A sequel to Rock and a Hard Place...
What Came Before
It all began when Rock and his partner, Fitz, were working in the asteroid belt. Prospecting and harvesting ore and minerals was demanding work, and there was always the hope that a person would find an asteroid that was filled with the richest find. In fact, that was the reason that David Russo called himself Rock. He felt it would bring good luck, and he and his partners would become wealthy and famous. Well, things don’t always turn out in the way one might expect.
The two-man team of Rock and Fitz was moving among a less dense area of the asteroid belt when their ship, the Mother Lode, was struck by a series of energy beams. The ship was torn apart, Fitz was killed instantly, and Rock found himself adrift in the rocky void with little hope of rescue. Back on Mars, the other members of Rock’s team thought him lost. The team originally consisted of four people.
First and foremost was Michelle Olivia Marceau, better known as Mom due to her initials. At 49 years of age, Mom came from a somewhat wealthy family in Louisiana back on Earth. She brought that wealth to Mars to procure her own way and to fund a new enterprise. She bought two ships, Mother Lode which we know was destroyed, and Mother’s Way, the remaining space ship used to harvest the asteroid belt and bring the materials back to Mars for processing. On Mars she purchased land and had a concrete landing pad and a large structure built. This structure housed Mom’s Emporium, a marketplace for settlers to buy much-needed resources. It also housed a refinery used to collect and smelt the resources needed from the raw ores and materials brought back by her team.
Gary “Fitz” Fitzgerald was the oldest of the team. Although he did not know his true birthday nor origins, he liked to think he was born on the day that the Earth won the war against the Martians. This would put him at approximately 60 years old. Fitz’s death hit the team powerfully, but his memory was honored at every opportunity.
The youngest member of the team at 22 years old was Terence “Terry” Washburn. Terry came from a family that had been enslaved and was forced to work on a plantation in the Deep South of the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although he was not the biggest man on the team, he was strong, smart and motivated. He was a wonderful fit for this diverse team of entrepreneurs. Terry’s promise to himself was that he would honor his slave ancestors by working hard without doing so under the duress of a Master’s whip.
Finally, the last member of this team was David “Rock” Russo about whom you will soon know very much more. Rock was 36 years old. He had many interests. Among them was a love of the martial arts, music and reading books. His body was long, lean and covered in dense muscle as a result of his training in those martial arts he so loved.
Another person needs to be mentioned here. Her name is Starr Williams. Starr had her own ship, the Cluster Truck, and she had created an independent enterprise that was focused on offering aid to prospectors and travelers in need. Her father had been a military man for his entire life, and strange odds and ends often wound up in Starr’s hands over the years, items of advanced military technology that should never have made their way into the hands of private citizens. But like many parents, Starr’s father felt he needed to give his daughter every edge she could get to survive in the void beyond Mars orbit. Cluster Truck had so many little toys added that one would have to agree her ship was better than any military space ship. Mom and many others who plied the asteroids paid a small stipend to Starr. It was hoped that she would be able to offer aid if called, and she gladly signed contracts to do just that if she was in a place to do so. The space between the asteroids was vast, but with her nimble ship and multiple upgrades, she was better equipped than anyone else to render emergency aid when needed.
Now that you have met the team, it is time to get back to Rock and his plight. After being adrift for some time, Rock was rescued from certain death. (You can read about this in detail in the story, Rock and a Hard Place.) He was taken to an odd facility that was hidden among the asteroids where the beneficent creature who claimed to be a Martian changed him in many ways. This creature, affectionately called Bob, was not a living being, but rather it was a robotic mentality of some kind that was left behind by the actual Martians when they fled the Solar System.
At first Rock thought that it was these Martians that had attacked the ship and killed Fitz. That was wrong, and everything was explained to him. It was a band of men who had a hidden base in the asteroids. The Martian never really said anything specific, but from what Bob was explaining, Rock thought that something was being hidden by those humans, something so big that they felt that attacking another human ship was justified. Although it was never said, Rock suspected that Bob knew more about that. For now, however, Rock had to be happy with the tale woven by his odd new acquaintance.
Bob then explained that Mars had been home to two very different tribes of Martians. One was warlike, and those were the ones who attacked Earth and tried to bring about genocide of humanity. The other was fully opposite in all aspects. They believed in peace and living in harmony with all that the heavens provided. When humanity defended itself from the warlike Martians, the peaceful tribe fled the Martian world with a vow to help humanity. Since the war had done so much harm to mankind, these lovely people made plans to do something to pay restitution for the sins of their brothers.
A laboratory was hidden among the asteroids that would offer hope and rescue to someone in need, and if the right person was found, the Martians would gift that person with some unusual talents and powers. Of course, there were rules entwined with these gifts. It was a rule, a hard and fast rule that these powers could not be used to take a life. Beings that had such a strong belief in pacifism would not condone using the power being granted to bring about harm to others.
So, Rock was newly born as a very unusual man. His skin could change in color and composition transforming with a thought. He could create items that he needed in the same manner. There were limits to what he could do, of course. Everything had a price, and he could grow fatigued if he tried to do more than what was absolutely needed, but if he was smart about what he did, he could create what he needed to perform a necessary task. The base would remain available to him as long as he needed. Safe from prying eyes, he was the only human who could find it or see it. Bob assured Rock that no one would stumble on the base accidentally.
Rock eventually contacted Mom and the others to report his survival. His cover story was that his fragmented ship drifted until it came into contact with a derelict ship floating in the area. He said that he was able to get that ship running and used it to return to Mars. Everyone had their doubts as they saw Rock’s ship vanish in a flash of light, but he stuck to that story saying that the camera must have caught a reflection or something that gave the appearance of the broken ship vanishing. Since no one could prove otherwise, and more importantly since Rock was back and unscathed, it remained a mystery to everyone except Rock who knew the truth.
The ship that Rock “found” as a derelict was one that he created using his new talents. Upon inspection, it seemed a small, unassuming little spaceship of a design typically used to explore the asteroids. To the naked eye, and to any measuring device one might happen to have, it was nothing more than what it appeared to be. Since it was powered by Rock’s talents, it could do far more than one would guess. Interestingly, Rock liked having his little secrets. Although he did feel a touch of remorse at not telling the truth to his partners, he felt he was doing a good by hiding what really took place.
So, Rock returned to Mom’s Emporium, and after a day of conflicted feelings that held a memorial service for Fitz and a celebration of Rock’s return, he sat with the rest of the team to discuss what happened to the Mother Lode. It is here that we pick up our story.
Clean Up in Area Five
“I’m telling you, that attack on the Mother Lode was perpetrated by people. It is the only thing that makes sense,” said Rock as the team sat around the conference room table in Mom’s Emporium. He had to make them understand that this had nothing to do with Martians. This was especially true given that there were none of the warlike Martians remaining free to wreak any havoc on humanity. Of course, he was the only human in the Solar System who knew that with any certainty.
‘Alright,” Mom said. “Let’s assume that is the truth for just a moment. What cause would anyone have for disabling or killing another ship? Staking a claim out here is as good as anything regardless of the amount of wealth it may produce. The MSF would be a tough opponent should anyone attempt piracy or any other similar hijinks. I think it is an attack by some of the Martians that escaped.”
Shaking his head vigorously Rock said, “Not a chance, Mom. It has been something like 60 years since we saw the last of the Martians leave the planet, and they were heading to deep space at a velocity that would have them well past the outer reaches of our Solar System by now. Why would they leave at that speed only to return now? It simply doesn’t add up.”
Starr subvocalized something and Terry must have heard her because he said, “What was that you said, Starr?”
“Oh, you heard that, huh?” she sighed. “What I said was Occam’s Razor.”
Mom sat back in her chair with a thoughtful look on her face. “You think that of the two scenarios we have discussed so far, one is more obvious? Which one is that, dear lady?”
“I know you lean toward the Martian theory, but I have to agree with Rock. Those creatures left here with their proverbial tails tucked between their tentacles. It doesn’t track for them to return at this time, and especially to attack a ship to bring our attention to the matter.”
As Starr was finishing her statement, they heard a small bell signaling someone wished to enter Mom’s place. It was a working day, and Terry said, “I’ll check on it, Mom. I’ll be back in a few seconds.”
Terry left the meeting and went out to the front of the Emporium leaving the others to debate the subject. He arrived at the front door and looked out the window. To his surprise he saw two people, a man and a woman in MSF uniforms standing there.
Terry suspected that the Martian Security Forces, more commonly called by the acronym MSF, had been notified of the incident by Mom and wanted to know more. He unlocked the door and bid them to enter.
“Hello, young man,” spoke the woman. “I am Captain Prathrada, and the gentleman with me is Commander Ng. We would like to speak to your team about the recent incident that caused the death of your crewmember…” she glanced at a small pad in her hand, “Mr. Fitzgerald and the destruction of the ship, Mother Lode.”
Terry bobbed his head and asked them to wait for a moment. He left them standing in the main entrance and went to the conference room to talk with the others.
“Mom, there are two people from the MSF who wish to talk to us. Should I show them into the room?”
Mom nodded her head, “Yes, of course. I had hoped they would respond to my message. Go get them now. We want them to be part of this. They have the power to remedy the situation once we understand what it really might be.”
Terry grinned at that and went back to the door to wave them forward. “Come on into the conference room, please. Our entire team is already here, so this is a perfect opportunity to discuss whatever you wish.” Terry grabbed a few chairs from a side room and everyone shifted to make room at the conference table.
As the two officers entered the room, Mom asked them if they would like something to drink. They shook their heads to indicate no interest in a beverage and sat in the two proffered seats.
Mom introduced everyone around the table, and Captain Prathrada introduced herself and the Commander. Once introductions were done, Mom leaned forward and spread her arms in welcome.
“I am glad that the MSF is taking an interest in this matter, Captain. We were just discussing this among ourselves, so this is a perfect time to share what we know and what we think happened.”
“If you don’t mind, it would be easier to use our first names rather than rank. I am Rose, and the Commander is Lee. We have been tasked with collecting as much information as possible, bringing it back to our headquarters, and then making a determination as to what needs to be done to prevent any recurrences.” She then produced a small recording device from an inner pocket of her uniform jacket and set it on the table.
“Any objections to my recording this discussion?” she asked.
Heads around the table shook, and Mom said, “As long as you understand that this is a casual discussion and not guaranteed to be completely factual. We are going from what information we possess now, and that is barely enough to make any sort of firm determination of the events that took place.”
Frowning slightly Rose said, “As long as nothing is fabricated, nor any facts altered, I certainly can agree to that. Lee, do you agree?”
Lee Ng smiled and nodded his agreement. “Of course, yes, Rose. This is nothing more than a fact-finding mission.”
Turning to Mom and the others he continued saying, “Why don’t we start with what you believe took place. We can ask more questions as needed, and you might realize that you know more than you thought with the right questions from us.”
Since everyone agreed, they started to explain the facts as best as possible. They began with the images that Starr captured during her daring attempt to find and rescue the crew of the Mother Lode. The films were brought out and everyone watched as Starr kept up a running commentary on what she believed they were seeing. Starr even promised that the original film could be examined by the forensic experts at the MSF if she could get assurances that the film would eventually be returned.
“That was interesting,” said Rose. “The way the fragment holding Rock seemed to vanish was…” she paused for a moment then ended with a single word. “Weird!”
Lee turned to Rock and said, “That was more than simply weird. Can you explain it to us?”
Rock hated the subterfuge, but he also knew that he had to keep the true events from the others. He could picture himself under a microscope as they poked and prodded him to find out what made him tick. It was not a pleasant image, so his answer was more fiction than fact.
“I never lost consciousness,” he lied. “I drifted for a while until I came near a fairly small chunk of rock. Trapped against that rock was a small derelict ship, and I was able to reach it and get it working. That’s how I got back to Mars. As to what caused the vanishing act, I have no clue. I do know that everything else seems to make sense to me from the time of the attack until I was able to get myself safely to the abandoned ship. I remember every second clearly.”
“Uh huh. Uh huh, uh huh, yes, I see.” Lee and Rose exchanged a look as if doubting what they were hearing.
Rose asked, “And there is nothing else you can recall?”
Shaking his head, Rock said, “Nope. That’s about all I can tell you about that. If you want to discuss the attack, however, I have lots of opinions to offer.”
After short exchange with the others on the team, Rose and Lee nodded their agreement that it was time to move onto the cause of the wreck of the Mother Lode.
“We were flying through Area Five. There is not a lot there, but one of our scans seemed to pick up a significant signature of heavy metals. We were on our way to explore that when everything went to hell,” said Rock.
He went on to explain how the ship was hit twice and disabled. He described the way they started to send a distress call before being struck by a third energy beam, and although his voice thickened with the sadness of how Fitz died, he completed what he knew of the attack and eventual breakup of the Mother Lode.
“After that, you already know what happened. I drifted until I found the derelict ship. Nothing else bothered me or threatened my life. I am hankering to get out there again to see if I can piece together where that energy originated. Going there might trigger a new attack, so I am not sure how wise that would be, however.”
