NIGHTBUS FICTION COLLECTIVE VOLUME 2
PODCITY – THE FALLEN
Many see Terra Nova as the shining jewel of the United Empire of Earth. For them, Sol and Earth represent a ruined despotic past, Terra Nova, a progressive future. Despite the limited access to planetside property, the star system’s population has kept pace with its notoriety. A multitude of facilities float between Terra III, called Terra, and the military occupied, Terra IV, named Genn. Residential habitat rings, harvesting platforms, rest stops, and utility stations punctuate the space between these two planets. Like a spider’s web, the necessary trappings of humanity swirl out from this nucleus to the system’s furthest asteroid belt, Marisol. Beyond there, to the scantily habited expanses surrounding the system’s Jump Points.
Podcity, in geostationary orbit around Gen, is constructed an equal distance between the planet, and the outskirts of the Marisol asteroid belt. Six floors of circular habitat capsules, attached to a central cylindrical core, Podcity floats as a bronze monolithic bubbled tower. Double rows of environmentally secure hangars are attached to the top and bottom of the structure, allowing occupants easy access to their ships.
Gilles sat in Deluna, the Podcity pub located on the first level. Being a sphere, it was circular with curved cushioned booths lining the walls. The bar was in the center, surrounded by mismatched bistro tables and chairs. Seated at his favorite booth, Gilles examined his scotch and unconsciously drummed his fingers on the scarred lacquer table. It was minutes away from closing time. He was the last patron in the place. Like a soothing white noise, he could hear Maggie, the pub’s co-owner, humming and clinking glasses behind the bar as she cleaned.
He swirled the melting ice cube around in his glass. “Time to move on,” he thought to himself and proceeded to down the remainder in a single gulp. He was knocking the ice cube back and forth in the empty glass when a shadow fell over him.
He looked up to see Maggie standing there, with her ever-present smile in place. Streaked with light gray strands, her hair was in a messy bun at the top of her head. An aging beauty, he often mused about the life that had brought her here, as a partner in Podcity.
Maggie spoke first. “Last to go as always,” she mused.
Gilles responded with a slight shrug of his shoulders. “Convenient walk home.” He pointed up unnecessarily as Maggie would know he lived in pod 3 on the fourth level.
“Alone. Brooding in this booth…” Her voice trailed off.
“That a problem?” He asked sitting up from his slouched position and wondered if he’d done something wrong.”
“Not at all,” she replied with a warm laugh. “Just curious. Not my business.” She leaned in and whispered jokingly, “It’s a bad habit according to John.”
Gilles regarded her. This was the most they’d spoken since he’d arrived to rent his habitat pod. Gilles found her pleasant enough. Still, he preferred to keep to himself. He sensed Maggie was preceptive. John, observant. And together, a good partnership. Sometimes he wondered if they were romantically involved.
The silence had stood between them a moment before Gilles spoke. “I’ll get out of your hair,” he said as he started to rise.
“You’re a neurojacker aren’t you?” It was half question, half statement. Gilles looked up in surprise then quickly masked his expression. “Sorry,“ she continued. “If it’s a secret. I’ve not mentioned it to anyone.”
Standing to his full height, Gilles assessed her more closely. He knew she was intuitive yet he hadn’t expected this. Panic sparked in his chest for a moment wondering if she had an ulterior motive. “How…?”
Maggie looked around the space, confirming they were alone. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did that gave it away. It’s the way your hair lays at the base of your head.
Subconsciously, Gilles patted the hair at the nape of his neck.
Maggie blushed under his stare. “I uh… I’ve — known a few.” She tilted her head to the side, and a mischievous expression formed.
Gilles relaxed a bit. She didn’t seem to mean him any harm. Which was a good thing, he liked it here and wanted to stay. “I used to be, yes.” He stared down at the table, seeing a different time and place. “Lifetime ago. Unhooked for years.” He looked to see her staring at him intently as if trying to peer into his soul. “Long stupid story. It’s passed now.”
From behind her back, Maggie produced a bottle of the pub’s best Scotch and two glasses. “Sounds interesting.” She sat the items on the table. “You’re free to tell me to mind my own business.”
A chuckle rose in the back of Gilles’ throat. No one had cared enough to ask him much of anything. Or bother to see if cracking his hard veneer was worth the bother. To his surprise and bemusement, he wanted to tell her. Wanted to exonerate his surly demeanor with the cause. He motioned that she should sit and he sat down after. His hands clasped in front of him on the table. He stared passed Maggie. His eyes glazed over, as If in his mind, he’d disappeared from this life, to relive another.
Maggie quietly poured them each a shot and carefully placed the drinks down, as Gilles began his tale…
“Gilles,” I chided myself, “what the hell were you thinking?”
