22. The lure.

“Hey, Zeet, I’m picking up some sort of distress signal.” Lazzaro’s voice broke Toes’ reverie and he turned from surveying the starry blackness outside and ground out the Jamaican Gold he’d been smoking in an ashtray, “It seems to originate somewhere around Mars, but I’m having trouble getting a more accurate fix on it than that.”
Captain Zachary “ZT” Toes sighed and punched the talk button on the comm panel, “Ok, Eric, I’m on my way up now.”

“Roger that, cap’n. Lazzaro out.”

Toes reluctantly kicked off his comfortable sandals and crammed his feet into the new boots he’d ordered during their brief stopover in Earth orbit. He had hoped they would have started wearing in by now, because they pinched like a bitch when he walked and he already had a blister coming on one heel. But Lazzaro had been hassling him for a while now, about his somewhat relaxed attitude to what constituted appropriate on-duty attire, so he was trying to make an effort before his First Officer suggested they went the whole hog and wore uniforms. 

Toes shuddered at the thought, left his cabin and hurried to the bridge, trying not to limp too obviously in front of any passing crew members on the way.

Lazzaro was consulting with Biff, the ship’s chief communications officer, when ZT walked onto the bridge; the pair of them were deep in conversation as Biff tried to explain something to Eric, but by the looks of it he wasn’t having too much success. 

“You say the signal is coming from a drifting ship,” Lazzaro was saying as Toes reached the comms station, “so how come it’s managing to stay hidden behind Phobos? They can’t be that badly damaged, not if they can keep manoeuvring the ship into the shadow of the moon.”

“Dunno, sir,” said a puzzled-looking Biff, “unless they’re on the surface, I suppose…” he scratched his head uncertainly and continued to keep watch on the comm panel

“So, what’s the story?” Toes asked.

“Hi ZT,” said Lazzaro, “it’s a bit of a strange one, at least I don’t understand it.” he shrugged and went on, “We picked up a single S.O.S. about an hour ago and kept scanning for repeat signals, but didn’t hear anything more. So I got Biff to do a narrow beam scan in the direction the first signal came from and suddenly, Bingo! We got a strong hit on a distress beacon or something.”

Toes glanced at the comm panel and frowned, “Hmmm, and you think it might be coming from the surface of the moon?” he looked at Biff, who made a non-committal expression to indicate he wasn’t sure one way or another, then studied the regular trace on the comm panel for a few more seconds.

“Ok, we’re going to have to investigate it, whatever it is.” Toes groaned inwardly, this was not going to be as relaxing a day as he’d hoped. “Mr Lazzaro, please instruct the helm to alter our heading and head for Mars orbit. Biff, you keep a close eye on that signal beacon, I’m still not convinced there isn’t something fishy going on here, so we’ll play it cautious and monitor the ship’s position as we approach.”

With that, Toes flopped into his command chair and with a relieved sigh, started to prise loose the strangulating footwear, before he heard a distinct clearing of the throat and looked up to see Lazzaro shaking his head with an amused expression. He hurrumphed and made an unflattering gesture at Eric, but nevertheless desisted from unshoing himself and began doing some analysis of the signal to take his mind off the discomfort.

*****

Carli, aka Intel Ops officer Zena Fisher, paced nervously round her small cabin, trying not to think about what was coming, a task at which she was failing completely.

She knew, deep down, that if she followed the plan the way it had been laid out for her when she signed up for this damn fool mission, then there was every chance that it’d all go as smoothly as Control seemed to think it would. But Agent Fisher couldn’t silence the niggling little voice in the back of her head, the one that told her she was going to regret deceiving the very people she would need to depend on the most, if it did all go horribly wrong; namely, Captain Zachary Toes and her erstwhile friend and (she winced) romantic entanglement, Eric Lazzaro.

It was imperative that Dreeb be stopped, before he could embark on the next, even more calamitous phase of his insane plan, that was obvious. But what she didn’t yet understand, was why he had ordered her to acquire Lazzaro’s security pass in the first place, because the plan, as Dreeb had explained it to her anyway, didn’t require any actual, physical interaction with the IGV Alice Marie at all. 

This inconsistency in Dreeb’s intentions troubled her more than anything else she knew (or didn’t know) about what was going to happen; not just because Dreeb was an unhinged maniac with about as much balance as a one-legged stilt walker with an inner ear infection, but because a plan as complicated and deranged as his must have been conceived a long time ago and was unlikely to have changed at the last moment.

Which meant there was something she wasn’t being told, and that thought made her very nervous indeed.

