Chapter 12

Natasha flew the tiny shuttle as close as she could to Bedlam. She could also see the cruiser with pale green wisps snaking from its vents.

"Captain Crown!" Foley boomed over the communicator. "You will return that stolen vessel to the Station immediately! Do you read me, Crown? Your actions are in violation of ... " Natasha deactivated the channel.

"Wind your neck in, you old fart." She muttered in a fashion that Cawdor and Vanley would be proud of. "Now then." She turned her attention to re-routing to the secondary system. "Oh hell, I don't know what I'm doing" She sobbed. Dale would have had it done in two minutes. She couldn't revert back without having Foley taking up the main channel. Natasha plotted a course on a tangent to the green mist, one that would bring her perilously close to it. Next she threw both propulsion units into maximum, flinging the shuttle forwards and sending Natasha hurtling backwards against her seat.

"Commonwealth shuttle! What in soddery are you doing? Get out of that area, now!"

"Vanley!" Natasha began maneuvering the shuttle away from the atmosphere. "Vanley it's Natasha."

"Captain Crown? Are you insane? Back out of that area." Vanley shouted.

"I am. My sensors are giving safe readings. Vanley can you detect the cruiser from there?" Natasha said urgently.

"Not accurately. It has no working equipment to track. What's happened?" Vanley sent an alert out for Cawdor and Kendrew.

"It's toxic. There was a sample on the cruiser that no one knew about. Nine of my crew are dead, Vanley."

"Blast and bollocks! Now will you listen? Will you?" Vanley roared.

"Vanley Dale's on that cruiser. He was still alive thirty minutes ago." Natasha heard breakup on the line.

"Natasha, it's Cawdor. How is he still alive and the others aren't? Quickly, Natasha!"

"He's sealed in the command room. The alarms went off and it was automatically sealed." Natasha told them. "Cawdor, even if he isn't alive, I can't just leave him there like that."

"Listen to me. Go back to the Cumberland and release every lifepod you have at exactly the same time." Cawdor was rattling orders and requests out in all directions via the computer.

"The lifepods? There's thousands of them." Natasha said in confusion.

"More the better. Can you release them all at once?" Cawdor asked.

"From the control centre, yes providing Joel Foley hasn't blocked my access." Natasha replied.

"I'll get Vanley to check and unblock it. Go, Natasha. Once you've released the pods, put the Station on lock-down."

"On my way. Cawdor? You will get him, won't you?"

"Or die trying. Lock Foley in the bloody brig if he starts his shit. One more thing, Natasha. I'll have to bring him here, you do see that don't you? He'll be contaminated. If I can, I'll get the others too."

"He'd want to be with you, Cawdor. He loves you." Natasha had tears streaming down her face.

"Right!" Cawdor half barked half sobbed. "Away and sort your pods out." They tracked the shuttle for a few seconds to ensure Natasha was speeding away.

"Cawdor you can't fit all those poor souls on one shuttle." Vanley stopped his jamming of Station Cumberland's systems.

"I know. One poor soul was last detected alive, Vanley." Cawdor said. "I'll go straight to the cruiser's command room."

"He's been there for over an hour Cawdor. Let me go." Vanley said gently.

"He's in a sealed room. Yes I know! Don't go on, Vanley." Cawdor shook their hands at Vanley.

"The lifepods have virtually no independent signatures of their own." Kendrew said from their computer array."They're just chips of the Station's signature."

"Splendid." Cawdor nodded. "What about my shuttle? Can you match it to the lifeboats?"

"Quite easily. I just strip the shuttle's signature, leaving the Station chip." Kendrew nodded.

"Come on Natasha, you can do it." Cawdor sat with Vanley and monitored scanners for fifteen agonising minutes.

"There!" Vanley pointed to the screen. "And more. What magnificent woman!" They said in awe.

"Ooo Kendrew! I wouldn't stand for that." Cawdor jumped to their feet and headed to the hangar where all the old shuttles were dismantled and studied. Their donated, new shuttle stuck out like a sore thumb.

"I've set up the gear you asked for." Undris was standing by the shuttle. "Those hospital haven been used for decades, Cawdor. You think he's still alive?"

"Just ... do your best Undris and thank you." Cawdor boarded the shuttle and Undris cleared the area.

Natasha watched thousands of lifepods float away from the station and simply cried. They looked so beautiful. She knew there was little chance of Dale still being alive, but at least his final resting place would be with Cawdor.

"Unlock this door, Crown!" Foley hammered on it with his fist. "I'll see you jailed for this, I promise you! I demand to know what you're doing in there!"

"Lifepod drill." Natasha called, trying to access the shuttle's monitoring data. It was no use. The monitoring systems were as dead as Natasha's nine engineers so she couldn't find out if Dale had been added to that number.

"What? Are you mad? Security! Recall those pods!" Foley barked.

"I don't think so." Natasha entered the codes to lock down the entire Station.

