At one time, the Committee Chairman was elected to office by the delegates, and occupied that position for no more than five years. Originally it was a position no one could be elected to more than once, but then Alessandro Messina’s predecessor, Chairman El Afraine, used a manufactured terrorist crisis to defer the election of a new Chairman. Unfortunately for him, his most likely successor, Messina, already had more allies in the Inspectorate than he did, and manipulated that “crisis.” The terrorists themselves—a small group of Subnet seditionists who had been monitored by the Inspectorate for years, but left alone precisely because El Afraine wanted to use them for his own ends—suddenly managed to obtain weapons and Hyex explosive, as well as El Afraine’s itinerary and information regarding the gaps in his security. After El Afraine’s scramjet detonated over the Adriatic, Messina swept to power in less than a day. When his own five years drew to a close, the sudden unfortunate demise of any suitable successors kept him in power for another term. Henceforth, nervous candidates were overcome by a great reluctance to put themselves forward, otherwise he lured out the bolder ones by hinting at possible retirement, though not in the usual sense of Committee “retirement.” After the first ten years, the five-year rule was quietly dropped and thus Messina occupied the position of Committee Chairman, on Earth, for forty-three years, before deciding to relocate his power base to Argus Station.
A control room was no longer a necessity when even the most complicated of systems could be operated from a simple console, even just a portable one. That Ricard had insisted on a full control room and the executives to staff it demonstrated the usual Inspectorate mindset: that being in charge required inferior ranks to obey you, a precise territory to piss-mark and dominate. And the more important you were, the bigger the office and the larger the staff you had to have, even if neither was strictly necessary.
Finding a wall console rarely used, in a room turned into a store, Var accessed a wide range of the base’s systems. Plenty of the information she could not review, since only Ricard knew the codes, but she still found enough for her purposes. Lopomac and Carol had knocked out the internal cam system throughout the base, but they hadn’t disrupted the external ones, or even the feed originating from the satellites orbiting Mars. After checking those external cams first, she keyed into the satellite feed. Ricard had locked down all communications to and from Earth, and she didn’t have the time to break his codes, but she was still able to pick up image data from satellites orbiting Earth which was being relayed to those immediately above. This she did to confirm that the Mars Travellers really had been decommissioned, and soon discovered that they had. The only evidence she could find of their existence was the nose section of Traveller VIII out in the orbital complex in which the Travellers had been built, but where it was being dismantled. Frustratingly, the shielding around Messina’s private building project prevented her obtaining image data of the Alexander, but while looking she found something else—something odd.
“We’re done,” said Lopomac.
Var glanced up to see him and Carol enter the room, and beckoned them over. She pointed at the image on her screen. “What do you make of this?”
“You’re getting feed from Earth?” said Carol.
“Satellite cams—that’s all.”
“What do we make of what?” asked Lopomac, clearly puzzled.
The screen revealed one hemisphere of Earth, with satellites glinting above it. Using her ball control, Var moved the pointer up alongside one of the satellites, pausing it on a lengthy vapour trail.
“I see,” said Lopomac. “Maybe they’ve been repositioning them?”
“Maybe, but there are plenty more vapour trails, and what looks like wreckage of some kind.” Var paused, called up a menu and selected a long list of cam numbers, then scrolled down through it and selected again. “Then there’s this.”
“Something big, I guess,” said Lopomac. “Maybe we’ll be able to find out about it later, if we’re still alive.”
Var frowned, clicked back to exterior cam views of the base itself and was abruptly returned to reality when at random she selected one focused on the area just outside the main garage doors. Though this was night-time the cams possessed light amplification so that everything remained clearly visible. Spotting Gisender’s pathetic dried-out corpse, Var swallowed drily and rapidly checked other views. Still no sign of further action from Ricard, and there was work to be done. She reached out and slid over a laptop she had found earlier, checked its Bluetooth link with the console, and ensured she could call up all the cam views that could help her.
“Have you fixed the garage doors?” she asked tightly.
“I’ve rigged up the supercaps there for full discharge through the garage airlock,” he replied.
“How are you delivering it?”
