Chapter 8
Jefferies Tubes

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1006

"Sir!" the helmsman exclaimed. "Pandora's Box has been opened!"
"What!?"
Commodore Frazier couldn't believe what he was hearing. Why on earth would they spacefold now?
"Commander Rymer," he shouted at the navigator, "confirm our position!"
"We're outside the network, sir," Commander Rymer replied. "It'll take a minute to--"
"Multiple contacts!" the radar operator interrupted. "Closing fast!"
Before the Commodore could say anything, the bridge was bathed in red light.
"We've lost main power again!" another crewman shouted. "The auxiliary isn't kicking in!"
Commodore Frazier cursed under his breath. They couldn't fight on emergency power alone and they couldn't run either. They would have to do something, though.
"Cut life support for all unoccupied compartments and reroute the power to as many shield projectors, weapons systems and sensors as we can get."
"Sir, we can't get in touch with the Engine Room."
"Bypass them."
"No good, sir. The Engine Room is blocking the substations."
"Get me Chandaria."
"No response, sir."
"Sir," the communications officer interrupted, "we're being hailed."
"Send it to my channel," Commodore Frazier said.
"Aye-aye, sir."
The Commodore sat down in his chair, inserted his earphone and motioned for his XO to do the same before tapping the screen in the armrest.
"Identify yourself," he said.
No video appeared. It was an audio-only feed.
A man's voice asked, "Is it not polite to give your name before asking someone else to give theirs?"
Commodore Frazier had never heard of the Shellies actively communicating with anyone, but he wasn't playing this guy's game.
"I say again, identify yourself."
"You are not in a position to be making demands," the voice replied, "but I am feeling generous. I am called Discord. I am a first degree master of the Sheol Imperial Navy assigned to the dreadnought Titahion--you would better know her as the Lethe. I will be your liaison. This is the captain I am talking to, correct? Commodore Blake Frazier of the ESS Ticonderoga?"
This would've been more shocking if not for everything else that had just happened. If the newest and most advanced warship in the whole Union Navy could be delivered to the Shellies on a platter, then it was no surprise that they already knew who he was.
"Yes, I'm Commodore Frazier."
"One of the fabled Heroes of the Union," this 'Discord' said, half-mocking, half-appreciative. "It is an honor. Few can boast of single-handedly killing so many of our people."
And I'd love to kill a few more of you bastards right about know, the Commodore thought to himself.
Opting to be a little more diplomatic out loud, he said, "You said you're a liaison. What are you here for?"
"To negotiate the terms of your surrender, of course," Discord replied matter-of-factly, like it was so painfully obvious that it was embarrassing for him to spell it all out. "You are currently surrounded by five of the ten fleets of the Imperial Navy." He paused. "Let that soak in for a moment. Five fleets to your one ship. In the twenty-five years we have been fighting you, we have never sent more than two fleets into Union space at a time.
"No more than two fleets in all this time," he repeated. "Think of Titan. Think of Ganymede. Do the calculations in your mind. Now there are five fleets. And remember that you are all on your own.
"You are dead in the water, one of your hangars is inoperable, and you have been separated from your escorts. Even if you could fight, how long do you think you would last?"
Commodore Frazier was glad this Discord person wasn't being broadcast right now. He was confident in the professionalism and mental toughness of the crew, but against these odds, how many of them wouldn't break? The fact that the Shellies were calling for surrender instead of destroying them outright only made it more terrifying. He thought of the Shelly they captured and what Dr. Kim had said about what they did to him. That was the fate that was waiting for every man and woman on board.
He looked to his XO, who was standing right next to him, and asked, "Yuen, you got all that?"
"I did," Yuen replied curtly, standing at ease and looking ahead stoically, apparently in an effort to draw less attention to their conversation.
Following Yuen's lead, Commodore Frazier looked out ahead and kept his question short.
"You see a way out?"
"I don't."
The Commodore paused briefly before suggesting what seemed to be the only course of action left open to them.
"Light it up?"
"It's better than the alternative."
It was amazing how calmly Yuen assented to the option of self-destructing the ship, but he knew how valuable the Ticonderoga was and could probably imagine what a nightmare capture by the Shellies would be. There really was no other choice in the matter.
