The edge, p.21
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       The Edge, p.21

           Leslie Lee
 
scratch," Sha marveled.

  Thurber smiled proudly. "We're pros."

  Some of the mechs followed it out, their own small thrusters firing silently. The doors on Sha's bay closed.

  Sha, Thurber and Mak hurried along the observation room so they could look into Mak's bay. They arrived just as the pod appeared at the door. Mak felt like a kid, pressing against the thick glass. A crew was already waiting and the doors were open.

  Thurber looked at her watch. This part was SOP, routine.

  "Your pod'll be ready in an hour is my guess," Thurber said looking at Sha. "Reload, refuel, and it's good to go."

  Sha smiled. "Can I get it painted blue?"

  "What is this a fashion show?" Thurber shaking her head.

  "Zin Zin said I should ask you. Hers is painted blue."

  "That's because that horse's ass stole a bunch of paint and did it herself. The choices are dull metal grey and dull metal grey. And just for you, dull metal grey."

  Mak turned away from their conversation.

  The pod was almost at station. It backed slowly towards the docking clamps.

  The explosion nearly blinded him. His ears rang from the concussion. The windows shattered, showering them in glass. Then debris flew towards and out the windows before the blast doors slammed down. The grav plating threatened to fail making his stomach churn. Worst was the screaming of air through a gap in one of the blast doors. Debris flew towards and out the gap. He was being pulled toward it. Suddenly, Thurber rolled towards him and the gap. He hung on to the table which was anchored to the floor. He grabbed her, holding her with one arm. She was only barely conscious, not able to help.

  Sha moved slowly toward the gap. She had a piece of a metal. Life support poured air into the bay only to have it sucked away faster. Lungs worked to drag oxygen out of the wind. She braced herself close to the window. A large piece of metal had been caught by the door. The blast shutter whined trying to crush it.

  One emergency light flickered crazily. He didn't think Thurber could fit through the small gap but he didn't want to find out. The cold metal of the table numbed his hand. Thurber felt like she weighed a ton.

  Sha wedged her pole against the junk. She leaned on it bracing her feet against the wall. The pole bent with the effort. The junk was so close to the edge. He didn't think it was going to work. And if she slipped, she might be sucked outside as well. Sha screamed with effort and the junk shifted a little then with a tearing shriek blew through the gap. The shutter slammed shut breaking the pole. Sha fell with a grunt.

  "Took you long enough," Mak gasped out at her. He willed his freezing fingers to let go of the table.

  "Yeah?" she said. "I liked the view."

  He could barely make her out in the dimness. His own breath, he could see. His body shivered from fatigue and the cold.

  "Stay down," he told Thurber when she tried to sit up

  Sha found the emergency kit.

  "What happened?" Thurber gasped. Blood streamed down her face despite Sha's best efforts. "Were we attacked?"

  Mak listened to Squad Ops warning the Squads to standby. Then ordering Blue Box to run a perimeter sweep of the X.

  He shook his head. "Squad Ops says negative on an attack. Blue Box is reporting no enemy activity. Bay is wrecked."

  "My crew?" Thurber asked, wildly. "What about my crew?"

  "Th'han'dra's right outside. Blue Box is retrieving casualties. Hull emergency doors are only half way down. The explosion breached Launch Command."

  The Blue Box Launch Crew who'd been standing there watching... None of them had been wearing enviro suits. If Thurber's crew had survived the explosion, then at least they'd have a chance if blown outside. But the Launch Crew were just wearing regular coveralls. There were emergency doors between Launch Command and the bays, but they didn't sound like they had done any good.

  "Oh my God," Thurber said. "Oh my God."

  If he and Sha hadn't been banished to the observation room, then she wouldn't have had any reason to be up there either. They would've all been standing with the Launch Crew. Who were in all probability, dead. Mak tried not to think about it. Tears streaked Sha's face. Her hands bled from the cuts the pole had inflicted on her.

  Thurber closed her eyes and leaned back. Until the X's hull integrity was repaired, they weren't going anywhere.

  "Report," Suth said quietly.

  Thurber cleared her throat. She still looked like hell, but her voice was strong. "We lost fifteen men in the explosion. There are seven in sick bay with three of those being critical. The explosion destroyed the pod. The bay repairs will be complete in five tri's. A new pod will start construction in three tri's and will complete in five tri's after that. The cause of the accident is still under investigation."