“We agree with that assessment, Rock. To go there in an unarmed, unshielded space ship would probably be suicide if the offender was still in the area.” Rose stated this with some compassion. “I also understand that you want to bring the person or persons to justice.”
Mom added, “Some of us are of the opinion that this could be of Martian origin, but Rock does not agree. He feels a human agency did this.”
“Martian!” spat Lee. “Those beasts are long gone. It is almost unthinkable that they would have returned after 60 or so years.”
Rose agreed saying, “Our ships monitor deep space in many directions to detect anything that might be coming toward the area. Radar, telescopes, and other tools that are classified are constantly looking for the possibility of a return. None of our readings show anything out of the ordinary. We see the occasional piece of rogue rock, some cometary materials, and even a few anomalous objects that we have had to investigate further, but so far, everything has been mundane and ordinary. We feel that Martians did not do this.”
Rock sat there with a smug smile as he looked at the others and in a sing-song voice said, “Neener neener! Told ya so!”
Everyone laughed at this momentary silliness. The tension which had been rising as Rose spoke seemed to burst like a soap bubble.
Rose added, “Alright, let’s try to focus on this using the premise that it is of Terran origin. We need to carefully probe Area Five for anomalies and anything else which might give us an answer. The MSF will ask that you avoid the area until we can do some research and investigate. In fact, consider that area as being off-limits to all. We are going to paint that area with a combination of radar, infrared and ultraviolet sensors, radiation detectors and everything else we can think of to watch that area closely. We will know if a space flea twitches its ass out there,” she ended with a grin.
After a bit more discussion, and after Starr provided a copy of her images to the officers, they left the Emporium heading back to MSF headquarters. The discussion continued long into the evening before the team called it a night.
Rock headed back to his room and fell asleep for about an hour. He wasn’t tired at all, but he had to maintain the appearance that he had the needs of a normal person or suspicion might grow among the rest of his team. After checking to see if everyone else was sleeping, Rock headed to his little ship. Patting it affectionately, he christened it, Everything Fitz. “We will not forget you, old friend,” he promised.
Rock decided he wanted to do a little exploration of the region known as Area Five. He made certain that no one was observing the landing field and made the ship invisible. Boarding the tiny ship, he flew it straight into the empty reaches of space by propelling Everything Fitz by the power of his mind alone. Going swiftly enough to save valuable time, but not so fast as to create a sonic wake, the Fitz was soon well beyond the atmosphere of Mars. Rock decided on a heading that would put him in the correct region of the asteroid belt and implemented the course with a thought. He realized that flying invisibly would be hazardous to anything that was in his flight path, so he created a conical field of power extending many miles in front of his course that would gently push any matter to the side should his ship encounter any.
His mental efforts left him quite tired, so he used the time traveling to get some more rest. He had an alarm set on the ship’s navigation console that would buzz him to wakefulness when he neared the destination. Rock slept for the trip and woke to the sound of the alarm feeling fully rested and restored. He slowed the ship’s forward speed, so he could look at the area in a relaxed manner. He doubted that the MSF had done anything in the few hours since the meeting, so he was confident that nothing he did would be seen by anyone other than the creeps who attacked him and Fitz.
Rock could see nothing that indicated anyone was in the region. No radio signals, power signatures from a ship’s engine, and nothing else to indicate that there was anything out of the ordinary here. If I cannot see anything, he thought, how am I to prevent it from happening again?
Thinking back to the attack, it took him a moment to come up with a plan that might work. He moved the Fitz back to an area near where the Mother Lode had been prior to the attack. He then created an easy-to-detect object that mimicked a ship moving through the area. He put this doppelgänger of a ship a little distance ahead of him and started to move it and his ship along the same course as they had been moving before the attack. Following it closely, but not so close as to endanger his invisible ship, he moved at a speed that would be used by an exploratory vehicle. Minutes crawled past, and Rock was just about to give up and try a new plan when the energy weapon struck the phony ship and shattered it to pieces. Since there was little in the way of girders or infrastructure, the energy vaporized most of it. Hot metal disintegrated and dispersed quickly. Rock was glad his plan worked. His ship’s sensors captured the information of what took place, and he soon had a trail to follow. He figured out a course that tracked it back to a small, rather non-descript piece of rocky material. He wondered if there was a ship hidden there somewhere. He did not spot anything, but he was quite some distance from the asteroid. If he only knew how Starr’s telescope camera device worked, he could have imagined it into existence and used that. Instead he had to do it the old-fashioned way.
He brought his ship closer, being sure to maintain a bubble of protection facing toward that asteroid and looked more closely. He found it hard for his eyes to focus on it. Something seemed to be making his vision drift across the surface without really seeing any detail. He blinked a few times and shook his head to try to clear his vision, but the asteroid remained stubbornly resistant to view.
Rock mumbled a few words about how Bob’s “improvements” did not seem all that impressive, “Suuuure…, he drawled. “Just what I need. Can’t focus my eyes.”
Aggravated and upset by this latest setback, he called for help. “Bob!”
“You called for me, Rock?” came the response as an image of the Martian materialized; its body draped over the co-pilot’s seat. A soft trill of amusement was clearly heard behind the mental words.
“I can’t seem to see things right,” complained Rock. “Is it possible that you messed up my eyes when you changed me?”
“Your eyes are working just fine, Rock.”
“Well, something is wrong here!” he griped.
“Why don’t you try to get closer. Perhaps you will see it better,” suggested Bob.
Rock agreed that this would be a good idea and started to move Everything Fitz toward the non-descript rock. As he did so, the small ship started to veer slightly off the course he had imagined. He nudged the ship back onto the original course only to have it skew to a new direction that would miss the target by some distance.
“Wait a minute,” he mumbled. “I think I see what’s happening here.
“Bob, are there other Martian-built devices here in the asteroids? Is this another of your artifacts?”
“I am glad you figured this for yourself, Rock. It shows that we were right in assessing your ability to work with the gifts you now possess. In answer to your questions, yes, there was one other device left behind when we abandoned Mars. This one was not fully completed and operational, however. There is no machine intelligence on this one. Most of the tools are in place, but no one will be gifted with the same skills you now have.”
“Well, that’s good to know. I still need to understand how they are creating the same effect here that you have placed on my base.”
Bob waved his tentacles gently and continued saying, “My best estimate would be that someone with a solid scientific background has been able to interpret how some of the devices work. Since there is actual machinery that can be used to defend the station from being destroyed by large incoming asteroids, I would say that it is now being used as an offensive weapon, something we never designed to happen. The mechanism that is working against you now is also machine generated. Someone figured out how to activate it. There may also be some other surprises waiting for you as you try to solve this puzzle. I suggest you proceed with care.”
“I can do careful. I think that I need to head back to the Emporium and tell the others what really happened. This may need more finesse than I can manage on my own.”
With that said, Rock backed the Everything Fitz away from the asteroid. Before he left the area, he marked the course of this asteroid in his navigation system, so his return would be less arduous. Within a few minutes, Rock was heading back to Mars at top speed. He wanted to be back in his room before anyone awakened and discovered that he and the ship were not on Mars.
Easing the invisible ship carefully down through the atmosphere to avoid causing any sounds or trails in the sky, he soon settled back into position on the landing pad. Doing his best to make certain that no one was observing, he made the ship visible again. He shut down the power for everything and headed into Mom’s Emporium. He felt tired, and he knew he should grab a short nap. Using his mind to control his ship took a bit more effort that one would have guessed. He quietly entered the Emporium and made his way back to his bedroom door.
Making certain that no one was about, he eased his door open and moved into the room to discover Mom sitting quietly in a chair near his desk. She was holding a book that she apparently had been reading, but she marked her place and closed it for now.
“Good evening, Rock,” she said in a calm and reasoned manner as if it were normal for him to be wandering around the Emporium in the middle of the night.
“Uhhhh…” replied Rock as he thought about how to explain why he was not in bed. “Why are you in my room?”
Mom smiled wryly and said, “I think a better question would be to ask why you are not in your room? I could not sleep, had a few questions to as about what we might plan to do tomorrow, so I gently knocked to see if you were awake. When I did not get a response, I peeked to ensure you were alright. Imagine my shock,” she said as she splayed her right hand open on her chest, “to see that you were not here at all.”
“I was unable to sleep also, Mom. Too many things going on inside my head.”
Mom nodded a few times and added, “So, you figured to get into your little ship and to make it vanish from the landing pad? Don’t lie to me, Rock. Just tell me what’s going on with you.” Her voice remained calm, but Rock could tell by the small frown lines that appeared between her eyes that she was not as calm as she pretended.
Looking at Mom, he though about what he should say and how to explain. Surely, she would think he was making up tall tales. He had no choice in the matter, so he took a deep breath and started his story. He went back to the day when Fitz died, slowly moving through the timeline until he came to the part where he lost consciousness.
“Mom, I was in terrible pain and passed out! When I woke again, I found myself in a gray room that was fantastic and impossible at the same time.”
Mom frowned some more and leaned forward asking, “You mean to say that you just found yourself mysteriously transported into this place? This gray place?”
Shaking his head vigorously in agreement, “Yes, exactly.”
“Alright, go on, son.” Mom sat back to listen again.
Rock continued with his story and told her of how things kept changing, his state of undress, the buzzing, the pressure, his losing consciousness again, his skin changing colors, everything he could recall. Eventually he came to the part where he discovered Bob.
As Rock spoke, Mom’s eyes widened in disbelief. She held her tongue to give him a chance to say all he had to say. As his explanation grew more and more like something out of a fever-dream, she started to shake her head slightly.
“Rock, you expect me to believe this?” she asked with a final shake. “You somehow managed to survive the Mother Lode being attacked by some kind of energy weapon, drifted into the void to be rescued by some sort of sentient machine thing, gained miraculous powers or skills or whatever you want to name them, and got back to us safely. Then you decided to wander off tonight? Yeah, that is a sane sounding tale and the act of someone in his right mind.”
Knowing that this would not be easy, he answered her challenge with his usual mischievous grin. “I can prove it,” he said nodding.
“Oh, you can, can you?” she asked. “Well, go ahead. Make it good, because if you can’t, I will be getting you seen by some doctors.”
“Fair enough, Mom.”
Thinking about what he might do to prove to Mom that his fantastic tale was nothing but the truth, he changed his appearance. One moment he was himself, and the next moment he looked exactly like Mom. He even included the book she was reading as an extra incentive to convince her.
Mom jumped out of the chair, doing so with such speed that it overbalanced and fell over backward.
“How did you? I mean, who are you…? WHAT are you!?” she exclaimed.
“It is me, Mom. I promise.” He held up both hands and took a step away from her to help give her some space. “I can tell you how and when we met, or anything else you feel would help to prove that I am who I say.”
A noise came from the hallway outside Rock’s bedroom, and then a gentle rap on the door. Terry’s voice was heard softly asking, “Is everything alright in there?”
Mom moved to the door and wrenched it open. “No, everything is NOT alright. You have to see this.”
Terry moved into the room as stopped dead in his tracks. Standing next to him was Mom and looking at him from across the room was…. another Mom.
Realizing how this looked, Rock shifted back to his normal appearance. Terry jumped about a foot off the ground in shock. “What the hell was that? How did you do that?”
So, Rock knew it was time to narrate the entire tale again, and even though he was tired, he looked forward to having his secret shared with the two people he trusted more than anyone else in the entire Solar System.
Over an hour later, both Mom and Terry had been convinced that this was indeed their old friend, and that his tale was well beyond anything they could have imagined. Bleary eyed and tired by now, Rock concluded his explanation with, “…and using my mind to do these things takes real effort and energy. I am barely able to remain awake, but this was a priority for me. I had to let you both know what happened out in the belt and what is happening now. I am considering that one more person is going to need to be included in knowing my secret. What do you both think of calling Starr and sharing it with her?”
Mom nodded and said, “It is late, and we are all tired, Rock; not just you. I suggest that we try to sleep as best we can, something that might not be so easy considering what you just told us. Let’s make that decision in the morning.”
Getting agreement from all, a promise to discuss this more in the morning was made, and everyone started heading to bed. Just as he was leaving the room, Terry added one last parting comment.
“Rock,” he said with a huge smile on his face, “this is by far the coolest thing I have ever heard!” And with that said, he closed the door behind him and headed to bed.
Rock washed and got ready for bed. He got into bed and put his head on his pillow, falling asleep in a few moments. His dreams were filled with all sorts of educational discussions with Bob, but he did not remember any of that when he awoke in the morning. Instead, he was alert, refreshed and ready for the new day.
The Rock Crows at Dawn
Despite the early hour, and how late it had been when everyone went to sleep, when Rock woke up he found everyone else already in the conference room. There were some new customer order invoices spread out on the conference room table, and Terry was busy putting together one of the orders. Mom was on a call when he arrived, and she nodded and smiled a greeting while she continued to talk on the phone.
“Yes, Rose, he just got here. I will ask him the questions you asked and will get back to you later. Right now, we have about a dozen new orders to fill, and Rock needs to help Terry get them ready to move. I am sorry to ask you to wait, but I have to keep the business running to put food on our table and fuel in our ship. I am also thinking of hiring some additional help. With Fitz being gone, we will need at least one set of hands to do the work he did.”