It was suicide, attempting to smuggle someone from Outsider Territory in Leir. I wasn’t equipped for combat, and I’d activated my ship’s quantum drive stabilizer a millisecond too late. Three combat capable ships surrounded me in a triangular formation, their interdiction snares scrambling my quantum drive like eggs in a skillet. There was no way we were jumping away from this situation. I’d engaged the damage control unit to reinforce the ship’s armor but it wouldn’t last for long. They were slowly draining my ship’s capacitor. In a little while, we’d be sheep for the slaughter. We were alone in this fight. The EMP drones I’d deployed in an attempt to momentarily disable the ships when they first appeared, were quickly destroyed.
Adrenaline surged through me. My nervous system tingled, groping for the cauterized neurojacker comm-ring embedded at the base of my skull. However, it was dead – no active signals there. Yet like an amputee, my body kept searching for the cybernetic connection to a ship it had previously known. The base of my skull burned. A blinding pain, like white lightning, ricocheted through my cerebral cortex – phantom synapses firing. I swallowed down bile.
I had the Constellation Phoenix locked as my primary target. My hand hovered over the controls to start firing. I quickly pulled it back. Could I clear a path? I thought better of it. My aged and sadly maintained Star Runner couldn’t blast through or evade Buccaneers. The good news was that they weren’t firing – not yet anyway. It was probably better I didn’t ignite a shootout I wouldn’t win. If they blew the ship to bits, Reya could survive another resurrection. For me, it would be permanent lights out.
I spared a second to check her vitals on the remote control tablet perched next to me on the dashboard. She was cocooned in a semi-functional transport capsule with a hacked hook up to a black market AutoDoc. The sniper shot to her shoulder was healed, but she was unaccountably weakened by the exertion of the escape. The life support system on the capsule wasn’t operational. Gilles had jerry-rigged those systems from the AutoDoc and into the capsule. The voice comms and internal access control modules were also busted. She was helplessly watching the events play out on the interior camera view of the cockpit and watch was all she could do.
She couldn’t verbally communicate with me, but her vitals said it all. Her pupils were dilated. Her heart rate skyrocketing and rapid breathing on the verge of hyperventilating. I knew the signs – she was going into shock. I adjusted her oxygen flow and mixed in a safe sedative. There was no point in us both going out fully conscious.
I was a former Special Forces Captain, in the UEE Navy and a decorated neurojacker. I’d been honorably discharged under questionable circumstances. Most things I’d touched since then had turned to shit. I was ex on a lot of things. Including it seemed, good judgment and common sense. There’d be no resurrection for me. There could have been if I’d had a couple of billion UEC for a chop-shop to switch out more of my organs for synthetic clones. Well, that is, if the butcher didn’t kill me trying. Living low profile running small data courier jobs in high-security areas barely kept the ship moving and me fed. The cost of seeing a reputable cybernetic specialist was out of the realm of possibility. My plan to fly under the radar until I regained my societal bearings had failed miserably.
I stiffened when one of the Buccaneers scanned down my ship, the wispy blue light rippled over the ship – once, twice. “Yes, I have what you’re looking for,” I muttered to myself. “Keep your head, man. Just keep it together.” I checked to see if I could recycle my rather weak but better than nothing, shield booster. Not yet and probably better if I saved the juice I had left, for the real action. I took a deep breath and deactivated the damage control module for the same reason.
Shit! I hadn’t earned enough money to do even moderate repairs on this old circa fourth-hand piece of shit, I’d purchased off a ship trader passing through Nyx, two years ago. Just getting the data storage racks operational with back-ups and emergency power supplies, had emptied my pockets and I’d been broke since. I laughed at the irony of the situation. I’d balked at doing illegal data jobs, and here I was trying to smuggle out a body. It was very likely, I was going to die for my troubles.
I’d survived multiple assassination attempts. Never had more than superficial wounds during fifteen years of decorated service. Now I was going to kick it in this bucket. I was suddenly aware that other than Reya, no one would miss my existence. And I wasn’t entirely sure she’d miss me either. In our current predicament, I felt more like a sucker than her lover. She’d sworn we could get away easy – quietly and without a fuss. She’d been horribly wrong, and I’d been naive for the first time in my life, wanting to believe in a happy ending.
Short on credits and trying to pay an overdue loan is how I met her. I was doing a contract gig on Mya, in Leir. Galaxian, a new nightclub the size of a small starbase, had become all the rage. It was bankrolled by the Outsiders, the militant regime that had run the UEE out of the system. Now led with a modernist view, designed to attract young reformists, they spared no expense in offering their citizens diversions.
I was stand-in security, having been recommended by a friend. Someone who hoped the work would help me pay him what I owed. He told them I did good work and was no friend of the UEE military. The security manager appraised my six-foot-four athletic build, muscular hands, war-ravaged face, and handed me a standard issue security kit without a single question.
I equipped the items as his sidekick wasted his time explaining them – infrared contacts, a voice-activated stun glove, and nostril inserted air purifiers.
