Monday, March 4, 2019

Chapter 23

The Ecstasy of Annihilation

The Leviathan appeared as a blip in a sea of pale orange, a mote defiling the otherwise perfect creamy complexion of Odin’s surface. Such a simple insignificant speck that held so much power, so much beauty. As soon as she detected it, Jane noted that the Boatman’s Toll did its best to steer away. Jane corrected the course, and still the ship would somehow find itself avoiding the bit of space around the anomaly. Finally Jane ordered the ship to abandon its flight plan and allow her to take control manually. Bhutto became increasingly agitated, as if unnerved by the very space they occupied.

“Red, maybe we should turn back,” she protested.

“We had an agreement, Bhutto,” Jane said simply. “You’re not backing out of it now.” Bhutto said nothing but continued to squirm in her harness.

The tiny mote grew into a gray blot, and slowly began to take the shape of a potato-like rock. A section it had been flattened and capped with a platform and airlock structure. A bright orange and black stripe ran along the side of the platform, the name 'BrainStream' branded above it.

Without reference to the Toll’s sensors, it would have been difficult to tell their distance from the structure by visuals alone. Jane’s now inoculated neural net told her that the massive generation ship was not nearly as close as it would appear. The thin side of the platform alone was larger than a standard passenger ship. There were Freyjan battle stations that would be dwarfed by the legendary asteroid ship.

“Whoa,” Alexander Invictus said simply.

“Whoa, what?” Bhutto asked, irritated at everyone staring out the view screen.

Jane guided the ship closer in with few adjustments, and Alexander looked on in anticipation. Only Bhutto seemed to be on edge, as if Jane were flying them into a black hole. Her partner clung onto the rungs above her harness, certain they were going the wrong way, though she could not tell where they were going.

The structure slowly enveloped the view screen, and Jane set the autopilot, satisfied that they had finally reached their goal. All they needed to do was disable the mental block the ship was broadcasting and claim the salvage operation for the Freyjan Collective.

The Authority would have its prize.

“Guess who took the shuttle,” Bhutto said hoarsely, flicking a thumb to one of the command center displays. “We’re going to have to land with the pods.”

Jane's body language made clear what she thought of that. Bhutto followed with a chuckle. “Don’t worry, Red. It’s not so bad. Just like going for a little space walk.”

Jane took a deep breath. Her hands began to tremble.

She was so close. There was no other way.

The gravity warning alarms went off. Five minutes. Jane strapped herself in one of the command center “chairs” and Bhutto strapped herself in with Alexander Invictus. The Toll swiftly spun around and fired its engines retrograde to slow itself and meet Leviathan’s orbit around Odin. The force of acceleration pulled at her for the first time since they had left Loki. It was a comforting sensation, like being back home. It would be less comfortable for the unconscious and unharnessed crew of the Boatman’s toll, who were just dropped from wherever they had been floating before at multiples of the force of gravity. They would be lucky to survive.

Jane’s comfort lasted only a few minutes before the Toll pulled up against the Leviathan and cut its thrusters. She was thrown back into free fall again.

“You stay here,” Bhutto said to Alexander after unhooking herself from the chair and strapping him back in. “Your Aunty Red and I are going for an errand. We shouldn’t be too long.” The boy wrapped his arms around her neck for a good while, but he did not otherwise protest.

Jane stifled a laugh. Bhutto didn’t seem to notice. Each of them strapped on EVA backpacks that would allow them to move freely throughout the Leviathan with jets of thrust, as long as their fuel didn't run out. As soon as Bhutto had hers on, she spun around with pistol already drawn. “Let’s go.”

Almost before Jane nodded, Bhutto had already leaped to the nearest hatch, flung it open and slid into an empty pod. Jane noted that several had already been jettisoned. Maybe some of the Toll's crew had made it out after all.

Jane’s heart was beating faster now, but she forced herself into the pod hatch nearest her. The enclosed box itself wasn’t so bad. In fact, she would have gone so far as to call it cozy. But as soon as she turned on the visuals, she would be floating free again, into nothing. She balled her shaky hand into a fist and fired the pod.