Listening to the other side of the conversation, she waved her hand at Rock and pointed to a sheet of paper that was on the table near her. She indicated he should read it while she finished her call.
Rock came over and found it contained a short list of questions that Rose wished him to answer. Grabbing a pencil, he started to write the answers as best he could without revealing his secret. As he was writing, Mom completed her call and put the phone on the side table. She walked behind Rock and read over his shoulder.
“I am not sure you’ll agree, but could I make a suggestion?” Mom inquired.
Rock stopped writing and craned his neck upward to look at her. “Sure. What do you have in mind?”
Wrinkles appeared on her forehead, so Rock knew she was not happy having to make this suggestion. “Do you think we should bring one more person onboard? One person in the MSF, perhaps?”
Rock opened his mouth to object, but she curtailed him by saying, “I know you are probably not going to agree at first but let me tell you why I think it could be helpful.”
“OK, Mom. You have always had good instincts, so I am willing to listen.”
“Rock, I envision you will be looking to do some pretty amazing things here on Mars as well as in the belt. To be effective, you will need resources to provide intelligence. Isn’t the MSF the best way to get that intelligence?
“Now, I don’t want to trust just anyone, of course, but I still have some old friends who have connections within the MSF, and I am betting that Starr still has connections as well. I would like to ask her to give us some feedback on someone we might be able to trust. When I talk to the MSF contact, I won’t say what the secret might be, but I should be able to get an opinion on a good resource within the military.”
Rock sat there for a bit. He probably did need more people to trust for his plans to be most effective. He knew that most folks trusted and used the MSF for help when needed. He had to admit that it would be an amazing way to gather bits of knowledge, and he could elicit aid from them when something was too big for one person to safely handle.
He still had some reservations. History had shown how the military from many countries back on Earth had abused their populations. There were times when scientists from the military would experiment on the population to find out the effectiveness of a weapon. At other times they would steal the inventions made by civilians, often times those civilians would disappear from sight. The scariest thing, however, was when they experimented on individuals that were unique or different in some way. People like Rock for instance. Rock worried that he might become the subject of experimentation. He could certainly understand why they might want to do so. Still, he did not want to become the main subject of some new field of study.
“Mom, I’m not sure that I want to do that. Even though they would be a great resource for intelligence, them having knowledge of my existence and abilities? That would frighten me.
“We all know what happened in Guantánamo Bay. How many Martians were incarcerated, experimented upon, and eventually killed. They said it was all in the name of science, all in the name of higher learning, for the good of humanity. By the end of it all, they had lost their own humanity. I truly want to avoid that. I’m sure you’d agree.”
Mom nodded in agreement. She had to admit that Rock had great points on every single aspect of what he was saying. She felt they could do something to avoid the dangers that Rock feared.
“Okay, Rock. I’m not going to argue this point any further, because you’re absolutely correct. If we do decide to include a military presence as part of these plans we need to ensure that they’re going to help us. I wouldn’t want to lose you to some crazy scientific study, and you don’t want to lose your freedom.
“Let’s make sure we do a lot of research before we make any final decision. Regardless of what anyone else thinks, it’ll be your decision in the end. After all, it’s your life we’re talking about.”
Everyone continued to work preparing orders to go out to the customers. The conversation bounced around between the usual things to do with business and unusual things like what happened to Rock. Just before they broke for lunch, Rock placed a phone call to Starr. He invited her over for dinner that night and hinted that there might be some interesting news for her. Being the naturally curious person that she was, Starr accepted the invitation and promised to be at the Emporium at the time designated. She was intrigued by Rock’s statement when he said, “Oh, and while you’re here, I have one more item for your consideration.” It was guaranteed that she would not be late.
Starr prepared for the dinner at Mom’s by finding something a fancy to wear for the evening. Her closet was not filled with very many non-utilitarian pieces of garb, but for those few instances where she wanted to feel more like a sexy woman, she kept a handful of items. Dressing carefully in a bright yellow outfit, cinched to display her narrow waist, and flared to enhance her hips and legs, she added a few splashes of color. A deep green pashmina over her shoulders, a sparkle of gold from an antique necklace, and some comfortable shoes on her feet.
She arrived at Mom’s a few minutes before the time Rock had suggested, but not so early as to be an inconvenience to anyone. Terry opened the door and his eyes widened at the sight of her.
“Starr! You dressed fancy for this dinner! You look so pretty,” he said blushing redly when he realized how that might have sounded.
Starr’s laugh was delightful as she quickly extended his embarrassing moment saying, “Terry, if only I was thirty years younger.” She winked at him and moved into the main entrance to allow Terry a chance to regain some composure and close the door behind her.
Terry quickly realized that Starr was taking advantage of his burst of admiration and began to laugh. “Sorry about that. I hope you know it was not meant to be rude or anything. It’s just that you really surprised me.”
He added blushing again, “You really do look nice in that.”
This time it was Starr’s turn to blush a little bit. “Thank you, Terry. Shall we join the others before they think we are doing something improper out here?”
Blushing even more redly, Terry bobbed his head in agreement and waved her into the room following close behind. The two of them went into the dining hall, not so much a hall as a large room that served as a place for them to eat whenever it was possible for everyone to gather at the same time.
Everyone was just as surprised as Terry had been when they saw how Starr was dressed. She did a little pirouette and said, “I just felt like I needed a break from my utility suits, pants and jackets. Every once in a while, it feels nice to get a look of admiration from a man.” She winked at Terry when she said this only to set off another round of fierce blushing on Terry’s face.
“Oh, God! Kill me now,” he mumbled cupping his head in both hands in embarrassment. He stumbled off to the kitchen to see about getting glasses and a few bottles of wine that had been uncorked and were ready for consumption.
While everyone else was laughing at Terry’s discomfiture, Starr greeted them with a hug for each.
“I have been chomping at the bit since we spoke, Rock. What did you have to tell me?” she asked.
Rock shook his head indicating he was not ready to talk yet. “Let’s hold that until after we have had a glass of wine. I know you will think it worth the wait.”
Terry reentered the dining hall and set the tray bearing the glasses and bottles of wine on the table. Mom stepped over to where they were placed and asked, “What does everyone want? We have some wines from Chile and Italy, those are reds, and one white wine from France.”
Starr was utterly shocked. “You are serving three bottles of wine from Earth? This must have cost a fortune! What is the special occasion?” she asked with her nose wrinkled in thought.
Mom nodded her agreement smiling at the assessment. “It was not cheap, but I wanted to do something special, too. I didn’t think to get dressed fancy like you did Starr. Instead, I figured that food and drink would boost the occasion. So, what does everyone want?
Since Starr was their guest, she was served first. She chose the red from Chile. It was a deep red wine with a lot of flavor and a hint of currant. She refrained from sipping any while the others were being served.
Rock chose the fruity varietal wine from Italy. He always enjoyed the sweetness of some wines and disliked those that were dry or full of tannins. He enjoyed the bouquet without taking a taste.
Both Mom and Terry took the French white. A wonderful Chablis with a bit of an acidic overtone, this would pair well with most foods, and was certainly enjoyable alone.
Mom raised her glass and said, “First, a drink in memory of Fitz. Although he would have opted for a beer or hard liquor, I am sure he would appreciate our honoring his friendship.”
Everyone raised his or her glasses and echoed Mom’s sentiments. Sipping a little of what was in their glasses, it was clear that these were good vintages as smiles and appreciative nods went through the group.
Mom continued saying, “I also want to salute each and every person here tonight. You are all loved, and I could not ask for better companions.” She nodded in the direction of each person individually before taking a second mouthful of the wine. Everyone else followed suit with raised glasses and agreement that this was a wonderful group of people.
Finally, she waved over toward the chairs set about the table. “Grab a seat, everyone. Dinner is almost ready, but not quite yet. Why don’t we talk and relax until it is done,” she added glancing sideways toward Rock who caught the look.
Mom could see he was struggling to hold back a smile, but having worked with him for so long, she could tell it wasn’t easy. Everyone found a chair and soon there was a lively conversation about how business was proceeding, and it seemed an effort was made to avoid discussion of the attack and all that followed. Rock watched everyone carefully, and he turned to Starr and asked, “Would you like some hor d'oeuvres, Starr?”
“Maybe something to enhance this wonderful wine, Rock. Perhaps some cheese and bread.”
Along one of the walls was a butler’s serving table, and on the table there sat a number of covered dishes that held an assortment of cheeses, meats, breads, fruits, vegetables and similar finger foods. There were some dips and olive oils as well. Smiling and glancing at the serving table, he used his telekinetic ability to transport the foods instantly to the dining room table.
Starr was totally unprepared for food to suddenly appear in front of her place at that table, and she jumped so much that her wine splashed up and over the rim of her wineglass. Rock was ready for that, and he was able to stop the spill from doing any damage, forcing the liquid back into the glass. Everyone else at the table had been prepared for what was going to happen, so they did not jump when the food seemed to magically pop into existence in front of them.
“Oh my God!” Starr exclaimed. “What am I seeing?” She looked at everyone and sat there wide-eyed with her lower jaw slightly open.
“Starr, remember when I told you that I had something to discuss with you? Well, this is a way for me to introduce the subject.” Rock watched Starr’s face closely. He could see her going from shock to disbelief to afraid and back again.
“I promise that I will explain everything. Are you alright?” he asked her.
“Of course, I am not alright! This is not normal! Food does not magically move from one place to another all by itself,” she shouted with a touch of anger in her voice.
“I knew you were keeping secrets from me, Rock! What the hell happened to you out there?” she asked while pointing upward in the general direction of outer space. “Give before I climb over this table and slap you into the next millennium!”
Rock held up both of his hands saying, “I surrender, Starr! Let me explain!”
So, for the next few minutes he began the story of what happened from the moment that his ship vanished until his return to the Martian surface. By the end of that time, the dinner was ready to be served, so he continued telling the tale throughout the meal.
Once dinner was completed, Rock demonstrated his ability to create things, change appearance, and used his telekinesis to help everyone grow used to it. He was still struggling with his own understanding of what he could do, so he knew he had to let everyone else have the time to understand it and accept the changes, too.
Even though Mom and Terry had known something of what Rock could do, they had not had the opportunity to see the extent of his new gained talents. Watching Rock perform like this was eye-opening and frightening at the same time. Conversation during all this consisted mostly of them asking,” Can you do blah-blah? Or How about making something disappear?” Terry even asked if Rock could fly like a superhero. Rock did not know if he could do that, but he gave it a try only to find out that he only had the ability to float. He could not teleport himself, and in fact, many things that he could do with external matter could not be done with his body.
At one point Rock said that he had something really cool to show them. He asked Terry to grab a heavy cooking pot from the kitchen. Terry went to grab it, and while he was out of the room, Mom said, “You had better not damage my good pots, David Russo!”
Rock promised Mom that no permanent harm would be done to the pots. He also took one of the knives used during dinner and set it near him on the table. When Terry returned with the pot, he waved Terry nearer and said, “OK, Terry. Think of all the times I have teased you and how you wanted to get even with me!”
Terry stood there with the pot and his mouth fell open. “I never wanted to get even, Rock. It was just teasing.”
“Well, pretend you are angry at me and swing that pot as hard as you can at my head.”
“No way, man!” refused Terry. “I am not going to hit you with a pot!”
Rock insisted even though everyone else agreed with Terry that it was a bad idea. Finally, to convince everyone that he knew what he was doing, Rock used his right hand and picked up the knife that was on the table and quickly brought it down on the open palm of his left hand. His skin resisted the force of the knife, and the force of that resistance was so great that it flew out of his right hand and onto the floor.
Looking at everyone staring in shock he said, “Now, can Terry hit me with the pot? It won’t hurt me. I promise!”
Without waiting for anyone to answer, Terry held the pot like a tennis racquet and pretended to square his shoulders and feet in readiness for his swing at Rock’s body. Rock pointed at his head and said, “Aim here, buddy.”
With only a moment’s hesitation, Terry gave it a pretty decent swing and struck Rock’s face a glancing blow to his left cheek and jaw. The pot nearly vibrated out of Terry’s hand as the blow landed, but he managed to maintain a grip on it.
“Holy crap! That was too cool, Rock!” said the excited youngster. “Can I do it again?”
Rock started laughing, “Uh, I think we better not. If you break Mom’s pot on my hard head, she will kick both of us in the backside! Of course, even if it does break, I can fix it. Still, no need to get Mom pissed at us!” He reached out and took the pot from Terry and placed it on the table. A quick look at it revealed a slight dent on the bottom where the impact with the metal and his body had been made. He nudged the metal back into place, and the pot was as good as the day it was bought.
“Good as new, Mom,” he announced.
He walked over to where the knife sat on the floor and retrieved it. After a quick examination, he saw it too had sustained some damage. A slight mental nudge and, voila, it was repaired. He put the knife next to the pot.
“As you can see, my skin is able to resist damage from most mundane items. I am not about to put myself in the line of fire of a more powerful weapon like a gun or energy weapon, but as far as blunt trauma and puncture wounds, I seem to be protected.”
