See disclaimer in Part One
Whatever the Morgan's emergency was, it didn't seem to set off any alarms among the Nightingale's crew. Vansen suspected that anything of too dangerous a nature would have put a hospital ship on alert, expecting numerous casualties.
Once the Morgan disappeared, things settled down outside. They let the waitress talk them into dessert, then found themselves at a loss for anything to do for the rest of the day. They left the cafeteria and found the corridor they had taken down here blocked by a gaggle of schoolkids -- Ganelon colonists up here to get their yearly physicals. Rather than try to cut through the mob of unruly eight year olds, they took a side corridor and looked for a lift back to their deck. They found a small service lift that no one was using and punched the "up" button.
Passenger lifts rode a lot smoother than this thing, it climbed the shaft in a series of fits, jolts and starts. Vansen easily kept her balance under the sudden changes in g-forces, but McQueen's ear implant started giving him trouble immediately. She saw him grab at the rail to steady himself, missed by a fraction and ran into the side of the elevator. The rail caught him in the side. He swore imaginatively and grabbed at his incision. Vansen put her hand on his arm, lightly -- there if he needed her, but not insulting him by pushing help he didn't want. He wasn't dumb enough to fall on his ass, she was a reference point that helped him get his balance until he could get hold of the rail. The lift made final sudden lurch and then stopped, letting them out on the proper deck.
Once they got into the corridor, they realized how the ship was laid out and where their quarters had to be located. It was a long walk back to their section, McQueen showed few signs of distress but Vansen knew him well enough by now to know he was hurting and tired. "Would you rather get some rest this afternoon, or we could see if they have any good movies? They probably get the new stuff here before we do."
"Yeah, they probably do at that!" He opened his hatch and kicked up his feet in the reclining chair. Vansen found a perch on the sofa as he scrounged for the remote control and flipped through the channels. It would be half an hour before the new movies started, he left it on a music channel until then.
"Are you okay?" Vansen asked.
"Yeah, I think so. You know how it is, if you've got something that hurts, if you whack yourself it's going to be there! Damn staples come out tomorrow."
Shane heard the edge in his voice, she'd heard it often enough the last few days in the echo of her own. "Is this something you want to talk about?"
"If I can."
"I -- there's some things they did to me I haven't found the words for yet. I want to talk about it, get it out in the open where I can make it start going away. But I just can't...now. Is it something like that?"
He nodded. "Right on the first guess. See, what happened is, this is what they did to me the first time I was their prisoner. The one nightmare I couldn't shake all these years was that Elroy's hands--" He turned away for a few seconds, Vansen could see the muscle clench in his jaw as he got himself under control. "They used electrical shocks in there. It hurt like hell. I could not believe anything could hurt like that. But the worst thing was -- in between the shocks -- I could feel his hands moving around in there. After a while -- I didn't want the shocks to stop. But they always did and he was still --" His voice choked off again.
Vansen knew in his place she would have been screaming by now. But now that the dam had broken, she knew he had to tell it. She came over by his chair and took his hands tightly in hers. "I'm here."
"I guess I took about four hours of it back then before they got everything I could tell them. They patched me up and hauled me back to my cell. And that was when I got the chance to kill the guard and get his keys. This time, they recognized me right away so they knew exactly what to go for. Sometimes I didn't know where I was, I got it in my head all the years in between -- everything that had happened -- was just a hallucination. That all that time I'd been lying there dissected like a frog. My God, Shane, there were times the only thing that kept me in this world was...was hearing you yell. Then I knew where I was for a while. When I couldn't hear you anymore I almost lost it again."
"You didn't," Shane said.
"Not this time. It cost me everything I had, but no, not this time."
"TC...listen to me...you beat the fear. They can hurt you, yeah. But they cannot ever use that particular hell to _terrorize_ you again -- because you already beat it once and you know you can do it again."
"I'm still scared sick. I have to get the staples out tomorrow and the idea of it scares the living hell out of me."
She nodded. "I know. God, I know. But you'll do it anyway, to hell with being scared sick. The first couple will be sheer hell. After that you'll realize the nurse is not going to hurt you, not on purpose anyway, and then you won't be afraid any more. Ever. I know, because no one can ever terrorize me again by threatening to throw acid on me. We've already been through the worst it can get and we survived."
McQueen pulled one hand free to put his arm around her shoulders for a moment. "You're right, Shane. I'm glad you were here to listen. It really helps."
She smiled. "At least you didn't punch me in the arm."
