Flying over the city gave Gayle a false sense of security. The sudden peace after the battle in Sol Kieler’s base was disconcerting and he sat quietly for a moment, breathing heavily, replaying what had happened over the last twenty four hours.
“You’re a mad bastard Gayle.” Ty laughed, strapped in opposite him she had to yell to be heard over the noise of the VTOL engines. “Why the hell d’you come back? If it were me…” She thumbed over her shoulder.
He was too tired to say anything and could only guess at the foolish expression on his face. He spared a glance to Meron on the floor before he closed his eyes.
“Awww, isn’t that sweet,” Weavel jostled him in the ribs, his tone condescending. ”He did it for love.”
Gayle opened one eye as warning.
“Better watch it Weavel, it’s a long way down out there,” Ty grinned though her accompanying expression left the interpretation open.
“Gayle, wake up.” It was Milla shaking him awake. “We got to move – come on.”
“Wha-?” He struggled to open his eyes, they felt like his eyelids were weighted down with ballast.
He glanced around and could see the others milling about under a square of sickly overhead down-lights. The low ceiling and ranks of vehicles told him it was a carpark. Where the heck were they?
He released the buckle on his harness and lurched to his feet. He couldn’t have been asleep for more than a few minutes but his legs decided to book a holiday and buckled under him.
Milla turned just in time to stop him from tripping face first out of the transport. “Easy mate, no time for laying about boy-o!” Milla, grinning like a toaster, slapped Gayle’s cheeks.
“How could the man look so happy? Gayle wondered as he struggled to focus on his friends face.
Ty, who was standing over by a lift, held open the door with her foot She signalled the all clear with a sharp whistle that echoed in the cavernous bowels of the carpark.
“Can you lift her?” Milla padded him on the shoulder. Gayle shook the blood back into his head and nodded.
The floor indicator ticked over in slow motion as they rode the compact lift. It came to rest on the third level and the doors rattled opened with a clunk and Marla leaned out to check the hallway was clear, finding nothing she gave the thumbs up.
Milla led them to a door, he fumbled with a keycard and scanned it over the lock. The door sprung open revealing an apartment.
It was a long, narrow space, just wide enough for the cobalt blue couch that cut the space in two. Closest to them a futon, covered in a crochet bedspread, lay behind a soft, almost transparent curtain. On the sun-yellow walls hung a series of paintings of daisies and a beach-side scene – below that, on a small table rested a spherical bowl with a pair of startled-looking goldfish. Gayle longed to simply curl up on the bed and soak in the home.
Marla indicated out the window, the spaceport must have been no more than five hundred metres away and the whole building rattled as a ship commenced take-off. “It’s a cheap place but it’s home.” She pulled heavy drapes across the window which triggered warm, candle-like lights to fade up.
“Over here,” Ty said as Milla held the curtain open and pulled off the delicate bedspread. Gayle eased Meron down and stretched his back.
He hadn’t paid attention before but noticed now that Marla was dressed in the uniform of a Juno law enforcement officer. “You’re with the local force?”
She shrugged, “It’s not that easy getting a job as a former pilot. You take what you can get.”
Marla touched a sensor on the wall and the logo of the ISNN appeared, the main news network across the System. Gayle recognised Juni Lee, one of the network’s roving reporters, she was standing with the smoking ruin of Sol’s warehouse behind her. A kind of morbid satisfaction welled up in him, it reminded him of nights tagging miners ships with graffiti – I was a little bastard as a kid, he thought.
“…the terrorists are classified as extremely dangerous and have commandeered a JPD transport. Citizens should not try to approach or apprehend them but report any sightings to local forces. The police have released this video captured at the scene.”
To Gayle it was surreal watching himself step out of the warehouse, followed by Ty who was shown firing off a few random blasts; neither Meron nor Weavel were shown. Even he had to admit the clip made him look dangerous and desperate. They played it over and over again, zoomed in and freeze-framed on his face.
