Kaine's Retribution, page 12
“I can improve our chances greatly if you let me come with you.”
“I told you before, you’re needed to run the ship.”
“You are thinking of me as if I’m still human. I can partition my consciousness and accompany you.”
“But what about Scimitar? Gunney and Chin can’t afford for you not to be here.”
“I will be here, or at least an operational clone of me will. It will lack my core personality, but that won’t affect anything.”
“I don’t know, Cora...”
“Hayden, you need me. Besides, I promised Stella I would look after you.”
“So you would occupy my ship’s computer, is that it?”
“Yes, and I prepared a synth for when we venture out onto the surface—for some of the heavy lifting.”
He smiled. “It’s a small moon, Cora. I doubt gravity will be an issue.”
“You still need somebody to watch your back. What if you are injured?”
He raised his hands in surrender. “I give up. You can come.” He looked to Gunney and glanced up at Cora’s sphere. “How long is needed to prepare?”
“We’re ready. Our positioning window will open in three hours.”
Hayden sighed. “Okay, let’s do this.”
He hoped he wasn’t leading them down the path to disaster.
“T-MINUS ONE minute,” came the announcement over Hayden’s helmet speaker.
“You sound like you’re in my head, Cora. Isn’t VR supposed to be the other way around?”
“You know how it works, silly. We can chat about it later. You need to stay focused.”
“Right,” he said as he resumed his prelaunch check sequence. When the console in front of him lit up with green lights, he said, “Everything is good here, Bridge.”
“Acknowledged,” said Gunney. “Good luck, Captain.”
“You’re in charge now. Take care of the ship.”
The hangar bay doors slid open in silence, revealing the blue and red-banded surface of Elgar that dominated the field of view.
“Remember to park in our sensor shadow until the asteroid blows,” said the gunnery officer. “Then be prepared to punch your engines on my signal. I’m guessing you will have about thirty seconds of cover from the radiation burst.”
“Don’t worry, I only have to make it into the planet’s third ring.”
“Let’s hope they take the bait. You will be visible and vulnerable until you reach it. I can’t defend you against any missiles they may launch your way.”
“Acknowledged, Bridge. I’m launching now.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to fly us, Hayden?” asked Cora. “My reaction times are much faster than yours and—”
“I prefer to pilot, if you don’t mind. It gives me something to stay focused on.”
“Of course, I’ll just keep an eye on the ship systems.”
A bead of sweat trickled down Hayden’s forehead, and he needed to scratch his nose behind the closed visor.
With practised ease, his hands played over the ship’s controls, and the small craft floated from the hangar. Once parked in position, he shut everything down and waited in darkness for Gunney to fire on the asteroid. The only thing he heard was his controlled deep breathing and the sound of the blood swishing in his ears.
“Hayden, are you okay? Your pulse is up thirty-five percent.”
“I’m just anxious,” he whispered.
“I’ve almost forgotten how that feels.” There was a hint of regret in her words.
He wanted to tell her that he was glad for the anxiety—that it helped him remain sharp and feel alive in such situations—but he knew how insensitive that remark would be. Though Cora still sounded like the carefree girl he’d met a decade before, he had a difficult time imagining that she did not regret losing her body. He didn’t believe he would have accepted the same situation with the grace she displayed.
“Get ready, Hayden. Gunney’s diverted power to the weapons.”
Hayden’s hands hovered over the dark controls. He counted down the time. The tally ran to a minute, then another. He had trouble working up spittle to swallow.
“Cora, what’s the delay?”
“Shh. Stay alert.”
He frowned but managed to bite back a sharp reply.
A brilliant flare bloomed around the edges of Scimitar, briefly snuffing out the stars.
“That’s it, Hayden. Let’s go!”
But his hands were already in motion before her urging, and the thruster of his small craft fired at full burn. Instantly, he was thrown into the back of his chair with what felt like the weight of the entire ship trying to crush his ribcage. His blood pressure suddenly dropped, and his vision darkened. Within seconds, the bladders in his g-suit expanded with fluid, squeezing his leg and abdominal muscles.
His head clearing, Hayden tried to blink the flashing stars from his eyes and ignored the ringing in his ears. He struggled in vain to turn his head, but it was pinned to his seat under the g-force. Unable to lift his arms to reach the control panel, he hoped that Cora would soon shut down the engine. His attempts at speech amounted to a few weak grunts.
Finally, when he believed he’d reached his limit of endurance, the vibration stopped and the pressure that pressed down on his chest relented. A second later, the g-suit deflated, releasing his muscles from its iron grip.
After flexing his shoulders to assure himself he once more had control of his body, he said, “Did it work?”
“We are inside the third ring.” Cora’s voice was calm, as if nothing had just happened. From her perspective, that was true, he thought.
“Did they take the bait?”
