Monday, February 4, 2019

Chapter 20

Bhutto could hardly believe that her plan had actually worked. The hole where they had knocked off the boat’s gun turrets was the perfect place to cut through. The sensors wouldn’t detect another hull breach so close. And Red was terrified of even the shortest space walk. She’d never have predicted that someone would sneak up behind her from outside the ship’s hull. And that satisfying moment, when she got to see Red visor-to-visor. If only she could have seen Red’s face at that moment, it would have been perfect.

Bhutto would have to settle for an after-the-fact glimpse, when Charlie secured Red aboard one of the prisoner harnesses in his ship, The Boatman’s Toll.

Red hung from the same padded closet wall Charlie had stuffed Bhutto into. Unmoving, like a carcass in a meat locker. When she slid the helmet off Red’s cold stony face, Bhutto was not disappointed. Red’s wordless glare told Bhutto that the Freyjan knew she was beat. What’s more, she knew it was Bhutto that beat her.

That must have stung.

Charlie hovered over Bhutto's shoulder. “We have our bounty. Now the question is, what to do with you?”

Jane shook her head, sending a ripple through the copper hair that still hung splayed over her eyes. “The Collective has no fight with you. Or Vegacorp.”

Charlie laughed. “Tell that to poor Thompson, got his arm burned off. And don’t try to pretend that wasn’t you did it.”

Red nodded. “Self-defense. You don’t want to pick a fight with the Collective. You’d be surprised what a whole planet with a single-minded purpose can accomplish.”

“I say we shove her into a pod and leave her,” Bhutto said. “What was it you said to me, Red?" She held for a dramatic pause. "I feel a woman like you could manage, if you save your breath.”

Charlie nodded. “We certainly have no obligation to give you a ride, harboring fugitives and all.”

“I can take you to Leviathan,” Red said calmly. Bhutto had gotten to know this particular Freyjan well enough to know that she was anything but calm.

Red nodded toward Bhutto. “The Collective would gladly split the claim with you and your friends. Two bounties, and a stake in the lost treasure ship? Hard to pass up.”

Bhutto laughed. Red thought they would trust a jackboot like her? She was truly desperate. Charlie joined in her laughter. “I’m beginning to think you weren’t lying about that lost rock.”

Bhutto nodded. “What did I tell you? We could all retire.”

“It’s certainly worth checking out." He took a deep breath in and out. 

"Thing is, this Freyjan isn’t worth much to me.” He turned to Bhutto, the barrel of his energy rifle pointed at her belly. “You, on the other hand? You’ll keep food on our table if this treasure hunt falls through.” He nodded to the closet. “And there’s only so many vacancies in this hotel.”

Bhutto could feel the heat radiating off her face. Sweat pooled on her skin. She let out an enraged snarl and leapt for Charlie, before he swiftly clocked her in the face with the rifle.

* * *

Charlie cuffed Bhutto and slid her unconscious body aside. The Odinian woman settled in the far corner of the chamber, nestled against the padded wall, for the time being.

Jane couldn’t say she was surprised at Charlie's choice. Loyalty meant little out here in the ringed planet's orbit.

Charlie floated over to wrestle with the harness holding Jane to the wall. His muggy breath clung to her face, and she could smell the dehydrated protein he had for breakfast. He said nothing as he worked.

Jane waited patiently as he unfastened the straps one by one, until she was completely free of her restraints. Jane pushed past the bounty hunter and out into the ship’s main corridor. “Plot the course I set.”

“Aye, Captain.” He mocked, laughing.

Jane spun around to face him. “Where is D’Arcangelo?”

“The brain butcher? He’s got his own personal suite here.”

Jane felt the tension leave her body. Much of it, anyway. She scanned the privateer ship. Much of the wall padding was worn or torn. It had seen plenty of years of service. And while Jane would not say it was poorly maintained, the non-essential facilities had not seen replacements or repairs in the recent past. Not compared to how the Collective maintained its equipment, anyway.

Jane floated down the hall toward the main common chamber.

They may not have maintained the ship as fastidiously as the Collective would have, but they did have more amenities. The corridors were lined with raised storage containers of various shapes and sizes marked “toiletries,” “stims” and “booze” as well as more than enough medical supplies and battery packs.

It was apparent that hunting bounties was not a profession that would keep you in poverty around Odin. When Jane arrived at the first common chamber of the long spacecraft, she was greeted by a tiny figure in a slightly oversized vac-suit and short-buzzed blonde hair.

