Chapter 5: Bright Crater Diagnosis
Chapter 5: Bright Crater Diagnosis
The job hasn’t changed in centuries. Not one bit. Sure we have to deal with a few different scenarios in the colonies than cops did a couple centuries ago, but it’s really all the same. Criminal syndicates. Human trafficking. Petty hatred.
My pops would have called it sin. I call it evil.
Men are just wild animals after all.
No, Moses didn’t really change things. God help him, he tried, but not even the great mind of AI could straighten us out. We had thousands of years of inertia in our favor. Moses just had one century. Truth is, we were too mighty a force for him.
Maybe he could have done things a little differently. Fixed us through brute force. Taken away our freedom and our will. Put all of us law enforcement out of a job permanently. With all the hell I’ve seen of humanity’s underbelly, there’s a dark attraction there. Peace at the expense of freedom.
But that’s always been the siren call, hasn’t it?
Guess it wasn’t in Moses’ nature. He called it right either way. He’s gone and all of us in law enforcement still have a job.
Police Commissioner of Freeport 13
Died 34 AM
An alarm buzzed, and Matthew slapped it and rolled out of bed, blinking the sleep away from his eyes. He had been dreaming about running on top of a never-ending train, chasing someone that always kept just out of reach. This was the second night in a row he had had that particular dream.
“Beats the showing up for a job naked thing, I guess.”
He pulled his clothes on and opened the door. Across the hall, the door to the room he had lent Sharon was still closed and the light down in the common room still off. She took every opportunity she could to sleep in. Cole had noticed this on the first day out from Mars. Weird habit for a freelancer, but who was he to judge.
Breakfast was cold oatmeal washed down with a cup of black coffee. He left the box out for Sharon and climbed down the ladder into the hold. Six enormous shipping containers filled the space. Matthew checked the status monitor on each one of them, mostly out of habit. Nothing could have happened to them overnight, but he went about his routine anyway. Green lights shone on all of them, refrigerated and airtight. He’d managed to snag a cargo job on the way out of Mars, pharmaceuticals destined for a supplier on Ceres. Stepping around Sharon’s over-sized grav bike, he climbed back up the ladder. She’d been adamant that they bring it with them, insisting it would be easier for her to get around and important to have in case something happened.
Knowing Ceres, he couldn’t blame her.
He passed by the cabins again and rapped the back of his hand on Sharon’s door. “We’ll be there in under an hour. Might want to rejoin the land of the living.” He poured a second cup of coffee on his way to the cockpit and finished up his morning routine of making sure all systems were good to go.
Twenty minutes later, he frowned and turned his head back down the hall. Sharon still hadn’t made an appearance. He pounded on the door again. “You got half an hour and if you don’t get up soon, I’m going to finish the coffee.”
Her muffled voice rang through the door. “Calm down. And that black stuff you drink doesn’t even resemble coffee.”
“It’s closer than the sugary sludge you like.”
Just before they reached Ceres, she joined him in the cockpit, already suited up for the day. Matthew thought it was odd that she literally never took the thing off. Secretly he wondered if she slept in it, but he’d already learned that questions about the armor were a non-starter.
She leaned against the door frame. “You know I had my own alarm set. I didn’t have any reason to get up so early. What did I miss? Besides nothing.”
“Stimulating conversation with myself. Hold on, disengaging the frameshift.” He cut power to the device and their speed reverted to just under ten thousand miles an hour. Turning back to the main console, he took the flight yoke and spun the Sparrow one hundred eighty degrees and fired up the main engines to begin shedding their speed. After several minutes of burn, he cut the thrusters and turned back around to face Ceres, now cruising along at less than a thousand miles per hour.
Sharon looked at the scene out the front canopy and whistled. Offhand, Matthew had to agree with the sentiment. Ceres was a mess of activity like usual. The dwarf planet’s surface was littered with cities, factories, mines and more. Scopes read ships everywhere as they went about their business. Dozens of asteroids that had been frameshifted into Ceres’ orbit over a century ago for mining were also hives of activity.
