Chief Petty Officer Paul Marak-Enshluggi glanced at the chronometer on the engineering console and sighed again. There wasn't much time left. Two hours and twenty-eight minutes until Rhylanor would begin to burn up in Jasmine's atmosphere.
I promised you hot times, Lara he thought grimly. What a way to get married. I'll never get to see Lara in a dress again.
Come to think of it, he'd never seen her in a dress before today, either.
And he wouldn't have to change his name in the shipboard computers. Like most people from the matriarchal culture of Mora, he had taken his wife's name.
He was grinning now, slightly giddy. On some level, he knew that he was just covering up his hysteria.
Two hours, twenty-six minutes to go.
He was sitting against a wall, knees folded up in front of him. Commander Lloergrez was sitting a few feet away from him. The Vargr turned and glowered at him. Lloergrez's eyes stared into his, and then danced away, looking at the Zhodani guards who patrolled the engine room. Paul shuddered. There was something savage in the Vargr's glare.
Two hours, twenty-five minutes left.
Two Zhodani approached them. One kept his rifle trained on Lloergrez. They had already had difficulties in restraining the Chief Engineer, resulting in one guard with a broken arm and several broken teeth in the Vargr's mouth.
"You. Help. Drive controls," one of the guards said.
"Which drive? Stardrive?"
"What is stardrive? Jumpdrive? No. Spacedrive."
"Go bugger yourself."
"You fix. We die."
"We die anyway. No computer."
"I can't bloody operate the drives without the computer! Not in two hours, you moronic mindreader!"
Paul shrugged and stood up. "I'll need him," he said, pointing to Lloergrez.
"Yes. He's the Chief. He can build those engines from memory."
"No. No doggie," the guard said, amusement in his voice. "Bad doggie," he said to Lloergrez.
Paul wondered where he had picked up that piece of Anglic slang. "You're awful confident, taunting a Vargr like that," he said.
"He move, we shoot."
"Then we die. Me no fix alone."
The guards looked at each other. There was a pause. They were probably talking to their superior officer, Paul guessed. Finally, the talkative guard spoke up.
"OK. He come. I watch. He bad, we shoot."
"We happy. Are you happy, sir?"
Lloergrez growled deep in his throat. The Zhodani began to aim their rifles at him. Slowly, leisurely, the Chief Engineer stood up and stretched. "Let's go," he said.
The Zhodani took them through the engineering section towards the maneuver drive controls. As they walked around the massive fusion reactor, Lloergrez leaned over to Paul. "This is pointless," he said. "We can't do anything without the computer."
"Yes. But at least we can keep busy until we die."
"You're not taking your death very personally."
"How should I take it? Like you said, there's nothing we can do."
"We can take a few of them with us."
"You must be aware of something I'm not. How do you plan for us to fight unarmed against armored troopers?"
"I have an idea," said Lloergrez, distractedly. The guards were pushing them towards a control console. Half of it had been dissembled. Fiber optic conduits hung distended from its innards. Lloergrez made a hissing sound. Paul felt about the same.
The talkative guard pushed them forward, and then stood, holding his rifle at port arms. The other guard ducked around the console and came back with a tool set, which he dropped near Paul. He saluted the first guard and then left.
Paul took the tools and sat down in front of the console. He began to test circuits. Lloergrez stood behind him and watched impassively, his arms folded across his chest.
Paul made a few connections and typed some commands onto the console. He nodded at the result and picked up the circuit tester again. He made a few notes on a datapad he found lying in the tool kit. Then he returned to the console and checked another few commands.
Without turning around, Paul said, "Better at least look busy, Commander, or we'll be back to where we started."
"Boy, they've gutted that panel. It would take a day to put it back together."
"Not necessarily. They seem to have sealed all the circuits they cut. I think I could get it working by myself in three or four hours."
"I'll note that in your obituary."
"C'mon, Commander. You might learn something."
Lloergrez yawned, baring his broken teeth in something like a grin - though it was the predatory grin of a sentient carnivore, showing his teeth as a threat. But he sat down next to Paul.
"Don't worry about that subrelay. We can bypass it with software."
"Thanks." They worked silently for a few minutes. Lloergrez reached into the tool box and took out a long metal bar. He used a laser cutter to trim it, until he had a tapering rod about twenty-five centimeters long.
"What's that for?" Paul asked.
Paul didn't press any further. It was clearly not what the Vargr had said it was. But it was better not to say anything. Who knew if there were any psionics in the area? What he didn't know couldn't be forced out of him.
"You working hard?" the Zhodani said.
"Yes. Me and Vargr."
"Doggie not working."
"He's being very helpful."
"You fix soon?"
"Yes..." Paul said distractedly. He had just noticed a light flashing urgently in one corner of the console. "I'm going to check the interface controls to see if they're restored," he said to Lloergrez.
"Restored? What are you talking about? The computer's..." The Vargr fell silent. He had just noticed the flashing light. "Good idea, Paul. I'll check the circuits."
Paul nodded and stood up. He tried to keep his face frozen. He leaned over the console and pressed the flashing light.
COMPUTER REINITIALIZING. STANDBY. flashed up on the console.
