Saturday, September 22, 2018

Chapter 4

Jane and Bhutto took another shuttle to the dock where Jane had parked her ship. Corrigan had already shipped a few large crates to the dock, and Jane quickly signed for them and had them loaded into the cargo bay with several lifter drones. Jane floated into the modest ship and Bhutto followed behind her.

“Kind of sparse, isn’t it, Red?” Bhutto asked. “I hope you don’t plan on doing any entertaining. Jane rolled her eyes at the corporate worlder. There was nothing flashy about her ship, but she recalled that Bhutto preferred the rustic style in her own residence. She just wanted something to complain about.

“The facilities are top of the line,” Jane replied. “Freyjans do not require needless luxuries.” She knew it was not true of all of her people, but felt the need to establish their planetary character. “What is our heading?” She asked. “Where are we supposed to meet this Yeager?”

“He said to meet him in orbit around the moon of Thor.”

“That’s out of the way of Loki.”

“Yeagar knows what he’s doing.”

Jane shrugged, strapped herself in, and activated the neural link to the ship, taking it out of its dock. The familiar sensation provided by the various sensors once again flooded into her, bringing with it a warm feeling of calm. She was once again one with her ship.

Once she had broken out of Grid’s orbit, she let loose the main thruster towards their destination. The prison world of Loki gave no indication of what kind of environment existed on its surface, geological or cultural. Savage, evil men isolated on a single desolate rock was not a recipe for peaceful coexistence.

Jane was surprised when she caught the sensor signature of the old cargo ship practically on top of it. The sensor signature was miniscule.

“This is the Caroline.” The message came across the net. “Please Identify yourself.”

“Caroline, this is Freyjan Collective transport five-four-two. We have an appointed meeting with Yeager Soon orbiting Loki. Please confirm.” She waited and heard nothing. “Please confirm.”

“God Damn it, Yeagar, this is Bhutto. Dock this bitch so we can get on to business.”

There was a short pause before the man came back on over the net. “Confirmed, Transport five-four-two. Will initiate docking maneuvers.”

Jane gave the task over to the automated docking software, but Yeager had not. His slight miscalculations and corrections, too fluid and imprecise for a machine, gave him away. Despite any complications that may have caused, they were able to dock their hatches, and Jane’s sensors indicated that they had a tight seal. She gave the thumbs up to Bhutto, letting her know she was opening the hatch. A hiss let her know they were open, and she unstrapped herself from the inner hull of the transport and let herself float towards the open hatch.

Before she could make it through, the captain of the Caroline blocked her way, nearly causing her to collide into him. His general appearance surprised her. He was exceptionally normal. The somewhere-between-middle-aged-and-old man wore simple clothes, he was clean cut and well groomed, his black hair cut short and out of his black eyes. Fairly handsome. Not at all what she had expected from another one of Bhutto’s friends.

“Yeager, this is Red. She is a jackboot from Freyja.”

“A Regulator.”

“Yes, well, nice to meet you,” he replied. He glanced around the interior of the ship. “Are you wearing any recording devices?”

Her neural plugin was a recording device. She could potentially stream her brainwaves to the Collective. She said, “No, of course not,” anyway.

He eyed her suspiciously but nodded anyway. “Okay, come on in.” He pulled the hand rungs around the hatch port and pulled himself back into his ship. In sharp contrast to her own ship, this one was covered in displays, instruments, and switches, including an actual physical view port instead of using the outboard sensors. Suddenly it dawned on her.

“You don’t have a net plugin at all, do you?” She asked.

“Not anymore,” he said, and pointed to a large scar in the base of his skull, leaving a line of purple skin where there would have otherwise been hair. “There’s no net on Loki. I want to make sure that I get used to working without one.”

“How long ago did you get it removed?”

“Almost a decade ago,” He replied, as he flipped some switches on the ship and glanced at the flashing sensor displays. Bhutto wasn’t kidding when she said that he had been plotting a trip to the planet, but that was a long plot to put together. If he had been planning something like this for that whole time, he would be very useful indeed.

“Why all the trouble? What is down on Loki that you want so badly?”

“Just a man,” he replied.

“Alright Red, let’s not pepper him with questions,” Bhutto said. “We’ve got a prison to raid. You’ve been planning this longer than any of us. Do you have a shopping list, maybe a to-do list for us?”

“Something like that,” Yeager replied. He turned to Jane. “You’re the one bankrolling this?”