“If they bring a crawler in, they have to open the outer garage doors and close them behind, then pressurize the airlock before opening the inner doors. I’ve just linked up a power line through the gate valve to the door mechanism and to the inner doors themselves.” Lopomac stepped over to the console and linked into the internal cam system. “As you asked, I put the inside of Hex Three back on camera too. I cut the optics running into Hex One and triple-encoded radio, so Ricard can’t access it, and, as you said, he probably won’t even realize the cams are working.” He clicked through a list, calling up a view inside the crawler airlock. “When that gate valve opens, it feeds power straight into the electronic control of the doors’ hydraulics, burning them out and seizing up the doors. Their only option then is to open them manually. The moment one of them touches a door, he’ll get a full discharge straight down through his body and into the floor.”
“Rubber soles,” said Var. “Insulated suits.”
“About as much defence against this as against a lightning strike. Even less in fact. The doors and frames are bubblemetal but contained in bonded regolith, therefore insulated from the metal floor. This means I can run the full discharge of five in-series crawler supercapacitors to them. What’s left of whoever touches them we’ll have to scrub off the walls.”
“How many discharges?”
“One at full power, the next one at half—exponentially downwards. I don’t suppose any of them will volunteer to touch a door to check if it’s still live, after the first of them has done so. The only way they might get by this is if they use something, some lump of metal, to make a connection between the doors and the floor to discharge the capacitors. Even then, it’s likely the locking mechanisms will have become fused.”
“You also located that mountaineering equipment I mentioned?”
“I did, though I’ve yet to see what use it will be to us.”
“You will.” Var turned away from him. “Carol?”
“Nothing so dramatic,” she said. “If they blow out all the windows, as you suggest, it’ll equalize pressure so that all bulkhead doors linking the outer sections of Hex Three can be opened, whilst anyone still in the internal compartments and corridors will be trapped.”
“It’s what I would do,” agreed Var. “If they blow out all the windows they can hunt us down in the outer sections, but if we’re in one of the inner sections after that, we’d be trapped and no longer a problem.”
Carol nodded, then reached into her hip pouch for a long, pressurized bottle. It took Var a moment to recognize it but, when she did, she felt a stirring of macabre amusement. “Contact adhesive,” she said.
Carol nodded. “A Martian mix based on Terran hyperglues. Whilst exposed to Martian air, it remains in gel form, but the moment it is sealed against atmosphere, for example when sandwiched between metal and a gloved hand, it takes only about two seconds to set. I’ve smeared some on the exterior frames of any unbroken windows, also on the window frames and bulkhead door handles of the sections you’ve already opened to atmosphere.”
“What about the door handles inside the pressurized sections, like here or in the garage?” Lopomac asked.
“In Earth atmosphere the glue oxidizes in about three minutes,” Carol replied. “I could maybe fix that once we see them coming, but only then.”
Var considered that. Once Ricard and the rest made a move, assuming they used a crawler, they could get themselves here within ten minutes. Only ten minutes for Carol to spray glue on every bulkhead door handle within reach, then get safely back to the reactor room.
“Too much of a risk.” She shook her head. “You’d be very exposed and there’s a chance they could either kill you or cut you off from us before you got back to the reactor room.” She called up a schematic of Hex Three on the computer screen. “Including Ricard himself, there’ll be seven of them,” she decided. “He won’t know for certain where we are inside the hex, so he’ll keep one or two men outside to snipe at us if we try to escape. They’ll blow each remaining window in turn, searching each room after its window has been blown. Almost certainly they’ll throw in grenades before entering, and probably spray the interiors with gunfire too.”
“But they can’t come through the garage windows, because there aren’t any,” observed Carol.
“Precisely,” Var glanced at her. “Which is why I wanted Lopomac here to set up a booby trap.”
“But even if we do manage to kill some of them in the airlock, the rest will still enter through the bulkhead doors. They’ll know we’re either in the garage or in one of the closed-off inner sections…as we will be.”
Var nodded. “Certainly. They’ll blow bulkhead doors leading into the garage, and then secure it just as they have all the other outer rooms of the hex, before they move on to open each of the inner sections and search them.”
“We’ll be trapped in the reactor room, so what’s our angle?” asked Lopomac.
“The roof,” said Var.
