Monday, February 11, 2019

Chapter 21

Bhutto grinned. “How’d you convince Charlie to change his mind? Was there seduction involved?”

Red’s face twisted in disgust. “Charlie hasn’t changed his mind. He is going to claim the ship for himself.” Red paused. “And his crew.”

Bhutto stopped grinning. “That's a lot of people to deal with. Too many for you to take on alone.”

Red nodded coldly. Bhutto could tell that she wasn’t happy with her options. And she knew that there was no way she could trust Red to do anything other than look out for The Collective.

At least she hadn’t turned to D’Arcangelo first.

Bhutto sneered and held the energy pistol out from her side. “Do you know where they are right now? And I mean exactly.”

Red paused. “I know one of them is in the infirmary, incapacitated. And I think Charlie is interrogating D’Arcangelo in the hold at the other end of the ship.”

“With our luck, he’s talking his way out of his ropes this very moment.” Bhutto frowned. That was a very real possibility. They had better work quick.

Just then, the soft creak of someone making a monkey turn on one of the handholds. From the tunnel outside. Bhutto put her finger to her lips and lowered her pistol. Red leaned casually out from the open closet.

The scrawny man must’ve been in orbit most of his life, born there even. His arms and legs extended freakishly long, like spider legs. Those legs would’ve been useless on even the lowest gravity settlement. Bhutto reckoned he was one of those unfortunates with a genetic dystrophy, and without the brains to make a living on the net, could only find work off planet.

And without the brains to realize what hit him when Bhutto sprayed white-hot protons through his chest. He could barely even gasp when the particle spray burned a hole through his heart, then leaked out the other side like faucet water going through a sponge. The high oxygen air crackled and the smell of ozone and microwaved hot dogs drifted into Bhutto’s unprotected nostrils.

Bhutto brushed the corpse aside, along with the gray bubble of smoke that now clung to it.

She pushed off down the hall, and Red followed close behind. Someone would have surely heard the crackle from the particle beam. The question would be if they came to investigate, or hunkered down and waited to see if there were any more shots fired.

The first one was safer. If no one came out into the main corridor, they would have to clear the ship room by room. When you couldn’t change direction until you hit a wall, that made corners and blind spots especially dangerous.

There was another option, though. If Bhutto could nab Charlie or anyone with access to the ship’s controls they might be able to vent the ship and incapacitate everyone inside, so long as they weren’t alerted.

Doing that meant finding a vac suit helmet, and preferably one that fit her suit.

“You didn’t happen to see where they stashed my helmet, did you?” Bhutto whispered.

She glanced back at Red. Her coppery eyebrows raised immediately, but Bhutto could see the calculation in those icy blue eyes. The slightest nod told Bhutto that Red understood her plan.

“I know where mine is,” Red replied. No smile formed on Red’s mouth, but Bhutto could see those frosty eyes thaw just a little. Red rattled the helmet tethered to her vac suit.

Bhutto narrowed her eyes. Red was about as trustworthy as a fractional reserve lender. Bhutto was sure she was looking to stab her in the back again. But it wouldn’t be long before the crew of the Toll discovered them, and she was glad that Red had thought ahead. If neither of them had a functioning vac suit, then Charlie could cut Red and Bhutto off from the rest of the ship and vent them himself, literally with a thought.

Bhutto grimaced. “Let’s go find Charlie.” Then she held up an insistent finger. “But we’re checking the lockers along the way.”

Bhutto dashed from wall to wall of the narrow tunnel, checking the contents of each container on the wall for suits. The problem for her was that many of them were locked, and some of them had no indication of what was inside. If Charlie had given Red any access to the ship’s systems, she did not offer that information. So Bhutto was left to bash in the lockers that she could and rummage through the debris cloud.

Red humored Bhutto’s smash and grab spree until another figure floated from one of the “floor” sections that surrounded the main corridor. This one wasn’t caught unawares. Bhutto felt the heat from the particle spray that streamed by her cheek, singeing away several locks of her black hair.