Even Vanley struggled to track Cawdor's shuttle among the thousands of unmanned pods, all adrift and un-navigated. Some drifted into Bedlam's atmosphere and some drifted towards the cruiser. Some floated towards the Blockades and others further into Commonwealth space. It was absolutely perfect.

"Vanley." Kendrew sat next to them.

"That is exquisite, Kendrew. With the Cumberland on lock-down, they're on visual only. They can't scan for lifeforms." Vanley said in awe. "What's that?" They frowned at the trackers. "Cawdor's accelerating. I don't see anything in pursuit."

"Vanley." Kendrew repeated. "Cawdor can't get through a full forcefield sealed door."

"What? So ... no." Vanley went white. "They're going to ram the cruiser? They'll be killed, Kendrew!"

"Maybe not if they go through the thinnest point. The viewing window." Kendrew said quietly.

"Did you know about this? Did you?" Vanley demanded and Kendrew shook their head.

"It doesn't take much working out, Vanley, especially when I saw that acceleration. Cawdor will have roughly thirty seconds before the cruiser decompressed and disintegrates." Kendrew was worried sick. "I didn't know what they were planning. I'd have told you."

"I know. I'm sorry, Kendrew. They're going to die up there either with the impact or the decompression. My beautiful Cawdor, you always were a dreamer."

Cawdor ignored the wailing alarms, blinding flashing warning lights and the computer's persistent advice and headed straight for the cruiser's front viewing window. The impact catapulted them forward against the safety harness, then into the inflatable break. Blood poured from a thousand cuts as the shuttle barrelled and rolled through the command room, then Cawdor felt like every bone in their body had shattered as the shuttle collided with the sealed door. They released the shuttle door and fell out of the vessel, landing heavily on the floor. Dale was slumped against the wall beneath the useless oxygen supply.

"Dale." Cawdor crawled over to him. "Shit. Dale! Come on." They didn't even check his life signs. Alive or dead, Cawdor had to get him out of there. They pushed, pulled and rolled Dale towards the shuttle. Cawdor cried out in sheer pain as they hauled the engineer up the gangplank. "Nearly there. Nearly there. Come on Cawdor, you're nearly there."

The shock-waves of the disintegrating shuttle resonated through Bedlam's atmosphere and Vanley just stared at the monitoring screen in absolute shock. Kendrew immediately started re stabilising the shield.

"Vanley. Help me with this." Kendrew glanced at the monitor too. "Vanley! It's over Vanley. Come on, away from here." Kendrew waved another scientist named Regan to work on the shield.

"Over?" Vanley blinked at Kendrew. "Cawdor's gone?"

"Come on, we'll go home. Regan ... "

"What is the meaning of that!" Foley's loud voice bellowed over the communicator. "I know you can hear me Cawdor. That explosion broke open all the channels. You opened fire on a Commonwealth craft! Do you know what that means? It's an act of war. Cawdor I demand ... demand ... " Vanley turned round angrily to engage Foley, then gaped at the monitor in shock. A single, feeble digital light was flickering erratically, away from the cruiser's debris. "Who is piloting that vessel?" Foley wasn't shouting as loudly now. "Cawdor that is a Commonwealth vessel and I can definitely account for every occupant of this Station."

"Oh will you shut the hell up!" Vanley roared. "This isn't Cawdor, you windbag. Cawdor is on that shuttle with Dean Tanner! Kendrew, is the shield stable?"

"The shuttle is there illegally, Vanley. Cawdor is not a fleet pilot and in therefore termed as a hijacker. He is also holding Dale Tanner on that vessel. Either Cawdor sets a course for the Cumberland, or I'll be forced to take alternative methods." Foley threatened.

"Oh like what?" Vanley snapped. "Go and round them up? Blast them out of space?" Foley didn't answer. "You're going to shoot at them?" Vanley asked in disbelief.

"The destruction of that cruiser was an act of war."

"You're a lunatic. Back off Foley." Vanley growled.

"To let you steal a Commonwealth shuttle and abduct a Commonwealth employee? I don't think so."

"Cawdor is my sibling and that Commonwealth employee is certainly dead by now. Stand down." Vanley said darkly. "If that shuttle is fired upon, I'll accept your act of war declaration and lock the co-ordinates of Station Cumberland into three of our six Fifeogen warheads." There was a long and charged silence.

"You assured me you had no such weapons. You are lying, Vanley."

"Lying now, or lying then? Is that risk yours to take? Six Fifeogen bombs, Foley. You'll be smashed into the next quadrant." The silence was deafening.

"You have an hour, Vanley. After that, any vessel detected in that area will be deemed hostile." The communicator went dead.

"I can't believe he swallowed that." Vanley was visibly shaking.

"I doubt he did. He knows the impact of a war. Any war. He'll be as keen on it as you are." Kendrew got to work on the shield while Vanley worked on a lock on Cawdor's vessel.

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