“…it is believed some of them may be injured. It’s not yet clear what their motives may be but we’ll keep you posted as the situation develops.” The reporter added.
Gayle couldn’t help but laugh, “great, now I’m a terrorist.”
“The bumbling terrorist,” Weavel added, nursing his leg. “How about some help here?”
The program flicked back to the studio presenters but Gayle couldn’t recall their names. “Thanks Juni. Now, on to the strange reports coming from the outer system. Periodic waves of electro-magnetic bursts are causing minor system failures have been reported widely and false readings on long-range scanners.” The program changed to show a control screen, Gayle was surprised to see an impossibly large arc of objects approaching through the outer system, it reminded him of what he experienced in the dead cruise ship on Critia.
The presenter went on, “experts have yet to agree on what could be causing these obviously erroneous readings. Although one theory is that a giant planet or brown dwarf long-thought to exist in the furthest reaches of the system is dislodging M-type asteroids from the Oort cloud sending them towards the inner system. These sorts of asteroids have a high metal content and somehow might account for the interference.”
Marla was passing around drinks to everyone, Gayle couldn’t help but admire her, she’d kept herself in prime form despite being fifteen years older than the last time he’d seen her. Under the crisp uniform was muscle and sinew topped by the face of a golden-haired angel and a brain to match. She was perfect and had always been out of his league. She was the kind of woman men fantasised about. He still had no idea how Milla had landed her.
“I presume you’ve got a ship?” She asked.
Ty chewing on something, peeked between the curtain. “In the spaceport – minotaur class.”
Marla twisted up her mouth, “That’s a short-range craft.”
Ty glanced at Gayle, it was a look that said it was up to him to spill the beans on Achilles, the NLS drive and anything else about their current predicament.
He decided the details could wait until later.. “We have another ship waiting nearby in the Trojans.”
“I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything,” Marla frowned. “Well then, I suppose it will have to do. You do realise that we will have to come with you?”
Milla eyed his wife sheepishly, it was almost comical. “Honey, are you sure?”
Marla snorted in mock anger, “well when you made me agree to help in this escapade did you think we’d be able to just return to our cosy little existence?”
Milla shrugged, “I dunno, they didn’t see us.”
Marla glared at him then turned to Ty for sympathy. “Really, sometimes men just don’t think do they? That’s my transport down stairs – how long do you think it will take for command to work out I was involved.” She shook her head and a golden curl came loose. “Come on, if we have any hope of getting out of here it will be before my fellow workers tighten the noose around the port.”
“Damn!” Ty swore as she peered out of the windscreen of the stolen delivery van, they had hot-wired it from the garage.
Gayle leaned through from behind the driver’s seat. “They’ve got the ship completely surrounded, it’s no use.”
“Wait, those are Meyconte’s men.” Weavel, who’d made a remarkable recovery from a mortal case of melodrama pointed out an individual among them, “That’s Spiro, he’s a real bastard.”
“And what your not?” Ty snorted. The rest of the team sniggered at this causing Weavel to brood sullenly.
The Trojan Prince was encircled by local law enforcement officers and a few of Meyconte’s thugs. His people had no doubt been told to keep a close eye on the networks looking for any sign of them. Gayle bet they couldn’t believe their luck when his face had appeared on ISNN. Clearly the warlord had intimidated the local authorities for his people to be working so closely with the police.
Gayle spotted a van arriving, it had the ISNN logo on the side. “…and here comes the scabbers too.”
“So what do we do now?” Milla sighed.
Gayle felt like a cornered rat, he looked back to The Prince anxiously. If they could somehow get inside. Maybe we could blast our way out of Juno, he thought.
“We’d be cut down before we got anywhere near it.” Ty said aloud, answering the question everyone was thinking.