The conversation turned back to more important concerns at that point as Rock sat in his chair again. “Starr, I trust that you are willing to keep my secret?” he asked.
“What secret, Rock?” she answered with a broad smile plastered on her face.
Her face soon grew serious again and she added, “Since I am not one prone to gossip, never have been, I would have no reason to talk about this outside this little team. Thank you for trusting me with your secret even before I agreed to keep it.”
“You are welcome, Starr. We have one other item of importance for tonight. Mom suggested that we might make use of military intelligence by informing someone in the MSF of this secret and eliciting that person’s aid. I am concerned that it would place me and everyone else at risk. If the person we ask decided that this needed to be shared widely within the Force, it could create a huge issue. We all know what was done to the Martians taken to Guantánamo Bay. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to think that forces from Earth or even here on Mars would attempt to do the same thing to me. They might not be able to dissect me, but you never know what they might be able to do given enough time and resources.”
Starr sat quietly as Rock continued talking. He spoke of the many ways that his freedom could be removed, even suggesting that one of these military entities could hold one or more of his friends as hostages to force his cooperation. “I would never want to see any one of you threatened,” he concluded.
Starr’s nose was scrunched up as she concentrated on the problem. “I can’t argue that it could never happen, because it is very likely considering the history of humanity.
“There is one person I think you can trust, however. She works in the right place to render some assistance, too. Let me tell you who it is, and why I trust her.
“Back when my Dad was on active duty, but toward the end of his career, there was a promising young cadet newly assigned to her unit. Right after she arrived, she found herself in a bad situation. She had gone running to build her endurance and found herself in an area of the base that was used for the storage of supply containers. Along the path she ran were scores of large units, stacked two high, and stretching for quite a distance. As she wove her way among these containers, she happened upon a large crew of soldiers from a unit she did not recognize. They surrounded her and prevented her from running onward.”
At this point Rock asked, “You are talking about Gina Lamb aren’t you?”
Starr nodded, “Yes, it is Gina. As you know, my father and one of his patrols happened on the scene just barely in time to stop them from raping her or doing more permanent harm. As it was, they had torn her uniform almost completely from her body and had beat her pretty badly as she had resisted their advances. What you do not know was why Dad was out there. This is something you must keep to yourselves. It is still classified as secret to avoid some political backlash.
“There is a Governor from the Parana Basin District who has a son in the MSF. You probably will recognize his name. Governor Wyatt Jones. Well, you all might recall he retired suddenly at about the same time as this event took place. The reason is because Dad’s department was tasked with finding and stopping the gang that was stealing supplies and trafficking in young women. They knew that someone on the base was connected to the activity, and the patrol was there because of an anonymous tip saying a theft was to take place. It provided the time and place, and so Dad’s patrol arrived to prevent it and to apprehend the crooks. It was sheer bad luck that brought Gina there at the same time.
“We suspect that had the patrol not been on the scene, Gina would have been abused repeatedly, taken prisoner and sold as chattel to the highest bidder in the Parana Basin District.
“Here is the kicker. The men taken into custody included a very young Robert Jones, son of the Governor. Robby, as he was called back then, had unintentionally fallen in with the wrong group of men while still training to be an officer in the MSF. They trapped him into cooperating by blackmailing him. His sworn testimony, which was eventually supported by one other man in the gang, said that since his father was the one who actually ran the entire operation, they would release that information and ruin his family name if he didn’t cooperate with them. His father would go to jail, he would be court martialed and drummed out of the MSF, and his family’s wealth taken to pay for the stolen goods.
“Robby was a naïve kid. He believed everything they threatened and became a minor member of that gang of thugs. He never touched Gina, and even tried to stop the others from harming her, but they punched him, bruising him and bloodying his face pretty badly, and told him they would rape him, too if he continued to interfere. He hid off to the side while they continued to harass Cadet Lamb.
“When the patrol got there, the tide changed. The entire gang was captured, and even Bobby was taken into custody. His presence there was taken as a sign that he was just as guilty of stealing supplies as the others.
“Gina made certain that that Robby was not charged with anything related to her being attacked and nearly raped. He was charged with other counts of theft, conspiracy, and trafficking in slaves. As the courts got involved, a deal was brokered between the Governor and the authorities. Governor Jones would admit his guilt in open testimony in exchange for his son’s exoneration of any criminal charges. The only additional condition was that Robby could remain as a junior officer in the MSF. After some wrangling between the Martian government and Wyatt Jones, an agreement was reached. Bobby would remain in the service, but he would be watched closely. Wyatt would admit to everything related to the activities of the gang. Gina Lamb would testify against the men who tried to rape her, and my Dad and his team would be lauded as heroes.
“Well, things turned out pretty well as you might recall. The former governor went to prison, where he is still serving time. The gang members were convicted of attempted kidnapping, attempted rape, and attempted murder. In addition, they were hit with dozens of charges of burglary and theft, selling stolen goods, conspiracy to defraud the government and something like twenty other counts of illegal activities.
“Gina went on to champion women’s rights, which she does to this very day. Today a woman can enjoy walking down a street in the knowledge that if she is harassed, there are strong laws to put her harasser in prison for a considerable amount of time. She is still in the MSF, and is working with the MIS, Martian Intelligence Section. She always said that should I ever need anything, she owed my Dad and our family for saving her and bringing justice to Mars. I just have to ask.”
Starr concluded her narrative and looked at the others. “What do you think? I know she would not say anything even if she refuses to be part of our team, but I have a strong hunch that the idea of helping Rock bring justice to the Belt, even if it’s vigilante justice, will tickle her to no end.”
Bringing a Lamb to Slaughter
Terry was sitting there listening to everything with half of his attention on what had already been discussed. It was quite a surprise when he suddenly burst out in laughter. When Mom asked him what was so funny, he only laughed harder. Each time he started to say why, he would go into another paroxysm of laughter. He had some difficulty catching his breath, but finally he calmed down enough to gasp out, “We should pick a name for our group.”
“Yeah, we could do that, but what’s so funny?” asked Rock.
“A dumb name popped into my head,” he chuckled barely controlling further guffaws.
Mom looked at the others and rolled her eyes before saying, “I am almost afraid to ask what you have in mind, young man.”
With tears still rolling down his cheeks he started to talk only to burst out in laughter again. This went on for a solid few minutes before he once again regained control.
“We’re rats,” he said with some difficulty.
Everyone in the room stared at him blankly.
“I know you think you said something clever, son, but what the hell are you talking about?” Mom asked.
Terry, finding himself a lot calmer as the seconds passed added, “You’re right. I am not making sense to anyone other than me.” At this point he took a deep breath, sipped some of the wine in his glass and continued with an explanation.
“I was doing some daydreaming and imagined us as a famous team of investigators like those in the old FBI or Scotland Yard back on Earth, the MIS here on Mars or something similar. Then I saw the word rats in my head and just lost it. We are rats scurrying to find scraps to hand to Rock, so he can fix things.”
“OK, but why rats, Terry?” asked Starr.
“Now, the word is an acronym for Rock’s associates to support. At first, I was thinking something a lot longer like, Rock and His Excellent System Utilizing Support, you know RHESUS, like the monkey, but it didn’t sound so cool, so I as I played around with words in my head, this popped up. It just struck me as funny. Sorry.”
As he finished talking, everyone was laughing gently at the train of thought that led Terry to this conclusion. “No one can accuse you of being boring, Terry,” laughed Mom.
Then, to the surprise of everyone in the room Rock said, “I think I like it. We will all be rats. We will ferret out those that want to harm others, find things that others might have missed without help, and generally get into everything we can to make this a better place to work, live and enjoy life. The only thing is that I would change that acronym’s base words to Researchers Administering Technical Support. It is still going to spell RATS, but better describes the team.”
He paused for a second and added, “Yeah, I like it. Rock’s Rats.”
“Well, I am not sure I like being thought of as a member of the rat family,” complained Mom, “but it certainly will work as a way to name the team… at least until we can find something better.”
Starr shrugged. “It doesn’t bother me, and I always thought that rats were kind of cute.”
“Well, I don’t like rats. If we come up with a better name, I would be a lot happier.” Mom picked up her glass of wine and after finishing the little bit left at the bottom, she refilled it half way.
“Let’s get back to the subject of having someone from the MSF join our intrepid little group. I don’t know what kind of woman Gina is, but with her history of activism and seeking of justice for those who maligned her, it sounds like she would be acceptable.” Mom looked at Starr before continuing her line of thought, “And you really think she would keep this a secret even if she decided not to join us?”
“I am ninety nine percent sure. She has kept secret the fact that the governor’s son was among the criminal team, and she had no reason to do so other than loyalty to the one man who tried to defend her during the attack. Her loyalty to my father and his men should bring us under the same ethical umbrella.”
Rock looked thoughtful as he considered Starr’s suggestion. He was very nervous about having the military know of his talents. Still, he trusted Starr and had heard that Gina was known for her compassion and honor.
“I hope I don’t regret this down the road,” he said to no one in particular. “OK, let’s have her come and meet with us.”
He looked at Starr. “Would you please arrange it?”
Starr leaned over and patted his hand. “You can count on it, Rock. I will contact her tomorrow and see when she can meet with us.”
At that point the conversation drifted onto many other topics. Dessert was served followed by an aperitif. It was a comfortable time for everyone as they discussed work and other aspects of life here on Mars and in the Belt. After some time had passed, the discussion turned to reminiscing about Fitz. Everyone shared some little tidbit that had not been public knowledge, and it was soon discovered that the curmudgeonly façade was just a way for Fitz to hide his gentler side. They couldn’t figure the reason why he would do so, but it was interesting to realize how many times he had done someone a kindness without taking credit or sharing it with anyone else. A happy sadness filled the room. It was so nice to keep Fitz alive in their hearts.
The evening ended hours later as they talked well into the night. Perhaps a bit too much wine was had, and Starr was provided a place to sleep for the night. No one would allow her to go home under the influence of alcohol. As they found their beds and fell asleep, the Emporium grew quiet except for the soft sounds of breathing.
In the morning, Starr was the first to awaken. Her head felt a bit thick as a result of last night’s drinking, but a few pain killers would remedy that problem quickly enough. She went into the washroom, cleaned up a little bit, used someone’s toothpaste and her finger to clean her teeth as best she could, and got dressed again. She felt a little bit silly in the yellow outfit this morning, wishing for her utility clothing, but this was all that she had to wear.
Eventually, she heard some noises coming from the living area and popped open her door to see who was awake and active. Walking into the dining room, she could hear the sound of pots and pans coming from the kitchen whose door was open. She cleared her throat before walking into the kitchen so as not to startle whoever was in there.
She entered to discover Mom preparing a bit of food for the group. Some eggs had been broken into a bowl for scrambling, and there was bacon and sausage frying in a large pan.
“May I help you in any way, Mom?” she asked.
“Good morning, dear. Not at the moment. I think I have everything well in hand. If you would like some coffee or tea, there are two pots here,” Mom indicated with a wave of her hand. “One holds hot water and the other has coffee. Help yourself. Cups are in the cabinet over the toaster, and should you decide on tea, it is in the cabinet to the left of the cups.
“I can use a cup of coffee, thank you so much,” she said as she moved to grab what she needed. She saw there was a bowl of sweetener on the counter, and Mom had some milk next to the bowl of eggs, so everything she would need was handy.
“Can I get you anything, Mom?” she inquired.
“Thank you, no, dear lady. I want to get things ready before the others wake up. Those boys just get in my way once they’re out and about. Could you set the oven to start heating? Please set it to about 100°C. That will keep the meats warm until everyone is ready to eat.”
Mom continued to prepare the breakfast meats while Starr watched.
“I enjoyed last night. It was interesting to find out how little we knew of the man inside the crusty covering that Fitz usually presented,” said Starr as she sipped at her coffee.
“Wow, this is great coffee. Where did you get it, Mom?”
“If I tell you, I will have to kill you, dear,” she responded with an enigmatic smile. “Seriously, however, I get it from one of my customers. He has family back on Earth who live in Central America. They supply him with whatever he needs in exchange for Martian artifacts that he ships back. So, he sends them trinkets that are of no value here. On Earth, there is a great interest in anything made by the Martians, so sales are booming in that market. Of course, with the long turnaround time, he only gets supplies a few times a year. I have placed a standing order for bags of coffee whenever they come to him. I cannot give details as per his request, but this barter works out for both sides. I get the best coffee available to Martian settlers and he gets some special goods in return.”
“That is a real blessing. Getting Earth goods has always been dicey. I may have to visit you at breakfast time more often,” she said laughingly.
“You are always welcome here, Starr. Especially now that you’re a member of the RATS,” she replied with a laugh of her own. “I still don’t like that name, but maybe it will grow on me,” she added.
Starr smiled sweetly and said, “Yup, like a tail on a rat.”
They continued to enjoy their conversation while Mom completed her preparations. The bacon and other breakfast meats were placed in the warm oven, the raw eggs were beaten and placed back under refrigeration, and some breads, rolls and pastries were placed under a covered dish on the counter under the cupboard. Mom asked Starr if she wanted to eat, but after a moment Starr answered that she would prefer to wait until everyone was awake.
