Chapter 17 -Mistrust
The news of the failure of Doug and his crew to rendezvous with Yuri-Milost and the Verbinna had been a shock to everyone. The pieces of wreckage from the Salterr recovered at the coordinates where the craft had last been positioned had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the Salterr had been damaged in an attack. Whether any of the crew had survived was unknown. Tom wouldn’t allow himself to believe Doug, Whatsit, Becky, Miguel and Dr. GooYee were dead. Something deep inside him whispered they were still alive, and he prayed his belief wasn’t the result of wishful thinking.
Calls for a rescue mission quickly mounted to a fever pitch. There was no shortage of volunteers for the operation. Even Chellsee Brookkss had demanded she be added to the rescue team. She claimed her knowledge of the Chrysalis System and its homeworld were crucial to a successful mission, but Tom knew her true concerns were with the fate of Whatsit. The tears of anxiety in Chellsee’s eyes and her lame display of indifference to Whatsit’s well-being only served to verify her concern for the big lizard.
Tom’s initial reaction was to send a team back to the Chrysalis System immediately, but the cooler head of Jason Stoneman had persuaded him to formulate a plan for the rescue rather than jump into a possible ambush.
Yuri-Milost had joined Stoneman in urging caution. After all, she argued, Stoneman and she personally witnessed the power of an Asiddian laser attack when they recorded the encounter of the Salterr and the Asiddian battleship Winged Death. Any attempt at an incursion into the Chrysalis System would undoubtedly be met with multiple battleships. Whether Heinbaum’s modified defensive shield would provide complete protection to a Human spacecraft from a bombardment by hundreds of laser beams was unknowable.
Tom was cultivating a growing mistrust of Yuri-Milost. There was no specific fact influencing his lack of faith, but she just seemed too matter-of-fact about the fate of the Salterr and its crew. Her expressions of sorrow and anger just didn’t sound sincere. Separate interviews conducted of Yuri-Milost, Quentin DeLoth, Hubert Rash and Leonard Trakutel about the mission hadn’t revealed a substantive difference in their stories. It was as if they were together all the time on the Verbinna, and combat missions just didn’t lend themselves to such convenience. Tom felt their stories were too identical. He was convinced they’d been rehearsed, and his gut tightened as his suspicions blossomed.
Tom’s father, General James Blunt, had always told him to rely on his instincts, and after a sleepless night, Tom called McPherson to his office. McPherson was a tactical weapons specialist, a reverse engineering genius and long-time friend. If anyone could spot something out of the ordinary about the Verbinna, McPherson was the person best suited for the job.
The Scotsman saluted Tom and then warmly shook his hand before sitting at the small conference table in the corner of Blunt’s office. It didn’t take long for McPherson to notice the creases of worry in Tom’s forehead.
“What’s eating you, Tom?”
“That obvious huh?”
“I want you to make a discreet, thorough physical inspection of the Verbinna. I’m not buying the Yuri-Milost story about the disappearance of the Salterr.”
“Crivvens! You think the wee lass is lying?”
Chuckling at the description of Yuri-Milost as a wee lass, Tom said, “Something just doesn’t pass the smell test. I want an independent set of eyes to look at the available evidence and report back to me. Will you handle it?”
“Consider it done.”
“Why are you still here?” Heinbaum asked in an annoyed tone as he went over a list of proposed electronic improvements Longarrow had suggested be incorporated into the PDS implants.
It was 2030 hours or 8:30 pm civilian time and the vexing McPherson was just finishing the reassembly of his Glock C36 .45 calibre automatic pistol. Over the years, Heinbaum had gotten used to the cloying smell of gun oil and the bits of cleaning cloths left in odd places around his lab. The one thing he’d never come to grips with was the sudden, unexpected racking of the slide on the myriad of pistols and rifles McPherson always seemed to be working on in his spare time. The abrupt metallic snap of the slide closing frightened Heinbaum every single time.
It was unusually late for McPherson to still be hanging around the lab. On a normal evening, the oaf wandered off to bed no later than 1900 hours, allowing Heinbaum to enjoy a blessed couple of hours thinking about his day and what plans he had for the next. He didn’t like his alone time being encroached upon by anyone, especially the Scottish hellion.