“In case of extreme emergency,” his slushy voice instructed, as he dangled a vial in front of my face. “And it had better be an emergency,” he warned. The vial contained vaporized 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate. A military grade incapacitation agent, it was positively lethal in its ability to debilitate a target. On the streets, it was called Red Alice because of the blood red vial, red vapor, and red warning label with strange flowery lettering.
That night, the club was hosting a celebration for its premier client, Silas Takin, reportedly a high ranking member of the Outsiders. They expected a huge crowd but no trouble in particular – nothing outside of the usual intoxicated behavior. All in all, it should be a routine night I was told. The payout was shit yet better than nothing. After a quick briefing that included all members of security on duty that evening, I was escorted to my primary station and given final instructions.
The interior of the club was cavernous, blue and white lights pulsed with the beat of the music. Around the sides were two tiers of VIP seating with guards controlling access to the spiral stairs. In the middle was the largest dance floor in Leir. Five levels fanned out like flower petals, each circular petal surrounded by thin chest high safety railings.
I was standing outside the upper deck VIP booth when a woman sauntered in with a group of high rollers. The sea of patrons parted as this particular party made their way to the stairs. From the commotion, I could tell the premiere guests had arrived. The club manager ran down to greet them; fawning and fussing like a sycophantic idiot. He bowed and shook his head so many times, he reminded me of a bobble-head doll.
There was only one woman in their crew. She was tall and statuesque. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d learn before the night was over, that her name was Reya. Her body was banging in a black leather jumpsuit that had the back scooped out dangerously low. Her bare arms were lean and muscled. Her dark olive skin shimmered like she’d dusted it with gold. Her platinum blonde hair was cut into an extreme Mohawk with a wide strip of hair down the back that brushed her waist as she moved.
When the group turned in my direction to take the stairs up to the VIP area I was guarding, I wasn’t prepared for her wide lavender eyes, intelligent and piercing. Nor her full lips and the quizzical slant to her eyebrows. Her eyes sucked the wind out of me. But her smile, as it came slow and knowing, stopped my heart and she knew it. She must have seen the look I had on my face thousands of times, yet it still seemed to amuse her. She smiled a bit wider, and I stopped breathing altogether.
As her entourage brushed by me, she held my gaze and fell behind a couple of steps. Silas, clearly her partner, yanked her forward to his side. They were seated in the most exclusive section of the VIP deck with a private restroom, bar, and buffet. I lost sight of her as a crowd of adoring fans circled their table. Shortly after, I was called downstairs to assist at the door.
The night progressed slowly. Nothing of consequence happened in an Outsider installation. It was widely known they stacked armed security at least five deep in every area. It was an easy gig, hence the crappy pay. I occasionally popped out one of my nostril purifiers to inhale the legal intoxicants pumped into the air. I was told it was a unique house mixture that induced euphoria. As it wore off, it made you hungry, thirsty and horny, all of which could be satiated at the club for a price.
I was feeling no pain, as I manned the scanner, the patrons walked through to enter the club. There was no shortage of attractive human peacocks preening the multi-leveled dance floor. By the third unplugging of my nostril, I’d forgotten about the hottie in a leather jumpsuit with the mesmerizing eyes. That was until Kylon, a sallow-faced waiter, approached me with trembling hands. I thought he was going to spill his tray of drinks all over my boots. I wasn’t sure why he’d sidled in so close to me. I was just about to back him up when he spoke. He kept looking over his shoulder and trying to whisper in a room full of screaming dancers and booming music.
“Asshole,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t hear a word the idiot was saying. He had the nerve to look at me agitated. I was about to turn away when he grabbed my forearm. “What the? Was this idiot looking to get knocked out?” I did him a favor and turned away again. However, he was a persistent little cock. He scrambled back in front of me, waving a piece of paper in his fist which he thrust in my direction.
“You do not want to mess with this,” he said, shoving the crumpled note into my chest. He crooked his head up toward the premiere VIP section.
I followed his gaze. Reya was standing at the railing, the woman with the eyes, looking dead at us. Her eyes locked on mine and she smiled. Her body was gyrating ever so slightly to the music that was playing. Without looking down, I took the paper being ground into my chest. When I did, she moved away from the railing and disappeared into the crush.
Kylon regained my attention. His voice quivered. “Silas is not letting that go no matter how much she wants it.” Although the club was ice cold, Kylon’s forehead was sweating profusely. “I never gave you this,” he said. “If it comes to it, I don’t fucking know you.”
I smiled. “Relax kid, you don’t know me.” I absentmindedly shoved the note in my pants pocket. ”I’ll toss it somewhere safe later. I got nothing going on for someone like that.”
He looked me up and down, his eyes emphatically agreeing.
“And I don’t need the trouble.”
Kylon’s shoulders relaxed before he turned to walk away. In the end, I didn’t take Kylon’s advice or heed the alarm bells blaring in my head.
