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chapter eleven
" KEEN "
Part Seven

After confirming no one remained in the area Bruce Porter glided his Aerocar slowly toward the seeming abandoned Starbus. They'd had no idea what to do if someone had remained, the Aerocar's only defence was high speed, and Bruce kept his hand on the throttle ready to burst them skyward at the slightest notice.

That notice almost came twice when the wind picked up and a branch, nearly torn free in the last wind storm but stubbornly clinging to its trunk, swung up like a Soldier with a shoulder mounted surface to air missile launcher aiming right at the Aerocar.

High overhead Gilmore watched tensely as the slowly moving Aerocar crept closer to the abandoned Starbus. Even with his one frame every four seconds refresh rate the craft was moving too slowly for his liking, yet he couldn't take his eyes off the screen. The tension was killing him.

He zoomed his view in as much as he could. The sun glinted off the burnt umber bonnet of the Aerocar but Gilmore couldn't care less about that. He was drawn to the shape of the vehicle. It's sleek retro lines and graceful curves were mesmerizing.

As someone who needed to know everything he could about vehicles to determine which was the best to stow away on Gilmore knew instantly that he was looking at a concept vehicle, or at least a prototype of a line not yet announced.

Gilmore strained to see the logo on the aft compartment, the panel housing the driver, he was sure of that. It was circular, which narrowed down the manufacturers to three, if only he could get a bit closer he'd know which one.

He pulled up and then with a flick of the controls he isolated three features on the vehicle and ran them through a quick comparative matrix. His suspicions were confirmed, “That a Grand Designs vehicle?”

Bruce Porter froze in the seat while his eyes quickly darted the horizon for an approaching vehicle. On realizing Gilmore was referring to them he eased up, just a little bit. Bruce knew overhead surveillance was common place but tooling about here in the Commons was one of the things he could always count on to stay away from prying eyes. He actually had to force himself to relax, these eyes were they're only back up.

“Yes.” He said flatly, with a dead tone that carried the weight of the moment past his lips with authority.

Gilmore nearly squealed with delight. Grand Designs was nearly a subdivision of Rigel Aerospace. The larger company being the exclusive provider of Grav-Assist systems while the smaller manufacturer made all the consoles for both firms. “Joules, bring up the Logi-Board and try to log in.”

Joules looked at Bruce without comprehending the instructions but her traveling companion didn't reflect her confusion. In fact Bruce Porter's face reflected the plain obviousness of the statement. Without a word he reached forward and activated the Passenger Interface board. The server's came to life and the smooth dash before her suddenly unfolded like the petals of a large flower.

The board powered up and as the familiar layout of a remote interface panel appeared Joules realized what everyone else was talking about. With the same ease as she'd used accessing her ship from her suite she could link to her baby now.

She burst with delight, “Can I fly it somewhere so someone can fix it?”

Gilmore wished it was that easy. “Uh… No. But we can see what we're up against. Log in.”

Joules did, then at Gilmore's prompting she keyed in his piggyback code after which he was in control of the board. Quickly she saw him go to internal diagnostics, all systems were green, and then to internal sensors. Rapidly the picture took shape.

Triggers, and their explosive devices, were placed at each of the hatches and portals inside the ship. Additional explosives were packed into corners throughout the lower deck of the ship but none of those had triggers. The explosive looked like common plastic molding compound, pretty stable stuff until the right spark struck.

Gilmore corrected her. The triggers had micro-filaments and pressure shuttles. The corner packed charges had the same filaments. The moment any of the hatches opened the internal air pressure of the ship would change which would trigger the charge to explode. The charges were at all seven points of entry, as there was no way to get inside without triggering the charges there was no way to disable them.

Crestfallen Joules peered up at her Starbus, sitting peacefully in the uneven glen where it had soft-landed. It looked serene, harmless. She could climb out of the Aerocar and walk to it without effort, she could run her hands across the smooth hull. She could even tap on it, climb over it and peer inside any of the viewports. But the moment she opened anything, even a negative pressure valve her lone prize possession would explode into a billion fragments, most likely vaporizing her and anything else around.