It was now evident that the warming process was well under way. When he reached his hand to rest it against the door, Saul could feel the vibration of machinery through his fingers, and through the window saw plumes of vapour jetting here and there from the engine itself. Probing the computer network in the immediate vicinity, he checked to see how close the engine was to firing temperature, then inspected the diagnostic data. Despite a couple of minor faults, the engine was now ready and, with just a thought, he could start it running. However, even though the process of shutting it down was a lengthy one, Smith could initiate that with a thought too.
Saul moved back out into the open, then skirted the wall, studying in his mind a schematic of all the hardware nearby as he progressed. Finally reaching a certain point, he looked up, and noted a mass of optic cables that emerged from the wall above, then ran along a beam continuing out of sight somewhere behind him. He leapt up towards it, caught hold and pulled himself over, coming down astride the cables just at the point where they exited the wall.
Here the sheer mass of cables was further distended by a great number of connector plugs all gathered together. Slowly and methodically he checked the codes etched into the side of each plug, till on the eighth one found the optic connection he sought. This plug, however, could not simply be pulled apart, being tightly secured by a ring of screws. Saul pulled it away from the others, drew his pistol and fired a shot. The cable was whipped out of his hand, the shattered plug parting, while the frayed optic cables provided a display of green and yellow laser light. Retrieving the plug, he could now pull it apart. That ensured that the hardwire connection was removed and, when the Traveller VI engine fired up, the EM interference produced would make it impossible to issue radio instructions able to shut it down. Saul propelled himself back to the floor. Time now to stack the dice even further.
Saul waited at the entrance to the tunnel leading through the wall insulation, gazing back at the Arboretum cylinder. How much force could the structural beams here withstand? They were much more widely spaced than would be required for a building on Earth, but would soon be subjected to levels of stress halfway approaching the same. Since he had set the engine to fire up at its maximum, the initial thrust would be in the region of half a gravity. He paused for a moment to make some complex calculations and discovered that, though the massive shaft spindles of the Arboretum and the arcoplexes would take a huge amount of the resulting strain, there would be substantial damage caused to the intervening areas. That was unavoidable, however. As he finished making calculations which confirmed that any internal buildings still under construction—like the Political Office and the cell block—might tear loose from their mountings, he finally sensed that his five construction robots were approaching, and turned to face them.
With animal grace they headed down the face of the asteroid, coming from Tech Central, and he began firming up his connection with them and further preparing them for action. Soon they were gathered around him, his pack of eager steel wolves. Instructing them to follow, he turned and entered the short tunnel that took him to the edge of the engine enclosure. Bracing his feet against the ground, he hauled up a simple mechanical latch and pushed open the door. The engine loomed above him, and when he gazed up past it he could see the stars. Now he propelled himself upwards, catching hold of occasional protrusions from the inner ceramic-tiled wall to keep himself close to it, and avoid flying out into open vacuum. In another moment he ascended past the open throats of the fusion chambers, and then understood why the insulated wall had been built. Remembering the specs of the Traveller VI engine, he knew that the fusion torch would lance out way beyond the station, its length nearly two kilometres, and producing sufficient heat to melt anything nearby. He glanced down to see his robots following him up the wall, their limbs never out of contact with its sheer expanse of tiles.
Finally, near the station rim, he caught hold of the protruding end of a beam end and halted his climb, then pulled himself over to stand upright on the rim itself, which curved away from him like a long hill on some massive highway. Looking up he could see the smelting plant, whose dock lay just beyond the point where the Arboretum cylinder terminated. The plant resembled an ugly spined iron fish now that its mirrors were furled. That was something else he would have to deal with because, once the station started moving, the smelting plants would swing round on their cables and come crashing down with catastrophic force. However, returning those things to their docks would certainly alert Smith to his presence.
His five robots escorting him, Saul picked up his pace, knowing he must cover nearly six kilometres to reach his destination. Entering one of the half-constructed levels enabled him to speed up since, with a ceiling above him, he could propel himself forward confidently without any danger of floating out into space. Emerging into the open again, he paused a moment in wonder, because the arc of Earth itself was now visible. Moving on, he quickly rounded the structures located directly above the Arboretum, and then came in sight of the massive pit of the smelting-plant dock, which he circumvented too. The pillars of the space-plane dock loomed into sight ahead, as if he was trudging the highway towards the tower blocks of a city centre. However, the illusion was dispelled by a single space plane moored to the nearest pillar, like a dragonfly larva clinging to a reed.