He laughed. "That was a pretty good one. Real solid, you got your weight into it--"
She found herself laughing as well. After a time, she went back to the couch and stretched out. They watched a couple of movies, slept through most of the second one. Vansen thought about the boyfriends she'd had, there wasn't a one of them she could have spent a lazy afternoon with that wouldn't have ended up in the sack. And she wouldn't have been this comfortable with any of them, either. She wanted a lifetime full of times like this. She thought about Nathan and Kylen, and how quickly fate could turn dreams upside down. Nothing was ever guaranteed.
But what did that matter? Life had to be lived in the present. If tomorrow brought disaster, today was still worth the price of the ticket. Nathan and Kylen had had almost twelve years, from a high-school romance all through training for the Tellus colony. Surely, no matter how terrible the pain now, all the joys of those years had been more than worthwhile! She said a little prayer for both Nathan, and Kylen, whom she had never met but felt as though she knew, and then closed her eyes again.
Vansen was awakened by a "coming attractions" commercial at the end of the movie, she blinked and sat up. McQueen was doing something with his pocket computer, she could see the modem lights working on the desk terminal so she knew he was on-line. He looked up. "I ordered pizza."
"Terrific, I'm hungry." She got up, a little surprised to find that she was feeling better. She reached for the ceiling in a joint-popping stretch. "What I need is a good run."
She made a face. "No can do until the gelskins come off. Maybe he'll take 'em off tomorrow. What are you doing?"
"Trying to find out what the hell's so important about that recognition code the AI's kept wanting. A lot of that stuff from the AI war has been declassified now, and a file clerk on the JFK owes me some favors. The AI's have the query, they want the answering half of the code. I'm trying to find it, but I'm not having much success. There's no evidence that the records have been altered, it looks more like it was never a military code at all."
"Then why the hell would they think you'd have it? I don't like this, especially if they're going to be sending spies to try to bust into your quarters to get it." Shane perched on the arm of his chair. "I doubt they'll quit!"
McQueen said, "I know they won't quit. Whatever they want, it must be fairly important for them to put their mole at risk over it."
Vansen scowled at the data list. "If it wasn't a military code -- who else would be using military class recognition codes?"
"Aerotech," he replied immediately. "Has to be. They developed the computer security system we use. They probably use the same system themselves, that's why the codes are so similar."
"Then we're screwed, there's no way we're going to get that information out of Aerotech. I wish 'Phousse was here. Unless your file clerk friend--?"
"Can't hurt to ask. After all, what could be so secure about stuff that's been in archives for fifteen years now?" He switched over to his comm program and paged his friend to set up a meeting. Then he inquired about shuttles to the JFK and reserved them seats on the next one.
The pizza came, Vansen broke out a couple of cold beers while he was getting it. Suddenly she put two and two together so fast she almost dropped the beer. As soon as the hatch closed, she said, "I think I've got it figured out! What's the connection between you, the AI's and Aerotech!"
He thought about it for just a moment before coming up with the same answer she did. "The research station. But it was destroyed."
"You saw that?"
"No, I was in sickbay for a month. No gelskins back then, remember? But I saw the mission report."
Shane scowled, "What do you want to bet Aerotech gutted the station of anything important before it was destroyed? Hell, what got blown up might have been an empty hull for all we know!"
"So the AI's know it's out there, but they don't have the access code they need to bring it operational."
"Colonel, what have we got ourselves into here?" Vansen knew she sounded scared and didn't care. Chigs she could fight. People who sat behind desks in darkened rooms and moved other people around like pieces on a chessboard were something else again.
McQueen's answer wasn't very comforting. "Something that could get us disappeared if we aren't very careful. I doubt Aerotech would take very kindly to a couple of Marines blowing the lid off a fifteen year old scandal for them."
"Yeah...but Aerotech knows denying the AI's the ability to reproduce themselves is the only way to keep them in check! If they deliberately preserved that facility -- that isn't a scandal, that's treason!"
"Very likely the courts might see it that way, Shane. All the more reason for whoever's responsible to shut us up."
"Yeah....and the Morgan scrambled out of here this afternoon...."
McQueen opened the pizza box and popped the top of one of the beers. "All we have right now is a lot of speculation. For the moment let's stick with tracking down that code and see where it takes us."