“Mom, may I use your communicator? I want to reach out to Gina, and since I know she will be up and, in her office already, this would be a perfect time.”
Mom shrugged, “I don’t see any reason to wait, so yes, make that call, dear.”
Starr placed the call to Gina. For a few minutes they exchanged pleasantries. Then the discussion turned to the real reason for the call.
“Gina, is this line secure? I need to talk to you about something of a sensitive nature.”
Gina seemed unsurprised by this. Starr could hear some clicking noises, and a slight change in the timbre of the sound coming to her ears. “Consider this line secured. I just activated some special circuitry to prevent anyone from intercepting or overhearing what we say. Oh, and I am not recording this, so anything we say will remain secure unless one of us says something.”
Even though Gina could not see it, Starr nodded as she replied. “That is perfect, Gina. First, I am at Mom’s Emporium right now. Mom is a few feet from me, and she will hear all that we are about to discuss. I am about to tell you something that I would prefer not to be shared outside of a group that consists of you, Mom, her team, and me. Are you willing to do that much for us?”
“Oooo, this sounds intriguing. Let me ask you a few questions prior to you saying anything more. Is anything illegal or dangerous to Earth or Mars?”
“That is hard to answer in such black and white terms. At present, there is nothing illegal or dangerous taking place. More than that I cannot say until I am confident you will not share what we discuss,” answered Starr.
“Alright, I can understand conditions that might be framed under those terms. So, nothing is illegal or dangerous today. Can something become illegal or dangerous?”
Starr’s nose wrinkled as she thought how best to answer that. “What I can say at this time is that nothing dangerous to Earth or Mars will ever be an intentional part of…” and here she paused to think how to say it.
“…part of some actions we want to take. There is an element of illegality to the actions, or so I believe. It is actually part of why we want to talk to you.”
“I assume that the we to which you refer is the team you mentioned? Mom and her people? You and me?”
Starr said, “Yes, that’s right, Gina. The subject of our talk is jointly owned by the team.”
Gina sat quietly for a few seconds. “So, just how illegal are we talking? Larceny, mayhem, murder? What degree of illegal activity is in question?”
“The best I can describe it,” said Starr, “is to say that some very bad people could be brought to justice by forces other than the MSF or other official group.”
“Brought to justice? I hope we are not talking about final justice, because that is something I would have to prevent.”
“No, no, that is not what I mean. Mostly incarceration of the guilty until official forces got involved. There might also be some damage to property, although again nothing that endangers Mars or Earth.”
“I think I have enough now, Starr. I vow that nothing you say to me will go any further. If I discuss this with anyone, it will be within the confines of the group you have identified,” answered Gina.
“OK, that is great, and I can tell you that Mom is nodding her head yes.”
It was at that moment that both Terry and Rock walked into the kitchen. Starr quickly indicated she was using the communicator. Whatever greetings or comments the men were about to speak died on their lips. Rock pointed and used his face and hands to ask who was on the other end of the line.
“Gina, Rock and Terry just joined us,” she said.
Rock nodded his approval and gave a thumbs-up signal for her to continue.
“So, now they will also know what we are discussing. Let me just catch them up on the conversation so far.”
“Sounds good,” said Gina.
“Gina has agreed to listen to what we have to say. She got assurances from me that nothing that would endanger Mars or Earth would be involved. I also told her that any activity would not include anything that was life-ending or harmful,” Starr explained. “I also added that some of the activity might damage property belonging to some bad people, but only in so far as it might take to bring them to the attention of official justice.”
Mom started cooking the eggs using the mixture she had prepared earlier, and Starr continued explaining to the men the last details she has shared so far.
“That is about all we discussed. I was just about to dive into the details. Does anyone want to add anything before I do so?” she asked.
Terry and Mom shook their heads no, and Rock said, “Not really. I just hope that you are sitting down, Gina. What you’re about to hear might seem like the rantings of some very crazy people.”
Gina started laughing and said, “If you ever worked with some of the folks inside intelligence agencies, you would know that most of them are completely bonkers. I doubt you can say anything that falls outside what I have not already heard.”
With that comment, Rock gave a short introduction that started with the Mother Lode’s destruction. Starr quickly assumed the role of storyteller as she discussed what happened during her attempted rescue of the men.
Gina occasionally prodded for details, but mostly she just sat and listened.
Rock picked up the narrative where he found himself in the gray space. He carefully explained each detail that he could recall, which was a lot of what took place.
He continued explaining everything through the point in time where he discovered his new talents and found a way back to Mars. He paused for a moment to collect his thoughts before continuing when Gina interjected a comment.
“I was wrong,” she said.
“Wrong about what?” Starr asked.
Gina snorted in a funny sort of way and said, “You heard me say that I doubted you could say anything that falls outside my experiences. Well, clearly, I was very, very wrong! Those things I have seen, heard and done before pale in comparison.”
Rock went on saying, “Since I returned, we have been in touch with the MSF to report criminal activity. Rose Prathrada and Li Ng came here to the Emporium. We shared all the details with them about how the ship was destroyed and the death of Fitz. We included a totally fictitious version of how I got home, so we did not discuss anything of my remarkable experiences or how I really got back here in one piece.”
“I don’t know either of those two people. I assume they are officers?” queried Gina.
“Yes, Captain Prathrada and Commander Ng, if I recall correctly,” interjected Mom.
“Correct, Mom,” verified Rock. “They are both very capable officers, or so it seems to me. I just did not know if I could trust them with my secret.”
Rock went on to explain his fears to Gina. Gina listened quietly as he drew his conclusions based on historical examples.
“You were wise to do so, Rock. In fact, I would advise all of you to be very careful of what you say. If this gets out to anyone in a position of authority, myself excluded, you are likely to wind up hip deep in doctors, scientists and political maneuverings. Certainly nothing that would be beneficial to your well-being.”
Rock continued saying, “I went back to the belt to investigate, and I have the location of the devils that destroyed the ship and killed Fitz.”
“When did you do that, Rock?”
Rock explained how he snuck out at night, returning a little while later.
“That was fast. I guess your able to move your ship at some amazing speeds,” Gina said.
“I am not sure what limitations I might have in that regard, but yeah, I can get there and back very quickly. Let me tell you what I discovered,” he continued. “Remember how I told you that the base given to me by the Martian intelligence would remain hidden or unapproachable by anyone other than me?” he asked.
“Yes,” responded the MIS officer.
“Well, when I got out to that region, I found that these people had found and taken over a similar base with similar technology. The only difference, and this is a huge difference, is that there is no mechanical mind to help or guide them in the use of the base. My teacher explained it was left partially completed, but that many machines are there that can be coopted. There must be some brilliant scientific minds among them, and they appear to have figured out how to use some of those machines.
“One of those machines is the energy beam that would be used by the base to protect it from being destroyed by rogue asteroids, comets or other flotsam speeding through the area. Apparently, it was used to destroy the Mother Lode. Another machine is the one that helps keep the eyes of interlopers from seeing and approaching the base. Since it was clearly impossible for me to get too close, this too must have been activated by these pirate types,” concluded Rock.
Gina snorted again as she absorbed all the details. “So, we have an individual or a group that somehow found a Martian artifact out in the Belt, managed to enter that artifact, figure out how to use some of the tools it contains, and is threatening to destroy anything that comes close.
“That’s not good. Not good at all,” she remarked to no one in particular.
Rock said, “You are spot on, Gina. I plan on figuring a way to remove them from the equation. It has to be a plan that avoids harming the culprits,” he said.
“Let’s call them pirates, Rock,” said Gina. “After all, that is what they are. We know they will kill to protect their ill-gotten gains.”
Rock smiled and said, “Sounds good to me. So, at some point, I need to go after them. I do not need your help with that, or at least I don’t think I’ll need your help. The reason for talking with you is for the future endeavors I believe would be in the best interests of the Belt, Mars and Earth.”
Back in her office, Gina’s eyebrows rose, and she said, “And just what sort of endeavors did you have in mind?”
“I am hoping to use my gifts to help improve life here. To do that, I will need a source of intel that will allow me to give assistance to law enforcement without them knowing just why their jobs have become a lot easier. If I can save a life, defend someone from loss of property, and ensure that everyone knows there is a secret guardian protecting this region of the Solar System, I will be satisfied. To do that, I need to know where my help is needed.”
“That makes sense, Rock,” responded Gina. “So, you want me to be the source of intelligence that will guide your efforts. Is that right?” she asked.
“Yes, exactly. And since I am unable to use lethal force in my efforts, I can assure you that no permanent harm will come to anyone as a result of my actions. My teacher made that point very clear. I always have to use methods that are effective while leaving the bad guys alive and well,” Rock replied.
Gina said, “I already promised not to share this with anyone else, but I am going to need to think about this, weigh the pros and cons, and figure out if my ethics will allow me to use military or official data to assist in what amounts to vigilante justice. Here is what I will do. Give me twenty-four hours to get back to you. During that time, I will make a mental list of good and bad things that could come from this sort of activity. Once I have given it serious thought and had a chance to sleep on it, I will get back to you. Although my initial feelings are toward helping, I will make no promises one way or the other.”
Seeing heads nodding in agreement in the kitchen, Rock said, “That is more than fair. I just hope you can decide in one day and night. I am not sure I could if the role was reversed. Thanks, regardless of what you decide.”
“You’re welcome, and Starr…? Thanks for thinking of me. This might be exactly what I needed to get me through some frustrating days. Dealing with the bureaucrats in the agency makes me insane!”
With that final comment, she said goodbye and broke the connection leaving Mom’s team to finish breakfast and clean up the kitchen.
The Brilliant Plan
Everyone felt good about taking Gina into their confidence. Terry and Mom went into the main room to deal with customers and incoming orders. Rock put out the word that Mom was looking to hire someone to work with her team, and by the end of the day, they had a few prospects that would need to be vetted. Starr left to take care of some personal business and arrived back with a surprise for the team. She had ingredients for a simple but delicious dinner. She and Mom worked in the kitchen while the men were tasked with housekeeping duties. They timed it perfectly, and both groups completed the assigned tasks together. Dinner was served, a rich stew of root vegetables and assorted meats along with a fresh salad. Cheese and fruits complimented the meal, and it was soon consumed with everyone sated and happy.
Rock asked everyone to grab some paper and something with which to write. He then started to explain how some of the Martian technology operated. He explained in detail how the cloaking mechanism would prevent him from taking the pirates into custody or even approaching them. He described his failed attempt, shaking his head ruefully as he did so, and finished by saying,” It leaves me completely puzzled. How do I get to them if I can’t get to them?” With this seemingly paradoxical declaration made and a pained grin on his face, he swept his hands across the conference room table.
“I am clueless as to how we might proceed. Can any of you think of an approach I might take?” he asked.
Everyone had been taking notes on the technology that prevented Rock’s going directly at the bad guys. They knew that violence was not an option, so simply blowing the base out of existence wasn’t going to happen. What other options were available?
Numerous ideas were advanced, but every single one of them would be stymied by the defensive cloak or the energy beam that could be brought to bear. There wasn’t a single idea that anyone could figure that would allow Rock access to that base.
The communication device started to signal an incoming call. Mom went over to it and immediately answered. “Good evening, Mom’s Emporium, Mom speaking,” she said.
“Hi, Mom,” came Gina Lamb’s voice through the receiver. “If the offer to work with your team is still on the table, I am interested. Of course, I have to figure out a way to do it without violating my personal ethics,” she said. A sigh could be heard over the line, then she continued, “That shouldn’t be too hard, but it is something I need to do for myself. Oh, I have this call secured from prying ears just in case you are concerned.”
Mom said, “That is excellent, dear. You called at a good time. We are all sitting in the conference room thinking of ways to go after this pirate base. So far, nothing workable comes to mind. One second, please,” she added. She reached over to a switch on the communicator.
“Everyone can now hear this conversation,” she said as she put the call on the speaker.
“Hello, everyone.” Gina must have been smiling as it came through in her voice.
A chorus of voices responded to Gina’s greeting. “Hey Gina!” “Howdy!” “Hi.”
“So, with all that you can do, Rock, why can’t you just go to the base and grab these animals?” she asked.
Rock went into the explanation he provided to the others on the team. He explained how the pirates were using the cloaking mechanism to prevent his approach. He emphasized how he was unwilling to destroy the base and the pirates, and even had he been of a mind to do so, he reminded her that the Martian technology would prevent him from doing so.
Gina thought for a few seconds and said, “Trojan horse.”
“I am not sure I see how we could get them to take a gift inside the base,” commented Rock.
“Well, you are thinking too literally. How about you make them an offer they can’t refuse?” she said.
“I must be dense, Gina. I still don’t get what you mean,” Rock said
Mom suddenly burst out with, “Oh, that is rich! Wonderful idea, Gina.”
Starr, too, started to laugh. “Very nice indeed!”
Both Terry and Rock sat there with puzzled expressions. Terry finally said, “I am glad you women have some kind of plan, because us men are clueless.”