One of the Argus Station’s massive steering thrusters jutted up between him and his destination. It was a thing the size and shape of a railway carriage, but tilted at forty-five degrees on a turntable fifty metres wide. When he had first studied this station from Earth, these things had resided at the ends of twenty-metre-tall structures constructed of reinforced girders, which projected outwards from the station rim. Now, by contrast, this particular thruster lay only a few metres from the surface, the rim itself having been extended out nearly far enough to encompass it. As he gazed at this object, Saul detected movement and swung his attention back to Earth, where the swarm of space planes was rising into view.
He quickly headed into the hard shadow of the thruster, and almost at once found the maintenance hatch he was looking for. Though he needed primarily to get to the docks, approaching them across the rim itself would have been foolish, since the troops entrenched there would be on the lookout for a flanking move by Langstrom’s men, and would be sure to spot him. Besides, even though most of the laser satellites nearby were disabled, Smith still controlled a few usable laser satellites within range, and might spot him too.
The maintenance hatch was not designed to be opened by human hands, but a simple instruction called one of the robots over, which inserted an outsize Allen key to disengage the locking mechanism. A slight puff of vapour blew out as the hatch hinged open, but that probably wasn’t station atmosphere but the result of fuel spillage. Summoning his five robots to follow him, Saul dropped inside and found himself in a narrow space alongside the huge stepper motor used for driving the turntable mechanism, powering a great cog above him which engaged with a massive toothed ring.
Skirting around this motor he found a tunnel leading to the distant space dock. Built to accommodate robots, it was also lined with fuel pipes from the silos there. As the last robot closed the hatch behind it, the lights went out, but he had two of the robots light up their fault-inspection lasers, and damp coherence, to illuminate his surroundings in lurid red. Ten minutes of propelling himself along the tunnel brought him to a point where many of the pipes diverged upwards to connect with the various silos located along the base of the docks above. However, other pipes ran ten metres further in, before curving upwards into the nearest docking pillar, there to connect to the pumps used to fuel space planes engaged in orbital duties.
Climbing up alongside these pipes brought him to an inspection point for human technicians. Here secondary pipes branched off to connect to the fuel pumps positioned immediately behind the hydraulic systems that extended concertinaed fuel hoses out to any plane currently docked. Saul opened the adjacent manual airlock and entered, summoning just one of his robots in with him. Once the lock had cycled, he opened the inner door and stepped into a maintenance area containing a spare pump, a variety of pipe and hydraulic fittings, along with some of the heavy-duty machinery required to install them. Here seemed as good a place as any to set things in motion as he meanwhile guided the remaining robots through the same airlock.
Saul delved deep into the station network, making no attempt now to conceal his presence. Seeking first to crack their control codes, he probed Smith’s remaining readerguns and robots. Smith reacted immediately, the shadowy presence of his mind thrashing like a hooked bloodworm before he started shoring up his defences. This was just what was needed for, whilst keeping the pressure on him, Saul slipped past Smith and into long-dormant portions of the station network, to gain access to a process only rarely called for up here.
On occasion a smelting plant required major maintenance that could not be conducted out there in space, and therefore it was winched back into its dock, furling its solar panels and burrowing into the station skin like the head of a tubeworm. He now set this process in motion for both plants, and watched as the folded panels withdrew into their soot-stained bodies. Under his feet he felt the station’s heavy thrumming as giant cable drums began to revolve, winding in kilometres of cable thicker in diameter than his thigh. It took a moment for Smith to realize what was going on, but instead of trying to stop this process he focused his attention on the cell block, and after a moment he spoke.
“Saul,” was all he said, his voice ghosting across the network.
“You should have killed me,” Saul replied.
“You had not ceased to be of use to me.” Now, probing began into the informational architecture that Saul was fortifying. “I am now puzzled as to why you feel the need to retract the smelting plants.”
“I’m ensuring Messina has no place to land but on the space-plane docks themselves.”
“Ah, so you recognize the dangers in Messina’s assumption of ultimate power, and are therefore prepared to ally yourself with me to ensure his defeat?”