“Red!” said the Warden’s little boy. He tossed himself over to her awkwardly to grab onto her leg. But not as awkwardly as one who had never experienced zero-g. He had been practicing, and learning fast.

Jane looked down at the boy's head pressed into her suit, blonde tufts of hair sticking out in every direction. “My name is Jane, boy.”

The boy frowned. “I like ‘Red’ better. And my name is Alexander Invictus.”

Jane smirked. The custom of choosing the names of children certainly produced interesting results. The Warden certainly wasn't modest when it came to naming his heir.

Or was it his mother who was to blame?

Charlie floated into the chamber from behind and steadied himself on a handhold. “Send me the course to this treasure trove and I’ll get the men prepared.” She net messaged the information to Charlie and pulled the boy to eye level. “Have they been taking good care of you?”

“I had ice cream,” he said proudly, then he frowned. “Where is Iree-deen? She said she was going to take me to a city where I could see the whole sky and even O-den and his rings – with no helmet!”

That sounded like Grid’s bubble shield settlements. Maybe she didn’t have his best interests at heart, after all. Jane pointed to the screen viewer on the planetside wall of the ship’s chamber, where the ever-present ringed orange giant dominated the view.

“Odin is right there, dear. And look, no helmet!”

Alexander crossed his arms. “But we’re inside.”

“I’ll let you two discuss this,” Charlie said. Just as he was about to push off, he turned to her. “Is this for real?” Charlie asked. It was the first time Jane had gotten a good look at his face. The man’s acne-scarred face held penetrating black eyes. “I mean, really?”

Jane nodded. “I don’t know what exactly you heard, but there is an entire asteroid full of anti-matter just within our grasp. Right here in Odin.”

Charlie nodded. “Everyone knows Leviathan.” He nodded down the hall. “But Bhutto’s been searching for half her life, and all she’s got to show for it is a lot of guys like me after her.” He sniffled, like he was suffering from a cold. “And do you think nobody interrogated your Blue-Eyed Brain Butcher? I can assure you that they no one left a stone unturned.”

Jane thought about that. How had he gotten away with it? Why hadn’t the Corporations enlisted D’Arcangelo into finding it again, if only to gain access to the generation ship? Jane would have to speak with him about that.

“Perhaps he is more cooperative when he is treated like a partner instead of a prisoner.”

Charlie laughed. “Maybe.” Then he bounded off down the hallway without even touching the walls.

Jane continued to explain to the child how he would be “inside” even on Grid, but the boy was especially stubborn and did not seem convinced. Jane kept trying to find signs of his mother and father in him, wondering with each strange thought or behavior if she was witnessing latent indications of their social disorders within him. Whether through his genetics or his environment, she was sure the boy was somehow corrupted.

“Red,” Alexander whispered. “Did you really cut off somebody’s arm?”

Clearly the boy was disturbed. But Jane saw no reason to lie to him. Especially now that she had made up her mind to take him back to Freyja with her. “He was trying to shoot me. I fought back.”

The kid’s eyes went wide as saucers. “He was crying a lot,” he said quietly. “I don’t think they like you very much. He is their friend.”

Jane frowned. “Did Charlie say something?”

“He said not to hurt you. He said to wait to we get to the Viathon.”

Jane sighed and shook her head to herself. 

Now she would have to change her plans. Disappointing, but not unpredictable.

* * *

Bhutto continued to work on the coolant line, fueling each strike against that thin composite pipe with her rage. Bhutto’s wrath wavered back and forth between Red, then Charlie, then Red, then Red, then Charlie again.

Everyone backstabs in this world. That was just a fact of life. But nobody stabbed Iridene Bhutto in the back. Not without regretting it. Not while she still breathed. She slammed herself against the closet wall again, only slightly feeling the pain reverberate through her body. Her anger, her adrenaline made it seem as if the pain was happening to someone else. Little more than a tingle or an itch, someone tapping her on the shoulder too hard.

When she saw Red’s face in the screen, it seemed a hallucination conjured by her own fury. But, just like before, the closet door slid open, and Red’s ever grim face remained. She had an energy pistol gripped tightly in her fingers, so much so that Bhutto could make out the pink knuckle tendons shifting under her skin.

Even before Bhutto had the chance to spew a single expletive at her, Red began undoing Bhutto’s restraints. Even Bhutto knew then that it might be wiser to hold her tongue until the Freyjan jackboot released her. When Bhutto was free and had righted herself to Red’s orientation, Red pressed the energy pistol into Bhutto’s hand.

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