The Freedom Express – Chapter Four

Queen headed back to his plane in a fury. How dare the bastard speak like that to the United States of America? Preening and thinking himself invulnerable because the Chinese were running to help him. Rogers thought the US was whipped. That’d he’d sent them packing.

That wasn’t going to happen.

Oh, Queen would let it look as though he was backing down, but that was all just for show. He needed time to plan a better attack strategy. The Chinese wouldn’t risk nuclear war over Clayton Rogers. And they damned sure weren’t taking over a multibillion-dollar company like Rainforest.

That was the first step, he decided. He’d call the regulators and they’d freeze those accounts. There were laws about the ownership of American megacorporations. And if there weren’t, there soon would be. Let the Chinese scream.

Then he’d talk over this asteroid mining scheme with his science advisors. It had to be a scam and he wanted to know who Rogers though he was going to bilk. The only ones that robbed the American people were their own government.

The president—of America, not some podunk little island—had instructed him to take lead on this. Election season was just around the corner and he didn’t want this blowing up in his face. If things went well, he’d hinted that there was a very good possibility that he’d need a new vice president.

Of course, if things went poorly, Queen would be out of a job.

Either way, no one could publically thumb their noses at the US. Not the Chinese and not Clayton Rogers.

And if the talk about mining the asteroids was as lucrative as Rogers had bragged, the US was going to get its share of the pie. Queen hadn’t missed that whole bit about space being international waters. Rogers thought that he could laugh off the taxes he owed on hundreds of billions of dollars.

Well, that wasn’t going to happen, either.

While the amended space treaty allowed for commercial mining, everyone knew that it meant under the auspices of a major government contract. No, it didn’t spell it out, but everyone knew that private companies didn’t do things in space. Not after that bloodsucking leech Kathleen Bennett had tried to screw the US space program and Congress had called her bluff.

The Chinese had to be thinking about that money. Otherwise, why cover for the old bastard? They wanted all those riches in space for themselves.

Queen was plugged into the intelligence services as well as any of the senior leaders in the US, and better than most. He knew the slant-eyed bastards were falling behind the Indians in their “race to Mars.”

That had to gall them. Losing out to the people that owned every technical support line in the world.

Well, no matter what they had in mind, he’d figure out a way to play them against one another.

The one angle he didn’t know how to corner was that ship. The US had given up on space. Hell, that ship was the skeleton of what was supposed to have been the next international space station. The US should’ve been a major player in that. And they would’ve been, if Bennett hadn’t screwed them.

If only he could turn back time.

He sat up a bit straighter as the airplane took off. Maybe he could turn back the clock.

A wide smile stole onto his face and he reached for his phone. Time to make some people very, very unhappy.

* * * * *

Jess couldn’t tell how quickly the elevator was moving, but it took a while to get to the lowest floor. Long enough for everyone to grow more than a bit nervous. Her suit clock said that it took just over two minutes.

The doors slid open on a wonder. The elevator had stopped in the center of a spherical room that was at least 100 meters across.

A short walkway led from the elevator to the craziest thing she’d ever seen. Circular stairs leading in six different directions. It was like one of those mind-bending paintings.

Harry led the way out, cautiously putting one foot in front of the other until he reached the junction of the stairs. What looked like a hooped band linked them all, one large enough for two people to walk side-by-side. Only, there was no way a person could stay upright on the damned thing.

Of course, there was no way everything on the walls of the globe could be staying put, either. Machinery and other things covered the entire surface, whether that was over their heads or under their feet. Or off to the sides. It was very disorienting.

Soft light came from nowhere, but illuminated everything. It was all very natural. It looked like sunlight or at least light made to be in the same frequencies.

“What the hell is this place?” Rex asked.

“A power center,” Ray Proudfoot said. “I can see several of those glowing cubes.”

While that might be part of it, Jess was certain that wasn’t all it was. She spotted several clusters of control consoles similar to the ones on the crashed ship.

“I think this is the center of the comet,” she said. “We took the elevator down until we were in the middle. They must be using artificial gravity to keep everything where it’s supposed to be. That’s probably how this works.”

She stepped onto the hoop and started walking forward. Her orientation changed, but the gravity always seemed to be below her. In a few moments, she was standing with her head pointing toward the other’s feet.

“Well,” Sandra said. “That’s not at all creepy. How the hell could someone design something like that? It makes my brain hurt.”

“The design seems pretty straightforward,” Proudfoot said. “If you have artificial gravity. We could make a much more effective layout inside Liberty Station if we had this kind of tech. It would mean we could fit a lot more people and cargo inside.”

“Not without the crew staging a mutiny,” Rex said. “This is messed up.”

Jess had to agree with him. It would really mess with people. “In any case, if we’d designed Liberty Station with that kind technology in mind, we could work around the human factor and have a much more efficient ship. That’s true.”

She started down the closest set of stairs. “Before you call me back, I’ll stay at the foot of the stairs and wait for you.”

As above, a layer of dust covered everything. With the lights and gravity on, she wondered why there was no air. Surely, that had to be intentional.

By the time she reached the floor, she felt almost normal. Unless she followed the curve of the floor with her eye. The rest of them came down behind her. At the floor level, the special operations people stepped out front again.

“What do you want to look at first?” Sandra asked.

“The power unit ahead of us,” Proudfoot said. “Now that I’m closer, I can see that those cubes are larger than the one you recovered, but I want to see by how much.”

