Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Fugitive Pair - Chapter 41

My third novel, Scout's Duty, is out in ebook form! In celebration, the first two books in the Scout series--Scout's Honor and Scout's Oath--are on sale for 99 cents each.
< Chapter 40                                                                                                       Chapter 42 >
Matt hopes to bluff his way through the navy task force by faking an engine malfunction.

With a lurch, the Southern Star tore free from the magnetic grapnels holding it to Piscain Station. Alarms blared all around the pilot’s compartment as the ship’s systems noted how close we were to the space station.

Warning! Main engines thrusting in proximity to man-made structure!” The computerized voice was calm but insistent.

Alert! Manual control required!” proclaimed a similar digital voice.

“Alert! Engine malfunction! Ship’s system cannot override engine thrust! Pilot required!” a third electronic voice declared.

I kept a close eye on the sensors and our projected course as the ship pulled away from the space station. Our path looked clear for the next few minutes or so, giving us time to let our drama play out as if we hadn’t set it in motion ourselves.

“Aren’t you supposed to be piloting the ship?” Rob yelled over all of the alarms.

“Not yet,” I yelled back. “Pilots don’t spend a lot of time at the controls when a ship is docked and the engines are quiet. As long as it doesn’t veer toward anything, I’ll let the ship run uncontrolled for a while longer. That’s what would happen if this was a real emergency.”

“If you say so,” Rob responded. “Hey, Piscain Station is hailing us. What should I tell them?”

“Don’t respond yet. Communications officers don’t spend a lot of time at their station when the ship is docked, either.” I looked over at Michelle, who was watching her sensor screens intently. “Can you tell how much damage we did to the station before we pulled away?”

“I only have minimal information without running a sensor scan of the docking bay.” Before I could say anything, she added, “And I won’t do that because the weapons officer wouldn’t be at her station, either. According to passive scans, our docking bay is now open to space.”

“Don’t worry, hon, the airlock into the rest of level three was closed and sealed. That’s required during a decompression alarm, but I double-checked the airlock reading before engaging the engines.”

“More people are hailing us,” Rob called. “The two ships docked on either side of us want to know what the hell we thought we were doing and we’ve got a naval ship demanding an explanation, too. Do you want to talk to them, Matt?”

“No. The navy has my voice print. Michelle’s, too, so neither of us can talk to them. Can you act the part of a panicked crewman who was closest to the comm when everything went wrong?”

“What happens if I can’t convince them?” Rob asked.

“The best case is you, Matt, and all the other psychics get hauled back to Psi Corps and spend the rest of your lives slaving for them. Your father, Matt’s uncle, Zav, and I end up in prison for our parts in this whole fiasco.” Michelle turned a level gaze on Rob. “I’ll lose Matt forever. Cassie and the other kids will never have the family they desperately want. That sort of thing.”

“No pressure, then,” Rob said.

Turning back to the comm console, he opened all channels. “Um, this is the Southern Star. We’ve, uh, got a problem. Or something. I think.”

Four voices spoke at once, two of them sounding professionally calm and insistent while the other two alternated between fury and hysteria. After a few seconds, the naval officer bellowed, “Silence! This is an official naval matter now. The next civilian who speaks without my permission will have criminal charges filed against them!”

The other voices immediately fell silent and the officer continued, “This is Lieutenant Cooper, communications officer aboard the destroyer TFS Lancaster. Explain your ship’s actions, Southern Star.”

Rob took a few seconds to compose himself, then blurted, “I don’t know! We just took off I mean, you know, whoosh but things don’t whoosh in space but you know what I mean and a lot of people got thrown around and I think the comm officer got knocked out and I was the closest one to the comm and someone said answer the damn comm so I did and we’re still waiting for the pilot and I hope he’s okay because I don’t want to die. Are we all going to die?”

When Rob paused and drew a breath, Cooper interrupted the torrent of words pouring from Rob. “Calm down, son. There’s a whole navy task force out here who are going to make sure you and everyone on board that ship come out of this just fine.”

His lungs once again full, Rob grinned and let loose another unending sentence. “Are you sure because no one is driving the ship or steering or piloting or whatever you do and what if it just decides to turn around and go back to the station and we end up crashing into the station and we all die and a lot of people on the station die because if the engine just lights up on its own why wouldn’t the steering engines do the same thing or would that mean we’d spin around and around until the ship comes apart and we all die and pieces of the ship fly into the space station and wrecks some of the other ships or something like that?”

Cooper tried to stem Rob’s brilliant stream of consciousness run-on sentence but ended up waiting until Rob paused for another breath. “That’s not very likely, son, so just sit tight while the navy works out what to do. And you really need to get someone into the pilot’s seat before something else unfortunate happens!”

In a normal comm exchange where the lieutenant wasn’t trying to cram as many instructions as possible into Rob’s pauses for breath, Cooper would have had time to consider what he was saying. He almost certainly wouldn’t have even hinted that something ‘unfortunate’ might happen—especially not on an open channel.

A new voice came over the channel. “Piscain Station, this is the Mary Sue. We are making an emergency departure as a precautionary measure.”

Another voice chimed in, “This is Griffin. We are also performing an emergency departure.”

“For the safety of our passengers, Serene Firefly is disconnecting from Piscain Station.”

“This is freighter GCS-06. We are departing with our cargo which is vital to a newly established colony.”

Every time Lieutenant Cooper started speaking, another ship interrupted and announced their departure. By then, a dozen space traffic controllers on Piscain Station were arguing with all of the departing ships, struggling to establish some kind of order. They shouldn’t have wasted their breath. The navy had held too many ships at the station when they were searching for Michelle and me. Those same ships were taking the panicked response from ships docked close to the Southern Star and using it as an excuse to finally get on with their run. Staying docked was too expensive and trusting the navy to consider a ship captain’s bottom line and release them soon was simply too risky. Minutes after our hasty departure, Michelle reported over two hundred ships under way from the station.

Amidst all of the confusion, no one even noticed when Rob calmly announced the Southern Star’s pilot was flying the ship. He carefully added that the engines were still malfunctioning and the pilot was taking the ship away from Piscain Station for safety purposes. Twenty-two minutes later, our engines still burning at full thrust, the Southern Star entered wormhole delta and we were on our way to Ark’s Landing.

Will our heroes successfully reach Ark’s Landing? If so, will Ark’s Landing even want thirty or more psychics joining their colony? Find out in Chapter 42, coming Friday!