******

Dreeb had supervised the deployment of the distress pod himself, following the successful launch and subsequent crash-landing of the empty shuttle on the surface of Phobos; he couldn’t afford the risk of trusting this crucial part of his masterplan to the Numeric Goons, as he privately referred to them and besides, it wasn’t every day you got to send an old friend such an impressive gift. 

Dreeb smiled and closed his eyes, as he once again pictured the pod, modified to carry the immensely powerful plasma bomb, in addition to its specially targeted distress beacon, falling away from the ship’s cargo bay doors and dropping towards the moon’s surface, before booster rockets fired and it gained a low, stable orbit, where it would wait patiently until the time came to welcome the star of the show, First Officer Eric Lazzaro.

21. Coming Home

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Tori couldn’t believe she was stranded AGAIN. It was like deja vu; for her and the rest of the Zapp family, it brought back the feelings of helplessness and isolation of their experiences in the escape pods. At least this time, they had the crew of the crippled ship, The Three Zees, to keep them company and they could all wait in the dim light together and hope for rescue. They were into their third day since the explosion now and talk amongst the crew about possible damage to the ship and of their hopes and dreams for the future had given way to more practical matters. Like how to stay warm and conserve their rapidly dwindling air supply, and what the probable chances of rescue actually were. After the early realization that three crew members had been outside the ship during the accident, there was no further discussion of them, but the thought was there in the back of everyone’s mind. Along with that spark of hope that SOMEBODY was coming to take them home


John Miles watched the IGV Alice Marie until the pink glow of its ion engines faded into the distance and turned back once more to the awe-inspiring view of the nearby star he had from the rear of the bridge on his giant salvage vessel. He took a moment to appreciate the sheer power and majesty of the swirls and eruptions on the boiling surface below, before a slight vibration beneath his feet nudged him back to reality. He felt a second faint shudder through the deck plates, as a freighter unloaded material and supplies destined for the Three Zees and he checked his nav/comm console and saw that the damaged ship should now be on the horizon. John released the tug drones; they headed for the target vessel and would gain control and return with it to the main salvage ship. He had no stores on board and very little space, but he had to get the rescued crew into some breathable air and he was conscious of the fact that this wasn’t just another job. He had salvaged many ships, but not those with surviving crew members, still on board and certainly not ones staffed by people he knew, so John was much relieved when the tug console started displaying active status.

John sighed with relief as he entered the coordinates of his location and commanded the tugs to come home. Within a hour The Three Zees was strapped into the carriage and the survivors were transferred to the now loaded freighter.

Tori was the first to hear a scraping on the Three Zees hull and she motioned for the others to be quiet a few seconds before a loud metallic CLANG alerted them to the arrival of the automated tugs. A weary cheer went up from the assembled passengers and crew, now that they knew they were finally going home.

19. Save Thyself

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Pentaethymethalyne-metalliod, commonly called “liquid hell” because of it’s extremely hot and explosive reaction with oxygen, non-reactive with nearly all chemicals and compounds, the stuff hates oxygen. One single molecule of oxygen will spell disaster every time. Therefore, after a short life as a weapon of mass destruction Pentaethymethalyne-metalliod was banned from Earth. It was quickly accepted as a rocket fuel, but it took several deadly explosions to finally isolate it from oxygen. The only safe exposure was in the combustion chamber. Very little oxygen was needed which was ideal in deep space and speeds of near-hyper could be reached. Also special fuel tanks were created to direct any explosions away from the ship structure. Legal tanks had a “rip seam” and extra plating on the vessel-side of the tank. Luckily the The Three Zees had such tanks and only one blew up, leaving them with a engine and fuel.

There was a ruptured oxygen line spraying liquid into space. That, in itself, could cause problems but there was a fuel leak caused by a out-of-spec line which froze and burst. This set off alarms and the techs left the equipment room to don suits to go out and fix the leak. That saved their lives. The force of the explosion drove the tanks’ shock-absorbing struts through the hull and ripping the equipment room in half. The life support systems saved the ship from total loss of atmosphere by slamming bulkheads closed and isolating the suited techs. They quickly rednecked a connection to an air line but were helpless to help the crew.

Tori and Cindi were slammed hard into a wall, knocking Cindi out leaving Tori with a broken arm. The gravity gyro was destroyed as well as the primary power cell, so they were floating in almost absolute darkness. Life support equipment was straining due to a hull breach not contained by the bulkheads. As trained all crew members gathered at the med center for a head count and an assessment of injuries. Quickly, they realized they were short three techs and they all were injured to some degree. They put slap patches on the leak but the oxygen was depleted and they had to shut down the main system and don suits to attempt to get the engine started.

