Saturday, September 22, 2018

Chapter 5

The Caroline towed the Freyjan crate full of equipment from a make-shift harness that Bhutto had thoroughly secured around it. The three passengers gathered around the front viewport to get a glimpse of Loki, the white-gray rock dappled in pale green clouds, crisscrossed with several of its own rings of debris. Yeager pulled back and forth on the crude control stick, carefully making an orbit to avoid the spinning clouds of flak.

A message came through Jane’s neural net: “This is the Vegacorp Loki detachment. Loki is a dangerous convict colony. Vegacorp advises that you use caution. Do not attempt to land on Loki colony. Once landed, any attempt to leave and you will be--”

“Blacklisted.” Jane chimed in with the warning. She glanced at Bhutto. The dark-eyed woman produced a smirk. Captain Soon was too focused on the instrument displays to notice. He flipped a couple switches and turned to the women.

“Are you gals ready to go?” he asked.

Jane was ready to feel gravity again, to eat real food, or whatever equivalent they had on the rock. She was ready to make their real first step forward towards finding the Leviathan. The only surviving generation ship - enough antimatter to light up an entire planet, in peace or in violence.

On the other hand, she had little desire to go out into the black again. She turned to the aft corridor with trepidation, her unrestrained copper hair to rippling into her eyes and everywhere else. She brushed a ribbon of hair out of the way. Her desires meant little. The plan was to board the storage crate, and she could not think of a better one.

You know you don’t have to do this, Red,” Yeager said. “You just took a serious plunge. No one would blame you if you didn’t want to go right back out there.”

“I am well aware,” Jane replied. Who did he think he was, to suggest that her actions had anything to do with any of them? She would blame herself if she did not go; more importantly, the Freyjan Collective would. “And I cannot pilot the shuttle to the surface with this primitive technology. Bhutto would be left to defend the storage container by herself.”

“I hate to break this to you, Red, but you don’t add a whole lot of deterrent.”

Jane scowled. “I am going. We are not discussing this.”

Bhutto paused. “Fine, no reason to wait, then.”

Satisfied that she had settled things, Jane pulled her way through the ship’s corridors and into the cargo bay, where the airlock awaited her once more. This time they jury-rigged a tether that could reach the storage container, along with maintenance clips to attach to the intermittent rungs sprouting from the hull.

Jane floated into the airlock, scarcely waiting for Bhutto to join her. She cringed when the chamber let the vacuum in, and sound once again left the world outside of her vacuum suit. Her hands trembled each time she unclipped herself from one rung and to another. To move from the airlock to the storage crate, the ordeal took her twice as long as it should have. Bhutto did not comment when she quickly passed Jane, nor when the regulator finally, thankfully, arrived.

Bhutto reached out to help her into the box-like container’s airlock, and Jane secured herself inside the chamber before using the controls to shut the door to the outside. She had to hold herself in place for a moment to calm her nerves. Every time Jane closed her eyes however, she was once again in freefall, out in the empty with nothing to grab hold of.

Good. That would simply help her keep her eyes open.

Jane accessed her neural net to reset the automated security on the crate and double-checked it.

The two matte brown sets of power armor hung on opposite sides of the corridor, as if lifeless corpses of executed felons floated on display, warning against further passage. Jane and Bhutto unclipped the corpses from the wall and strapped themselves in before securing themselves in two of the many harnesses. They would hopefully hold the cargo in place in their controlled plummet to the surface.

There was no way to guide the oversized crate with any accuracy; the best they could hope for was that the retro thrusters would keep them upright and slow their fall enough to prevent any damage to equipment.

Ideally, Yeager would follow close behind in the Caroline’s shuttle. They would land at approximately the same time and would show a united front to whoever might show up to salvage the haul. Such complicated maneuvers rarely worked out ideally. With dated technology any number of variables could disrupt their ability to coordinate. And if the landing were not off, the timing of it would be. Bhutto and Jane had to expect to be on their own for a significant period of time.

Jane turned on the short-range radio inside the suit: a backup for the neural net interference they were currently experiencing. “Are you secure, Bhutto?” She asked.

“Ready to go, comrade.”

“Okay, Soon. Send us on our way.”

“Aye, Boss,” the pilot said. The cargo container separated from Caroline’s couple, and Jane sent it into a downward trajectory towards Loki’s surface, just outside the outer edge of the convict settlement. Their storage crate went down like a brick. And once they hit the atmosphere, the space brick did its best to tumble over end. The stabilizing thrusters countered most of this effort, but not without shaking Bhutto and Jane like dice in a cup.