“General Blunt has a job he wants me to do. Going to be a late night I’m afraid.”
“Well be gone you churlish canker,” Heinbaum growled. “How do you expect me to ponder new breakthroughs in technology when you befoul my lab with your antique weapons?”
“Antique,” McPherson replied.
Holding up the Glock, he said, “I’ll have you know this is the very latest design of a reliable killing machine. This baby would stop a charging lion.”
“So would my MA pistol,” Heinbaum retorted. “Plus the raging elephant behind him!”
“Bloodthirsty elf, aren’t you, Heiny?”
“Bah, you clay-brained clown. Get out!” Heinbaum shouted.
Grinning at the description, McPherson gathered his equipment and headed out the door. It was about time he started making his way toward the hangar where the Verbinna was stored.
Heinbaum stared at the closed lab door and wondered what the big man was planning. McPherson had mysteriously mentioned doing a late job for General Blunt. It wasn’t like him to miss his beauty sleep as he so laughingly described his nightly ritual. Something was up, and Heinbaum was intrigued.
Twisting his iconic ring around his finger, Heinbaum walked to his computer and opened the Find Personnel App he’d created. Keying in the PDSI or Personal Defensive Screen Identifier for McPherson’s implant, he tapped into the base Wi-Fi system and located the Scotsman in the hallway leading to the spacecraft hangar. The detail of the hall layout on the computer display was accurate. It clearly showed doors, rooms, storage racks and structural supports throughout the facility. The halting way McPherson’s locator icon moved as he made his way down the hallway indicated he was trying to avoid being seen.
Heinbaum keyed a sequence to reveal all PDSI implant signals within a radius of 200 feet around McPherson. There was only one other signal, and it stayed at least 100 to 150 feet back from the Scotsman. It was clear someone was following the big oaf, and Heinbaum’s danger instinct pinged loudly. Forwarding the FP App display to his cellphone so he could keep an eye on his friend, Heinbaum hurried from his lab.
McPherson stepped from the shadows created by a structural support column in the massive underground hangar and trotted to the entry ramp leading into the Verbinna. It was late, and he’d taken great pains to make sure no one spotted him walking to the hangar.
At this hour, not even maintenance personnel were in the darkened building. Moving like a stalking mountain lion, he stopped in the companionway at the top of the ramp and considered where he should begin his clandestine inspection. Deciding the computer logs were the most tamper-proof data available, he headed to the master control room. Plopping down in the pilot’s couch, he keyed in the appropriate system password and began perusing the files.
Outside the saucer, hidden behind some long steel racks loaded with boxes of spare parts and hydraulic components, Leonard Trakutel stared worriedly at the Verbinna. He’d followed McPherson to the hangar, keeping enough distance between them to insure the Scotsman had no idea he was being tailed. Trakutel’s MA weapons storage facility was located in the main tunnel leading to the underground hangar. His security cameras had spotted McPherson in the hallway, a place he rarely visited at such a late hour. Redirecting the feeds from base security camera displays to his iPad, Trakutel easily followed the unsuspecting Scotsman straight to the Verbinna. Yuri-Milost had been right. She suspected General Blunt would have doubts about their story and order someone check the Verbinna for signs of treachery.
Trakutel was scared and oily sweat began beading on his forehead and dripping into his eyes. McPherson was no dummy. If anyone could discover something out of the ordinary on the ship, he was the one. The big man might act like a meathead, but he was cunningly smart.
Taking on McPherson by himself was a physical impossibility. The red-haired devil was just too strong and well-trained. Reaching into his pocket for the special K-wave transceiver Yuri-Milost had given him, he pushed the transmit button.
After a short pause, Rash responded, “Go ahead.”
“Meet me now in the hangar behind rack DR-15 near the Verbinna. Bring two of the holy sacrificial heirlooms. We have a problem.”
“Be there in five.”
The anticipation of ending a human life sent a shiver of pleasure down Rash’s spine. Walking to the sleeper sofa in his suite, he reached between the seat cushions and pulled the strap to unfold the bed.
