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An Habitual Offender, Chapter 7

Voyage Of The Tired

10:48 hours, Mission Elapsed Time.

Fiona had made no pretense of a proper approach. Serenity had aligned herself with the runway about eighty kilometers out. With only engine two running to conserve what little fuel was left, they were coming in steep and fast.

Barney leaned forward. “I’ll be ready to start up number one if you need to go around.”

“There’ll be no goin’ around on the pint o’ fuel we’ve got left! Now shut up and hold on!” She clenched her teeth and pulled back on the stick, cursing herself for not having taken the left seat when she’d still had a chance to do so. She would much rather have used her left hand for this, the engine rpm’s were barely high enough to maintain minimum hydraulic pressure. The stick and rudder pedals might as well have been stuck into clay. She couldn’t feel the plane very well any more. They were still ten kilometers out and only had about five hundred meters of altitude.

Airspeed was dropping. She nudged the throttle lever forward a millimeter and prayed for lift. The fuel gauge had hit ‘E’ a few minutes ago but the pressure was still holding steady. She kept her eyes set on where she wanted the runway to be. Sheer force of will kept the plane on track now.

A voice came in on the ground channel. “Herr Engelhart, the crash web is in place, and we are prepared to foam the runway.”

“Thanks, Uwe. Glad to know you’ve made it –”

Fiona interrupted him. “What sort of foam?”

Fortunately, Uwe didn’t hesitate. “The seventy two and sixty flame suppressor, naturally.”

“No! We can’t let that come into contact with the skin! There’s nothing left to burn, anyway!”

Barney did have to think about that for a moment. Then he nodded his head. There were two chemicals present in the foam that in combination could be harmful to the jet’s skin. Fiona was a step ahead of him again. He looked out the windshield and saw the runway lights. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.

They were inside the fence now. Fiona pitched the nose up a bit and the stall warning sounded. Serenity was still about five hundred meters from the end of the runway. The fuel pressure began to fluctuate. Bugger all. Fiona pushed the throttle all the way forward, hoping that there was still something left in the tanks. As she scanned the instrument panel she saw too many readouts saying bad things.

Then her main screen blanked and a message appeared.

You did it.

While the screen reset itself, the engine flamed out. The stick became almost rigid. Fiona flared the jet as best as she could. They were going down.

A moment later the starboard skid made contact, pulling the other two down on to the concrete. The shrieking of the skids filled the cabin. The jet began to crab to starboard. Fiona stomped the left rudder pedal in an attempt to keep the nose straight. Not enough. The reaction control system was of course down as well. Not enough. The jet kept sliding down the runway as though unable to slow down. She clenched her teeth to keep from cursing. I’ve just sodded the lot of us.

She could see the big cranes holding the crash web now. If they hit the web wing first with no power that would be the end of it all. Fiona was quite desperate. She leaned back in the seat and tried to pull the straps tighter. “Barney! Where’s the bloody anchor on this thing?!” A moment later she heard a dull thud, then her head snapped forward with the nose of the jet following a fraction of a second later.

“Drag chute deployed!” Barney slapped the back of her seat. “Thanks! I’d forgotten about that!” The jet hit the web at about a hundred and fifty kph. Airbags erupted. The web went taut and they stopped moving a second later.

When Fiona regained her senses she began hitting circuit breakers, shutting down whatever she could. Things began to quiet down inside the cabin. She looked over her shoulder at Barney. He was still shaking his head, trying to clear it, but he seemed okay. Hanna was already out of her seat checking on John. She looked at Fiona and nodded. Fiona unstrapped herself and then removed her wretched helmet and cast it down on to the deck.
“Why don’t you two get some rest and a bit to eat. Barney and I have a lot to do.” Fiona pulled Pandora out of her case. “Looks like another all nighter.”

Barney was on the radio. “Uwe, let’s get a lifter over here. We’ve got to make some repairs before we can mount the pod. Have you heard anything from Ashwin?”

“The item is en route.”

