A Firm Grip

25.03.2268
Singularity Research Facility
Quarrelling Lovers asteroids
Momar system

The brilliant light swirl of capsule space ended as abruptly as it had begun, and the Redoubt found itself drifting silently in a dark region of space. The illumination from AC-24 was barely any brighter than the glow from the nearest blue-tinted nebulae or the brighter stars visible in the darkness of interstellar space. Hundreds of small objects drifted all around them, glittering in the faint starlight as they tumbled and spun. Several of these objects touched the hull of the Redoubt with a pattering of metallic clanks and scrapes. McMichael nudged the thrusters and accelerated away from the exit L-point toward the larger of the two dark asteroids that made up the Quarelling Lovers pair. He was busily scrolling through the contacts registry while Ravindran scanned for vessels.

Ferris watched his screens closely. "Position?" he asked McMichael.

"We are currently about one hundred and twenty a.u. from AC-24, Captain," replied the pilot. "We are as far away from a system primary as I've ever been, I think."

"So this is deep space. They sure picked a good hiding place for a secret base," said Skarsgaard.

"Contacts?" asked Ferris of both the gunner and pilot.

"There's almost too much clutter for the sensors to discern. It looks like there was quite a fight here recently," said McMichael. "We seem to be in the habit of arriving right after it hits the fan. This was a major battle scene not long ago. I'm detecting two debris fields, and we're sitting in the middle of the smaller one. The debris is definitely wreckage from ships. The larger concentration of wreckage is just around the horizon of the larger body," he pointed out the forward view port to the upper right quadrant, "there."

"Take us over there at a leisurely pace, Mac," ordered Ferris. "Chief, how are we doing on those repairs?"

"We should be back to one hundred percent in a few more minutes, sir," replied Skarsgaard. "I can't say the same for the marine pastie, though. They must have used some kind of grappling device to clamp onto us. The unit still isn't properly seated in the pastie bay, and the airlocks aren't anywhere near being mated or sealed. I've just sent someone over in a vac suit to deliver some medical supplies. I got word that they're in rough shape. I think they'll need to undock and then re-attach properly in order to get everything hooked up right."

"Tell them to proceed with that operation as soon as possible. Provide whatever technical or medical assistance we can," Ferris ordered. "Rav, are there any active ships out there? Or threats?"

"Working on it, Captain," Ravindran said. "It looks like a small number of vessels are still operational in the larger of the debris fields ahead, but.something out here is causing an enormous amount of interference. I don't think it's the debris that is interfering with scans. It must be."

"Something like that?!" McMichael exclaimed, looking out the view port.

They all watched the edge of the asteroid they were circumnavigating, as the scene revealed itself slowly, like a timid animal peering from behind a rock.

"So that's what a Singularity Research Facility looks like!" said McMichael. "That thing is huge! Now I understand the strange code sign they used in the distress signal. What was it.something-or-other lollipop? I didn't think the Navy had a sense of humour, but that's exactly what it looks like."

"No.more like an All-Night sucker, or a LunaPop." Skarsgaard corrected.

In fact, the SRF looked more like an enormous EAD or bio-bomber with a long station mast protruding from one end. The immense spheroid structure resembling a bio-bomber was actually a containment structure about three times the size of an EAD.  On closer inspection, the long, spindly-looking stem attached to one end was also immense. It was larger than most station structures, consisting of several power generation units, manufacturing and production facilities, laboratory sections and a few habitation modules all in a row. From a distance, though, the combined effect was indeed something that resembled a lollipop. As they approached, they could see that it was surrounded by a cloud of debris, some of it still flaring with explosions.

"Whatever happened here, occurred very recently," Ravindran reported. "It may still be in progress. I'm picking up three.no four vessels in that debris field ahead. The smaller debris field we just left is what's left of several gunstars and a few smaller vessels.likely PatComs. The composition of the larger field is similar, but there are more fragments from larger structures, like station modules. Comms are decidedly quiet. I'm shocked that we aren't seeing evidence of more survivors. Whoever did this must have methodically gone around destroying every escape pod and lifeboat there was."