That being said, while Commodore Frazier was the captain, he wasn't the highest-ranking officer on board. Even if it was only a courtesy, he wanted Admiral Mfume to know. The Admiral was in his quarters when the lockdown was declared, but he should've been there on the bridge. It didn't seem right for him to learn about all this second-hand, but it was better than being left in the dark.
"I'll get in touch with the old man," Commodore Frazier said.
Not wanting to raise any suspicions, the Commodore opened up a secure channel to the Admiral from his own console. Unsurprisingly, the Admiral picked up almost immediately.
"Sir, it's Frazier."
"What's the status, Commodore?"
"They opened Pandora's Box, sir."
"What? Who's 'they'?"
"Whoever staged all this. Now we've got no power and five Shelly fleets all around us."
"Did you just say five fleets?"
"Yes, sir."
"And there's no way to restore power?"
"Engine Room is incommunicado and the Shellies are closing in."
The Admiral's line went silent for a moment before he said, "Then you know what to do."
"I wanted you to know first, sir."
"I appreciate that, Commodore. You're captain and this is your ship. Do what has to be done."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"Mfume, out."
Commodore Frazier closed the channel and slumped back in his chair.
"You heard him, Yuen."
"Would you like to say a word to the crew?"
"I would," the Commodore said with a sigh, "but I'm afraid that if we tip our hand, the infiltrators will make a move to block us."
"It isn't easy to interfere with a self-destruct sequence."
"It isn't easy to do any of the stuff they've done and I'm not about to underestimate them right now."
"So you'll kill ten thousand people without even giving them the chance to say their final prayers?"
"I didn't know you were a religious man, Yuen."
"I'm not, but if we're going to do this, I want to know you're prepared to follow through."
"The captain has to be prepared to make decisions like this."
"So long as you understand that. Let's go."
The Commodore got up and the two of them walked over to the central control station. The designers went overboard on the security, requiring a hand scan, retinal scan, card swipe, key sequence, and a voice command just to activate it.
While they were doing that, one of the crewmen shouted, "Enemy ship closing in! It looks like they're preparing to board!"
"Prime the EMP generators," Commodore Frazier said, more to keep the bridge crew occupied than anything else. "Prepare to engage on my mark." Taking hold of the key on the control station, he looked to Yuen. "On three?"
"On three."
"One, two, three."
They turned their keys in unison, activating the self-destruct sequence. The die was cast. They were being spared a far worse fate.
Stone-faced as ever, Yuen turned to the Commodore.
"Commodore."
"Yes?"
Yuen extended his hand.
"It's been an honor."
The Commodore smiled and took Yuen's hand. "Likewise."

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1042

The self-destruct sequence was activated and set on a short timer. In less than 60 seconds, the Ticonderoga would go up in a massive thermonuclear explosion with all ten thousand hands on board.
"I think not," Jeff said to himself as he killed the sequence.
This would come as a bit of a disappointment for the people on the bridge, but maybe this would inspire more creative solutions to the current situation. Jeff wasn't willing to die because the higher ups saw no other way out.
PERHAPS YOU ARE ONLY DELAYING THE INEVITABLE, N suggested.
"I didn't see you try to interfere."
I AM AS INTERESTED IN SELF-PRESERVATION AS YOU ARE, MR. WALLACE. PERHAPS EVEN MORE SO. THE FACT REMAINS, HOWEVER, THAT YOU HAVE THROWN AWAY THE BEST CHANCE TO KEEP THIS SHIP AND HER CREW FROM FALLING INTO THE HANDS OF THE SHEOLITES. YOU WILL LAST A LITTLE LONGER HERE, BUT NOT MUCH.
Jeff was hiding in the maintenance tunnels that ran throughout the ship. It was the only way he could move freely without being seen during the lockdown and now that Sheolite boarders would soon be flooding in, the last place he wanted to be was sitting quietly in his room waiting to be dragged off.
"I'll take what I can get," Jeff said. "Why don't you make yourself useful?"
WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST?
"You can start by playing with the Shelly computers trying to hack the system. That'd free me up to do something about the power."
I AM SURPRISED YOU WOULD NOT TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY YOURSELF.
"I thought you might be more willing to cooperate if I gave you the interesting job."