Barney allowed himself to relax just a bit. “What about Cecile?”

“She believes that they can meet your deadline.”

“That’s good news –” He paused for a moment and shook his head. Desperate times call for desperate measures. “How’s Sir Burt?”

“Ready for hook-up and flight operations.”

The cranes revved up their engines and began letting out the cables that held the tension on the web. It sagged down and some of the straps fell across the nose and windscreen of the plane. John went to the rear of the cabin and pulled a handle out of a storage slot. He used it to begin cranking the airlock door open.

Fiona unstrapped and forced herself out of her seat. She felt absolutely dreadful and held on to the seat while she waited for everything to stop moving. She’d been airborne for a very long time now and felt almost legless. Then she felt a cool hand take hold of hers.

Hanna was smiling at her. “Nice landing.”

Fiona shook her head. “Oh, bollocks! I nearly ruined everything.” She let go of the seat and wiped her eyes.

Hanna squeezed Fiona’s hand. “But you didn’t. We’re fine.” She looked Fiona in the eyes now. “You’re doing great.”

“Sorry?” Fiona was confused.

“We’re alive, which means we haven’t lost – and you’re doing a great job of putting up with us loonies!” Hanna smiled and let go of Fiona’s hand. Then she spun around on her right foot and tossed her hair back into place. “We’ll leave you to it. John! Do you remember how to put the ladder down?”

John was working on the outer door and his voice reverberated out of the airlock. “Yes, oh goddess of impetuousness. Thou art the sun, and mine face is ever turn’d towards thy glory.”

“Yargh!” Hanna threw a lot of frustrated hands into the air. “Just get us out of here, you clod!”

Fiona stood there and watched Hanna go. She heard the rumble of the engines outside and those horrid backup alarms. She looked at Pandora, but with no power Serenity would not be particularly responsive.

“We’re ready to hook up now.” Barney spoke softly so as not to startle her. “Then we can get some work done.”

Fiona shook her head. “Right.” She looked towards the stern. “We’ve got to inspect the starboard side. I’m fairly certain that we took a hit. She wanted to yaw to that side the whole way.”

“Okay, that’s the first thing after we get her inside.” The ship lurched a bit. There were a couple of clunks and everything rose up beneath their feet. The cabin lights came on and the Engineer’s console rebooted. The climate control system restarted next, and the cool air reminded Fiona to start breathing again. She looked out the windscreen and saw hangar doors opening off in the distance, releasing a flood of light out into the gathering darkness.

A few minutes later they were in the hangar inspecting the plane. Barney was climbing a ladder to get a better view of the upper parts of the jet. The scent of kerosene and hydraulic fluid was very strong. He punched a few buttons on the widget in his hand and some cleaning bots began their journey.

Sure enough, there was some blast scarring near the vertical stabilizer. Barney scanned it with his widget. Could be worse, nothing critical was damaged. He climbed back down and started looking through the pile of gear that had been shipped in from various facilities.

Fiona came over. “How bad is it?”

He held up his hands. “About yea.”

She let out a frustrated sigh. “We haven’t got time to regenerate the skin!” She looked away and began shaking her head. “We can’t do this if we’re limited to subsonic speed.”

He nodded. “I know.” Then he bent over and pushed one case off of another. The lower one had a thick layer of dust on it, recently disturbed in spots. He opened it and grabbed something large enough to require two handles. The underside was concave and a similar color to Serenity’s skin. The upper side was mostly control panel and display. A long power cable trailed behind. “This should give us a decent enough patch.”

“Should?” Fiona looked rather doubtful.

He tried to shrug, but the great weight of the device made that impossible. “We never got a chance to try it out.” Fiona smacked herself on the forehead and he chuckled. “I’ve got this end. Would you see about getting me some juice?”

She glared at him, then turned away. She found the plug end of the cable and jacked it into the grid power. It occurred to her that Barney hadn’t explained much of anything. “Barney, just what are we trying to do?”

