Eve Walters burst through the tavern doors. Heart pounding, mouth dry, she saw the heads turn toward her and she knew she’d make a mistake:
No one would forget her entrance, forget her face. She might as well have danced into the bar covered in neon.
Lungs screaming for air she calmly walked to the bar and sat on a stool. She spent two minutes releasing the built up desperation for air – obvious to anyone watching her, then caught the barkeep’s eye.
“What’ll it be miss?” The bartender’s drone spoke of boredom and monotony. Eve wasn’t sure if that would help him forget her or not. She decided to order the most common drink, undo the damage of her entrance. She glanced to her right. A man was drinking Brown.
“House Brown please.”
The ‘keep reached under the bar, his hands together and still, his eyes down – a secret communicator? - then placed a full handle of Brown before her. “Seventeen all up.”
Eve flicked through her billfold. Her cards could be traced. Did she have any Pleiades cash? Her mind was a jumble, adrenaline and fear crushing any cogent thought that dared rise to the surface.
She put some bills on the bar. They were PLC currency. Too much though, dammit. She pulled a twenty back.
The ‘keeps hand enveloped the cash and slid back under the bar, the cash gone with it, then he moved to the rack of empty jugs. Perfect change, obviously.
She watched the bubbles roll up the glass of her Brown. Her heart had slowed to a reasonable craziness now, Slow enough to engage in understandable conversation. She swallowed a mouthful of the Brown though her stomach felt cramped from adrenaline.
She half turned on her stool to survey the clientele. The place was reasonably bright, a far cry from the spacer bar near the Corporate Centre starport. Men in those weird three piece suits all the rage in the Pleiades system. Two women, both short hair, braided back to the skull to give the hair a strange curl. Business people, and most of them off-worlders trying to blend in. Which was a smart move, considering the Xenophobes that ran the system. None of them fitted the profile of the person she wanted however. A guy, probably. Mid-thirties, a swagger about him, but with a veneer of professionalism. Someone who didn’t quite belong amongst a group of people trying to fit in because a part of him didn’t want to.
She found him in the fifth booth. Short brown hair, a five day beard. He was wearing a two piece suit only, straining across his shoulders.
She pushed her glass of Brown away then stood. She passed a couple sharing a drink, then two men discussing import rates and stopped before her mark.
“You work at Soyuz Logistics and Exports?” she asked, too rushed for an intro.
The man was sitting on her right side, a glass of red wine in front. He didn’t flinch, didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge her presence in any way. Eve decided he was an asshole.
He grabbed the stem of his glass and Eve placed her palm over the top. “Excuse me,” she said.
“Oh, hello,” said the man, turning to her suddenly. His smile made her take a step back. “Gosh, I didn’t see you there. My deepest apologies.”
She narrowed her eyes. A wise guy. Fantastic. “Do you work for Soyuz or not?”
The man stared up at her, not checking her out, but measuring her maybe. Trying to figure out where she fitted in the scheme of things. She was dressed in a single layer of loose Terran clothing. Her blouse would have been called ‘work-casual’ back home. Here it was rags that even the lowest Corporate employee wouldn’t wear. So he’d know she wasn’t local, which would hopefully minimise his suspicion.
His gaze finished its appraisal and settled on Eve’s outstretched hand. “Is that clean?”
Eve pulled her hand back. “It’s a simple enough question.”
“On the contrary, dear lady. The possible permutations of purpose behind the question makes it very complicated indeed.”
Eve stared at this man, his sheer disinterest and aloofness proving to her she’d chosen right. She sat down opposite and leant forward.
“I need to transport something back to Terra.”
The man leant back, swallowed a mouthful of wine. “Then come by the office tomorrow morning.”
“So is this glass of Pinot.”
Eve frowned. “That doesn’t even make any sense. Look I need to transport a package – six feet long, 140 pounds. I need it out of here tonight.”
The man returned the glass to the table and slid it aside. “Interesting dimensions for your package, my lady, unless of course you specialise in high end turn-key coffin manufacture.
Eve leant further forward. She had to break through this guy’s exterior BS. “Look, my name is Eve Walters. My father is Nathaniel. He taught me a few things that made it easy for me to figure you out. You own Soyuz Logistics and Exports. The company is a respectable front for your smuggling operation. You-,”
The man’s hand shot forward, too quickly for Eve, and grabbed her wrist. “Now what is this talk for? I’m just an honest business man trying to get through his days in peace and you come in here talking in tongues putting all kinds of strange thoughts in people’s heads?”
Eve tried to pull back but his grip was strong, stronger than she’d given him credit for. “Don’t worry,” she said. I’m not with the police. Like I said, I’m from Terra.” The man’s face was caught between an expression of incredulity and suspicion, an edgey, questioning look.
“The clues weren’t obvious,” she continued. “Besides, it takes one to know one.” She paused. “Sort of.”
The man let go of her. “Good night Eve.” He retrieved his glass and took another swallow.
Eve watched him. “Excuse me?”
“We’re done here. Scram, or I’ll call the Corporate Politsiya.
Eve stared at him, unsure if it was a bluff, or whether she had gotten it so completely wrong.
She turned in her seat toward the door. They’d be looking for her on the streets now. She wasn’t safe out there. Unwelcome attention from an episode here could kill her just as fast however. She had to stay invisible and starting a fight here wouldn’t do that. She stood and marched away, hoping like hell she thought of a Plan B before the police got her.
The shortest route to the starport was through Halifax Square.
She tightened the stolen coat around her shoulders and entered. A huge cobblestoned promenade, brightly lit despite the hour. At its centre astride a pedestal that dwarfed her, was a statue of ‘The Unnamed Captain’, commander of the ancient U.E.S Halifax world ship.
There was some foot traffic, workers in summer jackets, their high ankle boots visible beneath. The square was surrounded by tall imposing buildings, all serving the Corporation in some fashion. They were made from some kind of black glass, like obsidian. She knew the lights built into their facades also doubled as cameras. She kept her walk slow. Not quite aimless, but as if her destination was malleable, her timetable casual rather than life-or-death.