The specially rigged sofa unfolded to reveal hidden compartments where the mattress would normally be tucked away. The compartments were lined with red velvet and had foam depressions molded to match the shape of the weapons they held. Selecting two Sig Sauer automatic pistols from one of the compartments, Rash put them in a leather satchel and closed the sofa.
Keying his K-wave transceiver to another special channel, Rash said, “Your Grace.”
“I go to assist Acolyte Trakutel in solving a problem near the Verbinna. He has requested I bring sacrificial heirlooms. The task should require less than an hour. I’ll report as soon as the operation is completed.”
“Go with God. I will pray His Holy Grace protect and comfort you now and forevermore. Amen.”
There was little doubt someone had tampered with the weapons log. The log entry counter indicated there were 4,673 instances when the scout saucer’s weapons had been fired. McPherson programmed a simple routine that counted the individual log entries and discovered there were only 4,664 in the computer records. Nine instances when the saucer’s weapons fired had been deleted. Whoever had tampered with the data had been very sloppy.
McPherson’s eyes narrowed, and he clenched his teeth in anger as he copied the log information to a small thumb drive. Based on the date-time stamps on the existing log entries, the last nine firings of the weapons had been erased. It appeared General Blunt’s suspicions were correct, and Yuri-Milost’s entire team was suspect.
They’d brought back what they claimed was wreckage from the Salterr. McPherson decided to check the engineering and storage areas in the saucer to see if he could find anything else that might be related to the fate of his friends.
Making his way to the lower decks, McPherson carefully checked every bay, cabin and locker. He found everything in order until he opened compartment RT-20 in the Engineering Bay. The standard complement of hand-held MA pistols and bazookas on every scout saucer was eight MA pistols and two MA bazookas. They had all been stored as expected in cabinets WP-01 and 02. One of the many oversized metal cases in RT-20 contained an additional eight MA pistols and two MA bazookas. McPherson got the strong impression Doug and Becky’s fingerprints would be found on a couple of the pistols. The Salterr had been ambushed alright, just not by Asiddians.
Picking up the heavy case containing the damning evidence, McPherson shouldered his way out of RT-20 and came face-to-face with Hubert Rash and Leonard Trakutel. Both of them stood four paces apart in the entrance to the Engineering Bay pointing silenced Sig Sauer P250 .40 calibre pistols at his chest. McPherson was exposed with no available cover.
“You’re smarter than you look, McPherson.”
“Thanks for the compliment, Rash. Sorry to say you’re at least as dumb as you look,” McPherson replied.
“Fearless words coming from a man with less than 60 seconds to live.”
Shifting his gaze to Trakutel, McPherson said, “I’ll have to admit your involvement surprises me, Leo. Now that I think about it though, I should have known something about you was skewed when you didn’t like single malt scotch.”
“The devil’s brew is for sinners, McPherson. My soul is pure and will be accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven on Judgment Day. Sadly yours will not,” Trakutel responded self-righteously.
McPherson didn’t like his odds. Rash and Trakutel were positioned in a typical close-quarters combat formation. He might be able to take out one of them, but the other would surely kill him. He decided to buy some time in the hope an opportunity for escape presented itself.
“You really think the slugs from those Sigs will get through my PDS?” McPherson asked as he let go of the metal case with his right hand and let his left arm carry its full weight.
“Normally no. But you see the bullets in these Sigs are special high velocity armor piercing slugs. Made for just such an occasion as we have here,” Rash answered.
“Oh really?” McPherson taunted as he pressed the inside of his right forearm against his hip, triggering the release of his sleeve knife. A Microtec Halo OTF knife slid into his palm, and he poised his thumb on the blade release as he pointed the blade ejector end at Rash.
“Brought a knife to a gun fight, eh, McPherson?”
“Well you see the blade in this knife is special. Made for just such an occasion as we have here,” McPherson said.
Trakutel looked worried. Glancing at Rash, he said, “I don’t like this. He’s a weapons expert working with Heinbaum every day. They may have tech we don’t know about.”