The sudden burden of several times her bodyweight was near enough to make Jane blackout, even in the protective suit. Her vision closed to a pinhole but somehow she was able to shake off the forces and remain conscious. After being tossed about like rag dolls, the main thrusters of the container fired and the parachutes released with a jolt. Their descent slowed.

The container lurched at its first contact with solid ground, but it was a gentle shove compared to the drop. Jane found herself exhaling at the relief of finally being on planet, any planet, again. Then the container creaked and whined, and she felt her weight slowly begin to shift. Weightlessness came again, then the full brunt of gravity pulling and pushing as the crate toppled end over end. It spun them about like a boxer punching a speed bag, and with one last crash, broke Jane free of her harness and slammed her into one of the crates on the walls.

She would have been killed were it not for the old power armor. As it was, she possibly had a concussion. Dazed, she propped herself up on the ceiling of the container and made sure that she had not broken anything, be it bones or equipment. Bhutto hung upside down, outstretched like some kind of inverted crucifix. She pulled on the harness and let herself fall to the top of the overturned container with a grunt.

Jane struggled to stand upright on the slanted surface. She reached out an armored glove to help Bhutto up. “What in the hell happened?” Bhutto asked.

“I think we fell.” Jane replied.

“You think so?” she asked.

They climbed their way up to the airlock. It opened with an excruciating grinding screech, and closed behind them with the same awful noise. They rested on the closed door for a moment before Jane caught her breath and let the pressure equalize, and the atmosphere of the outside seep into their container. With any luck there were no leaks, and all of the supplies would remain protected. The outer airlock door opened, and Jane jumped to grab onto the edge and pull herself out of the metal box.

Jane pulled Bhutto up and out of the container, and then they both rested on the edge of the hull, armored legs dangling over the side. They had found themselves in the bottom of a giant bowl of moon. A wall of gray earth faced them on all sides. The crater must have been hundreds of meters deep.

“I think I’ve figured out why we ended up ice in a martini shaker,” Bhutto said.

“Excellent observation.” Jane hopped down from the crate and surveyed the ground for a way up from the crater.

“Where are you going?” Bhutto asked. “The point is to defend the cargo.”

“We can defend it better from the high ground than down here,” Jane replied. She did not want to get caught in the pit when the prison scavengers appeared. She felt blind enough without access to the net.

Bhutto jumped down beside her. “We might be able to rocket up and over the edge,” she said, “depending on the atmosphere. And gravity. It could go bad for us if we don’t make it.”

Jane stared up at the edge, analyzing the height of each side of the crater. When she found what she thought was the lowest jump, Jane pointed it out to Bhutto. “We try for that one,” she said.

“Okay,” Bhutto nodded.

“I figured you had more experience with the power armor.” She said.

Bhutto looked at her. “You did, did you, Red?”

Jane sighed. “Alright.”

With Bhutto observing expectantly, Jane eyed the distance, took a deep breath, and fired the thrusters in the legs of the power armor. She instantly shot up off the ground in a burst of speed, sputtered, burst again, and sputtered until she got a sense for the control. The increased gravity made her movements sluggish and labored, but it was enough to get her off the ground.

Jane held the thrusters for a long impulse, and flew in an arc towards the ledge of the crater. She burned them for a good minute before warnings began to blare in her head:

Danger:overheating imminent.

Jane did her best to moderate the thrust without losing altitude, but it did not seem possible. So she kept burning despite the warnings. The alarms became more irritating, and she ignored them. Then the thrusters cut off, leaving her flying out of control.

She nearly made it to the ledge but slammed into the side of the crater instead. The grip of her power armor allowed her to cling to the side of the crater, saving her from a fall down the precipice. Hanging on the ledge and facing a sheer wall, she took a moment to breathe before she pulled with all of her might up and out of the crater. She turned back to look at Bhutto, who stood leaning against the shipping crate down below.

Jane made an exaggerated waving motion with both outstretched arms. “Come on up,” she said into the radio.

“If you think I am trying what you just pulled, you are crazy.” She said. “You nearly got yourself splattered all over the craterside.”

Jane turned around to see a rocky gray landscape not unlike the frontier areas on Corporate Grid. The soil had the same fine dusty quality, albeit slightly paler. But the atmosphere here was thicker: you could not see the stars through the dull orange sky and swirling pale green clouds. There were none of the bright twinkling lights of distant cities, nor the reflections from the artificial domes that housed them. Here, there was no frontier. The waste was all there was.

It took Jane a moment to catch movement with her armor’s visor HUD, the scurrying of ants to a piece of bread left in the sun. They were a mass of figures, many with patchworks on their suits that somehow aided in blending in with the blacks, whites, and dark grays of the terrain.

