The port was not a particularly busy place when the pair pulled up on the grav-bike. A few greasers glanced their way idly, but returned casually to their work repairing rag-tag relics that had collectively seen better days. At the far end of the port was the space-lock itself, an enormous metal door, large enough to accommodate all but the largest of vessels. It opened into a large airlock that separated Coolands from the vacuum of space and was the only way in and out of the station.
“Over there,” Meron pointed across the tarmac to what appeared to be an abandoned wreck.
Gayle flinched. “What? That rusted bucket?”
Gayle rode the bike to a checkpoint where a disinterested guard vaguely waved them through to the tarmac; his eyes glued to a mini holo-vid playing a replay of the zero-G football league game, Gayle recognised the red and black strip of Manchester United – the other team he didn’t recognise. He hated Manchester, they always won everything.
“He might be old but he’ll get us where we want to go.” Meron shouted over the din of the work being done by mechanics around them. One with an arc welder looked over to them and nodded at Gayle.
“One of your drinking buddies?”
Gayle ignored the comment, “You said he?”
“Yeah, this baby is Achilles.” She said lovingly. The ship was not a monster by any means but now in its shadow it filled their field of vision. It was a freighter, about as old as you could get, the hull pocked and dented and rusted almost to decay.
“Where did you get this thing?”
“I bought it from an old miner working the asteroids near Ceres.” Meron ran her hand over a dented patch of hull. He was selling it for scrap, can you believe it?”
“Err, yeah I can. There’s nothin’ holding it together!” Gayle wandered around it to get the full picture.
She gave him a scowl, “Achilles is solid enough; I trust him with my life.”
Gayle gave a hollow laugh, “I guess we have too – we better get a move on.”
Meron placed a hand over a sensor which lit up with a stutter. The hold door began to descend, “You might as well, drive the bike in. We’ve stolen it now, might as well keep it.”
Gayle had to agree and jogged back to the bike which he’d left on hover. Releasing the brake he coasted up the ramp and into the hold. It was a large hexagon-shaped cylinder laid on its side that could be detached from the ship if required. Currently it was empty, bar for a few crates and a pile of rusted parts.
“Park it over there.” Meron waved vaguely working at the door mechanism which whirred ineffectively, “Damn servos! You might want to tie that down; it’ll be a rough ride getting out of port.”
“Rough?” He picked up a chain with a hook on the end which he quickly tethered the bike to.
“The right-hand stabilisers are a little off,”she replied. “Here, help me crank the ramp up.”
Gayle didn’t bother asking about why they had to manually close the cargo door, clearly it was broken like the rest of the ship. He hauled downward on the chain on the left side as Meron hauled on the right. They had the door about half way down when a posse of Weavel’s gang turned up at the checkpoint. Gayle could see them pointing guns at the guard they had passed earlier who backed away his arms in the air.
“Ok, we got ta go now.” Meron said with a remarkable amount of self-control, ”Heave!”
Working together they pulled the door shut and while Gayle held the chain in place Meron pressed the lock button, which clicked with a satisfying clunk. On the outside they heard the dull thud as blasts hit the thick, plate-metal door.
“Alright, time to get this crate off the ground.” Meron said moving through to a hatchway and up a set of stairs. “No offence old boy!” She slapped the wall.
Gayle scampered after her; he could hear muffled laser fire as Weavel’s men found the mark. Half-expecting the walls to cave in, he asked, “does the hull have any weak points?”
“That’s a trick question right?” She hauled herself up two stairs at a time. On the landing they had to step over a pile of bits and pieces.
At the top of the near-vertical stairs, they turned left through an open hatch into a common room, a table with several chairs in the centre. Across the room, at the end of a short corridor, Gayle could see the pilots chair and controls. Meron paused to pick up an apple and strode up the corridor.
She jumped into the pilot’s chair and tossed the satchel on the console. Gayle noticed a small photo of a man stuck to the side of a monitor, Meron snatched it and tucked it into her pocket before he got a good look.
So she has a man? He thought.”Family?”
She ignored the question and motioned for Gayle to strap himself in. “Got any flying experience?”
“Not much.” He said pulling a strap over his shoulder. “Did a bit of ‘testing’ but I never got a ticket.”