“I don’t know for sure. The same ionized particles that protect us from detection also obscure our sensors. Before we entered, they had adjusted their course toward the blast, though.”
“How long do we stay here?”
“We should remain obscured until we pass into Elgar’s shadow ten hours from now.”
“Wow, that long.”
Cora laughed. “Don’t worry, Hayden. We don’t need to make small talk. You should rehydrate and get some sleep. Your body needs to recover from the strain you just experienced, and you’ll want to be at your best for whatever comes next.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me to keep you company?”
“Are you worried I can’t drive? Or was there something you wanted to talk to me about? Did you want to join me in VR?”
He felt himself blush. “Ah, er, no...”
“You are so easy to tease. Relax, the ship is in good hands, and I promise to wake you if anything unexpected comes up.”
He chuckled to mask his embarrassment. “Okay, you win. I’ll get some shuteye.”
He closed his eyes and drifted off. After what seemed like a few seconds, he was startled awake by Cora.
“Up and at ’em, sleepyhead.”
“What is it? I just dozed off for a second.”
She laughed. “You’ve been snoring for the last nine and a half hours, silly.”
“What? No way.” He blinked, trying to force himself to be fully alert. Through the front window loomed the night side of Elgar. “Oh. I guess I was tired.”
“We will be at our course correction point in twenty minutes. You have time for some personal needs. I won’t watch.”
Hayden hesitated to reach for the buckle of his restraint harness, suddenly self-conscious. Realizing how foolish that was, and needing to relieve himself, he released the belt and floated through the cramped cabin to the toilet.
When he returned to the pilot chair and strapped himself back in, he looked out at the spherical shadow, barely discernible against the black of space. “Is that where we’re headed to? Pomp, is it?”
“Yes. I’ve been scanning it as we’ve drifted nearer the thin edge of the ring, but I’m still getting too much interference for
“One with a treasure we are risking our asses to find. I’m worried about what will happen if we don’t locate any erganium. We’ll be stuck in this system.”
“We must not fail, Hayden. I fear that our lives will be very short, otherwise. But there is some on that moon.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“All the data suggest it is so, and I have faith.”
“That isn’t something I’ve had a lot of over these past few years. My father taught me not to rely on providence or the goodwill of others. If he ever possessed faith of any kind, it was only in his ability to get what he wanted.”
“And how’s that philosophy working out for you?”
Hayden smiled. “Perhaps not very well.”
“So, can we try things my way?”
“I really have no other options, Cora. Besides, I trust you, and if you believe that this will work out, that is good enough for me.”
“That sounds like a big change from how you were brought up.”
He looked out the window at the slowly growing moon. “I’m not the man I used to be. Being cut off from the world I grew up in for so long...well, I don’t really know who I am.”
“I can tell you.” Her voice was tender.
Hayden bit back the comment on the tip of his tongue. How could she believe she knew him? Cora hadn’t seen him in ten years and was now more AI than person...and then there was Stella. She’d caught a glimpse of how shallow his real self was and high-tailed it. She’d wanted nothing to do with the remnant he’d become, and he couldn’t really blame her. She was trying to bring them together, and he admired her for it, but her faith in him was misplaced, as was Cora’s.
“How long until our course correction?” he asked.
The topic transitioned; Cora returned her attention to piloting. Was it his imagination, or did the cabin temperature seem cooler?
At the predetermined coordinates, she fired the engines and adjusted their heading to an approach vector to Pomp.
In continued silence, she manoeuvred them into orbit and then began their descent to the surface. Not until after they landed did she finally speak.
“That outcrop on the left is our best candidate. While you put on your pressure suit, I’ll transfer over to the synth.”
“We’re going to leave the ship unguarded?”
“Who do you think might steal it?” She still sounded pissed with him. Then her voice softened. “Besides, I can partition myself again and keep watch over it while I go with you. Does that make you feel better?”
“Cora, I’m sorry for cutting off the conversation earlier.”
“I understand. Don’t worry about it. We can talk another time when you’re ready. Right now, we have more pressing matters, don’t you agree?”
He nodded and retrieved the suit from the locker.
A few minutes later, he exited, followed by a two-metre-tall humanoid robot. The only surviving, functional synth aboard Scimitar was a modified medical model. It was rudimentary and possessed only a basic robotic frame and featureless face. He found Cora’s voice coming from it disconcerting and was grateful when, once outside, he could only hear her through his helmet receiver.
“The strongest readings are about a hundred metres away, over the top of that crater rim.” The android pointed toward a nearby ridge. Without further delay, it started walking to the outcrop, striding easily across the rocky surface.
Hayden took a step and propelled forward. His toes dug in to the dusty regolith, and his arms windmilled to regain his balance. Failing, he tumbled in slow motion to the ground.
“Are you all right?” asked Cora, looming over him, offering a hand.
Accepting her help, he returned to his feet and knocked the dust off.
