They were, in fairness to their reputation, only acting on orders. Alborell had asked them if it were possible, they had told him that it was. He had asked them if they could do it, they had told him that they could. He had asked them if it was a good idea and they had told him that this was his department. The problem, they had explained, was a sizable one. Getting an unauthorised link with the computer system of a Federation Starship while it sat in orbit above them was not what Rex had had in mind when he had agreed to join Captain Fraser's crew. However, since his expertise was required, along with Fraser's, he had little choice. The matter was made somewhat worse by the presence of three security officers, placed at strategic points around the Cougar, and the sophisticated and highly specialised monitoring equipment on the Liberator, screening their subspace radio and watching the surrounding area for activity. It seemed impossible, but it wasn't. The solution was simple yet effective.
The first step had been for Captain Fraser to get back to the Cougar. That wasn't too difficult, once Carter had gained all she would from him she saw no reason to have him hanging around on her ship. There was nowhere that the SS Cougar could go without the Liberator seeing it and the weapons of a Leda class ship against Fraser's tiny craft were more than adequate to stop any attempted escape. Next, Alborell had to make up some excuse to open the comm-channel to the Engineering section. This would allow for some covert communication with Rex Drake, who had shown that he could do as much with computers as he could with engines. The Security Officer on the Bridge had bought the story about instrument calibration and didn't really see in his own mind, what possible harm it could do. Evidently there had been a fire and it was only natural that the Captain would want to reset the engine controls. He soon became bored with listening to the reports from the engine room, and the security officer in the engine room soon became bored with listening to the reports from the bridge. As Rex had predicted, and arranged, by the time they got to,
"circuit Charlie-Two-Forty reading normal," the undesired observers had stopped observing. The circuit numbers gradually progressed while Fraser and Rex typed messages to each other.
The pleasant mid-evening sunset almost put Lieutenant Ellis at his ease, but not quite. Once his shift was ended and he was free to pursue his own activities aboard the Liberator, he would relax. He had thought it odd that he should want to get back so soon, after all, he had hoped for a change from the day to day routine of his ship-bound duties for quite some time, but Eros was not what he had had in mind. As soon as he had come down here he knew he wanted to be back on his ship. He checked the Cougar over one last time before he left. The outside was all in order and the surrounding area was free from any of the things that Lieutenant Harno had told him to look out for. The problem was not found until he entered the cargo bay.
Jannel Hawkins was walking very slowly towards the ramp, both arms outstretched and with some small unidentified object clasped tightly in her hands. She saw the Lieutenant and stopped, beads of sweat on her brow. Her face held a look of grave concern.
"What are you doing?" Questioned the Lieutenant, wary of the deceptive nature of the people he had been put in charge of. Jannel swallowed, took a deep breath and explained, quietly,
"we've got a problem, fetch Ricky Hawkins." Ellis lifted his arm up to his communicator pin. Jannel whispered loudly, "No don't, please, don't use your communicator." The Officer held his arm just millimetres away from the face of the shiny golden object. "The subspace signal could trigger the whole lot." The Lieutenant lowered his arm carefully, looking around at the large crates.
He walked slowly towards the girl and looked closely at the device in her hand. Its 'Armed' light was flashing furiously.
"How did that happen?" He asked nervously.
"It doesn't matter, just get Ricky, and hurry, I'll try and make it outside." Ellis walked with speed to the far end of the bay and found who he was looking for.
Ricky soon had company, Rex and an escorting officer were in the bay as soon as they had realised what had happened. As Jannel slowly made her way outside, Drake called for the Lieutenant's assistance and they both went straight to the control centre set into the bulkhead by the ramp. Ricky looked over the crates and gave his diagnosis.
"It looks like the inhibitor field's fluctuating, I'll try and stabilise it from here." He too rushed over to the control panel. The field that had been designed and installed to prevent subspace interference setting off the pre-detonation sequence of the AMP grenades was not working as it should. Any subspace signal that happened to be passing was now free to arm any or all of the grenades. Ricky called out to his Sister.
"How far do you think you can throw that thing?"
"Not far enough," Jannel called back. Ricky turned back to the control panel just as Captain Fraser appeared, accompanied by the remaining officer. The plan was beginning to unfold.
With the additional people came additional confusion, something that helped Fraser and his party more than it helped the Security Officers. All knew that, for the time being at least, they were cut off from any form of assistance and the only people that could resolve the situation were right here. Rex Drake cursed lightly at the controls, somewhat out of character Fraser thought.
"Damn computer," the Engineer muttered. "I'll have to go down to Engineering to get the inverter back on," the guards stopped talking to one another and started to listen, "I need someone down here to set the phase ratio." Ellis didn't know what he was talking about, but volunteered. Rex hurried off.
"I could use some help in Engineering." He said as he passed the unwitting Security guard who had joined them from the Bridge. Fraser made a suggestion.
"Ricky, would a containment field be strong enough to withstand the blast from those grenades?" Ricky appeared to think, Jannel waited patiently outside.
"Yes it might just do it, but you would have to operate it from the bridge, the field controls don't work from here." As he said it, he could see Lieutenant Ellis checking the control panel. Making sure to shut down all of the subspace emissions on his tricorder, he scanned the workstation. Seemingly satisfied that Ricky's statement was essentially true, he told the spare Security Officer to stand by one of the crates and watch that no more of the grenades armed themselves. Alborell made his way to the bridge, alone.
Ensign Lacy ate his toast and jam and looked at the blank face of his computer screen. He had been on the USS Liberator for just over eight years now and on the whole, he thought, it had been comfortable. Little had been asked of him and in return he had not been demanding of his superiors. He had friends, some among the higher ranks, some not, he had troubled no one and all in all, he had been no trouble. Eight years on a quiet ship, manning a quiet station on a quiet shift.
It came as quite a surprise therefore, when the bridge disturbed his meal. Ensign Lacy never received messages, even his few remaining relatives contacted him rarely, and yet, someone wanted to speak with him.
"Mr. Lacy?" The communication was audio only and it was male. Aside from these facts he knew nothing more.
"Yes?" Said Lacy, hesitantly.
"My name is Lalo, I represent the Barachak Casino on Ventus." Lacy still didn't know what this was about. He considered the possibility that it may be a prank, the shuttlebay technicians were notorious for this kind of thing. "I'll come straight to the point Mr. Lacy, you owe us money." The voice was unyielding and more than a little intimidating.
"No, that isn't possible, I never gamble." Said the Ensign, with plain honesty.
"That's what they all say," the voice mocked, "I have a signed and authenticated document, dated stardate 44028.4, that says you owe our establishment over four thousand credits Mr. Lacy." Lalo sounded very insistent. "Do you deny that you've been to Ventus?"
"No, of course not, but this has to be a mistake, I have never been to the Brikabrak Casino, or whatever it's called, I give you my word as a Starfleet officer." Lacy protested. The voice lowered its tone.
"Can you prove it?" The Ensign thought.
"Wait, let me access my personal log." Lacy put the caller on hold.
In the engineering section of the Cougar, things were getting quite intense. The Security Officer that had gone with Rex was being kept busy while Rex tried to get a message to the bridge. The note was short, but managed to convey a strong sense of urgency. Fraser had no time to waste, Drake needed that connection soon, Ricky and Jannel's virtuous patience would not be enough to control the explosives indefinitely. They would need the containment field soon.
Fraser noticed the message and quickly arranged for the field, calling down to the cargo bay briefly to allow some preparation. Timing at this point was doubly critical. Captain Fraser had just seconds to spare before the Ensign returned and cut off the only chance of access to the computers, and to get the AMP grenade far enough away from the ship, Jannel would have to throw it a considerable distance and then run behind the containment field, which would not be turned on until she had got safely inside.
As Jannel threw the device, Ensign Lacy returned. His caller appeared to be a little preoccupied.
"Excuse me Mr. Lacy, I was dealing with another matter, do you have your log?" The voice asked, trying not to sound too hurried.
"Yes I do, and it clearly states that on stardate 44028.1 I was just seventeen days out of Atson." Fraser watched Jannel dash into the cargo bay, he immediately hit the control for the field. "It would therefore be impossible for me to have been at Ventus on 44028.4." Lacy observed a silence.
"Mr. Lalo are you there?"
The explosion lifted over twenty-eight tons of earth, displaced approximately three million cubic metres of air and raised the ambient temperature of the immediate vicinity by roughly four hundred degrees. Fortunately, none of these effects spread into the open freight compartment of the SS Cougar and its occupants remained very much alive, the containment field had held.
"Inhibitor field on line," called Rex from the Engine Room as everyone picked themselves up from the floor.
Alborell didn't have time to celebrate,
"I'm sorry Mr. Lacy, it appears that there was an explosion outside, nothing to worry about, now you were saying," Fraser keyed frantically at the computer console.
"My log, if you wish I can have my Commanding Officer confirm the validity of this information." Ensign Lacy did not suspect that his computer link-up with the caller spanned no more than three thousand kilometres.
"Ah yes, er no Mr. Lacy, that won't be necessary, clearly there has been some mistake, my apologies for inconveniencing you, goodbye."