“Just a sec.” He was still fiddling with the placement of the patching gizmo. After another wiggle he was finally satisfied. He let go of one handle and pressed a button. The panel illuminated and the gizmo sucked itself down on to the plane’s skin. A throbbing hum emanated from inside. After a few seconds it beeped and Barney studied the readout.

“Six hours.” He sighed. “Man, that’s all night.” He climbed back down to the floor and found Fiona waiting for him, and his explanation.

“Well, Barney, explain yourself.”

Before he could say anything the radio squawked, giving him a moment of respite. Uwe’s voice came through various speakers. “Mr. Engelhart, the plane from London has arrived.”

Fiona raised her eyebrow. “Just what has Ashwin sent us?”

“A new belly pod for the jet. For the payload.”

“And exactly what have Cecile and Jean-Jacques been working on all these months?”

“Nanobots and fabrication equipment. They’re sending those things plus raw materials. The bots have been reprogrammed to shut down the reactor and render it inert, over a relatively short amount of time… in theory.” He looked a bit too uncertain for her liking. “I hope.”

“You hope?”

“That stuff is half-baked! The technology shouldn’t be out of the lab at this stage of development, but I’m out of ideas – and time!” Barney turned away from her and started pacing. “It’s going to be really heavy. That’s why we’re hitching a ride.”

Fiona considered this for a time and then nodded her head. “I’ve got to go inside and run an all-systems diagnostic. You fuel her up now and make doubly sure you purge the pumps and lines!”

“Of course, of course. See you in a bit.”

Pandora pinged, jolting Fiona from her slumber. She looked around, cursing herself for falling asleep again. “Are you getting old, girl?” The hangar lights had dimmed somewhere along the way, giving an impression of the night outside. The chronometer read sixteen twenty mission elapsed time and she guessed it must be about three-ish local time. She looked out the windshield and saw Barney sprawled across some chairs and cases, fast asleep.

She remembered the patching rig next, and figured that it should be just about done. She exited the jet and went around to the ladder. The display read twenty minutes. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. Time enough to get some air. Might as well let Barney have a few more minutes of sleep. She climbed down and walked towards the hangar door.

She was tired. So very, very, tired. This is all too much. What have I gotten myself into? How can I keep going? Why? She sighed. Those long, dark eyelashes and that crooked grin, that’s why. She took a few steps out into the night. The cool air felt good on her skin. She felt as though her brain was overheated. Overwhelmed.

Then she heard something. A peculiar sort of hissing sound that came in short bursts, only a fraction of a second each time. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but it did sound as though the source was not very far away. It made her curious and she took a few more steps out from the hangar and looked around.

A flash of light caught her eye. It took a moment for her to comprehend that the sound went with the flash. Her head moved on its’ own towards the light and sound. She analyzed the scene and her jaw slowly dropped.

Swords flashing in the moonlight. Step. Step. Turn. Jump spin thrust. A wordless shout of great power. Hanna was working through her forms. Fiona watched her for several minutes as Hanna progressed through increasing levels of difficulty. After some thought she understood that the bows marked the beginnings and ends of the forms. Fiona had been far too busy to watch Hanna in action yesterday. She’d never seen such force and grace combined. Hanna was other-worldly in the moonlight. Fiona watched in silence, still too sleepy to think about much else.

Hanna paused and began doing some stretching. Fiona eased back inside the door. She didn’t want Hanna to see her. She leaned against the inside of the big door. She pushed her glasses back up on her nose, then moved her fingers to her forehead and pushed her head up in a similar fashion. A moment or two later she decided to try and focus her eyes on something. Barney wasn’t where she had left him. Nowhere in sight, actually. She heard a slightly irregular thumping from somewhere, possibly an electric bass guitar. Yes, well, we’re all too keyed up to sleep for very long. I feel so… she reached out a hand and clenched at the air. I hate not being able to do anything!

She looked over at Serenity. I wonder how she’s doing? I haven’t had a chance to think to ask. I feel dreadful. Her eyes were burning, so she closed them.