“It’s been a long time since my low-G training. I’ll be fine.”
After a moment examining him for damage to his suit, she turned and continued to the base of the hill. Hayden stepped cautiously, and when no further calamity befell him, repeated the process, quickly adapting to the low gravity. His confidence returned, he followed Cora to the rock face and climbed toward the nearby summit.
As he caught up with the synth, he found it kneeling beside a large boulder, motioning for him to keep low, so he ducked and joined her.
“Something isn’t right,” she said.
“What is it?”
Cora’s attention was not on him, instead on something in the direction from where they’d come. Hayden turned to see what had caught her interest, and his heart dropped into his stomach.
Their small ship was surrounded by a group of armed soldiers.
The troops had not yet spotted them, but it wouldn’t take long for that to happen.
They were screwed.
“HAYDEN, WHAT ARE we going to do?”
It was difficult to reconcile the fear in Cora’s voice with the impassive face on the synth she occupied.
“I don’t think it will take them too long to figure out where we are,” he said. “There are two sets of footprints to lead them here.”
He returned his attention to the scene below. The squad of soldiers was still assessing their ship. There was time, but not much.
“How did they follow us?” he asked.
“I kept a close eye on our sensors; nobody followed us. This is a different group. Do you think they are who Kovacs’s people are searching for?”
“Maybe Malkovich keeps a hidden base on this moon.”
“And we just happened to land on top of it?” said Cora. “That isn’t likely. I think they tracked us as we came in.”
“Regardless of how they found us, they don’t look friendly.” He checked out their nearby surroundings. “How far are we from the erganium deposit?”
“Do you really think that’s a priority, Hayden?”
“Just tell me. Is it close?”
“Inside the crater.”
“Okay.” He watched the men around their vessel. They were attempting to gain access to it.
“Do you have control of our ship from here?”
“If it comes down to an emergency, can you transfer back there from this body? Or the other way around?”
“If I’m within range, yes. Why?”
“I’m just assessing possibilities.”
He turned again to study the activity below.
“I’m going down there, and—”
“Hayden! You can’t.”
“Cora, they are going to follow our tracks. If I go to them, it gives you the time to find the erganium.”
“But you could be killed. I should be the one who goes.”
“Then they’ll have our ship and you. Besides, I don’t know what the stuff looks like. You are our best shot. Once you locate it, call the ship to you and get yourself and the mineral back to Scimitar.”
“No! There must be another way.”
“Cora, there is no other way, at least not one that I can think of. You are the only hope for the crew. I’m expendable, but you aren’t.”
“I won’t leave without you.”
“Yes, you will, because I am ordering you.”
The expressionless face of the synth did not reflect the pain in Cora’s voice. “Hayden, please?”
He shook his head. “I order you to complete the mission, Chief Engineer Symes.”
The android looked at him with its unblinking eyes, and for a moment he feared she would ignore him and cart him away from the soldiers.
“Yes, sir.” Her voice cracked. “What will I tell Stella? The captain?”
“Tell them the truth and that I’m not going to simply roll over and surrender. I will find a way back to Scimitar, if I can.”
“I’m holding you to that.” She leaned f
Cora disengaged the embrace and held him by his shoulders. “Keep channel 4Z open for me to monitor you. That’s far enough down the band that they shouldn’t realize it’s active. I will come back for you.”
“Well, I was kind of hoping somebody might.” He looked down toward the ship. “I have to go now.”
She crawled to the edge of the rim and scrambled down into the crater. Hayden inhaled deeply then climbed down to the soldiers below. As he picked his way over the rocks, he flipped through the available communications channels, searching for the one the men used.
He was halfway down the slope when he found it. He stopped and ducked behind a large boulder.
“Hello, can anybody hear me?” he said.
“Who is that?”
“Me, the guy on the hill.” He poked his head up and waved his arms.
First one, then the others aimed their weapons at him.
“Don’t shoot! I’m not armed!”
“Stay where you are.” One of them motioned and four of them ran toward him. He watched with relief as their footprints all but obliterated his and Cora’s. At least they wouldn’t have reason to go looking for her. He hoped he bought her the time she needed.
They seized Hayden and forced him back to his ship. It required a few steps for him to adjust to the odd sensation of being frog-marched in low gravity. The troops who captured him wore standard UEF battle suits, with one major difference: the emblem of the United Earth Forces was absent, replaced by an unfamiliar one.
After his initial comm contact with the squad, they switched to a secondary channel to communicate, leaving Hayden in the dark about their plans for him. A quick glance assured him they had not gained access to his small ship. He wondered how long he could drag out offering up the entry codes. Every second they wasted with him was one more for Cora to complete her assignment.
A voice crackled through his helmet speaker. “Who are you?”
“Fine, thanks. How are you?”
“Not how, idiot! Who are you?”
He was unsure which of them spoke. All of their visors were tinted, obscuring their faces.