The tallest building on the square was open, even at this hour. Its roof extended toward the clouds, perspective bending spires reaching upward. The front had an arched veranda, crowned by mirrored Nymphs.
Eve didn’t stop to look in. Locals would already know what was in there. They would want to go in or they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t stop to stare. She gave the plaques and other status a wide berth. Every local would have them all memorised.
There was an alley between a billboard, extoling the brilliance of ‘The Seven’ leadership, and what was either a statue making shop or the scene of some important historical event. She gradually turned and escaped the square down the alley.
It turned into a secondary walkway pressed up against a pair of L-rails. There were stairs to a Lev-Stop but she kept walking. On foot she could control where she went. In a Lev she could only go one place: Straight into a trap and into prison.
If she was lucky.
She connected back to the main walkway, a Lev thundering past overhead. The rushing wind whistled against the rail’s support structure. There were more statues and more spires. It was almost like self-advertising. How many fallen heroes could one planet really have?
A couple walked toward her. They wore fedoras and high collared jackets. She’d seen a few locals adopting that trend now. She bunched her own jacket forward to hide any trace of her foreign clothes and forced a casual gait despite the sonorous drumming of her heart.
She kept her head down, kept walking. The couple seemed to sense her, and split apart to let her through. Eve stepped left to go around them.
The couple stepped further apart. Eve took another step sideways, arm brushing the obsidian wall.
The one closest looked up. A man, eyes dark empty pools.
Eve’s heart clenched, panic closing her throat, banging on the back of her head. She turned on a foot, raced back the way she had come.
Her coat jerked her backward. She spun. Two faces were inches from her own. Hot breath. Shadows beneath the fedoras.
Eve swung her hand up, trying to poke out one of those black orbs. Something clenched her wrist. Stabbing pain. Her arm was wrenched down and she was spun again, her face pushed against the obsidian.
She felt breath against her ear. “Where do you think you are going with PLC property Miss Walters?”
Eve bucked her shoulders. She earned a face slam into the obsidian. Supernovas exploded before her. She tasted copper. Dazed, she didn’t reply. She was almost grateful for the men holding her up. She would have fallen otherwise after that blow.
Powerful hands yanked her wrists then she felt Secura bind them together. She was shoved around back to the face the two men.
One leant forward. “Let’s take a walk.”
Then his face exploded.
Eve froze in shock, unable to move or scream, just watch as the pink mist settled and the headless cadaver collapsed at her feet.
The second policemen had already started moving, diving down while he pulled a pistol from under his coat. He fired a shot, the report echoing off the obsidian, the flash blinding Eve’s night vision. A sickening double thud then silence. Eve stared, waiting for her night vision to return. The second agent was lying down. The prone position for a steady aim. But why wasn’t he firing?
Then her vision cleared. He wasn’t firing because his chest was leaking blood. Had been. Past tense. The heart pumping the blood had expired.
That was when Eve noticed her own heart, panicking in her chest, compressing her lungs so all she could inhale were tiny gasps. She felt faint, backing away from the bodies.
Straight into another person. She whirled, arms twitching, gasping, ready to fight.
Arms enveloped her. “Easy, easy.” The smuggler from the tavern. Eve slumped against him in relief, but quickly pulled herself back up. It could still be a trap. She looked past him to an empty walkway. The man himself was cloaked in darkness, only the left side of him visible from distant light from across the tracks. It made him look only half there. Like an apparition.
“What was your last name again?” he asked, his words low, quick.
“Eve Walters,” she said, the words rushing out together at too high a pitch.
“Like Nathaniel Walters?”
“He was my father.”
The arms pulled away. “Son of a bitch,” he breathed. Then his hand was around hers, yanking her forward. “Come on!”
“What are you doing?” Eve cried. “Where are we going?”
“I’m getting you off Eden.”
“I thought you weren’t interested.”
“I changed my mind. Let’s go.”
They ran down the sidewalk. Eve was sure the cameras had targeted them, but the smuggler didn’t slow down, racing past surprised people, turning when strobing lights flashed around street corners. The whine of a turbine came from somewhere overhead. Close or far away, Eve couldn’t tell, the sound reflected off all the sharp edged buildings.
“I don’t. normally take. people across. the surface,” the smuggler said, his words coming between gasps. “But. we don’t. have time. to double back.” Clearly his normal smuggling routine didn’t involve running like crazy. “I have a Tigress light freighter. Pleiades built. Blends in. We’ll be fine.”
The smuggler turned back onto the main thoroughfare, a walkway bracketed by Lev tracks and obsidian walls. The lights of the starport brightened the horizon. Between them however were a string of flashing blue lights.
“We’ll never make it,” Eve said.
“We don’t need to,” the smuggler replied, turning left down an alley.
Eve’s feet were dragging. The smuggler’s grip was strong, pulling her along. Through a door. Down steps, underground around a bend, then finally they stopped to catch their breath.
Eve dropped her hands to her knees and she sucked in oxygen.
Water dripped and echoed beyond the shadows. The air tasted cool, damp, tangy. They were in a subterranean passage way. And a rather poorly built one at that.
The smuggler pulled her up. “We have to keep moving.”
“Where?” Eve asked. “And I don’t even know your name.”
The smuggler looked at her for a second. “Have you ever seen photos of the old earth? Of trains that actually rolled on their rails? How the large stations would be surrounded by miles of tracks into dead ends and maintenance sheds-“
“A shunting yard, sure.”
“That’s where we’re going. But for starships.”
The smuggler led her down the labyrinth tackling intersections clearly memorised. Lefts, rights, lefts again, then finally up a set of metal stairs that banged with each step, through a trap door and up into darkness.
No, not quite darkness. A cavernous space. A hangar. Filled with ships of various sizes hanging from maintenance racks, filling the space. One of the moons shone down through a skylight. Somewhere a ventilator cover banged.
It was a repair bay for Lev trains and interplanetary shuttles, even some VEPSSDs – Vehicle: Extra Planetary and Stellar System Defense. Known as Veeps in the smuggling fraternity. A Pleiades Corporation design that was so successful that the rest of the Imperium decided they weren’t that proud not to copy a PLC design.