Alborell turned around quickly as the bridge door swished open, Lieutenant Ellis entered.
"Lieutenant, I hope everyone's alright down there," said Fraser, a little flustered. Ellis, also shaken by the incident, nodded wearily.
"Mr. Drake informs me that it is safe for me to call the ship now and request transport," Fraser sat back in his chair, smiling. Turning back to the door the officer tapped his communicator and called up to the ship waiting above. They had both completed their objectives.
Even with extra science officers assigned to the Security team, Harno remained doubtful about the safety of the cargo. Perhaps if he were in command he would take everyone from the Cougar and destroy it from a safe distance, nothing on the planet would suffer and it would be far simpler than the lengths that Carter was currently going to, but he wasn't in command. For now, the best he could do was cover everyone on the ship and keep a close watch on the cargo bay.
After an uneventful couple of hours, things became a little more relaxed. The Science Officer and Harno began to chat, the other officers, standing guard inside and patrolling outside, all seemed to feel a little more at ease. It was quiet enough for everyone to know that the worst of their worries was past. For once, everyone seemed to be enjoying being away from the Liberator.
It wasn't until the officer walking around outside felt a heavy blow to the back of his head, that he realised that something was very probably wrong. Of course by then it was too late to do anything about it, he just slid quietly to the ground, unconscious. The hooded figure that had delivered the blow stooped to pick up the now discarded phaser.
Harno, who was expecting to see the Ensign walk by the open ramp of the cargo bay any time soon, was a little surprised to see, in his place, a red beam of energy swathing through the air towards him. One of the most disconcerting aspects of phasers was the uncertainty associated with them, it was so difficult to distinguish one setting from another. When the energy beam flashed out of a weapon and made its way towards you it was impossible not to wonder if you would be waking up again. Of course, the instant it made contact, you knew. The higher heat setting made your flesh boil away, while the disintegration settings created a kind of numb tingling sensation, sometimes followed by a feeling of dramatic weight loss. Stun, on the other hand, brought its own problems.
Harno had no time to react to the attack, he passively observed the beam crossing his chest and then dimly saw the floor approaching. The Science Officer was momentarily confused by what she saw, but she realised that she had to find cover. Just as she realised that hiding behind one of the nearby crates was probably the worst move she could make, another blast from the phaser dropped her to the ground.
The attack had lasted seconds. The robed assailant walked over to the control panel in the wall. The unfamiliar layout posed only a minor obstacle and the anti-intruder system was accessed and engaged with a rapidity consistent with the rest of the ambush. It seemed quite ironic that it should be used by an intruder to neutralise the very crew that it was designed to protect. Before anyone realised what was happening, anesthezine gas was seeping out of the air vents on the upper deck.
The visitor was sure to cycle the air before stepping out of the lift, lowering the hood of the thick black robe and readying the carefully prepared hypospray. The operation had been a complete success. The speed with which it had been carried out had meant that no one had had time to send out a distress call, the ship was now at the mercy of anyone who cared to take it.
Moving onto the Bridge, the figure knelt down beside Captain Fraser and pressed the tip of the hypo' gently onto his neck. The hiss prompted a groaning from the Captain who raised himself back up into the chair that he had been sitting in. He rubbed the back of his head as Codey administered another shot of the neural stimulator to Ricky.
"I thought you were on our side?" Said Alborell. Ricky hauled himself up from the communications desk.
"Did you manage to set it all up?" Asked Benco anxiously. Ricky focused on Codey's face and smiled. He still remembered their success despite the fog in his brain.
"Yes, and more besides," he answered. They quickly started down the corridor to the Engine Room.
Rex was slumped on the floor with the two crewmen lying below him in the large well that housed the engine core. They did not appear to have suffered any ill effects from their fall, all was as it had been planned.
"How long have we got?" Benco asked Fraser.
"Not long, perhaps ten minutes," he replied. Luckily he had overheard the Chief Officer discussing his protocols with the ship. As Drake awoke, cursing the loss of his cigarettes, Fraser hurried off to find Jannel.
She had wisely opted to stay in her quarters prior to the planned 'breakout' by Benco Codey and this was where Alborell found her. She looked to be sleeping soundly, a heavy leather bound book at her side. As soon as he shot the neural stimulant into her neck she sparked into life. With this final act, the whole group was ready for action. They had all of the equipment they needed and just six minutes after Codey's first attack, they were heading for the tunnel network. The distant city, their ultimate destination, was clear on the horizon, they realised that this was the last daylight they would be seeing for a while. All they had to do now was get to Edlund before Carter got to them.
It was a point of fact that raised a number of interesting questions,
"how the hell did you get through this?" was one. Benco was tired of such questions, no least for their unimaginative nature. If someone just once would ask him something to occupy his mind, perhaps strain his intellect, he would be happy, but their was little prospect of that. He knew now why he preferred working on his own. Instead of answering the question directly, or indeed at all, he demonstrated.
Looking back to see that all had arrived safely he reached for an odd looking carbine shaped device hanging from his belt. He just knew they were going to love this. As he pointed the 'weapon' at the door the device began to emit a low and melodious humming sound. The others seemed a little worried. The sound grew steadily more intense, until the system appeared to have charged itself, at which point Codey braced himself against the corner of the room. Fraser was just about to ask what it was when Benco called out,
"Stand back, sometimes this thing builds up quite a charge." The onlookers suddenly realised how small the room was. A silver-blue beam shot from the pistol and travelled out toward the door.
Instead of the explosion that they had expected they heard a faint creaking, the kind of sound that the Cougar made when Fraser brought it in for a landing. If this was a weapon, it was a rather poor one.
"A tractor beam," exclaimed Rex, suddenly realising, he had been the only one brave enough to watch. With the intensity growing at a single point, the containment door slowly began to scrape open. The beam was pushing it, but the limitations of the marvellous toy were all too apparent. Codey shuddered as he fought the resistance of the beam, the carbine pressing into his body forcing a look of pain on his face. Captain Fraser courageously stepped forward to help when the charge that he had been warned about suddenly made itself evident.
A deafening crash accompanied a powerful force, throwing both Benco and the door in opposite directions. Fraser too dived to the ground, half expecting the door to come crashing on top of him, but it was stronger than it looked. It swung around on its huge hinges and slammed a couple of impressive dents in the wall on the other side. As they all gathered what wits they had left and stood up, a ringing in their ears postponing a lengthy exchange of insults, they realised that again some watchful entity had saved them.
Looking into the next room, now open for all to inspect, Jannel, Ricky and Rex Drake saw what all the fuss had been about. They had got into some kind of control centre, no more than an aside on their journey, but an area they had to pass through. With similar desires, Fraser and Codey joined them, now they all had a new problem.
"I thought you'd been through here once today," said Fraser, who couldn't see how Codey ever made it into the elite ranks of the bounty hunter fraternity that he purported to be part of.
"Must have been some subsidence," muttered Benco, still not quite recovered from his ordeal.
"I wonder what might have caused that," muttered Rex.
The precious minutes ran by as the weighty door was pushed back into place. Benco had opted for a slightly lower setting on the tractor beam for his second attempt, with Ricky and Rex making up the shortfall. Those of the group who were getting their hearing back could now hear the unmistakable tap of regulation, Starfleet issue duty-boot on standard fitting, corroded Erosian access ladder. Carter, and they could be sure that the Commander herself had been brought down for this one, was on her way.
With a satisfying clank the large door was firmly returned to its former position. Slotting his carbine back into place, Benco reacquainted himself with his surroundings. The control room had once been part of the supply network that served the City above, coordinating several amenities from the storage tanks and processing plants of the outlands into the pipeline that ran along the passageways just beyond where they now stood. The state of the equipment was better than anything they had seen on the whole planet, including Fraser's ship, but power had long since departed from this remote area of the subterranean complex. The still and quiet air carried the sound of water. Through a number of cracked and buckled transparent aluminum panels Alborell and the others could see what looked like the beginnings of a huge cavern, extending in all directions to the sides and downwards. Codey waved his newly acquired tricorder around and announced,
"ninety metres deep." They had to take his word for it, visibility was almost nil, but the way that sound seemed to disappear into infinity made the figure believable.
Jannel stepped a little nearer to one of the windows, to improve her view of the abyss beyond, but stumbled back again as a piece of the floor fell away below her foot. Startled by this unknown danger, she began to notice the other dark areas in the floor and walls where sections, some as large as a person, had fallen away. With only mild persuasion the room could easily be convinced to leave behind the roof to which it had so fondly clung for the past decades, plunging them all into whatever lay below. Benco seemed unshaken by the occurrence and carried on with his task.
"Rex, help me with this would you," he said politely.
The Engineer obliged and had any curiosity satisfied by the act. He took hold of the pipe that Codey had given him, noticing that one end was still attached to an outlet low down on the near wall. Codey carefully began to cut, producing yet another intriguing tool, into one of the other pipes that was fixed to the wall. He skilfully guided the tiny laser cutter, being careful not to heat the material of the pipe too much. A faint smell told Rex why.