It shot out from the ship and flipped around almost immediately, ready to fire the landing thrusters. Jane waited to switch on the canopy display until she was almost on top of the asteroid ship. At least she would be hurtling toward something akin to solid ground. And Indeed, the gray cratered surface was fast moving under her feet. She held her breath and fired the pod’s thrusters, slowing her descent.

Jane could make out a series of guns and weapons systems lining the center platform, reminding her that the civilian ship was still well-armed and dangerous. The Toll’s shuttle was anchored close by, dashing any hope that D’Arcangelo might have any trouble touching down.

Jane guided herself alongside Bhutto’s pod toward the platform bulwark, approaching the giant maw of what she hoped was still a functioning airlock. This one was clearly intended for docking with ships larger than even the largest Collective warships. It dwarfed the Boatman’s Toll, much less a woman-sized escape pod. Jane made contact with the ship’s net, and thankfully the bulwark doors shifted open slowly, revealing a slit-like gap in the hull, growing like the mouth of a whale preparing to swallow a couple of minnows.

The two pods slipped through the crack in the airlock, and a force slowed their movement. Not their thrusters, but some other safety measure protecting the airlock. Bhutto and Jane came to a stop in the vast sterile box-like room, gray and featureless, and big enough to fit a platoon of rovers. The pod remained hovering above the floor or ceiling before the gate closed behind them, and another bulwark door opened in front of them. Jane immediately popped the pod canopy up and pushed herself out of the pod. She was stopped short by the same force that held it in place.

The force finally dissipated when the inner door opened, and Jane was pulled slowly toward the center of the generation ship. Bhutto’s pod canopy popped up and she sprung out of the coffin-like craft, guiding her way with EVA jets – her visor was fixed in Jane’s direction, but not on Jane.

Jane twirled around to find D’Arcangelo floating at the tunnel entrance to the asteroid’s great cavern. “Let’s get going,” he said. “We need to divert the power from the net broadcast to the engines.”

“I thought we just needed to switch off the neural broadcast," Bhutto said. "Then we claim the salvage rights.”

Jane glanced at D’Arcangelo.

“Why don’t you tell our friend Bhutto what the Collective is really after, Red? Not the antimatter, I take it?”

“No,” she admitted. “Antimatter is little more than energy. We want the mental block technology.”

Bhutto grunted, but D’Arcangelo cracked a wide grin. “Oh, dear. You don’t know, do you?”

Jane could feel herself getting angry. “Know what?”

“The Collective doesn’t want the mental block. It wants the interface that makes the mental block possible.” He paused. “Tell me, Red, how many times have you been mind wiped?”

“None,” Jane responded reflexively.

D’Arcangelo’s tone became sympathetic. “How could you ever know that?”

“We only wipe criminal tendencies.”

“Let’s just assume, naively, that that is true. How does the mind wipe process work?”

“It acts through the neural implant and several scanners that identify tendencies for undesirable behavior and eliminate it.”

“Now, imagine identifying that behavioral activity in an entire population, and eliminating it wirelessly.”

Jane thought a moment. “That would be… incredible."

“Incredible? It’s disgusting! Unconscionable!”

“And you could make a serious profit off of it.” D’Arcangelo replied.

“Your damn right I could.” Bhutto said. “With that thing I’d never have to worry about a bunch of loan shark parasites taking my property again.”

D’Angelo smirked, but said nothing. Something dawned on Jane.

“What do you need us for, Anton?” Jane asked. “You’ve gotten to your mobile research lab. You don’t even need to turn off the transmitter now that you’ve inoculated yourself. If you killed us right now, you would be unstoppable.”

Jane glanced at Bhutto’s hand hovering over her pistol holster. It took a second for Jane to realize that hers was as well.

Only D’Arcangelo seemed relaxed. ““Maybe I just like you,” he replied. 

“Why don’t we wait to shoot each other once we have disabled the defenses and transmitter? Then we can massacre each other to our hearts’ content.” 

No, his restraint didn’t stem from affection. He needed a guinea pig, or a sacrifice, or something one of them had. Jane would have to wait and try to figure out what it was before D'Arcangelo went through with his plan.

“I’ll show you to my lab,” D’Arcangelo said, as if they would ignore the conversation. He turned and disappeared down the airlock tunnel. 

Jane glanced over to Bhutto and shrugged. She would follow him. For now.

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