The distance to the SRF bled away slowly, as they approached with caution. The level of destruction that had been visited on this facility became more and more apparent with every minute that passed. Entire stations that had housed security forces, scientists, technical and support staff were smashed and dark. Huge rents, broken docking spines, and darkened impact holes gaped along the lengths of every section. Shattered hulls of vessels, metal conduits, structural beams, and frozen bodies drifted around the SRF in a ghastly cloud. Dupuis appeared in the aisle beside Captain Ferris, transfixed by the destruction he was seeing out the forward view port. His jaw hung slackly, his eyes unblinking.

"Bastards," he said. At first, his voice was a hoarse whisper, but within seconds the hatred in his voice grew. "Bastards! What in God's name.?" He continued to stand and stare for a few moments before speaking again. "I have to find Corinna," he said as he hastily exited the bridge. The guards, having edged forward for a better view, were too absorbed in the spectacle to consider stopping him.

"Wait, Lieutenant." Ferris said, but the access hatch had already closed. Dupuis was gone.

"Get me IDs on those four ships over there," ordered Ferris, returning his attention to the situation. "Are they part of the group that did this, or are they survivors? And where the hell is the fleet that did this?"

"Captain," Ravindran's voice showed more tightness than she had wanted to reveal. "There is still a great deal of interference coming from that large structure, making it hard to get a proper IFF reading on those vessels. They look like tugs. One of them could be a corvette. I doubt they are responsible for the attack. From their speed and directions, it looks like they're searching the wreckage."

"They could be searching for survivors."

"Or for something of value to steal," Allbright added.

"What's clear is that they couldn't have done all this," Ravindran said, "not without some help. The entire LDS interruption field is gone, so I imagine the force that attacked this place could have retreated by LDS."

"Captain," said McMichael. "I've got a request here from Colonel Carr to hold speed and direction steady so the marine pastie can re-attach properly."

"Do it," said Ferris. "Any status reports available from them, yet?" he asked Skarsgaard.

"They're still struggling with repairs," replied the Skarsgaard, "It sounds like they lost several marines back at the mining rig.eight or nine dead from what I've been able to gather."

Hadley and Rinaldo had silently returned to the posts they had held on either side of the bridge access hatch. Until the SRF, they had watched the crew work their respective stations, and they had kept watchful eyes on Dupuis and Allbright in all their movements with the vigilance of dutiful soldiers. Now with the scene of destruction before them, and the news of fallen comrades a small crack appeared in their discipline.

"Who's left?" asked Hadley to no one in particular. "What names are listed as still active?"

Skarsgaard keyed up a screen and read the names. "Still active, we have Connover, Hadley, Minnes and Rinaldo. and Colonel Carr, of course," he said. "Oh, you're Hadley and Rinaldo aren't you? There are a few more listed in serious condition that are in need of treatment .let's see, there's Ames, Odendijk, Singh, and Wilkes all listed as inactive with medical problems."

Hadley and Rinaldo exchanged a look that Allbright understood too well when he witnessed it. He felt it too when he thought of Corporal Vecchio frozen and drifting amid the debris near the Miner's Lament: once-familiar faces, now gone forever. He remembered that feeling from the days after they cremated Burnsie, though he had a hard time conjuring a mental picture of his face nowadays.

At that moment, they felt the ship groan as the marine pastie broke free. They coasted in silence for an interminable few seconds before they felt the more familiar vibrations marking a text-book docking.

"The marine pastie is secured and the hatches are sealed," reported Skarsgaard. "The survivors are coming aboard now. The four injured are being transferred to our port pastie."

"Resume course and speed, Mac. I want to see if those ships are attackers, grave-robbers or rescuers."

"I've got IFFs now, Captain," Ravindran called out. "Those are Indie vessels ahead! So far I can identify the Bannockburn, and the Braveheart. It looks like they've seen us, too. They're changing vector and accelerating. It looks like they're going into LDS. That's it, the Braveheart and the Bannockburn are gone."

