I walked out the rear gate of the Zephyrus, into the cool air of the massive hangar. There were several ships down there, all of them much bigger than ours, two in a state of disassembly. Techs scurried around them, carrying tools and parts, sparks from welders dropping on the floor below them.
“Captain Clarke, thanks for getting here so quickly,” Chairman Vermillion said, reaching out to shake my hand. “Looks like that gold plating stayed on pretty well.” His entourage smiled at me, some of them reaching out to shake hands and state their names.
I chuckled. “Good to meet all of you. Take a look at this.” I walked them over to the section of the hull where the Mosasaur bites were. “The sea monsters were able to mar the finish, but they didn’t get all the way through it.”
“Wow,” Vermillion said, looking closer, reaching up to touch the ragged scratches. “You say a whole pack attacked you?”
“Sure did. Is everybody in your group cleared?”
Vermillion nodded yes.
“Okay, great. Our plasma weapons would’ve made short work of the beasties, but since we were on Valla Cappos, we didn’t want to be seen.”
“We’ve got a series of photos we’d like you to look at,” one of the entourage mentioned.
“Let me guess. Pictures of Clan military vessels. We only got a brief glimpse. I might not be able to tell you yea or nay with complete certainty.”
“Were your cameras running?” a woman in the group asked.
“Now there’s a good question,” I said. “Let’s go up to the bridge and check that out. Follow me.” I led them up the ramp and down the hall to the bridge.
“Very small ship,” one of the men said.
“It’s small, but it’s got it where it counts,” I said, walking onto the bridge. Izzy was just about to leave when we got there.
“Captain, do you need something?” she asked.
“Yeah, could you hang around for a few minutes?”
“Sure,” she said, sitting back down. “Nolan and Tim already went to their staterooms.”
“No problem. Were the cameras running when we got into orbit around Valla Cappos?”
“On the way out, right?” she asked.
“Yes. We’re wondering if there’s some video of that Clan battle frigate.”
“I’m pretty sure they were on, but I don’t know if we got a good shot of the ship,” Izzy said. She turned her head towards her PA system and murmured some commands. The display showed underwater views in twelve grids. “I’ll fast forward till we get into orbit.”
The screen’s frame rate increased, and then the swarm of Mosasaurs showed up.
“Stop there!” somebody in the entourage shouted. “Let’s see those creatures.”
Izzy looked at me, and I nodded, so she stopped the advance, backed up to where the large group was attacking, then selected the best camera view and started it at normal speed, full screen.
“Wow,” a woman in the group said. “Those are impressive. They’re looking right into the camera.”
“Maybe they think those are the golden creature’s eyes,” quipped another.
“I can see why you decided to get out of the water,” Vermillion said.
“Okay, that’s enough, thank you,” I said to Izzy, and she sped up again, going back to the twelve-section view. The video showed the movement to land, and crew members scurrying around the surface of the ship in fast motion. “This is longer than I thought.” She sped the fast forward up even more, and soon we were rising into the air. Flashes overloaded the camera sensors, and on two of the screen sections the ship was visible. Izzy stopped the video and expanded the best of the views to fill the screen. “There you go.”
“I was afraid of this,” a man said. “This is not like any of the military ships we’ve seen before.”
“That’s a large ship,” Vermillion said. “You have the analysis tools loaded?”
“No sir, but I’ll load them now,” Izzy said. She spoke into her PA, and a grid settled over the picture. “What do you want to know?”
“How long that ship is,” Vermillion said.
Izzy traced around the ship on the screen in front of her, a yellow line going around the Clan ship on the big display. Then she spoke a one-word command into the PA. Numbers appeared below the image of the battle frigate. “It’s 2739.354 meters.”
“Almost three kilometers,” one of the entourage said. “That rivals the largest ship we’ve got.”
“Assuming size matters here,” Izzy quipped, drawing smirks from a few of the entourage.
“The only reason to have a ship that large is to bring in a lot of infantry,” Vermillion said. “We have some talking to do, team. Let’s go back to the command section and get started. Can you join us, Captain Clarke?”
“Yes sir. Is it all right that my crew leaves the ship?”
“Yes, they can go anywhere not marked classified,” Vermillion said. “We’ve got a great recreation area, about half a kilometer down the main corridor. They get there through the hangar security check-in facility.”
Izzy grinned. “I’ll tell the others, Captain.”
I nodded. “Make sure we have the security protocols in place. Remember what I said. I don’t want anyone who’s not a member of the crew sneaking onto this ship. Understand? I want the alarms on, so we know if un-authorized people come on board.”
