Prologue: Voyager Central
“Come on Bogg, I don’t need a load of grief after an op like this was,” Sherman growled. Sherman’s omni-suit had a panoramic display, so he didn’t have to turn to see his five teammates in the capsule. Still, the sight of his armored figure swinging slowly around, displaying the battle damage, was a useful reminder of how rough a time he’d had---and how little he was asking.
“Let him go,” said El Holmes. Lhaden Norbu pursed her lips and stared at her personal display, pretending not to have an opinion.
“Come on,” Sherman repeated. “I’ll be down in Debrief in ten minutes. Unloading me in the control room rather than the docking bay hurts nothing.”
The shimmering ambience of plasma discharges and auroras had faded from UD 880′s screens, leaving merely the bare plates and girders of the dock. The bay door was a touch-sensitive unit, accepting a high leakage rate in order to speed operations. The black-and-yellow chevrons on the leaves had been scuffed nearly completely away by equipment entering Voyager Central. The personnel airlock directly into the transfer control room was almost never used.
“Transfer Control to Capsule Eight-Eight-Zero,” said a bored voice that Sherman heard both through his helmet headphones and over his suit’s audio pickup from the speaker in UD 880′s cabin. “You are cleared to Berth Eight. How do you intend to procced?”
“Hold, Control,” Bogg said, grimacing as she reached for the airlock switch. “Go on, then, Sherman. But I don’t know why she can’t meet you in Debrief like everybody else does.”
The inner airlock cycled open. Sherman entered the lock. “Thanks, Phyl,” he said.
“Because he’s scared his wife’ll be in Debrief, too.” Leave Morse chuckled from his seat opposite the hatch. “We’ve had enough excitement on this op already.”
The inner airlock closed. The outer membrane opened and Sherman stepped onto the slotted emergency walkway. Voyager Central was insulated from the outside world by hard vaccum.
A crane slid into position above the capsule, in case Bogg wanted to hand control over to the mechanical transporter. The operator could see that somebody’d gotten out of UD 880 here, against regulations; but the ground crews didn’t make trouble for Voyagers---and anyway, Smokey herself was the supervisor on this shift.
“Transfer Control to Eight-Eight- Zero,” said the voice, which Sherman now only heard through his headphones. “Do you have a problem?”
Sherman stepped into Central’s lock. The hatch closed behind him. He felt the clang through his boot soles, and the strip-lights on the paneling above quivered at his armored weight. Someone else in a displacement suit was coming along the walkway from the other direction.
“Sherman?” Morse called over the team’s intercom. “Bet you can’t get out of your suit in ten minutes, much less hers.”
“Smart ass!” Sherman muttered as pressure built in the airlock. Hell, they’d never been in love. Grimacing, Sherman poked the switch to open the inner airlock and raised his faceshield as he stepped into Voyager Central.
Smokey wasn’t waiting on the other side of the airlock.
Neither was anything Sherman had ever seen in his life.
Instead of the worn paint and control panels of Transfer Control Room Three, this chamber was hung with silk brocade. From the ceiling beamed the face of a Hispanic whom Sherman didn’t recognize in the instant he had to give to the décor.
Twelve people in one-piece taupe coveralls sat stiffly at desks. For one instant, they gaped in amazement as great as that of Sherman himself. Machine pistols were slung from their straight-backed chairs.
" B o g g ------” Sherman said. His gauntleted left hand grabbed his helmet faceshield down. The plate refused to seat.
“Invasion!” screamed the translation program in Sherman’s suit as the strangers gabbled in some language that sure-as-hell wasn’t standard Spanish, let alone standard English. “Invasion! Kill him!”
Sherman pressed the switch of the airlock behind him. It didn’t open. One of the strangers fired point-blank into the Voyager’s chest.
Bullets ricocheted in all directions. Sherman stumbled sideways, over a desk, and fell. He pointed the weapon he carried slung, but it was a phase pistol. If he fired it here without his faceshield clamped, the hostilities in Voyager Central wouldn't have to do anything but clean up the ashes that used to be him.
Short, screaming people in coveralls leaped to their feet to get a better shot at the invader. One of them spun and fell, his face torn by a keyholing ricochet. The slamming, sparking impacts burned Sherman even though they hadn't penetrated his armor yet.
During the op, Sherman had used the pair of acoustic grenades that should have hung from his equipment belt. Fifty-fifty the detonation wave would have pulled his head off anyway when it inevitably lifted his helmet.
" K i l"