"Deutroxide gas," said Rex.
"Are you mad?" Shouted Ricky, realising what this meant. His reaction caused the floor to move slightly. He stopped, but too late, the floor gave way completely. Alborell instinctively grabbed for the boy, catching his right arm, but lost his own footing on the loose brickwork in the process. Fraser himself was stopped by a thick duranium bar protruding from the broken floor and Ricky slipped slightly in his grip before he too came to a stop. Everyone froze, it seemed that only the gas was still moving. Ricky looked up but could only see the lighted beacons of his companions above him through the gaps in the floor, flashing around. Codey quickly stowed his cutting tool and grabbed the tractor beam again.
Rex queried the wisdom of this move to himself, but could see no better way to get both Ricky and Fraser back up, so remained quiet. Jannel could hold Fraser's free arm, just so long as the part of the floor where she was stayed put. They could now hear the voice of Commander Carter on the other side of the door.
"Such a wonderful sense of timing." Remarked Alborell through gritted teeth.
"They could help us," Jannel suggested. Fraser raised an eyebrow, to no appreciable effect.
"If they realise were helping Codey like this we'll have no defence." It was hard to see how dangling two people through the floor of an old control room could be seen as helping, but Jannel got the point.
"They'll start cutting the door any second now," said Codey, anxiously. He passed the tractor beam emitter to Rex.
"That's what the gas was for," exclaimed Jannel in realisation.
"Yes, and if they heat the door too much the gas in here will ignite, that's not what I'd planned," said Codey cutting furiously away at the pipe again.
"Just get me out of here," called Ricky, scarcely believing the conversation going on above him.
The humming from the tractor beam was now at its peak and Rex began focusing it at Ricky.
"Hey, get that thing away from me," he shouted, Fraser's grip slipping as the boy swung from side to side. Jannel in turn felt Alborell sliding out of her grasp.
"Thank goodness this bar's here," gasped Fraser, gripping the duranium bar tighter as it fell out of the crumbling masonry.
Codey slotted the pipeline that he had been cutting into vents to the adjacent room. The beam from the tractor emitter got a grip on Ricky at almost the same time as the phaser fire hit the other side of the containment door.
"I've got him!" Called Rex. Fraser acknowledged with a sort of choking noise and let go of the Boy. Ricky felt himself falling for an instant and then sensed the beam lifting him. Codey ran across, taking care not to add to their problems further by creating yet another hole, and helped Jannel haul Alborell back to the slightly safer refuge of the control room.
Shouts could now be heard faintly in the next room where the phasers had been. They had detected the gas. Fortunately there had not been a considerable build up of heat and the deutroxide had entered harmlessly. It posed no threat to the respiratory system of humans and reached combustion only when exposed to heat. It would stop any further attempts at cutting the door, but it was only a delay. With this accomplished and the group together again, Codey led his companions out to the service track and the small rail-car that he had rigged up earlier in the day.
Like all of the forms of transport that they had been in in the past few weeks, Ricky and Jannel looked on the rail-car with critical eyes. Its appearance was in direct contradiction to the fact that Codey had somehow driven it here. Rex hardly noticed it, he'd travelled in much worse and Fraser decided that whatever he thought didn't matter as they obviously had no choice but to get in and go wherever Benco took them.
"It was the best I could do at short notice," said Benco in response to several unasked but anticipated questions.
"At least it's on time," Added Fraser, getting in first to be sure of the most comfortable seat. He was disappointed, but not wholly surprised, to see that there were none.
All of the space in the back of the vehicle was taken up by a large power plant, at one time this must have been composed of parts that actually belonged together, however, in these circumstances it was likely that a number of inappropriate and unlikely components would have to be added at various points, thus allowing the engine to work even though all examinations of it would lead one to conclude that such a thing was not possible. Rex found the sight more and more incredible the longer he looked at it, the inept attempts at engineering were obviously the product of a complete amateur.
The rest of the vehicle was no better. Nothing more than a metal box, some would say coffin, that contained an array of equipment, no doubt belonging to Benco Codey. There were no controls, no instruments and, more importantly, no windows. The whole was no more than a train carriage with an old antigrav engine, straddling an old rail-car track. Codey invited the others to get in while it was still running.
Very few things made Gerros Carter lose her temper, it was something that she tried to avoid when possible. For one thing it was easy to make mistakes in the heat of rage, even those around you were sometimes affected, fearful to say or do the wrong thing. For another it was bad leadership. It was in an attempt to prevent this happening that the Commander hit the door with the palm of her hand, very hard. She had momentarily forgotten that this action would cause her pain, and most likely add to her frustration, but she did it anyway. Harno tried to offer a suggestion.
"Captain, perhaps it would be possible to pump the deutroxide out of the chamber, or maybe we could isolate the door with a force field." He looked hopefully at the Science Officer, hoping to get support for his idea, but it was not forthcoming.
"That's no good, we can't even use transporters or communications we're so far down." Carter wanted to hit the door again, but realised it would accomplish nothing. "Damn it, he knows that, we'll have to go back to the City and start from there." It would take them quite some time to climb back to the surface and even when they got to the tunnels under the city, they would have to find Fraser and his gang.
They went back to the ladder.
"All we need now is for this damn thing to fall down on top of us," Gerros cursed.
"Where do you think Fraser's gone Captain," the innocent Science Officer was genuinely unaware of his commander's fury, "could he have been kidnapped?" Gerros wasn't in the mood for inquisition and pretended not to hear.
Science officers, she had noted, were always asking questions, even looking for questions to ask. Security officers, on the other hand, looked for answers, and when they got them they stopped looking. They wanted to know only what they needed to know.
Carter reconciled with the Science Officer and shouted that she doubted that Fraser had been taken by force, taking into account the level of information that the Captain had, but then she remembered that none of her crew knew of the conversation that she and the Captain had had earlier. How had she fallen for this?
"What in the name of all things sacred is that trickster up to?" She felt like going back to the ship and blasting the whole planet to pieces, but like hitting the door, the pain would be greater than the pleasure. As they reached the surface she turned to Harno, her eyes narrowed in the bright light, but they were also narrowed under a brow of determined revenge. "Listen," she said to Harno, "here's the plan."
"Rex, what are you doing?" Alborell asked. The question was rapidly becoming Fraser's catch phrase.
Drake's attempts were not ineffectual, however, the leisurely pace of the rail-car had started to increase over the last few minutes, as had the number of complaints from its passengers.
"We'll never get there if we keep this speed," retorted Drake to his critics. Captain Fraser felt a wave of nausea approaching. It was worsened, a few seconds later, by a sudden jolt as the carriage accelerated again. Everyone looked for something to hang on to.
The noise from the rail-car that had been an annoyance at first, was now growing and Alborell had to shout to continue his condemnation of the Engineer's interference.
"Rex, slow down, we're already going too fast." Rex's head was too close to the source of the sound for him to hear. He continued to poke and prod at the engine unabated. Ricky's attempt to walk over to Rex and deliver a different message with similar sentiment, but somewhat greater force, was stopped by another lurch as the rail-car accelerated to a still greater speed. The rails underneath rattled at a higher pitch accordingly.
Ricky found himself at the back of the carriage sooner than he had intended and shouted out to Drake as something of a secondary consideration. Fraser couldn't hear what had been said but observed that Drake had understood the nature of the complaint. Drake said something that no one heard and waved his hand dismissively, suggesting that he had no immediate plans of paying attention to Ricky. By now the carriage was thundering along at an alarming pace. As Rex turned around to attend to the engine once more there was another, even more violent, burst of speed, this time with no help from Drake. The high-pitched whine of the engine now rivalled the tumultuous rattling of the cars frail structure. Something was definitely wrong.
The wall of the tunnel was just a blur to Jannel as she looked out through side door. Benco, who was standing right beside her, was shouting and pointing, but even he could not be heard. Jannel realised that he was trying to get her to lie on the floor, presumably for her safety and not for any other intentions that he may have had. This did not fill the others with confidence and Rex suddenly got the idea that maybe he had overdone the improvements. He stumbled back to the power unit and tried to find the engine shut down system.
They were now entering an area of some considerable decay. The walls of the tunnel looked wet and soft and the floor, normally heavily set, was cracked and broken. As the rail-car sped on it started to sway from side to side, scraping chunks out of the wall as it went from its usual course, the rails twisting and buckling under the strain. At one point the carriage lifted briefly upward, crashing metal and pipe-work together on the roof of the tunnel, before slamming down awkwardly, back onto the track. Sparks flew by the open door and chunks of metal snapped away as the now doomed vehicle bounced around the passageway chaotically. Drake gave up trying to shut the engine down and started looking for the brakes.
