We were still on the New Jersey bridge, staring at the massive ship on the main screen.
“We need to find Ecason,” Nolan said.
Vermillion laughed. “We aren’t gonna chase ghosts around the universe. We need to get back to Amberis and work the fuel supply issue with Tac, and I need to oversee the construction of the first three New Jersey Class ships.”
“So we’re dropping you someplace, then?” Nolan asked.
“I’ll be taking the Tristar to the lead manufacturing plant.”
“Is that safe?” JJ asked, shooting a glance at Cyrus.
“I believe so,” Vermillion said, “but we are heading into a time of war. That’s obvious. All of us will have to be vigilant. War is very unpredictable.”
“You aren’t going to tell us where you’re going, are you?” Andrea asked.
“Sorry, afraid not,” Vermillion said. “You understand, I hope.”
“We might get captured,” I said, “although if we run into trouble, it’ll more likely be in the form of death after this ship is destroyed than capture.”
JJ laughed nervously. “Gee, thanks for that.”
“He’s being realistic,” Nolan said. “What about the Zephyrus?”
Vermillion smiled. “The Zephyrus as unfinished business, remember? The Clan. We have to eliminate them as a problem.”
“You’re not thinking they’re involved, are you?” Tim asked.
Vermillion shook his head no. “I don’t know what’s going on with them, but the concept of them hiding here makes more sense to me, given what we’ve been hearing about conditions in the Clan Zone.”
“What are we to do if we find them hiding?” I asked.
“We’ll chat about that later,” Vermillion said. “Let’s jump back to Amberis.”
“Yes sir,” I said, nodding to Andrea and Nolan, who fed data to Izzy. She conferred with the main pilot for a moment, and then fed the information into the console. We all felt the momentary dizziness as the ship took off.
“I’m going back to my office,” Vermillion said. “Good job, everybody. Be sure to commend the battle pilots and gunners for me.”
We watched him leave the bridge.
“Well there you have it,” Tim said, shaking his head. I shot him a glance, looking up at the microphones in the ceiling. Tim shrugged.
“I suggest we scan as we’re going,” Nolan said. “Since we know nothing about that big ship, we have no idea if they have sensors good enough to track us.”
“What about that encryption module of yours?” Izzy asked.
“There’s quite a few ways to skin a cat,” Nolan said. “They can’t use existing Central Authority scanners to track us, but generating a wormhole through space is nearly impossible to hide completely.”
“Should we be running cloaked?” I asked.
“We could, but it’s harder on fuel consumption, and we have an adversary we don’t understand,” Nolan said. “I think it’s better to stay uncloaked and scan, but it’s your call, Captain. We can turn cloaking on if the scan reveals anything.”
“I’m giving up the Captain’s chair to Andrea. The battle is over.”
“Feel free to keep it, Captain,” Andrea said. “I never wanted that slot anyway.”
“I’m gonna be on the Zephyrus again soon,” I said.
She sighed, getting up and taking the captain’s seat. “Okay, no problem.”
Are we taking off on that Clan search mission right away?” Nolan asked.
“I think the first thing we’ll be doing is going to the surface on Amberis to meet with your uncle,” JJ said. “You have to be involved, of course. Vermillion, Cyrus, Trey, and Deacon should be involved as well.”
“And you, JJ,” I said. “Agreed, but we’ll have to run it past the Chairman.”
“He’ll agree,” Nolan said.
We settled into the trip. JJ made eye contact with me and nodded at the door.
“We’re going down to the Zephyrus,” I said, getting up.
“Who’s we?” Izzy asked.
“JJ and me. We were in the middle of a discussion when the general alarm went off.”
“I see,” Izzy said, shooting me a smirk. I shrugged, following JJ out the door.
“Good,” JJ whispered. “Izzy thinks we’ve got something going on.”
I chuckled. “We do. I’m assuming you want to go chat.”
“You okay?” she asked.
“After that discussion? My mind is reeling, but that’s not unusual in this line of work.”
JJ chuckled. “True enough. Let’s stop at the cafeteria and grab something. I’m hungry.”
We made our way there, able to get our food without the normal lines and bustling crowd.