“It’s a PLC subsidiary,” the smuggler explained, heading through the maze of ships, a clear destination in mind. “They service shuttles for the interplanetary express between Eden and Paradijs. They just won a contract for the Veep fleet as well.” He stopped before a wrap covering what Eve assumed to be a boxy shaped ship. The smuggler pulled the wrap off revealing a Leopold Mk II shuttle. Outdated but still used due its cheap running costs and possibly some strange romantic notion around its design on behalf of the IPX board.
The shuttle’s cockpit stared back at them, a black window about a metre wide and maybe a foot high. Not ideal. And it looked like it was missing parts – the altimeter assembly was missing, the atmospheric shielding looked ablated and the sensor nodule appeared empty. It could fit forty people out the back in relative comfort however, but such knowledge wasn’t a comfort to Eve at that moment. “We’re going in that thing?”
“Cute.” He stepped around her to the door and pressed his palm to the scanner. The door retracted and a short gang plank extended. He turned and offered her a hand. “You coming?”
Eve took his hand and he yanked her in. “Where are we going?” she asked.
The smuggler settled into the pilot’s seat, Eve the co-pilot seat. He flicked switches and set fuel mixtures, warming up the engines, then sent a signal to open the roof doors. He pulled back on the wheel and the shuttle eased off the rack and up through the roof. He spun the ship as it rose, the now distant starport coming into view. The lights seemed even brighter than before, garish against the dark night. But that wasn’t what caught Eve’s attention.
It was the swarm of ships above the starport. She counted at least ten, but they kept moving and she couldn’t keep count. It was clear they were looking for someone. Her.
Her throat clenched – had the commercial pilot she’d flown in with gotten out in time? She’d given him a two hour head-start.
And then the shuttle kept turning and drifted up toward the stars. The smuggler leant over. “This is just a test drive,” he said. “Testing the engines. No need to travel fast.”
Eve watched the Veeps crowding the starport. They were way faster than the shuttle and even one of them would trash the shuttle with a few shots.
The lights of the city and starport shrank with the planet and the stars grew from twinkling blobs to steady focused pinpricks.
Eve watched in silence, waiting for the shoe to drop, for the Veeps to turn and blast after them, their tell-tale exhaust plumes pointing like arrows toward them.
“Won’t they detect it when we start accelerating?” Eve asked.
“Who said anything about accelerating?” The smuggler retorted. I told you, we’re not going anywhere.
“Paradijs is coming to us.”
Eve watched Eden shrink into the distance, carrying on its eternal journey. It was a binary pair with Paradijs in orbit around the Pleiades star. The smuggler burned enough juice to break from Eden’s frame of reference. Now, he said, all they had to do was wait for Paradijs to come around its orbit and fly straight into them.
The process would take many days.
“So we just sit here?” Eve asked, probably for the tenth time. The smuggler had turned off the lights and controls, and dimmed the air and heat systems. She was watching him from reflected sun and starlight.
“Everything we do makes us visible to the police,” he said. “Except doing nothing, so that’s what we’ll do. We’ll sit tight and no one will know we are even here.”
Eve crossed her arms. She’d never been great with stillness. Always moving, always running, always one step ahead. A motto that worked equally well in her father’s world and her own as a journalist. Sitting still was not part of the bargain.
She stood to relieve her twitching legs. “What if they find us? What if they are sneaking up on us right now?”
“Then we’re dead.”
“That’s not comforting.”
She thought the smuggler was watching her but she couldn’t be sure. The silence carried on, as quiet as space was dark.
“Jack Hamilton,” he said.
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
He leant forward. “My name. I thought that might be more comforting than the thought of dying.”
She smiled despite herself. “Thank you, Jack.”
Eve was wrapped in both survival blankets and swallowing the last of the water when Jack powered the ship back up. Paradijs was coming up on them.
The rush of fresh warmth from the AHS filled Eve, lifting her spirits. Three days of cold in the dark brought out many fears. But now things were back on track. Always moving, always one step ahead.
The view out the window brightened with flame as they entered Paradijs’ atmosphere. The air thickened and banged and raged at the hull. Jack barely touched the controls, only adjusting to counter turbulence or slow their descent. Then Eve had a bad feeling.
“The altimeter isn’t working. How do you know how high we are?”
“When we hit the ground we’re at zero altitude.” He glanced at her, flashed a smile, but he was concentrating harder on the controls than he wanted to let on. Perhaps this part of the trip wasn’t on the usual smuggling tour.
He seemed to read her mind. “I don’t normally smuggle people toward Paradijs. Usually it’s the other way around, workers wanting to get off Paradijs, either to Eden and the better working conditions or from there out of the Pleiades system altogether. I figured this would buy us a bit of time.” Both his hands were on the controls now, muscles taut, beads of sweat on his forehead. His arms shook as the wheel’s feedback relayed the ship’s desire to flip over and kill them both.
The flames outside burned away and Jack’s body relaxed. He gave the engines a little more boost and the kick of the prime mover transmitted through Eve’s seat. She saw a mountain range in the distance, sharp cliffs and buttes coming into focus as they closed in. A sinking feeling filled her.
“That’s our destination, isn’t it?”
“With perception like that it’s no wonder you’re a journalist.”
Eve bristled. “Sounds like you need some time out of the shuttle.”
Jack smiled big white teeth at her. “Not long now.”
He landed them under an outcropping. He unstrapped and opened a seat compartment out the back. He withdrew a big bore Painter and handed her his own pistol. “You good with this?”
She looked the weapon over, trying to look confident. Trigger for her finger here, the end where the death came out there. How hard could it be? “Point and shoot right?”
He frowned at her. “It has a bit of recoil. Aim for the kneecaps. Should result in a nice juicy stomach shot.”
She shook her head and put the weapon down. “I’m not here to kill anyone, Mr Hamilton. I’m a journalist. I’m here to tell the world the truth about what the Pleiades Corporation have been doing, and what they plan to do to the Imperium!”
He regarded her, pupils dancing back and forth as if he were looking for something, or a lack of something. “Your dad understood how to defend himself.” A pause, then, “And his friends.”
