A Call To Arms – Snippet 20

“You think we should signal Salamander?” Travis suggested. “She’s in range to head over and see what’s going on.”

“She’s also got the same sensor suite we do,” Fornier reminded him. “Don’t worry — if there’s anything worth investigating, Fairburn’s already on it.”

“I hope so.”

In the background, the XO’s voice came on the intercom: Phoenix was now at full Readiness One.

“Meanwhile, we have a drill to run,” Fornier said. “Let’s get to it.”

* * *

“I assure you, Captain Lord Baron Fairburn, we have no need of assistance,” the voice of Izbica’s captain came over Salamander’s bridge speaker.

Captain Fairburn, Fairburn corrected him silently. Or Baron Fairburn. Or Lord Fairburn. Pick one and stick with it.

Maybe the man assumed Baron was Fairburn’s given name. Maybe he was just an idiot who didn’t bother to read up on the proper protocol for the places he was going to visit.

Fairburn was betting on the second option.

“One of our passengers has seen this before,” Shresthra continued. “He says it’s just a matter of taking the interface apart, cleaning it and checking all the connections, and reassembling it. A few hours, and we’ll be on our way again.”

“Very well, Captain Shresthra,” Fairburn said. “Again, we’re only a couple of hours away from you. Don’t hesitate to call if you decide you’d like us to look over your equipment.”

It would be another minute and a half before there was any response. But Fairburn wasn’t expecting anything except a polite farewell from the freighter. Shresthra apparently had everything under control, and the matter was closed.

And yet…

“Com, were you able to find that report?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir, I think so,” Chief Marulich replied from the com station, touching a key on her console. “Is this it?”

Fairburn peered at the report. It was a couple of weeks old, filed with System Command by Phoenix’s XO, Commander Vance Sladek. Someone aboard had come up with some scatterbrained idea about the Cascan mass-murderer being aboard Izbica. For some reason Sladek had thought it plausible enough to kick an enquiry back to Manticore. “That’s the one,” he confirmed. “Did you find any follow-up?”

“Not much of one,” Marulich said, peering at her display. “It looks like Customs checked Izbica’s backtrack and then compared her crew and one of her passengers to the image of the Haven murderer. No matches, so it was marked concluded.”

Which was all Customs could reasonably be expected to do, Fairburn knew, especially given the source of the suspicion. He’d heard his share of ship’s scuttlebutt over the years, and was surprised that the theory hadn’t included the Flying Dutchman among Izbica’s secret passengers. And without anything more solid, Customs certainly wouldn’t have called in their big brothers in MPARS to board the vessel.

On the other hand…

“How many passengers are there?” he asked.

“The personnel file lists three.”

“And Customs only checked one of them?”

“The other two never came down to the planet, so they were never scanned.”

Fairburn frowned. Izbica had been a full week in orbit, and he’d never seen a freighter crew yet where everyone wasn’t off the ship and on the ground as fast as they could physically get there.

Yet two of Izbica’s passengers had never left? “She came from Casca, right? Do we know if those two passengers left ship while she was there?”

“I can check, Sir,” Marulich said doubtfully. “But I doubt we have that information.”

“And Shresthra said it was one of the passengers who was working on the hyperdrive interface,” Commander Todd murmured from behind Fairburn.

“Meaning?” Fairburn asked.

“No idea, Sir,” the XO admitted. “It just seems odd that Shresthra would be letting a passenger into the guts of his ship.”

Fairburn ran a finger over his lower lip. Odd. Not threatening or suspicious, just odd. Certainly nothing Salamander had reason to look into.

Then again, there was also no reason why she couldn’t look into it.

“Helm, plot me a zero-zero intercept course to Izbica,” he ordered. “Make acceleration one point two KPS squared.”

He swiveled around and eyed his XO. “Let’s go be neighborly.”

* * *

“How much longer?” Shresthra asked, his hands opening and closing with barely-controlled impatience.

