Chapter 20 The Terrible Secret of Space
  CHARLES ALBRIGHT was bored rigid. They had now entered Alioth space, and were headed directly for Edinburgh, where the AJN's headquarters lay. It had been weeks since they had left Andceeth. It didn't help that the stardreamer was not working. The problem with space travel, concluded Albright, was that there was an awful lot of space with nothing in it.

  Winston and Albright had taken to keeping watch with twelve hour shifts. Albright thought that the boredom must have been doing something bad to Winston's state of mind. Winston had hardly said a word since they had left, and Albright was finding the lack of communication rather awkward. The only thing to break the boredom had been the occasional pirate attack, but since they were just trying to get to Alioth as quickly as possible, they hadn't done anything to make their ship look like a tradeship. Bounty hunters often disguised their ships electronically as lightly-armed traders so that they would attract pirates. With their ship being seen for what it was, the only pirates that had attacked were inexperienced ones without advanced deep-space scanning equipment on their ships, and Albright had managed to dispatch the ones which had attacked during his watch with such ridiculous ease that he hadn't even called Winston out of his sleep to assist. The only other item of interest had been their follower. A Cobra Mk.3 had been following them ever since they had fled from Andceeth. The Cobra, a slower craft, had been unable to keep up and they hadn't seen its hyperspace entry cloud for the last three jumps.

  Inevitably, the sheer boredom had allowed his mind to wander. Not a day went by without him re-living their terrifying escape from Andceeth, although it now seemed as if it had happened in the last lifetime...

  We hurtled towards Diamond's maintenance hangar at high speed. The tiny autoshuttle was aimed straight at its steel walls. I felt the ground rushing up to pulverize us, and I held on to the sides of the autoshuttle's seats tightly, not that it was likely to do a lot of good. Suddenly, Winston flipped the tiny craft, and used its main thruster as a brake. The craft came shuddering to a hover, a few feet away from the hangar's light blue walls...he then set it down on the ground without finesse.

"Let's get the hell out of here!" Winston yelled.

Wordlessly, I complied, throwing the autoshuttle's door open, not even bothering to wait for the mechanism to do its job. We ran into the hangar, and into our ship. It seemed to take agonizing seconds for our Asp's main door to close and lock...and all the while, we could hear the sounds of pursuit - the engines of maybe a dozen autoshuttles screaming at high power. We didn't waste any time running up to the flight deck. Winston strapped himself into the left seat, and before I could even clip my harness together, he'd brought up the viewscreen, and we suddenly seemed to be hovering as we were surrounded by a holographic image of the inside of the hangar. It was always an odd feeling when the 360 degree viewsystem was first switched on...

"Hang on, this is gonna get rough!" Winston yelled.
"What are you doing?" I asked, anxiety creeping over my mind.
"I'm sending a 50,000 credit payment to the owner," he replied.
"But we've already paid for the repairs., no,'re not!"

  Some subconcious process in my mind had just predicted what Winston was going to do next. I sincerely hoped that I was wrong, but as I finally clipped my harness together, and cinched it down so tightly it hurt, my fears were confirmed. Winston was already halfway through the main drive startup sequence. He palmed the main drive toggles, and there was a rumble as the bottom thruster came alive...

"Hang on!" he yelled.

  Winston had always taught me to be smooth with the ship's manual controls, but he seemed to be ignoring his own advice for the moment. Switching control to full manual, he suddenly wrenched the lift lever up to the top of its travel. The bottom thruster responded with a tremendous roar. Every object in the hangar that wasn't nailed down began to fly around in response to the hurricane the bottom thruster was creating. The ship lurched upwards. Quickly, I reached down to the instrument panel and diverted all shield power to the upper hull. I looked upwards and saw the roof of the hangar rapidly coming towards us! Involuntarily, I ducked as we crashed through. Our ship violently threw debris into the surrounding streets as we made our dramatic exit. To my satisfaction, I noticed that Winston also ducked just before we crashed through the roof. I switched the shields back to their normal configuration, as Winston aimed the ship directly upwards. He savagely wound on full power. The blast from the main thruster obliterated what was left of the maintenance hangar as we rocketed skywards. The ship's systems growled loudly in response to Winston's control inputs...