"Stand by to send an LDS interrupter into that debris field, then a volley of ."

The comm arm unfolded itself in front of Ferris as he spoke, announcing an incoming message. "Captain Ferris," said a voice from the small speaker. "This is Captain Yevgienyi Volochkov, of the Wolf-In-The-Fold. We have a habit of meeting under troublesome circumstances. I don't know how you did it, but congratulations on finding us so quickly! We have to talk."

Ferris was caught off guard by this. He felt a strange detachment come over him as if his head had been wrapped in gauze, and he was no longer seeing or hearing things clearly. He felt like he had been separated from his surroundings. He moved his hands slowly, as if in a dream over the console. He keyed open a channel to reply. "This is Captain William Ferris of the CNV 534 Redoubt. I have been instructed to demand your immediate surrender and to bring you and your crew into custody for immediate."

"We don't have time for that crap, Ferris," interrupted Volochkov. "You're so far behind current events, I don't know where to start, but we don't have time for any of that. We need help rescuing people from this mess. There are hardly any survivors here, but we just found a few trapped in a power generation unit control room. Get over here and help us out!"

"Did.didn't you attack them in the first place?" stumbled Ferris. "Why are you helping them?"

"Because they need help!" Volochkov retorted. "And because we want witnesses. We did not do this."

"Who did?" Ferris asked, regaining some of the colour in his face, and his composure. The dreamlike quality of the last several seconds was waning.

"Do you see the tug on your registry called the Acadian?" Ferris looked directly at Allbright, who returned the look with raised eyebrows and a shrug of the shoulders. They both looked at the display in front of them, which showed the positions of vessels in the debris field. There it was, the Acadian, now clearly listed on the contacts registry. They could see it now as it hovered near one of the damaged areas of the main power generation units on the SRF station's spine. "They're at the nearest docking port to the group of survivors in that section, but they can't get close enough without getting caught in that high voltage arc you're seeing between generator units. Their ship isn't shielded to handle it. It would fry too many of their systems. But these corvettes are better shielded. They could handle it if we worked together, one on either side of them."

"Yes, together we could do it, but .how do I know you aren't."

"For chrissake, we don't have time for this, OK? Sure, it's hard to know who to believe; we've both been accused of treason; we both know it's a pack of lies, and blah, blah, blah. If we're going to get those people out of there alive, we need to trust each other for a few minutes and do this now. We have no idea how stable those power generators are. We do know that they are damaged, and barely jury-rigged by those survivors to keep going. If they fail, the containment fails. If the containment fails."

"What if the containment fails?" Ferris prompted.

"I'm not exactly sure, but. I doubt that any of us will be able to run away fast enough."

Ferris hesitated as he tried to weigh information. "All right, we'll do it."

"Just cover the Acadian's backside and we'll take a position off her bow. Expect a few heavy jolts while they pull out the survivors. We'll wait until the tug is clear and then break free simultaneously. Agreed?"

"Agreed," said Ferris. The comm arm swung away again. "Mac, take us to where he indicated and hold station until that tug is safely away from the structure."

"Captain," Skarsgaard ventured. "Are you just going to believe them? Those spies are the reason we are out here in the first place. They've betrayed the Commonwealth, and."

"Just like we've betrayed the Commonwealth, Mr. Skarsgaard?" asked Ferris. "We've been called rogues and traitors by the same people.your people, Mr. Skarsgaard. Frankly, I'm not inclined to believe the Navy brass anymore. My orders to you are to proceed with the rescue of survivors, as suggested by Captain Volochkov. That is who we are. You just keep this ship working," he turned to look at Mac in the overhead mirror. "Mac, take us in."