Less than 50 meters away the ISNN van pulled up next to a glistening-white, ring ship. The side door opened with a hydraulic hiss and a film crew piled out. Out of the front passenger door stepped a white suit he recognised, Juni Lee. The germ of an idea started to spread in his mind like a cancer. It was despicable, reprehensible and against every civilised code of conduct. He smiled, it was lucky he was despicable, reprehensible and uncivilized.
“See there, the ISNN people. That must be their ship and I bet they have a high clearance level. If we hijack it we could blast out of here, no problem.”
Ty looked at him with mock surprise as she checked the weapons. “Wow Gayle, you got some brains after all.” She tossed him a blaster, ”for a man.”
It was a backhanded compliment but he’d take any praise he could get, “Gee, thanks.”
“Don’t move if you wanna live,” Ty hissed into the cameraman’s ear, she slid her bowie knife under the man’s chin, the serrated edge drawing a sharp line of blood. The man’s eyes widened and he staggered back, dropping the gear he was carrying.
The reporter turned sharply, “Hey! Carefully with that you mutt–“
Gayle stepped around the side of the van, he pointed the pistol at her. “Take it easy Ms Lee, no sudden moves ok?”
The reporter was striking in her white business suit, it pulled in tightly around her narrow waist and almost entirely concealing a matching miniskirt. Her legs, lined with silk stockings, ended in high-heeled shoes suitable for nothing but a catwalk. Black hair overhung her forehead in a perfect sweep and piled in a fastidious swirl at the back of her head.
Juni Lee frowned and folded her arms, her voice rose in a shrill, “You can’t be serious!”
“I’m afraid we are.” Behind the reporter the others jostled the remainder of the crew into the van. Gayle glanced over to the Trojan Prince.
She followed his gaze, “Ahh, that’s your ship.” She laughed with a mocking tone.
“And what? you need a ride out of here?”
Gayle was sure he reddened, “something like that.”
Weavel swaggered around to them, “Hey wait, she’s Juni Lee isn’t she?” His eyes glazing over and his face looked like a puppy, “I…I love your work Ms Lee.”
The reporter gave him an awkward, confused smile, “err yes, thanks…I guess.”
Juni looked him up and down, “what kind of terrorists are you? You realise all I need to do is scream?”
Marla sneered, coming from behind, “yeah but you’d be dead a few seconds later, Move!” She pushed the reported forward into the shadow of the ring-shaped ISNN ship.
“Hey! You’ll regret that,” Juni said stumbling forward. “I’ll make you look fat on TV.”
“You folks leaving already?” The voice of the Juno control officer came over the vidComm. “Not staying to find out what happens with the terrorists?”
“Err…no…sorry Control, network headquarters want us over on Io…some kind of incident…” Gayle lied.
“Funny, we haven’t heard anything.”
“It’s straight out of the governor’s office…but keep that under your lid, we want the scoop.”
There were always mining incidents on that tortured moon where huge volcanoes bubbled on the surface, it was an important source for refractory materials and the corporations continually flaunted the risks. Miners were cheap to come by and resource prices were high, high enough to cover any incidental casualties.
“No problem. Ok ISNN Hyland, your clearance codes check out, you’re good to go. Have a good one.”
Gayle marvelled how easy it was to pass through what would have otherwise would have compared to a body-cavity search. “Roger that control, have a good one yourself.”
The ISSN Hyland, was a far cry from the cramped and archaic decks of Achilles. It was spacious, to Gayle it was like one of those homes of the rich and famous he’d seen on the networks, the kind with impossibly clean, sheer surfaces – the kind no one lived in. It was the state-of-the-art in vessel design and Gayle, appraising his own scruffy appearance, felt like a rude gesture next to it. In short it was everything a spaceship should be though it had the sincerity of a display home.
Every gleaming white wall was an active screen and lit up at a touch, displaying by default the ISNN logo and a menu of options. Gayle experimentally pressed the ‘news’ option and a stream of high definition footage appeared, it was a looping relay of the events of a few hours earlier. He watched himself appear out of the warehouse and climb into the armoured transport. For some reason, above all other things, he noticed how grubby he looked and made a mental note to take a shower at the earliest chance.