“Yes, I understand,” she said. “Talk to you later.”
I led Vermillion’s group off the Zephyrus, and we headed for the security check in, which required both fingerprint and retina scans for entrance into the main part of the facility.
“How large is this base?” I asked.
“Seventy-five square kilometers,” Vermillion said, “in three levels. The largest single room is the hangar, of course. It’s the only room that’s three levels tall.”
“Wow. First time I’ve been here.”
“It’s a great resource to have,” the woman said. “I’m Chief Technologist J.J. Ostermann. Good to meet you, Captain. We have an interesting new toy for you to try out.”
“Let’s hold that conversation until we get into the secure conference room,” Vermillion said.
“Yes sir.” I hushed up as we followed him, making several turns. “I should’ve dropped breadcrumbs.”
“Use your PA,” Ostermann said. “It’ll guide you back.”
“Do you live down here full time?”
She nodded, her dark hair flowing as she looked up at me. “Gets a little oppressive after a while, but I get to go home often. At least once a month.”
“When we can spare you,” Vermillion quipped as he held the door open for us. We filed into the large conference room. It had an oval table in the middle with cushy chairs around it, plus smaller chairs against the walls, at the sides and the back.
Vermillion took the head of the table at the back of the room, motioning for me to sit at his right side. “Let’s get started.”
“What’s first?” asked an older man with white hair down to his shoulders. “The ship or the clandestine visits of the Clan?”
“The ship,” Vermillion said, clearing his throat. “Captain Clarke, we’ve determined that the cloaking device being tested on the Tristar is ready to deploy on more ships, and yours is first in line.”
“I thought my assignment to the Zephyrus was temporary,” I said. “Who’s taking over the New Jersey?”
“Don’t worry about it, Captain. This is a good step for you. Trust me.”
I nodded. “I trust you, sir. It’s just the first I’ve heard that my assignment to the Zephyrus was permanent. Do I get to keep Tim, Izzy, and Deacon?”
“The crew will stay in place,” Vermillion said. “You didn’t mention Nolan.”
I laughed. “He’s valuable, to be sure, but he’s also a pain in the ass.”
Ostermann laughed out loud, covering her mouth quickly. “Sorry, sir.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Vermillion said. “I know he’s a pain, but it’s just his social skills.”
“He has his own agenda, which he considers more important than the corporation’s agenda,” I said.
Vermillion smirked. “You’re talking about his unauthorized seeding of Valla Cappos?”
“He’s actually right about that, but we can’t officially condone that strategy, as it breaks our own laws.”
“Understand, and I had similar thoughts, to be honest. My problem is keeping peace in the crew, but it is very much my problem. I’ll handle it. He is getting better, as he comes to understand that others in the crew are smart enough to be worthy of respect.”
“Well, that’s what we pay you for, Captain,” one of the men in the entourage said. I nodded in agreement.
“How long will it take to install the cloaking device on the Zephyrus?” I asked.
“You want to take that, JJ?” Vermillion asked.
“Ten minutes to install, a few days to test and tune,” Ostermann said. “It’s a software change to the shield functionality.”
“Oh, no hardware involved, huh? That’s great.”
“If we’ve really got the Clan coming for us, we’d better start retrofitting all our battle cruisers,” a younger military man with a buzzcut said.
“That will take a vote of the Central Authority Senate,” Vermillion said. “Same with that module that Nolan developed.”
“The Overlords will try to kill it there,” Mr. Buzzcut said.
Vermillion smiled. “Yes, they will, but their supreme leader has been put on probation, and can’t direct Overlord activities for three months.”
“Three months?” Ostermann asked. “Is that all?”
“We were lucky to get that,” Vermillion said. “The population trusts Simone more than they trust the Corporation, you know. The Central Authority legislators are worried about the next election.”
“Wait till the population finds out that the Clan is infiltrating our zone,” quipped a man across the room, wearing a military uniform.
Vermillion stood. “Commander Onyx, we will not leak this news to the press. Do you understand?”
“I wasn’t suggesting that,” Onyx said. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Chairman. I agree that we can’t afford to have that happen. No leaks will come from the military.”
Vermillion smiled at him, sitting back down. “That goes for everyone in this room. No leaks about Clan activity in our zone. Period. Anybody caught leaking will be sanctioned. Does everybody understand?”
The people in the room nodded, including me. Mental note – pass that along to my crew, especially Nolan.
“I see the wheels in your head turning, Captain Clarke,” Vermillion said, eyeing me.
“Making a mental note to discuss that with my crew, sir.”
“Oh,” Vermillion said, still eyeing me. “Yes, of course.”