Relying now more on the walls of the tunnel than the rails to guide it, the rail-car scraped its way towards an opening. Here the track continued out into the cavern that they had seen earlier from the control centre. The sight would have been tremendous, were it not for the pitch darkness and the absolute absence of any kind of hole in the rail-car through which to look, apart from the small side door. The terrified group did take the occasional glance, and saw that they were now no longer on the track. The severe pitching and bucking of the car had made them suspicious of this fact, but the sight of the rough rocky floor rushing by confirmed it. The sharp wheels were digging into the tough stone and chipping chunks of it away, likewise the tough stone was bashing the underside of the carriage and buckling the metal frame, but more worrying was the fact that they didn't seem to be slowing down. Rex gave up looking for the brakes and decided that it might be safer on the floor.
The slope sped the rail-car on at an ever increasing speed, until, with an unexpected silence, it left the edge of it completely. They could all feel the car falling and tumbling through the air and knew they had only a few seconds before it hit the bottom of the cavern, but instead of the crash that they had expected, they heard a splash as the car came down into a large underground lake.
Water washed into the cabin, finally shutting off the engine and dampening everyone's terror into simple panic. The group clambered out, grabbing what equipment they could before the heavy carriage started to sink. As the air trapped inside bubbled out to the surface the rail-car tipped over onto its side and disappeared into the dark depths below. Someone found and lit a torch.
"Nice driving Rex," called Ricky, his voice echoing back coldly. Benco Codey had his mind on more serious matters.
"Is everyone here?" He called out, turning the torch about him. Three people called back, someone was missing; Fraser. Everyone looked to see if the Captain was somewhere nearby, but the visibility was not helping.
"Alborell!" Shouted Jannel, there was no reply.
The city looked on innocently and innocuously as dozens of security teams clambered through what remained of its buildings and streets. They were guided with determination and purpose by the Lieutenant, Harno, now a familiar face in these parts, still with a dull headache from his fall in the Cougar's cargo bay. He was in turn led by, a now vengeful, Commander Carter whose frustration and anger was readily apparent. In addition to the teams in the city, a sizable group of officers had also been left at Fraser's ship. They had orders to shoot its owner on sight.
When they got to the City Hall the crewmen were sorted into four groups. It had been quite a while since Carter had organised an operation this big and she admitted to herself that she quite liked the sense of power it gave her. If the circumstances were different she would probably enjoy herself.
"Lieutenant Harno, you will be in charge of teams Alpha and Beta, while I will take Gamma and Delta." The neat lines of officers and crew stood rigidly. "Be sure to keep both or your groups within communications range, once we're down there we won't be able to relay any findings we make to the ship or to each other. We'll give ourselves four hours," Harno nodded, "after that we'll regroup on the surface if we still haven't found anyone."
"What are your instructions regarding capture Commander?" Harno asked. Carter answered decisively.
"Anyone you find is to be detained, by whatever means necessary, this problem has gone past discussion, we are now in a confrontational* situation."
Carter took one last look at the army that she had assembled. Four large security groups, one medical officer, one science officer and one engineer with each. All had everything they needed to survive in whatever situation that they might find in the tunnels and all had been well briefed in the profiles of those that they sought. The only thing missing was a map of the tunnels.
The group was quickly on their way, marching down the dark and lonely corridors, light beams from their torches picking out every suspicious corner nervously. They soon realised the vastness of the subterranean network. Even with the whole ship down here they couldn't cover anything approaching the whole thing. If they did find someone, it would be down to luck.
Lieutenant Reeves, Science Officer assigned to Carter's main group, walked a little quicker until he was level with his Commander.
"Sir, I think I know what these signs mean." Carter was too preoccupied to pay much attention. "I believe that I can use them to work out a search pattern Captain." Carter stopped, much to the discomfort of the seven people walking behind her. "It would improve our chances of finding the,"
"Shhh!" Reeves, as so many times before, found himself being interrupted. "Did you hear that?" Carter stood very still and very quiet. No one dared speak. "That crashing noise, like an explosion, it was below us I think, some distance away." A couple of the others admitted to feeling a slight tremor, but couldn't offer anything more helpful.
The group moved slowly forward again. Gerros had reached the chamber that had become familiar to her on the previous excursion, the huge water tank serving as a landmark of sorts. This time she knew that there were no ghosts, just as there were no native inhabitants. The only things that moved down here were the people she sought to capture. The staircase beckoned them down.
"Carter to group Gamma, we're moving down, keep us within range."
Fraser was gradually becoming aware of sound. Becoming aware of voices, of shouting. Aware that these voices were shouting something, a word, his name? Yes, he was sure, it was his name, and it was getting nearer.
"Fraser, there he is!" Someone cried.
"Is he dead?" Said someone else.
"Maybe he just got knocked out," said another, slightly more optimistically. Four people splashed towards him, clambering onto the shore to which he had been swept.
"He looks pretty bad, pass me the medkit." Fraser lifted his hand up weakly and felt the part of his head that hurt the most. It was wet and sticky, with blood.
"Can he move?" Asked Benco. The question was a little before its time, but necessary. Codey knew all too well the consequences of staying still. The danger was now not from Starfleet, but from Edlund.
A pass with the autosuture healed Alborell's wounds in an instant. With some help he was finally able to stand upright. As he did, trying not to fall over, Benco tried to work out where they were and what state they were all in. Things didn't look too bad. No one else was badly injured, although they were all wet and cold and he had managed to save a couple of things from the rail-car. A large pack had contained most of the more vital stuff and one of the medium sized cases had been thrown clear as the carriage had fallen, just like Fraser.
Codey took out the two tricorders that he had stolen from the guards on the Cougar, placing them carefully on the ground. Then, delving further into the pack, which by chance was water proof, he produced another of his strange electronic contrivances. This one took the form of a square circuit board, inlaid with the usual pathways and logic gates, but with five unusual and possibly incompatible modules affixed to it. The whole looked like it had been made out of a junior micro-electronics kit, two old sub-space radio receivers, a shaver, a phaser and the control panel from the Trieste's starship security unit. Rex Drake noticed it first.
"It's just another of my little home made toys, I knocked it up last night." Codey explained. Fraser raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't know you had a home." Codey picked up one of the tricorders and slotted it onto the board, a perfect fit noted Rex.
"Won't they find us with those?" Said Ricky. Benco smiled enigmatically.
"I hope so." For a moment Fraser thought the Bounty Hunter might actually be giving up. "This device will read and then copy the transponder signal from both of these tricorders. Then we transfer that coded signal to these," he pulled yet another object from his pocket; a small black disk.
"A diversion," Fraser realised.
"When they pick up one on their sensors, they'll follow it, but two the same, or five, that's really going to be confusing," Benco obviously enjoyed this aspect of his work, "but we'll have to be careful, if they catch on too soon we will lose the advantage." He put the disk into another slot in the circuit board and activated the device.
"Here Rex, you can look after this," Said Codey, tossing the fragile contraption through the air at the Engineer. The cigarette that Drake had just spent the last four minutes drying out, fell into the water as he caught the flying object.
"Just don't try any 'improvements'," said Ricky, sarcastically.
Fraser was coming to his senses and decided that he would be fit enough to continue. Everyone else agreed and headed off in the direction that they thought the least undesirable. Codey had found an entrance to the main complex and seemed confident that it would lead them onto the 'trail'. Sure enough, it wasn't long before they found signs of Dave Edlund's presence.
The twisted door of the elevator maintenance panel was obviously a recent attempt to stall his pursuers, but it gave no indication of where Edlund was now.
"Careful, it may be a trap," warned Benco as Rex peered inquisitively inside. Everything looked in order, so Drake ripped the plate from its hinges and threw it carelessly down the corridor. He could see that the control chips inside had been rearranged for some reason, but still there was no clue as to what Edlund had been doing here. Alborell took his multicorder and scanned, looking carefully at its screen before making any comment. The others waited patiently.
"Looks like it's been powered up somewhere above, the power's running through these circuits and then into the whole elevator system for this shaft." Fraser announced.
"So he's down here?" asked Jannel, a little nervous.
"Maybe, but it all seems a little too obvious." Benco pondered the matter. He knew Dave Edlund, the mysterious gang member from the mean streets of Turcan III who went missing from prison, and he had an idea of the man that he would most likely become in these conditions, but he had never come up against him to check his theories.
"It could be a double bluff," said Fraser, wondering to what extent Benco regretted letting Fraser and his group come along.
Rex took another look at the control chips, tracing imaginary lines with his finger. Something wasn't quite right.
"He wouldn't need to change these," he murmured.
"What are you talking about Drake?" Codey asked.
"Just ignore him, he doesn't know what he's talking about," said Ricky, unhelpfully, but, in light of recent events, justifiably. Benco didn't ignore him. Rex realised what was wrong.
"That's it," he said, turning back to Codey, "he's powered up the system from one of the floors above, then gone down and sent the lift back up to here, that's why the control panel's been tampered with, to intercept the programming." It sounded like nonsense to everyone else, but Codey didn't appear to think so. He made a decision immediately.
"Then we have to go down, Ricky can you check the lift for triggers?" Ricky responded without thinking about who had given him the order. They all realised that Benco Codey was the only person who really knew what to do.
Ricky gave the lift car his approval and the group began to climb aboard, Fraser hesitated. His minimal training as a security officer told him not to trust Benco's judgment without question. There should be no one single decision maker in any group.
