Not a drone at all.
Jane pulled her helmet off and the static pulled at her long copper hair. She took in the smell of grass and pollen and manure. Even that was a pleasant scent after spending a week breathing recycled air. Bhutto stepped out of her powered armor and hopped onto the grass.
“This way,” she said. At the center of the atmospheric bunker sat a small log cabin, aside a large pond and up against a small crop of several different species of trees.
“This is where you live?” She asked. They had parks back home, but no one lived there. It was horribly inefficient. Everyone lived in the city. Bhutto had no harvesting or ranching drones. In fact, other than the blips of surveillance, there was no sign of any drones at all.
“Yep. This is home.”
Bhutto escorted Jane to the rustic cabin. Jane was surprised to see that the technology inside was not as regressive as the exterior. Plenty of modern amenities and devices were present, even those that she would never have seen in even the Freyjan homes. Net consoles, nano-synthesizers, and video monitors were all framed in varnished wood and brick. Ancient weapons and artifacts hung from the walls, and there was even an alcove filled with hot coals for cooking.
“Let me poor you a drink,” Bhutto said, and pulled out a glass decanter with a dark amber liquid inside. “What’ll you have?”
“Whatever you’re having,” Jane responded after a short pause. Bhutto poured the liquid into two short glasses and thunked one on the plank in front of Jane. Jane sniffed at the burnt aroma before taking a sip. A tingle ran down her tongue and burned the entire way down her throat. Her eyes watered, but she made sure not to make a face for fear of insulting her host.
“Never tasted the good stuff, before, huh?” Bhutto chuckled. “What do they give you to drink on that blimp?”
“As much as I’d love to discuss my beverage preferences with you, I’d rather get to the point. We need you to take us on the route you took on your search for the Leviathan.”
“I am more interested in the cargo.”
Jane blinked. “We don’t care about the antimatter. We want to know what caused the ship’s disappearance.”
“I can give you the information I have. I’m not spending one more minute of my time searching for that holy grail, not even with that transmission you sent.”
“This was your life mission.”
“My life mission is to stay alive,” Bhutto replied. She opened her mouth to speak again, but a blaring siren silenced her. Bhutto sprung up, nearly knocking the foul drinks over along with the table and burst out the front door. Jane chased after her, and Bhutto sprinted through the fields and trees back to where they came.
“Stop!” Jane yelled. “Where are you going?” She saw a flicker from far outside the dome, a trail of light that led to a glittery flash in the open sky. More flickers from above. It was her surveillance drones. Someone was destroying them.
Bhutto leapt into her power armor and stormed off. Jane continued to run after her, but she was quickly outpaced. Jane threw on her vacuum helmet and pulled the pistol from her holster. The instant Bhutto burst out of the airlock hatch, she began firing the twin cannons off into the distance. There was a flash in the distance and then a lull. Jane was finally able to catch up to the power-armored woman. Then several flashes, and Bhutto shoved Jane aside like a ragdoll.
A quick rat-a-tat of concussions impacted where they had been moments ago, leaving a crater about as deep as a man.
“Who are these people?” Jane asked. She jumped into the crater and held her pistol at the ready.
“Disreputable ones,” she replied. “That I owe money to.”
Bhutto fired off another few shots with the cannon.
“Iridene Bhutto, surrender now.” A voice came into Jane’s head. “We have you surrounded, and we will not hesitate to kill you.” Another volley came from the other side, impacting further away but too close for comfort.
“Don’t think I don’t know that you’ll kill me anyway,” Bhutto replied.
Bhutto turned to her. “You may want to head back, Red. They might not kill you if you stay in the bunker.”
Jane looked back at the compound, and then towards the volley that was coming from the distance. “If I stop them, will you help me find the Leviathan?”
Another concussion knocked Bhutto off her feet, and it looked like it put more than a dent in her armor. “If you stop them,” she said, “I’ll crap out anti-matter for you myself.”
“So we have a deal? I help you, and you take me to the Leviathan.”
“If you can figure out a way to send those bastards away, you do it now.”
Jane nodded. “Then we have a contract.” She remembered that much about Odin. Jane turned to their attackers. “This is Jane Leone, Vegacorp subscriber, policy number seven-nine-five-eight-six. If you do not cease your attack, I will call my security provider to deal with you.”
There were a few shots heard from the distance, but they petered out. “Vegacorp won’t cover Bhutto,” a voice said. “They’d seize her property for us.”