The Redoubt glided toward the point designated by Volochkov, deftly dipping the weapons pylons and angling to dodge the larger chunks of spinning debris as it coasted in silence. McMichael tried not to think about the fact that they were working in collaboration with ship that was their mission objective and target. So many lines had blurred in the last couple of days, it was dizzying. Not only that, but they were about to place themselves in the stream of some very powerful energy discharges, in order to help rescue survivors that no one on board was certain even existed. They closed the distance to the generator units quickly seeing even more evidence of the recent attack. The damage was so great that McMichael truly doubted anyone could still be alive inside that power plant. He positioned the Redoubt as instructed, and watched the Acadian move closer to dock with the remains of the station module. Allbright walked closer to the pilot's station at the front of the bridge in order to see his former ship more clearly out the view port. McMichael saw emotion work its way across the new Assistant Chief's face, but he couldn't be certain if it was regret, anger, or pride. It occurred to him that it might be all three.

The Puffin-class tug docked securely onto the dying station module just as the first power discharge struck the Redoubt. Displays quivered to static for a few moments, but the shielding held. "You realize that if one of those discharges fries our CPU, we're dead," McMichael reminded them all.

"Believe me, I realize that all too clearly," Skarsgaard replied. "I don't like being here any more than you do."

Another discharge hit the corvette, this time creating a fluctuation in the gravitational fields. They all felt the viscera-tingling sensation of weightlessness for a moment.

"If you aren't buckled in, get buckled in," Ferris ordered. Allbright made his way to the rumble seat and strapped himself in securely, looking over at the empty seat on the other side of the hatch that had held Dupuis. "Hadley and Rinaldo, I'd suggest, for your own safety, that you leave the bridge. I'm sure you could be more helpful back at your pastie."

"Sorry, sir," replied Hadley. "We can't do that until we're relieved or ordered to leave our posts."

"Suit yourselves."

"It looks like the Acadian is leaving already. Stand by to get the hell away from this place on my mark."

 "Acadian has cleared the area and is moving off quickly," said Ferris. "The Wolf-In-The-Fold says to hit full burn in.three, two, one. Mark!"

Engines roared to life pushing the two corvettes away from the power generation modules in a graceful manoeuvre of formation flying. Both vessels halted well clear of SRF and positioned themselves to face one another only a few hundred metres apart. McMichael watched the colourful Wolf-In-The-Fold out the forward view port, silhouetted by flashes and flares of the dying SRF in the background. He felt a little envious of their handsomely painted vessel. Ferris keyed open a comm channel to the Navy spy ship painted in the brilliant Indie colours of the Crack-In-The-World fleet. The comm arm unfolded quickly indicating a successful connection.

"Captain Volochkov, my compliments on a job well done. How many personnel were saved?"

"Seven."

"Only seven?! How many in total, from this entire facility?"

"Seven"

"But, there must have been three or four thousand people working here, at least." Ferris said, disbelief in his voice.

"Try six and a half thousand." Volochkov replied. ".and we only found seven people alive."

"My God. How could.ah, is there anyone amongst the survivors named Corinna?"

"I don't know names, but we got seven healthy male engineering staff out of there."

"I see," replied Ferris. "Normally I'd insist you release the survivors to us, but under the circumstances."

"I'm glad you see it that way. They'll be very well treated, debriefed and eventually released. MacDuff has plans for them to hopefully sway another member or two of the Indie council to his way of thinking, but ultimately they'll be sent home in a very public fanfare of Indie magnanimity."

"This place's secret is lost forever then, isn't it?"

"Possibly. Too many people know about it, but it doesn't really matter now. Those bastards with the stealth ships got what they wanted. There won't be any Commonwealth Navy stealth prototypes for a long time."

"What in the hell happened here?" asked Ferris.

"There's another faction involved in this war, Captain Ferris. They've been working in the shadows for some time, but they have strong connections with some highly placed people in the Navy. Occasionally they'll."

The airlock at the rear of the bridge hissed open. Colonel Carr stepped over the lip of the entrance and walked onto the bridge, nodding at the marine guards flanking the hatch as they snapped to attention. He was accompanied by Connover. McMichael saw him first in the overhead mirror, and activated his comm channel to Ferris.

"It's the Barber," he said softly. Ferris pressed the 'signal interrupt, please hold' button, breaking contact with Volochkov temporarily.