CLEVER BOY. I MUST ADMIT, I AM EAGER TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THESE SHEOLITES. I THINK I WILL TAKE YOU UP ON YOUR OFFER, MR. WALLACE. I WILL PROBABLY HAVE TO DEVOTE MOST OF MY ATTENTION TO THIS TASK, SO TRY TO STAY ALIVE UNTIL I TALK TO YOU AGAIN.
Jeff had no idea what level of IT wizardry the Shellies had at their disposal, but they were bound to have their hands full with N. He didn't trust the capricious AI that much, but who else could he turn to? For better or for worse, the two of them were accomplices and as long as her interests were served, he figured she was probably more reliable than any human.
The ship had another 70 hours of emergency power and at best an extra 24 hours of bare-minimum life support. Of course, the Shellies would probably overwhelm the ship's defenders well before then. Putting that aside, Jeff had to wonder what their chances were even if he could restore power.
The lights went out again, but this time it wasn't just a split-second interruption. They had activated the EMP generators, the ship's last defense against the Shelly ships that were closing in. Jeff hastily turned off his visor. The last thing he needed was to lose his remote link to the ship's systems.
Jeff counted down the seconds before the circuits would reengage and the emergency power kicked back in. When the power came back on, Jeff wondered if the EMP did any good or if it even activated. Knowing the people who made all this happen, he wouldn't put it past them to disable the EMP generators. Even if they didn't, there were more than enough ships out there to completely overrun the Tico.
He rebooted his visor and proceeded to access the ship's combat systems. The more advanced sensors would be offline due to the power situation, but basic radar should still be operational and it'd tell him how many ships were out there and how they were moving.
Dammit. They were being jammed and emergency power wouldn't be enough to activate ECCM. This really was a fine mess they were in.
Think, think, think!
There had to be an answer. There had to be a way out. He refused to believe that blowing up the ship was the only other choice they had. He had to think of something.

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1103

There were only two Marines guarding the Admiral's stateroom. Too easy. One operative would have been enough for the job. Two made failure impossible, but that was the idea.
He reached for his weapon and prepared to tap his mic, the signal to attack.
One...
Two...
Before he could tap the third time and start the attack, he was distracted by a clacking on the deck. He turned to see someone approaching. It was a man wearing an exoskeletal frame, walking unsteadily. Just a cripple who could not even stand on his own. Not a threat. Once he was out of earshot, the attack could commence.
The cripple plodded along slowly, a dull clack accompanying each step. The operative flattened himself against the bulkhead. Between the dim emergency lighting and his optic camouflage, there was not much chance of being seen, but he did not want the cripple to bump into him while stumbling along and risk botching the mission.
Clack, clack, clack, clack...
Just as the cripple was walking past, he abruptly slammed into the bulkhead, throwing all his weight into a crushing shoulder check. Pain and surprise paralyzed the operative only for a moment. He tried to draw his weapon, but the cripple had his arm pinned. Before he could do anything with his free hand, the cripple punched him in the neck.
Only he did not just punch the operative. The sensation was too deep for that. The feel of a crossbar grinding against the operative's jawbone made him realize what it was. He had just been stabbed.
Already starting to feel light-headed and weak, the operative felt a sense of panic sweep over him, not only for his quickly fading life but also for his mission. How did this cripple know he was there? Was he even a cripple at all? How much did he know? What about his comrades?
It would be okay, the operative assured himself. Not all the cards were on the table. The mission would proceed without him. This was only a temporary setback.

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1112

Commander Joachim quietly dragged the body around the corner, not wanting to alert the Admiral's guards. Kazmatov was taking care of the other hostile, so the immediate threat had passed, here at least.
He felt around for the button to deactivate the optic camouflage. Even without the optic camouflage in effect, the slick black suit was hard to see in these lighting conditions. Whoever these people were, they were well-equipped. This sort of gear was only used in black ops, but there was no way anyone in the government had authorized this. Or was there?
Following the trail back to the source was out of the Commander's hands. He needed to take charge of the situation on the ground now. Immediately following the explosion in Hangar One, he had a feeling something big was happening and he and his people could not stay out of it. If the ship was under attack from the shadows, she needed someone in the shadows fighting for her.