You can’t feel yourself tumbling without gravity, mused Tori as she fumbled with the stabilizer system in an attempt to stop the tumbling ship. After several attempts she managed to bring the ship to a stop. Zoey and Lori had experience with star maps and concluded they were maybe 10,000 nautical miles from the Alice Marie. They had no power and no way to get their engine online, but they weren’t moving. The three techs on the outside came to the same conclusion and were trying to swap the live harness with the operable engine’s harness. The task was nearly impossible since they were in shadow and had the wrong tool kit. Once this was accomplished they squeezed themselves against the ship and waited to see if those inside would get the ship moving. When the engine control panel lit up on the bridge everybody was surprised but relieved. Zoey started the ignition process and all crew members went to the med center since it had the only operable life support and gravity. Their ship was heavily damaged and a fuel system problem kept them at ¼ speed but the The Three Zees were headed back to its mothership.

18. Dangerous games.

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Now they were safely in Earth orbit, Carli knew she only had a few days to prepare, but since the success or failure of the operation depended largely on keeping Lazzaro off balance and distracted, she had to spend at least some time each day working on him.

Whether that meant finding an excuse to wander onto the bridge whilst Toes was doing his gripe ‘n’ groan session and stand in Eric’s line of sight until he noticed her, sitting at his table in the canteen when he was chatting to other crewmen and flashing him an occasional coy smile, or “accidentally” running into him in the corridor when he was taking his morning run, Carli made sure he saw just enough of her to make him uncomfortable, but not enough that he had a chance to talk to her about anything except official ship’s business.

She felt bad about it and she held onto that feeling; it somehow helped her justify her actions, making her conscious of how important her mission was and giving her an added incentive to complete it as soon as possible.

For his part, Lazzaro was totally confused by her attitude, he couldn’t for the life of him work out what he was supposed to do.
Did he brazen it out and hope it was all some kind of elaborate joke?
Should he call her bluff and hope she was just waiting for an opportunity to explain?
Or should he seek out Diaz, talk to her privately and take the chance that she wouldn’t go running straight back to her friend with news of his discomfort?

He quickly discounted all but the first option however, as he was still concerned that his memory of that night hadn’t returned and he didn’t want to risk the loss of his pass getting back to the captain.
So all he could do was concentrate on his duties as First Officer and pray that the situation resolved itself soon because, with the Three Zees in trouble, he was going to need to have his wits about him.

*****

Meanwhile, in the vast interplanetary void between Jupiter and Mars, Dreeb and his hired killers were on course for their pre-arranged rendezvous point. The cruiser had reached the potentially dangerous area of the asteroid belt, where careful programming of the nav-systems was essential if they wanted to maintain faster-than-light drive.
They were heading for Phobos, Mars’ largest satellite, the plan being to hold station on the “blind side” of the small moon, hiding in its shadow until it was time to intercept their target.

“Sir, there’s a burst transmission coming in now,” said one of the black-clad, masked mercenaries; Dreeb didn’t know his name and didn’t want to, (he had actually issued the crew with numbered badges when he retained their services, specifically to avoid personal interaction) “do you want to take it here on the bridge?”

“No,” Dreeb replied, “transfer it to the scrambler in comms,” he crossed to the door of the small secure room and swiped his pass across the sensor panel, “and don’t get any funny ideas, this message is for my eyes only.”

The crewman grunted and shrugged, then routed the message as he’d been told, signalling indifference to his boss’s secrecy. His expression, had anyone been able to see it, said he’d been hired to do a job without asking questions, and that was fine by him.

Dreeb closed the door and powered up the custom built comm panel, activating the encryption software by scanning the coded chip that was embedded beneath the skin of his wrist.
A stream of code scrolled past; the data from Lazzaro’s stolen security card, then the screen went blank and the lines of numbers were replaced by the spiky trace of an audio player.
He checked the time code and noted that, although the message been received just moments earlier, it had been recorded two days previously and only sent when the cruiser had come within range of the transmitter onboard the Alice Marie.

Dreeb played Carli’s report, a crooked grin twisting the scarred contours of his face as he listened, then he copied the security data to a flash drive he kept on a chain around his neck, deleted the original and the audio file and closed down the comm panel.
He left the small room and beckoned to the man who had reported the transmission.

“Six, I’m going to my cabin, you have the bridge.” The man gave a curt nod. “Unless there’s an emergency I don’t want to be disturbed until we’re on final approach to Phobos.”