“Hey.” Barney’s voice startled her so much that she forgot to start crying. “It occurs to me that I’m not paying you enough for this.”

Fiona sniffed and shook her head. “Sod that. I already have more money than I know what to do with.”

He smiled down at her. “Thanks. I’ll be needing to hand out a great deal of ‘secrecy bonuses’ as it is. I should probably give everybody at the Osaka works their weight in yen, it might be simpler.”


Barney laughed. “John was goofing around, blew something up –” He saw her eyes widen. “No big deal. And eventually you’ll figure out something amazing for all that money.” She tried to chuckle, but couldn’t really do it. Barney continued. “You’ve made yourself utterly indispensable to the team, and I’m very grateful for that… but what’s your motivation?”

Fiona took a step towards him and fell against his chest. The tears burst free and she let out the sobs, the great boo hoo hoo that she’d been holding in ever since she woke up. Ever since Kevin had done that stupid thing… that stupid thing that gave them another chance to put a stop to all this. Barney put his arms around her and waited.

Eventually she felt that she could speak. Very sniffly, though. “It’s… it’s been a long time since I’ve met anybody interesting. He… treats me like I’m normal. He’s been nice to me. He’s not bothered that I’m smart!” Somewhere up above hers, she could feel Barney shaking his head.

“No. Quite the opposite really. The few women that he has cared for are among the most headstrong and independent I’ve ever known.”

Fiona had regained some composure now, but she was still sniffling a bit. “Really?”

“He wouldn’t have it any other way. And there is no question that you’ve had a very calming affect on him. I mean, the guy is happy. He wasn’t happy when he left to find John.”

Fiona looked up at him. “Happy Angry Man?”

Barney laughed. “You’ll understand it when you get to know him better.” He laughed some more. “He really is one of the good guys. And for all his lack of higher education he’s actually a pretty bright lad.”

“How did he get involved… with her?”

He took a deep breath. “An accidental… unintentional… mind meld is what we called it. It was good that it took her out of the fight, of course. Under her leadership the bad guys were kicking our ass. But it eventually ended badly for them.”

“And us?”

“Maybe. It’s all come back to haunt us, anyway.” He looked into her eyes. “She didn’t do any of this by choice, it’s all in her programming. Try not to hold that against her.”

Fiona nodded in agreement, then she heard a beep from somewhere. “Is that the thing?”

Barney let go of her and produced a handkerchief from one of his multitude of pockets. “I hope so. I don’t know what sound it’s supposed to make when it’s done.” She offered him his hanky back but he shook his head. “I’ve got plenty.” He started towards the jet. “I’ll get the patcher off, you go inside and check the readouts.”

“Yes… of course, I should.” Fiona wiped her eyes and followed him.

A minute later she was seated at the engineer’s console. Things looked normal. Time to ask, before Barney come in. “Serenity, dear, you’ve been very quiet. Are you alright?” The main screen on the console blanked, then returned.

I’ve been a little… overwhelmed.

Fiona nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry I hadn’t considered that. How does the patch feel?”

It itches.

“I don’t think I can do anything about that until we get back to Houston.”

Check the bushing on the number one pivot pin, too. I think it’s becoming worn.

“Right, then. We’ll have to be on our way soon. Are you ready?”

The cursor blinked for a couple of seconds. Fiona began to worry. But then the cursor moved.

Let’s finish this.

The comm panel beeped. Fiona acknowledged it and heard Uwe’s voice. “Fiona, the plane from Marseille is about to land. I will prepare Sir Burt at once.” She saw that the display had gone back to normal and realized that Barney had entered the cabin.

“Everything checks out, Barney. We’re ready to load up and go.”

“Good. I’ll go get a crane.”

About five minutes later another high-speed E.I. cargo jet taxied up to the hangar. As soon as it had stopped moving the nose swung up to reveal the cargo compartment. A heavy lifter floated out with a tarpaulin covered something on its’ back. The pilot was controlling the lifter from the cockpit and no other crew was on board. When Barney radioed the all clear the nose swung back down and the engines spooled back up. The plane was on its’ way again six minutes after it had parked.