Rock nodded in agreement.
Gina continued, “You guys are thinking of a direct approach. What I have in mind will finesse the pirates into doing what you need. At the very least, it won’t work, and you will be in no worse shape than you are right now,” she concluded.
“OK, so what would do that?” asked Rock.
“Like I said, Trojan horse. A big, juicy, rich, golden one,” Gina replied. “Not gold necessarily, but something that would tempt them into bringing a carrot into that base. I would bet that they never see the stick in your other hand.”
Both Rock and Terry finally understood what Gina was proposing. “That is a wonderful idea.” Rock started to scribble a few things on the paper in front of him. As he did so, he said, “Let’s all write down some thoughts on what might work. We don’t really know what would tempt these people, so no idea is too farfetched.”
Everyone created a short list of ideas, occasionally a bark of laughter erupted, usually from Terry. Eventually they ran out of ideas and moved to discuss what was written down on their lists.
At the top of nearly everyone’s list was a suggestion that had Rock camouflaging his ship as an asteroid of some sort. One consisting of a precious or rare element. It could then be set to “drift” across an area very near the base. The only person that did not have that as a suggestion was Terry.
“Won’t work,” he said. “The base can make anything they need, so why would they be tempted by some rock moving past them? Besides, that would mean that they would have to do hard work to harvest the asteroid, smelt it down into usable form, and find a way to sell it to others. It would put them in the spotlight. One that they might not be ready to have shining on them.”
“True, but it is worthy of consideration. Let’s put a checkmark on that one and save it for another time. If we cannot come up with a better idea, we can always try it,” said Rock.
The next idea came from Starr’s list. “How about a load of Earth goods? Something drifting past in a trajectory that would show it came from Earth. Maybe a derelict or crippled ship drifting out of control. Earth goods are hard to get, and a free pass at getting some could be tempting enough.”
“Starr, that might work, but can’t those bases make that stuff as well?” asked Terry.
Rock nodded, “Yes, I suppose it could. I have not tried to do that, but it certainly is likely. Of course, we are assuming that they have learned enough about the Martian devices to be able to do that.”
That is when Gina made a suggestion that changed the entire course of the conversation. “Maybe we are coming at this from the wrong direction,” she said. “What do these people value the most? What would be so irresistible that they could not let the opportunity slip from their grasp?”
When no quick response came through the line, she added. “Technology. Martian technology.”
“Oh, crap! That would be perfect,” said Rock. “That is a brilliant idea, Gina. Absolutely brilliant!”
Back at her place, Gina was blushing hotly from such ebullient praise. It was not something she was used to from her peers on the MIS team. “Thanks, Rock.”
“I can do this,” Rock said. “I can have the base create a ship of Martian origin that appears to be unmanned, or perhaps I should say un-Martianed,” he ended with a short chuckle. “I suppose I could make it a tempting tidbit by creating something that appears to be a massive warship from the old days. Since none of them survived or went uncaptured by the MSF, a find like that would be a feather in any pirate’s cap! I can just imagine them salivating at the idea of having a warship from which they could prey on weaker targets.”
This seemed to get approval from the entire team, so it went to the top of the list. They continued to discuss other feasible options, but none came as close to being as desirable a choice as Gina’s idea. As the conversation ebbed, Rock said, “I am happy with some of these ideas. Gina, I thought that yours was the best by far, but some of the others show merit as well. I am not sure that we will have more than one chance to trick these pirates, so I want to use the strongest plan. If everyone can give me his or her opinion, I will choose a final one to implement.”
A quick tally was taken, and Gina’s plan was the clear winner getting the top vote from everyone. Now, all that remained was that Rock would have to create a detailed warship and set it in plain sight of the pirates. Rock knew that he would have to make something realistic and alluring to these people. It could not be a plain shell, but should be bristling with gun ports, weapons arrays, and an engine powerful enough to drive it across the Solar System. He could create the engine with some damage to explain why it was abandoned, yet he would make the damage look like it could be repaired with a bit of effort.
The group busied itself with suggestions for the ship and worked late into the night taking notes and penciling ideas to create the perfect trap. By the time they stopped, it was nearing midnight. Gina said goodbye and disconnected, heading to her bed. The others gathered the notes into a single neat pile, and everyone wandered to his or her room leaving Rock alone with the stack of notes.
Even though he was not really tired, he felt it best to get some sleep now. When he rose again, he could start working on the behemoth Martian warship. Rock collected the papers and shuffled off to his own room.
Bait for the Trap
Over the next two days the team gathered in the Emporium to draw some sketches of the warship that Rock would be creating. Rock’s artistic talents came to the fore as he took a large piece of drawing board and some pencils and artist’s chalks to pencil the ship’s outline and fill in details of the many weapon ports, arrays and other delicate details required for the realism needed to bait the trap. He used the chalk which had multiple shades of grey and brown to shade the image. It slowly grew into an impressive final concept. Using a second drawing board, Rock drew the opposite side of the ship, so that he could have something from which to work. When the renderings were done, Rock and the others had to discuss the final steps in their plan. Gina was invited to the Emporium, and everyone gathered in the conference room.
A chart of the asteroid belt was spread upon the conference room table. A red box was drawn to mark the location of the pirate’s base. A green box was also drawn on the chart that indicated the location of Rock’s home base.
Pointing to the green box, he said, “I am going to go directly to the base, so I can work with Bob to generate the warship. Once it’s done, I will move it to the area here,” he said pointing to a spot that was parallel to Mars orbit, but inside the asteroid belt. He picked up a yellow marker and put the letter A at that spot. “Once there, I will set the ship drifting in a line that will bring it into a nearly direct course with the base held by the pirates.”
Rock indicated that path by drawing a bright yellow line across an expanse of the belt with the path ending at a letter B that he wrote near the pirate’s base. “As you can see,” he said, “this will appear as if it has been slowly drifting inside the outer edges of the belt for the last 60 years. With any luck, this will lure them into making a move on the warship.
“I will be onboard that ship, of course, and I would love to have one or more of you nearby in the smaller ship I have been using. I’ve already modified it to have pilot’s controls that are exactly the same as used on a majority of our prospecting spaceships. Who wants to come along for the ride?” he asked.
Gina’s hand went into the air immediately. “You will need someone with the authority to arrest these cretins,” she stated. “I am the only one with that authority.”
Rock nodded his approval. “Anyone else?” he asked.
Terry nodded, but Mom vetoed his request. “Terry, until we hire someone else, I still need you here to assist me with the Emporium.” Although he was not happy, he conceded that she was right.
Starr had a conflicted look on her face. She wrinkled her nose and started to say something.
“I, uh…” she began. “We don’t have any idea of the size of this pirate crew.”
“Correct,” replied Rock.
“How will you be able to control them? Won’t the probability of your being outnumbered hamper efforts to secure them and bring them to justice? Won’t our presence just be more targets for them to hit?”
Rock smiled. “Normally, I would say, yes. In this case, however, the strategy we are going to use will not favor them in any manner. First, they will not see your ship waiting nearby. I already know I can approach them invisibly and can show you how to do the same thing in the ship you are using.”
Pointing to an empty spot near the pirate base, he picked up a blue pen and drew a circle there before he added, “If you wait in this area, you will be close enough for me to bring them to you once caught. One by one, Gina can arrest them, read them their rights, and the two of you can secure them in the little brig I have already fashioned inside your ship. Since I don’t know how many people are there, I have set it up to hold 12 individuals, one to a cell. Each cell is only large enough to hold a small bed, and a waste disposal unit. Once inside, you should have nothing to do but supply them with food and water should this take longer than I expect.
“Also, having both of you there to keep watch over our guests will free me to go back to the base and secure it from further intrusion by anyone other than me. If I cannot secure it, I will see if it can be permanently locked against anyone ever gaining access,” he said, then adding in afterthought, “Or I could destroy it to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
Knowing eyes watched Rock as everyone had to admit that they agreed with his assessment. Starr looked down at her hands and sat quietly, her nose still scrunched as she considered everything. Then, as if a light switch had been thrown, she looked up and said, “I would like to go along, too. I am not a person who seeks out danger to myself, but I can see how this is necessary and good for everyone here on Mars and in the Belt. A danger that is far offset by the good that will result.”
She stared hard at Rock and concluded, “Besides, you have just assured us that you will have them well under control before we are given charge to guard them.”
Rock’s eyes opened wide, his brows rising as he acknowledged what she said. “Yes, I will do my best to make certain that you are both safe.”
Gina added, “Not that I expect it will be needed, but I will be armed with my service revolver. If anyone threatens any one of us, you included, Rock, I will disable or terminate that person. I am considered an expert shot, so the chance of me missing my intended target is very slim,” she said with a serious gaze at the others.
Rock was not sure that the Martian equipment would allow that. It would be one of the first questions he asked Bob once he began building the Trojan horse warship. Mom and Terry would keep this business running as normal during the mission. They wanted to be certain that an appearance of normalcy was provided to anyone outside the team.
Gina left the Emporium to return to her office. Once there she looked to see what actions, if any, had been taken by the MFS to secure the area in question. It only took her a short while to see that there was a plan made to send a small force to that region, but it had not yet been launched. The MFS was still gathering needed equipment that would be deployed to watch for any activity. Ships were coming back to Mars to pick up what was going to be used, and it would be at least two weeks before it was deployed and back in that region of space. Gina had been concerned that the mission would be compromised if the MSF had already deployed. She did not want to see MSF forces destroyed by the powerful Martian weapons being held and used by the pirates.
With her mind eased, she packed a few things in a bag. She contacted her supervisor to let him know she was taking some personal time. She had gathered a great deal of personal time since she was hired, so her boss had no issue allowing her to use some. The only awkward moment was when he asked her what she had planned. She hesitated only for a moment before answering that she would be spending time with a woman friend of long acquaintance. It wasn’t even a lie as she had known Starr for a very long time. Taking the packed bag, she returned to the Emporium.
A timeline was drawn so that everyone would be in the right place at the right time. Rock left the base using an old ship provided by a friend. The ship had been mothballed for years, so it was not difficult to procure. Since it was only being used as a method of transport from Mars to the hidden base, he knew it would be safe from harm. Rather than depending on the old engines, Rock used his telekinetic powers to move the ship far more quickly than would be expected from the old ship. He rapidly arrived at his base, and asked Bob the question about using the services of someone armed and able to kill should it be needed.
Bob said that the weapon was not one of Martian origin and could be used by someone other than Rock himself. Should Rock need to use a weapon like that, he would find himself far too weak to pull the trigger.
With that questions answered, Rock began building the beautiful decoy. As the ship took shape, he decided that he would build it as a working model, but the power plant would be completely dead. Adding fuel would be simple enough, but the area of the rocket’s motor that was purposely designed to be the damaged section would not be easy to fix. It would take a major rebuild by anyone other than him to give this ship power. That would take a year or longer as it would mean disassembly and reassembly of the engines. Adding the details that would make this appear like a formidable warship took the longest time. Each one had to be made with his fullest attention given to that detail. He made certain that each part could work, but there were no power lines to energize any of the systems, just empty tubes that should have held wires and connectors. As the ship neared completion, it looked very dangerous and menacing. The fact that there was no power being generated, and not a single light to be seen from the outside of the ship helped to ameliorate the appearance of a non-functioning ship.
So far, Rock was able to keep to his timeline. He wondered if the others were about ready to move into position. He asked Bob that question.
“Bob, is there any way for me to detect if my friends are in place yet?” he asked.
Bob materialized nearby. “Yes, Rock. One of the devices on the base can look at anything within a light hour of distance. Since this covers all the areas in which you will be working for this mission, you could put the parameters of what you seek into the device, and let it search. It should provide an answer very quickly.”
Rock was very satisfied with that answer. “Thank you, Bob. Can you show me how to use that device?”
Bob and Rock sat down at one of the many control stations on the base, in a matter of minutes Bob had demonstrated how to use the machine and how to tell it what to seek. Rock took the controls, entered the parameters of the ship that his friends were using, and activated the search.
As promised by Bob, the machine churned out an answer in short order. The ship was nearing its final destination and should be there in about an hour. Since Rock had to get the decoy into position before then, he began that process.
Rock boarded the warship and made it disappear from sight and sensors. He began to move it from its mooring alongside the base, and soon had it rapidly moving into a position where he would begin its drift toward the pirates and their little base. He made sure he could see out of the ship through the large viewport in the command center. With a bird’s eye view from that vantage, he would be able to see anything that approached.
In a short time, he was in a position to begin moving the ship toward the pirate base. He started moving the ship in the desired direction, giving it enough speed to get to the destination, but not nearly enough to make it look like it was powered flight. He also allowed the ship to wobble slightly as it moved along its flight path. A powered ship would have gyroscopic devices to prevent that sort of movement. This should add to the deception and further make the warship appear as something abandoned.
Checking the time, he knew that the women had arrived at their designated location. He checked his own position and saw that he neared the base from another direction exactly as was planned. The warship continued its drifting path through the Belt.