“Yes…” Jane replied. Not, her, the Collective. She was getting tired of explaining that to these people, though. He nodded, and picked up a small neural storage, about the size of a pill capsule, a small metal plug on the end of it. “This is everything, rated by necessity.”

She took the device from Yeager, flipped open the outlet in the back of her neck and plugged the device in. She scanned it for any malicious code before accessing the data inside.

He had given this a lot of thought.

“In addition to the work I’ve done on that,” Yeager said, “I’ve managed to get an informant on the surface.” He paused. “That is, if he is still alive.”

“A convict?” Given the people they sent to the rock, she was not sure she could trust them.

“No,” he replied. “But as far as anyone else knows, yes. It was necessary not to raise any suspicions.” The man never gave any more information than was asked for, that was for sure.

“Do you have any way to contact this informant?”

“No.” He replied. “We’d have to find him once we landed.”

“I guess it’s better than nothing,” Bhutto said. “Can you get a message to him?”

Yeager shrugged. “It’s possible. We’ll never know if he gets it, though.”

“Perhaps,” Jane said. “Perhaps not.” She sent off Yeager’s requisition, and received approval shortly afterward. “Shall we pick up the equipment then?”

“Were you able to get most of it?” Yeager asked.

“All of it, as far as I know.”

“All of it?” Yeager asked, clearly surprised.

“Yes. It will all aid us in getting to D’Arcangelo, correct?”

He nodded solemnly.

“Then the Collective will find a way to get it to us.”

Yeager looked stunned. Bhutto grinned at him. “Kind of makes you wish you would have asked for more, doesn’t it?”

It was a drone hauling a nondescript cargo crate to anyone who saw it. There were thousands more like it making various routes around the system. It had a basic load-out of weapons to deter any would-be hijackers, but nothing to draw attention. Just a box floating through space.

When Yeager saw it over the view port, his eyes went wide. The shipping container was about twice the size of their own ship, “Well, shit.” He said. “I had no idea they would load everything up at once. Look at that port. We’d need an adapter to get to that.”

They received the container and, unable to dock with the thing, they would have to open it from outside. That meant they would not be able to access any of it until they landed.

“So we’ll just drop it and pick it up when we get on planet, right?” Bhutto asked.

“If the exiles don’t get it first,” Yeager replied. “They’ll be watching the skies for anything that comes down. And they know we can’t stray too far from the settlement.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Bhutto said. “We’ll want to see what exactly is in this haul before we do anything.”

“You doubt our word?”

“The Collective’s?” she asked. “You can bet on it.”

“We might need some of it before reaching the surface, anyway,” Yeager pointed out.

Jane sighed. “I will go out and inspect the equipment,” she said finally. “I trust that you have a tether?”

“Have you ever done this before, Red?” Bhutto asked.

She hadn’t. There was no need to go space walking before.

“I’ll be fine. I’ll even wire my feed directly to you so you can see everything.”

“Maybe I should go with you,” Yeager said.

“You’re the only one who can pilot this thing,” Bhutto said. “I’ll do it.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Jane said.

“Like Hell it won’t,” she rubbed her hands together. “Let’s see what is inside this baby.”

Yeager retrieved a tether from a never-opened wall mounted emergency box in the cargo bay. He led them, rung by rung, to the blast door that led to the large cubic decompression chamber. She swallowed hard as she slowly floated into the airlock. The hair on the back of her neck stood up when the blast door closed behind her and Bhutto. She tethered herself securely to the hull and gave the thumbs up sign to the video sensor. Bhutto did the same. A clank of metal and a high-pitched hissing, and all of the sound evacuated from the chamber. It left Jane only her own breathing and the neural network messages.

“Everyone still good?” Yeager asked.

“Just open the damn door,” Bhutto replied. He did just that. The outer airlock door opened. There was nothing out that door, and they were about to descend into it. Bhutto pushed off and floated straight out the hold until the tether went taut. Jane blinked and followed, looking back as the Caroline retreated into the distance. She could hear her breathing become quicker. The thump of her heart in her ears was constant.

By the time she had reached the end of the line, the ship seemed impossibly far away even though Jane knew it was no more than two hundred meters. She began to pull herself back slowly, hand-over-hand, which Bhutto had already done. The Odinian woman had pulled herself to a handhold on the ship and was already making her way to the storage container. Jane did her best to catch up and was a little embarrassed that she had gotten winded doing so. When Jane finally reached her, Bhutto was standing on the ship hull, looking at the vast container. Her tight umbilical tether held her to the surface.