  "Could some of the pod munitions be involved?" Diego asked.

  "No way," Thurber snapped. "All munitions were unloaded prior to the pod being moved."

  "Could you have overlooked something?" he persisted.

  "No. Unloading pod munitions is SOP for all repairs."

  "What does Security think?" Suth said looking at Jamaal, the Security Chief.

  "The explosion appears to have originated at the point of the docking clamps and the pod. There's nothing left. It looks like it could have been a warhead but there are no warheads at that location on a pod."

  "Fuel breach?" Diego asked.

  "Already investigated and ruled out," Thurber said tight lipped. "There was no fuel on that pod. And in case you're wondering, the fuel lines are purged automatically. There was no fuel and no weapons in that bay."

  "So what's left?" asked Suth.

  This time, the Security Chief looked uncomfortable. He was a muscular man who moved with the coordination of a fighter. Mak had seen men like him in the lowers. They handled themselves with the lightness and grace of dancers. Except they fought like demons. His black face under thick closely cropped hair was intense. His eyes deep brown roved over the people around him, studying and filing away details. He was smart and a stickler for fairness and discipline. Despite the usual antipathy towards Security, Jamaal and his staff were begrudgingly held in high regard. They were trustworthy.

  "Sabotage, sir."

  Thurber looked shocked "You gotta be kidding me."

  "You said it yourself," Jamaal said. "No fuel, no weapons on the pod. It looks like arms of some kind caused the explosion. Those things don't just float around by themselves."

  "Yes, yes, but how could anybody have gotten something in there. It's SOP to seal the bay. Nobody could have gotten it in there during the Jump."

  "If there was sabotage," said Jamaal, thoughtfully, "the device was probably planted before the Jump. If the pod had docked as intended, what would have happened?"

  "The Jump would not have been affected," Brahms said. "But if we hadn't moved up the Jump, the explosion would have been well before Jump time anyway. The explosion itself would be confined to that single bay. It's likely the explosion would not have ignited the fuel nor detonated the weapons."

  "We were lucky then," said Diego. "We saved a pilot."

  The silence was chilly.

  "Not so lucky for some of my crew," Suth said quietly.

  "Uh, sir, I didn't mean?"

  Jamaal cut him off. "The bay lockdown during Jump prevented the device if there was such a thing from being removed."

  "If it turns out this was a deliberate act, then could it be more personal?" Brahms, the Science officer said.

  The Security Chief considered. "You mean someone has it in for Mak? It's a possibility. Extreme."

  "He is the only one who's seen Brenn," said Brahms.

  "But that was after he came back," Jamaal said. "He hadn't seen him yet. Unless they knew he'd eventually see him and were trying to stop them meeting. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

  Diego shrugged. "We only have Mak's word that he saw Brenn."

  "Well you have my word that there's a damned empty bed where Brenn used to be." The
security chief sighed. "We need to find him and ask him what's happening. Right now I'm treating this as two separate incidents. Security will investigate the techs and mechs for any unusual shift changes for those pod repairs."

  "Keep an eye out for Brenn would you, Mak," Suth said, indicating the meeting was over.

  "Both," Mak promised grimly.

  Battle Group Cobra had settled into a holding action. The Kyrzal ships they had detected at the extreme range of their sensors had disappeared. Either they were preparing an attack or they were leaving it to them. DreadNought S'reh'du and her group was assigned to the apparently abandoned Kyrzal ships. The DreadNought Warszawa Group was at the extreme range of the star system. The X's group was midway between them.

  Blue Box squad was off duty.

  "I guess Sha saved my life," Mak said to the squad in the dorm.

  She blushed terribly and tried to hide behind her bangs while she was gently ribbed.

  "Going rumor is sabotage," Zin Zin said.

  "Just rumor." But it was all over the ship that it hadn't been a normal accident.

  "Getting dangerous to hang around you, Boss," Ranger said.

  "Eh, what else is new," he shrugged. "Anybody want to put in for a transfer?"

  K'hon perked up. "Would it get approved?"

  "No," Mak answered, evoking a burst of laughter from the big D'ha'ren.

  "We're getting a reputation," said Jerry. "The Hellborne think the X has pissed on the wrong gods."