Barney called Fiona on the comm and asked her to bring the pod outside. He set about attaching the crane to the payload. Fiona pulled up beside him a minute later and set her lifter to station keeping. She climbed out and walked over to Barney.

“You said this was a new pod. What happened to the old one?”

“I didn’t think I could get the old one from Houston in time, so I had your blokes fab one and fly it in from London.” He could see that she wasn’t satisfied with his answer, so he continued. “We used the old one to carry fuel and oxidizer for the booster rockets.”

Fiona remembered staring at the Mark I the other day. “Low earth orbit configuration.”

“Yeah.” Barney nodded in agreement. “One of the old space shuttles was in trouble and we had to help them out. All totally top level mother freaking secret class ultra stuff, don’t you know. I think I’ve just committed treason by telling you.”

She smiled a bit at that. “I’ll never tell. What do we do now?”

“You step away until I move this thing over.” Barney got into the crane cabin and revved the motor. Fiona turned and walked off to a safe distance. It took about a minute to place the payload in the pod. Barney parked the crane and Fiona guided the lifter back inside the hangar.

She drove it under the jet and checked her display. She was close to where she needed to be. She set the controls to automatic and the lifter fine tuned its’ position. It beeped when it was ready and she pressed the button to lift the pod into place. It went up very slowly, but eventually the latches began closing in sequence, mating the pod to the plane. She backed the lifter out of the way and looked for Barney. He was walking towards the her. “Everything checks out, Barney. We’re ready to go.”

He paused for a moment and blew out a breath. “Well, then.” He activated his comm piece. “Uwe, it’s time to go.” He listened for a bit. “Yes to all that.” He closed the channel and looked at Fiona. “Let’s get her outside. I’ll go get the others.”

Fiona settled herself down in the copilot’s seat and began typing commands. The hangars doors opened full wide, then the plane lurched as her lifter rose a few centimeters off the ground. It began to float out of the hangar and into the night. There was a much larger hangar almost directly across the apron. As Fiona sat there she could see the doors opening. A large and spindly craft was revealed to be inside, all extremely long composite wings and tail booms. Two huge turbofans morphed out of the miniscule deck behind the geodesic cockpit, a big bubble in the sky.

A figure sat on the seat high inside the bubble. Sir Burt’s cockpit always reminded Fiona of an accountant’s desk from two or three hundred years ago, all sloping front with a very high stool. That was Uwe, waiting for them to come out first. Fiona got up and moved over to the pilot’s seat. She tugged at her radiation suit and cursed herself for not taking it off for at least a little while. Too late now. She sat down and strapped herself in. She accessed the controls for the lifter and prepared it for the hookup procedures. Then she began powering up the ship’s systems.

Hanna’s voice came through the hatch. “Hey! Let’s do this!” A small bag flew through the airlock and plunked down on the deck. She was inside a moment later, turning around to call back out through the door. “Hey, mister rock star laddie boy–oyy! Get in here! You too, John.” Then she started laughing.

“Of course, dear lady, oh warrior fair, oh goddess of strength –”

“Stop it, you clod!” But of course she was still smiling. “Just get in and sit down!” Then she turned back towards the cockpit. “Fiona! Get me back there so that I can tear that place apart!”

“Oh, aye. I’ve a bit of unfinished business there myself.” Fiona turned back to the controls and activated the next sequence. The lifter moved around behind Sir Burt and floated into position underneath the bigger jet. It sent up a beep when it was satisfied.

Fiona had done some of the design work on Sir Burt when they were preparing for the high altitude engine tests some eighteen months ago. It only took six months to have the big plane ready to haul her little fat ones (as Uwe insisted on calling them) into the upper atmosphere. She was still rather upset at Barney for never having told her what he’d done in the past. Serenity’s engines were light years beyond anything she’d conceived of so far. She’d have to be sure to overhaul at least one of the beasties when they got back home.

