This is the second part of Altair’s Acquisition. It turned out longer than I expected so I will be posting part of it today and the rest tomorrow.
Altair’s Acquisition part 2
“What are you..” and he cut her off with a sharp look. Seeing her curiosity he held his finger to his lips and pointed around the corner with his other hand. Keri leaned forward slightly and looked down the hallway without exposing herself. A second later she looked at him and shook her head saying, “There’s nobody there. Come on let’s get back to the ship.”
Glancing around the corner with an exasperated look on his face Beech started down the hallway with Keri following. The pair walked into the fueling room and Beech stopped short again. Derek was sitting in a chair against the far wall. Facing him was a man in military type clothing with no insignia or identification of any kind. He was holding a small automatic pointed in Dereks general direction.
“Now what?” Keri asked in an annoyed voice as she stepped around her partner. She froze when she saw the man with the gun. Looking back and forth between the men she asked, “What’s going on?”
“Keri, meet captain Dobson. He was my officer on board the Aphelion,” the pale faced ex soldier said.
“But the Aphelion was destroyed!” the girl said looking confused.
“Yes it was,” Dobson barked,giving her a hard look. “But not before I managed to get into one of the mechanics EVA suits.” This was an external vehicular activity suit worn to work on the exterior of a ship. “By the time I checked for survivors and made my way out of the hole blown in the control room, The pirate ship was leaving. I took a chance pushing myself off and floated over to the ship you abandoned. Imagine my surprise when I got on board and you two were nowhere to be found.”
“What do you want with us,” Derek asked in a quiet voice.
Dobson sighed and explained as if speaking to small children, “Well, the corporal here is AWOL and is considered a fugitive wanted for questioning in the destruction of the Aphelion. You two are wanted for aiding a fugitive, and also for questioning the same as the corporal.”
“But we had nothing to do with the attack,” Keri told him. “I was tied up on the pirates ship at the time, and these two killed the pirates.”
“Yes and no,” the captain answered. “You were tied up but these two didn’t kill all the pirates.”
“What are you talking about?” Derek asked looking confused. “I saw Beech kill them all but Cramer, and I shot him.”
“Yes you shot him,” Dobson said with a cruel smile, “But you didn’t kill him.” Turning to Beech he said, “You should have known better, corporal. He was shot and bleeding but you should have made sure.”
Dobson motioned the two newcomers over to sit with Derek and then obviously enjoying himself sat down in the fueling tech’s chair. “When I finally found the emergency airlock on the ship and went through it I found the dead men lying just inside. All but the boss. Cramer was bringing his body to join the others when I got him. Apparently he was going to dump the bodies out the air lock. I gave him a little tap on the head as he went past and tied him up.” Smiling, the man bragged, “It was really very easy. After knocking him out and tying him up I took the ship back to the base on Mars.”
“So what does all this have to do with us?” Keri demanded.
Just then the fueling tech came hurrying through the door saying, “Thanks for keeping an eye on things.” Looking around at the room full of people in confusion he asked, “What’s wrong?” and jumping to the controls asking, “Did something happen?”
“Everything’s fine,” Dodson, who had slipped the gun into the pocket of his worn military jacket, told the frantic young man, “We’re just old friends catching up. We’ll get out of your way now.” And to the others, “Let’s go down to the cafeteria and finish catching up.” The captain inclined his head toward the door and shifted his right hand that was holding the gun in his pocket.
The three filed out and down the corridor to the cafeteria with Dobson following. There were two men sitting at another table eating. They waved and called “Hello there,” as the four came in but when the group nodded and turned away the pair frowned and went back to their meal. Moving to a table as far from the pair as possible the group sat down. Dobson sat facing the pair at the far table so he could keep an eye on things.
“Now, where were we?” Dobson asked with a smile.
“You were about to tell us what all this has to do with us,” Keri growled.
Oh, that’s right,” the man said ignoring the girl, “On the way to Mars.”
“Cramer’s wounds were healing well when we got to the base on Mars and he had most of his strength back. And…well…the details don’t matter but he escaped. Apparently the other ship that attacked the Aphelion was docked there as a freighter. He managed to get on board and the ship left before we could stop it.”