“Guess everybody got nervous about that battle,” JJ said.
“They’re banking some down time. We’re on a military footing now. Been a long while for most of us.”
“Was this the first action you’ve seen on the New Jersey?” JJ asked.
“Yes. The last real battle I was in was on a Centurion Class ship.”
“What was it about?” she asked as we carried our food back to the Zephyrus.
“Smuggling,” I said. “It was tougher than we expected.”
“The smugglers had an old Gladiator Class warship. Never figured out how they got it.”
“I thought they were all scrapped.”
I laughed. “They were supposed to be, but not in a centralized location. They were spread out all over the Central Authority zone.”
“Are they a danger to Centurion Class ships? They don’t even have Phase 3 shields.”
“This one did. They had a genius working with them. He cooked up a very clever workaround to bring the Phase 2 shields up to Phase 3 levels. We had to shoot it out with them. Barely won.”
“What happened to the genius?”
“We caught him in an escape pod after we’d neutralized their weapons systems. He’s doing time someplace. Probably won’t see the light of day again.”
“What were they smuggling?” JJ asked as we got down to the bay.
“Just a sec,” I said, leading her to the Zephyrus, speaking into my PA. The ramp opened for us, and we went onboard, closing it behind us.
“Sensitive subject?” JJ asked.
“It’s classified,” I said. “Let’s go to my stateroom.”
We headed down the hall, making a turn, almost running smack-dab into Deneuve and Barney.
“Hello, Captain,” Deneuve said. “Say hello, Barney.”
“Hello, Captain,” Barney said, his eyes searching my face for aggression. I watched as he relaxed. “He’s nice, isn’t he?”
“He is,” Deneuve said. “So is JJ.”
“JJ,” Barney repeated. “Hi JJ.”
“Hi, Barney,” JJ said, moving forward slowly. Barney started to move away, but Deneuve steadied him, petting his shoulder.
“Let JJ pet you,” he said. “She’s nice. You’ll like her.”
JJ reached up and rubbed his other shoulder, Barney’s eyes squinting. I watched, feeling affection for the Neanderthal growing in me.
“Has he met the rest of the crew yet?” I asked.
“Everybody except the bridge crew,” Deneuve said. “It’ll take a few times for him to get comfortable, but overall he’s doing well.”
“I think he’s charming,” JJ said, backing away, Barney looking disappointed. “Don’t worry, I’ll see you often.”
“Have fun, you two,” I said, turning to continue to my stateroom. We went through the door and took the food to the table.
“You liked him, didn’t you?” I asked as I opened the cover on my food tray.
“There’s something about them. It’s like petting a puppy or a kitten. You start to bond so quickly.”
“Yeah, it’s strange,” I said, taking a bite out of my hamburger. “Wow, this is so much better than the food on the Zephyrus.”
JJ nodded in agreement.
“What did you want to talk about?”
JJ finished chewing a bite, then took a drink of water. “I want to go on the mission.”
“No, on this ship, when we search for Clan presence.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Oh. Are you sure? It might be dangerous.”
“Being on the New Jersey is dangerous,” she said, “so that doesn’t bother me.”
“You’ve got a point there.”
She smiled, taking another bite of her salad.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s more interesting, it helps our cover story, and I feel more confident in being close with you than I do being close with the Chairman.”
“Wow, that’s quite a mouthful.” I watched her face as I took another bite of burger.
She smirked at me. “I was hungrier than I thought.”
“We’re liable to be gone for a while, you know. A month or more.”
“Good,” she said. “You don’t mind having me around, I hope.”
“Not even a little bit. Just want to make sure you know what you’re signing up for. Vermillion may veto the idea, you know. He’s rather fond of you.”
“I’m sure you could help me convince him,” she said, pushing her salad plate away. “That was good.”
“We’ll have to watch Nolan, or we’ll find ourselves on a wild goose chase towards the last place Ecason was.”
“That’s actually more interesting than chasing down Clan ships,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, and no, I’m not going to let Nolan push us into that.”
JJ laughed. “Well, it’ll be hard to hide the fact that we’re jumping to the far end of the Free Zone.”
