When you arrive at Pion rock, you almost expect to find a graveyard or something… perhaps a giant, creepy monument that says ‘go no further’ or ‘beware, death awaits you’. You know, something needlessly melodramatic but at the same time unmistakably eerie.
But there are no such monuments. Even the warning buoys we try to put in orbit of the asteroid never seem to last more than a few months – the gravity in orbit around the rock is not very good, and they get lost in space along the way.
No, what you find when you arrive at Pion rock is just another rock. There are a couple of crude, meteor-impacted structures left standing on the surface, out-buildings and docking structures that date all the way back to the 2070s, but aside from that, you have only a collection of airlock columns sticking out of various craters.
“It’s not as menacing as I expected,” Karen observed with a frown as she stood next to me on the bridge.
“A letdown, isn’t it?” I asked, trying to keep the mood as light as possible.
She smiled smoothly and glanced at me, “I’ll just keep deluding myself that this won’t be too bad.”
With a grin, I nodded back, “You do that. I’ll douse you with the cold water when the carnage starts.”
It was, I have to say, particularly grim humor – a sort of humor we were exceedingly good at, especially at times like these.
“We’re now in orbit over the rock,” Shelby McLaws made that announcement a few minutes later, and as Andrea stood next to the Helm and Navigation consoles, she nodded directly at our southern belle Lieutenant.
“Thank you, Shelby. Felicia, let’s see what we can see.”
Felicia Khalid had stayed on as Wolf’s Sensors and Communications Officer. Her appointment during the mission to Jupiter had been temporary (remember, she got the job when Kate Levec was shot) but after her solid service throughout that entire mission, we’d elected to make it permanent. She’d definitely earned the job, and now she was really settling in.
As Andrea requested the scans, Felicia patted the back of the appropriate technician, and the main screen ahead was abruptly filled with data.
“We really should paint a big red pentagram on the surface, or something,” Jim Hannigan observed dryly from behind his ops consoles. “Looks so harmless.”
I glanced back at Jim, a grin maintaining a tenuous grip on my mouth, “A pentagram, Jim? Do you think that might be a tad overdramatic?”
He locked eyes with me for a second, then looked thoughtfully towards the ceiling, “Hmm. No.”
I chuckled and looked back at the screen. Right he was… there was nothing to warn travelers that this rock was dangerous… and that fact had contributed to the predicament the crew of North Carolina now faced. If their sensors and navigation had been down, as they almost certainly were, then this rock might have looked as innocent as any other.
But to the Martians, with their sensors active, it was anything but. I didn’t know it as I stood on the bridge then, but I did find out much later: the Martians knew exactly where they’d chased North Carolina, and they’d done it for kicks.
Anyway, enough judging by appearances. Time to get on with the job.
“So, we going to sit around and rate this rock by looks, or are we going in?” Mark Gunney, I should have mentioned, was up on Battlelink, along with Matt Baxter.
The Briton scowled at the suggestion, “Much as I’d like to sit back, I fear we don’t have any time to waste.”
I nodded reluctantly, and my grin disappeared, “Yeah. Alright, Felicia, look for the antennae we planted. That’ll be the side we need to go in on.”
Last time Friendly had been here to fix the nuclear reactor, we’d planted a transmitter next to the main Canary lock – the transmitter through which Holly could call us with intel about pirates moving overhead.
“They’ll probably have seen us out here by now,” Jim observed from the back of the bridge.
I nodded again at those words. Some of the barren-men from both the Pions and Canaries were employed with orbit-watching. If a ship was in orbit of their asteroid, there was a good chance it would send people down, and people – particularly women – were important prizes. Whoever saw them coming down first could have an advantage in capturing new tribe members… unless, like us, the people knew which locks to go to, and had ‘allies’ in the rock.
Yes, allies. That’s a good word for the Canaries.
“I have located the transmission tower,” Felicia reported after another moment, and I nodded to her.
There was virtually no delay between that order and Felicia’s nod – as I say, she was definitely finding her footing in the job, predicting our needs and taking initiative.
“Holly, it’s Ken Barron. Thanks for your call, we’re here to retrieve our people. I’m coming down to your main locks… the ones next to your transmitter… with a heavily-armed party. Don’t try to kill us, alright Holly? See you shortly.”
That was the extent of my message, and Felicia sent it.
Karen was looking at me as I turned away from the screen, “So… you want me to come down with you?”
I laughed, “Given the choice, I’d take blockheads down with me. I’ll take anyone stupid enough to come, which means you should stay.”
Karen flashed a warm smile, using it to draw attention away from what looked to be nervous (yes, nervous) eyes, “I have my stupid moments.”
“Hanging out with me too much…” I started past her towards the door. “Andrea, look after things up here. If you don’t hear from us in an hour, blow this rock to small, small pieces.”
“I bloody won’t,” she called as Karen fell into step next to me.
I didn’t argue.
“We call these the ‘main locks’. Don’t know what the Canaries actually call them, and I don’t think it matters. We used them to get in last time because they’re close together, better for mutual support,” Charlie had both his own Special Branch squad and Rufus’ standing before him in the waiting room next to flight bay two, and behind him on the screen was a picture of the locks we were going to dock with.
“Close together, easy for mutual support,” Rufus repeated Charlie’s thought, and every officer in the room nodded. These people didn’t generally need the reasoning behind their deployment explicitly explained to them, but because of circumstances, the two Majors were making sure the basics were well covered.
There was a slight undercurrent of anxiousness in the waiting room. These Branchers were essentially being tasked with a rescue op in hell, so they deserved to be a little unsettled.
“We’re operating in a horror movie. Again. Let’s hope they don’t make a habit of asking us to do this sort of work,” Charlie closed off his comments, alluding there to the horror movie they’d all been in aboard Idaho. That horror movie (with the ‘alien’) had been a hoax. This one was going to be all too real.
“Come on, boss,” Carly pitched in with a jaunty grin. “We do this, they’ll send us out to kill Satan. And that’d be a story for the grandkids.”
“Or for the pub,” one of Rufus’ officers countered with a grin, and a current of chuckles battled some of the tension.
With surprisingly good timing, Karen and I chose this moment to slip into the lounge. We weren’t going to be taking our fighters down to the rock, as having them docked with the Special Branch assault shuttles would have slowed down a rapid evac if one was needed.
“Here come the amateurs,” I called from the back of the room. I’m pretty sure I was overcompensating at this stage – forcing just a little too much humor, trying to keep things light.
Karen let that one go, though, and together we arrived at the front of the room to stand opposite Charlie and Rufus.
“We set?” I asked the dumb question (of course they were set).
Charlie didn’t seem to take offense, “All set. You riding with me?”
I nodded, and Karen looked to our other Major, “I’ll ride with you, Rufus, if you don’t mind.”
The Chinese man with mismatched eyes offered a curt nod, “We’re pleased to have you ma’am… you think it’s safe for both of you to go down?”
Karen looked at me, and I looked at Karen. Then, in stereo, we both blurted, “No.”
That earned us a couple of laughs, and then I followed on with the actual rationale, “I don’t have a choice, Holly wants to see me.”
“And I have to go along to make sure he doesn’t take up with any of the local women,” Karen said with a totally deadpan expression.
That got us more laughs, and our enforced ‘light atmosphere’ stayed intact.
A few minutes later we boarded the assault shuttles.