Quite a bit, it turned out. The cube from the crashed ship was small enough to fit into a backpack with quite a bit of room to spare. Only about three inches along the edges. These were more like two feet across. She could only guess at how much power that represented. A lot.

The equipment seemed to be only generally like what she remembered from the ship. So, these were probably some kind of distribution centers for the rest of the comet. Why did it need so much power?

“I found something,” Sandra said.

Jess looked over at the other woman. She was peering past the power unit. It only took a few steps to join her.

Lying behind the unit was the desiccated body of a woman. She wore a gold jumpsuit with patches similar to what the man under the Mayan pyramid had on his shirt.

She lay sprawled on her back with her limbs twisted around her. The hilt of what was obviously a knife protruded from her chest.

* * * * *

Nathan kept his hands still on his lap. “If this is a robbery, allow me to suggest that you’ve picked the wrong man.”

The driver grinned. “Actually, you picked me, signore. And this is no robbery. We’re going to take a trip, you and I. To see a very important man with many questions about the events you are investigating.

“I suggest that you cooperate. If my employer is satisfied with your answers, you can go on your way. If not…well, let’s just hope you’re a smarter man than that.”

Another sedan pulled up behind them and two large men climbed out. Their demeanor and build suggested they were hired muscle.

“Get out of the car very slowly,” the driver said. “My associates will search you for any weapons you might have slipped past the monitors at the airport. Once they do that, they’ll put you back inside this car and all of us shall go see my employer. You’re not going to give us any trouble, are you Signor Bennett?”

“Do I look crazy?”

One of the goons opened the door and gestured for Nathan to climb out. His associate pulled his coat back far enough for the holstered pistol to show. He rested his hand on the belt near it.

Nathan exited the vehicle slowly, keeping his hands in plain view. He stepped to the left to put the goon nearest him and the open door between himself and the driver.

Then he struck, smashing his fist into the man’s face and ducking low under the return swing. His hand shot out, finding a gun on the man’s belt right where his friend’s was, and claiming the automatic for himself.

The other goon had his pistol out and was shouting something in Italian. Stupid, he should’ve been shooting. Nathan was.

He put two rounds into the man’s head, eliminating the threat.

The live goon was quicker on the uptake than his friend. He slammed his fist down on Nathan’s arm, sending his gun flying.

That hurt like hell, but Nathan didn’t have time to bitch about it. He reached behind him with his uninjured hand and drew the knife he’d recovered from his carry-on luggage at the airport from its concealed sheath.

He heard the passenger door of the sedan open and knew the driver was coming to his compatriot’s aid. So, he had to finish this quickly. A knife against a gun made for poor odds.

The goon was bigger than Nathan, but slower. He could use that to his advantage. He lunged at the man’s face, slashing for his eyes. That guaranteed a response. No one ignored an attack that might blind them.

When the man leaned away from the steel and brought his arms up to block, Nathan dropped to his knees, jammed the blade into the man’s groin, and rotated the knife so that the man’s insides became puree. The goon lost all interest in the fight and fell to the ground, trying to hold himself together.

That took the second man out of the fight, but left the armed driver. Nathan spotted his fallen pistol just off to his left, but going after it would expose him to the driver’s fire.

“You are quite the fighter, Signor Bennett,” the driver said. “But there are many other men on the way. You cannot win. Surrender now and we can forget this ever happened.”

Nathan grinned. “As if that’s how mob justice works. You’ll talk nice and then kill me slowly. I think I’ll pass. Oh, if you’d asked my mother, she’d have told you that I’m both crazy and an idiot. Only the first is true.”

He picked up a handy pebble on the roadside and tossed it toward the rear of the sedan as he crouched lower. The stone didn’t make much noise, but the driver would be listening very closely for Nathan to make his move. It wouldn’t fool the man, but it would lead his eyes in the wrong direction for the critical moment.

Nathan sprang toward the front of the sedan, cocking his arm back and throwing his knife at the driver as soon as the man came into view. The man had turned just a little toward the rear of the car, as expected.

The bastard was good, though. He spotted Nathan right away and pivoted back while leaning to the side to dodge the thrown knife.

The man’s movement and Nathan’s somewhat awkward throw meant the blade sank into the driver’s thigh instead of his gut, but that worked well enough.

Nathan hit the ground and rolled, snatching up his appropriated pistol and exchanging shots with the driver. His hit, the other man’s didn’t.

So, less than twenty seconds after the three men sprang their ambush, the fight was over. Nathan climbed to his feet and kicked the driver’s pistol away from his hand. The other man lay sprawled on the ground beside the front of the sedan, bleeding from half a dozen wounds.

The man gasped for air, already dying. “You are…quite…the fighter…Signor Bennett. That…will not…save you.”

“We’ll see who it saves,” Nathan said. He raised the pistol and shot the man between the eyes.

A few steps brought him around to where the live goon was dragging himself toward his partner and that man’s fallen gun. Another shot ended his pain, too.

The road here wasn’t the most active, but several cars had driven by. It was time to get out of the area before some idiot with a cell phone posted a video of him to the Internet.

He grabbed all the weapons and retrieved his knife. No telling what had fingerprints on it. He also took their wallets and phones. Something in them would lead him to people with the information he needed.

Nathan climbed behind the wheel of the sedan he’d been a passenger in and drove slowly away from the dead men behind him. Well, at least this trip wouldn’t be as boring as he’d expected.

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