He pulled the mask off the body and recognized the face right away. It was Guo Nanqi, a common deck swabbie with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, but ChiComs would not have authorized an op like this. More than likely, Guo had either infiltrated the CCP or he was recruited by some third party.
Commander Joachim would have to check the one Kazmatov got later. For now, he wanted to see if he could listen in on the hostiles' radio chatter. He took Guo's headset and put it on. Pros of this caliber would have good EMCON, so he might be waiting a while before he heard anything.
"Yuda Four, this is Yuda One. Status of Oscar Mike?"
So much for having to wait. It would seem that he stopped the hostiles just in the nick of time. Oscar Mike... The Old Man? A little more transparent than the Commander was expecting from them. Also, their callsign grated on his nerves for some reason.
He had to decide what to do. Should he risk impersonating Guo? If he was exposed as a fake, the hostiles would be on their guard. Then again, no response would have the same result.
He looked down at Guo's body and saw the modulator stuck to his voice box. That could work in his favor. He was glad he went under the chin instead of slitting the man's throat.
Peeling off the voice mod, Commander Joachim stuck it on his own throat and tested it briefly before speaking into the mic.
"This is Yuda Four. Oscar Mike secured."
Silence. Would they go for it?
"Good work, Yuda Four," Yuda One replied. "Proceed to party hall. Guests on the way. Radio silence until then. Out."
Did it work or did they just want him to think it worked? Either way, there was not going to be any more radio chatter. The Commander looked to Jin, his SIGINT expert.
"Were you able to--"
Realizing he was still wearing the voice mod, the Commander peeled it off and started over.
"Were you able to get a trace out of that?"
"Deck 8, sir," Jin replied, "aft. Probably the Engine Room."
The Commander glanced up at the emergency lights. "That explains this mess. All the senior personnel would've stayed behind when they announced the lockdown. We have to assume they've been compromised."
"This is too big for us, sir," Jin said. "Shouldn't we try to make contact with one of the other cells?"
Specials were embedded in independent eight-man cells. They were not supposed to know of the existence of any others at their location, but any Special worth his salt did his homework. Of course, Specials who were worth their salt also did not make themselves that easy to out, but there is only so much you can do.
Though they could use all the help they could get, Commander Joachim shook his head. "Too risky. We don't know if they've been compromised or not and they'll be thinking the same about us. If they've decided to move, we don't interfere and we don't try to make contact."
"And our other guests on board?"
Jin was talking about all the operatives from other agencies that were undercover as crewmembers. The Commander had to wonder if their current situation was the bitter fruit they reaped from the government's love of infiltrating itself. It was certainly an appealing notion, to bring together a bunch of highly trained individuals who were all supposed to be on the same team, but...
"Again, too risky. We don't know who to trust."
Guillames, another member of the Commander's team, inserted himself into the conversation.
"Speaking of guests, it sounds like there are more on the way."
Commander Joachim sorely wanted to know who these 'guests' were supposed to be. Given the situation, it would have to be the Sheolites, but how could something like this happen, who would arrange it, and--most of all--why?
"What's the word from the bridge?" he asked.
"Ikuhara was off-duty," Jin said, "so she's laying low for now. Should we call her up?"
"No," the Commander replied. "If she's in her berth, she needs to stay there."
"What about Aswani, Sen and Gitell?"
The rest of members of their cell were pilots in the Commander's squadron. They were trained for this kind of work, but the disappearance of three officers from their quarters in the middle of lockdown would be noticed and that was something they could not afford, even under the current circumstances.
"Leave them for now," Commander Joachim said. "There are too many of us out as it is."
"Not nearly enough if you ask me, sir," Guillames replied.
"We do what we can."
Guillames nudged the dead Guo with his foot. "What do we do about this?"
"Jettison."
"How?"
"Pod pop. Guillames, let Kazmatov and Blumen know. I'll take point."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Guillames went around the corner, making his way to Kazmatov. A disappointed-looking Jin hoisted up Guo's body by the arms.
"Dragging around a goddamned jjanggae isn't in my job description," he grumbled to himself.
"What have I told you people about that profanity?"
"Yes, sir," Jin replied with a sigh.