The blue LED of my communication module flashed. I flipped the switch to accept the incoming message. Silas’ face appeared. He was seated in the co-pilot’s chair. I could tell by his surroundings, that he was aboard the Constellation Phoenix.
“This is all very unfortunate business, Gilles.” His tone was calm and unhurried. “I was expecting – hoping for better from you.”
Stay cool I told myself. Stall for time to think. “Sorry to disappoint – nothing personal.”
“Stealing from me is personal,” he retorted.
“Freeing,” I said emphasizing the word, “isn’t the same as stealing.”
Silas smiled. “Eh, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that that’s what you believe…” He paused and leaned forward into the console, his face filling the screen on my end. “If you return her to me right now we can end this without violence.” He leaned back and crossed his legs. “The scanner identified an active transport capsule. Jettison her out. We’ll scoop her up and be on our way.”
I had to laugh. I wasn’t that stupid. “Just like that?” I asked.
“There is the small price of being banned from Leir or any other region that falls under our control or jurisdiction, now and in the future. I’d probably avoid Nyx and Cathcart too. I have many friends there.” He became speculative. “I really did expect more and had greater plans for – someone with your -” he groped for a word, “background. You could have been an asset.”
“My loss I’m sure.” I surreptitiously checked my gauges. The ship was still snared by quantum jamming devices, while the capacitor was holding at sixty percent. I sounded calm, even though my mind was cycling all the angles looking for a way out.
Pride in his voice he said, “I move slowly. Time is the test, you see. I give contestants enough time to reveal their truest self before handing out keys to my inner circle.” He laughed, “You clearly failed. Don’t take it too hard. You’re not the first to succumb to her.”
Not the first – that punched me in the gut harder than I would have expected.
Silas was suddenly amused by the circumstance. “You’re definitely the one with the highest pedigree to fall at her hands – neurojacker.” He prolonged the last word.
Bitterness twisted at the corners of my mouth. “I’m not a jacker any more, as I’m sure you know.”
His pondering demeanor vanished. “Yes, I do know. I was willing to fix that little problem for you. Possibly provide a medically extended life but… You screwed that up so let’s dispense with the bullshit!” He sat up, all pretense gone. “I’m patient to a point. Hand over Reya and get out of my sight.”
I didn’t believe I’d live two minutes after jettisoning Reya out of my ship. Once she was secured, I’d be blown to bits. As for her, I wasn’t sure she’d escape unscathed. Yet she didn’t seem any worse for having done this before if what Silas said was true.
Desperate to stall for time or concoct a way out, a plan formed in my mind. If I could pull this off, we might have a chance of escaping completely. Or if I could drag this encounter out long enough, for a UEE security patrol to pass through that might provide a diversion. The UEE no longer actively controlled Leir but they secured both sides of its jump points, to ensure safe passage was being allowed.
I didn’t have anything to lose, so I gave it a shot. “I can’t jettison her out. The unit is only partially functional.” Moving as little as possible, I groped in the compartments under my dash, looking for a weapon. I came up empty. “She’d die within minutes,” I lied.
While Silas’ face remained impassive, a slight tone of agitation sounded in his voice. “Suit her up and send her out.”
“Can’t do that either.” I saw his jaw muscles tighten. Mockingly I continued, “Surprisingly, she went into shock when your ships showed up and snared us. I had to mix a sedative in her oxygen to calm her down.”
That brought Silas out of his chair. “You drugged her? Sonofabitch! Do you even know what the hell you’re doing?”
I heard his pilot for the first time, “He’s lying – just stalling…”
I replied to the anonymous voice. “Prove it.”
Silas whirled on his pilot, “Shut up!”
Stalemate. Now everything depended on how badly Silas wanted Reya back unharmed. He apparently wanted her back for reasons that were still unknown to me. At what cost did he want her back, was the real question. What was he willing to risk?
I pressed my advantage. “I don’t know why you want a woman who clearly doesn’t want you.” I let the statement hang in the air before continuing, “If as you’ve said, she’s done this before.” Narrowed eyes glared at me through the comm module. “At this point, I don’t care why. I just want to get out alive.”
“A man in my position must collect debts owed. Not to do so is dangerous.” He leaned in, and his smile was lethal. “It would send the wrong message. She owes me her life on a debt.” His wicked sense of humor returned. “It’s business ole boy, not personal.”
She owed him her life. That was news to me that I didn’t let show. “Tell you what, I’ll extend a Topside Docking Hatch. You come across and get her – alone. I assume you’re equipped with a TDH passage tube.”
The unseen pilot spoke up again. “Fuck that boss! Blow him and that cunt to dust and be done with it.”
Silas’ agitation unloaded. His sizeable form sprung from the chair, disappearing from the monitor. I heard the impact of a solidly delivered punch and the sound of crunching bone. Probably a broken nose if I had to guess.
