|Manta Force - The Enemy Within|
|Released||Monday 17th July, 1989|
|Next||Manta Force - Red Venom Attack!|
Manta Force - The Enemy Within was the first book based on the Manta Force toyline.
Based upon the characters and space vehicles of the Bluebird "Manta Force" toy, this story involves Commander Quest, in his mission to find another planet fit for human colonization. He is unaware, however, that enemy saboteur members of the Viper Squad have stowed away on board his ship.
Bill Quest receives a last minute briefing from Earth's supreme ruler in his vast circular office at the summit of the World Government Building. While President Bataille dealt with the last of that morning's urgent business, Commander Quest stood erect with his hands clasped behind him, gazing out across the sprawling city of Omniville. There wasn't much to see. As usual the Terran capital was shrouded in dense yellow smog, and only the upper storeys of the towers poking through into the sunlight showed this was a city at all. Beneath the smog, he know, the city's 30 million inhabitants lived and worked, crammed together in dormitories the size of cathedrals, huddled on the stacked bunks that were their sole private space. Right now, Commander Quest reflected, most of them were watching television. For today the network would be broadcasting an event that would be broadcasting an event that held out new hope for the citizens of Earth's teeming cities. Today Manta Force would be launching its long journey to New Earth.
"Commander Quest," said a voice at his elbow. "The President will speak to you now."
Bill Quest turned to see a small man bowing low as he scuttled backwards across the deep blue carpet with its star map design. On the other side of the room President Bataille was rising from his desk and extending his hand.
"Bill" he said. "Good to see you again. Ready for the voyage to our new home. I hope you've packed a toothbrush."
Quest chuckled at his old friend's joke.
"Sure thing, Mr President," he said.
It was hard to believe that the most powerful man in the world had once been a small boy that liked bossing the other kids around. Back in their schooldays no one had taken any notice of Jimmy Bataille, but all that had changed now. He certainly looked impressive in his long white presidential robes. Bill noticed that he was playing nervously with his chain of the office that hung around his neck, a heavy platinum affair with a hologram of the nine planets of the solar system suspended from it.
"What's troubling you, Jim?" he asked. "I know you didn't drag me up here to listen to bad jokes."
President Bataille motioned for the Commander to sit down.
"Indeed," he said. I know you'd rather be with your men, preparing for the launch, but rather some disturbing news has reached me. As you know, this mission to New Earth isn't our first attempt to solve the overcrowding problem on Terra."
Commander Quest nodded. "The colonies on Mars, Venus and Jupiter. Not exactly a raging success, from what we hear."
The president raised his eyebrows, then smiled ruefully. "Security has been tight," he agreed. "However, the long and short of it is that life in a plastic bubble on Jupiter or wherever, is even more wretched than the dormitories on Earth. The colonist just can't take it; they're cracking up."
"I'm, afraid so, Bill. The balance of their minds has become effected. Now a rabble-rouser who calls himself Major Vex has whipped them up into a frenzy. They can't mutiny; they have to work flat out just maintain their own worn-out survival systems since we began we began channeling our resources into developing Manta Force. But this fellow Vex has convinced them they have some sort of right to Earth!"
"Sounds like a clear case of mass-insanity, rather like..."
"Like nothing we've ever seen before, Bill. And the reason I've called you up here is that a group of these rebels have stowed away on an Earth-bound freighter, vowing to sabotage the mission to New Earth - or take it over."
"How many of them are there?"
"Saboteurs? Probably no more than five or six. Hey Bill! Security is tight down at Cape Jackson. There's not a chance they'll do any damage. But they wont give up easily. They may be crazy but most of them are highly trained people. The Viper Squad is what they are calling themselves. VIPS for short. The boys in intelligence call them Vippies. Their ideas have spread all over the colonies. Once you get out of the Sol-system there's nothing much you can do; they haven't got their own starships. Until the, be on guard."
President Bataille stood up and stuck out his hand to indicate the interview was over. Bill Quest rose to his feet.
On his way up to the Manta Force Battle Copter that was waiting for him on the roof. Commander Quest tried to work out just how big a threat these Vippies were likely to be. Hard to say. It all depended on their leader, this Major Vex. Anyway, he was sure they could handle it. M.A.N.T.A stood for Multiple Air, Navel and Terrain Assault Force. Ideally all that fancy equipment would only be used for high-speed exploration of New Earth. But something told them that their lethal weapon systems were going to be needed, sooner rather than later.