"What's the matter Alborell?" Asked Jannel, seeing Fraser still outside the lift.
"Something's still not right about this," said Fraser, Codey didn't seem interested.
"Fraser, you've got to trust me, if you're willing to accept my authority as leader then you have to accept my decisions." Benco had a stern expression, he was quite serious. Fraser stepped onto the lift. The word of someone who was devoted enough to have intensely studied their prey for two years, and to have followed his trail across twenty-nine star systems and seven sectors, had to be worth something didn't it?
Confident that he had finally got the command structure sorted out, Benco began to organise his thoughts.
"I'm afraid we won't have the opportunity for discussions of this length once we get nearer to Edlund." Codey looked around, to see the reaction to his statement. No one voiced disagreement. The lift began to descend.
"You were saying Mr. Reeves," said Carter. Three people turned quickly to see who had spoken before realising that it was their Commander, it was probably a bad thing to be this tense.
"Commander?" Reeves replied. Carter peered into the darkness ahead of them.
"These signs, I believe you had come up with a theory," the Commander prompted. Reeves remembered.
"Yes, the signs, here," he pointed to the screen of his tricorder, but Carter wasn't interested in the mechanics of the theory, just its application.
"Can you transmit your theory to the other group?" Carter asked. Reeves thought about it, said he could, and was promptly ordered to do it.
Evidence of its usefulness came soon with the discovery of an active elevator, the lift at shaft 229-C, or level twenty-two section nine-cee, as Reeves had explained. Its behaviour was odd for it had returned to this, seemingly arbitrary, level after a short journey to one of the lower floors. The diligent crew serving under Carter had quickly determined the exact location.
"Level thirty-six sir," reported Lieutenant Reeves, but the Commander was wary of making use of the information. The fact that someone had switched the control chips around didn't give her much confidence, rather it begged further questions.
"The lift always comes back here," she pondered. Doctor Sharpe, who had just rejoined the Commander's party, offered a suggestion.
"Can't we change them back?" He asked. Gerros didn't seem appreciative of the advice.
"That isn't the point Doctor, Captain Fraser has obviously set this up as a trap, either to try and get us stuck down on the lowest level or just to delay us." It really was a tricky situation. "Then of course, I could be wrong," she admitted, a little more openly than was common. They were losing valuable time, Gerros had to be decisive.
Carter pointed down the corridor in one direction, "Delta, you're with me, Gamma, take that passageway," she pointed in the other. "Remember, keep within communications range." The two teams split up. It seemed that Gerros had decided to postpone this particular decision until she was sure she had run out of other options.
As Benco Codey began to smell the familiar scent of the chase, his companions grew more and more wary, but not weary, of him. Something in those minutes, as the lift car had descended, had changed him from the man that they knew into the stranger that he had been on the tarmac of the spaceport the day before. No one spoke as he carefully examined each wall and every minor object in the lowest level of the city's sub-terrain. Whatever service for quizzical amateurs had been open to them before, was now definitely closed. Finally Benco broke the tense silence.
"Straight ahead," he said simply and assuredly.
Dave Edlund watched with interest. His view was now possible as the lift that had brought the group down had risen back up into the darkness, just as it had been programmed to do. The small hole in the back of the lift shaft allowed Edlund to finally see the blundering fools who were attempting to apprehend him. He wondered how big the reward was on him now, then his attention turned to the leader of the group. It was obvious who was in charge. Whoever this man was, it was clear that he was a skilled and experienced bounty hunter.
The others though, they were very puzzling. Surely this leader, whoever he was, had the proficiency to work on his own, better for it. What calamity had forced him to endure this group of know-nothings? No matter, he would deal with them all, in time. Their skill was irrelevant, Dave Edlund had an overwhelming advantage; years of thought and planning, familiarisation with his surroundings and a contingency for every possible eventuality. He had been making himself ready for this day for some time.
"What is this stuff?" Asked Jannel, looking distastefully at the dark slimy substance sticking to her boots. No one seemed to know. Rex Drake looked down to his belt to find out where the annoying bleeping sound was coming from.
"The tricorders!" said Codey with gleeful realisation. He took the contraption from the Engineer's belt and carefully lifted the stolen instruments out of their fittings. Rex took out the, also stolen, tools that he had brought along and opened the tiny panel in the top of each of the tricorders. A twist here and a prod there and the transponders dropped lifelessly onto the ground, disappearing into the 'mud' that Jannel had been so curious of.
"Don't forget the disks," reminded Fraser. Benco lifted the tiny devices out and passed them round.
After a short distance they happened upon a room, of sorts. Like everywhere else, it was badly damaged by water and fire, though not necessarily in that order and, also like everywhere else, its function, either now or a century ago, was a total mystery. It contained several large machines, two of which had toppled over onto their neighbours, crushing them with an ease that belied their extensive mass. Their connections had been severed unceremoniously, spilling various chemical substances and causing further damage, and the walls that they had stood near had been ravaged by the multiple collisions of debris and shrapnel. It was a mess.
For some reason the temperature in the room was dropping, it was now approaching something beyond inconvenient. If they were going to stay around playing guess the machine they would need some heat.
"Rex, can you do anything with the life support?" Captain Fraser asked. Rex always seemed to find a panel and this occasion was no exception. This time it was near to the door that they had entered by. As usual, the instrumentation on it had gone past any kind of definition of usefulness, and as usual, Drake wrenched the plate containing them cleanly away, exposing something that he could at least work with.
"Give me a few minutes," he said. The others shivered.
Alborell, seizing the opportunity to make a command decision, thought that this would be an ideal opportunity for Ricky and Rex to settle their differences, so he sent Ricky Hawkins over to the door to help the Engineer. Fraser then trotted forward to where Benco had taken himself, making certain that Jannel joined him.
"I think there's another doorway over there," Benco pointed. Fraser would have to take Benco's word for it. He didn't much fancy having to move what must be tons of machinery to find out.
"I didn't expect this Dave Edlund character to make it easy for us," said Alborell, with some indication in his voice that he had resigned himself to following Codey's lead.
The cold was really beginning to bite now. Fraser looked across at Rex, who was still working, and hoped that he wouldn't be much longer fixing the temperature controls. As he watched he suddenly saw something moving in the corridor beyond.
"Rex, look out!" He called. Both Ricky and Rex looked behind them, just in time to see a shadowy figure stabbing at something in the wall further down the passageway. Rex immediately dived through the doorway, Ricky followed close behind. Drake was the lucky one. Ricky had cut his timing a little too finely and as the intense blast of cold gas erupted from the wall he was caught in it. Fraser lost sight of the body and ran forward to see if there was anything he could do. There wasn't, the stream of cryogenic gas was now forming a most effective barrier.
Rex saw Edlund turn back and make off down the corridor, the Engineer fired off a shot from his phaser as the figure returned to the shadows. Very unfortunately, the shot missed its intended target, hitting instead the controls in the wall that Edlund had used to open the cryogenic gas spilling vent. They sparked and smouldered formidably. Ricky had picked himself off the ground before realising what had happened, suddenly noticing that the back of his legs and his feet were completely numb.
As his aching limbs gave way again he felt a warm sensation. Rex had been quick with a hypospray, injecting a stimulant into his leg. He hardly had time to speak before Drake was off again in the opposite direction. Rex wasn't what could be called a fast runner, but he seemed determined enough. Edlund, however, was resourceful and his planning had saved him once again. As Rex turned the corner another burst of freezing gas burst out of the wall. Rex Drake was cut off from the assailant, for now.
For the Liberator's Chief Security Officer, the task of finding any one of a possible six people within what was possibly tens of thousands of square kilometres of underground passageways, was not one that he would have freely chosen. Like everything else, however, he was content enough knowing that he was following his orders. Icarians seemed to live to follow orders, in fact they were quite lost without them.
Harno had searched an insignificant area on the first level and had now ventured into the chamber, that had been visited twice already by the Commander. Harno considered his next move. Would it make any difference? They moved on and turned down the first corridor they came to.
"Are Alpha and Beta still following Ensign?" Harno asked the female officer on his right. She held the tricorder closer to her face and assured the Lieutenant that they were, just as he had ordered them to. He noted his actions to the other, somewhat uninterested, group.
The large and heavy door that they arrived at was clearly, to Harno anyway, the door that they were destined to find. It looked very much as though it were there to keep people very much out. The Engineer of the group looked at the necessary components of the mechanism and turned back to her superior.
"The door should work if we can power it," she said. Harno didn't need to think about it.
"Open it," he said calmly. The Engineer put the power converter that she had been carrying on the ground and connected it with the door's mechanism. Its operation was surprisingly smooth. The two interlocking panels parted easily with a satisfying hiss. There was nothing much beyond, more of the same, but the shapes made by the torchlight suggested the presence of another large door a few metres inside the newly discovered passage. They went further in. "Ensign, bring that power converter with you," Harno ordered. There was a lot of rubble on the floor, apparently from the sizable hole in the wall, but it didn't completely block the way to the end. The appalling stale smell left behind by fire rose as the debris beneath their feet crumpled.
