I led the way as JJ and I headed back to the tin can, the main corridor packed with people.
“This ship is amazing,” JJ said. “It’s a flying city.”
“It is,” I said, “but a very vulnerable one. Want to stop for a bite on the way?”
“I’d rather get back to the Zephyrus, if you don’t mind,” she whispered.
We hurried to the transport, having to wait for an open tin can. We slipped onto one that was completely full, heading back towards the main bay. There were several stops on our run, the passengers thinning out to a handful before we got to the bay-level stops.
“Wow, there’s a lot of techs down here,” JJ said as we approached the Zephyrus. “Looks like they’re working on the Tristar first.”
“Smart, given the fuel situation,” I said. “If we have to leave in a hurry, Nolan’s retrofit will save them a lot of fuel, because they won’t have to run cloaked inside wormholes.”
“You think we’ll be attacked, don’t you?” she asked as we walked towards the ramp of the Zephyrus.
I held up my finger, pausing the conversation as I tapped my PA to open the ramp. We hurried up as soon as it touched the floor, and headed straight for my stateroom as it closed behind us.
“Hi, Captain,” Caraway said, his head poking out of the door to Engineering.
“Caraway,” I said, nodding. “Everything going okay?”
“Yeah, we’re just sitting around. They’re retrofitting the Tristar first. They’ll start on us in about six hours.”
“Good, thanks for the info,” I said, before going around the corner.
“You’re pretty informal on this ship,” JJ said.
“Small team,” I said as the stateroom door slid aside for us. We walked in and I set the lock. “Have a seat.”
“We can talk freely?” she asked.
“Wait a sec,” I said, grabbing the holographic chair, rolling it into the bathroom and shutting the door. I came back and sat at the table across from JJ. “Go ahead.”
“You don’t trust that device?”
“You are correct,” I said. “In fact I don’t trust much of anything at the moment.”
“I thought it was just me. Are you buying the coincidence?”
“That Nolan just happened to pick this world out of such a vast zone? Nope, not buying that for a moment. Nolan knew his uncle was here. Hell, if I would’ve told him a scenario like this, he’d pick up that it was BS and say so right away.”
“Think he’ll level with us if we ask him about it?” JJ asked.
“I have no idea, because I don’t understand what side he’s on or what his motives are.”
JJ nodded. “Nolan had the surprised look when Vermillion mentioned the rogue leader. Did you catch that?”
“Yep. He was shocked that Vermillion knew about his Uncle Tac being on this planet.”
“That’s what I was thinking too. Glad it’s not just me.”
“That’s not the thing that bothers me the most, though,” I said.
“What is it?”
“The construction of so many New Jersey-class ships,” I said. “The normal crew requirement for this ship is about 150,000 people. That includes lots of support people who aren’t really essential, but still, for fifteen additional ships, that’s roughly 2.2 million people. Where are they coming from?”
“What’s the bare minimum you could operate this ship with?”
I thought about it for a moment. “If we were just moving the ship from place to place, I could run this ship with about thirty thousand people. If we have to fight, we’d need at least sixty thousand. That includes no infantry, of course, and nobody to man fighters.”
“Geez,” JJ said. “So just the three additional ships would take a minimum of 180 thousand people.”
“Could we bring this ship down to sixty thousand and distribute the rest on the other ships?”
I shook my head. “That would be tough. We’d run low on individuals trained to do certain critical jobs.”
“How about automation?”
“What’s so funny?”
“Here’s where I have a problem with our elected officials. It’s illegal to have enough robotics on board to run a ship with a low number of humans.”
“Oh, yeah, forgot about the Full Employment Act,” JJ said. “Never made sense to me.”
“I think it makes perfect sense – human minds tend to rot when we let AI and robotics do all of our work for us. That said, the law prevents us from having the AI and robotic capability, even for emergencies. Remember when we lost the Gregor Taupin about twenty years ago?”
“I lost family on that. A cousin and a niece.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “We lost over 110,000 people in that disaster.”