He caught his breath and watched as portions of the panel gradually came back to life. Lloergrez had submerged his head in the guts of the console. Paul could hear him rapidly installing bypass circuits.
Paul began typing nervously.
CPO Enshluggi. Am with Chief L.
Section is occupied.
SGTMAJ KELLEY HERE. WHERE ARE YOU?
Rear of section, Paul typed.
At maneuver controls.
HOW MANY IN SECTION?
The guard leaned over Paul's shoulder. "Lights on! You fix?"
"No, no," Paul said nervously. "Just running some diagnostics. It will take some time."
The guard shrugged and walked away from the panel. Paul resumed typing.
Maybe fifteen. Can you help? Sweat was beading on his brow and
pooling in the small of his back.
Paul glanced up. Guards were walking around the upper level of engineering, one of the biggest single rooms in the ship, although most of the space was crammed with the machinery of the ship's drives and her fusion power plant. Most of the ship's over eighty engineers were in the room, captured during damage control operations by the Zhodani boarders.
Maybe they wouldn't have to die after all.
CAN YOU MAKE A DISTRACTION?
Yes, Paul typed feverishly.
R U coming?
YES. MAKE DISTRACTION. WE WILL BE THERE SHORTLY. OVER.
"Commander," Paul said, "can you look at this readout?"
Lloergrez pulled his head out of the console and stood up. He looked at the message showing on Paul's screen and nodded. "Carry out emergency procedure six," he said. "I'll take care of the rest."
"All right," Paul said. He turned away from the board and walked over to a panel on the wall. He opened it, and inserted a key he found hanging from the door in a lock.
"What you do?" demanded the Zhodani.
"Testing a circuit," Paul said.
"You wait." The guard paused and cocked his head.
"I'm sorry, I can't wait," said Paul, and twisted the key.
A klaxon emitted a piercing, ear-shattering wail throughout the engine room, three short bursts and then a long one, repeating over and over again. There was an excited shout from the Imperials in the room--that was the decompression alert. They began to run for the lockers on the sides of the section that held emergency pressure suits.
"Why you do that?" said the guard. He began to walk towards Paul, rifle leveled at him.
Lloergrez leapt upon him with a snarl, knocking the man to the ground and rolling on top of him. Paul ran over to help, but couldn't get close to the pair of them as they twisted together on the floor. This is madness, he thought. The trooper was in combat armor! Lloergrez didn't stand a chance.
Something flashed in the Vargr's hand - the bar he had been working on before. He was probing with it under the Zhodani's chin, stabbing again and again as the guard tried to throw him off. The Vargr clung to him tenaciously with one hand, the other continuing to worry at the Zhodani's throat. Suddenly, he thrust forward quickly, sinking it deeply into the trooper's neck.
His helmet split open!
It cracked down the middle, like a sideways oyster, revealing a startled, pale face with short black hair. Lloergrez howled, a primal, terrifying noise, and his jaws slavered, spittle running out of the corner of his mouth. He plunged down and sank his fangs into the face of the trooper. Paul turned away, sickened.
After a moment, some one tapped him on the shoulder. Lloergrez was standing next to him, mouth bloody, holding the Zhodani's rifle. "Come on," he said. He looked at Paul's face, and then glanced back at the body. "It's a bad design. The emergency helmet release is under the chin."
Paul followed him around the fusion reactor. He tried not to look at the bloody mass lying on the deck. They peeked around one corner of the reactor and stared into chaos.
Troopers were trying to drag the Imperials back into the center of the room. Many were still trying to get into their pressure suits. Others were yelling at the Zhodani, some even pushing at the guards. The troopers were retreating to the middle of the room, their rifles readied.
There was an explosion from the front end of the room.
The enormous blast doors that separated Engineering from the rest of the ship rolled back, and Marines poured through, shooting. The Zhodani began to fire back, fitfully. Engineering crew rushed forward, trying to grab troopers and pin them to the ground.
Sounds of fighting came from behind Paul. He turned around. Marines had invaded the second level and were attacking the Zhodani guards there.
Lloergrez was firing his rifle, grinning. After a while, he stopped, and watched as a figure in battle dress approached through the smoke.
"Lieutenant Commander Lloergrez?" said the man.
"Sergeant Kelly." They shook hands.
"What's your status?"
"We can move her within the hour, if I have even half my crew."
"You'll have at least that." Kelly undogged his helmet and removed it, revealing a sad brown face with dark, straight black hair. "Captain Moak wants you to make weaponry a priority."
"He'll have his guns," snarled the engineer. "Paul, get a detail together and start working on the drives. I'm going forward to look at the meson gun."
"Aye, Commander." He turned around, then stopped. "Sergeant Kelly."
"Do you know what's happened to Lieutenant Enshluggi? Lieutenant Lara Enshluggi?"
Kelly stared calmly at him. "You're her husband, aren't you? I was at your wedding this afternoon."
"Yes. Have you seen her?"
"I'm afraid she's missing."
"Is she -"
"We don't know. She could be captured."
"I see. Commander -"
"You want to come forward with me." Lloergrez snorted. "Very well. I don't want a feud with you."
The smoke was only beginning to clear as they left engineering.