The response from Red’s energy pistol was immediate and more accurate. The bounty hunter spun from the force of the beam into a perpetual pirouette of charred flesh. Bhutto flashed a smile at Red, and pulled her own pistol. The crew would be alerted, and they had to act fast.

Bhutto bounded down toward the center chamber, where the ship’s command center would be. She and Red alternated from wall to wall in a coordinated dance. The rest of the crew converged on them, and streams of energy lit the already bright corridor to the point of blinding. The air temperature rose gradually with each shot back and forth. It was now well past the point of discomfort.

Sweat clung to Bhutto’s body in rippling globs. Unable to simply wipe it away, she scraped the liquid from her face with her fingers, sending it flying, stopped only by impact with the wall. Drawn to the sound of the firing energy weapons, the some of the crew unthinkingly rushed into the central tunnel.

Bhutto and Red had chosen a good position to deal with the rash response. With no way to effectively maneuver once they emerged from the outer chambers, they flailed helplessly in entirely predictable paths, like clay pigeons pulled just for Red and Bhutto to shoot down. In short succession, five bounty hunters had darted out with guns blazing, and five had been cut to pieces. Gore exploded from each impact, sending fluids expanding in all directions until they splattered over the first solid object they came in contact with.

All the while, it was getting hotter with each firing of their energy weapons. Bhutto’s face was on fire, and her temple hammered against her skull. The air inside the ship rippled like engine exhaust. The photon guns were supposed to be designed for space combat. They would fire in a vacuum without the typical dangers associated with kinetic weapons: breaching the hull or passing through the intended target only to hit an unintended one.

But as Bhutto panted, she wondered if anyone had thought through how they would work in an enclosed pressurized air environment. Well, she wondered no longer. They clearly had not.

After the short burst of fighting, the rest of the crew wised up. No more hapless bounty hunters floated into their sights for at least a few minutes. But that also meant that they knew they were waiting in the central chamber. They had to move fast. Bhutto zig-zagged once more toward the command center, and toward Charlie.

Red, having the benefit of her vac suit, was not so pressed for time. But she followed after Bhutto nonetheless.

It took only the time for Bhutto to make six pushes off the tunnel wall before this ship section’s circular pressure doors began swinging on their hinges. designed to protect against a hull breach in any particular section, it would cut them off from the rest of the ship and make it easy for Charlie to vent them without killing the rest of the crew. Bhutto gritted her teeth and made one long straight push towards the closing door.

It was a stupid move. There was no way for Bhutto to change their mind, stop, or to slow down. As she hurtled toward the door, she realized that the best-case scenario was for her to fail by a wide margin - to get to the door much too late. Complete success was only the second-best outcome. Once she got through, she would be cut off from her only backup, trapped with Charlie and whatever thugs he had with him. The final, and worst option was for her to just miss getting through, and then being separated from her waist below.

Luckily for Bhutto, the Toll’s pressure doors must have been up to specs, because it snapped shut and seal much quicker than Bhutto could wedge herself through. She slammed face-first into the door, and was left with a sizable bruise that covered much of her cheek.

Enraged, Bhutto slammed her fist against the door with a dissatisfying thud that merely pushed her backwards. She righted herself, sought for a foothold to brace herself, and began bashing at the door again.

“Charlie, you slimy son of a bitch, I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to kick this door in and you’ll wish you had opened it!” Charlie couldn’t hear her, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The cabin was like an oven now, and Bhutto’s breathing was labored, but she ignored it all to beat on that infuriating pressure door in front of her.

Quickly exhausted, Bhutto slumped into the well against the pressure door. Even then, she felt a presence hovering behind her. With a flick of her eyes, she saw Red floating in her Loki vac suit. She held out a bulky composite tool-handle, offering it to Bhutto.

“I thought you might be able to use this,” she said. Bhutto accepted the same construction saw she had used to cut into the Freyjan gunboat. Still panting, she smiled, reflecting on how she and Red had dismantled this beautiful piece of machinery. Only for a moment did she feel bad before she began cutting a Bhutto-sized hole into the pressure door.

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