"Oh shit, we have a new problem!" I exclaimed, as the scanner confirmed my view out of the rear.
"Try and beat them back a bit with the laser, we should be able to hyperspace out of here soon enough," shouted Winston, over the din.

  The scanner showed that Police Vipers were pouring from Diamond's spaceport. There were too many to count, and the scanner had taken on a churning texture as the targets all merged into a large blob. There must have been fifty or more. Our rear laser was a one megawatt pulse laser, barely adequate for keeping a Krait off our tail, let alone a fleet of Vipers. I anxiously glanced at the altimeter, which was winding upwards in a crazy blur. We were only 6,000 meters above the snow-covered ground, and the Vipers were almost in firing range. Our rear laser had a 15 degree gimbal on it, so I swept it around randomly and fired, trying to keep the Vipers back a bit. This turned out to be as effective as trying to swat a hornet with a wet noodle. The Police ignored my attempts to fend them off and began to form up behind us, getting into firing position...

  The piercing orange shafts of four megawatt beam laser fire started to come towards us. We were definitely going to die. I watched the shield power instantly go from 100% to 4% as we took a particularly strong volley of fire. Winston managed to dodge a little, but it was wholly inadequate. Most of the Vipers launched a missile in response. The ECM uselessly tried to negate the Navy grade missiles.

  So this is how it ends, I thought. I no longer felt fear, just a little sadness that I would soon be dead, and tomorrow's news would carry nothing but a short footnote to the destruction of two criminals, Charles Albright and James Winston, as they fled from the law. It would all end in two brilliant white flashes - the first, as the Asp's drive exploded, and the second as the continuing laser fire destroyed our defenceless escape capsule. We would feel no more than a brief moment of intense heat as their lasers skewered our unprotected bodies.

  Another volley of laser fire homed in towards our hapless ship. Our shields instantly discharged, and there was a muffled whump from somewhere in the rear of the ship, almost hidden by the general din of the drive at full power. The instrument panel lit up red as warning lights came on. I realised that Winston had been running the prime mover at 110% and it was about to overheat.

Suddenly, there was a brilliant white flash.

  I felt nauseated and disoriented. It seemed like we had begun to tumble. Everything went black, and the cacaphony from the ship's equipment section ceased. I could hear the dismal tone of the laser interlock warning as I held the trigger down - the ship was preventing me from firing. I realised it was probably because the escape capsule had no weapons. I let go of the stick, and slumped back in my seat, waiting for the Police lasers to slice our escape capsule.

  I turned around to my left, and saw Winston slump back in his seat, and wipe his forehead.

"That was close. Very close," he said quietly, his voice shaky.

  I didn't understand what he meant. I looked at the instrument panel, and apart from the depleted shields, I noticed everything seemed to be indicating normally. The ship's chronograph was racing forwards at high speed...high speed, because we were in hyperspace...the white flash had been our entry into hyperspace! We had survived!

  I nearly vomited as I came down from my adrenaline high. Fear now washed over my body, and I realised I was sweating, despite the cool air from the ship's environmental system. I could barely control my shaking hands, as I tried to loosen my harness. After half a dozen tries, I finally released it, and slumped in my seat, drained phyically and emotionally. I noticed that Winston's hands were shaking too, but it gave me no comfort that an Elite combateer had just been as frightened as me. It meant we had come very very close to meeting a violent death.

But we were still alive. In a few minutes, I would be able to regain my composure and find that bottle of Tionislan 12 year old whisky.

"Jas, damage report please," said Winston.
"All our important systems are working, Jim, but that thump you heard was the stardreamer getting fried. There's a hole about a meter in diameter in the lower aft equipment bay," Jas replied in her soft voice.
"Thank you, Jas. Now I need a stiff drink," sighed Winston, without energy.
"I have a bottle of Tionislan whisky," I said.
"Good man," Winston replied, a smile finally breaking across his face.

