Nobody's death is easy to take.
Danni nearly quit over Wingbat's death.
No, it doesn't appear in the book.
Sue me. Wait. No. Sue Adam; he's the one who left it out.
He said it "didn't advance the plot".
He wasn't the one who spent a dozen hours talking to her over the course of a week.
I think I refused her resignation a half-dozen times.
“You’re sure this is going to work?”
“No. Now shut up.”
Stone and Jordan were leading the way to the spaceport, Mac trailing behind with their one largish duffel. They’d finally run out of time and had to make the attempt at the stealthed ship.
Whitmore had provided as much information as she could, and Mac had dug more out of the Artemis Naval Research and Development files, but the data was incomplete. Somewhere along the line, after the project was shelved, the files had been scrubbed. Massive gaps were all that indicated the missing gigabytes.
They didn’t have any better choice, though.
What few small ships were at the port were little more than cargo lifts: clumsy and slow. Military ships generally bypassed Tycho Under, though whether for the lack of a base or a tacit arrangement with the smugglers they couldn’t discover. It still meant that the most capable ships were elsewhere.
That left the smuggling ships. Those, unfortunately, were always heavily guarded and watched. After all, it would be easier to simply steal the goods for resale, rather than purchase them, and so steps were taken to prevent it.
Thus, the black stealth ship.
“Turn left ahead,” Mac said now.
The route they were following was circuitous but avoided most of the smugglers known hangouts. They’d considered contacting the revolutionaries to perhaps arrange safe passage, but in the end rejected the idea. There’d been no contact between them in weeks, intentionally. Contact from Newling would mean one of only two things: the plan had collapsed and Newling’s cabal needed rescue; or the plan was irrevocably launched and the Federation would need to be ready to recognize them as the legitimate Artemis government. There was no contingency for contact from the Federation to Newling, not until the revolution was underway.
All of which meant they were relying on Mac’s map-reading skills.
“Thirty meters and turn right again.”
“Mac, I don’t want to doubt you, but we’re getting farther from the port, not closer.”
“It just seems that way,” Mac assured the Chief.
“At least we haven’t seen anyone,” consoled Jordan.
Five minutes further on Stone halted and gestured them back.
“Patrol,” she hissed, seeming to disappear into the shadows.
Four uniformed figures sauntered past, unconcerned with anything except whatever their destination might be.
Stone crept forward and poked her head in the direction they’d gone. It was ablaze with light and sound. “Tell me we don’t have to follow them.”
“That’s the last turn before the port,” Mac said apologetically.
“Right. Time to play Purloined Letter.”
“Hide in plain sight. Mac, you’re the smallest. Act happy drunk.”
“Oh, you bloody sheilas!” Stone put her arm under Mac’s and across her back. “Jordan, other side. Act like we’re holding her up.”
Thankfully Jordan managed it without issue.
“Now, Mac, just smile and look vacant. How far down this corridor?”
“Two hundred meters. Like this?”
Stone snuck a quick look. “Less drooling. Better. Let’s go.”
They passed the first three storefronts without incident. The fourth, though, was an open-air bar, and patrons had spilled out into the corridor.
“Hey, you’re cute! Let me buy you a drink!” called out one patron, a drunken brunette who was already being held up by her companion.
“No,” Stone said sharply, not slowing.
“Hey, come back! I jus’ wanna buy you a drink!”
“No,” repeated Stone.
Stone didn’t slow. They passed another bar, and another.
Their luck ran out at the next.
“C’mere!” An arm snaked out from a table and wrapped around Jordan’s waist. She tumbled sideways and into the arm owner’s lap, a large, tattooed spacer.
“You’re gonna stay with me,” he said, trying to wrap another arm around her.
“Not on your life!” Jordan said, elbowing him solidly in the gut.
He oofed and released her.
She jumped up and tried to catch up with Mac and Stone, but one of the grabber’s friends followed and put his hand on her shoulder. She was spun around.
“You din’t have to do that,” he snarled.
She covered his hand with hers and bent the fingers back. The crack as they broke could be heard over the bar noise.
“Dammit!” he swore, useless hand flopping. He swung wildly with his left, missing badly and tumbling into her. Unable to keep her balance she fell to the walkway, head impacting with a thump. Stone heard her grunt and spun around to look.
“Shite. Come on, Mac.”
“Oh, I hate this part,” Mac whined, falling in behind Stone.
“Oi! You! Off her, now, and I let you keep your nose pretty!”
He stopped trying to choke Jordan with one hand to say, “Suck vacuum.”
Stone didn’t answer, just reached down and, with her Earth-normal musculature, pulled the native Loonie off Jordan as easily as she’d pick up a suitcase.
