Monday, January 21, 2019

Chapter 19

Bhutto scoffed. “You’d put a bounty at risk?” She shook her head. “You’ve changed, Charlie.”

“Maybe so,” he shot back. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“I take that as a compliment. If you’re using me as your cannon fodder, I’m getting my choice of hardware.”

Charlie grimaced, but brought up an instant display of their inventory on Bhutto’s neural HUD. It wasn’t Corrigan’s armory, but Bhutto was impressed nonetheless. Charlie had small arms from some of the best manufacturers orbiting Odin, and some lines only an enthusiast like herself would recognize. But Charlie was exceedingly boring. All of these pieces came straight off the line. No attachments, no accessories, no customization at all.

Bhutto could work with that. She was a professional when it came to cannibalizing parts. She carefully went over the specifications of each weapon. The parts were specifically designed not to fit with one another, but there were workarounds to that. She selected a Paralite armory platform, swapped that for a Defcorps barrel with an X-law handle. Best of all worlds.

Charlie raised an eyebrow. “Who told you that you can treat our stock like your own personal scrapyard?”

“I don’t think you realize who your dealing with here, Charlie. This woman is ruthless. And him?” She blew air out of her nose. “Do you even have a plan?”

Charlie mouth twisted into a crooked smirk. “I’m betting you have some ideas?”

* * * 

Jane cringed even before the syringe needle touched her skin. There was a little pressure, followed by a barely quantifiable sting, and D’Arcangelo pulled back the empty tube and placed it back in its place inside his bag.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

Jane shrugged. “No different.”

“See?” he said. “No harm done.” Jane recalled him using the very same words after their interrogation session. She forced a smile.

Now all she had to do was wait and see if D’Arcangelo’s specially crafted virus sickened and killed her, turned her into his puppet, or did exactly what it was supposed to do.

“Tell me about this neural blind spot,” Jane said. “It specifically targets the brain?”

He nodded. “That’s right, he said. No human would be able to find it.”

But what about a drone? That was something to keep in her back pocket. She would find out soon enough.

Jane felt a wave of déjà vu when the trajectory intercept alarms went off in her head, and another when she scanned the source.

“They’re back,” She said, more to herself than to D’Arcangelo. Telling her to power down and prepare for docking. Jane gathered her loose floating hair into a ponytail and slid the vac helmet over her head. She tapped the reflective glass visor. “Caps on.”

D’Arcangelo’s glowing blue eyes focused on her, dilating and then contracting. Jane realized his fingers were still resting on her arm. “Care to let me in on what it is you are planning?”

She pulled away. “Not especially.” She worked out the next moves in her head. If she punched the throttle now, they would never catch up with a manned ship. The human body could only handle so much acceleration. But that would just mean sending a missile up their exhaust, and that she could not outrun, for the same reason.

But they would want to avoid that at all costs. Not only was she a Vegacorp subscriber, but she was also a Freyjan Regulator. These bounty hunters would be in deep trouble if they started an interplanetary war. There was no way that they’d be stupid enough to risk it.

Then she thought of Bhutto, and every other Corporate she had met so far. She cancelled her upcoming maneuver schedule and fixed the boat’s gun turrets. She would have to wait. And it would not be a short one.

Matching orbits takes time, and docking takes even longer, even with the powerful navigation computers that the long-range ship must have had. But within a few hours it finally made its approach. Slowly, the long ship floated laterally towards the Collective patrol boat. Jane held her breath. Tracking the ship with the guns would raise their alarm. She might be able to pull a quick shot off, or she might not, but it was a risk she needn’t take.

Jane had fixed the guns to aim toward a point right in front of the patrol boat’s docking port. All she had to do was wait until the guns’ line of sight was totally eclipsed by the bounty hunters’ hull. Then, a few volleys ought to make sure that they were no longer in a position to pursue them.