Silas returned into my field of view. Still addressing his pilot, he roared, “I already told you to shut the fuck up.”
I seized the opportunity. “See, that’s what I’m talking about.” I gestured toward the off-screen pilot. “I don’t trust your henchies. I met a few. A little volatile for my tastes. Probably just giving her to you isn’t going to be the best bet for me.”
“Don’t take me for a fool,” he warned, “people die that way.”
“Let’s keep it simple. You come on board. See that she’s fine. Your men escort my ship to the closest utility station outside of Leir, and I disappear. The girl and the ship are yours.”
“We can escort you there without me coming on board,” he countered.
“True, but what would stop me from taking off with Reya once we’re out of your control bubble?” I asked. “Maybe you can shoot me down before authorities arrive. Maybe not. Either would cause a ruckus and draw attention. And as it happens, I’m not overly inclined to interact with UEE security myself.” I shrugged. “Looking for a win-win.”
Silas’ suspicions were raised. “You’re correct in assessing my arm doesn’t reach that far – yet.” His distrust showing he asked, “Why warn me of that?”
“You’re not stupid, and I want out alive.” I forced my voice to adopt a non-committal tone. “It’s your choice. You come over unarmed – I’ll scan you, and one-on-one we can jump to the closest secured station.”
I waited for a response. Silas said nothing. His eyes burrowed into me. This was my best chance to get out of this alive. I needed to get him across, overpower him and keep him as a temporary hostage for safe conduct out of here – with Reya. I’m sure he was aware of that possibility. It was a long shot, but that didn’t matter. I was dead unless I tried something.
“There’s no reason to trust a thief,” he interjected into the growing silence.
“As it stands, I’m a dead man.” He didn’t refute my words, so I nodded. “That being the case, I’ll self-destruct the ship and take the temptress with me. I’ve nothing to lose.” Let’s see how he takes that missile across the bow. No reaction from Silas. “On the other hand, you could blow us to dust as your pilot suggested or stalemate until my ship runs out of oxygen.” For dramatic effect, I made a show of checking my gauges. “Six hours, eight minutes and fifteen seconds from now.” I relaxed back into my chair. “Either way, dead is dead. I can only die once.” I was gambling solely with her life. It was all I had of value to offer.
For the first time since our attempt at a secret escape from Silas’ lair, I unstrapped myself from the pilot’s chair and stood up. “You let me know how you want to handle this from here.” I shook out my legs. “I’m going to check on Reya.”
My heart thundered in my chest. I did my best to assume a confident walk to the ship’s rear – out of range for the comm module’s camera. When I was clear, I took a steadying breath. My hands shook. I balled them into fists and released them over and over, trying to calm myself.
I’d rolled the dice using her life, and I wasn’t sure I had the right. What other choice did I have other than sacrificing myself? I hadn’t known Reya long, and even though feelings of the four letter word hovered, my self-preservation instinct was strong. I assured my conscience, this was the best I could do for both of us.
I hurried down the narrow passageway, kicking fallen crates and equipment out of my way as I went. I jumped down the small steps leading to the cargo bay and rushed to the transport capsule. The capsule hovered in the center of the room utilizing magnetic repulsion to float above the cargo plates embedded in the flooring. Soft white lights came on inside the capsule, as I approached. Through its observation panel, I could see Reya. She was in the form-fitting undersuit, curled into a loose fetal position. I walked to the attached AutoDoc console and meticulously checked at all her vitals. She was fine – sleeping peacefully. I tapped a button to stop the sedative being mixed into her oxygen supply. I leaned over the glass panel for a closer look.
Reya rested on the gelfoam interior. The surface had oblong silver colored sensors with trailing circuitry embedded in the foam. The wires zigzagged across the surface like a hieroglyphic mural. Pinprick sized lights blinked at regular intervals casting tiny polka dots on her olive skin. Part of her attempt at a disguise, her head was shaved entirely, revealing a tattoo of the Asian symbol for freedom. “Cross your fingers,” I whispered against the glass.
I’d given Silas enough time to stew on my insane proposal. I raced back up to the flight deck. On the way, I rifled through the supplies stowed in the side compartments for any kind of weapon. At Reya’s insistence, there were no “real” weapons on board. If we got stopped by authorities for any reason, she didn’t want me hauled off for violating the terms of my military discharge. The best I could find was a small titanium pipe that fit into the palm of my hand.
“You’ll have to do,” I said, concealing it in my palm.
When I got back on deck, Silas was stepping into a flight suit. I stood by the comm but didn’t bother to sit. “That’s not necessary…”
He cut me off. “In case there’s an accident.” Warning in his tone he added, “If there is, my men will open fire immediately. Then the three of us can finish this in hell.”
“Sure – just drop the suit once you’re safely sealed in the TDH bay so I know you’re not coming across with anything.”
We were both acting overly gracious which spelled – TROUBLE.