“Hey!” he squeaked. She continued the pull, launching him upward into the corridor ceiling with a thump. He rebounded to find her uppercut crunching into his nose, snapping his head back on his descent to the floor.
“You had your chance,” she said, stepping over the prone body and pulling Jordan up.
“Alyssa, you tracking?”
After a groan, she answered, “Bite me, Chief.”
“I think we’d better move,” Mac said, looking around nervously. “Just, you know. In case.”
Stone was eyeing the interior of the bar. Two groups seemed to be trying to work up their nerve. “I think you’re right. Alyssa, gonna have to run now.”
“I’ll keep up,” she said stubbornly.
“You bloody well won’t, you’re going to pace Mac. I’ve got our backs. Move, blast it!” The first group had organized itself and was starting to hit the corridor.
Jordan took off without another word, close on Mac’s heels. Stone looked around for something she could improvise with and settled on a chair.
Still watching the bar, Stone started down the corridor a few seconds after Mac. The first group looked like four men and two women, and they broke into a trot.
“Double time!” Stone shouted, not waiting to see if they listened. She stopped and braced herself. The corridor was only four meters across here; she could just about cover the whole width.
She demonstrated by swinging the chair.
“You really don’t want a piece of me,” she said. “I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.”
“MinSec whore!” one of them shouted, and they were charging.
One full swing of her makeshift club was all she managed, feeling the satisfying snap of broken ribs in at least two of the onrushers before they were even with her, bloodlust in their eyes.
They’d never faced a SEAL, no matter how many years retired, and they certainly hadn’t faced one with her mad up. She waded into them with glee, arms, legs, and head flying, trading shamelessly on her superior strength to simply batter them into submission.
The second group of seven, unwilling to believe that she could possibly come through unscathed, redoubled their pace and were even with her as she dropped the last would-be assailant.
She took a breath, grinning.
“Round two? I’m game.” And she stepped forward again.
Only when the second group had joined the first in waiting on medical attention did she clap her hands once.
“Thanks, lads. And lassies. It was fun.”
She sprinted up the corridor and was surprised to catch up with her partners in only a few dozen meters.
“Holy Oberon,” breathed Jordan. “What did you do to them?”
Stone didn’t spare a glance.
“Same thing I used to do to MP’s. Felt good. Mac, how far?”
Mac, who had seen Stone in action before, pointed. “Forty meters, then we see if the code I got works.”
“Let’s be about it, then.”
After the demonstration, nobody interfered in their progress and they reached the unmarked hatch in seconds. The code was good, and they were through without any trouble.
“Now what?” said Jordan with a wince.
“The ship’s in storage 2, that’s a structure on the surface, it’s not pressurized, we’re going to need skinsuits for the next leg but I don’t know where we can change, oh, I guess right here then,” Mac trailed off as Stone and Jordan started stripping their clothes, heedless of any cameras which might be monitoring the area.
The duffel had the suits, which didn’t take much space at all, and their helmets, which did. Mac turned away as she peeled out of her clothes and into her suit, trying to ignore the quiet conversation going on behind her.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Oh, a knife in Marseilles.”
“Ah, shrapnel from a mortar, Mumbai.”
“How about this? Looks nasty.”
“Ex-wife. Never marry a Green Beanie. They play dirty. You ready, Mac?”
“Uh, yeah, just about Chief.”
“Don’t dawdle. We’re going to need your genius to get off this dustball.”
Mac pulled on her helmet. “Let’s do it.”
As they walked towards the airlock that led to the surface, Jordan said, “Mac, I don’t get it. Why can’t we help with the ship?”
“Well, the way Davie told it, it was a R&D testbed ship, right, and they were doing all sorts of different things with it, stealth tech, engines that are more like the ones we use in the Direwolves, all sorts of advanced computer tech, and one of the things they did, and I’m not sure about this myself, but while there are buttons and levers and controls, just like a normal ship, there isn’t actually any light, no internal windows or lights, so once we go in we’re totally in the dark.”
“Wait, what? How can the pilot see to control it?”
“It wasn’t supposed to be piloted, it obviously can, but that was a backup system, if you get it, so any pilot was going to have to jack into the computer system and receive the inputs virtually, and no offense to you or the Chief but your implants aren’t up to the job, only mine are, so I’m the lucky one who gets to interface with a totally unknown computer system while you are more or less along for the ride.”
“Hope you’re not afraid of the dark,” Stone quipped.
“No, why, do you need me to hold your hand, big bad Master Chief?” teased Jordan.
“Knock it off. I’m not in the market for wife number three.”