Meron expertly pressed a few buttons bringing to life a series of screens and holos arrayed in front of them. One screen, flickering in front of them, let out a sick hum and fizzled out. Meron gave it a whack, “Ticket don’t count for much now anyhow. What counts is if you can.”
She took a bite out of the apple, “I’m gonna need you to steer the ship out, I’ll manually control the stabilisers – they’re a bit tricky.” She added.
Displayed on one of the screens Gayle could see Weavel and his men cautiously approaching the ship. Gayle tapped the monitor, “Um, we got company.”
“There’s a blaster cannon up top.” Meron gesticulated with the apple at a joystick with a covered button on top, a screen above it displayed the field of fire. “give ‘em a quick blast that ought to slow em’ down.”
Gayle nodded and gave the joystick an experimental jiggle. In a few moments he had the enemy in his sights. He nervously flicked the cover off the button as he tracked a trio who were setting up behind a grav-jeep.
“What the flame are you doing? Let ‘em have it!” Meron swore.
He winced and depressed the trigger. A hail of bolts was released and the screen flared white momentarily. “Whoa!” He rocked back in his chair.
When the pictured returned all that remained of the jeep was a burning shell. With a certain smugness he watched Weavel’s men scatter, silhouetted against the flames. He gave them a few more blasts to make sure there stayed down.
“Whoa, Port Control are gonna have a fit!”
“If you’ve quite finished.” Meron shook her head ad the engines warmed up. Gayle released his grip on the joystick as if it were a dirty condom.
“Now if only we could get them to open the doors to the space-lock.” She muttered.
“Ok, so you’ve really planned this out I see.” Gayle remarked.
“Alright, shut up and take the controls.” She ordered.
Gayle clutched the controls and pointed to a lever, confusion plastered across his face. “This is the throttle right?”
Meron gave him a bleak look, “Ooookkk, this is going to be interesting.”
Gayle gave her his best ‘just kidding’ look and pushed down on the throttle. The ship groaned under them and joltingly rose above the tarmac. Above and below the bank of panels and screens, through a thick plexi-glass window, they could see people scattering in all directions. With so much flammable gear around them they wouldn’t dare shoot them down – at least that was what he hoped.
Meron picked up the satchel. Gayle watched intently as she opened it and revealed a small box-like device, “Now, we’ll see if this thing is any use.”
“It’s a transponder.” Gayle said recognising it instantly.
“Not just a transponder,” Meron said awe evident in her voice. “This transponder will – if the ship I got this from was for real – get us through this space-lock.”
“If it’s not for real?” Gayle steered the ship slowly towards the huge door.
Meron smiled faintly, “Let’s just hope it is.”
A robotic voice came over the ship’s com, “Unidentified ship, please hold position and engage your transponder. Only approved vessels may enter the space-lock.”
“Here goes nothing.” Meron plugged the transponder into an empty port in the console and a split second later a line of hexadecimal code began to stream across one of the screens in front of her.
Gayle shifted uneasily as the seconds passed; he glanced through the bottom view-port and spotted Weavel in the maelstrom, screaming frantically into his com-dev. Gayle waved gingerly.
The robotic voice returned, “Thank you. You have been cleared to enter the space-lock. Please proceed slowly and consider other pilots.”
Meron relaxed in her seat and put one foot up on the dash, “alright Greaser, easy on the throttle.”
He shook his head at her casualness but pushed the lever downward gently, feeling Achilles engines grindingly respond. Meron gave him an evil eye.
She leant forward, “I said easy!”
“Easy? This wreck can’t do easy!”
Meron tweaked a series of slide controls, “I forgot you were only a greaser.”
Gayle winced, schizophrenic bitch!
“Got something to say, greaser?” She turned to look him in the face, her eyes wild.
Gayle frowned and rubbed the back of his neck, “Are you going to do something about those stabilisers?”
Grinning she turned back to the console and pushed a few buttons with self-satisfaction. “You just do your job.”
Gayle steered the ship slightly towards the left to adjust for the lack of right-hand stabilisation. The great inner door began to open and he pushed the throttle down marginally.
“Once we’re out the second door we’ll be free as birds.” Gayle said. He knew however that the outer door would not open until the inner had closed and sealed to preserve the precious atmosphere.
Meron grunted as she fiddled with the lateral thrusters, “No birds in space.”