Rock was not sure at first, but soon became aware of a small glint of reflected light coming from something small that approached from the direction of the pirate base. It looked like a small, one-man ship, one normally used to survey an area. As time passed, he was able to confirm that the ship was precisely that. It approached with caution, and when it was left untouched, the pilot got braver and approached closely. The pilot looked at the warship from all angles, moving around it, checking it for signs of life or activity. The pilot must have been satisfied with what was seen because Rock could see more activity near the base. Apparently, this man was a scout, and he signaled that it was safe for others to arrive. Four tug ships departed the base and headed in his direction.
It took a bit of time for them to arrive, but they arrived and soon the crews began to work. They were very efficient and soon had the tugs firmly attached to various points of the warship’s frame. The tugs started to power their engines to change the vector of the larger ship’s course and bring it toward the base. The lines attached to the warship began to tighten, and some groaning sounds could be heard within the warship. No ship was built to be towed, and the stress of doing so would often make a ship unusable. If they had pushed from the engine, it would be a different story, but since they elected to pull the larger ship, they must have been willing to see some damage done.
Rock smiled grimly as they neared the base. They must have deactivated the cloaking mechanism. The tugs had no trouble approaching the base, and soon they had begun the process of securing the large warship alongside it.
A party of space-suited individuals, armed with tools and cutting torches, headed from one of the base’s ports. They made their way to the larger ship, used belts and magnetic shoes to adhere to its surface, and began the laborious work of entering the ship. Since the doors would normally have been powered, they simply did not work, and there were no manual opening levers or devices for them to use. Cutting began, and Rock decided it was time for him to have a bit of fun.
To prevent anyone from recognizing him, Rock modified his facial appearance. He then created an invisible shell of air and energy around himself. He drifted over to the door where the pirates were busy trying to cut into the ship. With a flip of his hand, Rock released the locks on the inside of the hatch and allowed it to slowly drift open.
The workers were startled as the door began to move, and two of them grabbed weapons that were fastened to their backs. They had to be energy weapons of some sort as projectile weapons did not work in areas without gravity. Eventually the door opened wide enough to permit him room to move through it. Rock imagined that it was quite a surprise to see him float out the door without any apparent protection from the cold and airlessness of space.
From what he could see of their faces through the glass of their helmets, they seemed more than a little bit frightened. One of the two armed men raised his weapon and fired at Rock. A bean of light left the weapon and struck Rock’s abdomen. He gazed down at his midsection and patted it while smiling at the pirates. He then shook his finger at them as if in admonishment for their actions. Moments later, they all turned tail and headed back toward the open port of the base.
Swift Justice, Almost Done
One of the nicest things about Rock’s new powers was his ability to move about in a weightless environment without having to use a jet-pack or something of similar construction. He could just push himself along using the power of his telekinesis. The pirates that were heading back to the open port of the base, however, had to move using the mechanical means attached to their suits. Since their jet-packs had very low thrust, they could not get up to any great speed to return. Also, they had to decelerate before arriving to avoid harm when they reached their goal. It would not be good for them to rush back and go splat against the base on arrival.
Rock did not have those limitations. He simply pushed himself at great speed and arrived at the port well before the pirates. They were completely confused when he sped past them. Then, when they saw him standing in the open portal, they hadn’t a clue as to how they should handle it. One of the pirates must have been in contact with someone inside the base as the port started to close just before he could enter. Rock slid through the quickly contracting space of the portal just in time. He was drawn toward what seemed to be a floor’s surface as he fully entered, so he knew that there was some sort of artificial gravity in play within the base.
He realized that eventually the outer door would have to be reopened to allow the men outside a way to enter the base. It was either that or they would have to find a different entry point. Since he was pretty safe inside his cocoon of force, and since his air was constantly being kept fresh, a little trick that Bob had taught him, he felt fairly confident that it would not matter if he had enemy forces ahead of him, behind him or both directions.
As Rock oriented himself, he found a small glass window that was mounted in the door that lead into the rest of the base. Peering through it, he saw a few men gathering there with a mixture of energy and projectile weapons. They were dressed in varying ways, so this was not some organized militia. He wondered how many there were in total.
When it appeared that the men outside the door were ready, one of them moved something on the far side of the door, and Rock could feel the room being filled with air. Rock peered through the small window and smiled at the men. He even waved to them. They did not look happy. One man started to wave back but caught himself when one of his buddies barked something at him.
As the air reached a point of equilibrium between the two sides of the door, a light began to blink in the center of the door. Rock looked at the light and touched the spot where it was shining. Some slight difference in air pressure must have still been present, because there was a slight hiss as the door opened.
One of the men holding a pistol aimed at Rock’s body said, “Hold it right there, buddy. Unless you want to feel what it’s like to be shot, you’ll do as you are told.”
Rock, still smiling brightly at the group of men replied, “Hi, guys. I am Rock, and I am here to clean this base of vermin.”
The mouth of the leader of the group hung open for a moment as he absorbed what Rock said.
“Don’t be a wise-ass, mister Rock! I ain’t in no mood for you to be cute, so shut your trap! Now, turn around with your hands behind you,” he said. Then gesturing to the man who stood next to him he growled, “Willie, take some wire and bind his hands.”
Rock could hear that this guy was nervous, so he said, “You know, if you put those guns away, this will go a lot easier for you and the others. Have I even made a threatening gesture toward any of you?”
The leader’s face went from serious to angry in a matter of seconds. “I just told you to be quiet! One more word out of you and I’ll pop you with my little friend here,” he said waving the pistol slightly.
Rock shook his head. “No, you would not do that. I am too nice a guy for you to want to hurt me. Say, what’s your name?”
The pirate was taken aback at Rock’s brazen response. He must have been so shocked that he gave a name. “I’m Ned…, but you ain’t going to need to worry about that or anything else if you don’t do as I told you right now.”
Rock could see that this guy was not too smart. After all, here was a person who just entered their base from the airlessness of space without any sort of suit or protection whatsoever. Did he not wonder about that?
Rock decided that the best way to resolve this would be to push the weapons toward the floor and the best way to do that would be to make them heavier. With a thought, he made the guns weigh double what they originally did. Startled, one of the men dropped his energy gun. The others felt their guns drooping toward the floor and fought to keep them aligned.
Rock further increased the weight of each weapon until they weighed far too much to hold comfortably. When all the guns had been drawn to the floor, Ned let go of his grip on the pistol and stepped forward to take a swipe at Rock’s face. Rock seeing the intent warned him, “You really don’t want to do that, Ned.”
Of course, Ned was not about to stop. He brought his fist up in a jab and smashed it against Rock’s nose. Two things happened simultaneously. As the man’s fist struck the area near Rock’s face, at least one bone broke against the impenetrable force field that surrounded Rock. The man yanked his hand back in agony, holding the wrist of that arm and cursing ferociously.
“Son of a bitch! I think I broke my hand!”
“I did warn you, Ned,” said Rock. “Now, will you gentlemen listen to me for a minute?”
Ned, still cursing softly as he cradled his injured hand, nodded affirmatively. The others seemed to be amenable to listening, so Rock began.
“As I said, my name is Rock. I am here because you shouldn’t be. One or more of you destroyed a ship as it was passing through this area. That act of piracy and terrorism proves that you need to be brought to justice. We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. It is completely up to you. I will warn you now, however; you have no weapons here that can harm me. I promise that none of you will be harmed in any way. Now, where is a good place for everyone on your crew to gather while we sort things out?”
Ned was still swearing, and Rock felt another lesson was in order. He pointed at Ned’s hand and asked, “Would you like that fixed?”
Ned was clearly in a great deal of pain, and his agitation showed as he struggled with the answer he wanted to give as opposed to the one he had to give. Everyone could see his hand was swelling and turning an angry red. “What’re you talking about?”
“I can instantly heal your hand, knit the bones, reduce any swelling, and make things as good as new. Of course, if you would rather me not touch you, you can stay in pain until doctors on Mars can see to it. Mars is where you are going, by the way. All of you.”
At that point in time, two others arrived on the scene walking down the hallway that lead toward the command area of the base. One was an older man dressed in a neat one-piece suit. His hands were empty of weapons, and he seemed to exude an air of authority. The other was a youngster, perhaps a boy in his mid-teens. Dressed similarly, he was wide-eyed and curious as they took in the scene.
“Ned, what’s going on here?” the older man asked. “What happened to your hand, and why are the guns on the floor?”
Ned’s face took on a frightened look when the man arrived, and now he turned pale as he answered the man.
“This guy made the guns too heavy to hold. Not sure how he done it, but we all had to let go of them. I went to hit him, and my hand got broken.”
The older man looked hard at Rock. “I see,” he said softly. “And why are you here?” he asked.
Rock smiled at the newcomers and said, “My name is Rock, and I am here to clean this base of your presence. It seems that someone here felt he or she could destroy a passing spaceship, and I am bringing justice to you all.”
The older man looked at the boy and said, “You see, Vernon? Just like I told you before. There are people who feel their laws should apply to all.”
The teen looked back and forth between the older man and Rock and said, “Yes, Grandfather.”
Placing one hand on the boy’s shoulder, he said, “Ned, have the Doc look at that hand. I am not sure if he can help you but have him give you something for the pain. The rest of you, take our guest to the mess hall.”
Rock smiled sweetly and said, “I don’t think you understand, good sir. I expect everyone here will surrender and return with me to Mars for whatever punishment is officially brought against you.”
As much as Rock wanted to talk about how Fitz died, he did not want to give away his identity. Instead he said, “One of the mining companies reported the destruction of a ship and the loss of life of one of their men. Charges will be levied against you and your crew.”
The man remained calm and said, “By all means, I accept that you will be doing just what you say. I saw that my men outside shot you with an energy beam, and Ned broke his hand trying to hit you, so I have to assume, we have no way of preventing you from doing anything you would like.
“I will have everyone gather in the mess hall. You can do as you intend with no resistance from anyone. One should not fight the tide,” he concluded.
Rock nodded and responded, “That is a wise choice. And, what is your name, sir?”
The man smiled and said, “You can call me, Papi Russ.”
With that enigmatic statement he waved everyone past him and toward the mess hall. As Ned got near the old man, he said something softly and indicated Rock. The old man nodded and waved him to stay with the group. A few men led the way with Rock and the remaining ones following. At the tail of the group walked the older man and the boy. Passing a few junctions and halls, the group soon found the door that entered the mess hall. Everyone filed into the room, but Rock soon realized the boy and old man were no longer with the group.
He sighed deeply and turned toward Ned. “Since you remained with us, can I assume you want that fixed?”
Ned was clearly in great agony, his hand swollen with red and purple streaks. “Please,” he grunted sitting down on a bench inside the mess hall. He still cradled his arm, careful to leave his hand plenty of room.
Rock gently touched his forefinger to the damaged hand and using one of his new abilities, he peered into the hand. He found the damaged bones and blood vessels. He slowly and carefully knit the bones together, gently encouraged the blood to flow back into its normal vessels, repairing them once completed, and he eased the last traces of pain from Ned’s hand and wrist.
Ned sighed in relief as everything was healed. He gingerly flexed his hand, doubting his own senses. “If someone told me this, I would call him a liar.” He looked at Rock. “Thanks.”
Rock gently nodded and looked at the men in the room. At that point he heard an announcement coming from some unknown source. It was the older man’s voice.
“May I have your attention, please. Everyone is to report to the mess hall. There you will find a gentleman who calls himself, Rock. You are to surrender yourselves to this man. Offer no resistance. He is quite capable of destroying each of you, and I suspect, he can also destroy this base.
“You can guess as to how he can do this. I have my own theories, but suffice it to say, you can do nothing to prevent him from capturing you and bringing you to Mars.”
The announcement ended, the halls momentarily echoing with the last words. As Rock got everyone lined up for processing, the balance of the men, mostly those from outside the ship he guessed, entered the mess hall. By the time he completed gathering them together, there were eleven men.
Rock had confiscated all weapons, tossing them into the hallway outside of the mess hall. Once he was certain that they were disarmed, he walked out of the room and locked the doors leading to the hallway and kitchen, so everyone remained in one place. He noticed that the base seemed almost a perfect duplicate of his own, so he knew instinctively where the command center would be located. He quickly reached that area hoping to find the old man and the boy, but the area was empty when he got there.
Rock got to the communication console and called to Gina and Starr using the designated frequency upon which they had agreed. It only took a moment before he got a response.
“Rock! How are you doing? Who was in that ship?” came Gina’s voice through the console.
“Hi, Gina. Everything here is pretty good, but what do you mean about a ship?”
Gina said, “Just a few minutes ago, a small ship left the base heading at high speed on a course that will take it into the deepest areas of the Belt. I tracked it as long as I could, but it was moving at incredible speed.”
Rock hadn’t thought of someone being able to leave the base, and he certainly had not considered that anyone would have access to a ship that could move that fast. He was guessing that it was another example of Martian technology. “Damn! I didn’t know. Thanks, Gina. It is safe for you to drop the invisibility shield and move the ship toward the base. You can find an open docking port near where the warship is resting. Try to moor yourselves there.”
Gina replied, “Starr is moving us over there now. She is the more skilled pilot, so she’s got that well in hand. How many men are we about to take under our control?”