Commander Joachim went on ahead to scout the way to the nearest muster point. Thanks to the lockdown, there would not be many people in the passageways, but getting spotted by a roving patrol of MAs or Marines would be far worse than some random sailor.
Happily, the way to the muster point was clear. A pod pop was a convenient way to dispose of incriminating evidence by loading it into an escape pod, rigging the pod to blow and then shooting it into space. Even the most dedicated forensics teams rarely put all the pieces together.
Although the Ticonderoga mostly boasted the latest in Union technology, the escape pods were the standard six-man model found on all medium and heavy Navy ships built in the last twenty years. The familiar design made the job of rigging it quick and easy. Having some actual explosives on hand made the job a cinch, but you could make it work by sabotaging the thrusters successfully.
The trick was to rig it so the pod got some distance first before it blew. There were more than a few botched pod pops that took out a chunk of the ship's hull, but the Commander had more than enough experience to get it right.
Kazmatov put the body of the other hostile into the pod. Commander Joachim quickly examined it. Broken neck, cleaner than the knife trick he used on Guo. He did not recognize the face, though. He took a quick picture and a tissue sample to scan later.
"Are we not going to salvage any of the gear, sir?" Kazmatov asked.
"No," the Commander replied. "Everything goes. No traces."
"But don't we need evidence, sir?"
"It's nothing we can use. As much as I'd like to try luring their buddies into a trap, I have a feeling it'd backfire on us. Besides, if they have any sense, they'll dig in. If we survive any of this, that is."
The Commander finished rigging the pod and then closed the hatch. Due to the power situation, he had Kazmatov engage the manual release and was rewarded by the pneumatic hiss of the pod detaching.
The hostiles were not likely to send another team after the Admiral. That was one less worry, but what to do next?
Before he could decide, the ship rocked violently. They had hit something.

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1128

"Roll to starboard!" Commodore Frazier shouted over the collision alarms.
"Roll to starboard, aye-aye, sir!" the helmsman shouted back.
The Commodore didn't know why the self-destruct failed to engage, but he wasn't going to give up the ship just yet. They didn't have their main engines, but they still had the directional thrusters. It'd make them hard for the Shellies to catch at least. He only hoped the Ticonderoga's hull was made of stronger stuff than their ships.
The gravity generators were still working, so they weren't being tossed around by the roll. The worst of it was nothing more than a slight lurching in the pit of the stomach, but that wasn't anything to worry about. After all, there were other far more pressing concerns at the moment.
"Now lateral slide to starboard," the Commodore said as the ship rounded out a 360. "Get some distance between us and that Shelly can."
"Lateral slide to starboard, aye."
This would buy them some time while the Shelly ship righted itself and moved in for another attempt to dock. Firing at intermittent bursts, the juice in the thrusters would last longer than the emergency power. He didn't imagine the Shellies would keep up this dance for three days, but he was going to keep at it as long as he could.
Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be much longer.
The ship started to shake and he could feel their momentum shift. The main Shelly ship was trying to reel them in with its tractor beam arrays. It would have to take a lot of arrays to do much against a ship as big as the Tico. He could turn the tables on them, though.
"Lateral slide to port! Hit 'em hard."
"Lateral slide to port, aye."
However, as soon as helmsman repeated the order, the ship started shaking again.
The helmsman then shouted, "No go, sir! We can't move!"
"Nose up!"
"No go, sir!"
"They've positioned ships all around us, sir," one of the operators said. "They're all using their tractor beams to hold us in place."
Now nothing short of the main engines could give them the thrust they needed to move. They were running out of options.
"What combat systems do we have available?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"None of them, sir," the CS operator replied. "The EMP generators were our last shot."
The Commodore looked to the communications officer. "Comms are still being blocked?"
"Yes, sir."
"Use the sound-powered phones. Get the word out. Tell all hands to prepare to be boarded. Tell them to do whatever they can, to resist capture at all costs."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"What all weapons do we have here on the bridge?" the Commodore asked Yuen.
"We have two MAs here armed with P43s, sir."
Commodore Frazier sighed. "Outstanding."
He did not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the dismal odds and called out to the entire bridge, "Alright, people, listen up! I don't know how you're going to do it, but get internal comms back online. We need to be able to coordinate the defense of the ship."