“Certainly,” he replied.
I reached across the pilot’s command console and initiated the TDH. I heard the instruments whir into motion as I walked briskly to the mid-deck.
Over my shoulder, I yelled, “Meet you there.”
When I entered the midship area, the TDH chamber was almost finished adjusting its internal compression. The LED on the circular traversal tube began flashing… 85% complete… 90% complete… 100% complete.
The audio confirmation rang out in a flat digitized female voice. “Topside Dock Hatch ready for deployment.”
I fat-fingered entering the correct launch authorization code into the side panel.
“Invalid authorization code,” was the computer’s reply.
I punched in the code again.
“Topside Dock Hatch launching in… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1.”
The clear container rose slowly from the floor and up through the tube that connected it to the ceiling. I heard the gears lock into place when it reached the outside, followed by suctioning noises as the ship carrying Silas, hooked on a flexible passage tube. Several more seconds passed.
The TDH LED glowed red and announced, “Warning, Topside Dock Hatch accepting passenger…” There was a loud thud, like someone falling forward into the chamber. “Warning, Topside Dock Hatch accepting passenger…” I heard the TDH reseal itself. When the LED went steady green, I moved back.
Silas was stepping out of the flight suit as the chamber lowered back down. We watched each other warily. I stood still, my hands at my sides in a false relaxed stance. Silas was a couple of inches taller than me. I was bulky. He was lean and agile. All I needed was to connect my fist concealing the pipe with his head, and I’d be in the pilot’s seat on this escapade.
“Turn around,” I yelled loud enough for him to hear through the chamber. He obliged, doing so with his hands raised over his head.
“Now you,” he shouted back when he was done.
I did the same. My large hands facing upward and lightly cupped, successfully concealed the rod. “Okay?” I asked. He nodded his reply. He moved to the back of the chamber as I approached to open the door. I quickly tapped in the security code in to open the compartment.
The computer stated the obvious, “Topside Dock Hatch releasing passenger.” There was a popping sound as the door slid open. Silas cautiously stepped out. I backed away from the unit, opting to leave it open versus staying in range, to reseal it.
Silas surveyed the interior of the compartment while keeping an eye on me. New eyes would see the scarred and dented walls, panels missing off several non-operational modules and debris – wires, discarded micro-panels, and power cells littered the floor.
I sized him up while formulating a plan of attack. He was going to fight back and probably decent at it given his reputation and temperament. I didn’t want to jump the gun at the wrong time.
“Nice,” was all he said after giving the interior a once over. We both knew that nice meant, “What a shithole you’ve got here.” He didn’t waste time after that. “I want to see Reya.”
“Sure. She’s in the cargo bay.” I pointed to the rear of the ship.
“After you,” he said waving me forward. “You’ve the advantage. It’s your ship. Places to hide weapons and spring an attack. You’ll have to indulge me in not wanting to be jumped from behind.”
I made like it didn’t matter to me who went first and headed toward the stairs. I walked the short distance in the corridor, slightly turned in Silas’ direction the whole way. When we entered the cargo bay with Reya, I moved to stand against the far wall.
I watched him check her vitals carefully. I squirmed when he adjusted two of the settings. He held his hand up for me to be silent or stay where I was, I didn’t know which. I wasn’t ready to attack, and there was no sane reason for him to risk his safety coming on board if all he wanted was to hurt her. He could have done that from the safety of his ship.
He kept an eye on me as he walked around to the front of the capsule. “Did you know that she only has one lung?” He could tell by my reaction that I didn’t. “She suffers from a rare clotting disease.” He peered into the capsule window then quickly brought his eyes back to me. “We’ve tried a couple of artificial ones, for some reason, they don’t take. Humidity and heat are her friends.”
His hands brushed over the top of the capsule in a caressing motion. He backed himself against the wall of the room on that side. I instantly realized I’d already made a mistake. Earlier, I’d put Reya’s safety in between us to hold him off, now he was returning the favor. Touché. His body went rigid. Damn, he was about to spring something.
I tried to defuse the situation. “She’s safe as you can see. Let’s head back and get this going.” I could see he wasn’t buying. Regardless, I kept selling. “In a few, we can be through a jump point, and I’ll be on my way.”
“Really?” His body language suggested we weren’t going anywhere. “This was a dangerous game you played – and at my expense.”
Playtime seemed to be over. I braced myself and leaned into an attack stance. My voice dripped acid. “Game – is that what her life is to you?”
He ignored my statement, continuing down his own line of thought. “She’s never made it out of my station before,” he said, “let alone onto a ship and out of the region. That’s a disastrous precedent that has to end here.”
It was on. Panther tracking panther, we circled each other, the capsule in the middle. I gripped the pipe until the whites of my knuckles were showing. It didn’t matter if he noticed at this point, he’d come in with a plan of his own.