  Albright broke out of his daydream, and watched the instruments. Edinburgh was less than two hours away, and the ship had almost slowed to orbital speed. The planet gleamed in Alioth's light, the Potomac Ocean shining like a polished marble. He zoomed the forward view in on Edinburgh, showing it covered by thick layers of swirling clouds. It looked like there was a good storm brewing. Moisture was blowing off the ocean, and was promising a few days of warm, wet weather.

  The sound of the flight deck door sliding open caused him to swing around and look behind. Winston was entering, dressed in his AJN blues. Albright chuckled to himself as he noticed that Winston still hadn't got the hang of doing a tie up properly.

"We're almost at Edinburgh," Albright said.
"So I see," replied Winston, settling into the right hand seat.

  Winston lapsed back into silence, loosely buckling his harness. Albright felt uncomfortable again. Something wasn't right with the man. He was just sitting there, idly flicking through the weather forecast, and that was it. Conversation seemed to be beyond him.

"Um," said Albright hopefully.
"Yes?" replied Winston, looking up.

  Albright pulled the courage together to give Winston a bit of an interrogation session.

"I can't help noticing, but you've been, er, a little uncommunicative lately," observed Albright.
"Sorry, I've had a few things on my mind."
"Can you share them? I mean, we're supposed to be partners on this mission, and, well, I hate to be left in the dark, and besides, it's got a bit...well, boring around here lately," Albright said, hesitantly.

Winston looked at Albright with mild amusement.

"Well, you can talk to Jas you know, she is sentient. Perhaps she'd like a bit of company too, hmm?" asked Winston, mockingly.
"Um," said Albright, unable to formulate any kind of rebuttal.
"I've been looking some things up whilst we've been travelling, and you should rightly be worried," said Winston, in a serious tone.
"What do you mean?"
"The AJNIB has screwed up."
"Screwed up?"
"Yes. We are brand new intelligence officers. According to the records, the AJNIB has a fairly deep structure in its intelligence branch. New officers get the routine work, you know, murders under suspicious circumstances, anti-piracy, that kind of thing. Experienced ones get the more difficult jobs - forays into Imperial or Federation territory, INRA busting and the like. They thought they were giving us antipiracy work, but we've been thrown in at the deep end. I think we've stumbled across something far more serious than a band of pirates," Winston explained, rather matter-of-factly.
"Why do you think that?"
"Don't you think it's odd that Zearla's entire registry was filled with suspicious entries? That slavers tried to capture us? Then virtually all the authorities at Diamond came after us? I can tell you that whatever's going on at Diamond, it's rotten to the core. I've also come to the conclusion that their attack on the ASC vessel that started this whole thing for us was a mistake on their part, and they are trying desperately to cover it up."
"So it's some kind of Federation conspiracy?"
"No, I don't think so. Remember the police station at Diamond? Well, things got a bit exciting for me there. I fell through the ceiling right into the room where a couple of officers were discussing us. One of them gave chase, and she got me. Well, she was just a regular pilot, and I managed to bluff a bit and get answers out of her."
"What kind of answers?"
"They are participating in something called Backstab, and apparently the Federation government is completely unaware of this. It really does seem like some huge embezzlement operation. From her reaction, whatever they are doing is certainly illegal, and it's being driven by someone fairly high up. I guess the ASC ship must have discovered something they shouldn't have, and they all got killed for their trouble. They are certainly on to us now, and if we continue this mission, we will be dead within a month," Winston said with an air of finality.

  Albright leaned back in his seat. If Winston was going on about being dead within a month, he meant it. Obviously, that's why he had diverted to Alioth halfway on their journey to Enedlia. At least Alioth had been more or less on the way.

"Well, surely if this is just an embezzlement case, it's not really different to the routine antipiracy stuff?"
"Whatever it is, Zearla is in it, the entire Federation administration at Diamond is in it, and something's going on in Enedlia. This isn't your normal bunch of gangsters. The Sirius Templar were chickenfeed by comparison."
"Going to ask for backup, then?" asked Albright
"Precisely. I don't know what's going on in Enedlia, but it'd be nice to have some experienced officers along. If we are going to find out what's going on, we need to be alive to do it."
"And as you'll see from the Frontier News, complaints of piracy have risen sharply in the Enedlia system," Albright remarked.

© 2001 Dylan Smith.

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