Saul paused in the midst of checking the readings on the air sampler strapped about his wrist, but it took him just a second to realize that Smith had finally gone over the edge. No sane man could ever expect to make an ally out of someone he had subjected to inducement. Saul shook his head in disbelief and returned his attention to the sampler. The air was pure CO2, thin, and rapidly getting thinner, so he could not remove his VC helmet. This was not surprising because, as he understood it, airlocks like the one just behind him had been designed for some future era when the entire docks themselves could be pressurized—but now they remained airless.
“I fully understand that at present Messina is a greater danger to me than you are,” Saul replied carefully. “I also understand that, should he try to get his troops into Argus like Malden did, you probably still control enough long-range satellite lasers to burn them off the station’s surface.”
From the cam systems under Smith’s control, an image feed opened directly across into Tech Central itself. Saul quickly noticed that all the available seats were occupied, while Smith himself stood in front of the three major screens. Off to one side he could see Hannah bound to a chair, and clearly Smith must be routeing his voice through the intercom, because now she was looking up with interest.
“And what other approaches might you suggest?” Smith asked. “I would be interested to discover your unique perspective on the matter.”
A cracked and desperate mind would be easier to manipulate, Saul surmised, but it was also likely to spin out of control and head off in unpredictable directions.
“I still control some resources,” he replied, “but you’ll understand why I’m not keen to reveal what they are, or how I intend to use them. For the moment, however, I will cease any attempt to take readerguns or robots away from you.” Saul halted his mental assault on these devices. “I would rather they were used against Messina than we render them useless by fighting over control of them.” He paused, wondering how best to conclude this. “I’ll do what I can against Messina—but then I’m coming after you, Smith.”
Stepping away from the screens, Smith moved over to stand next to Hannah, pressing a hand down onto her shoulder. “Once I have fully re-established my position here, I certainly look forward to that encounter.”
Perfect. Smith had not looked beyond Saul’s explanation about the smelting plants, but his threat regarding Hannah was clear. Saul studied the scene further and assessed her position. When the steering thrusters turned the station round, the effect there would be negligible, but once the Traveller engine fired up, over half a gravity would surge through Tech Central horizontally. Her chances of surviving that, strapped in a chair as she was, he rated at about 70 per cent. He could do nothing about the uncertain 30 per cent, for if her head slammed into the consoles just to her right, she’d probably end up with a broken neck. Nevertheless, in her present position, he doubted she would resent him taking that chance.
“Later, then,” concluded Saul. “The first of Messina’s planes will be docking here within twenty minutes, and I’m sure you have plenty to do.”
The image feed cut off, though, unlike before, it now remained unblocked so Saul could seek it out whenever he wished. Instead he checked out other areas of the station, noting how Langstrom’s troops were scattered in squads of four throughout the lower section of the inner core, but far enough above the asteroid so that it was not right up against their backs and therefore blocking a retreat. Most of these four-man units controlled hefty machine guns and missile-launchers, though Langstrom himself had taken the controls of a weapon Saul now identified as Smith’s one EM tankbuster. Between them and the outer rim, robots were constantly on the move, laying antipersonnel mines activated by wires strung nearly invisibly between the structural beams.
Arcoplex One had also been secured. Inside it, Smith controlled a good number of functioning readerguns, and a team of soldiers was busy loading them with ceramic ammunition. But that wasn’t a route Messina’s troops were likely to be taking—why enter an obvious killing ground? No, they would come straight down on Langstrom’s troops through intervening girderwork of the station, possibly using shields and deploying more spiderguns. They would certainly face heavy losses, but Saul doubted that would much concern Messina, as in the end sheer numbers would prevail. A greater worry to Messina would be the serious losses Saul was intending to inflict.
Saul crossed to the large sliding door separating the maintenance store from the dock’s interior, his robots following sneakily as if they sensed his need of increased caution. He probed for some access to the nearby cameras, but found that, though the system remained live, little image data was available from within this particular dock. Messina’s first arriving troops had obviously destroyed the cameras, just as he knew they had disabled the readerguns here too. However, one camera continued to function, and on switching it up to its 270-degrees setting revealed enough of the dock to show that no guards had been posted actually inside.