“Check this out,” Weavel said swinging like a kid in a luxurious, plush chair. It moulded to his body as he googled an array of wall-screens, each displaying a different sporting event. One displaying a pair of half naked women wrestling. “Oh yeah, we got every channel!”
Ty rolled her eyes, “Stare at those screens too long and your brain will cease up – wait, nevermind your brain already did that.”
“Ha-ha, yeah real funny,” he sneered. “You’re just jealous I got the best seat in the house – don’t think I’m gonna share it with you now.” He knotted his hands behind his head.
Ty just shook her head and turned back to the prisoners she was guarding, Juni Lee, the roving reporter for ISNN and her three crew.
“You know this will piss off a lot of people.” Juni said, looking at herself in the reflection of a screen. Gayle couldn’t tell if she was putting on the bravado or was just plain simple-minded. “The network won’t be pleased, not at all, uh-uh. This is one expensive mobile transmitter–”
“–I’m pretty sure I don’t give a hoot what your network thinks.” Ty growled.
Marla spoke up, “Ms Lee has a point, we can’t keep this ship, not for long anyway, it’s too recognisable and will bring unwanted attention everywhere we go.”
“I think it’s a bit too later for that, don’t you think?” Milla said. “In fact I’d say we’ve probably got the more attention of anyone in the System.”
Gayle ignoring this got up and started for the door, “I gotta check on Meron.”
“What do you want me to do with this lot?” Ty asked after him.
“I don’t know. Wait, this ship must have an escape pod right?”
Ty nodded slowly.
“You can’t!” Juni’s shrilled voice rose in panic.
Ty grinned, “Aww, what? Afraid your hair might get messed up?”
Gayle looked at the woman grimly, “Don’t worry, the pod’s distress signal will see you picked up in a few hours.”
“I’ll make you infamous, I swear it! Your face will be plastered over every news network, there won’t be anywhere to hide!”
“I think it’s a little late for that don’t you?”
Meron had been taken straight to the ship’s medical bay, a small but state-of-the-art facility. The single bed upon which she was strapped lay hard up against a wall, a drip ran like a snake into the pit of her elbow. Half attached to the wall, a robotic arm lingered over her, its claw-like appendage examining the savage wound in her chest. It sprayed a milky substance over the area, a healing accelerant, Gayle guessed. A jagged scab was beginning to form in a ring around the edges of the wound.
Gayle examined a monitor on the top of the arm. A comforting, regular beep emanated from it. He noted too that all other body readings seemed to be slowly returning to normal. He relaxed, Meron at least was out of danger for now.
“So am I going to live doctor?” Meron’s voice was a rasp, her lips barely moving. Her eyes, slithers between heavy eyelids, narrowed on him.
He came around the machine and lay a hand on her forehead. “Hey, you need rest.”
He felt awkward standing there pretending he could do something to mend her like she was another one of his machines, but he had no idea when it came to fixing broken bodies, he was thankful they had this medical bot aboard. Even so the supplies that the Nurse had given them were coming in handy. “Don’t move I gotta give you this injection it’ll speed your recovery.”
She said nothing for a minute only wincing as the hypodermic penetrated her pallid skin. He felt her eyes on him. Gayle shifted under her gaze, “I know, I’m an idiot, Ty already told me.
“Sure she did.” She replied. “Well, thanks…for coming back.”
“Oh, here,” he pottered in his pocket eventually finding the photo of her husband. He placed it in her limp hand. “Sorry, it got a bit damaged.”
She stared at the picture and nodded, tears welled in her eyes. With a sniff she hardened her jaw then gave him a groggy smile. “Thanks.”
Her eyes drifted closed so he turned to leave her to sleep but she spoke as he tip-toed to the door, “get onto Saran…let her know what’s happened here.”