Colonel Carr appeared beside the CMD workstation on the port aisle and clasped his hands behind his back. He was quiet for a moment, as he looked around the bridge. "Captain," he began, "it seems I owe you a debt of gratitude and an apology. If it hadn't been." His gazed focused on the forward view port. He leaned forward a little to look more closely. "Is that what I think it is?" he asked, looking squarely at the corvette holding station directly in front of them. He looked over at Ravindran's display and saw the identification of the vessel facing them. "Captain, why wasn't I informed that we had encountered the enemy.and why aren't we firing on them?"

"Because we were too busy rescuing survivors, and now we're talking with the Wolf-In-The-Fold. You were about to thank me?"

"Captain, our mission is to bring that ship down. Yet here we sit within striking distance, and you are talking with them?" He un-holstered his sidearm and held it menacingly at his side. "I gave you the benefit of the doubt when they accused you of treason, and now I find you talking with the enemy? I'm ordering you to disable or destroy that vessel immediately, or so help me God, I will execute you where you sit and complete the mission myself." The marines came to combat readiness in an instant, with a rattle of armour, and clicking of weaponry. Rifles were suddenly trained on bridge crew.

Ferris felt the muzzle of Carr's service pistol aimed directly at the side of his head. He spread his fingers and raised his hands slightly off the control console, and glanced at the rear view mirror above the pilot. McMichael was watching him closely. Ferris knit his brow in an effort to communicate something, but McMichael couldn't read more into the look than the supplication to do something.

"Colonel, I'm in the middle of trying to find out what has been going on," said Ferris. "I'd really like to."

"Don't waste any more time, Ferris," Carr hissed acidly. "I have a mission to complete." He cocked the hammer and held the service pistol closer to Ferris' head. This tableau was interrupted by a squawk of static from Carr's comm unit. He raised his left arm to reply without moving the weapon from Ferris' head. "Carr here, what is it?"

"Colonel, this is Minnes," said the voice from the comm unit. "I require assistance in the assault unit. I have detained Lieutenant Dupuis here, and am holding him in custody until someone can come and get him."

"What do you mean you've detained Lieutenant Dupuis?" Carr asked.

"I'm not sure how he got aboard," replied Minnes, "but somehow in the transfer of the wounded, and the repair help we were getting from the crew, he got on board our pastie. I caught him trying to steal it. He locked himself into the flight control deck. I was able to disable the controls, but I can't get him to come out. I have him under my surveillance. The unit is now secure and empty except for us. He seems harmless enough, but he's lost it, sir. He's pretty confused, and he's incoherent. He keeps talking about Corinna."

"Ferris, is this another one of your tricks?" Carr asked, tightening his grip on the sidearm.

"No, Colonel, it is not," Ferris sighed. "I'm not up to any tricks. I would appreciate it if you removed that weapon from my face, though. It is getting in the way of me doing my job."

"And just what is your job, Captain?" asked Carr. "To cause as much damage as possible to our war effort? Our research? The infrastructure?"

"You've got it all wrong, Colonel, and if you'd just give me a moment to."

"Colonel," Skarsgaard interrupted. He stood up slowly from the ENG workstation with his hands splayed and in full view. "I've been on this ship as long as you have, so you know I'm not part of whatever conspiracy Ferris and his crew are involved in. But I do sort of know Lieutenant Dupuis. He and I share accommodations and we've gotten to be friends. I know I can talk sense into him, and get him out of that control room. If you'll let me leave, I'll go get him from your pastie and lock him up safely in his room for you." He looked around the bridge at the marines positioned near the aft hatch in combat ready stances, weapons trained on the crew. "You're a little short staffed, and it looks like you've got your hands full here."

"Sir," the voice of Minnes could be heard faintly from Carr's cuff again. "What is the situation on the bridge? I'm reading active weapons status on all four of you, from this monitor. Please advise."

Carr raised the link to speak into it again without letting his eyes or aim waver from Ferris. "The situation is under control for the moment. We have secured the bridge. The Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Skarsgaard, will be coming to remove your package and escort him away. Connover will be with him. Stay alert, watch that package carefully, and report back when the assault pastie is free of visitors. Out." He nodded to Connover and said, "Take Mr. Skarsgaard, here, down to fetch Dupuis. Lock them both into their rooms, and stay with the pastie. Wait there for my orders."