“It would appear to be legal, at least, since it isn’t common knowledge that this ship as advanced weapons systems and shields.”
“Doesn’t matter if it does,” JJ said. “This was designated a prototype, and we’re allowed to test new weapons systems.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, like the Central Authority will buy that. Hell, they already want us to surrender because they can’t track us.”
“That’s the Central Authority. I was talking about the Free Zone.”
“We aren’t going there,” I said, then paused for a moment. “Let me back up. We aren’t going there without a critical reason.”
“You done with that burger?”
“Yeah, can’t eat as much as I used to. You want the rest?”
“No, I need to go, but we’ve got something to do first.”
I raised my eyebrows, staring at the intensity of her expression.
“Have you forgotten already?” she asked, getting up and walking to me, bending down, our lips touching. We kissed gently.
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Was it that bad?”
“No. I wasn’t saying that.”
“Then what were you saying,” she asked, smiling at me.
I got up, forcing her to back away. “This isn’t optimum.”
“What do you mean?”
I moved to the bed, laying on my back, and motioned for her to come over. “Come here.”
“We aren’t going to…?”
“We’re just going to kiss, but I want to be comfortable.”
JJ shrugged and climbed onto the bed. I pulled her over on top of me, kissing her shocked face as my hands roamed over her back. She gave in quickly, moaning into my mouth, her hands going to my hair. We broke it after a few minutes.
“Wow,” she said, looking flustered as she got up. “That’ll do it.”
“Where are you going? We could do that a little longer.”
“If we do, I’ll be peeling my clothes off. Not a good idea.”
I laughed. “Maybe not to you.”
“Quiet. You remember what we agreed to.”
“You told me what you wanted to do. I don’t remember agreeing with you.”
She rolled her eyes. “Maybe this is going to be harder than I thought.”
“You said it, not me.”
“Stop, she said, getting up and straightening her blouse.
“Where are you going?” I asked as I got off the bed.
“I want to see how far along the techs are with the Tristar, and when they’ll be doing the retrofit on this ship.”
“Anxious to have it done, aren’t you?”
She glanced back at me as she headed for the door. “This is like our escape pod.” She left, the door closing behind her.
I picked up the food containers and leftovers, putting them into the disposal unit next to the table, then straightened my uniform and left, heading back to the New Jersey bridge. Nolan and Andrea were busy chatting, looking at documents about Ecason’s ship concept. Tim and Izzy were both watching their PAs.
“Where’s JJ?” Izzy asked. Tim elbowed her.
I sat in one of the empty seats. “She went to the Tristar to check on their retrofit progress.”
“Uh huh.” Izzy grinned. I ignored her.
“Anything showing up on the scans?” I asked.
Nolan looked over. “Nothing at all. We’re probably safe.”
“This concept ship had a lot of interesting capabilities,” Andrea said.
“There was never a prototype, though, was there?” Tim asked.
“We have no idea how far this concept went, or if it’s even remotely similar to that ship we saw, in any way other than appearance,” Nolan said.
“What does your intuition tell you, Nolan?”
“Not much. The general shapes of the concept drawings and the Overlord’s ship was similar.”
“Why are we assuming that the ship is an Overlords ship?” Izzy asked.
Nolan’s eyebrows raised as he glanced at Izzy. “That’s actually a very good question. For all we know, that ship was not on Simone’s side. It might have been coming to prevent her from doing something.”
“So, she could’ve been stalling us for some other reason?” Tim asked.
“We’re going to talk ourselves into who-knows-what,” I said. “It was coming in from the same direction as the Centurion Class ships, and it created no havoc while it was next to Simone’s assets. I think we can say with some confidence that this ship was at least friendly to Simone.”
“There is one thing we found out for sure,” Tim said.
“What’s that?” Izzy asked.
“We know that those were normal Centurion Class ships. We were able to neutralize them as easily as we expected.”
“That’s correct,” Nolan said.
“We’ll be coming out of the jump in a few minutes,” Andrea said, looking at her PA.
“What’s the plan after that?” Tim asked.
“We’ll be going down to the surface, I expect,” Nolan said. “To chat with my uncle.”