"Sir," the communications officer replied, "how can we do anything locked up in here?"
"Find a way, sailor. Failure is not an option."
It wasn't much of an answer, but he had to count on the ingenuity of the crew. There had to be something they could do, because if there wasn't, it really would be all over.

* * *

Date: Tue 09 Jul 121
Time: UST 1152

Jeff wasn't the sort of person who cared much about the specifications of the ship he was on save for the systems that mattered most to him and his area of specialty. That was probably a mistake in retrospect. Had he known about the government's experiments with spacefolding and, more particularly, the fully functional spacefolding engines on the Ticonderoga, he might have done something about it.
Well, now he definitely was going to do something about it.
The ship shook again. He had been bounced all around in maintenance tunnels for a good half hour. He had a bad feeling about it this time.
The bridge crew was trying in vain to access internal comms. There was extensive sabotage to the communications systems, but it was far from complete. He quickly routed a circuit between the bridge and the main intercom and in about a minute, he was nearly deafened by a speaker that was installed a little too close to where he was.
"Attention, all hands! Attention, all hands! We are being boarded! I repeat, we are being boarded! Report to your armory and claim your assigned weapon. Resist capture at all costs. I repeat, resist capture at all costs."
So they were going to duke it out with the Shellies? That would buy him some time, but how much?
He had to put his plan into action quickly. He needed to restore power and activate the spacefolding engines to get them out of there. But who was going to operate the spacefolding engine? He certainly wasn't going to be able to figure it out in a few hours.
Through a little extra digging, he had learned that the Reactor Officer was specifically assigned to oversee the spacefolding engines. In fact, the entire Reactor Department was just a cover for the operation of the spacefolding engines.
And, unfortunately, every single one of them was dead. The saboteurs had clearly anticipated the possibility of using the spacefolding engines to get out of this mess as quickly as they had gotten into it. Now what?
There were a couple dozen lifesigns in the Engine Room. Most of them were engineering personnel, but some of them weren't. He had a feeling those other signals were the saboteurs, or at least one group of them. There were a lot of dead people in the Engine Room--namely the entire Reactor Department. So why were the others being left alive?
They were all high rankers in the Engineering Department, officers and chiefs. Were they being held hostage? He didn't imagine they were in on the plot, not all of them at least.
He paused on one of the names. EMC Eva Bianchi. Her again.
He hadn't encountered her personally since that time in the hangar last month, but he'd been keeping an eye on her ever since.
And that's when it hit him. She was perfect for his plan.
Her electronics expertise was exactly what he needed to get the ship running again. Also, she had been doing a lot of private research into spacefolding. She might just know enough to operate the spacefolding engines. If only he could be so lucky...
Now came the hard part. How was he going to get to her?
The closest hatch to the maintenance tunnels was about three meters from her position. That was too much ground to cover without being seen. And even if he could get to her, how was he going to extract her? How could he clear the Engine Room of the saboteurs? Would they even be able to get everything up and running again?
As the questions piled up, Jeff could feel his head throbbing. He couldn't very well spend another hour thinking about what to do. They didn't have much time left.
Then something unexpected happened.
He picked up signals closing in and they were in the tunnels. He cursed under his breath. What was he going to do?
He didn't know who these signals belonged to, but he couldn't imagine any scenario where it would be good for him. He needed to buy himself some time. Every junction had shutters that could be closed and locked manually. What he would've given for the ship to have power right now. It would make all this so much faster.
He turned back to the previous junction to close the shutter, then went forward and closed the next one. He did this fore, port and starboard to put two layers between him and the other people in the tunnels. As dangerous as it was, he still wanted to try to extract Bianchi and put his plan into action, so he was going to keep on moving toward the Engine Room.
Now that he had bought himself some time, he looked into the people who were closing in on him. Unlike the saboteurs in the Engine Room, Jeff was able to draw a common thread to connect the people in the tunnels. They were all Specials embedded in the crew. He could only hope that meant they were the good guys, but there was no guarantee.
The best case scenario was that they were moving in to recapture the Engine Room. The worst case scenario was that they were reinforcing the saboteurs. Either way, he had to get Bianchi out. A firefight could create the distraction he needed to cover those three meters to get to her. The crossfire could also get her killed, which is why he had to hurry. He could also wind up getting himself killed, but there was no way out of this mess that didn't force him to put his ass on the line one way or another.