"It seems that the fire triggered the door sir," the Engineer explained, as they arrived at the second door.
Another scan revealed that this was the end of the line. "The sections beyond are flooded with water sir, this cut-off door should hold for a while though," said the Ensign. Harno had no choice but to turn back. One of the security officers suddenly called out.
"Sir, I've found something, I think it could be another corridor." Harno went over to the crumbling gap in the wall, there was something there. The hands of the nearest officers were enlisted to clear the opening and in no time there was room for someone to squeeze through. Tentative probing with the palm-beacons showed up very little, as did the tricorders, but the investigation would not end there. Harno pushed through alone and with no word to his crew. The young Engineer decided that she would follow.
"Lieutenant Harno, there's another power coupling somewhere in here," she said almost immediately, it seemed that the wall had blocked their previous scan. A little more digging showed him what she had been talking about. A small relay box on the side of a power conduit. They cleared yet more rubble.
"It's dead, could you connect it up to your power converter Ensign?" Another minute of fumbling in the dirt encrusted cavity brought an answer.
"Yes, but there's no need, this feed-line branches off from a functioning generator or energy bank, somewhere on this level," the Engineer informed speculatively. "I could tap the power through," she clarified.
"Perhaps it was Commander Carter," Harno wondered, "proceed." The Engineer made it so. There was a solid sounding click and then the lights, what lights were left, came on. The smile on the Engineers face did not last for long, as, with a formidable 'clunk', they heard the huge bulkhead door that they had first entered by, sliding to a definite and unyielding close.
Had he been with Lieutenant Harno, Benco Codey would probably have sympathised with him. He was trapped as effectively, though by different means. The high pressure stream of gas that flared into the room served as well as the most solid of doors. The effects of contact with the cryogenic gas were known to all and there were no volunteers to see if there was a narrow gap that they could pass through.
"Rex, can't you do anything?" Bellowed Fraser into the roar of the jet. Codey passed Fraser the small communicator that he carried and he repeated his message. Drake told him that it was hopeless. Edlund had made quite sure that even the most skilled technician would be unable to reverse what had been done, least of all with the controls blown out. Rex and Ricky were stuck, cut off even from the machine room where vital systems that might be able to shut down the stream were routed.
The shivering Alborell didn't pretend to know much about the wiring that he was now messing around with. Thanks to a complete lack of concentration whilst serving as engineer, success in his attempts to alter the rooms heat setting would only come by chance.
Codey opened the communicator again and called Rex. The temperature in the room was now beginning to overwhelm the heat countermeasures of Benco's clothing.
"Drake, you've go to do something, try to find a point up-stream, in the wall, maybe you can divert it from there," Codey suggested. Something along the lines of a reply came back from Rex and then Benco closed the channel.
"You know, we ought to be careful Benco," said Fraser, "Carter might be able to lock our communications signal." As if things weren't bad enough, to think that Gerros Carter might have to pull them out.
Alborell's caution, however, was not misplaced. For Gerros Carter, it was just the break that she needed.
"Commander, I have just picked up a faint communications signal, non-Starfleet standard," Reeves excitedly announced.
"You're sure it isn't one of ours?" Carter asked. Reeves nodded. "Where was it?" Reeves kept his eyes on his tricorder for a moment.
"It came from below, one of the lower levels." Carter stopped in her tracks. They had been walking away from the lift for about five minutes, the other group doing the same but in the opposite direction. So, she had been wrong about the lift.
"Quick, call Gamma, tell them to meet us at the lift." The group turned and started to run back.
The Lieutenant made the call and almost immediately afterward heard an explosion over the channel. The sound, accompanied by a blast of air, reached them a second later. It had come from the other end of the corridor and, if they assumed the worst, it was probably just where the seven officers of Gamma group had been. It didn't take long to find out. They ran at full speed, past the lift shaft and along to the section of corridor where the others had been. It looked at first as though the no one could have escaped from the mangled structure that used to be a passageway, but the cries of the wounded told them that at least some had.
Four men and three women had been trapped in the passageway. The tangle of metal and bodies suggested that a bomb had been responsible, but Reeves was too busy to find out. Just two crewmen had been clear of the blast, and they had been caught in the heat and raining debris. The horror that every Starship Captain hoped never to face, the consequences of their actions, now faced Carter. She knelt down by the unconscious body of Doctor Sharpe, a sizable gash on his forehead. He still had a pulse, but it was weak.
She pondered the chances, the complexities of fate that had sent one group this way and hers another. Why must she survive and the others not? These people, who had died in the name of nothing, were they any less important? That was a judgment that no one had the right to make, least of all her. This demonstration had served only to make her realise that to be the instrument of fate was a burden greater than her spirit could bear. Just as it had shown that the risks could sometimes be greater than the reward.
"Benco, it's no use, I can't shut this thing off, Edlund's cut us off from the source." Codey, now trapped in sub-zero temperatures, didn't sound happy.
"Well think of something, I don't know how much longer I can take this." Drake knew the feeling. Benco finished by telling Rex to keep the communications channel clear. It seemed a sensible precaution, if a little late.
Captain Fraser watched as small drips of water fell from the ceiling, hissing as they struck the red hot metal of one of the abandoned machines. Benco had attempted to get some heat into the room by warming up a piece of the machinery with his phaser, but it didn't seem to do very much. No matter how closely they went to the improvised heater, they could still feel the biting cold penetrating their skin and numbing their bones.
"So how do we get out of this one Alborell?" Jannel asked. The warm orange glow from the 'fire' on her cold face was not an accurate reflection of her mood. Alborell gave a believable impression of a man deep in thought and picked up Benco's phaser from the floor. This was, he realised, an extreme situation, calling for extreme solutions. He had had an idea for some time, but it was not going to be popular, and it carried great risk.
"We had better move," he said mysteriously. Benco wondered for a moment what it was that Fraser had in mind, but he decided not to ask. He and Jannel simply did as they were told and got themselves as far away from the doorway as possible. Whatever Fraser was planning wasn't likely to be delicate in its nature.
He paced up to and then away from the blast of cryogenic gas, seeming to make some kind of cursory estimate, before dashing over to his companions, now safely, so they thought, positioned behind a large support strut.
"Al, what are you going to do?" Jannel questioned steadily.
"Watch," suggested Fraser, then he amended, "no, on second thoughts, don't." They ducked.
Fraser shot a thin beam of energy from the phaser, aimed carefully at the eruption of gas that was blocking the doorway. All that anyone remembered happening next was a large explosion that pushed them, and the support strut that were using for cover, back into a previously solid wall.
The low roaring sound of fire ripping through underground pipe work and out to surface vents almost deafened Lieutenant Harno and his group. It was as though the city's entire cryogenic supply network was alight. Tanks, valves and pumps exploded everywhere. They could have been forgiven for thinking they were in a war-zone, but Harno was not the sort to panic easily. He reasoned that, apart from the loud noise, the explosion told them little and had affected them less. It was therefore best ignored for now. Certainly it was less important than the problem they presently faced.
The voice of the officer leading the other team came over on the communicator and asked if everyone was alright. Harno informed him that their present state of health was satisfactory, but that the most immediate problem was that they seemed to be trapped. Some would say they were victims of their own efficiency, coming, as they had, to the situation by their extreme curiosity, but Harno saw it as just another unavoidable obstacle. He deemed that he had made no mistake and could not have foreseen these circumstances, nonetheless, they were stuck. So far they had tried turning the power off, and back on again, connecting up to the local sub-processor and even good old brute force, but nothing had worked.
"I would suggest that you bring your team here Lieutenant, and try to open the door from your side, as we originally did," Harno said with control and calm, "in the meantime we will continue our search for other exits."
The second group soon found their way to where Harno and his officers were trapped, but the prospects of freedom looked bleak. A recent detonation, of unknown origin, had caused some damage to the large, and reliable, door. It looked bad. A superheated fire-storm had scorched everything, almost along the entire length of the corridor. In fact, Harno had been extremely lucky to have avoided it, although the final truth of a statement to that effect would depend on whether those who had been trapped ever got out again.
"Whatever that blast was, it damaged the door sir, I don't think it will open again." The Officer was just metres away from them, and yet totally unable to help. Harno sensed the groups morale getting lower.
The phasers and specialist cutting equipment that had been brought along would be able to get through the thick door, the officer explained, but it looked like the door had been designed to actively resist anything that might want to get through it, a virtue that had proved favourable minutes ago, but which was now undesirable. For Harno, however, patience was all that was needed. He was confident that if they searched thoroughly enough, or at the collapse of this strategy, waited long enough, a solution would be found.
He was half right. With a determined push from several of the more energetic crewmen, a small side corridor had been uncovered. It had passed previously unnoticed behind a heavy casing panel that had stood in one corner. As this panel gave way and toppled to the ground they could all see that there was definitely something behind it. Not only could they see it, but they could also hear and smell it too. It was the quite unmistakable and distinct exhaust port of a Type-XII Fusion Reprocessing Exchanger and its familiarity to the technically minded of the group was a memory from many a toxic gas emergency evacuation simulation.