"Sir!" replied the soldier. He waved his gun from Skarsgaard to the hatch, urging the Chief to make a quick exit. Skarsgaard held his hands in front of him carefully. The bridge was silent for a moment after the hatch closed behind Connover and Skarsgaard.

"Colonel," Ferris said. "I'm trying to prevent more pointless bloodshed here, so I am not firing on anybody until I have more information, and I suggest you do the same. I'd like to communicate with the Captain of that ship out there. I'm guessing you haven't already fired because you either have some doubts yourself, or you're aware of how badly outnumbered you are if you intend to operate this ship after a hostile takeover."

"Captain Ferris, you have been nothing but a royal pain since the start. I have no doubts whatsoever, I assure you, and I don't need any help to operate the ship. I just need to secure it and wait for help to arrive. Besides, I'm sure Skarsgaard will assist if he figures it will get him out of lockup." Carr held the muzzle of the sidearm to Ferris' temple. "Now engage that enemy vessel or I'll redecorate this bridge," he grinned widely. "And I don't mean with mirrors and fuzzy dice."

"Uh.in case anyone's interested," McMichael broke in reluctantly. "The Wolf-In-The-Fold is leaving. It's moving off slowly in the direction of the Acadian over by that wreckage."

"That's not all." Ravindran added. "There is another ship coming this way. They're still in LDS, and I can't read any IFFs yet, but there is at least one vessel inbound. If you don't believe me, Colonel, look for yourself."

Carr turned to look at Ravindran's display, and leaned in a little closer to try to make out the ship types and vector trails. Indeed, there it was: a corvette sized ship rushing toward them. As he watched more contacts appeared in the distance, also making their way toward the SRF. The muzzle of the gun never left Ferris' temple, and the Captain was fairly certain that any movement would be fatal. But that brief distraction by Ravindran was the opportunity Ferris needed. He had been holding his hands somewhat raised, near his chest. He made sure McMichael was looking when he wiggled his fingers gently and raised them slowly. He then pointed directly at the five point harness buckle at his sternum, then balled his left hand into a fist and moved it forward slightly in what looked like a small punch. McMichael caught it all, and winked as he started quietly touching command keys with as little apparent limb movement as possible. Sitting furthest forward on the bridge afforded him the most cover from the gaze of the marines and their Colonel.

The entire exchange took place in the span of a few heartbeats. Carr quickly glanced around the bridge but saw nothing untoward. He resumed his vigil on Captain Ferris. "Captain: order your gunner to launch the remaining REM missile, and then vacate that seat. I'll pilot it into those Indies myself, which should fix our spy problem once and for all."

He had only just finished the sentence when they felt the familiar vibration of the marine pastie undocking from the corvette. With a surprised look, the Colonel quickly raised his link and activated a channel to the pastie. "Minnes, what the hell is going on? Why have you undocked? .Minnes? .Come in Marine Assault unit! Dammit who's flying my module?"

Ferris nodded slightly to McMichael. The pilot took his cue and touched three controls before saying, "Colonel there is one thing we'd all like to know before this turns ugly: Why do they call you the Barber?"

"What the hell is." Carr turned to face McMichael, but he could already feel the sensation of falling. The absence of gravity was nothing new to combat hardened space marines, and Carr even felt a sense of amusement that the crew would try to gain some advantage by killing the gravity plates. But that amusement drained away as quickly as the blood from his face when he realized what it meant if the inertial dampening effects had been nullified, too. The realization hit him at the same time the acceleration from a full thrust burn drove him against the rear bulkhead of the bridge with the force of a fall from fifteen metres. He felt his right arm break at least once, and his ribcage burned with pain, too as he was held against the surface with an increasingly punishing weight. He passed out with one thought breaking through the agony: That's twice, Ferris...