Before he did anything, though, he needed to confirm whether or not the Specials knew he was in there with them and if they planned to do anything about it. He figured they were equipped with IR scopes and maybe motion sensors. He only hoped they couldn't access tracker signals.
He lay still and watched the signals' approach. If they tried to open the shutters or move to flank him, he'd have to bug out quick. For now, he could only watch and wait as they came closer, closer, closer. He could feel his muscles tense up, anticipating the burst of energy he'd need to get out of there.
Closer.
Closer.
Eight meters...
Seven...
Six...
Five...
And then the eight signals split up, moving around him. It could've been a flanking maneuver, so Jeff couldn't breathe easy just yet.
But they kept on moving, going deeper into the Engine Room. Two pair split off to move up to the higher levels. They were getting into position to attack.
Though a part of him was nervous he might set them off by moving, Jeff started to get into position himself. Just three meters, he told himself.
He looked up Bianchi's biometric data. She was in reasonably good condition, but he was probably going to have to drag her to safety. 61 kilos... That was probably going to be a pain, but it could be worse.
He unlocked the hatch above him and waited for the Specials to make their move.
Waiting.
Waiting.
Now.
The Specials had entered the Engine Room and were moving about slowly, carefully. Jeff didn't think they had a bead on the saboteurs, so they were going to have to find them out on their own. This could all go very wrong very soon.
He cross-referenced the lifesigns with the tracker signals just in time to see the saboteur closest to the hostages go down. The saboteurs sprang into motion, as did the four Specials on the bottom level. It was now or never.
Jeff popped open the hatch and crawled out. Keeping as low as he could, he scrambled over to a line of hostages lying face down with hands zip-tied behind their backs. He caught sight of the distinctly female shape of Bianchi, grabbed her by the ankles and went full reverse back to the hatch.
Bianchi was screaming, other people were shouting and shots were ringing out, but Jeff ignored all of this, focusing entirely on getting back to the hatch. When he got there, he took hold of Bianchi by the back of her coveralls, struggling to lift her just enough to force her into the tunnel. He hastily ducked in after her, grabbing the hatch as he went down and slamming it shut. As he turned the crank to lock it, he was floored by a sharp kick to the ribs.
That damned woman was flailing her legs and screaming curses in about a dozen different languages. All Jeff wanted to do was stay curled up in a ball writhing in pain, but Bianchi was still kicking and he wanted her to stop.
"Knock it off, goddammit!" he shouted. "Ow! Quit! I'm not one of them! Stop it!"
Jeff was inching out of reach of those damned feet of hers just as she finally stopped kicking and screaming long enough to see who he was. Even in the minimal lighting of the tunnel, she seemed to recognize him.
"Slinker? What are you doing here?"
Jeff didn't much like the pet name she'd come up for him, but now wasn't the time to complain about that.
"Follow me," he said.
Bianchi looked at him incredulously.
"How am I supposed to follow you like this? Cut these zip-ties for me."
"I don't have a knife or anything."
"What? Isn't that supposed to be a rule or something?"
Jeff didn't answer her. Why on earth would she expect him to carry around a knife?
After fidgeting around a bit, Bianchi said, "I've got a multitool in my left hip pocket. Use that."
Holding his injured side, Jeff crawled over to her. In the narrow space of the tunnel he just barely had enough room to straddle her legs so he could reach the pocket. Although he was somewhat uncomfortable about it, he reached into the pocket to fish out the multitool.
"Don't get too friendly while you're in there," Bianchi said.
Jeff wasn't quite sure if she was joking or flirting. She did, after all, have a bit of a flirty way about her during their last encounter, as little sense as that made. Weren't the suppressants supposed to cut back on that nonsense?
Pushing those thoughts aside, he pulled out the multitool and Bianchi promptly rolled over. She had gotten onto her back to kick him and now she was back on her stomach so he could cut the zip-ties. While he was trying to find the knife, Bianchi felt the need to make another quip.
"I usually don't let guys get this far on the first date."