“Must be my pedigree,” I sneered. “Looks like I exceeded your expectations after all.” My combat training kicked in, in a split second I assessed the situation – his position, the proximity of the capsule and all viable directions of attack. It was time to strike.
The world slipped into slow motion. I crouched low, inhaled then lunged diagonally across the capsule, aiming for his throat. Like a displaced egg, the capsule wobbled as my knees brushed over the top. He jerked to the side, avoiding the full force of my attack. I clipped the left side of his chest. He hit the wall behind him, momentarily losing his footing. He swung a wild right as he struggled to steady himself. When he did, he started punching left — right — left.
I raised my forearm to block the rain of blows he attempted to deliver. From my crouched position I saw an opening. I punched up into his chest. I felt one of his ribs crack. His breath left him in a rush. He staggered backward. In one fluid motion, I bolted upright and advanced. The titanium pipe clenched in my fist. I cocked my right hand back ready to make a dent in this fucker’s head.
Silas scuttled sideways then quickly rolled under the capsule to the other side of the room. The capsule rocked between us. He favored his left side and was panting.
“Not as out of practice as I’d hoped,” he said through clenched teeth. “This isn’t going to end well for you now.”
We were both shuffling side to side, trying to gain the upper hand on the next strike.
“Was it ever going to?”
“Might have,” he gestured toward the capsule. “I have a reverence for fallen angels. When the righteous come face to face with their gods and realize it was all lies. You and the military. A decorated hero cast out… Reya, a former operative.”
That statement rocked me back on my heels. “Former operative?” I whispered.
His mocking smile taunted me. “You barely know her.”
I prepared to lunge at him again when he yanked at a gold chain hanging around his neck. I stopped short. From the chain hung a blood red vial with a red label and flowery print. It swung like a pendulum as he held it high. Our eyes locked. FUCK – for the first time I noticed air purifiers jammed up his nostrils.
He read acknowledgment in my eyes and smiled. “Time to die,” he sneered.
Fueled by desperation, I rushed forward, slinging the capsule out of the way with my left hand. It careened around the room bumping into crates and hitting the side walls. The compartment echoed the collisions like war drums. The life support and monitor chords tethering the capsule to the AutoDoc snapped. Fluid sprayed wildly around the cargo bay while a litany of alarms rang out from the medic console. I dropped the pipe and grabbed Silas’ wrist – the one holding the vile. My other hand had him by the throat, trying to restrict his movement.
Events shifted into fast forward. Silas alternately punched me in the head and hammered at the bend in my arm, trying to break my hold on his throat. With only one hand, I couldn’t exert enough force to choke the life out of him, but his face was turning beet red.
I locked my eyes on the vile. Nothing else in the room mattered. “Hold on no matter what,” I told myself.
Thumping sounds started echoing from within the transport capsule. Reya was awake inside, trying to get out. She screamed my name and pounded frantically. “Gilles! Gilles – I can’t get out.”
Precious seconds ticked by while Silas and I struggled in our death grip. He successfully avoided my attempted knee to the groin. When I’d leaned forward to put weight behind the attack, Silas grabbed a chunk of my hair. Quick as lightning he yanked my head backward, thrust his arm under mine and wrapped his free hand around my throat. We were locked hand-to-hand and throat to throat.
Reya cycled between screaming and coughing – banging with all the energy she had, trying to escape her coffin. Silas and I bumped around the room thrusting each other against every solid surface. As each tried to gain leverage over the other, hitting the capsule was unavoidable, it continued to bang violently around the room. On one collision, the rotation ended facing forward. Reya’s face was momentarily visible in the window. Her eyes were wide with terror. We bumped it again, and it spun in the opposite direction.
A ragged plea echoed from the capsule, “Please… help. I… can’t… brea—.”
More seconds passed while Silas and I wrestled. I had him pinned against the wall again. Reya went silent. I looked into Silas’ face, intent on finding a way to choke this son-of-bitch to death with one hand. There was a look of madness in his eyes.
“You… did this,” he growled.
A new terror ripped through me. I wrenched my head and looked at the silent capsule. When I did, Silas swung us around in an arc. His hand holding the vile was pointed toward the closest wall. He leaned in that direction. Off balance, our collective weight sent us careening toward his goal. The vial crashed into the wall, wedged between it and his hand. Bloody fragments broke away and fell. Red vapor exploded into the air. Neither of us released their grip on the other’s throat. Even so, we both knew who was going to win. In a few seconds, I’d be incapacitated and sometime after, dead by his hand – if I was lucky.
My head swam, the room started to rotate. I kept the pressure on his throat. I tried to grab hold with my other hand but couldn’t manage the effort to raise my arm. My grip slackened. My knees buckled. Against my will, my hands opened. Silas stepped out of my reach. A blunt kick to my chest toppled me over. The floor rushed toward the side of my face. It hit the floor with a resounding crack. In a haze, I saw Silas rush to the capsule.