“Welcome to the worst port of call in the solar system,” Matthew said gesturing at the dwarf planet. “I try to keep my distance, but what can I say, I’m easily talked into things.”
“Sorry,” Sharon said, pushing a dark curl behind her ear. “Europa’s probably a lot quieter than Ceres.”
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at her out of the side of his eye. “Who said I’m from Europa?” he said as he finished inserting the Sparrow into orbit. “Flagstaff born and raised.”
“Come on Cole. I’m not dumb. Considering how insistent you are about the whole gaucho thing, I think it’s a safe guess you’ve spent a fair amount of time on Europa.”
For a moment he let the statement hang, then decided it wasn’t worth ignoring. “It’s peaceful, so long as you avoid the cartels. Let’s just say I’m keeping my distance for now.”
Sharon nodded. “I see. Well, I can’t go home either, so I know how that goes.” He turned to face her again, but she was already walking away from the cockpit. “Don’t bother asking,” she said over her shoulder.
Matthew laughed to himself and turned his attention back to Ceres. Over the next twenty-five minutes, he brought the Sparrow out of orbit and down to one of the larger cities. The contract had specified a private landing pad on the outskirts of town, probably to avoid attracting attention. Pharmaceuticals were high-value cargo, and it never hurt to be too cautious these days.
Abigail checked their location one more time on a map before heading to the hold. Cole had chosen this job because the earthtech tinker she knew lived on the south side of Bright Crater City. It had been surprisingly decent of him, but then Abigail figured that he was a lot more decent of a man than he let on to the outside world. She climbed down the ladder to the hold, where Cole was checking his cargo one last time.
“You got everything squared away?” she asked.
He nodded. “Receiver should have the heavy equipment to unload. I’m just here to make sure they don’t break anything and get paid. Go ahead. Go get that knee looked at.”
She pushed her grav bike over onto the lift and punched the button to lower it. “I’ll comm you when I’m done,” she said as they were lowered to the ground.
“Sounds good. Don’t forget. We are on Ceres.”
Abigail rolled her eyes. “I can take care of myself, I’m a big girl.” He stood above her with his arms crossed.
“I know, I just meant be careful until you’re back to a hundred percent.”
She mock saluted him. “Yes, sir.” Without another word, she mounted her bike, fired the engines, and took off towards the nearest entrance tunnel.
Ceres was designed a little differently than most of the other colonized rocks. So many people were spread out over so great an area that it wasn’t cost efficient to close cities in under environmental shields, despite the psychological benefits of being able to walk under an open sky. Nearly everyone lived underground, with only the fanciest buildings breaking the crust to pierce the cold, airless sky. Abigail exited the tunnel and entered a vast underground canyon cut by enormous excavators long ago. A road of busy traffic ran along the floor, while the sides were covered in buildings built both into and onto the canyon wall. Ramshackle sheet metal dwellings hung precariously over the road, bolted into the sheer rock walls. Abigail wondered if they ever fell.
It took her over two hours to cross town, weaving from one densely populated canyon to the next, fighting for her spot in traffic against both grav and ground vehicles. She’d hit the roads at the wrong time, local rush hour from the look of things. All the while, the city around her grew seedier and seedier.
Cole’s warning wasn’t exactly unfounded. Ceres was as lawless a rock as there ever was. Its proper government had collapsed decades ago, shortly after the wars on Earth. Now, regions were ruled by judges who had near complete power over their territory. Some were businessmen, some were warlords, and others were politicians. All of them were concerned with two things. Keeping their own position and keeping their territory functioning. The only thing that kept them in check was their own citizenry. It wasn’t uncommon for a judge to get assassinated if they stepped too far out of bounds.
Crime was high since the judges didn’t have an awful lot to spend on security forces, that is if they weren’t outright involved in criminal activities. Ceres was also home to two of the three largest crime syndicates in the solar system.