Captain Buck Finn, the amiable Scandinavian in charge of the Manta Sharks, was directing the final preparation of the Manta Command Base. Captain Nigel Hunt was at his side, making sure that the Manta Wolves Terrain Vehicles were all secured for take-off. When Commander Quest returned in the Battle Copter that too could be maneuvered into place and the giant Manta Attack Ship lowered on top. Captain Hunt looked at his chronometer in annoyance. What was keeping the chief? With only 10 minutes to go until blast-off, there were still many checks to be made before the Manta Force received final clearance.
At the Command Base, workers will still loading supplies into the ship. Each one of them men in Government-issue overalls had been carefully checked for loyalty. They had been working flat out since before dawn to get the ship ready for its interstellar mission. Now there was only five more crates to be stowed in the holds.
"Hay, what are these anyway?" said Dave, who was driving the fork lift truck. "They don't seem to be on my list." He waved a piece of paper on which each item of equipment was suppose to appear.
Down by the crates another worker, Geeoff, cocked his head on one side to read the stencilled lettering. "Gearboxes!" he shouted above the din if the loading bay. "Five complete spare gearboxes for the Terrain Vehicles."
The way those spacemen drive, they'll need every one of them," Dave grinned. Well, they must've just forgotten about them, I guess. Let's load 'em up." He crumpled the piece of paper and threw it down in the cab of the folk lift.
Bureaucracy. He had no time for it. He let out the clutch and the folk lift lurched forward. With Geoff's help they had the crates loaded in no time. But inside each one, in a deep, drugged sleep, lay a crack member of the Viper Squad, ready to strike at the heart of the Manta Force mission.
Overhead the braking jets of the Battle Copter shrieked. Commander Quest has arrived. Expertly, he guided the powerful copter down into position on the Manta Force Command Base. Captain Hunt breathed a sigh of Leif. They were ready to go.
On their TV scenes the citizens of Omniville saw the great ship tilt back into the take off position and rise slowly as its thorium-powered rockets blasted against the launch-pad of Cape Jackson. The commentator babbled about what a historic moment they were witnessing as Manta Force set off on its journey towards Earth's Twin planet on the other side of the galaxy.
Inside the Manta Command Ship the highly-trained astronauts, each picked from hundreds of volunteers, were experiencing terrific G-force as the ship's acceleration pushed them back in their seats and distorted their features. In the command cockpit Commander Quest, flanked on either side by Captain Finn and Hunt, watched the simulation of their flight path, their faces bathed in green light from the display screens.
As the ship levelled out in the upper atmosphere, Commander quest punched in the co-ordinates for their journey through the solar system and Captain Finn and his opposite number exchanged relieved glances. Their leader was programming the ship for hyper-drive, which meant that this stage of the journey would take hours rather than months. All the same, Bill Quest was uneasy, remembering what President Bataille had told him about the Viper rebels. Below them, on the Manta Command Ship's main deck, the crew were in a relaxed and happy mood. They unfastened their safety harnesses and joked amongst themselves as the deep blackness of space was transformed into multicolored swirls that signalled that the ship was now in hyper-drive.
They knew that once they were clear of the solar system their suspension bubbles would descend, putting them into deep seep for the remainder of the journey. Now was their last chance to break out the space rations and have a few laughs. A blue-clad Manta Sharks pilot reached into his uniform and drew out a pack of cards. "How about a few hands of poker," he said, "or are you Hawks and Wolves just doves and sheep in fancy clothing?" He riffled the pack.
"What we play for?" asked a tall, nervous man wearing the yellow uniform of the Manta Wolves Terrain Force.
The Sharks pilot thought for a moment as a number of other men gathered around. It was true that none of them had any spare change. Then he had an idea. "Listen," he said, chuckling. "When we get to New Earth, we're gonna be given 1000acre farms, right?"
A couple of men nodded. That was what they'd been promised.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" asked the Manta Sharks. "Let's play poker - an ache a hand!"
At that the men crowded forwarded. Before long some of them would be a good deal poorer. And the man in the blue uniform owned an even bigger chunk of New Earth. On the command deck Bill Quest's instruments told him that they were passing beyond the orbit of Uranus and were now at the very edge of the solar system. Commander Quest breathed a sigh of relief. They were beyond the reach of those fanatical Vippies, for the time being at least. He pulled the crew address microphone towards him and made an announcement.
"OK, men, we're out of the solar system now - and it's way past our bedtime." He grinned as a chorus of groans came back trough the speaker. "We'll be under the suspension bubbles until we reach Arcturus 6. The forward scanners have identified an orbiting plantoid with a core of pure thorium. We'll be stopping off to mine some new fuel rods to take us the rest of the way. Until then, pleasant dreams!"
