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chapter eleven
" KEEN "
Part Ten

As they got closer to the Starbus Alexei grew tense. The tree cover was just about gone and no doubt anyone inside looking out would spot them as easily as they could see the Starbus.

With the lack of tree cover came a lack of vantage points. Alexei couldn't climb up the slight limbs and trucks of what was present, so he couldn't clearly see if Joules had come out from under the Starbus, foiled in her attempts to enter, or if anyone was with her. In fact, at this moment, he didn't even know if the Aerocar was still present.

It was entirely possible they were approaching an abandoned vehicle.

That variable forced them to approach carefully, trying to remain hidden, even though they might be the only ones around.

* * *

With her shoulder thrown into it Joules was able to pry open the top hatch. A hinged cover with a display on top, the top hatch was designed to meld into the rest of the console. That foresight was probably the only reason it hadn't been booby-trapped, because unless you knew it was a hatch you wouldn't think twice about it.

Gilmore didn't know that one reason the Pod was typically with him instead of in the Starbus was because Joules often used this space to smuggle goods when she expected to be boarded, no need to dump something the Inspectors couldn't find. That was rule number 117.

As Joules shouldered the hatch further open she got her first good look at the interior of the Starbus. Directly above her was the Aft Top Hatch. Affixed beside it was the explosive compound the New Soviet agents had used to booby-trap her craft and sticking from it was something that looked rather like a very thick stylus.

Gilmore had explained that inside that tube was a slider and any change to the pressure, typical of a hatch opening, would pull the slider and then trigger the sensor to detonate. When one triggered the signal would go to all the others and the entire craft would explode in a nearly simultaneous conflagration.

With grips only a single hand wide, ending at the top lip of the Pod Bay, and with nothing above that to grip, Joules had the difficult task of contorting herself to continue upward. She carefully brought one foot up, almost to her chest and then with great effort, and the protestations of many muscles threatening to cramp, her leg crested the lip. Then, while twisting her hand on the hold for a better grip, she pulled herself closer to the lip until she was straddling it.

All she had to do was ease over and then allow herself to fall and she'd be free of the Pod bay hatch and safely on the upper deck in the Engine bay of her craft. Gilmore must've figured that was her thought while he watched her on the internals because his voice came over the Link with some alarm.

“Don't drop and don't let the hatch fall quickly. It'll cause a draught that might trigger detonation!”

Joules froze. Physics had never been her strong suit but she understood wind. The Pod Hatch falling closed would pull on the air above it for sure, and the air above it was precisely where one of the shuttle triggers were.

With every effort, fighting the quivering muscles in her arms and legs, Joules slowly pulled herself over the lip, out of the hatch, all the while keeping the lid from falling. Once clear she slowly let it down, softly resting it in place despite a habit of pressing it sealed. Nothing could be allowed to happen that would change the pressure of the room until these triggers were deactivated.

Then she stood. The air was still inside the Starbus, Gilmore's attempt to keep the shuttle triggers from going off, and Joules found herself sweating profusely again as she struggled to stand steady on top of the console.

The tube sticking out of the mass of explosive compound didn't have a button or anything else that appeared to control it. Carefully, with her head turned away from the trigger, Joules shallowly spoke into the Link, “How do I deactivate these things?”

Gilmore had found one he could zoom in on with the internals and then by cross-referencing his extensive library he finally found the comparative trigger. It was a mining trigger, altered manually by someone, and originally built by a firm in the South American Confederacy. That would've misdirected the investigation quite a bit.

The shuttle was a very simple component, as was the lock to secure it. “Okay,” he began, “The end sticking out has a Ring. On the Ring is a line. Along the tube is a line. Carefully rotate the Ring until both lines match up. Once you've done that you can carefully remove the tube and that turns off that trigger.”

Joules looked at the tube. She couldn't see a line from this position. She shifted her weight and tried to shuffle her way further down the side of the console. One foot, still moist from the sweat slipped and she almost tumbled off the console. Thankfully she didn't and her yelp didn't noticeably increase the pressure of the room.

Once she'd turned around and was looking at the trigger from the opposite direction, her back now against the rear bulkhead of the Engine Bay, Joules could see the line in the tube and with a little more straining the line on the ring.

Her hands shook, some abated shock trying to push through, or the bodily reaction of a long term adrenaline rush. She stopped, steadied her breath, again without facing the trigger, and calmed herself before reaching up and carefully, slowly, rotating the ring until the two lines matched up.

Then she slowly removed the trigger.

“Don't toss it, don't break it. Put it down someplace secure and I'll direct you to the next one.”

Joules did as he instructed while she climbed down off the console. “How many more of these do I have?”

From the remote safety of his hidden loft on Station Five Gilmore began a search isolating all the triggers. There were eleven obvious points of entry and a trigger at each one.


Her shoulders sagged. This was going to be hard.

The internal scanners automatically began scanning for similar compounds and instead of matching the triggers it zeroed in on the explosive. Suddenly additional locations began to appear on the display. Gilmore quickly counted them.

“Correction, seventeen!”


“There are only eleven shuttle triggered explosives but I just found six radio linked explosives!”

Joules sighed. This was going to be a long day.

* * *

Alexei pushed to close the distance quickly now. Ipovich had no problem keeping up, his lanky legs were well-designed for the faster pace, but Karsla with her short stocky build was nearly at a gallop to stay with them.

And with each step Alexei was wondering just what exactly his options were. What could he do to take down the Starbus if she was success at deactivating the explosives? He began to review their arsenal. The Cody Rifles were useless in surface-to-air combat, pity he couldn't have brought at least one Marwayne rifle with them.

Marwayne Rifles could've taken out the Starbus from the moment he saw the Aerocar but the micro guide technology wasn't something they've been able to copy and actual Marwaynes had multiple tracking chips. It was almost impossible to buy real Marwaynes on the black market and smuggling them through Lagrange space without detection was next to impossible.

They'd gone with the Cody knock-offs because it was easy to fake the trail back to where they needed it and it was cheap to produce them in bulk. The actual components had been manufactured by the Aleandrov Weapons Farm in Kiev, the plant had been retooled to produce these clones during a Patriot's Week shut-down. Ironically the most patriotic of the employees had stayed at their posts to produce what was needed.

Along with the Cody's he had three Stik-It Grenades. If they could get within 500 metres the Stik-Its would be an option, fired from the ballistic barrel. Closer still he might be able to land one on the cockpit window, blow that out but more likely his best bet was striking an operationally sensitive zone, a thruster or driver.

He reached back, feeling along his belt and smiled when he found the EMP Grenade. If she was near enough, and in flight, Alexei could take her down with the simplest law of physics, Gravity.

It was enough to encourage him to pick the pace up more. They'd need to be close if she got the Starbus going for that to work.

* * *