Chapter Twenty One
The fleet carrier Party Up loomed large in the transmet cockpit bubble of the drop ship. Its immense black length was bristling with gun sponsons, torpedo tubes, launch bays, and slowly spinning warning lights. Static crackled back across the communication link. The pilots exchanged glances as their latest hail to the ship went unanswered.
"I reckon we'd better tell the Admiral about this." Copilot Lardman Hg3 drawled in his south-Imperatrixian accent.
"Continue the landing approach. Bay 12." The pilot replied after a moment's consideration.
He stood up from his acceleration couch with a sequential click as the half-dozen neural connectors slid out of his gray armored suit. The magnetic locks in his boots made his journey back into the troop bay seem like he walking on molasses or honey. He went rigid and slammed his boots down in a salute when entered the bay. Admiral Regel tore his attention away from the hooded and drifting form of Guthry.
"What?" Regel snapped.
"My lord admiral, the bridge is not responding to our hails." The pilot remained at attention. "Landing control is not responding either."
"Are they still broadcasting auto-docking signals?" Admiral Regel fidgeted with his ornamental naval saber.
"Yes sir, we can dock just fine. I just felt you should know about the…unusual circumstances."
"Yes, thank you." Regel waved the pilot back to the cockpit.
The pilot stomped away and Regel turned his attention back to Guthry. The fugitive was shackled to a grab-bar and floating in the zero gravity so that one of the honor guards had to occasionally shove him back down. With the psycho dampener and the silencer hood on he was theoretically deaf, mute, blind, and incapable of using any esper powers. All the same Regel felt uncomfortable in his presence, especially after hearing the unusual news.
"Something may have happened aboard the flagship," Regel explained to his honor guards. "It could simply be a communications failure, but when we dock I want you prepared to engage any threats."
The drop ship was like a tiny glittering beetle as it slid through the immense screw-hatch that opened into bay 12. The bay was cavernous and mostly dark, but spot-lit to illuminate each individual birth. Nearly all of the drop ship berths were empty. A handful of strake-winged corvettes hung vertically from docking clamps near the ceiling, their transmet windows dark and their menacing gun pods limp and silent. Fighters, returned from duty on earth, were arranged in neat rows near their deployment tubes on the top tier of the large tri-level small-craft spindle. Admiral Regel noted with growing unease that there was no activity around the fighters when they should have been swarming with maintenance crews preparing them for a new mission.
The drop ship slid easily into one of the berths. Docking gantries hissed and extruded like quicksilver knives, melding seamlessly with the hull of the ship and securing it in place. Recessed white lights sparkled to life in pairs until they had fully illuminated the disembarkation platform and the ramp that descended to the interior corridors of the ship. The opening door of the drop ship was an echoing cacophony in the dead-silence of bay 12. Other than the echo there was only the soft drone of technology: computers humming, the drop ship's zero-point reactor softly disengaging its quantum funnel, and the pneumatic gel crinkle of joints shifting in the armored suits of the Imperatrixians.
"Where's the welcoming party?" The human ambassador asked with a nervous smile.
Admiral Regel ignored the pink-skinned creature and gestured to two of his honor guards. They hopped out of the drop ship door and onto the disembarkation platform. They were well-drilled and calm, sweeping the slowly rotating barrels of their idling nuclear reapers back and forth. They advanced to the ramp that descended into the ship's innards and then turned to motion the other guards forward. Admiral Regel stepped out onto the platform and his sense of foreboding grew even deeper. The ship was more than silent. Beyond just the quiet of inactivity it was as if the ship were lying in state.
"My Lord, this worries me." Nailmuk, leader of the honor guard expressed his concern.
Nailmuk had Linus Guthry slung over his shoulder like a duffle and he brandished his oversized sidearm in his other hand. Regel glanced at him and was about to reply when there was a strange sound almost like someone snapping their fingers.
Regel, Nailmuk, and the human ambassador stood just outside the doorway of the drop ship. A dozen meters away the honor guard had collected at the mouth of the hallway, ready to make a combat entry of the doorway there. The sound had originated from a point almost equidistant between the drop ship and the gathered honor guards. There stood a human.
The man was stooped and his shoulders moved up and down in great heaving intakes of breath. His eyes were crazed, absolutely mad, and swung bestially around in his sockets. The human was strikingly pale skinned and red-haired, wearing only ragged shreds of clothing. His fingers were bloody and raw and his face and torso were covered with a variety of superficial wounds.
"What in the name of Almighty Commer-," began Admiral Regel.
There was another snap followed closely by a third. Two more humans, identical to the first, appeared on the disembarkation platform. Admiral Regel was about to issue a takedown order when the situation became entirely out of control. Displaced air rushed over Regel as more and more of the bizarre human clones began to appear in short order. In the span of a second their number had grown from three to thirty. By the time the honor guard began firing there were more than a hundred of them.
"Back in the ship!" Nailmuk bellowed.
Admiral Regel hesitated for an instant, transfixed by the gory scene as dozens of humans were blasted into bloody chunks and dozens more continued to appear to take their place. Nailmuk shoved hard on Regel's chest and nearly sent him sprawling back into the drop ship's interior. The commander of the honor guard threw Guthry back into the drop ship and slid the door closed. Nailmuk's pistol began to speak loudly through the armored hatch.