The inner door closed behind them with a great shudder and they heard the faint hiss of air being sucked out of the lock, the silence of the vacuum of space rapidly rendering it inaudible. The solid, outer door remained closed for an unbearable amount of time but eventually it slowly slid across revealing the black emptiness. In the middle of the blackness, bristling with gun turrets, a red destroyer class vessel floated like a bloated fish.
Gayle licked his lips in concentration, his knuckles blanched white. He gently pulled the throttle back driving the ship forward.
The ship’s comDev came to life again, this time the voice was distinctly human and attached to a face. “Greetings Captain Landar.” The face of a balding man smiled serenely at them through the monitor, his leathery-skinned neck stuck out from a pure white collarless shirt.
“Meyconte?” Gayle knew the man; he was a unpredictable warlord who ruled a good chunk of the outer solar system. Word was he wanted to rule a good chunk more.
“I heard you bade my colleague a not so friendly farewell.”
Meron shifted her legs. “Well, I think you’ll find it was the other way round.”
“Mr Weavel can be a little . . . uncouth. Regardless, I believe we had a deal.”
“Deal?” Meron roared, “I proposed that I would recover the transponder. I reserved the right not to sell the item to you.”
“You broke the agreement; you brought along an escort – your man there. That makes any agreement null and void.” He replied testily.
Meyconte seemed to grow weary of the discussion and sighed. “You will see that I am aboard a Durium class destroyer, newly commissioned may I add. Do you like it?”
Gayle looked confused at the change of direction. Meyconte’s unpredictability was legendary.
“Yes, it’s very colourful, now unless you have a better offer I’ll be on my way.” Meron continued.
“I’ll send you an offer.” Meyconte said coolly. The vidCom abruptly went blank.
Before Gayle could react a salvo of laser fire erupted from the Destroyer.
“Incoming!” squawked Meron. It was too late, halfway through the evasive manoeuvre the ship shuddered as the first bolt hit home. The second struck a millisecond later and nearly jolted the pair out of their seats. A warning siren began to blare.
“Hull breached. Right ion drive compromised.” The ships voice reported calmly.
“What the fuck are you doing? We can’t run from a fucking destroyer!” Gayle swore.
Ignoring Gayle’s protest she ordered, “Achilles: seal off right aft compartments.”
“Complying.” It responded.
“Damn it!” Meron swore.
“We’ve got no right-hand control.” Gayle stated flatly.
“No shit Mr Wizard!” She sighed. Resigned to their fate, she added, “Alright, shut down the left drive.”
The vid-com flickered back to life and the Warlord reappeared. “I take it you’ve accepted my offer then? Good.”
Gayle struggled with the wire cuffs they had placed on him as they marched down the well-appointed corridor. Meyconte clearly had more money than any man required. The walls were lined with fine artworks and silk tapestries, he wondered if they were relics from Mother Earth before the colony war.
“Don’t say anything, I’ll deal with Meyconte.” Meron hissed to him.
He frowned, “and you did that well last time.”
She shot him a ‘don’t-be-a-smart-ass’ look.
“Keep moving!” One of the guards behind them ordered.
They stopped at a pair of ornately-crafted wooden doors – real wood. A body-armoured soldier stood guard. Gayle looked down; a drop of blood rolled over his chin and splattered the floor.
“Prisoners for Lord Meyconte.” One of their escorts reported.
The man at the door clicked his com-dev, “The prisoners are here sir.”
A moment later the doors opened automatically revealing a large rectangular chamber, it was fashioned in the style of the English Victorian period on old Earth. Gayle marvelled at all the wood which lined all the walls.
“I see my marines have treated you well.” Meyconte held out his arms peacefully, grinning magnanimously. He wore a gunmetal-coloured military suit; it was no uniform that Gayle recognised.
“Apparently, I fell on the stairs.” Gayle said spitting out some blood. He noticed Weavel skulking in the corner, a sneer across his face.
“Nice suit.” Meron said flatly.
“I always like to dress well for my guests.” He said, clearly pleased that his attire had been noticed.
“Now,” Meyconte said, “I believe we will conclude our deal. Where is the transponder?”
One of the soldiers stepped forward holding the device, “Sir!”
“Ah…at last…a master-key” The warlord picked it up and examined it with awe in his eyes, “such a simple thing – a key.”
He paused dramatically, and looked at Meron. “This will change things for me – you have no idea.”
