here. Standby, we'll switch you"

"Oh shit! Where's the camera?" yelled Albright, scurrying around the bridge, looking for the holocamera to find where it was pointed.
"Over here!" yelled Landis, leaping into the captain's seat. "It'll focus on me. They know I'm crew, I might be..."

More text appeared on the comm station.

"Your feed is working. Switching to video"

Phil smiled ingratiatingly at the camera.
Winston jumped as the image of the Osprey's commander appeared on the screen. The man had little gimlet eyes. His hair was black, with a light brown streak down the middle. Winston thought the man looked a bit like a ferret. That wasn't what made Winston jump though...

"Who are you?" asked the ferret-faced man.
"I'm security officer Landis," said Phil, from the captain's chair.
"No, not you, YOU!" said the man, stabbing a finger out of the holoFac right at Winston.

Winston realised with creeping horror that Landis had sat down in front of the wrong camera. The comm station's builtin was pointed right at him! The other commander was looking right into Winston's eyes, not at Landis in the captain's chair!

"Errr, I'm communications officer Jones," said Winston, making up a name on the fly.
"Don't lie to me!" shrieked the Osprey commander. "We wondered why we didn't get any instructions about the three intercepting ships!" he yelled.
"Prepare to be boarded! I hope you have not harmed the Revenge's crew, or else matters will end very seriously indeed!" yelled the man into the comm station.

The display went blank.

"What do we do now?" asked Albright.
"Let's not waste time. Albright, you get on weapons, I'll take the helm," said Winston, "and we'll blow both Ospreys to smithereens."
"It won't work, the controls are all secured," said Landis.

   There was an embarrassed silence as the three wondered what to do to prevent the ship being boarded. The silence was suddenly shattered by the sounding of an alarm system. The alarm wailed dismally throughout the ship...

"The rest of the guards will be coming now, I expect," said Landis dismally.
"How many?" asked Albright and Winston in unison.
"There's another seven on board, all guarding the cargo bay. Plus the engineering crew, that's another three. Then there's the Osprey crew who will shortly be boarding, that's another two... it's twelve against three," replied Landis with a grim look.

© 2000 Dylan Smith.

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