Aftermath (Part 5)

by Simon Challands

an Élite story
     Williams rapped on the door. It was opened by the security officer outside. As he moved to enter the room Williams held out his arm to stop him. "Leave her there for a while, please."
     Jalsa continued, "Call the warden for us, too. Ask him to meet us here."
     The prison warden arrived fifteen tedious minutes later. "We need a word in private, please," Jalsa asked him.
     "In here," the warden said, showing them to another nearby room. This space was set out in the same way as the interview room Marchero was currently sitting in. The warden flicked open a panel in the wall and spent a few seconds pressing buttons and pushing cards into various slots. "I've disabled the mikes, what did you want?"
     Jalsa told him. "We want to take Marchero with us." The warden looked surprised, but didn't say anything. "Do you have any problems with that?"
     "I'm not happy with the idea, of course. I acknowledge your authority from the Co-operative, but I'll need to have some idea why before I authorise this."
     "You'll have to accept that she's a necessary part of our investigation," said Jalsa.
     "What investigation?" the warden asked bluntly.
     "I'm afraid I can't say."
     The prison official was starting to look understandably suspicious. "Can I have this request confirmed in writing?"
     "Very well. Although it would be much more preferable if you were to avoid making any fuss about this. Marchero will be at risk when she leaves here. Don't make that risk any greater," said Williams.
     "I'll escort you back to the landing pad personally, then. There are routes where you won't be seen with your passenger, although it won't be very long before word gets around in here that she's gone."
     The warden produced a datapad to record the request, and Jalsa and Williams signed it with their IDs. When they were back in the corridor he spoke briefly one of the guards, who gave him his rifle and left with his companions. They re-entered the interview room to find Marchero sitting on the edge of the table staring into space in a manner similar to that when they had first seen her. Minute differences in her posture and face gave a somewhat different impression than her couldn't-care-less attitude of earlier, though.
     "On your feet," the warden ordered. He gestured with the rifle. They followed Marchero out of the room and back to the tram station. The route back to the reception area took longer than it had on the way here, but passed through no communal areas, during which Williams dropped several hints about his opinions on the receptionist's behaviour. The warden dismissed the now nervous-looking receptionist and personally cleared the three for exit. There was a further delay whilst the shuttle returned to the landing pad, but eventually they were back aboard ship.
     Williams escorted Marchero to a secure room aboard the ship, but Jalsa headed off towards the bridge. "Call in the escort craft," he instructed the pilot. "Have them stand a hundred kilometres outside scanner range. Send the order via upsilon code." The pilot spoke the order to the computer and keyed it to transmit encoded on top of one of the standard navigation frequencies. This took a while as the message was sent out heavily encrypted and in tiny chunks at seemingly random intervals.
     They had been an hour from the prison when a short range transmission was received from the lead vessel of the group of three Iguanas that had been escorting the group to and from Tiriusri. They took up their positions and then vanished from long range scanners as they shut down main power to follow the shuttle as it coasted to its destination. Four hours later, and about half way into the flight the long range sensors located the output of a ship or ships running at high power in order to decelerate and intercept the shuttle. The shuttle fired up its engines, blinding out the image of the incoming ships but alerting the escorting Iguanas that it was concerned about the approaching vessels.
     It was fifteen minutes later before the unknowns were detected by the standard short range scanner, and from then on they could be tracked even with active engines. High magnification visual monitoring revealed two ships, a Cobra MkI and an Ophidian. Not serious opposition to the three Iguanas, and probably third- rate bounty hunting opportunists. Such types were known to occasionally make attacks on vessels leaving prisons in the hope that they would be credited by parties who didn't accept that a period of incarceration had been sufficient punishment or who hoped for public recognition by taking out a particularly despised criminal. These indiscriminate killers were usually regarded in much the same way, and their life expectancy was never great.