Unshouldering one of his carbines, Saul moved over to the door control. He pressed it once and watched the door judder as it slid aside, aware how it would have made a considerable racket if the dock had been pressurized. The moment it opened wide enough, he pulled himself through and, with another of those slightly disorientating changes of perspective, brought his feet down on the dock floor on the other side. In a squatting position he checked his surroundings. To his left stood a cargo train, while from the floor directly ahead rose the personnel access tube leading to the space plane, and just beyond it the cargo-access doors stood wide open. He turned to study the far wall, noting the tunnel cutting through it for the train, and numerous open corridors leading into the station rim.
He rose and headed rapidly over to the access tube, detailing one of his robots to the cargo hold, one to follow him, and dispersing the remaining three about the dock. Within seconds he was gazing through the sensors of the first robot, to confirm that the cargo hold now contained only a few crates of munitions. Descending through the tube to the plane’s airlock, he paused to study its controls, and found nothing more difficult than an electronic lock. He stepped inside the airlock and waited till the red lights turned to green before he removed his helmet, then opened the inner door on to a muttering of voices. Before he stepped further, he summoned the robot into the airlock behind him, instructing it to wait there—an unpleasant surprise for anyone who tried entering the plane after him.
The forward seats had been detached from the floor to leave a clear area, where three soldiers clad in VC suits had jury-rigged a console and a pair of screens providing views across the station rim outside the space plane. The one seated at the console glanced round with mild interest until, feet braced against the floor, Saul fired off three short bursts of ceramic rounds. The bullets punched through the seated man’s body, blowing away chunks of armour, along with flesh and bone as they fragmented. The two men standing nearby were slammed against the bulkhead separating this area from the cockpit. Even as they died, Saul launched himself towards the cockpit door, swooped through it high and fast, covering the four seats it contained and then the area immediately behind them. Another man began rising from his inspection of an open box, his mouth hanging open in shock. He dropped the beaker of coffee he held and raised both his hands, as Saul circled him to ensure that any rounds he fired had less chance of puncturing the plane’s outer skin.
“How did you—?” the man began.
Now in position, Saul switched to single shots and put one into the man’s forehead. As the man bounced off the bulkhead, the jet of blood from his head beading the air, Saul bent over the console to inspect a view of one of the smelting plants sinking into its dock with gargantuan ponderousness. He then returned to the passenger compartment to find one of the two displays was still working, then manipulated a ball control to call up the widest view of the fleet’s arrival.
By now both smelting plants had entered their docks and were locking down. Ten space planes were already docking, and others coming in. Saul studied them all closely and, predictably, found his main target by its obvious display of arrogance. This was a much more recent design of vessel, bulging all along its length with armaments. That it carried the Chairman on board was evident from the “United Earth” logo inscribed on its side with high-temperature metallic paints. Whilst he focused on this single vessel, he registered the sound of docking clamps and airlock tubes engaging, even as the ball control vibrated under his fingers.
Gazing through the sensors of his dispersed robots, he watched cargo doors opening from the five interior faces of this pillar, and VC-clad troops swarming out, shifting heavy weapons from the holds, along with a number of large discs, each a couple of metres across, with small cylinders attached around the rim. One of the cargo holds also discharged other multi-limbed robots, before, in squads of twenty, the troops began to head for the pillar’s exits, where doubtless their earlier comrades now awaited them. Estimating by the number of men exiting the five space planes here, Saul reckoned on upwards of four hundred troops, and possibly five of those spiderguns—more than enough to flatten Langstrom’s force. No doubt the attack they were about to make had already been carefully planned to rule out delays, but still the plane Saul had identified as Messina’s kept its distance. He wanted it to dock, needed it to dock.
Saul took out one of the optic cables he’d found earlier and plugged one end of it into the socket in his skull, the other into a dataport in the console. The coded network being used by the attackers was simplicity itself to encompass, and there were no codes to crack since the console was included in that network. It was previously for such access that he had come here, since for his plan to work he needed to get some accurate timings on how things were likely to proceed, and above all needed access to those multi-limbed robots. Within a second, he was listening in on the com traffic and learning how Messina’s force intended to attack.
Messina, or some general of his, hadn’t yet considered the obvious move of using EM blocking. All about control, really: though such blocking would reduce Smith’s power, it would also cause all radio communications with both troops and robots to crash, and Messina was probably frightened of becoming blind and powerless to influence the course of the battle. Saul filed that thought away for future reference: the powerful did not sacrifice control, even when it became an actual hindrance.