Abigail found herself in the worst part of Bright Crater City, the kind where everyone you met was either part of the problem or a victim of it. Sometimes it was hard to tell where the line was between those two and a lot were a bit of both.
She found the tired curiosity shop on a lower-level side tunnel. The street was half filled with trash and piles of rubble. A flickering neon sign that read Ivan’s hung above an old-fashioned revolving door. That alone let any potential customers know what they were getting themselves into.
Entering Ivan’s shop was like stepping back in time, only you couldn’t quite tell what time you had arrived at. The moment Abigail pushed through the revolving door, an earthtech gun turret tracked her motion from the ten-foot ceiling. A single red eye on the machine let any and all know that it meant deadly business and that they were to behave. She didn’t know quite what would trigger the weapon to defend its master, and she hoped to never find out. The walls and shelves were littered with trinkets, memorabilia, and old tech from previous centuries. Ancient wooden cuckoo clocks faithfully ticked away time, marking each passing second. A case of old rifles, probably dating from before the European World Wars hung proudly on the wall. Another shelf was loaded with computers from every era of their use, ranging from modern to earthtech to laughably old and quaint.
Ivan himself was nowhere to be seen. Abigail glanced up at the gun turret still tracking her movements. He must have trusted that thing implicitly. Knowing him, he was probably elbow-deep in some project in the back of the shop. Not having anything better to do, she browsed the shelves of odds and ends.
She’d been at it for only a few minutes when a lightly accented voice called out to her. “Ms. Sharon! Ms. Sharon! To what do I owe the explicit pleasure of you gracing me with the presence of that wonderful suit of yours?” Ivan stood in the doorway to his shop. The man was tall and extremely slender and was dressed in a tailcoat and bowtie. He also sported the bushiest and most ridiculous grey mutton chops that Abigail had ever seen.
She picked up a dusty black box and examined it. “Repair work Ivan. Took a bullet to the knee. Rifle. The guy was a good shot. I’m hoping you can do something with it.” She flipped the device over and shrugged. “What is this?”
“VCR. Put it down. It’s very rare.”
She set it back on the shelf and walked towards him, acutely aware of her damaged knee. The tinker’s eyes were already watching her slow movements. “You know how it pains me that you take that beautiful piece of earthtech into fights. One day you may lose it and the universe will lose something precious.”
“Yeah, it will lose me,” she said. “Honestly, Ivan, you could stand to lose the creepy machine man shtick. It’s weird and I bet it chases off customers.”
He laughed. “Nonsense. My customers are either fellow collectors or owners of rare technology that have no clue how to service it. They’re either like me or they need me. Come. Let’s take a look at your marvelous knee.” He held the door open to the workshop and gestured politely with a distant smile. “Oh! And Sparky?” The gun turret turned its red eye to its owner. “Keep an eye on things will you?” The turret turned back to the door, resuming its tireless vigil.
Ivan’s workshop was neat and orderly, far more so than the storefront. The front was merely play, but here, where he worked on his machines, was serious business. He took off his tailcoat and hung it on a rack, revealing his earthtech prosthetic arm. Abigail had always wondered if it was from an old injury or if he had amputated his own arm just for the fun of it. She had always been afraid to ask because she was quite sure the answer was almost certainly the latter.
“Now then, come stand in the light Ms. Sharon. Let me see the damage.”
She obeyed and he stooped to examine the knee. His hands probed the bullet hole and the surrounding area. Abigail felt his touch, relayed to her brain via the implant in her spine. It was distant and cold, not at all like the feel of her own skin, but it was just enough to allow her to feel the environment around her while suited. Thankfully the sensations capped off quickly. The impact of the bullet caused her less pain than jamming a finger.
“Well doc, what’s the prognosis. Am I gonna be okay?”
“Hmm…” he said thoughtfully. “I can’t tell for sure, but it looks like none of the mechanisms are damaged. I believe the joint’s housing has been bent. It seems to be applying pressure where it should not.”
Abigail breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The inevitable day that she did permanent damage had not yet come. “What’s it going to cost and how long will it take?”