     The two ships were approaching backwards, engines exhaust flaring as they attempted to match velocities with the shuttle. They remained almost side by side, the faster Ophidian clearly not daring to fly far ahead and be left on its own. The Ophidian now raced ahead of the shuttle, loosing off a couple of laser shots in the process that had little effect. It circled round in a wide arc, its computers busy talking to its engines and directional controllers as it attempted to simulate inertialess flight relative to the chosen velocity.
     The slower drive of the Cobra had failed to achieve quite as good a velocity match, and despite having turned to face the shuttle it had overshot and was still moving away as it attempted to bring the velocity difference down to a level where it was capable of inertialess manoeuvring.
     This mistake left the Ophidian on attack approach whilst its companion was still trying to set up its run. It sported weak lasers, and on its own couldn't hope to make a quick kill. The shuttle swung around clumsily as it tried to evade the attack, but it was a slow and ungainly vessel. Normally an unarmed ship, this Naval version had been lightly armed and loosed a couple of pulse laser blasts at the Ophidian as it shot past.
     By now the Cobra was fully under control, and attacking at a slower speed. Several laser blasts caught the shuttle, some of their energy leaking through the shields to lightly mark the hull. The Cobra accelerated again as the shuttle turned to face it, and jinked aside slightly to pass its target. At its closest the Cobra released a missile, but its attack angle was too shallow from this point and its speed too great for the missile to hit on that pass. Before it had time to turn again an ECM burst from the shuttle sent the missile into an erratic spiralling path before it exploded harmlessly against nothing.
     The Ophidian was standing off, waiting for the Cobra to rejoin it so they could attack simultaneously when suddenly all hell broke loose around the Cobra. Unobserved by the would-be bounty hunters, two of the Iguanas had appeared, at high speed. Ahead of them was one of their missiles, which smashed straight into its target. Military laser fire played briefly from each attacking Naval ship before they rolled slightly to avoid collision. Behind them they left a wreck, just recognisable as a Cobra MkI but clearly crippled. Whatever was still functioning sufficiently to contain the engine safely finally failed, and the Cobra disappeared in a blinding flash.
     The two Iguanas had been moving far too fast to remain in the fray but the destruction of its companion had clearly rattled the Ophidian pilot. It was heading back to the shuttle, but this time continually accelerating as it attempted to flee. It shot as it passed the shuttle, but missed completely. Before it had managed to escape fire blossomed around it, a missile hit from the third Iguana that had now joined in at combat speed. The Ophidian tumbled, loosing its acceleration, and before it could regain control the Iguana was there, more military laser fire tearing into the damaged ship. Another explosion and the Ophidian, too, was gone, leaving nothing behind larger than small metal flakes.
     The three other members of the team viewed the arrival of Marchero without much surprise when they met up again in a room back at Dodec Four on Orarra proper. Marchero was left with two soldiers outside whilst Jalsa summarised the result of the prison meeting before bringing her in.
     "So, start us off with some general details, please," Barbeth said.
     "I was on a ship that made several runs to a deep space base about a quarter of a light year from Esdi," she began.
     Kirrik interrupted her. "I hope you've got better precision than that."
     "Not very. We jumped about two hundred AUs from Esdi on course for our destination, then re-orientated and jumped again. The best I can give you is estimates of the re-orientation angles."
     Williams rolled his eyes.
     "Upon exiting hyperspace we followed a nav beacon to the base. I've better details for that, since my post was in-system navigation. The beacon sent out a pulse every ten minutes on a time-determined frequency. Range of about twenty-five AUs."
     "We should be able to find it, then," Kalangu announced. "A high gain network of interferometry probes will give us sufficient range to detect and locate the signal if we're in the right general area."
     "You'll have to be quite persuasive to HQ for that type of resource," Barbeth laughed.
     "I will be," Kalangu told her. "I'll tell them we're looking for Thargoids. Most of those pen-pushers panic every time you mention the word."
     "What of the base itself?" Kirrik asked Marchero.
