December 14th 2012
The light frame of the P52 screamed from the pull of interspace. Everything blurred. Sound flipped between a screaming turbine and tone silence. The starboard wing crumpled and tore off. The stern of the Caterpillar phased in and out of view. Cal fought with the ship to stay locked on its wake. It was that or the end.
* * * * *
The UEE Customs Station at the jump-point from Ferron to the Banu Protectorate was especially congested today. The Customs Agent stared at the manifestation of monotony; a row of ships, haulers, and transports as far as the eye could see.
He took a moment to make peace with the long boring day ahead then buzzed the first ship forward to the scanners. He ran the ship’s tags through the database while the scanbots did their thing.
A Caterpillar transport emerged from the jump-point and lumbered toward the checkpoint. The Customs Agent casually glanced at it. He froze at what he saw.
A P52 had come through as well. One of the wings was ripped off. The nose had been folded. Oxygen and fluids leaked through cracks in the body. One engine gently pulsed with life. The other was dark.
The Customs Agent snapped out of it and slammed the alarms.
In a manner of minutes, Police and Med teams descended on the P52. The Agent listened to the feverish chatter over the comms. Someone said the pilot was UEE Military and miraculously still alive.
* * * * *
Cal Mason woke up on a table. Medics hovered over him, about to work, surprised at his consciousness.
“How long have I been out?” He said, not wasting a minute. The lead Medic stammered. The others exchanged baffled glances. Cal sat up. His body surged in pain. He dragged himself off the table.
“Sir… sir!” One of the nurses tried to usher Cal back to the table. Cal didn’t slow down as he shuffled toward the door. A clock on one of the screens said that a little over an hour had passed. The medics and nurses hustled after their wayward patient.
Cal shoved his way through more medics, guards, a couple Custom Agents who gathered to watch, and finally got to the landing bay and the wreckage of the P52. A couple mechanics stood around it, marveling at its state.
“Hey, you got an omni-tool handy?” Cal said to one of the mechanics. He stared at Cal, dumbfounded, and held it out.
Cal climbed onto the P52 and started unscrewing a panel.
“Lt. Mason?” A voice boomed from the entrance of the hangar. Cal didn’t stop. The Phoenix was undoubtedly on the move, continuing on with their plan. Cal could still catch them but if they jumped another system, they’d be gone.
P52’s, like most short-range fighters, come equipped with homing beacons keyed to their host ship. Makes them much easier to recover. Most pirates and smugglers disable the beacon as soon as they can. Not many people knew that with a little modification, the beacon could be reversed. So instead of the Constellation being able to locate the P52, the P52 can locate the Constellation. Cal, however, did know this.
“Lieutenant!” That voice again, closer. Cal glanced up. A Customs Supervisor stood over him, an amused grin on his face. “You alright?”
“Maybe you should have a Doc have a look at you. Be sure.”
“I’d love to. A little short on time at the moment.” Cal extracted the last bolt and pulled the beacon out. Disabled as expected but intact. “I don’t suppose you have a ship I could use?”
The Customs Supervisor turned as a couple Cops hustled into the hangar.
Thirty minutes of debate later, Cal launched from the Customs Station in a Cutlass recently seized for smuggling contraband. A dozen confused cops and medical staff watched him disappear into the jump-point.
This trip into Banu territory would be a lot smoother than the last. On the other side, Cal plugged the P52’s beacon into his NavSystem. While he waited for the computer to import the data, he calibrated the PilotAssist to his liking. Everybody likes piloting on auto. It was a fact that mystified and bugged him.
His radar pinged. The Phoenix was still in the system. They set down on Queeg, third planet in the system and capital. It was a dry, arid planet, prone to massive dust storms. The radar refined their location the closer Cal got to the planet. The beacon placed the Phoenix in a smaller settlement on the dark side of the planet. It was only a couple dozen stacked buildings, each constructed as sharp angles to help minimize the impact of the heavy winds.