“You think I give a shit about the possessions of some woman I just met? Cease your fire and leave this property, or I will activate this beacon and bring the full force of Vegacorp to rain hell on you.”
There was silence for another few seconds before the voice finally responded. “That’s fine, Bhutto. We’ll just wait until your insured friend leaves. When she is gone, you’re going to wish that you had cooperated.”
The barrage stopped, and Jane’s heart gradually slowing after its initial burst. She sighed into her vac-suit once more.
“Damn it, Red. How does that help me?” The armored woman turned to face her, towering over her.
Jane shrugged. “I don’t know, but I stopped them. That was the deal.”
“I was under duress.”
“Not because of me. I assure you if you accompany me on the Collective expedition, no harm will come to you.”
“They’ll take everything: my home, my crops, my livestock.”
“If we find what we are looking for, you might be able to replace it all. And then some.”
“If we survive.”
Jane nodded. “If we survive.”
Bhutto paused before responding. “You drive a hard bargain. You would fit right in here. Thrive, even, with some time and some capital.”
She let that insult slide and forced a smile, though Bhutto would not be able to see her expression through her reflective visor.
“Let me go get some of my things before I let those assholes ransack this place.”
When Bhutto said ‘go get some of her things,’ Jane did not realize she meant ‘go get some things and burn the rest.’ She left the house in a smoldering wreckage, the crops still ablaze, and Jane had to convince her not to shoot and burn the poor livestock. The woman finally relented.
“Will they let you take that powered armor into the city?” Jane asked.
“I’ll be damned if I’m giving it up. We’ll put it in storage - you have the cash, right?”
She did in fact ‘have the cash,’ but the Collective would not subsidize them forever. They would need to produce results eventually.
Jane’s rental vehicle had amazingly not been obliterated in the short combat. Standing beside the rover were a group of power armor-clad men or women, and more armored rovers, all armed to the teeth. Jane touched the security sticker on her chest before cautiously approaching. None of them actively threatened her, but Bhutto trailed close behind in her own armor, comically using unarmored Jane as a shield.
“Charlie,” Bhutto said.
“Bhutto,” Charlie said.
Jane flashed her Vegacorp decal one more time before stepping inside her own rover. Amazingly, there was not a scratch on it.
Bhutto stepped out of the power armor and hitched it to the rover before extending the wheels on the side. She hopped inside the rover, and they drove off and left the repo team in the dust.
“Something confuses me about those debt collectors,” Jane said. “Why not go to the authorities?”
Bhutto chuckled. “They don’t want to deal with the corporations any more than I do. I wouldn’t have dealt with them otherwise.”
“So you could cheat them?”
“Hey,” she protested. “I’ll pay them back. They’ve already made money on me, what with the interest.”
Bhutto stared at Jane like she was from another planet - which she was.
Usury, she realized. Legalized cheating.
They travelled the route back to the spaceport, but Bhutto insisted on a detour through Nozick. “I hate the place,” she said, “But we have a few things to do before we leave.”
“That’s fine. That will give us time to have a team on Freyja assembled and ready to go.”
“Not a chance, Red,” Bhutto responded. “I don’t know any of those other jerks. We do this with my people,” she insisted. “I spent years trying to find the Leviathan, and I’ve built up a network of people I trust.”
Jane thought about this. “Fine,” she said finally. If it would pacify her, she would let Bhutto think she was in charge.
Jane led the way to the underground tube station, which was a small building surrounded on all sides by various shops and eateries. Neurotransmissions stimulated sweet and savory smells as she passed by each shop. Others sent upbeat music and fanfares into her head, enticing her to come closer and listen. the experience was largely pleasant, euphoric even. She shut off the sense receptor application on her neural interface. She would not be seduced by the landlords of Grid.
The bright path on her neural HUD led the way through the maze of shops and eventually to a declining hall leading under the paved surface of the space port concourse. She walked down the ramp where crowds of people waited patiently on either end of several massive transparent tubes that stretched off out of sight.
A warning flashed and a rumble echoed from the distance. Some backed away from the edge of the tubes, but most moved towards them. A flashing light appeared from behind the bend, brighter as it hurtled towards them, slowing down and coming to a stop so as not to ram through the station wall. Sliding doors on the sides of the cylinders opened up to reveal a tile platform and rows of booths inside. The clear tubes opened at points aligned to the inner doors. People trickled out before the crowd flowed in. They boarded the underground tube and settled into one of the booths. Bhutto pulled a short plastic tube one of her pockets, pressed a button on the side and put it to her lips. She inhaled from the strange tube, breathed out a puff of mist as if she were inside a freezer.