“AI would’ve prevented the problem? I thought it was an issue with the fuel.”
“You can’t tell anybody about this,” I said, looking JJ in the eyes.
“Oh God, what happened?”
“Somebody released a biological weapon on board. It killed about twenty percent of the crew before the medical team got a handle on the problem, but it made three-quarters of the survivors too sick to be at their stations for more than a week. There was a series of drive malfunctions, and the ship ended up dead in space, too close to a star.”
“Somebody did that on purpose?” JJ asked with a horrified expression.
“We know for sure somebody released the biological on purpose, but I think there was some sabotage to the ship systems as well. We suspect, based on some of the final transmissions, that the engine control systems and the air scrubbers were offline. At least everybody was dead before they fell into the star. We’re pretty sure about that.”
“Do we have any idea who did it?”
“I have my suspicions, but we were ordered not to talk about it,” I said.
“Who ordered that? The Corporation?”
I shook my head no. “The Central Authority.”
“Who do you think did it?” JJ asked.
Her eyes got wide. “You think they’d do something like that? Why?”
“They’ve been jockeying for rule over the zone for decades, as Vermillion brought up. One thing that kept them from expanding their capabilities was the restrictions on AI and robotics. They don’t have enough people to pull off a military coup. If they could make heavy use of AI and robotics on their ships, they’d be in a whole different position.”
“Does it even matter now?” JJ asked.
“No, they’re running a successful plan to take over the Central Authority via the ballot box, so it’s moot now. They’ve dropped their support of the Full Employment Act repeal and are actively opposing it now.”
“Is it possible that Vermillion is including illegal AI on the new ships?” JJ asked.
“I would if I were him, but it’d be tough. Thanks to the Overlord’s influence on the Central Authority, production of robotics and AI development is tightly controlled. If somebody started buying large quantities of robotic components, it would raise a huge red flag.”
JJ was silent for a moment. “Maybe Vermillion’s been doing that, and that’s why the Overlords hit us.”
“That’s a possibility. I doubt Vermillion would’ve commented if we asked him in the meeting today.”
“Are you going to ask him where the crews are coming from?” JJ asked.
“Oh, I’ll ask him, but privately. He might swear me to secrecy and tell me.”
“Are you going to ask him soon?”
I shook my head. “Not right away, no. We’ve got another problem, you know.”
“You and me. We had a reason to hang out together back at the Pacific base. The retrofit of the Zephyrus.”
“Yes,” she said, looking me in the eyes.
“That project is over. If we start spending a lot of time off where people can’t see us, Vermillion is gonna start to wonder. He might be wondering already.”
She smiled. “I’ve brought that up before, remember? We could pretend to be lovers.”
I chuckled. “Vermillion will investigate. All he’ll need to do is monitor our pheromones for a while. He’ll know it’s a ruse.”
“Then maybe we should become real lovers,” she said. “I find you attractive, and I’ve been in a long dry spell.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, my heartrate quickening.
“Do you find me attractive?”
I smiled. “You’re not exactly shy, are you?”
“Answer the question,” she said softly.
“Yes, I find you attractive, but neither of us know if it will last. Just being intimate won’t keep the levels up for long. You know that.”
She stood up, moving towards me. “I doubt we’ll have a big problem there.” She pulled me up, her arms going around me, standing on her tiptoes to reach my mouth with hers. We kissed, the passion in both of us rising. Then she stopped. “That ought to be enough for now.”
I laughed. “Oh, so that’s how it is, huh?”
“It’s better this way. We should make out a little every time we’re alone. Keep the fires burning, but not go very far. The anticipation will fire those pheromones up nicely.”
“I don’t know if I can stand it.”
She giggled. “Sure you can. You might even get me eventually. In fact, you probably will. Think about it. That will help.”
I pulled her back into my arms and kissed her again, more passionately than before, then let her go and sat back down, leaving her flushed, her breath coming hard.
“What’s with that?” she asked, eyeing me.
“Just doing my part,” I said.
There was a buzzing noise coming from the bathroom.