"Suspension bubble programme underway, Commander, " said Captain Finn, punching the instruction into the console. Almost immediately transparent began to spin themselves from the nozzels about the seat of each crew member, enclosing them like cacoons, filing up with dense gas that would lower their body temperature and maintain their vital functions while the Manta ship sped on its journey through the limitless darkness of space. The lights dimmed automatically and the ship became eerily quiet, only the clicking of its computer-controlled guidance systems disturbing the stillness.
Time passed and the Manta Force crew slept, dreaming of home, of the life they would build on New Earth, the unknown dangers they might face. And deep in the ships's hold, five members of the Viper Squad began to stir inside their crates. No-one heard the splintering wood as the men hacked there way out into the darkness of the hold. No-one saw them as they crept stealthily through the sleeping ship, through the lower deck, up onto the command deck of the Manta Attack Ship where Commander Quest and his two captains lay silently inside their bubbles. They knew what they had to do.
"Let's kill them now," said one of the Vippies, drawing a compression air space-knife from his belt. "I'll burst their bubbles."
"No!" hissed the leader. "We can't risk a struggle. Every alarm on the ship would go off - and then we would have the entire crew to deal with."
The other man grunted and reluctantly put away miss murderous weapon. His time would come later.
But before the Viper Squad leader could reprogramme the controls on the Manta to take the ship back to the Viper base on Jupiter - for that was their plan - a sudden change in the pulsing note of the ship's motors told the stowaways that the crew were coming out of hyper-drive. Slowly, the cabin lights began to fade up and the suspension bubbles cleared as the gas was sucked from them. The crew was waking up.
For a moment panic seized the five Viper Squad stowaways, then the leader took control of the situation. they had to act fast if they were to escape discovery. "Quick!" he rasped. "Back down to the lower deck. We've got to get out of sight until we know what is going on." His name Ramon, a farmer from Callisto who raised a hardy strain of mutant barley grow in the sterile soil of Jupiter's second largest satellite. His crop was sold to Earth as animal feed stuff. He too wanted a piece of New Earth.
He led his men back down to the Manta's main deck where they darted for cover between the clamped assault vechiles. Roman looked quickly around him, and whispered an urgent command. The Viper Squad forked into two groups. Ramon and two others crawled into the Battle Copter on their stomachs: the remaining men each hid in one of the smaller machines.
On the command deck Bill Quest and Buck Finn were sharing a joke. "In my country," said Captain Finn, "we spend half the year in darkness, sheltering from the ice and snow. I join the Navy to see the universe and what happens? I still spend half my life in cold storage."
Look on the bright side, Finn," said Commander Quest, "You may be an icicle for half the time, but at least your living twice as long.
"Hmm," said Finn. "I think I need a cup of coffee before I can work that one out."
"Sorry Finn, no time," said the Commander.
"We're making planetfall in 20 minutes. We'll break out the bacon and eggs capsules then - and have Sergeant Riccotti brew us some coffee."
"Sir, I wish to make a formal protest," cut in Captain Hunt. "When I signed up for this voyage I was assured that a continental breakfast would also be available."
Through the shatterproof bubble of plastipex that curved in front of them and over their heads they could see the rising semicircle of the planetoid glowing softly purple against the blackness of space, filling up the dark sky and coming more sharply into focus.
"Fire retro rockets, Captain Hunt, we're going in," said Commander Quest.
The Captain tapped in a landing pattern with a few deft keystrokes. Within minutes the Manta had settled on the planetoid's surface. Close up, the ground beneath them positively sparkled. They were on the edge of plain that was strewn with glittering thorium crystals. Besides the ship the foothills of a great mountain range rose to higher and higher peaks. Spires of crystallised thorium had been thrown up from the planetoid's depths, cooling into the lifeless world on which they were now settled.
The crew soon disposed of thier nutrient rations and the order was given for them to lock their helmets on and pressurise their suits.
"OK, open forward loading doors, Finn," Commander Quest ordered and they swung back smoothly. "Time for you to join your men, Captain Hunt. We'll need a full overland exploration team for this one."
"Yessir!" Captain Hunt unbuckled his harness and preassured his suit, hurrying towards the decent tube.
Then the hydraulic rams which raised the Manta Attack Ship hissed into action, slowly depressurising the low deck as the delta-shaped Attack Ship was opened like a giant lid.
"OK, Finn. Unlock the toys."
Buck Finn hit the release button for the central-locking system that held the Manta Assault Vehicles in place in flight.
None of the Manta officers was in a good position to see what happened next. Captain Hunt was still in the decent tube.