“Can we move on to the Clan activity now?” Commander Onyx asked.
“Yes, Alex, it’s time,” Vermillion said. “First, I want to reassure all of you. The Clan may be here, but they’re still very limited. They can only use natural worm holes, and we know where all of those are. We can intercept them within minutes, and we have a good way of finding their bases.”
“Then why are they going to the trouble?” Ostermann asked.
“That’s what we need to find out,” Vermillion said. “It might not be what we think.”
I shot him a glance. “You aren’t suggesting that they may be defecting, are you?”
“The Clan Zone has become a much darker place. It’s like Germany in the late 1930s. Their social control structures make the Overlords look tame.”
“That’s an understatement,” Commander Onyx said. The gruff old soldier eyed the room for a moment, making sure he had everybody’s attention. “That said, I’m not buying it. If some of the Clan’s military command decided to leave their zone, it makes more sense for them to go to the Free Zone than to come to the Central Authority Zone.”
“Military spacecraft aren’t allowed in the Free Zone,” Ostermann said.
“Clan ships aren’t allowed in our zone, but here they are,” Onyx said.
“At this point we aren’t even sure there are Clan ships anywhere but on Valla Cappos,” Vermillion said. “I’ve got a proposal.”
“Let’s hear it, Chairman,” Onyx said.
“The most capable ship we have is the Zephyrus, after we complete the retrofit of it’s shield system to include cloaking capability. When we complete that, the Zephyrus won’t be trackable no matter what it’s doing.”
“Isn’t there some doubt about that?” Onyx asked. “The Zephyrus almost didn’t make it off Earth, remember? For all we know, it was tracked by that Centurion ship.”
I cleared my throat. “I can explain that, thanks to Nolan.”
Onyx laughed. “What did that blow-hard have to say?”
“He tracked the Overlord’s battle cruiser. They jumped into Earth’s atmosphere from the space dock orbiting Mars.”
“Which they would’ve done if they were tracking you,” Onyx said.
“The trip took about 43 seconds.”
“Dammit,” Ostermann said. “We have a mole.”
“That’s what Nolan was thinking. It’s one of the reasons we went to Valla Cappos in the first place. It was off the beaten path and below level five. We figured if a spy was onboard, we’d be discovered again.”
“You were,” Onyx said. “By the Clan, remember?”
I shot a glance to Vermillion, who nodded to go ahead.
“We weren’t scanned by the Clan. They were hunting Neanderthals. They weren’t expecting us, or they would’ve brought more commandos with better arms.”
“You engaged them to save Neanderthals?” Onyx asked.
“No sir, the Clan saw us when they got close enough to get a look with their infrared systems. We’d already engaged them when the Neanderthals arrived.”
“It doesn’t sound like the Neanderthals were being pursued,” Ostermann said.
“They saw the Clan coming and attacked. It was good for us that they did.”
“Let’s move on,” Vermillion said quickly. “Enough about the Neanderthals. I want to get to my proposal.”
Onyx was about to say something but stopped himself. Ostermann shot me a glance. I shrugged.
“We have to be close to the subject planets to scan for Clan ships,” Vermillion said. “We all know that. I propose that we send the Zephyrus with it’s new technology to investigate some of the likely locations, based on proximity to natural wormholes.”
“You want to send that little ship all by itself?” Onyx asked. “Shouldn’t we fit this technology on a Centurion class ship instead?”
“That would be illegal,” Ostermann said. “Unless we went through the legal process to declare it a prototype, and you know that would never survive a Senate vote. Those ships are too powerful to be completely off the Central Authority’s radar. They tried to go after the Zephyrus and it’s much less of a threat.”
“The Overlords tried to go after the Zephyrus, not the Central Authority,” Onyx corrected.
“The Overlords are a sub-set of the Central Authority,” Ostermann said. “Do you deny that?”
Onyx glared at her, his eyes glassing over. “Fine. I’m just suggesting that we’re putting too much human capital at risk, that’s all.”
Vermillion shook his head. “Commander Onyx, I understand your concern, and if what JJ is saying was incorrect, I’d be on your side. Sadly, that’s not the case. We must use an existing prototype if we’re going to keep this under the radar, and the only mission-worthy prototype ships we have are the Zephyrus and the Tristar. We’ll ready the Tristar as a back-up, but it’ll take more work to get the Tristar to that level, and she’s not enough larger than the Zephyrus to make any difference.”
Onyx sat quietly, thinking for a moment, calming down. “Okay, Chairman, I’ll agree. Don’t have to like it.”
“What about the other problem that came up yesterday?” Ostermann asked. “It’s a threat.”