     "It's on an interstellar ice-rock asteroid. I think they're on it to use the ice for water and hydrogen. I've never seen more than a few small fighters nearby, but it looks big enough to hold quite a few more ships. I can't tell you a thing about static defences. I also once saw a couple of half-built ships on the surface."
     "What type?" Barbeth queried.
     "Probably Geckos. It looks like they've the equipment to build larger stuff, though."
     "And what of the people who own this base?"
     "I've no idea. Someone Jersisallam worked for. I honestly can't tell you a thing about them beyond that. I haven't a clue what they want, who they are, or what they are doing." Marchero said.
     "Take her out," Kirrik ordered one of the soldiers. He waited until Marchero was out of the room and the door closed before speaking further. "Our next step after finding this base?"
     "The choices would seem to be to infiltrate it or destroy it," Jalsa said. "Attacking it without knowing more would be extremely foolish." There was a murmur of agreement. "On the other hand, how do you get anyone close enough to infiltrate the base?"
     "We borrow something off GalCop," Kalangu said.
     "What?" demanded Williams.
     "They're working on a 'stealth device'. I believe they've got a prototype."
     "Oh, come on," Williams retorted. "The cloaking device has been a fictional tool for a thousand years."
     "And hyperspace was for the first few hundred years of them. GalCop seem quite confident that they are on to something. It's not a 'cloaking device', as you put it, anyway. I believe it works by masking out tell-tale EM signatures and analysing active scanners on other vessels and jamming them. It's still visible to the eye, though. You could always paint your ship black if that bothers you."
     "And you can persuade GalCop to lend it to you?"
     "You already want me to get hold of the probes. Why don't you try them?"
     "I'll do it," volunteered Kirrik. "I've got connections in the police."
     Kalangu managed to acquire the probes without much difficulty. Kirrik spent several frustrating days trying to influence people to pull the right strings and dropping subtle hints about blackmail possibilities before he had any results. It was three weeks later before the thing arrived, during which time the probes searched for the base and the rest of the group discussed plans, slept, ate, and became increasingly annoyed with Marchero, whose insolent nature had apparently only been temporarily curbed.
     "That's it?" Barbeth said incredulously when they met in a secure area of the station's docking bay to view the device. It consisted of a small grey box, several bundles of wire and two things about two feet high, roughly cylindrical in shape and apparently made up of random electrical and electronic components stuck to a central coil.
     "Apparently so," Kirrik replied. "The box is an interface to the ship's computer, the other objects are fixed to the scanner and shield generator. It works by actively modifying shield output."
     "If this is only a prototype I suppose there must be some down side to it?"
     "Er, yes," he confessed. "It's the first thing they've actually built for the project. It only works with a Viper, and makes the shields very unreliable for actual defence. It hasn't yet been properly tested for use over long periods either. GalCop think they've solved these issues in theory, but it will be at least six months before they make a better one."
     The most obvious of these disadvantages was that the Viper was a non-hyperspatial vessel. With the stealth device fitted to a hyperspace capable craft it could jump in quite close, but to carry a Viper a much larger ship would be needed. This would be detected if it ventured too near to the base, but jumping in at a distance from the target was not entirely safe either. It would have to wait for the Viper to return to it, and remaining in the area for some time would put it at risk of being found. The position was uncertain to within five AUs anyway, so a vessel without military grade receivers might jump in too far from the base to pick up the beacon's signals. With some reluctance the Navy agreed to provide a light carrier to transport the Viper after being convinced that a civilian-design ship would be too vulnerable to detection and attack.
     Not long afterwards the probes returned, having found very weak navigational signals being transmitted from a point in interstellar space within the search area. In the hope that the mission would reveal something about the original loss of the Constrictor Kirrik was to pilot the Viper, accompanied by Marchero. The Viper rendezvoused with the carrier outside the station, and then they left for a place close to Esdi.


An improved version of the "stealth device" is what Zurid Pino later steals in ArcElite, and comes to hunt you with!
Story index
Part 6