“Shut up,” Rash growled.
Then to McPherson, “Nice bluff, but I’m not buying your bullshit.”
McPherson’s eyes shifted to a spot behind Rash and Trakutel. “Doc! Are you crazy? Get the hell out of here!”
Sneering in disgust, Rash said, “Really? You expect us to fall for that lame ruse?”
Without warning, PDS screens bubbled into existence around McPherson, Rash and Trakutel. From out of the darkness behind the assassins, Heinbaum appeared. The MA pistol in his hand emitted a continuous energy beam that he played back and forth over the men to keep his and their defensive screens active.
Twisting to confront the unexpected rescuer, Rash fired his weapon at Heinbaum. Despite the silencer, the cough of the gunshot was loud in the confines of the ship. The high velocity bullet pierced through Rash’s PDS as if it didn’t exist and impacted Heinbaum’s PDS just above his heart. With a muffled thunk, the bullet flattened itself against Heinbaum’s shield and fell to the deck with a metallic clink.
McPherson hesitated less than half a second before he dropped the metal case and leaped at Rash as the man was turning to aim at Heinbaum. The PDS wasn’t meant to protect a person from hand-to-hand combat. McPherson’s thumb pressed the release button and twenty pounds of spring loaded tension snicked the tanto blade out the front of the Microtec handle. With one quick, stabbing movement, McPherson plunged the four and a half inch razor sharp blade into the side of Rash’s neck, severing his carotid artery. Jerking the blood drenched knife out of Rash, he spun toward Trakutel.
As he locked eyes on the man, Trakutel fired two shots and the armor piercing bullets rammed through his PDS and smashed against McPherson’s PDS just above his abdomen. With muffled thunks, the bullets flattened against McPherson’s shield and dropped to the deck. Lunging at his attacker, McPherson knocked the Sig pistol aside, grabbed Trakutel by the neck, lifted off the deck and drove the back of his head into the nearby bulkhead. Bringing the knife to Trakutel’s face, McPherson pressed the bloody blade into the man’s cheek just below his left eye and sliced a long, deep gash down the man’s face.
Struggling to bring his white-hot anger under control, McPherson managed to whisper through gritted teeth.
“I’m fighting with my Inner Self right now. I want to stick this blade straight through your eye socket into your brain. This method will lobotomize you and result in a slow but agonizing brain death over perhaps five days. My Inner Self is pleading with me to have mercy on you and kill you a little quicker.”
Sheer terror clutched at Trakutel’s heart as he beheld the instrument of his death. Stunned by the concussive blow of his skull striking the bulkhead, all he could manage to do was gurgle.
“Don’t you think you should keep him alive long enough for General Blunt to question him?” Heinbaum asked.
The scientist’s voice broke the murderous spell binding McPherson, and his eyes softened a bit.
“Damn it, Doc! Sometimes you take all the fun out of life,” McPherson grunted as he released his grip, and Trakutel fell to the deck.
Turning to see if his friend was hurt in any way and finding he wasn’t, McPherson asked, “Do you have any zip restraints on you?”
“Why would I bother to have such mundane equipment wasting precious space in the pockets of my lab coat?” Heinbaum replied with a sniff.
“Oh that’s okay, Doc. I have a more satisfying way of restraining this jerk.”
With those words, McPherson grabbed one of Trakutel’s forearms in his huge hands and broke it over his knee with a resounding crack. As the man screamed in agony, McPherson did the same thing to the other forearm. Ogling at the jagged white ends of the bones sticking through the muscles in his arms, Trakutel passed out from the pain.
Looking worriedly at his friend, McPherson asked, “How did you know those bullets wouldn’t kill you? The risk you took was insane.”
“Not at all. Those bullets might have the energy to pass through a normal defensive screen but not one enhanced by my genius.”
Reaching into his side pocket, Heinbaum pulled out a small, gray plastic device with three white buttons. He pressed the large middle button and a red LED light flicked into existence.
“You saved my life with a garage door opener?” McPherson asked.