“Just out of reach,” she said.

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I wish.”

Jane sighed. “You stay on the tether. I’ll go to the container.”

“I don’t think so, Red. I’d like to see what we’ve got to work with.”

The woman did not trust anyone. “Fine. Let me approach first.” She took Bhutto’s silence to be her assent and unhooked herself from the tether. When she let the cord go, it snapped and slithered back and forth from her like a ribbon falling to a bottomless floor. Jane held onto the hull’s handholds with a death grip. With just a slip of the fingers that she could drift away forever into the nothing. Slowly and carefully, she crawled along the hull to the couple that held the storage container. Jane reached out and clasped her gloved hand onto the service ladder of the container. A security warning flashed into her head, and the defense turrets aimed their cannons at her. She quickly gave the security code, and the airlock to the container vented and its heavy door slid open.

Then she went black. “Regulator Two-Two-Five-Nine-Five,” she heard in her head. “Your requisition request has been and approved. The Freyjan Collective will deny any and all involvement in this operation henceforth. We advise you not to provoke the corporate security firms.”

“We will send our own team to shadow you once you leave Loki. They will contact you then. If the mission becomes compromised, you will ensure that no intelligence remains in the hands of non-Authority personnel. We trust that you will use the utmost discretion.” That meant mind-wipes, or else termination.

It took Jane a moment to realize when she had regained control of her faculties. There was little difference between the sensory blackout of the Regulator message and the blackness of empty space swirling in front of her. Jane put her hands out in front of her helmeted face to give perspective. She was slowly spinning in the vast nothing with no solid surface on which to secure herself. In an instant Jane went from serenely drifting through the star scape to flailing in an inconsolable panic.

She contorted her body and sent herself twisting around and she finally caught the spinning white blip in the darkness, the Caroline, so very far away. It disappeared out of her vision as she continued to turn uncontrollably about some invisible axis. Jane tried to reach out to Bhutto or Yeager, but without a neural network hub in the Caroline, she had little hope of reaching them, and they had even less hope of reaching her.

Calming herself, Jane began to learn how to use the physics to her advantage, using her momentum to turn herself into a stable spin, her feet pointed toward the Caroline, arms at her side. Her hand bumped up against her pistol, still holstered on her belt. It was a long shot - literally.

Jane slowly and deliberately unbuttoned the holster and slid the weapon out. She brought the pistol to her stomach and extended it with two hands towards her groin, aiming the weapon through the gap between her parted feet, lining up the front and back sights as best she could in her current spin. She breathed in, breathed out, breathed in, breathed out and held. She fired the pistol and sent a bolt of energy streaming towards the ship.

The force from the shot sent Jane tumbling backwards, but she was able to reorient herself now that she had gotten used to the zero-G environment. Unfortunately, she had completely lost the ship. Jane had used her one shot, and now all she could do was sit and wait.

And Jane waited. She floated so long that she considered that all hope may be lost. Jane glanced down once more at her sidearm. It would be easier to disengage the safety mechanism on her suit and let the vacuum outside bathe her in its deadly void, but she would rather make it messy with her energy pistol.

Then Jane sensed some sort of presence, what it was she could not say, but it was there nonetheless. She glimpsed a shadow on her suit and turned herself around to find the Caroline speeding towards her. Her heart leapt out of her chest, more out of fear than relief. The freighter was going to careen right into her at the speed it was traveling. Instead, a series of retro rockets fired and it shifted to align its open airlock to face her, slowing until it swallowed her like a koi does a kernel of corn. Jane collided roughly with the inner airlock door, although not enough to seriously injure her. She would have some bruises, she was sure.

The outer door closed behind her and slowly the interior air leaked in until the inner airlock opened. As soon as it did, she yanked her helmet off, causing her bright red hair to whip out in all directions, in her eyes, in her collar, everywhere. She took in several deep breaths of relatively open air. She collapsed, allowing herself to float freely within the cargo hold. Several crates had been secured to holding clamps in the walls.

A hatch opened and Bhutto floated inside. “Red, you have got to be the luckiest woman I have ever known.”

“Some decent piloting helped.”

“What happened? You just kind of floated off there. When I realized what was happening, it was too late to do much about it.”

“It must have been a security precaution I accidentally triggered.”

“Well, it’s good to have you back.” Bhutto paused and smiled. “I was afraid we would have to do this thing without you.”

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