Eve handed the pistol back. “One of the many reasons I don’t talk to my father anymore, Jack.”
He shrugged, stuck the pistol in his belt then hoisted the Painter on his shoulder. “Your call.” He opened the gangplank and slowly stepped out, Painter extended outward, ready to spray the immediate vicinity in destruction.
Eve emerged behind him, coughing immediately. Paradijs was hazy, the horizon and even parts of the rock formation hidden behind a curtain of brownness. The rocks were coated in dust. She coughed again.
Jack had a breathing mask on. He moved away, Painter out horizontal, patrolling the area. Eve went back inside and put on a mask. She returned to find him pulling a camo net from an external compartment.
“Amazing how much people can fuck up a planet when they put their mind to it, huh?” Jack said. She thought he was smiling behind the mask.
“This is pollution?” She’d heard stories of ancient cities – Tokyo, London, Beijing being like this, but they had been inhabited for millennia. Paradijs had only been inhabited for centuries. She’d assumed it had always been borderline inhabitable, not worth the expense of planetary adjustment.
Jack nodded. “Could be worse though I guess.” He made a sound like a giggle. “Give them time.”
Together they draped the ship in the camo, designed to confuse heat, metal and visual sensors. Jack assured her that the netting, in combination with the heat soak of the smog would eliminate any eyes from orbit.
“What if they come in closer?” she asked.
Jack didn’t answer, instead looking up. Eve followed his gaze and realised the silver dollar in the sky, almost half hidden by haze, was Eden. A small, cruel world whose masters were planning abomination the likes of which humanity had never seen.
Her mission had felt so important a moment ago but now she felt insignificant. No matter what happened, Eden would continue to hang in Paradijs’ sky and vice versa, an endless dance together around their sun, unable to be stopped by anything her, or anyone, could do.
“Time to go,” Jack said, pulling her from the reverie. He holstered the Painter on his back then headed up the mountain along a natural track. Eve caught up to him. The mask made it hard to catch her breath and they walked in silence. She didn’t bother asking where they were going. Jack would reveal it when Jack was ready.
Her mind went back to the trip they had taken so far. A double back from the starport to a repair bay then out to a stepping stone planet. There were many other planets and bodies in the stellar system, lots of places to hide, but there was still only one way in and out of the system. Officially anyway.
“What’s the next step in the railroad?” she asked.
Jack’s head snapped toward her, his expression of surprise only half hidden behind the mask. He turned back to watch his footing. “I don’t remember Nathanial being involved in smuggling quite like this.”
Eve smiled. “I’m right then. You do have a railroad. What’s the next station?”
Jack gave a muffled laugh and shook his head. “If you are such a smuggling expert, why aren’t you out there busting smugglers instead of playing with the fire of the PLC?”
Eve didn’t reply. It was a question she had wrestled with many times over the last fifteen years. She always came back to the same answer however. “Just because you don’t want to hide in your father’s shadow doesn’t mean you want to shine a big light on it.”
Jack stopped. He turned, grasped both her shoulders. H stared at her unspeaking. They looked at each other. Then he let go and kept walking. “I think I understand you a bit better now Miss Walters.”
The grade steepened and there was no spare lung capacity for talking. Marbles of rock slipped beneath foot and she had to hold onto pillars of crumbling sedimentary, but she kept up with Jack as they marched ever forward.
The sky darkened and Jack stopped, looking up. Eve followed his gaze. The sun was slipping behind one of the binary pair’s chaotic moons. Jack eased down onto the ground. “Take a break,” he wheezed, the climb clearly affecting him too. “Don’t want to walk up here when we can’t see. Don’t worry it doesn’t last long.”
Eve dropped to the ground and watched behind an outstretched arm. The sky turned a deep brown, edging toward a less irritating black. She could still see her surroundings, but Jack was right, it was best to wait in case there were surprises up ahead.
“It’s not far,” Jack said after a few minutes. “The Tigress is stowed in a cave maybe a kilometre away. Once we’ve got it running we’ll head for Ares. They’re onto the second stage of planetary adjustment so the original base is empty and no one pays it any attention. Except for the science geeks.
“We’ll wait for Paradijs to make its closest approach to Ares – which granted won’t save us much distance, but it might cut a day of in-system travel. We’ll skim the sun as best we can to stay hidden.”
“And from there?” Eve asked.
Jack regarded her. “Then the map.”
Eve inhaled sharply. “You have a map?”
“Of course I have a map. How else did you think I was getting you out of here?”
“I, well, I hoped you did, but PLC reports-”
Jack waved at her. “Propaganda. You think they’re going to advertise it?”
Eve didn’t respond. They had a saying back at the office. If the report comes from the PLC then assume it’s wrong until verified by two independent authorities.
She changed the topic. “So, you never told me why you changed your mind and decided to help me.”
Jack kept staring up at the sky. Eve thought maybe he hadn’t heard her and was about to ask again when he said, “It takes one to know one.”
“That’s what you said to me when we first met. Your bold approach had me on the defensive. It took me a while to click.”
Eve frowned at him. “You knew my father?”
The world lightened and Jack was already on his feet and pulling her up. “Come on. It’s not far but it does get steeper. And colder.”
They were quickly scrabbling up on all fours. Eve’s breaths were coming hard and fast. She had to force long slow breaths despite her heart’s protests, otherwise she’d asphyxiate. The smog trapped the sun’s muggy heat. Sweat clung to her skin yet did little except dehydrate her. The climb devolved into a simple subroutine of movements. Reach with right hand, grand handhold, move left leg, acquire purchase, reach with left hand. She lost track of time but was aware the sun was setting and they had to get off the rock face before dark otherwise they’d be stuck there until morning.
Finally Jack stopped and pointed. “There it is.”
With renewed energy Eve followed Jack toward a patch of darkness and they were into the cave. Moving by touch Jack gingerly stepped to the back of the cave and pressed a button. Compressed air shushed through the cave and a halo of light appeared in the darkness, growing into a full rectangle as the gang plank lowered to the cave floor.