  "That's piss off, Jerry," Ranger corrected. "Though I'd reckon pissing on the gods would probably piss them off a whole bunch."

  "Do you think someone's out to get you, Boss?" asked K'hon, looking at Mak.

  "Don't know."

  "Security seems to think so," he said. "They've been hanging around."

  "Huh? Really?"

  "Yeah, but if somebody's out to get you, Boss, they're going to have to come through me." With that, he slammed a fist into his palm. There was a double whap as Jerry slapped his fist into his own palm at the exact same time. K'hon swore, enraged, and made a swipe at Jerry who easily ducked out of the way while yelling "woop, woop, woop". It only served to further infuriate the big D'ha'ren.

  "Hey, would you idiots grow up?" Zin Zin said, annoyed at almost being crushed. "Maybe they think you did it, Boss."

  "Huh?" he asked, puzzled. "Did what?"

  "Sabotage your own bay." She was joking but then realized maybe it was true. "They can't suspect that. It's crazy talk."

  "Things are crazy. We've got a full battle group for a few abandoned ships. Somebody is spying on us. Brenn is running around the ship some place. And we have a saboteur."

  "You forgot them friends of ours, the Kyrzal," Ranger reminded.

  "Oh yeah. Thank god for the real enemy. Tell you what. Let's concentrate on what we can control. We forget about the enemy ships. The S'reh'du'll take care of them. If Security can't find Brenn, then we sure as hell can't. The Kyrzal don't appear to be an imminent threat. So, who's spying on us and are they the saboteurs?"

  "I recommend we repair the walls," Th'han'dra said. "Maybe we can convince whoever planted the first listening devices to plant some more."

  "Alright, let's go for it. The killer, because that's what he is, either chose my bay randomly or has it in for me."

  "Has to be random," said Ranger. "Why would anyone have it in for you?"

  "Yeah, it's not like you know anything," said Zin Zin.

  "That's right. You're completely ignorant," chimed in Jerry.

  "An utter non-entity," Dakota agreed.

  "You're nobody, Boss," pointed out K'hon. "A total no one."

  "Alright, thanks for cheering me up," he said while saluting them with his middle finger. "Maybe they think Telli told me something."

  "So the killers and the listeners are the same. But are they working with the Kyrzal?" said Jerry. "Or is there an alternate agenda?"

  "Let's just find someone and kick the crap out of them," Zin Zin said. She was smiling. It chilled Mak.

  K'hon, though, nodded vigorously in agreement. "Now we're talking."

  Mak watched Blue Box launch. Sha was with them. He wandered over to watch the repairs on his bay. The pace tortured him. Too many people standing around watching too few people doing anything. He didn't want to go and bug them. Sometimes he thought they looked at him like he had been at fault. As if he had caused the deaths of those crewmen. He hoped they knew he'd never deliberately do something to hurt any of them.

  His hands gripped the railing, turning his knuckles white with frustration. This was boring. Even the Squad Ops room had become tedious. It was all he could do not to go hang around the Blue Box dorm. But if somebody was going to plant something, it'd be when they were on patrol. And it wouldn't happen if he hung around like the stupid private detectives he saw on the vids.

  That left Brenn. Where would Brenn go and not be found?

  He retraced his steps to where he'd first seen the missing squad leader. There was nothing special about the corridor, and crew members brushed by him as he stood waiting for the lift. One finally came, and he and a few others got on. He didn't request any specific area, instead letting his fellow passengers punch in their destinations. People got on and got off, and he rode around with them. Nobody noticed. He traveled backwards, forwards, downwards, upwards, sideways.

  When he was about eleven, the Torch gang recruited him in. They were a small outfit. Some guns, some drugs, some protection. They lived under the radar of the bigger gangs, the gangs with connections to the Uppers. The Torches found him to be as they put it, pretty damned useful. His small size made him an excellent lookout, great for reconnaissance, he could slip into places where none of the older boys could fit. They never did much in the way of stealing and Mak said he wouldn't do people's places. They'd hit a few liquor stores or food stores, but nothing big. Otherwise, the more powerful gangs might take notice and that wasn't something anybody wanted. Except for the leader. He wanted a larger slice of the pie.