“Two minutes less than when you asked two minutes ago,” Grimm said as soothingly as he felt like being right now.

Which wasn’t very much. He understood Bettor’s need to continue compiling data and was fully prepared to drag out this interface project as long he needed to. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t starting to wish Shresthra wouldn’t keel over from a heart attack or something.

“You said it would take three hours,” Shresthra bit out. “It’s already taken four, and you’ve barely started.

“You did say it would only take three,” the engineer, Pickers, added.

“That was before I realized how filthy everything in here was,” Grimm countered, waving the board he was working on for emphasis. “I don’t think either of you appreciates just how much this amount of caked grime can affect the current flow. These things are extremely delicate –”

“Captain?” the voice of the helmsman, Nguema, boomed from the crawlspace intercom. “That Navy ship — the Salamander? — it’s heading our way.”

Grimm felt his stomach tighten. What the hell?

“What for?” Shresthra asked. “Damn it all — I told them we don’t need any help.”

“They know,” Nguema said. “They say they’re just running crew drills and might as well run them this direction.”

“Very convenient,” Grimm said, his mind racing. At all costs he had to keep that Navy ship out of here. If they came aboard, for any reason, they might take it into their pointy little heads to look into the cargo holds.

And with Bettor’s sampling equipment unpacked, assembled and sucking in data, that would be a disaster. The very fact that someone was running a secret experiment would be enough of an excuse for Captain Fairburn to commandeer the freighter and haul it back to Manticore for further study.

“Also potentially very pricey,” he added. “Some systems charge a fee for rescues, you know.”

“We don’t need a rescue,” Shresthra insisted.

“Of course we don’t,” Grimm said. “We’ll have this back together in no time.” But not before the Salamander arrived, he knew. Not unless the Izbica got off her rear and opened up a little more distance. “Best way to show them that would be to throw a few gravs on the fire and get moving. Sooner or later, they’ll get tired of chasing us.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nguema scoffed. “I’m not going to blow off energy for that.”

“They’re not going to charge anything anyway,” Pickers added. “The fee-for-rescue thing is a myth.”

“And there’s no point in getting any farther out than we already are,” Shresthra concluded. “Especially if we find out you can’t put that back together.” He jabbed a finger at the disassembled interface.

Grimm clenched his teeth. He hadn’t wanted to do this, certainly not here and now. But the very fact that the Salamander was heading in their direction showed that something had made the captain suspicious. And once the destroyer was alongside there would be nothing he could do except hope and pray that the Manticorans didn’t find Bettor’s precious instruments.

And Grimm had never been much for praying.

“We need to get moving,” he told Shresthra, keeping his voice low and calm. Merripen would be on the bridge, he knew, keeping track of things up there. “Please.”

The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Do we, now,” he said, matching Grimm’s volume. “Why exactly is that?”

“That’s not important,” Grimm said. “Just call Nguema and have him get us moving.”

“I see.” Shresthra took a deep breath. “Nguema?”


“Shut down the impellers,” Shresthra ordered. “I repeat: shut down the impellers. Then call the Salamander and request –”

“Merripen?” Grimm cut him off.

“I’m here,” Merripen’s voice came faintly from the intercom.

“Do it.”

Shresthra frowned at Grimm. “Do what –?”

He broke off at the soft, distant-sounding crack from the speaker.

“Nguema?” he called. “Nguema?”

“I’m sorry,” Grimm apologized. “But I did say please.”

And before the captain could do more than open his eyes wider in a disbelieving stare, Grimm drew his own gun and shot him. Pickers had just enough time for a surprisingly feminine squeak before Grimm shot him, too.

“Merripen?” he called again.

“Bridge is secure,” Merripen’s voice came back, as stolid and emotionless as always. “He didn’t get the wedge down. Want me to get us moving?”

“Immediately,” Grimm confirmed, slipping the half-cleaned board back into its slot in the interface. “Then go finish off the rest of the crew. I’ll send Bettor to the bridge to watch things while you do that.”