Rock sighed, “Well, there should have been thirteen, but apparently two escaped in that ship you mentioned. I have eleven men here, and they gave up with only some minor fighting. One guy shot at me with an energy weapon,” he began.
“Are you unharmed, Rock?” Gina quickly asked, concern coloring her voice.
“Yes, I’m fine, Gina. The energy was unable to penetrate my shield. Another guy took a swing at my nose, and his hand was shattered as a result. Everyone either saw what happened in the two instances or heard about it from their mates. I expect that no one would be foolish enough to make the same mistakes as before. Besides, I disarmed everyone. As to the guy who broke his hand, I fixed it for him. I think that the rest will behave as we take them into custody. If not, I will just have to ensure that I prevent harm from being done to the both of you.”
“Wow,” she said. “It sounds like you have had quite a day so far. Starr says we are almost locked onto the docking port, so we can begin processing as soon as we are there.”
Rock nodded to himself. “I will open the docking port once you are secured. The ship should be fine with no one on board, so the both of you can come into the base. When the doors open, enter the main hallway that sits beyond the entrance portal. Turn left and head in that direction until you reach the third intersection. Turn right and walk a bit longer. When you reach a tee-intersection, turn left and go about 20 feet. I will meet you in that hallway. So, it’s left into the hallway, right at the third intersection, then left at the tee. Got it?”
“Of course, Rock. Those are simple directions. I think one of us poor little girls can manage to remember them,” Gina said.
Rock realized how condescending that sounded. “Oh, my God! I am so sorry, Gina. I didn’t mean that the way it came across to you. Please forgive me!”
Gina laughed and said, “I think we can forget about it this time. Just remember that you have a team of very capable men and women. Treat us that way, and you will never have a problem.
“Starr just told me that we are ready to move to your location. We will meet you there in a few minutes,” Gina said.
“Sounds good, Gina. See you then.”
Rock ended the communication and walked to the mess hall again. He unlocked the door and found the men calmly sitting inside. He suspected that there may have been some plotting taking place during his absence. One of the men would not meet his eyes, and Ned kept looking from Rock to that man repeatedly. Rock walked over to the man and said, “Are we going to have any trouble with you?”
The man looked up finally and smiled. He shook his head no. Rock was not influenced in the slightest bit. He could see that the man’s smile did not reach his eyes. Rock stared at the man and said, “If you think you can escape justice, that is fine. You can have any opinion you want. I will not permit you to bring harm upon anyone while you are being transported back to Mars.”
Rock turned his back on the man and went back into the hallway. A minute later, he saw Starr and Gina turn the corner and head in his direction. He waved a greeting to them as they approached.
“Welcome to my little slice of paradise,” he said jokingly. “Before we head inside the room, I want you to be aware of a possible danger. The first man we are going to incarcerate has some ideas about getting away or harming one or both of you. Just be aware of it as he is moved to the Fitz. One other thing; I need to alter your appearance. We do not want them knowing you or anything of our origin.”
“First, I think we can handle some goon who wants to misbehave. As to changing our appearance, you should give us the same appearance. We can be twins as far as they know,” Gina replied.
Starr added, “I always wanted to be a twin.
She continued, “I will make certain that I keep him closely watched as we head back. It won’t be the first time I have had to handle a problem man. It probably won’t be the last time, either.” A grim look came over her face as Starr must have been remembering something from her past.
They all entered the mess hall, and Rock said, “Gentlemen, I would like you to meet Maris and Paris. They are going to conduct you, one at a time from this room to a holding cell on my ship. You will not resist or attempt to cause them any harm. Maris is armed and trained in using her weapon, and as I understand it, she is a deadly shot. I would rather see you dead,” and at this he made direct eye contact with each man in the room, “than see either of them injured.”
Gina pulled a pair of handcuffs from a back pocket of her pants and tossed the device to Rock. “Rock, as we process each man, please shackle his hands behind his back. We will then escort him to the cell where he will remain until we reach Mars.”
The men listened as this discussion took place. Gina took her weapon in hand, and stood near the door, well out of the reach of any of the prisoners. Making him stand first, Rock cuffed the first man tightly. Starr moved behind him and grasping the linking chain in her right hand, she brought the man near the door where Gina told him the same words that have been told to criminals for years. Basically, if you say something to incriminate yourself, we will use what you say against you. With that out of the way, she and Starr led the way toward the Fitz and its waiting cells.
At one point, the man stiffened against being led onto the Fitz, but the cocking of Gina’s weapon was enough to convince him that they were in earnest about getting him jailed. They led him to the cell, had him enter, and with his back turned, they removed the cuffs. Rubbing his wrists, he turned to face the women. “It’s too bad there are bars between us, ladies. If you were not armed and I could reach you, I would be happy to show you your proper place,” he growled.
The women looked at each other and started laughing. “I am sure we both know what place you think that should be. You are living in the dark ages if you believe that any woman would let you own her like chattel,” said Gina
Starr added, “And you should be very glad of these bars, because if you did attempt to harm us, I am sure that your manhood would be the worse for the wear. I am certain that Gina is well trained in some martial arts, and I personally have enjoyed training from a Master of taekwondo and hold a fifth-degree black belt. Maybe, once we are on Mars, you will grace me with a chance to teach you something of the art.”
The man blanched at the confidence both women displayed. He grunted nothing understandable and sat down on the small bed still rubbing his wrists. Both women doubted his bruised ego would be so easily soothed. With one last check to ensure the door was securely shut, they headed back to the base for their next prisoner.
The rest of the day passed without any incident of significance. A few of the prisoners attempted the same sort of threatening challenge as had the first man, but they were soon cowed and incarcerated in the small brig. As the last man was safely locked in his cell, the women returned to where Rock waited. They all left the mess hall and moved to the command center. Rock called Bob, and he appeared, once again draped across a chair as was his fashion.
“Rock, you have done well. I am glad that you and your team came up with a way to take this base from the pirates without causing harm. What do you need from me?” he asked.
“Bob, I want to prevent this base and its machines from ever being used by anyone who might cause harm. I fear that we may have already failed to some degree. One of the men and a young boy left here before I could stop them, and I am certain that the ship they took was of Martian origin. I need to know that no one else can abuse this technology.”
Bob waved his tentacles and nodded his head in what passed for agreement. “You are wise in wanting to prevent misuse of these devices. You can do a number of things to enact safety measures or prevent others from using the base.
“The easiest would be to program this base to only recognize you or someone you designate. The drawback to that is that upon death of that person, the base would again be accessible to the first to approach.
“The second choice would be to set the base’s cloaking mechanism to deflect and protect anyone from entering its sphere of influence. There are two drawbacks to this. One is that you would be unable to make use of this base, and should you need it at some point in the future, you would be blocked. The next problem is that eventually your human science will surpass that of ours. When that happens, a smart man could defeat the cloaking machine we use to protect the base. Then any savvy human could make full use of all the science of this base.
“The last suggestion is one that you may not like, but it is the only one that would guarantee this base from ever being used to do harm. Set a trigger to destroy the base completely if it is used to cause harm. Our technology has built-in safeguards that prevents it from being abused. It simply needs to be activated. This way, if anyone stumbles on the base, like the men in your ships prison, they would trigger a reaction that would burn every circuit, every machine, and every power source. The damage would not destroy the base material, but there would be nothing left from which anyone could reverse engineer or rebuild something.
“One warning must be issued if you choose this path. There is no intelligent machine to watch what is happening. You will be setting the parameters that will be used to judge what is considered harm. A smart man or woman could possibly find a way to circumvent your protections.”
As Bob finished his explanation, Rock turned to the women. “Since our team will be that which is handling the Martian technology, what do you both think?
Starr immediately said, “Why do we need to decide right now? What if we allow for the three of us to be recognized by this base? All of us would have to be dead to have the base reset itself to be open to anyone, and the chances of that would be diminishingly small. We can always implement other safeguards later. Also, we can add new people to the list if the team changes, grows, or someone is lost.”
Both Gina and Rock agreed that for the short term, this would be an effective way to safeguard the base. As Starr said, they could always modify it later. The team set the safeguards, taking the time to ensure that the base recognized all three of them, and headed back to the Fitz.
Once back onboard, and after checking on the prisoners, they set a course back to Mars. They landed back at the Emporium. Rock told his prisoners that they would be sent food and something to drink shortly. He and the two women went to see Mom and Terry and inform them of what had taken place while they were gone.
The story took a little while to tell, during which time Rock prepared simple sandwiches and jugs of water for the prisoners. After they had been provided food and water, Gina and Rock brainstormed a way to move the prisoners from their control over to that of the official legal system on Mars. The trick would be to do so without disclosing that Rock was involved.
The tough part would be to include Gina’s official status as the arresting officer while preventing that from becoming known. Gina said that she believed that she could include this as part of a covert operation which safeguarded the arresting officer’s identity. She would have to make sure that her superiors would permit it before committing the team to that course of action.
Gina left the Emporium to meet with her superior officer, and soon had an agreement that would allow her to transfer the prisoners to MIS custody without revealing her involvement. The entire event would be handled as one of utmost secrecy and a threat to the security of Mars, Earth and the Belt. Gina had to disclose the existence of Martian technology that was far in advance of human science. To avoid some problems, she explained that the Martian technology had self-destructed once the base was emptied. She hoped that it would indeed be enough to stop official investigation of the area.
Rock disguised his little ship as something far more impressive, and with Gina coordinating a landing at one of the official MSF landing ports, the prisoners were escorted from the newly disguised Fitz. Gina arranged for officials from MIS and MSF to jointly take the pirates into custody.
Paperwork, as is usually the case, seemed to take forever, but by late in the day everything had been completed, and the prisoners were processed and awaiting trial and final disposition. Since acts of piracy, and murder had been committed, in addition to destruction of the private property of a business with Mars registry, serious charges had been made against the pirates. There was little likelihood that any of them would escape sentences keeping them imprisoned for the remainder of their lives.
The Hidden Challenge
As Rock and his friends gathered at the Emporium to celebrate a successful conclusion to their endeavors, Mom and Terry asked them to narrate what happened. Between the three of them, a tale was woven that held everyone’s interest. As the story drew to a conclusion, Rock reached the part describing the older man and the teen. Mom turned as white as a sheet and halted the story.
“Rock, was this man dressed in a single piece of clothing that covered him from his neck to his feet? Was the boy dressed in the same manner?”
Rock bobbed is head in agreement. “What makes you ask that, Mom?”
Mom banged her fist on the conference room table and said, “I know that bastard, and that little miscreant who is his grandson.”
Rock and the others were concerned at Mom’s reaction. “Are you alright?” Terry asked, rushing over to her side.
Mom patted his hand as he placed it on her shoulder. “Oh, yes, I will be. This was just a great shock to hear.”
“Mom, from your reaction,” said Gina, “I have to assume you know this man far too well.”
Mom excused herself and went into the kitchen. She returned a minute later with a bottle of wine and some glasses. “Help yourselves if you so desire. I am having a drink!” she declared firmly.
After pouring herself a glass of the wine, she took a deep gulp and sat again. She took a breath and launched into a narrative.
“It has been a few years since I last heard anything from him, or more correctly, heard anything about him. The last I heard, he was living a life of crime in Louisiana. There were stories that he was being sought by the police on Earth, but the bayous of southern Louisiana are thick and populated by some secretive people. They don’t share the secrets of anyone else who lives among them.”
Terry, growing impatient as was his norm asked, “But who is he, Mom?”
Mom looked up at him standing alongside her chair. “He is my brother. After I left to come here, I heard that he took over my family’s old estates and businesses when my sister and parents mysteriously died in a fire. Ever since then, he has been in the news as a leader of one of the criminal groups in the businesses of prostitution, drugs and fencing stolen goods. If he is out here, this company and others could be in grave danger. He will not hesitate to kill people if he thinks it is necessary.”
That bombshell reverberated in the room for a minute before anyone spoke. Rock frowned and thought back to the base where he spoke to the man. “So, his name is Russ Marceau…”
Mom looked up sharply. “Russ? No, his name is Pierre. What made you say Russ?”
Rock explained, “He said his name was Papi Russ.”
Mom sat there expressionless for a moment before she started to shake with fear. She took another deep mouthful of the wine.
“Don’t you get it? He was issuing you a challenge, Rock.”
Rock looked blankly at Mom. Everyone else also looked at her with some confusion clearly written on their faces.
Mom finally said, “He loves to play word games. He also loves to give hints and clues to his enemies. He told you his name was Papi Russ. Doesn’t that sound a lot like papyrus?”
Starr was the first one to put it all together. “Oh, no. Papyrus is paper, right?”
Mom just nodded her head. She made a fist and covered her fist with her other hand.
“Yes, paper beats rock. Somewhere out there is a very dangerous man who has decided you are his target,” said Mom as she looked at Rock with a grim expression.
Rock simply said, “Just what I need, a megalomaniac trying to kill me and hurt my friends!”
Somewhere in the darkness sat many dangers. Some human, some not so human. The one common thing about them was that evil ruled them all.