They rushed in and Jack led Eve to the galley and a rack of bottled water. Eve grabbed one, sat down, ripped off the top and glugged it down. It tasted stale, but it was cold and wet and good enough for her.
Someone was shaking her. She flinched, but then breathed deeply. It was Jack. “You fell asleep,” he said, smiling. “It’s almost like you don’t normally spend your days climbing hills.”
“Now who’s the perceptive one?” she said, accepting his offered hand. He pulled her up and they moved to the cockpit.
“Leaving Eden we played it nice and cool, slow and steady. This time we’ll do the opposite. Hit maximum burn until we leave atmos then shut down. If I do the calcs right we should be able to coast to Ares without too many burns in space. Much rather run the engines in atmos where the pollution dims the infra-red.”
Eve just nodded. Jack settled into the pilot’s chair and went through his numbers. He’d probably done it so many times it was automatic – punch in orbital data and out came the time and angle for the burn.
Eve left him to it and explored the ship. It was a decent sized freighter with enough space for a crew of two, three at a pinch and maybe twenty metric cubes of cargo. There were two cargo bays crammed between the fuselage and the nacelles. To an unlearned eye they looked standard, but the container racks had clearly been modified to hold people, rather than cargo in zero-gee. Eve imagined a few cargo containers modified to dispense water and food and the hold would comfortably hold ten to twenty people trying to flee the PLC’s tyranny.
She turned to leave and saw Jack standing in her way. “We’ll stay put for a couple of days,” he said. That way Paradijs itself will be heading toward Ares. Gives us a boost.” He looked over her shoulder. “You like?”
She turned and nodded. “You’ve clearly been doing this awhile.”
He gestured inward. “There’s something in here I thought you might be interested in.”
They were three days into their journey to Ares when the Veeps arrived.
Two of them. Wing and Man. Eve had never seen them this close before. Like an ice cream cone on its side, the scoop of cream all sharp polygon edges. Multiple thrusters in all directions. Ditto guns. Heavy armour too. They only had two weaknesses. One was inertia, the other was battle cruisers, but most people didn’t have one of those up their sleeve.
They pulled into formation on either side of the Tigress. Eve watched from the cockpit, waiting
“Remember,” Jack said. “Whatever happens, just play it cool. You belong here. This is a PLC ship. It belongs in this system, and we aren’t heading for the gate, so we’re not exactly trying to escape.”
“Sure,” Eve said, though her father’s words from her youth came screaming back. Don’t try to outsmart the badge. Just run like fuck.
Static hissed over the comm and then a voice came in with that stuck-up accent of the well-off Pleiaden.
“Freighter, identify yourself.”
“Hi, sure, this is the Light Freighter Trojan Horse,” Jack said, cavalier.
Eve elbowed him in the ribs, mouthed “Trojan Horse?”
The comm hissed again. “Identify your cargo and destination.”
Jack leant back in his pilot chair and activated the comm with a casual flick. “We’re heading to Ares. No idea what the cargo is. Couldn’t care less. You want to know? Come over here and inspect it yourself.”
Eve slapped his hand from the comm switch. “What the hell are you doing?” she breathed. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
Jack’s smile was gone. He leant forward and pushed her extended arm away. “Just leave this to the professionals, eh?” He toggled the comm again. “Look, I’ve got a bunch of engineering nerds hankering for this crap, whatever it is. Do you want to come check it out or not? I’ve got a timetable to keep.”
He pulled his finger back and smiled at her. “People become policeman for one reason: To make themselves feel bigger than everyone else. This kind of person doesn’t want to do a ship search when they’re invited. It takes the fun out of it.”
Eve watched him with raised eyebrows, not quite believing the brash approach. The comm was silent however, which she thought may have been a good sign. Then she gasped. “Who is this ship registered to?”
“The Planetary Adjustment subsidiary of course. Where else do you think I got this idea from? I purchased this ship legally from them, I just, well you know, might not have completed the paperwork. It’s all legit anyway.”
Eve shook her head then returned her gaze to the two ships outside. A single shot from any would cause a ruckus in the ship’s systems. A second would cause fatal damage, a third would probably destroy it. With the proximity of the Veeps she reckoned she’d have about a tenth of a second heads up that she was about to die.
Not terribly encouraging.
Moments passed. Eve felt the tension in her twitching arms, her pulsating heart, her rapid breathing. A tenth of a second, a tenth of a second. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. She needed every fraction of that tenth.
“They’re not going for it,” Eve whispered. “Get us out of here.”
“They’d make us the instant I sent power to the engines. For this particular hand we’re going all-in.”
Eve eyed the ships again. She needed to do something. She just couldn’t sit down waiting while someone decided whether she lived or died. She needed-
A flare outside. Eve screamed.
The Veep veered away, its engine wash as bright as a missile launch.
She almost had to swallow her heart back down to her chest, long gulping breaths to calm it still.
Jack chuckled. “Everyone falls for the Trojan Horse.”
“Because no one would be stupid enough to be that blatant.”
He shrugged. “When everyone says something can’t be done, a little voice inside me tells me to do it anyway.”
Eve smiled, despite herself. The man wasn’t short on confidence. “Is your little voice telling you to get me to Ares?”
The Trojan Horse sliced through the soupy atmosphere of Ares and they landed on an open platform at the original Adjustments base.
Jack stopped at the ship’s door and donned a breather. He passed one to Eve. “The pressure is good outside, you just don’t want that shit in your lungs.”
Eve felt a quip coming on about the shit she had put into her lungs when she was young, but the door whirred open and the moment passed.
The sky was red and burning, like gaseous fire. Standard atmosphere flowed through her lungs but the pressure and the view curdled her stomach. She lowered her gaze to the catwalk ahead. Triangular support structure ran below the walk to the barren ground below. Ahead, Jack had nearly reached the door to the base. He pressed a hand to a console and the door irised open and he stepped through. Eve raced forward and followed him into the airlock. Jack closed the door and the airlock cycle started. A green light flared, the inner door opened and then Jack removed his mask.
“Ok, let’s head to the control room,” he said.
Eve removed her mask, breathed in the air. It felt fresh and clean.
