Monday, February 18, 2019

Chapter 22

Once the cutout was made, Bhutto kicked it into the next chamber. In the short time it had taken to cut through, the temperature difference on the other side of the pressure door was noticeable. Bhutto sighed in relief in the slightly less boiling chamber. An errant energy beam struck right above her head, and she fired back at the source before pushing off into the chamber. Red sent another couple of shots through the door before darting in behind Bhutto.

The command center was a spherical chamber slightly larger than the rest of the tunnel located in the center of the Boatman’s Toll where the micro-meteor armor would be the thickest. Spanning the middle of the sphere was a bloated white pillar that bulged in its center, keeping the distance between the pillar surface and the spherical walls roughly the height of a man from top to bottom. Augmented reality display screens projected various display screens onto the walls through the net signals. They showed a display of the ship’s schematics, their relative velocity, position, and their orbit around the ringed giant Odin.

Several screens flashed red, among them one warning of a recent breach in the pressure door. A full section of the ship was blinking on the virtual schematic display. Needless to say, lots of things were going wrong for the Boatman’s Toll.

“God Damn it, Bhutto,” came Charlie’s voice from behind the bulging pillar. “How is it that you just happen to destroy everything you touch?”

“Just lucky, I guess,” Bhutto replied.

Charlie wasn’t an idiot who would make conversation during a firefight. He was stalling her.

Or was he trying to draw her out? Bhutto nodded to Red and pointed toward one side of the sphere. Then she patted herself and pointed to the other. Red nodded. She put her foot through the projection of a flashing red security screen and readied to push off the wall.

“Wait!” Bhutto said suddenly. Red stopped and glanced curiously.

The Boatman’s Toll was Charlie’s baby. He may not have been creative with his personal weapon selection, but with his ship…

“Security feed. He can see our every move.” Bhutto said. “He knows where every single person is on this ship.” He had a security feed transmitted directly to his brain.

“So what do we do?” Red asked.

Bhutto scanned the command center. The chamber was illuminated by several flickering tubes of light lining the walls of the sphere behind thick grates. They all appeared to be connected to each other.

“The security feed had to be light or heat based,” Bhutto said. She was pretty sure, anyway. It was already hot enough in this oven to make any heat sensor less than useless.

Bhutto pointed her energy pistol at the wall and hosed down the interior light until it went out. Then she went on to the next light down the line. After another one went out, Red joined in, and they systematically took out the entire lighting system of the command center, until the chamber was in complete darkness.

Weirdly, the virtual display panels remained untouched. It made sense, since those displays relied not on any ambient light, but on direct signals to the brain. But that left complete blackness broken up by flashing red warning displays. Displays Bhutto bet that Charlie could not get on his feed. She smiled.

“Ready to take out this dirtbag, Red?”

“I’m ready,” Red answered, notably without Bhutto’s mirth.

Bhutto hoped she was right about the security feed. If not, Charlie would cut them both down before they could so much as get off a shot. Bhutto pushed off toward one of the flashing displays, her only way of orienting herself in the total darkness of the chamber. She swiveled with her energy pistol and fired, simply to light her way. If she caught Charlie in the proton spray, all the better.

The blue-white beam illuminated the command center even brighter than the ship’s lighting had, casting dark shadows on the opposite sphere wall. One for the central column, one for Bhutto, one for Red. And one other one. Bhutto cut off the particle beam, leaving a white-hot residue of burning hull surface behind one of the virtual displays.

The opposite pressure door popped open, flooding the chamber with more light. Another moving stream of particles came at Bhutto’s general direction this time. She bounded back behind the control column. A response from opposite column came from Red’s pistol.

Bhutto rubbed her eyes from the flash just in time to see Charlie’s figure sailing down the opposite corridor. He was getting away. If he got enough of his bearings to vent the ship, Bhutto was done for. She crouched as far as she could and sprang after him with all of her strength.

Bhutto quickly closed the air between her and Charlie. But Charlie’s slower coast down the hall meant he had no problem grabbing hold of a rung and twisting around a corner. Bhutto saw what was coming, but she would never have the time to react. Charlie would wait for her to fly past, and when she did, he would unleash a particle stream straight up her ass.

Grabbing a rung like Charlie did would leave her tumbling and disoriented. Instead, she twirled onto her back and readied to douse that offshoot tunnel with protons. She held her breath, and then came the familiar crackling sound. The flash of light blinded her, but she did not feel any more any more heat than the air in the surrounding pressure cooker of a cabin.

Bhutto blinked to shake off the imprint from the energy beam. She stuck her hands out and slid her fingertips against the tunnel walls, slowing her spin and eventually coming to rest. The hot air dried her mouth and throat more and more, burning her lungs with each breath. For some reason, Bhutto could not shake the blur from her eyes. Turned back towards the corner where Charlie had been waiting. Why, she could not seem to justify.

She had the vague realization that her mind was slowing. Then Charlie emerged from the tunnel. Bhutto dully realized that she should fire at him. Then Charlie collided into the wall as limp as if the vac suit had been empty.

A slim figure in a vac suit floated after the corpse brandishing a pistol. The blue glow pooling in his eye sockets evoked a sick pleasure.

“One less problem to worry about,” D’Arcangelo mused.

Bhutto raised her pistol at the bastard. Her heart beat in her chest. She swallowed painfully, realized suddenly she was dizzy. She said something, but it was not coherent to her. She fired with a flash of intense heat.

Then everything went black.

Bhutto awoke to a sense of falling. She jerked and snapped open her eyes to the immediate claustrophobia of a helmet’s visor. The sudden movement made her vision spin, and she blinked once, twice, slowly orienting herself to her surroundings.

She was still in the Boatman’s Toll, strapped into not a closet this time, but a tightly wrapped sleeping cocoon. With a single motion she broke free of the bedding and the chamber wall.

While she still had a headache and some nausea, she could feel that her skin was cooler. She extended her retracted fingers into the stiff vac suit gloves and closed a fist.

“Glad to know you’re recovering,” Red said. She was hovering at the entrance, still in her own suit.

Bhutto’s eyes darted back and forth. “The rest of the crew,” she said.

“Dead or passed out from heat exhaustion,” she replied. “Just skimming though all the warning reports, it looks like D’Arcangelo figured out how to hack in and cut off the coolant line. Everyone inside was slowly cooking without realizing it.”

Bhutto paused for a moment, remembering the dull pain in her wrists and forearms. “Sick bastard.”

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