“Vermillion, trying to call me on the holographic system.” I got up and rushed into the bathroom, pulling the chair to its normal position.
“Should I leave?”
“Yeah, for now,” I said, sitting in the chair, watching her as she left the stateroom. She turned on the way out and threw me a kiss, a devilish smile on her face. She was in the hallway far enough to get picked up by the surveillance camera outside. I gave her a thumb up and turned on the holographic unit as she shut the door. The frame appeared, and I sent a reply to Vermillion. His face appeared after a minute.
“Took you a while,” he said.
“Sorry. What’s up?”
“Do you know where JJ is?”
“She just left my stateroom,” I said.
“Oh, really? What was she doing there?”
I hesitated for a moment. “It’s kinda private.”
Vermillion got a smile on his face. “You two are closer than I thought, I guess.”
“We’re both lonely, and we get along well. I hope you don’t mind.”
Vermillion smiled. “No, I don’t mind. I’m envious. She’s quite a woman.”
“That she is. I suspect she’s going to take a look at the work on the Tristar. They’re in progress with the alterations already.”
“Excellent,” he said. “I’ll follow up with her later.”
“Anything for me?” I asked.
“Are you okay with what came out of the meeting? I sensed you were uneasy.”
“I have a lot of questions in my mind, that’s all.”
“Ask me, then,” Vermillion said. “I don’t guarantee I can share everything with you, but hopefully I can tell you enough to calm your concerns.”
“Okay. Where are we getting the crews for the new ships we’re constructing?”
Vermillion chuckled. “I expected somebody to ask that question in the meeting.”
“I thought about it, but figured it would be better to ask that question in private. You know that fifteen additional New Jersey class ships will require over two million people, right?”
“As I said in the meeting, I’m skeptical that we’ll ever complete the entire fifteen. We’ll be lucky to get the three, but if we can launch them along with some of the smaller ships, we’ll have a power base which will give us a fighting chance.”
“So you just lowered the people requirement to a mere 450,000.”
Vermillion laughed. “I know, sounds impossible, doesn’t it?”
“Nothing is impossible.”
“You are correct. Nothing is impossible. We’ve been moving people and materials at a rapid pace over the last three months. There are nearly a million people spread out between the five new installations. We’ve been training them to be generalists, so we’ll have the ability to move people around as needed.”
“How do you know there aren’t any plants among them?” I asked.
“That is what keeps me up at night, and as I said in the meeting, the supply chain requirements for the balance of production will open us up to the possibility of infiltration. We’re putting controls in place to help us survive that, but there’s only so much we can do once we start working in the marketplace.”
“How about installing AI and robotics?” I asked.
“That’s a subject I can’t discuss at this time, beyond saying that we are aware that it would solve problems for us. As you know, it’s illegal.”
“Yes, it’s illegal, but no more so than the capabilities we now have on the New Jersey.”
“Touché,” Vermillion said. “Any other questions?”
“Just a comment. I’m having a hard time with the coincidence of Nolan bringing us to a planet where his uncle just happens to be a rogue leader.”
“Nolan thinks he’s good at hiding his actions,” Vermillion said. “We knew he’d get here as soon as he found a good excuse. He was right about one thing, though. I did save him because of my close personal friendship with Tac. At the time we made the agreement, I had no idea how brilliant Nolan is, or how important his contributions would be to our cause.”
“What’s the end game?” I asked. “Do you plan to destroy the Overlords?”
“I intend to stop the Overlords from wiping away the Republic and re-making the Central Authority Zone as a totalitarian society,” Vermillion said. “Is that something you can support?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“Good. We’ll talk later. If you see JJ, tell her to contact me. She’s not answering her PA.”
“Okay, will do,” I said. Vermillion’s face disappeared, and I shut down the holographic unit, leaving my stateroom for the bridge. Izzy and Tim were there.
“Hello, Captain,” Tim said.
“How are you two?” I asked.
“Are you buying what Vermillion is selling?” Izzy asked.
“Yes, basically,” I said. “You’re having a problem with it?”