“I think I have some idea.” Meron growled quietly.
Meyconte laughed, “With this all the stations in the sector are open to me!”
Gayle’s face changed to one of realisation. Each station, base, colony required a correctly configured transponder code to gain entry – it ensured only those with clearance could enter. A ship armed with a master-key transponder could bypass that security. It was effectively a Trojan horse.
“I presume you found the diplomatic vessel without trouble then?” Meyconte said.
“The information was good.” Meron said quietly.
Gayle looked her way confused.
Noticing the look Meyconte smirked, “Interesting. I thought you always worked alone?”
“Hmm.” Meyconte walked around behind them, “You know I can’t allow this kind of insubordination by one of my people go unpunished. It would give a bad impression you see.”
“Your people? I belong to no one.”
“Ah, personal freedom what a quaint thought.” He sighed. “I’m afraid everybody belongs to somebody my dear.”
“I choose my own destiny.” She affirmed.
“You can believe whatever you like, but it is only an illusion. I told you where the ship was and you retrieved the key. You did what I wanted.”
“I paid for the information and suggested that I might sell you the key if the price was right. The price by your boy wasn’t right.” She stabbed out the words glancing at Weavel.
Weavel, who had been seething in the background, shot forward like a snake, “You show some respect!” He was shorter than Meron and had to look up into her condescending eyes. “I’m gonna kill you bitch!”
“Settle down Mr Weavel.” Meyconte held up an arm, “I have use for her yet.”
“But…” Weavel started to complain but was cut short.
“Captain Meron and her lackey have shown some surprising resourcefulness. Despite your incompetence they have impressed me and resourcefulness is a rare commodity. Were I not coming into Coolands they would have been a much harder fish to catch.” The warlord waxed.
Meron eyed Meyconte warily.
“Yes Mr Weavel, I have something this pair can do to atone for their…” He paused looking for the right word, “…misdemeanour.”
“You can’t trust them Sir!” Weavel hissed.
Meyconte turned sharply on him, “On the contrary Mr Weavel, I can trust them. I can trust them to get the job done. I have the transponder do I not?”
Weavel slunk back, lowering his eyes apologetically. He shot Meron a bitter, vengeful look.
Meron relaxed her stance, lifting her chin arrogantly, “I’ll never do what you want.”
Gayle, watching her carefully, saw his opportunity for survival slipping, “I’ll do anything you want!”
Meyconte ignored him, “Captain Meron, you will do what I want whether you want to or not.”
She shook her head, “You’re wasting your time.”
“If I was wasting my time you would already be dead, floating out there in the inky black.” He replied testily.
Meron raised her eyebrows and glared at him expectantly.
He turned around and stared out of the window, “Now, there is something I want out on Sedna.”
“Sedna? There is nothing out there but a whole lot of cold. ” Gayle said.
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Meyconte raised a finger. “400 years ago a fleet of twelve colony ships, known as the Life Boat Fleet, left from Sedna heading for the nearby star system of Ipulus Prime with the aim of reaching the fifth planet in that system.”
“The ships that never came back.“ Gayle sneered, “They abandoned us, they were supposed to come back for us, once they were settled.”
“Very good, so you were listening in history class. The ships that never came back.” He paused for effect.
Meron nodded slowly, “Yeah, they left the rubbish behind. Go on.”
“I have a source that tells me one of the ships never actually left Sedna.”
It took Meron a moment to respond. “Starship technology?” She whispered almost inaudibly.
“Precisely!” Meyconte steamed around his desk, his eyes were wide with excitement. “Think of it! An intact interstellar vessel that has been in mothballs for the past four hundred years! It is the pinnacle of man’s achievements!”
Even Gayle knew that interstellar travel was a ‘holy grail’; it was a knowledge that had been lost when the Lifeboat Fleet had departed taking the greatest minds of humanity with it. As far as he was concerned those elitists had deliberately left the rest of humankind to it’s demise on the dying earth without the knowledge to follow them.
“Whoever could find such a ship would be…” Meron continued.
Meyconte interrupted with a devilish grin, “Rich beyond belief?”
Meron frowned, “I was going to say . . . remembered forever.”
“Ah, I’ve piqued your interest though haven’t I?”
Gayle interjected, “Why would they leave a ship behind for someone to find?”