Most were armed. Some had little more than sharpened metal sticks, while others held Corporate energy rifles. Some wore old, beat-up powered armor, but most wore nothing more than vac-suits. One blast from her armor’s cannon would kill scores from exposure to the corrosive atmosphere outside the their thin suits.

But with their numbers, they could kill her. Easily. She held her hands up in submission.

“My name is Jane Leone,” She said, when she thought they were in range. “I do not wish to harm you.”

Laughter came over her radio. Not her neural net, she noted. A static-garbled voice spoke. “Harm us? Lonely old you? How ‘bout you hand over your pretty armor and whatever else you have, and we might let you inside to whore for the miners?”

Jane’s HUD identified the voice as one of the power armor clad standing behind the rest, emblazoned with a red rose on its right pauldron. She fought the urge to unload her cannon right then. While she had considered the “Free Worlders,” savages, these ones were the worst of them, and they ran this… settlement. Jane refused to call it a civilization.

They were bluffing, she knew. No one wanted to risk becoming mincemeat over a suit of power armor and a few supplies. No sane person.

Maybe they weren’t bluffing…

Jane leveled her cannon at the most far-back group of convicts. The better-equipped men were herding the worse-equipped from behind. She would take out the pampered cowards first. They might have fired then, but they wanted the power armor intact, and she knew this. The peons of the group stopped short for only a moment before being prodded on by their armored masters.

“I am here to negotiate,” Jane said. Their response was hesitation.

Good. They can think.

“In that crater is an entire shipping container full of food, supplies, weapons and energy packs. You can have it. All I am asking for is access to one man.”

The peons stopped, and the power armored elite did not press them on, for once. “Why shouldn’t we take it and leave you here to rot?” The same voice asked.

“Bhutto,” Jane said.

“Yeah, Red?”

“Did you hear all of that?”

“I caught most of it, Red.”

“If I give the word, blow a hole straight through the airlock.”

“You got it, Red.”

She turned to the mass of scavengers. “If that seal is breached, nearly the entire haul will be spoiled. But we came here to deal. There is no reason that all of us cannot come out on top.”

“Maybe,” The voice said. She had decided he was the leader of the band. “But maybe we don’t like you, and we’ll be no worse off just wiping you off this rock and taking the ammo and whatever else the atmo don’t take.”

Jane could not tell if he were that stupid. The peons seemed to think so, because they advanced towards her menacingly. She backed away until she was nearly at the edge of the crater. She feared would have to kill some of them to keep them from pushing her into the chasm behind her. Jane gritted her teeth, deciding it was better to stand her ground and fight than let them see weakness. She fired a warning shot near enough the powered armored fool to get his attention. She wanted him to know that he was the one she was gunning for.

The peons scattered, but quickly reformed. The armored man did not even move. Jane adjusted her aim. It might mean death, but she would kill him if she had to go down anyway. Just as she was about to make her move, though, she caught a glimpse of a fast-moving object in the sky. It streaked through with a trail of rippling gas and slowed to a hover, circling their position. The convicts turned their attention to the shuttle, many scattering or taking to the ground, as if that would help. Jane smiled from behind her visor.

Yeager had found them.

“Saw some shooting. I thought I might be of assistance,” he said over the radio.

“I think you might,” Jane agreed. “We were just informing these men that it would be in their best interest to accept our generous offer.”

“I think you should listen to the lady. Otherwise I might have to teach you some manners.”

“Okay,” The leader said with resignation. “We’ll deal.” They lowered their weapons.

Bhutto finally had the courage to jet up from the bottom of the crater, and stood at Jane’s side. The powered armored leader stepped aside from the rest of the group. The duo of women approached to meet him. He tilted his head skyward towards the shuttle menacing him. “You know what?” He asked. “I figure that whatever artillery you got on that craft, its pretty heavy. Too heavy not to take the two of you down with me. I think I’m calling off this deal.”

Before Jane could react, he picked up a long cylinder that had been holstered on the back of his armor and pointed it at the shuttle. A rocket hissed from the rigid tube and spiraled into the shuttle, leaving a corkscrew of puffed smoke before exploding on impact.

A bright flash broke through the smoky cloud, and pieces of smoldering tumbling down on trails of smoky ribbons. Jane breathed a slight sigh of hope when she saw a bright orange mushroom sprout from the cockpit module, the oversized parachute slowing it to a gentle descent.

“We had a deal, you son of a bitch,” Bhutto growled.

He shrugged. “Welcome to Loki.”

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