He banged at the controls to open the pod. “Reya! Hang on – here, I’m here love.”
My eyelids turned into bricks supported by toothpicks. I willed them to stay open with all the energy I had left. The lid on the capsule popped up. Silas wrenched it the rest of the way open. He stooped low into the capsule. I heard snapping sounds as he ripped away the remaining monitors attached to her body. He rummaged lower, and when he came up, Reya’s torso was supported in his embrace.
I watched through slitted eyes as he reached into his pants pocket and inserted what he’d retrieved, into Reya’s nose. He slapped her on both the sides of her face. His hand left blood stains on her cheeks. “Wake up,” he shouted. She didn’t move. He put an ear to her lips.
I croaked a question too low to be heard, “Alive?”
Silas lifted her motionless form. Cradling her like a child, he stepped past me. I couldn’t move my head. I strained my eyes to watch his departure. As he angled sideways to navigate out the door, one of Reya’s arms fell limply at her side. Her arm, slight and still; her wrist fragile and slack; her hand – a finger twitched once… twice. My face was numb while my heart rejoiced. My head throbbed as if on the verge of imploding. Time to sleep my body crooned. I begged it to wait – wait until she was out of sight, but I was falling, dropping like a boulder into darkness.
Gilles looked up at Maggie. He immediately schooled the tortured look on his face. He blinked and exhaled. Returning to today. Two years and three months since he’d last seen Reya. He used to know down to the minute, but he’d stopped that bit of madness.
Maggie’s voice came as a whisper. “You’re alive,” was said as a statement of something to be thankful for.
“It would seem,” came Gilles’ reply. The dim lighting of the pub, the solemnity of his voice, and silence that echoed around them cast a funeral-like pall. “When I came to, I stumbled to the cockpit. Nothing had been damaged. I found a recorded message on the comm module. Silas had decided to keep me alive as leverage. For all of his purported disdain, he must have sensed that I meant something to her. He already knew how I felt.” Gilles noticed the shot glass in front of him and downed it. “If I stayed away she was fine. If she stayed, I was fine. We were each other’s hostage.”
“Shit. That’s wicked.” Maggie who’d been on the edge of her seat slid back and leaned into the booth.” She exhaled. “Thanks for sharing that. Explains a lot.”
“Does it?” His voice was flat.
Maggie’s voice was warm with compassion. “You don’t live here.” She waved her hand around the room. “You’re still back on that ship.” Her smile vanished. She looked away, before continuing. “I know a thing or two about being trapped and choosing freedom. At all cost.”
Gilles watched Maggie. He was perplexed by her revelation. He’d assumed her life hadn’t been perfect or she wouldn’t have ended up out here on the ass end of Terra. Sure, it was much better than other systems. Still – her skills and looks… Life should have netted a bit more. “So,” he thought to himself, “she has a mystery – likely a secret too.”
The silence between them lingered until Maggie righted the mood. “Butterfly choices…” Her smile returned – albeit somewhat diminished.
“What’s that?” Gilles asked.
“Never know how far a single step will ripple,” Maggie replied.
At that moment he decided he preferred the happy Maggie. The businesswoman he assumed had no cares. That image was cracked and he realized, she was probably right. Maybe that was never her. Just the one-dimensional image he saw through his preoccupied haze. He met her eyes, he needed to discern if this was a problem. She looked at him as she always had. Kind and curious but there was a bit of sadness in her eyes. “We’re good?” He asked.
“No reason not to be. I don’t gossip. You can trust me.” She hesitated then continued.” If you’re okay with it, I’d like to tell John.” She put her hand up. “Just enough. He and I don’t keep secrets. John should know just in case trouble arrives – for whatever reason.”
After a moment’s reflection, Gilles agreed. “I guess that’s fair.”
“Ever consider doing security again?”
“Nah. Like it here and staying local.”
“Good to hear. I meant for us. Podcity. We like hiring staff with multiple skills.” In a slightly apologetic tone, she said, “keeps overhead down.”
Gilles smiled. “Makes sense.”
“ We’re looking to take on a couple more. Maybe the three of us should chat. If you have any interest.”
The offer caught Gilles off guard, and it showed. “Uhm — Yea, sure. Why not?” He brushed a hand through his hair. “Can’t hurt to consider.”
“Cool. I’ll speak to John.” She rose, taking the two glasses and the bottle of scotch with her. “Time to shut the doors.”
Gilles got up, stretched and sidestepped out of the booth. “Yep. Thanks for the drink.” He headed for the door. Over his shoulder, he said, “See ya tomorrow.”
You can learn about John and Maggie’s life before Terra in Nightbus Fiction Collective Volume 1. The Exterminator introduces John James. Maggie Schlotz Origin story tells about her life as a paramour prior to escaping to Stanton. You can find the Nightbus Fiction Collective Volume 1 on my SoundCloud Channel.
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