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Hero: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Sunday, December 28, 2003 03:49 EST



    The stealth insertion ship was cramped. No niceties were put in for the psyche of the crew or passengers. It wasn't likely the ship would ever see passengers, except perhaps a courier. Commando teams were regarded more as cargo than passengers in regard to transit.

    Pipes ran along bare overheads, lockers lined the bulkheads and passageways, and structural gear poked from every possible bare spot. There was a stink of burned metal from welding during maintenance, a tang of ozone and a musty, sweaty smell of age and dust that hadn't been precipitated by the environmental systems. Everything was plain white, though slightly faded with age despite regular cleaning and maintenance. The only spot of color was the garishly bright safety-red airlock. Another hatch led to the crew's section of the ship. It was crowded in the compartment, the team crushed close together, with Gorilla hunched nearly double with the barely two meter height of the overhead. "Wish they'd build one sized for normal people," he groused. Really, though, he was used to it. His entire life had been spent in a crouch, he often felt. And the ship was close around everyone, he simply felt it more.

    On the deck at their feet was an open hatch through which bright white light streamed from the huge warship they were docked with. The two ships were inverted in relation to each other, G fields in opposite directions and the null-G of the airlocks making transit tricky. The reason for the open hatch was the young navy sub-lieutenant before Bell Toll, the stealth ship's co-pilot and official liaison for the "supercargo."

    "Our end is covered," he said. "We've had what looks like either piracy or commerce raiding along the route, especially the approach systems; there's been some ships disappearing in the area. When we're cruising we stand out like a sore thumb and there's not much our pop-guns could do against a commerce raider or a good pirate ship. Since they're running trade escort, we've simply docked to the Zivijinovich for the duration. We'll piggyback with them until we make minimum approach, then continue from there. It'll actually save about six days transit."

    "Sounds good, lieutenant," Bell Toll replied. "The sooner we get there, the better."

    "That was what we figured," the navy officer said, nodding. Not that he had any real choice, and not that the Army could do much except bitch through the general staff if they didn't like it. "You want to get comfy aboard Ziv?"

    "No thanks, son," Bell Toll said with a grimace. "We're trained to peak at the moment; I'd rather hibernate and come out fresh than have us get fat and flabby on a damned cruise ship."

    "Sure, I figured," the lieutenant said. Damned Army grunts, he thought. Always looking for rocks to put in their bunks. They weren't happy unless they were wet, sore and eating slop. "But I was told to extend the invitation."

    "Oh, it's appreciated, and we probably will on the way back, space permitting. But not now. We're used to mud and cold and need to stay that way," he said, ironically echoing the co-pilot's thoughts.

    "What's Ziv doing on this route?" Ferret asked. He'd managed to wedge his way past Gorilla to the scout craft's crew locker. He shrugged out of his pack's straps and started stowing it and his other gear. "I thought they were acting as flagship for Second Fleet."

    "They got pulled back for a fusion bottle problem," the lieutenant said from behind him. Ferret hadn't known he was there.

    "Great," he said, with a nod, a bit startled. "Let's hope they fixed it properly, or this could be a very enlightening trip."

    The lieutenant half-smiled, half-scowled and said, "Well, let's load you below and get moving." The joke wasn't new, and the grunt likely had no idea what could happen. Adjustments to fusion containment fields were fairly common, and there was a broad range of operation that required a yard to adjust and posed no danger, but simply reduced efficiency. And if there was a real breach, it might be a loss of containment, with contamination of the engineering space which was annoying but not serious. In the exceedingly rare case of a compression in the field and a rupture, it would be over so fast no one would notice.

    Bell Toll shook Tirdal's hand as he came aboard from the cutter. It was strictly show, to make sure the scout's crew knew he was officially accepted. See the Darhel with the human commander? Must be some kind of consultant. That was the desired effect, and rumor control should have it through the ship at slightly less then lightspeed. Tirdal secured his gear and watched the others board and load.

    Entering was awkward. There was a null gravity zone filling the hatch. The troops stepped off, spun and drifted down, fast at first then slowing as they reached the deck, until they touched without impact and walked away. The field was computer controlled and managed everything in it as discrete packets so each person in the field moved at his own rate. Exiting would be done by jumping up lightly and being carried up and out. Turning to account for the opposing field was the only real complication. The interior of the lock was actually low enough that jumping down into it and even crawling out would not be an issue. But the field was there anyway, to help with cargo and inexperienced personnel.



    The interior of the bay they'd use for the trip was even more crowded than the compartment "above." One or at most two people could move around in it. To that end, they loaded one at a time. The interior was merely a corridor with two tiers of bunks bolted in on either side that were currently configured into G couches, legs raised slightly and the backs at a shallow angle. There were four right by the hatch and two each forward and aft. With them installed, the already tight corridor was narrow enough that Gorilla had to turn sideways to fit down it and also bend double. So he took the couch nearest the hatch. His gauss rifle/grenade launcher secured in a rack on the hull side above his head and he was wearing his combat harness with ammunition, water, holstered pulser, combat knife and other accoutrements. He didn't notice it as a hindrance because wore it like underwear, taking it off only to shower. He even slept in it most of the time.

    Gorilla was not happy in the enclosed space and everybody knew it.

    "Nice and snug, Gorilla?" Thor asked. "Need a teddy?" It did look vaguely like a crib, once the safety rail was up.

    Padding flowed up from the couches followed by hard memory plastic as reinforcement, fully cocooning the team members and leaving only their heads and necks exposed. Gorilla did not like this procedure either; it was a bit nightmarish for a paranoid claustrophobe. Thor was still kidding him about it as it sealed around his neck. "Maybe the Captain can untuck you a bit."

    Gorilla said, "On the trip back I'm going to make sure to hide a few bugs and snakes in your couch, Thor."

    Thor shut up. He hated snakes.

    Masks descended and automatically snuggled for a good fit over the team's noses as the JG and a female corpsman (SBA) from the Ziv injected the troopers in their necks. As each was injected, he or she became very still and waxy and pale of skin. It was typical of Hiberzine. The corpsman finished up by touching a control and the memory plastic flowed up and over the exposed part so the team ended up disappearing in their cubicles, so many lumps of dull, gray plastic. Between the Hiberzine and the encasing, the troops were effectively in stasis.

    Tirdal was still watching the procedure. The medic turned and asked him, "Are you going to take a bunk now?"

    Tirdal flicked his ear and said, "I am not. Hiberzine doesn't work well on Darhel. The side effects are unpleasant."

    "That seems strange," the medic said with a frown. "I thought the Darhel invented Hiberzine for yourselves first, then adapted it to humans."

    "No," Tirdal said with a dark but bemused look. "It was invented for use on humans, by the Tchpht, at the request of the Darhel, about four thousand of your years ago." He turned and jumped expertly up the hatch and headed for the dreadnought.

    As his feet disappeared, the SBA looks at the injector and then at the JG. "I thought we only ran into the Darhel a thousand years ago?"

    "So did I." The looks they swapped were confused and faintly disturbed.

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