  Mak's mom didn't like him being in the gang. He came home with money or food occasionally so she didn't complain too much or ask too many questions. It kept her from having to work all the time. He kept his days pretty busy with sneaking into schools. There was a grim satisfaction in beating the security. He found it easy enough to creep into the overhead ceilings and just lie there, listening. He even found he could sneak into the Upper Level's schools. They were more difficult in some ways, easier in others. The kids there had more stuff and he found many of them would leave there book-pads around. It was a snap to pilfer them though they were bulky. Weren't worth much on the lowers. He would stack them up in their small apartment. When he was home, which wasn't often, he could read through the different books. Most were too advanced but it didn't stop him.

  When a bigger gang offered a real piece of the action, Mak explained quietly to the rest of the Torches they had a pretty good thing going, running under the radar of the cops and of the real criminals. He thought they should trust him. Hadn't he been with them a couple of years? He was simply being pragmatic. Plus, this whole deal stank. Why would one of these organizations involve them? They had all the muscle they needed. The Torch gang had no territory to speak of and could hardly protect its turf anyway. What were these guys getting out of this? A warm feeling? This was too good to be true. It wasn't right. It stank.

  Easy money talked big though. The leader called him a coward. Other names too. He didn't care. He figured he'd quit and find something else to do. But the leader didn't like the challenge, so he pulled a knife. The bigger boy was stronger, older, and armed. The fight should've ended up with Mak bleeding out on the street. But the bigger boy was filled with rage and just a little afraid. Too many wild swings, too much energy being expended. Mak just waited until the boy, frustrated, overextended himself. Mak easily took the knife away and smashed in the older boy's nose.

  He didn't care enough about the gang to try for control. He simply left.
He felt bad though, since they were somebody to hang around with and have some fun. While he walked away, he hoped they would call him back telling him he was right. But they just yelled at him. Told him never to come near them again.

  He was free-lancing when he heard about his former buds being shot up by the cops. No one had survived. Their pictures were plastered all over the Net. Headlines screamed how the streets were being taken back. The cops recounted in gritty and graphic terms how these desperate criminals had put up a fierce fire fight. Thankfully, the bravery and superior tactics of the men in blue had beaten these low lives down. The politicians said the streets would be safe once again in this latest battle against crime and terrorism. The media posted video and photos of these renowned and dangerous criminals reputed to be in charge of most of the crime oozing up from the lowers into the pristine landscape of the Uppers. And nothing changed, except for a few guys Mak might have called friends.

  The lift stopped and the doors opened. He opened his eyes. He'd dozed off while leaning against the wall. Nobody got on and there was nobody left on the lift. Poking his head out the doors, he saw no one. He got off. This part of the ship was unfamiliar to him.

  The designation on the hallway indicated he was on the highest level of the ship almost dead center. Crew quarters. Or maybe Soldier barracks. He wandered down the corridor and into one of the empty rooms. It was filled with beds and bare mattresses. Nobody was using this section. There was barely enough light to see anything.

  He sat down on a lower bunk, then shouted. "Brenn, where the hell are you?"

  Nothing.

  He stood up and there was Brenn lying on the bed above. His arms were folded under his head and he was staring at the ceiling. He looked completely relaxed.

  Mak didn't let his shock show. His heart thudded unpleasantly though.

  "Hello," Brenn said, glancing his way and grinning.

  "Did you set up that explosion in my bay?"

  "I'm fine, how are you?" This Brenn had a better sense of humor than the old Brenn.

  "I'm fine, thanks." He repeated his question.

  "The one that was meant for you? Don't you think I'd have more subtle ways of getting rid of you?"

  "You didn't answer the question."

  "The answer is no." Brenn sat up and swung his legs over the edge. "Do you believe me?"

  "Yes."

  He narrowed his eyes but kept the smile. "Excuse me if I find it difficult to believe. Your species is one of the most paranoid we've ever encountered as evidenced by the destruction of your pods. We were finished and were simply returning them."

  "We didn't like the idea of them suddenly reappearing. Seemed like it was too good to be true."

  "A Trojan Horse? Yes, I suppose. But I assure you they weren't." Mak wondered what malware had to do with the situation. He let it go though. "We're a little surprised but gratified you didn't destroy these bodies as well."

  "Somebody probably thought about it. So you didn't have anything to do with the explosion?" Brenn shook his head. "Do you know who did?" Again Brenn shook his head. "Okay, then I have another question for you."

  "Please." He

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