The facility was about twenty years old, Eve guessed, based purely on the style of the place. Empty, bland, a stark grey colour across the floor, walls and ceilings, it was at once both unattractive and hostile, setting her on edge.
Again Jack seemed to know the route from rote, though she suspected a few of the turns were lucky guesses. The corridors all looked the same. If there had ever been anything in the facility to personalise it, it had long gone with everyone else to the second stage Adjustment base.
She paused midstep, something nagging at her, but it was gone and she kept moving.
They entered the control room, a circular space of chairs and control screens and standing space in the middle. Eve glanced at the screens quickly. Atmospheric content and density, rock and mineral spectra, gas bore depth and other such things.
Jack was fiddling at one of the controls. “Ares has a pretty long orbital period. Ideal situation is we wait until it’s at the right part of its orbit to minimise travel distance to the map plus give us a speed boost.”
“How long will that take?” Eve asked, though she figured she could probably guess.
Jack kept typing then turned to her, an embarrassed half grin on his face. “Fifty two days.”
Eve’s jaw dropped as she studied his eyes for the glimmer of a practical joke. No luck. He was serious.
“Fifty two days?” she repeated, still unsure.
“Ideally,” he said, rising.
“That’s a quarter of a Terran year!”
“It’s only half a Paradijs year,” Jack retorted. Then he went serious. “But agreed, we can’t wait that long. We don’t have the supplies for one, but the risk of exposure increases exponentially the longer you stay still.”
Eve nodded. Finally, something she could agree with, not just logically, but deep in her bones. Movement meant life. Always moving, always one step ahead
Jack turned back to the computer. “We could stay here a few weeks. Seventeen days tops, then we have to get moving.
“A fortnight is doable,” Eve said. “As long as you don’t get ideas.”
Jack laughed. An honest laugh. It sounded good. “Well now you’ve jinxed it. You see all my ideas are really just great plans, the groundwork laid long ago. For me to come up with new ideas would take some time, and we only have a fortnight.”
Eve laughed back. She felt the stress flowing out. “You are a true gentlemen.”
A clang beyond the door froze Eve. Jack’s gaze snapped to the door. Eve suddenly realised what had bothered her before. When she had removed her mask the air hadn’t felt musty or old, as if no one had breathed it for many months.
It had felt fresh.
As if someone was still here.
The door to Eve’s right opened.
A man stepped through. His head down studying a pad, he immediately sensed their presence and his head snapped up, long blonde hair bobbing.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. His eyes narrowed, glanced at Jack, turned to Eve. He backed away.
Jack put his hands up. “We’re fucking lost is what we’re doing here.” He stepped forward. “Some sod orders me to come in with a cargo load of converters and I show up and no one is here.”
Blonde stared at Jack, his feet spreading for stability. The silence built. Eve moved her own feet, inching closer.
Blonde squared his stance toward Jack, clear confrontational body language. “What kind of converters?”
Jack mirrored the stance, put his hands on his hips. “Catalytic converters.”
“Of course,” Blonde said. They continued to stand off, neither moving, gazes locked on each other. Eve could feel the testosterone flaring from both sources, like magnet poles trying to push each other through invisible forces.
Eve was ready.
Blonde dived for an alarm console to his right, but Eve swung her leg forward, crashing into his genitals, dropping him to a knee.
Jack was already running and when Blonde got back to his feet to reach the alarm, Jack crash tackled him through the open door. They hit the corridor floor, fists already flying. Jack was on top. He slammed his fist down, pulled back his other, then jerked and rolled sideways as Blonde snap punched his throat.
Jack kept rolling, his gasping echoing through the corridor. Blonde jumped up, swung his foot out, missed Jack by millimetres.
Eve ran in behind Blonde as he swung again. Eve grabbed the long blonde locks and yanked his head back as he swung. He spun around his centre of gravity and dropped to his back.
Jack was back on his feet, but staggering. He dropped onto Blonde, a knee either side of his head, locking his neck between his legs. Gasping for air, Jack launched a fist down into Blonde’s nose.
The explosion of blood followed the snap of cartilage and Blonde was still.
Jack rolled off the limp body and lay there sucking in air, rubbing his purpling throat.
“Son of a bitch nearly killed me,” Jack gasped, the words a struggle, as if he were breathing through a straw, which in some ways he was. “’the fuck kind of scientists they hiring?”
Eve glanced at the Pad that hadn’t left her person since she’d escaped Eden and the data that had made her public enemy number one. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
He lifted an arm and Eve helped him up. He leant against the wall, still wheezing, doubled over. He stayed that way for a minute, then gulped in another breath and kicked Blonde in the head. Then he leant back on the wall for another breather.
“So,” Eve began. “Catalytic Converters, huh?”
Jack shrugged. “I panicked.” He pushed off the wall. “We’d better get going.”
Eve looked at both of them. One was a dead weight, the other a liability. She wasn’t sure which was which. “What do we do with him?”
“Probably best not to kill him,” Jack breathed, straightening up a touch. “Find a closet to lock him in, smash the controls.”
Eve eyed Blonde. He was actually well built, probably pushing ninety kays. Jack was barely upright, she’d have to do the heavy lifting. “Does it matter? As soon as he doesn’t check in we’re screwed.”
“Better they find him than he alerts them,” he said. He grabbed one of Blonde’s arms. “Now suck it up and help me.”
They manhandled Blonde into a locker and fritzed the controls. Jack was breathing hard by then, his throat a fireworks of purples and reds. She helped him across the external catwalk and back into the Trojan Horse.
She settled him into the pilot’s chair. “Are you going to be able to fly?”
Jack grinned, then grimaced, coughing. “Honey, I’ve flown this rig whilst mostly dead. I can handle only half dead.” He fired up the ship, and was half way through his pre-flight when he swore. “How long were we in there?”
Eve shrugged from the co-pilots seat. “An hour and a half?”
Jack’s eyes glazed over and Eve thought he was about to pass out but they hardened again. He shook his head. “We’ll have to risk it.”
“Our re-entry would have caused local warming of the air. If we take off again before it disperses it might register on the Adjustment sensors.”
“They can’t be that sensitive.”