The big guns would remain in place above, targeting similar guns and troop concentrations below. The discs were armour-glass, laminated with shock-dispersal fibre; the cylinders spaced around their rims were “bottle motors.” Units of four men each behind these shields would descend on Langstrom’s forces to engage. The big armoured spiders would then descend just behind them. Judging by this arrangement, Messina clearly valued those machines over the lives of his men, certainly realizing that booby-traps would have been laid.
Locating com channels that shunted computer code only, Saul allowed himself a smile, then routed the feeds into his mind, and learned that his estimate had been spot on. There were five spiderguns here—and, moments later, they fell under his control. However, he did not immediately block the orders they were already receiving, and though tempted to turn them on the crowds of troops moving around them, he did not. Only five of them might not prove enough against four hundred professional soldiers, some of whom sported tank-busters, so that number first needed pruning.
Saul paused just then, knowing that within the last minute he had all but won. Keeping a minimum link to the spiderguns, he prepared to initiate the program he had already loaded into them—the one that would include them in the same network as his construction robots, and thus exclude directions from anyone else. Searching the station network, he soon uncovered the ignition sequence for activating the huge steering thrusters located around the station’s rim. Constantly kept online in order to make minor corrections to the Argus Station’s position, which was often changed through the shifting of large amounts of internal materials, the thrusters required no warming up.
Smith did not try to stop him and, having other things on his mind, he probably didn’t even notice Saul exploring this option. Checking image feeds from cameras nearer to the asteroid itself, Saul observed that the massing of Messina’s forces was more clearly evident from down below. Troops kept swarming out onto the inner surface of the ring like refugees from a disturbed ant’s nest. Saul watched them for a moment, then, dragging the console after him, he retreated to one of this space plane’s remaining seats, where he sat down and strapped himself in. Ten space planes were still hovering out there, but on checking their positions, Saul calculated that, if they remained roughly where they were, they would soon be facing serious problems. It was all becoming rather neat really.
The big United Earth plane was now shifting away from the crowd and coming in to dock. He watched it manoeuvre carefully and surmised that Messina wanted to be in at the kill.
Other planes began following it in, and Saul guessed they contained Committee delegates and their entourages. After watching till Messina’s plane was firmly docked, he could wait no longer.
Bottle motors spurted plumes of vapour, and Messina’s troops began heading in towards the centre of the Argus Station, even as the docking clamps locked down on the Chairman’s plane. With a thought, Saul relayed an instruction to fire up the two equatorial hyox steering thrusters, while simultaneously instructing the spiderguns to grab at and fold themselves around the nearest structural beams. Light glaring from the space plane’s cockpit confirmed that one thruster out there had now definitely fired, and a second later the ponderous revolving of the space station pressed him gently down to his seat. Whatever his intentions, this provided the additional benefit of kicking in the safety protocols to lock in place all the docking clamps. But to absolutely ensure there would be no escape for Messina, Saul transmitted further instructions to two of his construction robots, and sent them off to weld those clamps shut.
From the screen, he now observed one plane—just about to dock—suddenly find its docking pillar receding from it. The plane docking on the other side was not so lucky. The pilot began firing off thrusters, turning his vessel in the hope of sliding it safely past the pillar rapidly heading up towards it, but to no avail. The pillar caught the side of the plane full on and, in silent slow motion, it folded in on itself and split. Atmosphere blasted out of it, spewing a fountain of detritus that included two people who obviously hadn’t been properly strapped in. Wriggling about in speeded-up motion, desperately trying to snatch hold of vacuum, they left vapour trails behind them as their lungs emptied, even as their internal fluids began boiling and blood vessels ruptured. Those still inside the plane would have died little differently.
Within the station, both attackers and defenders were now in total disarray. The neat formation of attackers had slewed in one direction, crashing into beams or into each other, whilst nearer to the asteroid many of Langstrom’s men had been jolted from their designated positions. Then the thrusters cut out, leaving the station still spinning ponderously. Saul had some leeway now, since he could make adjustments later, so he waited until the station had turned far enough to align a particular portion of it with the remaining eight space planes that had not yet docked.
Saul sent one more instruction; the one that had been sitting in his mind like a precious jewel hidden in his pocket.
And the giant Mars Traveller engine cleared its throat, and breathed fire for the first time in decades.