*****

As Dreeb headed for a voyeuristic fix of death and disfigurement, courtesy of his subspace SnuffStream account, Carli was trying her hardest not to feel guilty about spending yet another mealtime torturing Eric.

She’d sat opposite him at lunch, shamelessly flirting with members of the engineering team, laughing loudly at their jokes and joining in when they mocked Lazzaro’s expression of disgust at some of the more tasteless stories.
In the end he’d got up and left the canteen, clearly disappointed at her behaviour, which suited Carli fine, despite the pangs of conscience, the less he wanted to do with her today, the happier she was.

After another ten minutes of banter with the engineers, Carli made her excuses and left, not rushing but with a nervous urgency that she fought to control.
She stopped to chat with Diaz, who was on her way for a workout in the gym and promised to join her there when she’d been back to her quarters to change, but when her friend was out of sight Carli doubled back and headed for the transport bay.

Finding the bay empty, as she assumed it would be at this time of day, she once again disabled the door access panel and retrieved the hidden transmitter from behind the hidden panel in her locker.
She checked the display and then, noting the symbol for a delivered burst message was showing, entered a code to activate the unit.
This time however, she had to spend valuable seconds fitting a new comm chip, one that would only transmit on a single, very specific frequency.

It seemed to take forever for the signal indicator to flicker on and she could feel the thumping of her heart against her ribcage by the time she heard the faint sound of a voice, repeating the same phrase over and over;
“Intel Ops waiting…Intel Ops waiting…Intel Ops waiting…”

She took a deep breath and spoke quietly and clearly, “Intel Ops, this is agent Fisher, codename: Carli…I say again, Intel Ops this is Carli, do you read me?”
She thought for a moment they weren’t going to reply, that they’d abandoned her, then;
“We hear you Carli, go ahead.”

That was it, no pleasantries, no “How’ya doing?” nothing, but it was enough to calm the pounding in her temples and she could detect only the faintest of tremors in her voice when she spoke.

“Message sent successfully. Repeat: Message sent and acknowledged. Predicting the hostile to be in position at Phobos ahead of schedule. Requesting confirmation of intercept team’s deployment.”

“Affirmative, a full team has been deployed and is currently en route to the coordinates you provided.”

“Understood,” Carli paused, unsure of how to phrase the next question, “um, when will it be necessary for me to inform captain Toes of my deception? I assume he will be made aware of the situation prior to the operation being executed and I doubt he’ll take kindly to being used like this.”

She had been expecting some discussion on the matter, so she was surprised at the abruptness of the reply.
“Negative. Repeat: Negative. Do NOT make the captain aware of any facet of the operation. This is strictly need to know. Control out.”

And that was it.
Zena Fisher, Intel Ops officer, codename: Carli, was on her own again.

16. Jailbreak.

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Colan Dreeb lay on the new, non-regulation, divan bed in his cell, idly scrolling through the huge collection of murder-porn on his virtual reader unit.

He could hear the sound of his fellow prisoners being marched out into the force-shielded exercise area, from where they would have a 360° panoramic view of the endless, desolate and toxic surface of the planet on which the maximum security prison complex was located.

The designers of the facility had originally intended to make the dome-shaped shield completely opaque, given that there was literally nothing to see outside, apart from the occasional flashes of an electrical storm above the range of immense mountains that encircled the featureless plain where it stood. However, the company who ran the prison wanted the inmates to be able to see just how pointless an escape attempt would be, much like the infamous Alcatraz prison on late twentieth century Earth, so, apart from a protective tinted coating to reflect the powerful solar radiation, the dome was horribly and terrifyingly transparent.

It wasn’t long before Dreeb felt the concussive vibration of the huge bulkhead door slamming shut, indicating that the majority of the prison population was now outside the main complex in the “yard”.
Ten minutes later there was a discrete tap on his door and one of his personal guards entered the cell balancing a tray on one hand and carrying a disposable metal drink tube in the other.

The uniformed guard didn’t exactly tug a forelock or doff his cap to the figure on the bed, but it was clear from his demeanour that he deferred to the scarfaced prisoner and he waited patiently until Colan Dreeb laid aside his reader and looked up before addressing him in a respectful tone.

“I’ve brought your meal Mr Dreeb, I’ll just leave it on here,” he placed the tray, containing a covered plate and a plastic coffee mug, on the small table at the foot of Colan’s bed, “is there anything else I can get you?”