Taking a deep breath and shaking his head with a frown, Heinbaum replied, “I reprogrammed your PDS via WiFi. The new configuration is impenetrable to all molecules. You were perfectly safe within the confines of your PDS.”
“All molecules! What about oxygen? I’d be up the creek with no paddle if my PDS was still active.”
“Oh calm down, Captain. My firm assumption was you’d have the situation well under control by the time breathing became an issue,” Heinbaum replied dismissively. “However, just in case, I brought my own oxygen supply.”
Reaching into his pocket, Heinbaum produced a small, blue tank attached to a nose cover.
“No use in taking unnecessary chances,” Heinbaum said as he tapped the side of his head. “Brains over brawn.”
“You saved my life, Doc,” McPherson declared as he swept the weasily scientist into a bear hug.
“Enough!” Heinbaum yelled. “You’re breaking my back.”
“I owe ya one even if you did try to smother me.”
“No you don’t. I’ve spent too much time training your worthless hide. I don’t have time to repeat the process.”
“I love you too, Doc.”
“Cease your inane display of affection, and let’s call General Blunt. Somewhere on this base is a rather large, bald-headed bitch waiting for a report from her henchmen. We shouldn’t keep her in suspense.”
“I owe ya one,” McPherson laughed as he hugged the man even tighter.
“Stop it, you fawning whey-faced oaf.”
Yuri-Milost didn’t appreciate Deacon Rash keeping her waiting. His last message, a little over an hour ago, assured her he would handle whatever problem Trakutel had run into and report back to her when the job was finished. The fact that Trakutel had told him to bring the blessed sacrificial heirlooms indicated the problem could be dangerous. The Sig weapons were specifically designed for encounters with PDS-protected soldiers. The situation was making Yuri-Milost experience a whole new feeling, and she didn’t like it. Uncertainty.
Everything about her plan to kill Whatsit and his faithful Human followers had gone without a hitch. Her strategy to have the Asiddians blamed for the deaths was cunning. So why had Trakutel summoned help at such a late hour? Why was Deacon Rash taking so long to report? As she walked from her apartment toward the gym for her weightlifting exercises, the feelings of uncertainty grew into nagging worry. Veering away from the gym toward the scout saucer hangar where Rash had said he was meeting Trakutel, she quickened her pace.
Slipping from the hallway into the shadowy hangar, Yuri-Milost crept behind a forklift just in time to see Heinbaum walking down the ramp of the Verbinna. The bony scientist stopped at the bottom of the ramp, turned and put his hands on his hips as if he was impatient and said something to someone inside the ship. As if in answer to Heinbaum, McPherson walked down the ramp with a body slung over his shoulder and a metal case tucked under his other arm. Together, the duo marched into the hallway and disappeared.
Dread sucked at Yuri-Milost’s soul as she recognized the person McPherson was carrying. Leonard Trakutel hung like a rag doll, his head lolling from side-to-side and his arms twisted. It looked like white spikes were jutting from his forearms, and before they entered the hallway, Yuri-Milost’s enhanced vision clearly saw the whitish spikes were the broken, bloody ends of his forearm bones.
Sneaking to the hallway entrance and making sure McPherson and Heinbaum were out of sight, Yuri-Milost slipped into the Verbinna. Following the drips and splashes of blood on the ramp and in the companionway, she made her way to the Engineering Bay. Hubert Rash lay on the deck in a coagulating pool of his own blood. The side of his throat was sliced open, and his dead, brown eyes stared at her like the eyes of a gutted fish on display in a butcher shop.
Thinking of a way to save herself from certain ruin, Yuri-Milost jogged to the master control room and activated the Verbinna’s power systems. Retracting the entry ramp to seal the saucer, she keyed the galactic coordinates of the Cuddlur System into the GPC and pushed the green GO icon. The Verbinna disappeared, and a loud boom shook the underground hangar as air rushed to fill the suddenly empty area the saucer had vacated. Confident she’d escaped the clutches of FORCE with a fully functional scout saucer, Yuri-Milost allowed herself a momentary chuckle of satisfaction as she gazed at the planet Cuddlur centered in the view screen.
Time to clean up the mess in Engineering and then perhaps a nice snack.