“We can’t discuss that in this setting,” Vermillion said. “We’ve got enough on our plate.”
“What’s she talking about?” Onyx asked.
“I said we can’t discuss it here, Commander.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “What else? Which worlds will be targeted for surveillance?”
“We aren’t going to share that,” Vermillion said.
Onyx’s eyebrows went up. “What? The council has a right to know the details of any operation of this type.”
“It’s very likely we have a mole,” Vermillion said. “Until we can prove that a mole doesn’t exist, or until we capture the mole, we have to take precautions. It’s in the charter and by-laws of the Corporation.”
“I don’t like this.”
“Neither do I, Alex,” Vermillion said. “As soon as we can reveal more, we will. I can make you that promise.”
“Well, then I guess that’ll have to be good enough,” Onyx said. “Let me know how I can help.”
“Will do. Thanks, you’re all dismissed. Captain Clarke, stick around please.”
I nodded, watching the others get up and leave the conference room, Ostermann making eye contact with me before she turned to leave.
When the room was empty, Vermillion leaned back in his chair, a sigh escaping from his mouth. “I’ll have to smooth things over with Onyx.”
“He seemed to understand,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”
“A few things,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “Am I saddling your team with more than you and the Zephyrus can handle?”
“I don’t believe so, sir. We aren’t going out there to fight. We’re going out there to search and report.”
“Can you keep Nolan under control?”
I sighed. “He’s still wanted on several planets in the zone. Can you tell me why he was hired? He seems like a hot potato to me.”
Vermillion chuckled. “I can’t tell you everything. There’s some personal family connection that he’s not aware of, and I’m not going to tell you about it.”
“You saved him.”
“No comment,” Vermillion said. “There is one thing that concerns me.”
“There’s missing data in the PA subnet of the Zephyrus. You know that’s a violation, right?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Nolan bragged about being able to wipe PA systems. I didn’t really believe him, but I humored him. He said he was successful this morning. I haven’t checked.”
“He was, and that concerns me slightly. What was the reason he gave for doing it?”
“That’s easy to explain. He didn’t want a record of our crew going to restricted planets, since there could be legal consequences.”
Vermillion chuckled. “That’s the only reason?”
“That’s all he said. I can’t think of anything else. You think there’s something else.”
“I have some suspicions,” Vermillion said. “Keep track of what he’s doing. While this mission is in progress, I won’t do anything. After it’s over, I want to know exactly how he was able to accomplish this.”
“So we can hand off the weakness to PA Systems,” Vermillion said. “Remember that the Corporation has a thirty-percent stake in that company. If their system doesn’t have air-tight security, it’s dangerous for us financially.”
“Sounds like the corporation wants the capability to spy on citizens,” I said, wishing I could take the words back after they left my lips.
Vermillion laughed. “Look, using the PA System is voluntary. People must approve the terms of service and the privacy contract before they can become users. Also remember that before any law enforcement entity can review PA history, they’ve got to show probable cause, and they have to get a judge to sign a warrant.”
I sighed. “You’re right. Sorry. I’ll keep an eye on him. Do you want me to tell him to stop it right now?”
“No, I want him focused on the mission. It’s important. Onyx was right to be asking a lot of questions. Especially with elections coming up. If this goes the wrong way, it’ll be a huge problem.”
“Understand,” I said.
“Good. That’s all. Get yourself some r and r. You’ve earned it. Keep our chat to yourself, too. Okay?”
“Yes sir,” I said, getting up.
“We’re having a dinner tonight. Lots of dignitaries and some entertainment. You won’t want to miss it. I’ll send invites to you and your crew.”
“Thank you, sir. See you tonight.”
I left the conference room, getting into the hallway. As expected, I was unsure of how to find my way back to the ship, so I asked the PA to guide me. I was about half-way through the maze when somebody tapped my shoulder. I spun around. It was Ostermann.
“You walk fast,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “Can we talk?”
To be continued…
Bug Out! Texas Book 1 is now just 99 cents in the Kindle Store! Free in Kindle Unlimited! This is the story of Texas Patriots and their struggle against enemies, foreign and domestic, during the Bug Out! War. Chock full of action, adventure, suspense, and romance. Pick up your copy of Bug Out! Texas Book 1 today!
The first of my full length novels has been published in the Amazon Kindle store, available now. For those of you have have been readying the Bugout! series, the story involves George and Malcolm, and is set about seven years earlier. This book R rated, instead of the PG-13 of the Bugout! Series, so be warned. Here’s the link to “Never A Loose End”
Copyright Robert Boren 2018