“No thank you Crenshaw, that will be all for now,” said Dreeb, smiling and digging in his coverall pocket, “Here you are, for your trouble,” He passed the guard a credit chip, “don’t gamble it away all at once.”
(Dreeb had a talent for discovering weaknesses in people and using them to his own advantage. Crenshaw was a case in point and the guard had been on Dreeb’s payroll ever since Dreeb had paid off the debt he had owed a particularly vicious gang boss whose poker game he’d been stupid enough to lose money at)

“Thank you, sir,” said Crenshaw, “I’ll leave you to your dinner,” just call if you need anything, I won’t be far away.”

As he turned to go, the guard made a point of draining the drink tube and dropping it with a clang into the tin by the door that served as a trash can, the noise earning him a scowl, but nothing else.

He nodded to Dreeb, “I’ll come back and empty that for you when I collect your tray, sir” and with that, he left, closing the cell door behind him.

Colan waited until he was sure the guard would not return, then stood up and lifted the cover from his “dinner”.
Underneath was a small pile of powder, in appearance, no different from the dehydrated food rations that were issued to all the inmates daily.
Then he removed the drink tube from the trash and unscrewed the cap, sniffing the open tube cautiously and smiling.

He replaced the lid and slipped the tube into his pocket, then dragged the bed to the centre of the room, removed the mattress and wedged it upright in the corner, then picked up the small table with the tray on it and placed it on top of the frame, along with the cell’s only chair.
Standing on the bed, Dreeb lifted the plate cover and took the drink tube from his pocket. He unscrewed the cap and carefully poured the viscous liquid inside onto the pile of powder.
He stood on the chair and, using the tube, he mixed the two together until they formed a thick paste, then he flattened the end and used the crude spatula he’d made to spread the sticky paste in a large circle on the ceiling.

Moving quickly now, Dreeb lifted the chair onto the table and picked up the plate cover. He pressed it into the centre of the circle and rammed the back of the chair under it, crushing the top of the metal dome flat, leaving it wedged hard against the ceiling by the pile of furniture.

Finally, he reached into his mouth and with a twist, removed one of his back teeth.
Checking that his path to the corner of the cell was clear, he pressed the open end of the false tooth into the ring of paste on the ceiling and immediately jumped from the bed and dived onto the floor behind the mattress.

Two seconds later there was a blinding white flash and a sharp sizzling noise, followed by the sound of men shouting and loud gunfire.

Dreeb smiled.
“Ahh, they’re playing my tune.”

***

It’d been a pretty standard exercise period so far; a couple of scuffles, territorial pissing contests, that was all, no big thing, and penal officer Pulaski daydreamed as he absently scanned the yard through the scope of his plasma rifle.
He certainly wasn’t paying attention to anything beyond the force shield.

Hardly anyone bothered looking “outside” anymore, it was too fucking depressing for a start, and they all knew there wouldn’t be anything interesting going on out there anytime soon, the planet’s population was precisely zero,  plus them, so it was best to just pretend it wasn’t there, it was easier.

Which is why it wasn’t until the small cruiser was almost directly above the barely-visible dome, that anyone noticed it at all.
By that time, it was already too late.

The force shield was designed specifically to keep the largely unarmed inhabitants of the prison complex in, and to keep out nothing more violent than the planet’s toxic atmosphere.

So when the first burst of the cruiser’s pulse cannon blasted a hole through the top of the dome, nobody had any time to do anything.

Except Colan Dreeb.

***

As soon as he heard sounds of chaos in the yard outside, through the gap that had appeared around the precariously wedged disc of metal that used to be the roof of the six storey cell block, (Dreeb had always thought of his cell as more of a penthouse) he emerged from behind the protection of the mattress and waited.
A few seconds later a metallic thud announced the arrival of his rescuers; suddenly the disc in the roof came off like a ring-pull and, as he clambered onto the bed frame, a pair of hands reached in, clapped a breathing mask over Dreeb’s nose and mouth and bodily lifted him out through the hole.

He could hear screaming now and looked down into the yard.
The dense, poisonous gases of the planet’s atmosphere had instantly begun to rush in and sink to the bottom of the dome, slowly filling it with an invisible cloud of death.
Dreeb saw prisoners and guards alike, clawing at their throats and screaming in a harsh, bubbling croak until they started to bleed from the eyes and ears, eventually collapsing and lying still.

The man who had lifted him out of the cell touched his arm.
“Time to go, sir.”

“Yes, of course,” Dreeb turned his grinning face from the scenes of horror below him and followed the black-clad figure to the door of the cruiser on the roof of the prison, took one last look round at the destruction he had finally wrought on his captors and decided that it had been very good practice indeed.

Now for the main event…