There she went again. It had to be because of comments like that that he found himself noticing the curve of her hips that the baggy coveralls didn't quite hide.
"Quit staring at my ass and focus," Bianchi chided, glancing at Jeff over her shoulder. "You'll cut my damn wrists if you don't pay attention."
Embarrassed, Jeff quickly sawed away at the zip-ties until he finally cut through. Bianchi rolled back over and eased herself up into as much of a sitting position as she could manage in the confines of the tunnel. She was rubbing her wrist when Jeff handed her back the multitool.
Bianchi took the multitool and said, "Thanks," as she stuffed it back into her pocket. "Now are you gonna tell me what you're doing here?"
"No time for questions," Jeff replied brusquely. "Follow me."
"What about the rest of my people?"
"I can't do anything for them. It's a miracle I was able to get you. If you want to do something useful, you'll stop asking questions and follow me."
Jeff decided to start moving and hope that she'd follow. As he got to the first junction, he went around the corner and waited a bit. When she poked her head around the corner, he motioned for her to go on ahead.
"Just keep going straight for now," he told her. "I'll tell you when to turn when it comes up."
"You just want to stare at my ass the whole way."
Jeff was losing his patience with her.
"Enough about your ass. The only thing I want is for you to move it. I need to close the shutters behind us in case someone tries to follow us."
She went on ahead like she was told, thankfully, and he was able to close the shutters at the junction. He didn't close the shutters at every junction along the way, just every two or three, enough slow anyone down long enough for him to come up with countermeasures.
He eventually directed her down one deck and on the winding way to an engineering substation. Luckily, there was a hatch right in the compartment, so there was no need to be out in the passageways.
"Do you know what this place is?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah," Bianchi replied, looking around, "it's the substation on Deck 9."
It was one less thing he had to explain, but there was a lot more he had to go over. He only hoped she could follow along.
"Look, we don't have much time, so you're going to get the short version. These saboteurs, they made the ship spacefold right in the middle of half the Shelly navy. They've already got boarders coming in."
Bianchi held her hands up to her mouth in shock.
"Oh my God!"
Jeff didn't give her any time to think about it or she might get it in her head that they were totally screwed.
"Our only way out of this is to spacefold again," he said. "Can you operate the spacefolding engines?"
Surprised, Bianchi asked him, "How do you know about the Kasfeys?"
That wasn't the sort of questions Jeff wanted her asking, so he kept pushing her.
"Can you do it?"
Bianchi shook her head. "No, I can't. Only the Reactor Department has access and they're all, all..."
"Dead," he said, finishing her sentence. "I know. If you had the access, could you do it?"
She wasn't expecting that, but she played along and gave it some serious consideration.
"I've studied the theory behind it," she said after a while, "but I wouldn't know the first thing about the Kasfeys themselves."
"How fast could you learn if you had all the Reactor Department's materials?"
"There's no way I could get that."
"If you could?"
Bianchi scratched her head.
"I'd have to see it first, I guess, but unless it's a lot more complicated than any other piece of machinery I've worked with, I could probably get a decent understanding of it in a few hours maybe. But even if I could operate the Kasfeys, I'd need main power back online. They used the Electrical Officer's override to shut everything down and then they killed him. I can't countermand it with my clearance."
"If access wasn't a problem, could you make it happen?"
"Of course, so long as there isn't any damage to the circuits. But the saboteurs have probably busted them up to keep us dead in the water."
"How long would it take to replace them?"
"It'd depend on how bad the damage is. I'd need EM to get the job done. It'll take longer with us being on emergency power. But all this is hypothetical because I don't have the access to make any of it happen."
Access, access was all she talked about. If that was her biggest obstacle, then they had a chance.
"I can give you the access you need," Jeff told her, "along with all the information that's in the ship's systems. You just focus on making things happen."
Bianchi could only stare at him in slack-jawed amazement.
"Who are you?"
"Call me Jeff."
That was all he intended to tell her and surprisingly, that seemed to be enough for her.
"Eva," she replied, extending her hand. "But I have the feeling you already know that."
Somewhat reluctantly, he accepted her hand. She had an unnecessarily strong, manhandling grip, but he did his best not to wince.
"Make all that hypothetical into reality, Eva."
"I'll do what I can, Jeff."