High Noon

After the damaged gunship rendezvoused with its mothership and made an emergency landing, Capt. Ian Hennessy paced angrily back and forth behind his bridge officers, which only served to put them more on edge. Grumpily, the captain asked, “What are your orders, Mr. Bartholomew?”

Bartholomew was Julian Starr’s cat’s paw for matters both delicate and illegal. He was a hulking man standing quietly on the bridge with his hands behind his back, wearing a black suit tunic that made him look like a stern, granite statue. Mr. Bartholomew didn’t think Capt. Hennessy was very good at his job, but it was hard to hire good henchmen way out here in the Hydra Complex. The captain did have extensive experience as a wing commander though, before hurriedly retiring from the military to become a mercenary, which he was now, in lieu of being court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. 

The operations officer told Capt. Hennessy, “The medic reports that the gunship pilot is in sick bay with minor burn injuries.” 

“Good! I want him hale and hearty before I drag him out of his bed and kick him off this boat,” railed Hennessy, partly meaning what he said, and partly playing up his outrage for the benefit of the man in the black suit standing quietly nearby. “His orders were simple,” said the captain. “All he had to do was clear the area of witnesses. Instead, he manages to damage a valuable resource and just barely fly it back here.” The captain was winding himself up now and began smacking his fist in his palm. “On second thought, tell the medic I want to talk to that pilot right now!”

Mr. Bartholomew sighed over the captain’s anger management and leadership skills. The captain’s angry demeanor wasn’t inspiring his crew to perform any better. Finally, Bartholomew said in a dead steady voice, “I don’t think that will be necessary, Captain. We should let the pilot rest—don’t you agree?” The captain might not have been insightful enough to be a good captain, but he did have enough common sense to immediately give in to Mr. Bartholomew’s thinly veiled order.

Mr. Bartholomew stood thoughtfully, ramrod straight, and scowled. It wasn’t that he disagreed with the captain about the importance of the gunship being put temporarily out of service, or that their mission was ruined, but that he realized the gunship being damaged signified something far more important than the damage itself. 

Last year, Julian Starr ordered Mr. Bartholomew to use this same corvette to mount a sneak attack on Fr. Francis’ campsite, leave no witnesses, and recover whatever religious artifacts the cleric had found. Frustratingly, then as now, Starr’s engineers hadn’t discovered how to turn on the corvette’s force field armor. However, the attack still succeeded because, first, the engineers had discovered how to activate the ship’s stealth mode. And second, the hulls of the corvette and its gunships were made of an unknown substance that was so strong, the weapons that the New Texas Rangers used to defend themselves barely had an effect. 

Mr. Bartholomew had watched telemetry of the gunship’s entire battle today. So how, he wondered as he stood on the bridge of Julian Starr’s secret weapon, could an otherwise invincible gunship be downed by a couple of robots, two tourists, and a crazy old prospector? Who were those people? What did they know about these ships? And who was the tall, lean man with the mysterious black mask across his eyes? Answering those questions would be far more valuable to Julian Starr than any trivial damage to a gunship.

“Do you see any life signs?” Bartholomew said over the shoulder of the sensor technician, who was a young mercenary with hawklike eyes and a penchant for gadgets. “Nothing after the mountain fell on their heads,” said the technician, smiling sadistically, “but I’m still looking.” 

Suddenly, the technician stared in alarm at his thunderstorm display and began madly adjusting the touch controls on his glowing console’s surface. “These sensors are acting crazy. Some readings say there’s nothing around for hundreds of kilometers except desert and wild jackrabbits, while other sensors scream there’s a ship bearing right down on us!”

Capt. Hennessy lunged forward to stare out the display-wall, but all he saw was blue sky and Mt. Kuala Laredo. He blinked and suddenly the mountain was obscured by a time-cruiser appearing out of nowhere and heading straight toward his ship. In the next instant, the cruiser fired its cannon and an energy bolt rattled the corvette and scorched its hull. 

“Return fire!” Capt. Hennessy yelled to his bridge crew, bypassing general quarters. “Return fire, dammit!” As the cruiser swept past, Hennessy swiveled toward Mr. Bar­thol­omew and said in amazement, “Where did that ship come from? It’s like it snuck up on us in stealth mode, but that’s impossible. We’re the only ship with that technology!”

“I would have thought the same,” Mr. Bartholomew said calmly, “but apparently we’ve been badly misinformed.”

A flurry of activity broke out on the corvette’s bridge as the attacking cruiser finished its pass and wheeled around for another strike. To their credit, the corvette’s crew recovered from their surprise in good time. The corvette fired a square salvo of four anti-aircraft cannons at the cruiser and bathed it in enough electromagnetic radiation to ionize the air around the cruiser into wispy clouds of incandescent plasma. But instead of hitting their mark, the four beams harmlessly stopped in midair mere meters from the hull of the cruiser. The time-ship sailed on unharmed.

Seeing that his counterattack was ineffective, Capt. Hennessy armed two high-yield missiles, locked his ship’s targeting system on the cruiser, and yelled, “Fire!” The shockwave from two massive explosions reflected back on the corvette and heaved it up like a white cap on a stormy sea. But as the smoke from the explosions cleared, the Ranger’s time-cruiser sailed through the haze safe and sound and fired its cannon again. The corvette reverberated from the blow. 

The cruiser’s last attack knocked Hennessy and Bartholomew to the deck. The captain, who was not known for being even-tempered, was seething by the time he pulled himself to his feet. Capt. Hennessy glared out the display-wall at the passing cruiser and raged, “Throw everything at that ship! If cannons and missiles alone won’t bring it down, then use both. And use the remaining gunship too! With enough combined firepower, we can—!”

“Cancel that order, Captain,” growled Mr. Bartholomew through gritted teeth, “and plot an escape trajectory off this world.”

“Retreat? You want me to retreat instead of blowing that damned ship out of the sky—?“

 “You’re not going to damage that ship no matter how much firepower you use,” Bartholomew said. His voice was no longer calm; it was strained and Bartholomew enunciated each word with ominous clarity. “Don’t you know when you’re beat? That ship is like this one, but it has operational force field armor. Given enough time, an armored ship with only one cannon will tear apart a better armed—but unarmored ship—like a can opener.” Mr. Bartholo­mew’s meaty hand slipped inside the breast of his black suit jacket and made a fat fist around the pearl-handled grip of the thing he carried there, which raised an unflattering bulge in his coat’s finely woven fabric. “You can’t win,” Mr. Bartholomew said, “now get us out of here as fast as you can.”

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