“Again. What does this have to do with us?” Keri demanded.
“I’m coming to that my dear,” Dobson told the frustrated girl. “After his escape, which made me look really bad. I made my superiors believe that you three had something to do with the whole thing.”
At this Beech sat up straight and asked, “The attack or the escape?”
“Both,” was the quiet answer.
Beech sank back in his chair with a groan. Derek with an unbelieving look on his face asked, “You mean now we are wanted for piracy, too?”
Dobson grinned as he counted off on his fingers, “Piracy, aiding a fugitive, stealing a spacecraft,” nodding towards Beech, “Being AWOL, attacking an officer, oh and four hundred fifty nine counts of murder.”
Keri gasped at this last charge, her eyes wide in disbelief. “Murder?”
“Yes. The entire crew of the Aphelion. Since you were obviously in league with the pirates, you are considered part of the group and so charged with the murder of the entire crew. except me of course. That adds attempted murder also.” Dobson shrugged,”I didn’t make the list, I just filed my report.”
“You still haven’t told us what’s going on,” Derek stated. “You haven’t arrested us, so that means you want something. What is it?”
“You’re exactly right,” Dobson replied. “I haven’t arrested you because I want you to do something for me. All I need to do is make a few revisions to my report and none of you will be wanted anymore.” The captain leaned back in the generic cafeteria chair and made a helpless gesture with his hands. “But that is up to you three.”
The three cargo haulers exchanged looks and then Beech asked his old boss, “And what is the price for these revisions?”
“Just one simple thing,” the blackmailer answered. “Cramer.”
Another exchanged glance and then Derek asked, “And how are we supposed to find him?”
“He was last seen here on this station and the ship he was on, the Altair, was headed for Phelon. All you need to do is go there, find him and bring him back here,” Dobson told them.
“Oh, that’s all,” Keri commented sarcastically.
“It’s a simple choice,” Dobson told them as he stood up. “I’m going to get something to eat. Talk it over and let me know when I get back.” The captain walked across the room to the cafeteria counter and started browsing the choices.
The trio sat in silence for a minute before Keri broke the quiet with, “I don’t see that we have a choice. I say we go get him. We’re going to Phelon to deliver our cargo anyway.”
“It’s not an easy thing to do though.” Derek countered. “Chances are Cramer will be with the crew of the other ship that attacked the Aphelion. It won’t just be one man we have to deal with.”
After another short silence they both looked at Beech who was looking down at his hands as he clenched and then unclenched them repeatedly. “Well, what do you think?’Keri asked.
The corporal looked at them with a fierce expression on his face and said through gritted teeth, “I would love a chance at that crew. And if we have to kill some of them that’s even better.”
“Well I guess I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail. We might as well try, but how do we know Dobson will keep his word and revise his reports?” Derek asked.
“We don’t have a choice but to trust him as far as I can see,” Keri responded. “You know him Beech, what do you think?”
Looking thoughtful, the man answered, “He has always been a man of his word since I met him. He’s changed since I last saw him but hopefully not that much.”
The blackmailer chose that time to return to the table carrying his food. Setting it down on the table he sat and looked around at them. “I’ll be here for three weeks. After that I start hunting you.” Smiling at them with a evil gleam in his eyes, he said, “So, you better start hunting.” He then started eating and ignored them.
The cargo haulers stood slowly and made their way back to the fueling control room. The tech looked up when they filed in and smiled telling them, “Only about thirty minutes left, and you can be on your way.”
Derek nodded at the man and then said to his partners, “You two can go back to the ship if you want. I’ll be there as soon as I pay for the fuel.”
“Go ahead Beech, there’s something I want to buy before we go,” Keri said to the corporal. “I’ll be right there.”
Forty five minutes later they were all seated in the control room of the Patera. Derek’s fingers were tapping away at the computer screen, turning things on and powering the ship up. “It takes six days to get to Phelon. Six days back. Say two days extra just in case something happens, that gives us seven day to find Cramer and capture him.” Looking up from the screen Derek finished saying, “Any one have a plan?”
The Patera’s drives wound up and the ship left the landing pad in a cloud of dust and headed for Phelon.