McMichael, straining against the force of the thrust, looked up at the mirror to see the results of his handiwork. The Colonel was held against the aft bulkhead with his shoulder and twisted arm on the headrest of the empty rumble seat where Dupuis had been. The two marines, weapons strewn against the bulkhead, were similarly pinned in an uncomfortable pile directly on top of the hatch. Allbright was intact and conscious, but looked mad as hell. A marine assault rifle had slammed against the wall centimetres from his head. McMichael touched a button cycling the hatch and let his arm fall back against the rest, exhausted. The unconscious marines tumbled through the opening into the short corridor aft of the hatch clearing hands and feet safely before it sealed again. McMichael locked the hatch and activated the gravity fields again, watching Carr's unconscious body slide slowly back down on the deck. He toggled the automatic flight assist mode on to allow the Redoubt to bring herself to a controlled relative stop, and cut the main thrust to zero. . The braking thrusters fired briefly shedding velocity, but they stopped just as suddenly after only a few seconds of braking. The Redoubt continued drifting forward at a considerable velocity.

"Good work, Mac. That'll show the Barber the importance of a firm grip.but, um.why aren't we braking?" said Ferris.

"We just lost all drive power and several other control systems. Comms are out too. Strange.only selected systems seem to have been affected. I don't know why." McMichael answered.

"Well find out why and bring us to a halt, please," ordered Ferris as he turned to look behind him. "Allbright! You still with us back there?"

"Still here, no thanks to your pilot, though," said Allbright.

"You really need to learn to be more grateful. Mac just saved our necks. Now, get up here and take the ENG station. It looks like we're without drive power of any kind. I need you to find out what the hell happened and fix it."

Ferris turned to his gunner and made sure she was uninjured before he gave her orders. "Rav, while they're working, I want you to grab the Colonel and put him on the other side of the aft hatch. Give them all a dose of painkiller from the emergency medkit by the door to the head. Handcuff them or tie them all up, somehow. Get all their weapons and comms and bring them back in here. Seal that hatch again when you're done. I don't want to hear from any of them again, until we're out of this."

"Allbright, where's our power? This is a very bad time to be adrift!"

Allbright shook his head in reply, focused on finding the problem to the Redoubt's loss of drives. In the span of nine seconds, they had regained control of the bridge, and lost it again. McMichael's hands flew over controls as he struggled in vain to regain control at the helm. He looked out the forward view port and watched the enormous shape of the containment structure loom larger and larger as they drifted directly toward it.

 

________________________

 

 

"Yves, this is your lucky day!" Skarsgaard said cheerfully. He operated the flight controls of the marine pastie as they accelerated away from the Redoubt and moved toward the incoming vessels. He might have said something else before that, but Dupuis hadn't really heard much of what was being said. Dupuis sat in the co-pilot seat of the marine pastie, hands taped to his sides, with a look of shocked horror on his face. Skarsgaard was in the pilot's seat next to him, his hideously flushed skin made even more macabre with the coating of spattered blood that was now drying there, as well as on his hair and uniform. Minnes' feet could still be seen behind them just beyond the opening to the control room, as well as the pool of blood that had spread from where he had fallen in the Engineering control area. Apparently Connover's body lay in a similar state not far beyond that.

"I tell you, this couldn't have worked out better if you and I had been a team all along! Except I wouldn't have had to tape you to that chair if we were a team." The visible man reached out and tested the tape holding Dupuis to the chair, then slapped Dupuis in a chummy fashion on the shoulder before resuming his grip on the controls. "I've got to hand it to you, that was the best excuse imaginable to get off the bridge and down here."

"I.I don't understand," Dupuis said. "You just walked up and killed those marines, just like that."

"An unpleasant aspect of my work," said Skarsgaard frowning, "but a necessary one."

"But you were smiling at them. You were talking to them so normally, even friendly." Dupuis was still in shock.