“Ah well, that is not known but I figure it must simply have been an emergency spare or some such. In the end it was never called for and thus remained behind.”
“I take it you mean for us to go and get it for you?” She said.
“But why me, you have people, why don’t you use them to retrieve it.” Meron said.
Meyconte sighed, “So far I’ve lost three ships and fifteen of my people. I can’t afford to loose any more.” He paused in front of Weavel. ”All our attempts to approach have been met with stiff resistance; the space between here and Sedna is festering with non-aligned pirates.”
“Resistance? I didn’t know anyone lived out there.” Gayle said surprised.
Meyconte looked at him with disdain but answered, “There is a closed colony there. They are strongly militarised and refuse almost all contact.”
“Almost all contact?” Meron probed.
“They have to trade to survive. There is a trading station in orbit above the planetoid. A few trusted ships go in and out but they are not allowed to visit the colony.”
“What makes you think I can get access?” Meron said.
“You are resourceful. You have a history of mixing with such folk, gaining their confidence.” He replied.
Meron cocked her head at the goons behind her, “What you mean is that I’m trustworthy.”
Meyconte smiled magnanimously, “Yes, something like that.”
“I still don’t get why you think I will help you? What do I get out of the deal?”
Meyconte, grinning madly, looked her in the eye and slowly drew a mhoto from behind his desk. He dangled it like a carrot in front of her. Gayle recognised it as the one Meron had snatched from the dash on Achilles.
Her face betrayed some emotion, she hardened her jaw. “So, it’s a mhoto.”
“Yes a mhoto of someone important to you.” He shook the image and it began to play a silent loop of the man blowing a kiss.
She glanced at the touching moment her eyes softening momentarily, “Not anymore, that’s history. He’s dead now.”
“History you say?” Meyconte examined the mhoto bringing it up to his face. “A handsome man.”
Meron growled, “Get to the point.”
The warlord grinned, “I took the trouble of looking up some of your details – not easy I might add. I put a few things together and turns out, this man is your husband and what’s more he is not dead.”
“That’s shit, I saw him die.” She spat.
He continued to hold the mhoto in front of her, “I can help you find him.”
Meron quavered. “I …I don’t believe you. He’s dead, I told you. His fighter crashed into the sea,” she gulped.
“I lie when it suits me my dear. Right now the truth suits me better.” He said offhand. “No, turns out your wingman survived, he was picked up and taken to a prison camp – but that is all I can say for now. But I can find out more …if I grease the right palms.” He came close to Meron and whispered into her ear, “Do this for me and I can do that for you.”
He circled them now like a vulture moving in for the kill.
Meron ground her teeth uncertainly, “I just get the ship back here and you’ll tell me where he is?”
Meyconte was pleased, and purred. “I will have some more information for you, that much I can promise.”
“I can’t do it alone.”
“Ah, that,” he flickered a glance at Gayle. “You’ll need the greaser of course. . .”
“I haven’t said yes yet. I want another greaser.”
“Oh, I think you want to take him along, he’s an interesting fellow in his own right.” Meyconte eyed Gayle with interest. “He’s got no record you know – technically, he doesn’t exist before the end of the war.”
Meron glanced suspiciously at Gayle. He shrugged.
Meyconte snapped his fingers. “And I have one other who will accompany you.”
A panel in the wall opened and a short, thin female with close-cropped, mousey-coloured hair was pushed forward. Her hands were bound by wire, her mouth cover by tape and her eyes rolled wildly as she was dumped on the grill floor in front of them.
“This is Tyana – she’s a weapons specialist. She can be a little…” The warlord sneered, “…difficult.”
Meron glanced at the new arrival, “Is she alive? She looks like a liability.”
Amused, Meyconte commented to one of his handlers, “She’s quite resilient – took quite a beating from my men.”
Gayle squatted down, his arms still tied behind him. He bent and placed an ear over the woman’s blue-tinged lips. “She’s still breathing.”
“I think she will be useful – if you can keep her on a tight leash. She’s doped up, won’t be any trouble…till it wears off.” He soothed. “Oh yes,” he added offhandedly. “Weavel here will escort you also – strictly as an observer.”
The warlord sighed and sat heavily in his leather chair. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have work to do.” He pointed a stylus at them, “You have three weeks. Bring the ship to me. Otherwise you can expect me to be in a very bad mood indeed.”