A little less than an hour later, they joined a group of about twenty people waiting on the flight deck for the shuttle to the JFK. The shuttles docked with a number of the orbiting vessels as well as landing in the colony below, they were civilian craft but many of the passengers were military personnel on leave. People assigned to the JFK and her attending craft could visit a neighboring ship with nothing more than a twelve-hour pass, and spend longer leaves down in the colony. The shuttle pilots were a kid who looked about sixteen and a man in his fifties who had only one arm. The kid had a blue tint to her pale blonde hair, that was a harmless effect of living in the Ganelon ecosystem for an extended period. She was still too young to get in the military, but with the shortage of pilots she was old enough to fly a shuttle. The man was probably a veteran, Vansen noticed some military habits as he gave the shuttle the walkaround. She asked conversationally, "What unit were you with?"
"Eighty-third -- the Starhawks, off the Roosevelt."
McQueen commented, "You folks saw some hot action against the Belt Pirates a few years ago, didn't you?"
He grinned. "Sure did. That's where this happened, so I got benched before this one came along. I took a hit that started a fire in my pit, got it put out before all my air went but -- you know how that is. Even so, I wish I was your age again -- I'd like to get the old unit back together for one more mission, get our licks in and teach the chigs the same lesson we taught a few of them pirates." He paused. "McQueen, huh? You were with the Angry Angels back then, weren't you? Seems like we got in a bar fight once on the Titan colony."
McQueen winced. "Was that you guys? Who the hell threw that table?"
"Shit, I don't know, I thought it was you guys."
"It wasn't us! It must have been those asteroid miners!"
The girl looked bored. "Grandpa, we're going to miss our window if we don't get goin'."
"Kids!" He said, the sparkle in his eyes giving the lie to his curmudgeonly growl. "All right, all aboard!"
They boarded the shuttle, the pilots made sure a civilian woman and her couple of kids were belted in securely, the military people already knew the routine. In crowded traffic like this, sometimes you had to make an unexpected maneuver to avoid another craft. No one wanted a passenger suddenly going airborne across the cabin!
There were already some other people on board. They made a couple of other stops, picked up a half-dozen people from an independent trader big enough to have a small flight deck and a couple shuttles of her own, then lost half their passengers and took on as many new ones from the pleasure ship Dixie's Palace. Then they docked aboard the JFK.
Security was even tighter on the JFK's flight deck than it was aboard the Saratoga, there was a strict ID check on everyone who wanted to come aboard. McQueen's friend was waiting just on the other side of the checkpoint, after quick introductions he led the way to the officers' club. His name was Jim Avery, he looked a few years older than McQueen although he was still a lieutenant colonel. He had a quick grin and a look of hawklike intelligence in gray eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses. "File clerk" was a misnomer, and probably something of an in joke between Avery and McQueen -- Vansen knew an officer of Avery's rank probably headed up a records unit. He explained to Vansen that several years ago, he had been falsely accused of involvement with the black market, McQueen had proved his innocence and saved him from a prison term. He got to the point. "What is it, Ty? You'd be a hell of a long way out of your way for a social call."
"We were in the neighborhood anyhow, Vansen has to have some work done aboard the Nightingale. But you're right, Jim. I need a little more help with this situation I'm in than just a few lists. Can we talk here?"
Avery nodded. "Safest place." He took in the wound visible on Vansen's face, the haunted look they both had about them for all they could do to hide it. "What kind of trouble are you in this time?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out," McQueen told him. He gave his old friend the short version of the Marged episode. "I think the AI's were after the same code they wanted fifteen years ago, and I think it may be an old Aerotech code. Can you do anything?"
He leaned his chair back. "Yeah....It won't be easy, but you've come to the right place. You're probably right about the code being Aerotech if it isn't military. Now if the Morgan were still in orbit, it'd be service while you wait. But as it is, I'll need a little time to turn over a few virtual rocks and see what crawls out. I'll get back to you as soon as I find something."
"Right. Jim, be careful, this is just as much black ops as anything else we ever ran into, I don't care if Aerotech is running it."
"No problem, I've tangled with them before. Part of my job."
Something in Avery's tone made Vansen give him a second look. Appearances to the contrary, this wasn't a little tech person you could safely overlook. There was Marine steel under the spit-and-polish appearance. Avery was getting ready to go hunting in cyberspace, no less serious and potentially no less lethal than when she took her Hammerhead out looking for a chig patrol.
Avery and McQueen had a lot of old times to catch up on, Vansen spent most of the evening listening to their stories and before she knew it, a couple of hours had passed. They headed back to catch the shuttle's return trip to the Nightingale.
End Part Five
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