Gerros Carter had been reappraising Captain Fraser, someone who she thought she understood, although in actuality the time when she thought she understood him could be measured in hours. Her already low estimation of him had fallen considerably; lives had been lost in his sake. Of course, she realised that he was not directly responsible. At least part of Captain Fraser's story had been true. They had seen for themselves evidence of someone, down here in the tunnels. The reduced group had found, and deactivated, three more booby traps since the fatal first encounter, they had clearly been constructed by an expert, far out of Fraser's class. Even so, Fraser was her first priority.
Carter's team had now found their way down to level thirty-five.
"Open this panel Lieutenant," ordered the Commander, upon reaching another lift, "you should be able to hand-crank the elevator door." The officer did as he was told and the doors moved slowly apart and revealed a darkness of uncertainty. One of the officers had scanned a ten metre drop down to the bottom of the shaft, which ended just below the floor of level thirty-six. "Did you bring the latches?" Carter asked, turning to one of the security officers. The young man lifted the small apparatus from the case that he had been carrying and spent a couple of minutes fitting it into one of the grooves set into the wall of the shaft.
The same man then stepped onto the foot-plates and readied his phaser, a precarious operation. Carter nodded an acknowledgement and the remaining security force took their positions at the open elevator doorway.
With further instruction the makeshift lift descended. Lieutenant Keebo, the Security Officer chosen to accompany Gerros on the quick recon', reported that there was no immediate threat, but that there had been a large build up of heat several minutes ago. Carter could see the traces of heat and flame on the walls of the lift shaft as they slowly dropped and as they continued the heat could be felt radiating from the dark walls.
"Was this another trap?" she wondered aloud, stepping from the contraption. The officer got off too and sent the small carriage back up. He tried to answer his commander's question.
"Possible," while he scanned he picked up something else, "there's an opening here sir." He knelt down and pulled at the mesh covering the low-rear section of the shaft. "It looks as though the wall of one of the adjacent maintenance crawlways has been knocked through to make a doorway." If they had used the elevator, the opening would have been hidden perfectly.
"Edlund, he must have this place riddled with hidden doorways and passages," reasoned the Commander. The Lieutenant guessed what was coming next.
The view of the ceiling coming into focus led Captain Alborell Fraser to wonder about his current policy regarding this adventure, or misadventure. This was the second time today that he had been unconscious, more than in the whole of the rest of his life. His memory of how he came to be lying here, behind several tons of metalwork, was, like his body; somewhat fragmentary. The last thing he knew he was feeling very cold and firing a phaser, now both the cold and the phaser were gone. A face suddenly appeared in his field of view, it was Jannel.
"I'm warning you Alborell, stop doing that," she shouted. Clearly she was growing tired of finding his unconscious body lying around the place. Fraser felt his face, firstly to determine if it was still intact, it was, and secondly to see if any blood was present, it was. There was some pain, but he had kept his skin.
"Are you alright?" Fraser asked the girl. She looked a little shocked.
"Of course, aren't I always," she replied sarcastically.
"I hate to break up the reunion kids, but we've got to move," croaked the voice of Benco Codey. "Looks like Carter's found her way down here," he warned with urgency in his strained voice. It wasn't really much of a surprise considering all the noise they had been making, but the announcement was just as badly received as if it had been unexpected.
Jannel helped the Captain onto his feet and, to his great relief, he stayed there. He looked around and saw that, not only had his plan worked in as much as it had stopped the stream of gas that had been blocking the doorway, but it had also created another way out. The valve for the pipe into the room had exploded and loosened the structure of the wall, whilst the explosion of the main tank somewhere above had shaken the place so much that the wall had fallen down completely. From a room with no way out, they had made quite a selection of exits for themselves.
They hurried through the hole and found themselves in another corridor.
"What about Ricky?" Jannel asked anxiously. Fraser was already following Benco.
"We can't use communications," Fraser replied. "Don't worry, Rex will look after him." And if he didn't, Carter would, it mattered not. They weren't going to get any choice in the matter. All they could do now was try to keep up with Benco.
They caught their breath as Codey stopped by a lift and scanned it. They were about to ask Benco if he thought it had been used when Codey hurried them on, further down the corridor, eager to make up for the time that they had lost. He threw a fist-sized ball into the lift and kept running. A few seconds later a blast echoed after them. The bright light of the eruption set their shadows in front of them for an instant before a blast of air flew past, and all was quiet. If Fraser wanted action, he'd found it.
They came to a second lift around the next corner, but this time Codey decided not to destroy it. The tricorder picked up Edlund's trail. Codey snapped another of his home made contraptions onto the elevators control panel and the lift began to rise. Benco patiently waited in silence as the lift slowly ascended, but before Fraser and Jannel could recover, they were moving again. Now, Fraser noted, they had reached level thirty.
Still Benco said nothing.
"Do you think he's here?" Whispered Fraser. Codey shined his torch along the corridor.
"He's leading us on a trail," he said mysteriously. Then, suddenly, Codey halted them. They crept slowly along the passageway to yet another lift, but this time Benco seemed to be sensing something, as though he knew what he would find. The lift looked just the same as the others had, but to Codey it was different.
"Wait here," he said, walking carefully onto the elevator.
"Alborell," whispered Jannel.
"Yes?" Said Fraser. Holding out the phaser that he had recovered from the burned out machine room.
"Is this really a good place to be right now?" Alborell looked as though he hadn't really thought about it much.
"What, you mean us being down here, over a hundred metres below the planets surface in an old and worn out underground prison, with Edlund, Carter and Benco Codey all running around after each other, and along with all of that numerous booby-traps deliberately set up to kill or trap us?" Jannel gave Fraser a deeply worrying stare.
The noise that filled Lieutenant Harno's ears was now, all at once, attached to a visual event. The fierce stream of distinctive pale green gas was blustering upward through an endless conduit, like the wild rapids of some emerald coloured, poisonous, vertical river. Now with the protection of a respirator, Harno was trying to find out more. A plan, as yet unknown to his faithful crew, was forming in his mind.
He looked again at the readings on his tricorder and then passed the instrument across to his Science Officer.
"Ralonex gas sir, harmful to humanoid respiratory systems and soft-tissue, exposure recommended not to exceed seven minutes." Harno asked something else, on a closed communication channel and out of the earshot of the others, The Science Officer's reply set their imagination into an alarming train of thought. "The stream is travelling at eighty kilometres per hour sir."
"How long will it be until we can get through the door there?" Harno asked.
"Best estimates, thirty minutes." That settled it, this alternative was all they had.
The small and uncomfortable hole that had been hammered and bashed out of the crawlway wall had, as Gerros Carter had predicted, led them into another, equally small and uncomfortable, maintenance crawlway. The only dilemma they faced was which way to go. Whilst all the evidence pointed to the fact that Edlund had used this tunnel for something, there was nothing to indicate where exactly he had gone or what he had been doing. Lieutenant Keebo's best efforts at determining these facts had turned up no clues.
Then they heard it; a faint noise, rolling and echoing in the distance, it was almost impossible to tell where it was coming from, but somehow Carter managed it. They moved on, towards it, not waiting for the others to catch up with them. The sound grew louder and clearer as they went on, around turn after turn, until finally they recognised what it was they had been led by. The roaring sound of gas was unmistakable.
When Carter reached the source of the noise there was a steady file of crewmen lined up behind her, clearly she was easier to find than Dave Edlund. Her group had prepared as well as Harno's and equipped themselves with breathing masks at the first sign of the gas, Keebo passed one forward to his Commander. Carter put it on, but it wouldn't help her to move on further, the violent nature of the exhaust stream prevented that. All she could do now was stare into the raging storm of gas.
"Mr. Keebo, can you detect anything on the other side of this?" The Lieutenant scanned.
"Yes, this crawlway continues on sir." So this gas exhaust port was blocking them. Carter tried to see what Keebo had detected, but couldn't. Was this another trick by Edlund, or Fraser, or was it just there, for no particular reason?
The intuition that normally served Gerros had abandoned her, either in her rage or her confusion, and all that remained was basic human curiosity. Under the guidance of this compulsion, she had just one direction to consider; onward, past the obstruction. Even if this was the wrong way, she would feel better actually knowing that it was wrong.
"Shut it down," She called through her mask.
The report from Harno's, confined, first group came through to the second, now waiting some floors above. The message that had travelled along the exhaust conduit proved the connection and preceded the first of the brave crew to try his bold plan. This itself had been preceded by a hastily prepared experiment in which a tricorder had been thrown into the stream, and retrieved. The speed of ascent had been a little worrying, but this was the only alternative to a desperate situation. So they came to the first volunteer, although they would all eventually have to go in.
The officer grasped the sides of the open panel tightly and braced herself. With as little delay as possible, she went in. Fortunately the gas did not afford a good view of what lay below, nor of anything, and its intensity blocked all sound. All sense was gone, even the sense of motion. Speed meant nothing as there was nothing to gauge it by. It was the eye of a vast storm, isolated from all outside influence, it was almost peaceful, in an extremely turbulent way. Something to be remembered, and hopefully not repeated.