“Here we go,” Andrea said, as the static electricity hit all of us. The cameras filled the screen with video of Amberis.
“Scanning,” Nolan said, looking at the console. “Nobody here that shouldn’t be here.”
I nodded. “Good. Where’s that big ship? Still next to Mars?”
“Just a sec,” Nolan said, speaking into his PA for a moment. “It’s someplace else. No trace of it in Earth’s solar system. This is interesting.”
“What?” Andrea asked.
“Ship traffic is active again. I guess word travels fast.”
“Where?” Izzy asked.
“All over the zone, but especially near Earth and the other level three, two, and one worlds.”
“Can we tell if it’s commerce or military traffic?” Tim asked.
“Not for sure,” Nolan said. “I’ll leave a detailed scan running while we’re on the surface. It might show us something that a quick look won’t.”
JJ walked onto the bridge. “The Tristar will be finished in two hours.”
“Then they’re starting on the Zephyrus?” I asked.
She nodded. “Won’t take as long. Our ship should be ready to go in less than three hours.”
“Good. Let’s get set for the meeting on Amberis. Can you contact your uncle?”
Nolan was about to speak when Vermillion walked over. “That won’t be necessary. I’ve already made contact, and Tac has been waiting for us.”
“Where is he?” Nolan asked.
“On his rail car, about three hundred miles from the capital of Ceroris.”
“Is Ceroris a country or a city?” Tim asked.
“Country,” Vermillion said.
Nolan turned toward them. “My uncle’s city is called Trattoris,”
“What’s with the ris at the ends?” Izzy asked.
“It’s kind of like burg or ville on Earth,” Nolan said.
“Yeah, but we didn’t use that in the name for our world,” Izzy said.
“True, but other worlds have used that model,” Nolan said. “When are we going down there?”
“As soon as the Tristar is finished,” Vermillion said. “We’ll take her down cloaked and land next to the railcar.
“We’ll have to pause work on the Zephyrus, then,” JJ said. “Scratch the five hours.”
“We’re moving that ship up above the airlock doors,” Vermillion said. “It’s happening right now. Surprised you didn’t know.”
“The crew on the Tristar didn’t say anything about it,” JJ said.
“We shuffle ships around in that bay all the time,” Andrea said. “Not a big deal.”
I glanced over at JJ, our eyes meeting. She looked away quickly. Izzy noticed, shooting me a smirk.
“That big ship is back by Mars,” Nolan said. “Just caught it in the scan.”
“What’s it doing there?” I asked.
“Just sitting for the moment. There’s a lot of tugs working on the drifting ships. Looks like they already have auxiliary power running on the station.”
“Still a lot of traffic?” Tim asked.
“Yes, and it’s ramping up higher,” Nolan said.
“Space commerce-type traffic?” Vermillion asked.
“I think so, sir.”
“Unexpected but welcome,” Vermillion said. “You’ll leave the scans running while we’re down there, right?”
“It’s already set up,” Nolan said.
Cyrus came onto the bridge. “The Tristar is just about finished.”
“They told me a couple more hours,” JJ said.
“The last part was easier than they expected.”
Nolan laughed. “Oldest trick in the book. Under promise and over deliver.”
Vermillion smiled. “I’m going to get ready. It’s a little chilly on the surface, and we’ll be walking from the Tristar to the rail car. Dress accordingly.” He left the bridge.
“Did the Zephyrus get moved above the airlock doors?” JJ asked.
“They were lifting it as I was leaving,” Cyrus said. “Very efficient operation they have down there.”
Andrea smiled. “I’ll say. Who’s going down to the surface?”
“Good question,” I said. “Vermillion wasn’t very clear on that.” I tapped my PA, asking the question. Vermillion came back a few moments later with a response.
“Nolan, JJ, Deacon, and me,” I said. “Oh, and Cyrus and his Tristar crew, of course.”
“Izzy and Tim can stay here on the bridge?” Andrea asked.
“Don’t see why not,” I said. “One of you keep an eye on that scan. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“We’d better get ready,” JJ said. “My clothes are on the Zephyrus, remember?”
“So are mine and Nolan’s, and we need to pick up Deacon too. Let’s roll.” We left the bridge.
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