“Thank Hesu! I thought you were all dead!” Saran said over the comm, her voice a frantic squelch in a storm of electronic distortion. “We’ve had all manner of dramas here.”
“What do you mean?” Gayle asked.
Saran paused. “Arega escaped.
“What? How? I told you to keep him locked down!”
“Yes but locks require power.” Saran replied. “You see we’ve had fluctuations with the power since you left, from the interference we think. Arega was able to force open the power-lock on the door during one of the outages.”
“Damn! Where is he now? Is the ship safe?” Gayle blurted. He admonished himself immediately for thinking about the ship first and not considering Saran or the others still on Critia.
“Don’t worry, Achilles is safe.” She responded tersely. “Beetle had it locked up but we think Arega escaped in a lifePod, one launched about four hours ago.”
He relaxed a little, “ok, well, nothing to be done then. Sit tight, we’ll be there shortly.”
“Ok.” Saran’s voice sounded small and distant over the comm. “I miss you.”
Gayle closed his eyes, “Err yeah me too.”
The last few days had changed things between them, at least for him anyhow. He was a different person. He knew he had to sort things out one way or another with her. “We’ll see you soon.”
For the last few hours of the journey the Hyland had encountered the strange interference which Saran had reported. It seemed to be getting worst too, coming in waves of increasing frequency and intensity. Marla was forced to divert power to the ship’s magnetic shields to reduce the risk of damage. The long-range scanners however, were blacked out, and they flickered wildly with bazaar artefacts and strange electronic distortions.
Gayle breathed a sigh of relief as they flew in under the long-dead neon sign and into the gloomy landing bay of the base. When they pulled up beside the quiet shape of Achilles he felt a pang of nostalgia for it like an old friend. He expected Saran would activate the bay lights but nothing happened making him feel uneasy. He tried the comm but all communication channels were a wash of static. They sat for a moment.
Marla swivelled in her chair, “So you said you know these people? Nice of them to light our way.”
“The base’s auto-detectors should have picked us up by now and sealed the landing bay!” Weavel voice rose in panic. “We’re locked out with nowhere to run!”
“Must be the interference.” He said. “I bet they don’t even know we’ve arrived.”
“We’ll have to force entry somehow.” Milla added.
Ty stared at the entry door. “We could short the airlock but we’ll have to suit up.”
Gayle groaned, he was sure the enviroSuits onboard the Hyland were in better condition than those on Achilles but he still hated the idea of a few millimetres of fabric between him and the universe. “Let’s get it over with then.”
“Nearly there.” Gayle breathed heavily as he struggled to rig the power-cell they’d brought with them to activate the powerless door. The heat and claustrophobia were starting to get to him.
“Ty’s respirator rasped as she spoke, “Good, I’m sweating like a hobo in this sauna-suit.”
“Ok, done.” Gayle said crossing his gloved fingers, “I’ll trigger the door.”
The outer airlock door slid open silently revealing the dimly lit interior. Tentatively, the pair stepped through and allowed the door to reseal behind them. With the outer door sealed they could open the inner door with the press of a button which flicked from red to a pulsing green.
Ty fingered the trigger on her blaster, “open it.”
Gayle hit the button and the pair lumbered through the entry half expecting an assault. When it didn’t come Ty checked the gauge on her wrist, “we got atmos.”
The reception area was as they remembered it, disused and darkened. The lights overhead glowed dimly as if only receiving a trickle of power. They still needed to seal the landing bay so the others could enter the base but they would have to get to the control centre to do that.
“There’s some power but it’s weak, enough to drive the emergency systems but that’s about it.” Gayle grimaced removing his helmet, “The interference must have damaged the base’s core.”
Ty took off her helmet too and wiped the sweat off her brow then spat. They were about to move off when the quiet was fractured by a high-pitched scream deep in the base somewhere. He knew the voice, it was Saran’s.