Jane clenched a clammy fist like she was gripping a pistol in her holster, waiting to draw. She watched the proximity meter count down like a timer. Two kilometers. 1500 meters. 1 kilometer. 500 meters.

Just as she was ready to pull the trigger, a more hysteric warning blared in her head.

She had no time to react before the missiles hit her gunboat. The battered ship rocked with each of the three impacts. Bits of shrapnel tore through the hull, leaving hissing streams of escaping air behind. The impact from the barrage was not especially violent, but her boat was now crippled and toothless, twirling listlessly in the void.

The spinning stopped abruptly as they latched on with a winch. Jane thought frantically – what leverage did she have? She shot a look to D’Arcangelo, who was leaning from one of the boat’s handholds with a curious posture.

The antimatter reactor.

Jane remembered his story. Just the threat of a containment failure drove D’Arcangelo from his precious project. The collective patrol boat ran on the stuff just like the corporate vessels. Not as much as a gen ship, but at this range it would make little difference. Jane might be able to use that to scare off these mercenaries.

“I know what you’re thinking,” D’Arcangelo mused. “Threaten to suicide bomb them?” He shook his head. “It won’t work, dear. These people aren’t as rational as you or I. And disabling a containment system would take longer than we have.”

Jane blew air out of her nose. She grasped the nearest handhold, faced the airlock door, and pulled her pistol from her holster.

The patrol bolt jolted. The collision told Jane that they had finally docked. With the air vented from the rocket attack, there was no sound to warn of their arrival. But she knew they were out there.

“It’s over,” came Charlie’s net voice. “Open the airlock door and no one will get hurt.”

Jane pressed her boot against the hull like a spring. “This craft belongs to the Freyjan Collective. Any further hostile action will be considered an act of war against the people of Freyja.”

There was a long period of silence. Jane would have liked to believe that Charlie was considering the consequences of picking a fight with an entire planet, but the vibration in her fingers through the hull told her a different story. Threads of hull material spindled off as the construction sawblade cut through the airlock door.

It wasn’t exactly slow going, but Jane would have plenty of time. She pulled herself to the side, giving herself a better angle for when they would use the door cutout as a shield.

“D’Arcangelo,” Jane said over the net. He didn’t react. She called again. Perhaps sensing her frustration, he tilted his head curiously. Then he tapped his visored helmet and shrugged.

They had jammed their comms. Smart.

Jane gestured for D’Arcangelo to cover the other side. He took a moment to consider. Jane couldn’t see his expression to know what he was thinking, but after a few short seconds he bounded over to where she had pointed, his own pistol drawn.

With a sudden lull in the constant vibrating of the saw, the airlock door popped free. It slowly edged forward. Jane aimed her pistol at the growing gap between the door cutout and the rest of the hull, looking for any sign of an enemy’s vac suit behind it.

Jane caught glimpse of an arm. She fired her pistol, and a glowing hot particle stream poured into the breach. A flailing arm flailing smoke told her that she had hit her mark. Another particle stream rushed by her face and she pulled her head as close to the hull as it could go.

The muzzle of D’Arcangelo’s own kinetic pistol flashed, and a bubble of grayish discharge clung to the barrel. Jane caught glimpse of several marble sized crimson globules floating out of the airlock, along with the spinning fibers of shredded vac suit. Despite his veneer as the effete intellectual, it seemed that the man was no slouch with a weapon.

Jane grinned and sprayed a few more particle streams into the hole. Then D’Arcangelo started. His visor’s gaze fixed on Jane, he slowly pushed his pistol away, sending it careening somewhere down the patrol boat corridor. He held his palms open in submission.

Jane was stopped mid-turn by a thud against her vac-suit helmet. Her energy pistol was wrenched from her grip, and she was spun around to find a pistol barrel in her face. Behind it was a familiar vac-suit, identical to the one she had taken from Loki. The figure behind the visor shook its head.

“Did you think I would come politely through the front door?” Bhutto asked, with clear and gleeful malice in her voice.

“I don’t think so, Red.”

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