She looked over at Barney. “How are we –” She remembered something then. “This would be when we use mounting configuration zeta? This was the ‘just in case’ you were so insistent on?”

Barney looked rather sheepish. “Yeah.”

“Well, I’m pleased to know that I wasn’t wasting my time.” Before she could say anything else the ship lurched as the lifter raised the jet in preparation for the hookup.

After things had settled down Barney unstrapped himself and stood up. “C’mon, John. I could use your help outside with the connections.”

“Right.” John stood up and waited. He could see Hanna fidgeting in her seat. “What is it, Hanna?”

She extended a hand towards him. “Have you got a knife?”

John had to think about it for a moment. “Oh yeah, I do have one.” He reached into a pocket. “This little one on my keychain.” He pulled it out and showed it to her.

“It’ll do.” She snatched it from his hand and sat down hard in her seat. She flicked open the blade, ran her thumb along the edge, and made a face. She took the knife off of the keychain and produced a stone from her bag and began sharpening.

John laughed and followed Barney into the airlock. “Well, at least she’s got something to do.”

18:12 hours, mission elapsed time. It didn’t take long to complete the mounting process. A hint of light might have been in the eastern sky as Sir Burt began to roll down the taxi way. Fiona scanned the boards for the hundredth time. She clenched a fist and cursed again the waiting. Nothing to do.

“Fiona.” Barney was at his keyboard again. “Would you check this for me, please? I was thinking about reconfiguring the long-range sensors yesterday. If this works we should be able to detect the energy signature of Kevin’s wristbands, and from a greater distance than we can track his comm signal.”

Something to do. She studied the file tree on her screen. She started breathing again. The view out the windshield changed as Sir Burt turned on to the runway. Uwe began his takeoff run immediately. Fiona couldn’t help but think that they were going too slow. I’ve gotten quite used to VTOL. I’m spoiled.

Her panel beeped and she looked down. They were approaching takeoff speed. “We’re off.” Sir Burt’s nose pitched up and then the plane ran on the main gear for an agonizingly long time. Finally there was a thump and the sound of the tires ceased. She listened intently, analyzing the muffled sounds of Sir Burt’s landing gear retracting.

It occurred to her then that this lot was much, much heavier than anything Sir Burt had lifted before. She could still see a great many trees in front of them. They didn’t seem to be rising above them at all. Any. When she was ready to start counting pine cones on the trees she was relieved to see that she was looking down on them. They skimmed the tops as they flew towards the edge of the facility. When the trees thinned out they finally began a proper climb. Fiona checked her instruments restlessly and willed them to be higher and farther along their course.

She looked at Barney’s code, flipping though several screens very quickly. Everything looked proper. She checked some files. This should work the way he says it will if he’s right about the energy signature. Then she looked over her shoulder at Barney. He was studying something else on his screen. From what she could see Fiona knew that he was looking at what she’d done with Serenity. She smiled and turned back towards the windshield. I’ve got news for you, Barney. Serenity did a lot of that herself. “I believe you can bring your new system online immediately.”

“Great. I’ll do it.”

Fiona looked over her other shoulder. Hanna was casting on with pale green yarn. John had already closed his eyes. She hit the intercom. “Uwe, what are you reading today?”

“It will be Don Quixote.”

“What do you think of it?”

“I enjoy it very much, but I think Herr Cervantes takes advantage of being paid by the word.”

She got a laugh out of that one. “A bit of editing, perhaps? Is that Shostakovich I hear?”

“Ja. Symphony number One. It is on the datalink if you wish to listen.”

Fiona patched the music through the cabin speakers and tried to relax. She picked up her helmet and began to clean it. Such a long wait. I hope this works.

Uwe’s voice came through her headset. “Chapter fifty-eight. Which tells of how adventures poured on Don Quixote so thick and fast that they gave no room to one another. As soon as Don Quixote found himself in open country, safe and sound…"

They climbed towards the rising sun.

An Habitual Offender by
Kevin L. Corridon is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.