“I’m not,” Tim said. “I think it’s about time we have somebody standing up to the Overlords.”
Izzy shook her head. “We’ve been forced into a clandestine band of revolutionaries. I basically agree with Tim that the Overlords are a problem that needs to be taken care of, but there’s a strong possibility that it’ll be the death of all of us.”
“We weren’t forced into this by the Samson Corporation,” I reminded Izzy. “We were forced into it by a railgun attack on the Pacific Research Center.”
“Yeah, I blame the Overlords,” Tim said.
“I blame whoever was responsible for the attacks, and I think the jury on that is still out. Time will tell, but bottom line is that we’re here.”
“It still leaves us in a life-threatening situation,” Izzy said.
I came closer to Izzy, and motioned for Tim to come over.
“Look, if this scares you too much, go down to the surface of this planet and disappear into its society. I’ll help you get your PA removed. They’ll have a hard time finding you.”
“Start over on a late 19th-century world?” Izzy whispered. “If things take a bad turn for the worse, fine, but right now that scares me more than our current situation.”
“I understand,” I whispered. “Just wanted to bring it up.”
Nolan rushed onto the bridge, stopping when he saw the three of us huddled together.
“What have we here?” he asked.
“Nothing, just a private chat,” Tim said.
“There aren’t working bugs on the bridge,” Nolan said. “I took care of that earlier. You can speak freely, unless the person you were hiding from was me.”
I shook my head. “Nolan… ”
“Do you disapprove, Captain?”
I shrugged. “No, not really. Are we going to be honest with each other?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Captain,” Nolan said.
“We just stumbled onto the planet your uncle is on?” I asked, my eyebrows raised.
Nolan sighed, sitting down at his station. “I was going to tell you.”
“How’d you know he was here?” Tim asked.
“I knew where he was going when he faked his death.”
Tim laughed. “See, I told you, Izzy. You have to pay up.”
Izzy rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
“What the… oh never mind,” I said. “You didn’t know Vermillion was aware of Tac’s presence on this world?”
“Tac told me that he knew, but I had no idea he was getting dragged so far into our current situation. It worries me.”
“Can’t blame you there,” I said. “I thought you were working the PA system alterations today.”
“I am, but I got a notification on one of my news sources. Wanted to come up here and open it up.”
“Put it on screen,” I said.
Nolan nodded, turning his chair towards his station. The big screen lit up, showing the document.
“This is Hamilton Zenos again,” I said. “Sure you can trust him?”
“Yes,” Nolan said as he read. “Dammit, I knew it.”
I focused on the report.
Well, folks, it’s happened, just like I predicted. The Overlords have just enforced their no-fly and Samson Drive recall orders by stunning thousands of Manhattan residents to death. If you have the wherewithal to do it, remove your PA systems. Doing things manually isn’t that much of a problem, and all major systems have alternative methods of access. You don’t have to use your PA if you choose not to. I’d do this before it becomes illegal.
My heart was pounding in my chest. “This can’t stand.”
Izzy stood. “Forget what I said. I’m all in.”
“Me too,” Tim said.
A buzzer sounded outside in the bay.
“What the hell is that?” Izzy asked.
“That’s the New Jersey general alarm,” I said, getting up.
“Oh, crap, they’ve found us,” she said.
“I can’t run scans from inside the bay,” Nolan said.
My PA buzzed. I tapped it and Andrea’s worried face showed up.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Are we about to be attacked?”
“No, Vermillion got pissed. We’re jumping to Mars to take out their space station. Can you come to the bridge? I need all the help I can get.”
“He found out about the people who got stunned to death on Manhattan?” I asked.
“His sister was one of them,” Andrea said. “Bring Tim and Izzy too, and round up Cyrus and JJ if you can.”
“On my way,” I said.
“We’re gonna go mess with the Overlords?” Nolan asked.
“Yes. Let’s get to the bridge.”
We all got up, rushing to the transport area as we went. Cyrus and JJ were already there when we arrived. Then we all felt faint as the New Jersey jumped away.
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