The people who had done this weren't only bad, they were cruel.

“So,” she said with a tone of resignation, “What do we do now?”

The screen before her flashed from one image to the next while her friend, some 400 thousand kilometers away, tried desperately to find a solution to this problem. The Atmospheric system was connected to two canisters of Ebrex, a corrosive aerosol installed as a last resort to bio-hazard contamination.

Gilmore could release the Ebrex, inject it into the ventilation system. The aerosol would drift on the currents of air in the craft until they made contact with organic matter. Then in a slow chemical reaction it would consume the organic until nothing remained.

Gilmore wasn't sure if that wouldn't destablize the explosive material but it didn't matter anyway. Aside from the fact that every cushion, blanket and piece of clothing in the Starbus would disintegrate from such exposure, Gilmore was pretty sure just triggering the ventilation system to distribute the aerosol would probably trigger one of the pressure sensitive filaments. Any single explosion would ignite the rest in a chain-conflagration.

Joules simply couldn't sit there any longer, she tapped the release on the canopy and grabbed the handset as she climbed out of the Aerocar. While Gilmore mumbled through his thoughts on the other end Joules walked around her craft gliding her hand gently over the hull.

“We need an external airlock.” Gilmore's excited voice came over the handset, as though the idea alone solved the problem.

Joules stepped back and looked at the outer holds. There was five external lockers on each side of the Starbus, Joules walked along the side of the craft touching the corrugated metal covers on each trying to recall what was stored in each one. There was a tent in this one, it was a quarantine tent and had compatible connectors for her front hatch, but no environmental controls.

Joules walked aft of the Starbus and on feeling the residual heat from the thrusters had to take a wide berth as she made her way to the opposite side. If she had something she could jury-rig into an environmental control she might be able to equalize the space inside the quarantine tent and get inside.

“You'd have to manually open the door, and slowly crank it. Too fast and you'll trigger the explosion.”

Gilmore's words nearly fell on deaf ears. She was focused on solving this problem now. So intently in fact that she almost fell on her face when her foot dropped forty centimeters on the uneven ground. The stumble broke her from the reverie and made her take stock in the terrain the Starbus had been parked on.

It was a natural environment, nothing plowed, nothing leveled. The Starbus' struts propped it up at key points and there were spots where the weight of the craft had depressed the ground, there were others where the struts had hyper-extended to secure position. The automatics had leveled things out.

As Joules looked down taking in the ground beneath her craft with almost zen-like nature she realized the solution to her problem. “The pod hold!”

Gilmore stopped. The words Joules just called out seemed familiar but he couldn't recall what they were. He looked up at the schematic of the Starbus and then it came to him.

The lower deck of a cargo Starbus is all hold but when Joules first bought the craft she'd wanted to change that. Along with all the other fixes they did then Joules had him reconstruct the aft bulkhead, bringing it forward by two meters so they could build the smallest shuttle bay in the world.

So small was this space that they had to put the exit hatch a deck higher in the Engine Bay. Now, instead of entering a tight space of consoles controlling every aspect of the Starbus' operation one had to maneuver around an island that provided both step up to the top hatch as well as access to the ceiling hatch of the Shuttle Pod Gilmore had secured for Joules.

It was a tight fit and it took time to get the pod in and out of the hold, but the Pod wasn't with the Starbus right now. It was sitting in the Pod hold of Gilmore's secret space at Station Five. And that meant the Pod Hold was nothing more than an airlock.

Joules was already on the ground, having found recessed land with enough clearance, and she was crawling toward the lower hatch. The chances that her hijackers would've thought to open the upper hatch and climb down to booby trap this second hatch was unlikely, but not impossible.

It was a risk and Joules knew it. Should she trigger something the best case scenario was that she was trapped beneath the flaming hulk of her Starbus where she would most likely suffocate unless rescued. The worst case scenario is that the bottom hold would blow killing her instantly. Or was it the other way around? It didn't matter. This was a chance and Joules was going to take it.

* * *