"All part of the slight-of-hand aspects of assassination.ah hell," he chuckled, "You got me there. I actually really did enjoy shooting them I have to admit it. There's nothing like getting in under a seasoned killer's guard and putting him down with one to the base of the skull." He seemed jubilant and full of energy after the recent killings. "Oh damn! Before I forget, I'd better shut down the Redoubt. Look at her go on full burn there. Jesus, I wonder where they're going like that? We don't want them coming and chasing us now, do we?" He tapped a few more controls and flipped a switch. "There, that should keep them quiet for awhile. Now where was I? Oh yeah. Now two of them together is another matter. You have to get real close to one of them, and then distract them both somehow. It was just too perfect, having you locked up in here," he chuckled again. "I just nodded at the door and asked them what they'd tried so far. They both turned their heads like a couple of greenies. It was almost too easy: aim, squeeze, aim, squeeze. Thuk! Thuk! Before you know it, you got a couple of sacks of steroid-enhanced meat and just you and me, my friend. You didn't really think you could keep an engineer on the other side of a locked door, did you?"

"I.uh. No, not really," stammered Dupuis.

"Well, I'm grateful you opened up voluntarily. It saved precious time. I didn't want to have to get all suited up, vent the atmosphere, watch you die of explosive decompression, and all that. It would've been even messier than Connover's head all over the place. You did the right thing."

"Where did you get that gun?"

"Oh this?" he held up the silenced sidearm. "I stashed these things all over the place when I was 'doing repairs'. It wasn't hard to pause at the right location and distract Connover for a second. I just reached up, grabbed it, and palmed it. In my line of work, that's called Prepping the Landscape."

"What exactly is your line of work anyway?"

"I'm kind of a Jack-Of-All-Trades, except in my case, I'm a master of most of them, especially the more unsavoury trades" he chuckled at his own joke. "I'm Wexler's dirty work handy man. He's the kind of guy that always, and I mean always, has a 'Plan B' for everything he does. I'm usually his Plan B, C and D. He and I have an understanding. I understand that I am expendable, and he understands that I always get the job done and survive, because I have my own Plan Bs, Cs, Ds, and Es. In other words, he gives me the list of priorities, and then he turns me loose, knowing full well what my strengths and survival skills are. He pays me extremely well to take the risks I do."

"But hasn't Wexler been trying to kill us this whole time? I mean, the whole ship has been targeted, including you, hasn't it?"

"Well, not the whole time, but yes. Almost. Believe me, I'll extract a hefty bonus out of him for trying to kill me so thoroughly along with you. But to be honest, I kind of expected it. Plan A didn't really have much chance of success. I think he just had to switch to Plan B fairly quickly, so I just went along with it."

"Didn't it occur to you that, like the rest of us, he was really just trying to get rid of you too, maybe because of the damage we all might do to him someday with what we know?"

Skarsgaard looked at Dupuis with an expression of delight. "You are a good analyst, aren't you? I'm impressed. Yes, that's a very good possibility. Like I said, this is your lucky day!"

"Why? Aren't you going to kill me?"

"Kill you?" Skarsgaard looked shocked, almost hurt at the notion. "Of course not. I owe you one for giving me such a perfect opportunity to get away. I also think you might still be useful to me. Hell I even like you. But more importantly, Vice Admiral Wexler likes you. He seems to think that there may be some use for you in his organization." Skarsgaard's attention was drawn to the challenges of piloting as they dodged more debris. The drive cut out then back in again, then died completely. He was trying but failing to hail the incoming ships, and all he was getting out of comms was static. "This pastie is definitely in need of some repair work." He looked at Dupuis with a new expression on his gore-covered face. "Do you like irony? It's one of my favourites. Here I am, just finished killing the Redoubt with a flip of the switch, and now I'm as dead-in-the-water as they are. As much as I like you, I have to concentrate on other things now, so I'm going to have to knock you out." With that he swung the butt of his silenced sidearm up and struck Dupuis on the side of the head.

Dupuis' head flared with pain and his view swam dizzily for a moment before his world lurched sideways and he fell off the chair onto the deck beside it. Somewhere in the blurring of thoughts before he was lost in blackness, he realized that the tape that had been binding to the chair him tore when he fell.

 

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