“They’re trying to rebuild an entire world. You need a high level of accuracy for that.”
He pulled back on the controls and they jarred free from the surface. The world tilted around as Jack pushed them nearly vertical and blasted up through the sky. Eve pulled up the rear view and watched the engine plume run bright but quickly lost in the red atmosphere. Soon even that faded to black and they were in space, their exhaust a neon sign to anyone watching.
Jack arced the Trojan Horse back around the planet as if trying to catch orbit, but he kept accelerating.
“Slingshot?” Eve asked.
Jack nodded. “Aye. A rough one, but it should give us a boost.”
The ship shuddered as it brushed the upper atmosphere. The planet hung just above them. The engines screamed, a steady vibration through the ship, soon eclipsed from the shaking of the manoeuvre. Around they went, keeping a steady distance from the planet so it looked like they were making little progress, but the speedometer kept climbing and then they were away, the shaking diminishing to the simple thrum of the engine.
“Where are we heading now?” Eve asked once the noise had dropped.
“Kuiper Belt,” Jack said. “That’s where the Map is. At least the Map I know of.”
“That’s pretty far out,” Eve said, thinking travel time, exposure to risk.
“Has to be. Any closer the PLC would find it.” He shrugged. “It’s a blessing and a curse. Its orbital period around the star is so long that for all intents and purposes it’s stationary. But eventually a pattern of flight paths will emerge that the PLC might be able to figure out.” He checked something on the display. “I’ll make a course correction once we hit the asteroid belt, then we turn off and coast and we should be home free.”
The All-Points-Bulletin was broadcast across the stellar system later that day. Blonde had either been discovered, or he’d escaped, and now the entire Pleiades Corporation was hunting them.
They made it to the asteroid belt without seeing another living being. A good omen. Jack navigated the belt, changed course then powered down the engine.
“And we’re sailing,” he said with a grin. “Like the boats of ancient Earth, drifting across the darkest sea on the whim of the winds.”
Eve looked sideways at him, an eyebrow raised. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Just making conversation,” he said. But Eve knew he was trying to keep her distracted. This next part of the trip had the highest risk. “So do I get to know what all this trouble was about?” he asked.
“You found out something the PLC didn’t want you to know. Are you going to share it with me?”
Eve reflexively reached for the PAD. She wasn’t sure what to say, or where to start. In truth it was so incredulous a small portion of her mind still struggled to believe it was true.
“All employees of the Pleiades Corporation sign a waiver,” she began.
“I’ve seen it,” Jack said. “I’ve helped some people tear theirs up once they were out of this stellar system.”
Eve nodded. “Yes, well that waiver pretty much gives up any rights they have, and allows the Corporation to do what they please, including experimentation.”
Jack scoffed. “Everyone knows that. Slight alterations to help workers at their chosen field: Miners stronger, ship builders better muscle retention in zero gee and resistance to radiation. The whole of Shallow Space wants to kick them out of the Imperium for breaking the Eugenics Accord, but they have their sway with the Emperor.”
Eve shook her head. “No, that’s not it at all. They aren’t slight alterations. That blonde scientist didn’t need to have the bulk he had did he? He was a Mod.
“But that’s not the story. The story isn’t that the Corporation is altering a gene here, improving work production there. That’s just practice on their stock animals.
“Their end game is the real story.”
Jack had been watching her while she spoke. He stared another moment then nodded. “Ok, I’ll bite. What is their end game?”
“To combine all these different alterations they have perfected into a single person to create Uber Soldat. A super soldier. Their weapon to destroy the Imperium and take over Shallow Space.”
“You’re shitting me,” Jack said, his pupils dilated, his mouth stretched in an almost smile, as if waiting for Eve’s confirmation it was a joke.
“I’m not shitting you Jack,” Eve said. “It’s all right here. As soon as the Pleiades Corporation lost the Race for the Blankicite they have been developing this weapon, hiding it in plain sight.
“Imagine going into battle against a man with better accuracy, stronger muscles, faster reflexes, greater stamina and an ability to handle hotter and colder temperatures than you.”
“I don’t generally care to get involved in battles,” Jack said, turning back to the controls, but Eve could see her talk had shaken him. “But I imagine such super soldiers would also be equipped with the best weapons available, which all happen to be made by the Pleiades Corporation.”
“Now you’re getting it. Through economics, PLC are putting themselves in the perfect place to take over the entire human race. That’s why this information needs to get out. The Imperium needs to know and needs to act before PLC can complete their work.”
Jack didn’t reply. Eve didn’t know what he could say. She’d been over it a dozen times and still didn’t know what to say about it. All she knew was that the people needed to know and that Jack was the only man that could make that happen.
“Your turn,” Eve said after a while. “You said you knew my father, that you repaid your debts. What happened?”
Jack didn’t respond immediately, then his mouth moved as if he were tasting out words. “No story really,” he said. “Nothing like your whopper. No super soldiers or anything.”
Eve smiled. An attempt at a joke which served as delaying tactic. Jack was uncomfortable.
“We were both working the Oberon system during the early stages of their civil war. Smuggling weapons in, keeping an eye on the smugglers of the other side. Nathanial and I were competitors. We’d had a few run ins, a few choice words exchanged, but nothing too serious. Neither of us were in it for combat.
“Anyway, I had been caught out by the Navy. I was adrift but powerless. Your dad found me. He saved me. When I asked why he said because he was human, and then with a smile, all smugglers are friends against the Confederation Navy.”
Eve was smiling. That sounded just like her father.
The ship fell into silence as they sailed across the system. Days passed with little conversation. Eve spent most of it writing her report. She wanted it broadcast to the universe the second she stepped into The Guardian’s offices.
Eve was back in the co-pilot seat when the first of the Kuiper belt objects flashed past.
Jack leant forward and reengaged the engines. “Now we have to do a little needle searching in the haystack.”
Eve frowned. “You don’t have a, you know, a map?”
“Of course not. Maps can be copied, hacked or stolen. My brain is safe.” Jack saw Eve’s raised eyebrow. “Relatively speaking.”
He swung the Trojan Horse around. I plotted a pretty good course. We’re in the right place, I just have to find my markers.”