“More than you want and not as long as you think,” Ivan said. “The biggest difficulty will be exposing the housing. I’m afraid I shall have to disassemble half the leg.” He looked up at her and raised one of his bushy eyebrows. “I’m afraid you’ll have to unsuit for this particular surgery.”
She bit her lip in annoyance. “I was afraid of that. Alright, I guess I don’t have a choice.” She walked over to a bench and knelt beside it. “Come over here. I may need a hand.”
Frowning, he walked over to her. “I’m intrigued, puzzled even.”
She put her suit on follow mode. A child could now lead it by the hand and pose it like the world’s largest doll. She cracked the back of the exo-suit open and pulled her arms out. “It’s a little tough to extricate myself from this thing without something to grab,” she explained. “When I said I needed a hand I meant it literally.”
Abigail gripped Ivan’s hand and pulled herself out onto the bench, feeling small and exposed. She gestured to her now empty exo-suit. “Do your thing. I’m not paying you for nothing.”
Matthew’s business went exactly as expected, which considering the track record of his last few jobs, felt like a small miracle. Cargo runs weren’t exactly going to make you rich, but they turned a small profit and got you to the next spaceport. By the time the shipping containers had been offloaded, inventory taken, and accounts settled, a couple hours had passed. He checked the comm in the cockpit to make sure he hadn’t missed any messages from Sharon. Surely it would take her a little longer to get the knee repaired.
Which left him some time to himself. He thought about pulling up the local freelancer board, see if there were any easy jobs he could spend the afternoon on, but as soon as he flipped on the monitor, he decided against it. All work and no play was pretty much the freelancer mantra, and it often ended in death. Matthew had a better idea.
Pulling up the local network he put in a search for the place he was looking for.
An hour later he was riding an elevator up into one of the many towers that pierced the surface. Its glass window gave an unobstructed view of the dead landscape of the dwarf planet, broken up only by silhouettes where the subterranean city showed its uppermost levels. The elevator came to a stop and the door opened into the finest steakhouse in Bright Crater.
Matthew’s first instinct when he saw the fountain with goldfish was that he was underdressed. His second instinct was that he didn’t care. The hostess gave him a funny look, and he looked down at his poncho, dusted it off, and shrugged with a smile. Despite having very visible doubts about him, she sat him at a small table near a window overlooking the city.
He tapped his toes in boredom as he waited for his server. When at last the tuxedoed man approached his table, Matthew just smiled. “Bring the finest ribeye you have, cooked to the chef’s recommendations. Oh, and a cherry soda.”
The waiter wrote the order down, then eyed Matthew. “Sir, are you sure you can afford this? This is a very nice restaurant and I wouldn’t want…”
Matthew clinked a stack of heavy coins on the table then pocketed them.
“Very well, sir.”
The server retreated, leaving Matthew alone and soon bored. He was unused to the feeling. “I’ve been fine by myself for a decade,” he muttered in annoyance. “Now after a week of working with someone I can’t handle a solitary afternoon.”
He looked around the room to find something to keep his attention. At the table next to him sat a youngish man dressed in a white coat that matched his pasty skin. Something about him didn’t sit right with Matthew, and it wasn’t just his sense of fashion. Across from the man, a middle aged black woman with streaks of silver in her hair was clearly unhappy to be at the same table, though she made a valiant attempt at covering it with a smile. The man, on the other hand, had a dreamy look in his eye. That was what Matthew didn’t like.
Kid was in over his head. The older woman wasn’t interested in what he was selling. Matthew shook his head. Some people were just oblivious to anything outside their own fantasies.
Matthew’s steak was delivered with a potato and salad. He sliced into the piece of meat, and his eyes practically watered at the smell of it. It had been at least five or six years since he’d had anything but vat-grown . Not that there was anything wrong with vat-grown. It tasted perfectly fine, but the texture just never lived up to the real thing.