Long minutes passed before an elated report from the second team; the crewman had been recovered successfully. A little less reluctantly the others queued up, one by one. Each dived into the fierce turmoil of the exhaust, emerging shortly afterward at the exit. Their escape was working. At last Harno's turn came. As the highest ranking officer, he had seen it as his duty to remain behind to see that everyone was safely away and received by the other team. This done, all that remained was him.
Lieutenant Harno stepped up to the mouth of the ferocious rapids and calmed himself. His alarm had diminished very little over the past few minutes, seeing his crew-mates disappear and hearing of their recovery. He had tried to rationalise his fear but to no avail. The problem was, there was no one here giving orders, he was going to have to do this himself, with no one else telling him to do it. There was no real alternative, and no time to think of one. Realising that it was the only thing to do, he launched himself into the exhaust stream.
Codey waited for the lift to drop, until its roof was level with the floor on which they now stood. When it stopped, he told Fraser and Jannel to get on. To their surprise, they did and they displayed some relief when Benco joined them and drew his phaser.
"Whatever happens, just hang on," he said, still with no further explanation of what this was all about.
Doing exactly as they were told, Jannel and Alborell gripped tightly onto the clasps set into the roof of the lift. It worried them that they had nowhere to run, trapped as they were on top of a lift descending along its shaft, and they were even more alarmed when the sound of the doors opening was followed by the heat and force of a phaser beam, slicing into the back of the lift. Now they could see the advantage of Codey's plan. Benco chose his moment carefully, kicking away the hatch under his feet and dropping down just as the firing stopped. Fraser and Jannel heard more phaser fire followed by running, but they waited until it had gone quiet before venturing down to see where the Bounty Hunter had gone. They soon discovered that there was no sign of him or his prey. Captain Fraser and Jannel Hawkins stood alone.
Lieutenant Harno was more than anxious about this poorly planned escapade. The time seemed to stretch out forever as he tumbled upwards in a state of mental flux. Though the exhaust port was wide and turned only slightly, he could feel the sides if he stretched out his arm. There seemed to be no gaps in it. He had tried calling over the communicator mounted in his mask, but he could not hope to hear the reply. He had considered the prospect that he'd gone by the crew who were waiting for him and he was just starting to wonder how far he would go before he met up with a fan or vent, when everything suddenly went very quiet. He opened his eyes, the surrounding space was no longer filled with the gas that had been supporting him. For some reason, the supply was gone.
Harno started to tumble back down, in darkness. He shouted wildly into his communicator, but the other crew could do nothing. He had been just a few metres short when the jet had stopped. His frantic signal did not just find its way to Harno's second team, who could not help, but also to someone in a much more promising position.
The problem was that Commander Carter was busy with other matters at the time. As soon as the exhaust jet had been shut down, they had seen someone. In fact two people, one being carried on the other's shoulders. The bright light of a torch obscured the figure from recognition, but not from the beam of a phaser. The Security Officer hit with a single shot and the clatter of the torch accompanied the sound of footsteps.
The feeling of elation experienced by Carter came with the realisation that she had been vindicated in her decision to continue, but the feeling was short lived. The shouts for assistance that were coming over the communications channel, delivered in that unmistakable tone, seemed to trample Carter's enthusiasm with a great weight.
"What's going on?" Shouted Carter, confused and uncertain. Harno didn't appear to be in a position to answer.
"Captain, I think somehow Mr. Harno has got himself into the gas stream," the Engineer reported.
"What's he doing there?" Gerros was rapidly losing what little grasp she had of the situation.
"Sir, shall I turn the gas stream back on?" The Engineer pressed on.
"Yes, of course, quickly," There wasn't time to get across to the other side.
Harno tumbled into the oncoming stream and his descent began to slow. Apart from a few scratches and bruises he was alright, but the look on his face as he drifted into the lower recess where Carter waited, was sheer terror. It soon turned to relief when he was pulled out by the Commander. He realised just how close he had come to death, only to find a fate worse. The entrance was less than welcomed by Carter, her expression conveyed not a small amount of anger.
"Just what do you think you're doing mister!" The thoughtful Engineer turned off the loud gas stream. Harno looked around.
"Commander, I'm safe." This was the most honest Gerros had heard her Security Chief.
"You're far from safe Harno."
Ricky was still out cold, and had been since the explosion in the corridor. Rex had checked him out and knowing more about mechanics than first-aid, had classified him as lightly damaged. Now he was destined to carry him through still more passages. There were just a few options. Carter had already seen him, he had to move fast, not easy with a body on one's shoulders. Then Rex remembered something. He felt for the disc in his pocket, it was still there.
Gerros pulled herself out into the corridor and started to run, in pursuit. The rest of her group had caught up by the time she had reached the T-junction near to where the lift shaft was, back where they had started. The entrance to the tunnel ahead was undisturbed, but that was a dead end, he wouldn't have gone through there. The corridor to the left looked like it led to some sort of machine room, the smell of smoke and fire was stronger down there, and to their right was the empty space where elevator had once been.
Carter swept her tricorder over the scene.
"There, a trace," she called, breaking into a run. "I've found one of our tricorders." The team charged after her and prepared for more action, but they were disappointed. A short dash had brought them to the apparent location of the tricorder, but there was nothing to be found. Carter made no attempt to conceal her frustration, she kicked at the ground where the signal was coming from, and found the source, realising instantly her mistake.
Drakes timing was perfect, almost mechanical. He had managed to get past the entrance to the tunnel in which his pursuers resided, and back to where he had been seen, the exhaust port. Ricky began to moan.
"Where?" Rex dumped him onto the ground, relieved. "Rex?" Drake shook him.
"Quiet!" Rex did something to the control panel.
"What's happening," the boy murmured. Rex's diversion had been effective, but it would not last long. He had to get away, quickly. He had found a way, but it was risky.
"Carter's after us," said Drake, suddenly realising that he was missing one vital piece of equipment. "Damn it, no breathing mask."
"Carter?" Ricky was starting to sound concerned.
"We can't get ourselves caught Ricky, the Captain, everyone is counting on us. It's all part of the plan." Ricky still had no idea what this plan entailed, he'd lost the thread of Codey's discussion about five minutes in, but for Fraser and Drake it all seemed to make sense. He still wasn't sure what good it would do them all if they had to go back and face Anson Jacs.
Being around Commander Carter was growing increasingly stressful. Lieutenant Harno was the least affected by this but he was not entirely immune.
"Perhaps it would be more effective if we were to form two teams," he began, Carter didn't want to hear it.
"Alright I admit it, it's all my fault," she said in clear resignation. "Perhaps someone else would like to make a suggestion," Harno looked puzzled, the other officers looked blankly at their Commander. "This isn't easy you know." When her outburst appeared to be over, Harno went on with his suggestion.
"If we were to investigate one of these passageways each," Carter obviously didn't want to listen.
"Fine, do it, we'll keep an officer at the lift," She pointed at one of the younger crewmen and moved her people out, quickly.
The silence that followed Fraser and Jannel was somehow welcome. These abandoned chambers had a restful quality pervading them, but it was just an illusion. They were probably in as much danger as ever, but a lack of anything that was obviously such had given them time to reflect and take stock.
"Where do you think Codey is?" Jannel asked Alborell. He shook his head.
"I suppose the best thing we can do is keep our heads down until it's time to leave." Jannel looked to the end of the torch beam. They were in some kind of administration block, much like the City Hall they had been in, there were rooms off to each side with dead computer stations in them and every few metres they passed a control point on the wall, or a stairway of lift to the gantry level that crossed over their heads.
"What do you think they'll do with this place Alborell, I mean, that is why they wanted you here wasn't it?" Jannel asked. Fraser had quite forgotten about that.
"If the survey proves that the planet is worth buying, it will be turned into something useful."
"Buying a planet, it sounds so obscene."
"It happens all the time, I'm told there's a lot of money in it," Alborell mused.
They walked on, past more rooms, until the passageway ended at a large opening. The hanging pipe-work and dangling wires told them that this was another piece of unplanned architectural modification. This time, it wasn't theirs.
"What you said about criminals Alborell, I think you were right." Jannel recalled an earlier conversation. "Corporations are the purest form of crime, they all have the same motive; the procurement of wealth."
"What does that make people like Dave Edlund?" He asked.
"I don't know, Edlund got the same breaks as everyone else, he just made wrong turns. I'm sure he'd be able to rationalise it if you were to ask him." It seemed unlikely that they would get the chance. Jannel looked across the corridor they were in and noticed a small ladder set into the wall. She pointed it out to Fraser, who looked up tried to see where it went, if it went anywhere. He suddenly turned as he heard the sound of the familiar lift door opening. It had to be Carter. There was only one way out.
"Quick, up here," he urged, pulling Jannel by the arm. Up until now they had all avoided meeting anyone from the Liberator, at least directly and, more importantly, identifiably, Fraser wanted to keep it that way.
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