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chapter eleven
" KEEN "
Part Six

Every moment in the Aerocar without a sound seemed infinitely long. A tension hung between Bruce and Joules while they waited for Gilmore to update them on the success of the override code.

Joules looked at Bruce wondering what was eating him. She frowned again, her brow furrowed and with it the thought that she’d need a week or two at a spa to get rid of all these stress lines.

Finally she couldn’t take it any longer, “What?”

Bruce was startled. He didn’t know how to begin, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to begin. His Mother had always taught him not to ask a question if he wasn’t prepared to hear the worst answer. But similarly Bruce Porter wasn’t the type to hem and haw at something. His eyebrow arched as he tried to look boyish and playful rather than jealous, “Is it serious?”

Joules almost thought he was asking whether a New Soviet Squad stealing her Starbus for a covert mission deep into the heart of North America was serious, or if she was serious that such a thing had happen, but her heart knew he was asking about Gilmore.

“No! He’s my mechanic.” It actually came out sounding a little sarcastic, which wasn’t what Joules had intended but before she could see the hurt in Bruce’s eyes Gilmore returned to the line.

The surprise was evident in the mechanic’s voice, “I got it as far as the auto-shut down, auto-land responder before something happened to the beacon.”

A look of panic shot across Joules’ face, “What does that mean?”

“Best case is they pulled out the beta unit so we don’t have a firm fix on the Starbus.”

“What’s the worst case?” Joules really didn’t want to know the answer to that.

“Worst case is that it crashed.” Joules actually found her throat constrict. Gilmore continued, “But I don’t that was it.”

“You don’t?” It came out weakly. She felt like she was going to be sick.

“The transponder said it was still a thousand metres above ground and they weren’t in the mountains. Most likely they pulled the beta.”

A hundred questions stormed through her head, she found one. “How would they know to pull it?”

As Gilmore thought about he looked at his master display. He’d replaced the Live Eye images with the schematic for Joule’s Starbus. Quickly he zoomed in on the beta installation and then brought up the details and defaults list. As he looked at the details he felt sheepish, “I think I might’ve left the alarm on when I installed it.”

Joules sat back in the seat and thought about this on her end. The unit controller was in the cockpit and the alarm would call attention to itself for sure if the thing went off. But it wasn’t Gilmore’s fault, that’s how she’d wanted it. Joules didn’t trust the device enough at the time not to want a warning when it was activated. Her concern hinged on exactly what they done, her fear was that someone would’ve done it to her while she was flying it.

But that paranoia meant their use of the override hadn’t been hidden. Okay, she could live with that, the override had worked, the ship was landing and then they’d removed the unit. It didn’t change anything, without the default codes they couldn’t do anything but enjoy the ride down.

“Where is it?”

Gilmore paused and looked around in confusion, hadn’t she been listening? “Joules the transponder’s been disabled. How in the world am I going to find it?”

Joules cut in, “The ship would’ve landed very near where it was when the land code was received, right? Get your Live Eye feed on the last coordinates.”

It was a good point, Gilmore was a bit too rattled for this sort of panic. He hadn’t had to deal with this type of stress in almost three years and during that time his nervous system had forgotten how to handle it. His heart was racing, his breathing had accelerated and his hands were shaking so much the mechanical one rattled.

“Come on.” He said to himself, “Get a grip, old man.”

Gilmore brought up the Live Eye. His feed refreshed one image every four seconds. It seemed to take forever to grip it out to the coordinates where the Starbus last registered. Finally he saw the craft. Even at this distance, nearly three hundred thousand kilometers up, he could clearly see the top of Joules’ Starbus, he could even read her registry marks. Finally, some good news.

“I’ve got it!”

Joules exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She leaned forward in her chair. “Give me the coordinates.”

Gilmore keyed them through and Joules fed them into Bruce’s navigation system. Then with a smooth transition and the growl of precision timed drivers the Aerocar banked around and accelerated.

* * *

“Is this really necessary?” Podarkin followed Yuri up the hold toward the exit as the larger man set a few more timers. “We might need this craft to escape.”

Yuri stopped and looked at Tepu, the pilot, “You think you can figure out the by-pass codes?”

Tepu despised Yuri, but despite that and his fondness for Alexi, he couldn’t lie to a superior officer. “Nyet, Comrade. Not in this lifetime, anyway.”

Yuri set the last of the charges and then trudged toward the exit motioning Tepu ahead of him. He didn’t say anything; Tepu’s statement should’ve put an end to further discussion.

They crossed the threshold of the forward hatch and once Alexei had cleared the craft Yuri fed the final connector to the inside of the hatch, pushed a button and keyed the hatch closed.

“Anyone tries to enter it and they’re in for quite a warm reception.” Yuri chuckled at that, the only one enjoying his joke.

Tepu looked at Alexei with concern and then tapped Yuri, “Why don’t we just blow it now?”

“An explosion will bring investigators. We’re still on a mission, old friend.”

The slightest pressure change inside the craft would trigger detonation of the sixteen charges. Anyone trying to gain entry would blow the Starbus sky high. Too bad for them but it would be an unmistakable signal to these New Soviet soldiers that they were being followed.

Poor Joules, Alexei thought as glanced back at the Starbus. She’d wake with a bruise and probably a hell of a headache but that was nothing compared to the crushing discovery of what they’d done to her beloved craft.

* * *

“Is there anyone there?” The urgency in Joules voice was bordering on panic.

Gilmore looked at his screen and quickly scrolled back through the last ten minutes of shots. A fast exercise seeing as he only had one image for every four seconds. In the jerky animation he could see a group of twelve or so exit the craft immediately after landing and then milling about for almost ten minutes before three more came out. Then the group walked away heading north-by-north east.

Gilmore began comparing their direction to a map he had. There wasn’t a single settlement in that direction until you crossed the WestCan border and even then it was still another hundred kilometers. Was there anything strategic in that direction?

Before he could re-sweep the area Joules called out, “Well?”

Gilmore stopped, trying to remember what he was looking for. He glanced at the main display. The empty Starbus! “A group came out right away. They just stood around for ten minutes and then three more joined them. The group moved off then.”

Joules was befuddled. If they were clearing out everything, abandoning ship, then why wouldn’t they all have grabbed something, or made multiple trips inside? Three people staying behind a few minutes meant… “They’re scuttling my ship!”

“Not exactly.” Came Gilmore’s reply.

“What the Hades does that mean?!” The frantic voice was back.

“Blowing it up now would draw attention to this area. They probably just booby-trapped it.”

Joules sank into her seat in shock. She could get to her Starbus but the idea that all she’d be able to do is say Good-bye was overwhelming. She didn’t notice the Aerocar slowing to a hovering stop until it sat there a minute. She turned to Bruce with annoyance. “Why’d we stop?”

Bruce looked at her sympathetically. He was also trying not to show his own fear and trepidation. “You never said anything about blindly rushing after well-armed foreign agents and exploding spacecraft.”

Joules jaw clenched. She didn’t need this now and couldn’t bite at the hand that came to her rescue despite how much she wanted to. “Get me within walking distance and then you can go.”

Bruce started to protest, “I…”

“I don’t need you!” Joules spat out without intending to. She instantly regretted the outburst.

“Joules, I need to have a plan before we go closer. The last thing I want is trying to duck incoming fire, or worse being hunted down by mercenaries.”

Joules paused at this; she wasn’t thinking that far ahead which was unlike her, dangerously unlike her. With a menacing calm she instructed Bruce, “Get low, slow and approach from the south west.”

* * *