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From CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN
Shearer sat with Wade and Lang at one of the tables in the detainees' mess area. Around them, and back at the two bunking rooms, everyone was waiting with topcoats on and personal belongings packed, ready to go. There was little talk. Even those who had opted for Earth were tense now that it was plain that the moment had arrived. Without the constant sensation of power pulsing through the structure, felt more than heard, and the rest of the background to being under way that had become so familiar as to cease registering consciously, the ship seemed dead and still. The only sounds now were the humming of the ventilators and the whines and clunks of unseen machinery securing the docking latches and service umbilicals. There was no reason for delay. Shearer estimated that the first batch to be departing should already be assembling in the core zone of the ship, where the main lock was situated.

The signal to move would be when Callen appeared, accompanied by Osterman, which would mean the bridge had received confirmation of the shuttle's departure. Earlier, Osterman had concealed caches of pistols and small arms at a number of strategic locations where the breakout groups would be able to retrieve them en route to their designated target areas. First priority was to seize the bridge and communications room before an alarm could be raised. Callen would head for it directly with a picked group, while Osterman led a second to subdue the remaining Milicorp detachment, some of whom he hoped could be induced into collaborating. Lang, meanwhile would lead a third group in a fast rush through to the satellite control center at the top end of the central cylinder, which it was vital to secure before word of trouble arrived. With those objectives attained, the way would be clear for Shearer, Wade, and a guard detail to escort everyone not wishing to return to Cyrene off the ship and onto the satellite to await later collection. At the same time, a technical squad commanded by the former mission ship officers would commence recharging the Ranger's power banks and restocking with water and supplies for the return trip. They expected to have everybody re-embarked and to be ready to detach in under an hour.

Never had Shearer known minutes to drag so slowly. He felt clammy, his stomach tight. Somebody farther along the table was drumming his fingers incessantly. Another somewhere behind clenched his teeth audibly every five seconds or so. Anticipating it got to be like listening to a dripping tap. Shearer wanted to scream at him to stop it. Wade caught his gaze and raised his eyebrows resignedly. Emner, who was nearby, leaned forward and murmured quietly.

"I take it, gentlemen, that this is where we part. Good luck to you all. Maybe, one day, I will see you again." Wade nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Thanks," Shearer whispered.

Footsteps sounded on the metal stairs a short distance along the corridor outside. Moments later, Osterman stepped in through the doorway, brandishing an automatic pistol, nodded curtly, and with a wave of his arm stood aside, holding the door. The lead squad, who had been waiting just inside, moved quickly and silently past him to follow Callen, also armed, who was visible beyond. Osterman's group were already moving up behind, while Jeff Lang and the fast team closed in from the sides to group for the run into the satellite as soon as the way through the ship was clear. Perhaps thirty seconds passed. Then Lang's voice came from the front in a low but commanding, "Go!" and the waiting figures melted away into the corridor.

Everything seemed to be going quietly and smoothly. Surely if anything had gone wrong on the bridge they would have heard hints of it by now. Two of those who had gone ahead reappeared to station themselves inside the door, now carrying weapons. Shearer got up and moved forward to join them. One handed him a pocket two-way radio and a pistol. Shearer had no experience of using a gun. The whole idea was not to have to. It was intended primarily as a badge of authority.

Behind him, Wade addressed the eleven detainees who were left. "Okay, no surprise. This is it. There's no time for speeches. We're taking the Ranger back to Cyrene. Anyone can stay aboard who wishes to. Everybody else will be taken off the ship now. You'll be collected from the satellite later. Please cooperate. Nobody wants to see any unpleasantness."

They were prepared for something like this. A couple seemed to be in a mild state of shock. Nothing happened for several seconds. Then Emner, smiling faintly to himself, got up and moved calmly toward the door. One by one, others began following. A woman called Jaynie, who had been at Linzava, and Ted, a steel erector from Revo base, who had become friendly with her during the voyage hung back, looking uncertainly at each other. Then they exchanged silent nods. Ted looked at Wade. "We're staying," he said.

Wade nodded. "Just stay here for now," he told them.

Shearer and the man who had given him the pistol led the rest out into the corridor and up the stairway to the main inboard deck, where an armed trooper in Milicorp uniform ushered them on through to the core zone--one of Osterman's defectors. A wider corridor and another stairwell brought them to the access ramp and lock antechamber. It had been secured by a rearguard from Jeff Lang's squad, who had already gone through. Controlling the lock was one of the crucial parts. God, we're going to pull it off! Shearer told himself.

This was where they were supposed to meet Osterman, bringing the Ranger's second officer, crew members, and disarmed Milicorp remnants to join the others being taken through to the satellite. One of Lang's rearguard confirmed that they hadn't shown up yet. Shearer tried to raise Osterman on the radio but without success.

"We'll wait here for them," Wade said to Shearer, indicating himself and two of the company. "You go ahead with the others."

The connecting ramp to the satellite was clear. A guide posted by Lang waved Shearer and his party on through a gallery crossing the main toroid into a second ramp leading to the central cylinder. They would deliver the stay-behinds to the control center, they had decided. The satellite crew there would know how best to accommodate them until a relief shuttle arrived. They came to the access shaft leading up to the end of the cylinder where the control center was located, and reached the entrance. Two more of Lang's squad were posted outside. Leaving his charges with the guards, Shearer went inside to check on the situation.

Lang was there with the remaining few of his own squad . . . and nobody else. The room was empty, its monitor stations and control desks unmanned. He was looking bemused, staring out through one of the large, angled viewing panes at a shuttle that was in the process of pulling away from the far side of the toroid on reverse thrusters, evidently having just detached. As Shearer watched, it slowed to a halt, and then began sliding forward again and turning to cross in front of the dumpy silhouette of the robot freighter hanging in the background.

Just detached?

But the shuttle was supposed to have detached before Callen came down to the detainees' quarters. His cue to leave the bridge was to have been a signal being received there from the satellite that the shuttle had departed. How could it be departing only now?
One of Lang's troops looked up from a screen that he and another were operating. "Callen is back on the line now, Jeff."

Lang turned from the window and moved over. Shearer came forward to join him. The expression on Callen's face was just as bewildered as Lang's. "It's the same here," he announced. "Nobody. The entire bridge area is deserted. Same for communications and the propulsion section. They're all gone. Everybody."

Something was very, very wrong.

 
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