Cal landed on one of the outer landing parks. He found an air-gen respirator and some atmospheric gear left behind by the previous owners of the Cutlass. The wind was already kicking furiously as Cal set out.
He found the Phoenix relatively easily. There weren’t many Constellations taking up space here and they hadn’t even bothered trying to hide it. Cal saw a faint light through cockpit, emanating from deeper in the ship. Someone was in there. Cal found a spot and waited.
Trunk climbed down and sealed the Constellation. He glanced around before heading into the narrow streets, choked full of Banu, Human, and Tevarin even as a dust storm brewed. Cal kept a good distance. Too good a distance. A couple times he almost lost Trunk in the mob so he got closer.
Finally, Trunk hopped down some stairs into the basement of a building. The aboveground section of the building was segmented into massive structures shaped like fins and sat on rotating platforms to keep it always turned into the wind. All of the windows on the first two floors were blacked out. It was tough to tell through the blasted sand but the place looked abandoned.
Cal waited a few moments before approaching the stairwell that Trunk disappeared into. When he finally peered down, the stairs led to a single door. Cal crept down the steps and pushed the door. Locked.
Cal looked around for another way in. About fifteen meters into the gap between the rotator plates and the upper building, he saw light escape some kind of ventilation or grill.
He squeezed into the gap and crawled toward the grate. The wind shifted direction. The mechanism’s sensors screeched to life and turned the building over him.
Cal slipped inside the cramped ventilation shaft. After pulling himself through the buildup of dust and dirt, he found another grate and dropped into an empty room. Cal quietly moved through the dark, abandoned halls. Something metal clattered in the distance. Voices echoed soon after. Cal made his way toward it.
Peering around a corner, the hall opened up to an old auditorium. Now it was some kind of lab. Arrays of computers and clear enclosures surrounded a massive piece of equipment hidden under a tarp. Cables plunged through a hole in the ground to tap into the settlement’s underground power network.
Trunk sat on a crate closest to Cal. Sasha studied some of the faded Banu banners rotting away on the wall. Mahony was elbow-deep in the guts of one of the machines taken from Yar.
Cal guessed he was wrong about Mahony being the Phoenix’s mechanic. Apparently, he was some kind of engineer… and kind of a lunatic. He mumbled to himself as he gently extracted a smooth metal canister. Whatever was inside was either very valuable or extremely dangerous.
“They just don’t get it. The threshold of a discovery that could change the face of humanity and what do they do? What do they do?! They kill it!” Mahony rambled as he carefully moved the canister to one of the enclosures. It was tough for Cal to tell but it looked like there were clumps of grassy dirt inside. “Do they care that men and woman have dedicated their lives to it? No. Just a pat on the back, a ‘don’t ever talk about it’ threat, and a boot out the door.”
Mahony attached some wires into the canister, still muttering to himself. Sasha slowly walked over to watch.
“It’s not right. These are lives. Those bureaucrats need to remember that.” Mahony sealed the enclosure. Sasha nodded blankly; she wasn’t going to get involved.
Mahony went to one of the consoles and wiped dust off the screen. He looked at the enclosure as he hit a button. The canister popped open for a nanosecond. Sasha watched intently. Nothing seemed to happen for a few seconds.
“I thought you-“ She started to say but Mahony cut her off. He was glancing between the enclosure and the console, bristling with giddy energy. Sasha turned back to the enclosure. Even at this distance Cal could see it too.
The grass and dirt were breaking down. In seconds, they were turned into a grey sludge. Then the real magic began, they started being reconstructed. By the end of the process, that tiny burst of whatever was in the canister reconstituted the grassy clumps exactly the same… except the grass was now violet.
“I told you it would work. Grandpa was right!” Mahony bounced around while Sasha leaned down to get a better look.
Mahony hustled over to the equipment in the middle of the room and yanked the tarp off. Cal’s heart sank.
From its shape, tail fins, and guidance sensors there could be no doubt.
It was a bomb.