Like most airlocks, this one was designed for ease of use, and they were onto the surface in short order. It was the two-week lunar ‘night’, and the only illumination came from Earthshine. There were a number of buildings of various sizes and conditions.
“That one,” said Mac, unhesitatingly pointing to the third structure.
Stone set off at a lope without so much as a question, leaving the other two to follow. She only stopped at the hatchway.
“Not pressurized,” confirmed Mac.
Stone twisted the handle and yanked the door open. Inside was dimly illuminated by normal standards, but was bright compared to the surface, and Stone tsked in annoyance.
“Inside, quick, or someone will see the light!”
Mac and Jordan hustled through and Stone slammed the door closed, eerily quiet in the vacuum. Then she turned around to see the ship they were to steal. It was as black as the images had suggested, more a ship-shaped hole in space than anything else.
“The eyes just don’t want to track it,” said Jordan.
“Wow.” Mac was entranced. “It’s just completely black, I mean, like, the blackest black you can get, and then some.”
Stone had been scanning the interior of the building. “Well, this is a bit of a bugger. How in Hades do we get out of here? For that matter, how did they get it in?”
It was a valid point. There didn’t seem to be any other opening, and certainly not one large enough for a ship.
“Maybe we see if it works first then we figure out how to get it out?” suggested Mac.
“That’s your show,” said Stone. “I’m going to scout. Jordan, you keep an eye on the entry.”
Ten minutes later Mac waved them over to the ship’s hatch.
“I don’t get it,” Stone said. “There’s no way in or out besides the door we used.”
“Good news, I got it running, everything seems to be working and we have more than enough fuel to get to Njord, though that’s not such a problem, and the radios work too, but I didn’t test them because I don’t want Artemis to track back to us, no point in a stealth ship if you go radiating in the EM spectrum, so we’re ready to go when you are, and I know how to get out of here, not sure you’re going to like it but it’s the only option as far as I can tell, come on in and I’ll tell you, just don’t take off your helmets, remember no environmental in here, just follow my suit light.”
Mac was right. There was no light whatsoever except was provided by the twin lights on the underside of her wrists.
“This is it,” she said a moment later.
“It’s not a big ship, a little smaller than a Wolf, and most of that’s taken up by mechanicals, there’s only this cockpit and some space for engineering aft where people can fit, but at least they provided chairs, there’s one here, that’s where I’m going to sit, here, and here.” She shone her lights around to match her words.
“I see what you mean, or maybe I don’t see it,” said Jordan. “How do you know if you did something?”
“Well, when I press one of the black buttons, a little black light lights up black to let me know I’ve done it,” said Mac. “But I also have a head’s up display through my ‘plant which gives me a sort of virtual reality, I can switch back and forth between them.”
“All very nice,” said Stone. “I presume you’ve figured out how we get into space?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s actually a pretty elegant solution, the whole idea of this was stealth and undetectable, so why would it launch from a spaceport in view of everyone, right, there’s a launch tunnel which comes out the shaded sided of a secondary crater about eight klicks away, nobody’s gonna be looking over there for a lifting ship, pretty clever huh?”
“But how do we get there?”
“Ah! Watch!” Mac did something and the ship started dropping. “That’s why you couldn’t find anything, the entire floor drops down a hundred meters and we’re in the tunnel, I’ve checked and there’s nothing which will stop us between here and the surface, the only thing maybe would be the exit door but I’ve already tested it, it works, and I locked Artemis out just in case so it won’t close, and I hope I do okay I’ve never piloted a spaceship before but it’s gonna be easy right?”
Their descent stopped.
“Does this thing have seat belts?” asked Jordan.
“No, it’s supposed to be unmanned, here we go!”
Surprisingly smoothly the ship lifted and moved forward, accelerating hard.
“Mac, I don’t think you should be pushing so hard,” said Stone.
“Don’t worry, I’m not flying this part, it’s the automatic systems, did you think I was doing it, all I did is told it to launch, I won’t take over until we’re a kilometer above the surface and the stealth protocols all engage, don’t worry, it’s all set, I don’t have anything to do for, oh, wait, gotta concentrate now.”
With no visuals all Stone and Jordan could do was imagine what the ship was doing, but from the change in pressure on their bodies they had just done an Immelmann and were now heading back the way they came.
“Not now, I get control in like, two seconds, and we’re out of the crater, and let’s see if I remember what to do next, right, right, oh, yeah, that’s it…” Mac’s voice faded into indistinguishability.
“Chief?” said Jordan.
“We gonna live through this?”
Stone looked at the figure of Mac, still illuminated by her wrist lights only. “Lass, your guess is as good as mine.”
“Oberon protect us!”