The trio looked at each other nervously as the Patera’s drives shut down. The ship had just landed next to a large warehouse at the edge of the Phelon colony. Four hours earlier they had made their first com contact with the merchant they were to deliver to. Four hours of frayed nerves while they got clearance to land, locked onto the homing beacon, and spiraled down through the clouds to the small planet. From space they could see oceans partially covered the surface, but as they came closer to landing everything looked green and overgrown like a rain forest. The computers climatic summary of Phelon showed a subtropical climate at the colony so the three had removed their thermal suits and dressed in light clothing. This made them feel exposed as they hadn’t been without the suits for months. Not since their last delivery to a planet.
As complete silence settled on the ship Derek looked at the other two and asked, “Are we ready for this?”
“I guess so,” responded Keri with a shrug. “I feel naked without my gun, though.”
“At least you have your knives,” Beech told her. “Lets get going before we change our minds.”
Crossing the cargo hold and opening the loading door, the partners looked out at the landing area and warehouse. The air hit them like an ocean wave causing sweat to start pouring from their bodies instantly. The smell of vegetation and dirt, not to mention the mixtures of odors from the community around them, was almost nauseating. The drastic change from the recycled air of the ship to natural air overpowered their senses.
While they stood trying to adjust to the changes, a young man in coveralls drove up on a platform with stairs attached to the side. He locked the brake and walked over to them saying, “Welcome to Phelon, if I can have a copy of your manifest we’ll start unloading.”
Derek pulled the ships remote from his pocket and tapped the screen several times with his finger. At the same time the young man pulled a small screened device from his pocket and stared at it for a few seconds. When the device made a small pinging sound he dropped it back into his pocket and said, “Thank you. We should have it unloaded in a few hours and then a couple more to check for damage. After that the ship will be all yours again.”
Keri was staring at the holster hanging under the mans right shoulder. When he noticed her gaze he asked, “Is something wrong, Ma’am?’
Shaking her head she answered, “No, I’m just surprised to see you carrying a gun.”
“Oh,” the young man replied. “We’ve had a couple of pirate ships land here masquerading as cargo haulers. They killed two men while raiding the warehouse so now we all carry at work.”
“What about everywhere else? Do you always carry a gun?”
“Always. Some of the cargo haulers and soldiers get rowdy while they’re here. Also if you walk out of town, there are a few dangerous animals in the surrounding area,”the warehouse worker told her. “So pretty much everyone is armed all the time.”
Looking at her partners, Keri smiled and said, “I’ll be right back. Do you guys want yours?”
Nodding the men watched her hurry off and then went down the ladder to the tarmac. Beech turned to the young worker who had followed them down the steps and asked, “Is there an area of town to get something to eat or drink? Somewhere we can waste some time?”
“Sure,” he answered. “Go out the front of the warehouse and turn left. It’s not far.” Then he headed off to get the unloading started.
Hearing a scape of boots, they looked up to see Keri coming down the ladder carrying their weapons. She already had her shoulder holster strapped on and her fighting knife on her belt. Reaching the tarmac the girl handed them their weapons and smiled saying,”I feel better now.”
The three walked through the huge warehouse amazed at the amount of activity in the building. Conveyers ran in all directions with with people unloading containers and loading their contents onto them. Workers were riding magnetic cargo lifts in from another ship and setting their containers next to the conveyers, then riding the lifts back to the ship to ride another one in. While the trio stood watching four workers went on board the Patera and started the unloading process.
Turning to the others Derek said, “I’ll meet you out front. I want to check on something.”He then walked off toward the warehouse office, while Keri and Beech went out one of the open overhead doors leading to the street out front. Waiting for Derek to join them the pair stood in the edge of the street and looked around. All the buildings in the area were similar to the one they had just left. Mostly prefab metal structures that had been shipped in from earth or possibly an established industrial base on another planet. Part of the cargo being unloaded from the Patera was this type of building material.
Derek came walking up and said in a quietly, “The Altair is here. I asked in the office about other ships that had arrived recently. Only four have landed in the past week and one of them is the Altair. It’s at the main landing area on the other side of town.”
“Well, we may as well get something to eat and decide what to do,” Keri suggested. “Let’s go,” and she turned and headed for town.
The two men looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.