His comm beeped and with a sigh of frustration he pulled it out. Sharon. “What do you want?”
“My, aren’t we cranky,” she retorted.
“You’re interrupting my steak dinner.”
“Sorry. Was just going to update you. I’m still sitting here watching my armor get repaired. It shouldn’t be all that much longer. I guess you’re not at the Sparrow anyway so it doesn’t really matter.”
Matthew took a bite of his prized meal and closed his eyes savoring it. “So you’re telling me that you’re not in your armor right now? I thought you would wear it until you died.”
“Funny. The tinker had to disassemble the entire leg to get to the damaged part.”
“Either that or you’re an amputated head hooked into a suit.”
She didn’t even try and hide the sigh of exasperation. “Okay. I think we’re done here. I guess I’ll check in when I leave.” There was a click as the connection was cut. Matthew shrugged and set about to enjoy his meal.
He had nearly finished when there was a sudden commotion at the table next to him. The creepy man was down on one knee and appeared to be proposing to the woman. Matthew was curious and slightly horrified at what was happening, though he pretended not to stare.
The woman’s face was severe. “Get up and stop embarrassing yourself. You know what my answer must be.”
Matthew couldn’t help but feel a pang of pity for him. Somewhere seated in the heart of every man is the fear of such a rejection, such a dismissal by the one whose attention you crave the most. It wasn’t pleasant to watch.
His pity was short lived because the man stood and slapped the woman across the face.
Matthew’s hands automatically clenched into fists, but he gave it a five count to see how the woman responded. She glared at her suitor, saying nothing.
Without really knowing what he was doing, Matthew found himself standing behind the jerk. Now that he was here, he didn’t find it all that hard a decision.
He tapped the man’s shoulder. “You know, it’s not polite to lay hands on a lady. Ever.”
As the man turned to face him, Matthew drove his fist into his jaw. He heard the crack, felt it give as the bone broke. The man dropped to the floor, either out cold, too surprised to react, or too afraid to even try. Matthew suspected the latter.
Matthew brushed his hands off and turned to the lady to tip his campero.
The look of fear in her eye stopped him cold. “You idiot. His bodyguard!”
Well that complicated things. The man on the floor may have been scum, he may have not understood the first thing about women, but he was apparently important.
Matthew grabbed a plate off the woman’s table and spun just in time to see a man drawing a weapon at a nearby table. He threw the plate at the thug, catching him in the chest, then charged him, grabbing a second plate from another table. The bodyguard had barely begun to recover from the first assault before Matthew smashed the expensive flatware across his face.
He dropped just as hard as his employer had. Matthew spun around to get his bearings. While every eye in the restaurant was on him, no one else appeared to be making a move. Okay. He was important enough to have one bodyguard but thankfully no more.
Matthew walked back to the woman and tipped his campero a second time.
She just shook her head. “You don’t have a clue what you just did. I appreciate the concern, but you’ve gotten involved in something you want no part in.”
Maybe you can’t judge the importance of a man by the number of bodyguards that follow him, Matthew thought acridly. He rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I’m hoping that you’re not about to tell me he’s some kind of gangster.”
The corner of the woman’s mouth crept upward in a sad smile. “White Void Syndicate. My friend here, who goes by the name Piggy, is the local Strongarm.”
Matthew wasn’t quite sure he appreciated the humor of the moment like she did. “Tengo mala leche,” he muttered. “Well, that’s the worst thing I’ve heard all day. I’m guessing that your friend, Piggy, isn’t the forgiving type.”
“He’s not the problem,” she replied softly. “White Void knows me and will mark me for dead after this, and if they can identify you, you’ll be on that list too.”
“Then I think it’s best we leave,” Matthew fumbled into his pocket for a handful of large denomination coins to pay for his meal, tip, and an apology for the commotion. He parted with far more money then he wanted, but, given that waiting around to get change wasn’t the wisest idea, he set the pile on the table. “Share an elevator?” he asked gesturing towards the exit. The number of eyes on him still made him uncomfortable. Even if White Void didn’t have any more goons nearby, somebody would talk. The less of a look they got at him, the better.