“That’s right. Not all Kuiper objects are the same. And some have had been shaped. . . artificially.”
Eve snapped her fingers. “So instead of a map, you have breadcrumbs?”
It took them less than an hour to find the first marker, then Jack had his bearings and he sped up.
They passed hundreds of asteroids and lumps of rock, some smaller then her hand, many larger than the ship itself. But then they thinned out and they were there.
“There she is,” Jack said, pointing, a hint of pride in his voice. “One highly illegal Map.”
Eve stared out the window at the ‘Map’.
In reality it was just a small, simple jump gate.
She remembered the first time her father had taken her to a Map. She’d wondered why it was called that. A map, she thought, showed someone how to get from Point A to Point B. A jumpgate merely transported someone from Point A to Point B. Her father agreed, but by calling them maps the Navy would search, subconsciously at least, for waypoints or other constructs that might form a real map. They’d never find what they were actually looking for.
The Map ahead of her looked cobbled together from left overs and appropriated parts. There was carbon scoring and dings from impacts but it otherwise looked OK. Whether it would actually work or not was another question. It didn’t even look big enough to fit the Trojan Horse, but clearly Jack had done this before.
“They say that after the Battle of Pleiades the Emperor ordered His Special Envoy to construct secret Maps to all member systems of Shallow Space to provide covert access as needed.
Eve laughed. “You’re getting bed time stories mixed up. The Special Envoy doesn’t exist.”
Jack just shrugged. “Anyway, all I have to do is send a boot up signal and–”
The Map exploded.
There was no noise, no shudder, just a flash of light and then the Map was gone, a wall of debris in its place.
Jack stared for a moment, eyes wide, face blanched. He looked frozen. Eve shook his shoulder. “Ambush! Scramble!” Eve didn’t know if Jack had had formal naval training or not, but an ex-TCN pilot, now smuggler would respond to that command.
Jack jerked back to reality and thrust the Trojan Horse down out of the ecliptic.
The radar filled with blips moments before space exploded around them. A stream of rail pellets swarmed past, Jack nudging them away at the last moment.
“How the hell did they find us,” he yelled. “They can’t be tracking us. This ship is clean-”
He threw the controls in the opposite direction. A KBO flashed past, nearly wiping them out. On the other side a Veep swerved away. Eve caught a glimpse of two more and at least a dozen other smaller ships. This was a full on ambush.
“They couldn’t have traced my trajectory,” Jack continued. Eve wasn’t sure if he was yelling at her or at the universe. All she could do was focus on not throwing up as the g-forces rocked her every which way.
A pair of smaller ships – regular police perhaps, screamed past, a torrent firing from their machine guns. The Trojan Horse rocked and bucked from the assault, the impacts a hurricane of lead.
“I did everything right. Everything like last time. The only difference was. . .” His head snapped around, his gaze locking on Eve. No, on her datapad.
“You idiot!” he yelled, making to grab the datapad, then yanking on the controls as a missile swooped past and crashed into a KBO.
“They’ve bugged your data!” he yelled. “They’ve known exactly where you were since you got it! A bloody Trojan horse. On board the Trojan Horse. Those ironic bastards!”
Eve raised the pad to her gaze, her mouth gaping, horror filling the pit in her stomach. A bunch of 1’s and 0’s on a crystal wafer and somehow it led the PLC straight to them. And now they were going to die.
Jack threw the Trojan Horse through another curve. “If I can get enough KBO’s between me and them, we may have a chance.”
Eve’s mind was elsewhere. “Do you have your own PAD?”
Eve unbuckled, crashed to the floor as Jack pulled another turn, and pulled herself forward. She found the PAD, belted into the nearest seat and began furiously typing.
To whoever finds this: Please ensure it gets to the offices of The Guardian anywhere in the Imperium where the truth is valued. Make sure the people find out what the PLC are up to. Make sure they prepare. Make sure they know the truth.
Eve Walters, Reporter.
The ship slammed downward, as if punched by a dietic fist. Klaxons screamed. The light dimmed. The roar of the air conditioners putted out. Impacts sung a song against the hull, the tempo increasing.
“We’re in trouble,” Jack yelled.
Eve kept typing. She couldn’t copy over the data. The legitimate documents, the proof. None of it. All she could do was summarise.
Hopefully it would be enough.
She unbuckled, ran for the escape pod. There was no escaping this. She knew how the PLC worked. The only thing that might escape today was the truth. She dumped her bugged PAD into the escape pod and launched it.
It whooshed away silently, engines pulsing, then dying, drifting, turning-
Then it exploded, pulses of plasma ripping through it.
Eve shied away, then struggled back to the cockpit. “Bug’s gone,” she said. Might be easier to get away from them now.
Jack was sweating. His hands looked slick on the controls. He was white. “Get away where?” There’s only one other jump gate in this system now and they control it.” He was shaking.
Eve placed her hand on his. He hadn’t signed up for death. Eve hadn’t either, but she was attempting to take solace in the fact that her death might mean something. Jack didn’t have that. “I need you to get away from them enough for me dump the unbugged PAD. Then one day someone will find it and the truth will get out. That’s what we’re fighting for now Jack. Can you do it?”
Jack straightened. A goal was a goal, she knew. Jack swung them around KBOs and the pattering on the hull lessened. “Get ready,” Jack said. We should be in the clear in about-” he stopped as he just pulled up and over a KBO – “twenty seconds.”
Eve rushed to the back. There was a secondary airlock or dumping small items. Waste canisters, rubbish, etc. It was the perfect size for the PAD. She placed in it, sealed it, waited.
“Now,” Jack yelled. Eve slammed the button down and the PAD shot away, disappearing into the black. She watched, waiting or an explosion, but there was simply nothing.
Victorious, she returned to the cockpit.
Just as a VEEP appeared before them.
A missile launched from it, heading straight for them.
They watched it for a moment, dumbstruck.
“I think your dad is going to owe me after this,” Jack said numbly.
“I think so too,” Eve said, taking his hand. What else could she say? The missile hit the cockpit and detonated, destroying the Trojan Horse.