“How much actual cash do you have access to?” Bhutto asked.
Jane narrowed her eyes. “The Collective will supply our mission, not your personal shopping sprees.”
“We are going to need weaponry. Serious weaponry. I would say as much as you can get, but we don’t want to attract attention to ourselves.”
“Because we are going to Loki.”
Jane had to look up the significance of that one. “The prison moon?”
“Exile moon, but yes. That is where D’Arcangelo is.”
“You’re not going to find him in the ‘net. The SecCorps don’t advertise their exiles.”
“Why do we need this D’Arcangelo?” Interfering with the local justice system might exceed her authorization.
“D’Arcangelo worked on the original expedition that discovered the generation ship. He was monitoring it himself when it disappeared, and he is more capable and knows more about most things than you or I will ever hope to. Augmented himself beyond recognition.”
“Is that why he was exiled?” Augmentations were severely limited in Freyja, even for party officials.
Bhutto gave her that same look again. “He was exiled because he is insane. Lured people to his little rock and subjected them to shit way beyond the contract. Took them a while to figure it out, because he went after the uninsured and homeless. He must’ve murdered hundreds of them. ‘Cept he didn’t count on someone being desperate enough to lie about their coverage. Some guy’s folks had taken out a policy on him, but he needed quick cash.
“He ended up killing that one in his experiments, just like the others. The Corp traced it back to him. There was a media frenzy, and they sent a whole squadron after him what with all of the defenses they supposed him to have.” She looked at Jane hard.
“The clever bastard broadcast his surrender to all corners of Odin. The Corps never counted on that. They figured he’d go down in a blaze of glory and they could finish him. Instead, he got a trial and all the notoriety that came with it, and they sent him off on that godforsaken rock.”
“Why didn’t they just mind-wipe him?” It was standard with all Collective violents, and it worked wonders.
“Violates the Vegacorp terms and conditions. They can’t mind-wipe anyone without consent, thankfully. Otherwise, he’d be useless to us and we’d never find the Leviathan. They let them choose between that and the rock. D’Arcangelo chose the rock.”
“Why would he choose the rock?” She asked it even knowing the answer.
“Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, I guess.”
Jane quickly looked up the concepts of Heaven and Hell to which Bhutto referred, and found them both horrifying and fascinating. If she had believed those things as an adult and in earnest, she would have been wiped for sure. Many on this moon would be mind-wiped, were they on Freyja.
“Do you really think we can buy enough weapons to fight our way onto this prison moon?” Jane asked.
“Having second thoughts on this little venture?” Bhutto asked. “Just say the word, and we can call it off. Not before compensating me for my time, of course.” She grinned at Jane, perhaps expecting that she would agree to that arrangement.
“No,” Jane replied. “We are going to find that ship.”
Bhutto’s grin faded. “That important to you, huh?”
“That important to the Collective. Therefore, important to me.”
“I’d ask why, but I doubt I’d get a straight answer. That’s fine. Getting to the planet won’t be a problem. The SecCorps don’t give a shit about who goes there. Landing on the the rock, that will be tricky - and getting off will be trickier. Loki’s a high-gravity moon with a corrosive atmosphere in the middle of Odin’s rings, basically floating in a swarming cloud of hull-shredding flak. Not to mention the fact that the network doesn’t make it there.”
Bhutto must have noticed Jane’s incredulity. “That’s not even the half of it.” Bhutto said. “We’ll have to avoid the Blacklist if we ever want to come back. No respectable station will let us dock if they think we’re doing business with Loki. No shuttleport will let us land, no city customs would let us in, and no vendor would sell to us.”
“Everyone observes the Blacklist?” Jane asked.
“This one? Yes. Unless they want to find themselves on it.”
Jane nodded. Death by neglect. Corporate justice.
Bhutto must have caught Jane’s dour mood. “Hey, if we can pull it off, it might even be worth it.”
“Has anyone managed to break someone out before?”
Bhutto crossed her legs, letting them dangle off the edge of the cushioned booth. “There are rumors. Inside job seems like the most likely bet.”
“Did you have some kind of plan?”
She put the tube to her lips once more and exhaled a puff of mist. “This is your job. I figured you must have some idea of what you were doing."