The woman nodded and followed him. The waiter approached her briefly, but she shook her head. “My date will be paying once he awakens. He appears to be indisposed at the moment.”
They left without another word. The short wait for the elevator was agonizing. When at last they were safely aboard and traveling back towards the surface of Ceres, Matthew turned to the woman and asked the obvious question. “So what now?”
“I pack up and leave. Staying here will only get me killed.” She gave him a stern look. “I suggest you do the same.”
He sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t know he was White Void, I just… did what seemed decent.”
“You have nothing to apologize for. If more people did what seemed decent, then perhaps the solar system wouldn’t be in its current sad state of affairs.”
He adjusted his campero nervously. “I still owe you. Got you into a problem and now I have to help you out of it. Name’s Matthew Cole. I’m a freelancer. I’ve got a ship. I’ll give you a ride just about anywhere you want to go.”
The older woman gave him a soft smile and then nodded once. “I accept, Mr. Cole.” She offered him a hand to shake. “Yvonne Naude.”
“Wish I could say we were meeting under better circumstances, Ms. Naude,” he replied as the door to the elevator opened to a parking garage.
“Yvonne is fine. I’m not that old.”
“Right. Come on. My bike is this way. I’ll give you a ride to my ship.”
They walked at the fastest pace that Matthew thought wouldn’t look suspicious. Thankfully the garage was mostly deserted. Reaching the bike, he hopped on and tightened the strap on his campero. “Let’s go. Ceres ain’t too friendly anymore.”
Yvonne hesitated. “Can you take me by my apartment first?”
He frowned. “Longer we wait, the more likely White Void catches up to us. I get the feeling your apartment will be on the shortlist of places they look for you.”
There was a quiet insistence in her voice that cut through Matthew’s defenses. He didn’t like it. But he was going to do it.
“Get on. We better hurry.”
Abigail had just finished closing up her suit and was testing her refurbished knee by walking around Ivan’s workshop when her comm buzzed.
“Oh hey, Sharon. What’s your time on getting back to the ship?”
“I’m finishing up here. Traffic should be lighter now so it won’t take nearly as long to get back.” She paused, suddenly suspicious. “Why?”
“Complication. I know we talked about sticking around Ceres for a bit and doing a few jobs before heading back to Mars, but I might have accidentally crossed paths with the White Void syndicate.”
“Cole are you insane? That’s one of the big three!”
“We can talk about it later. I’ve got a passenger with me and we’ve got to make a stop first. Just be at the Sparrow ready to go or you’re going to be on Ceres for the foreseeable future.”
She rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t leave me.”
The comm was silent for a minute. “That’s not the point,” he concluded lamely. “Just hurry.”
She cut the comm and turned to Ivan. “Knee feels good. You’re the best, as usual.”
“Yes, I am, but flattery doesn’t get discounts. You know my rates.”
Abigail sighed and opened up a compartment on her arm and pulled out a handful of coins. “You know, one of these days, you’ll grow a heart and cut me some slack.”
“And one of these days you’ll stop taking that beautiful piece of earthtech into dangerous situations,” he countered as he donned his tailcoat again. “Given your rather unique situation, you should take better care of it.”
She gave him a hard look but decided not to take the bait. “Girl’s gotta make a living.”
Ivan shrugged politely and extended a hand. “And so do I.”
She paid him, feeling the loss of each coin she dropped in his palm. It was over half what she’d made from the Hawthorne brothers bounty. Ivan was a master, but his work didn’t come cheap. “There now,” he said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Easy for you say. Thanks, Ivan.”
Some days it felt impossible to get ahead in the world. The way things were going, she’d be stuck on Mars doing small jobs till her suit finally gave out. And then where would she be?
She turned and stalked out of the shop. Sparky, the gun turret, turned it’s red eye to stare at her. “What are you looking at?” she grumbled as she left the building, leaving the revolving door spinning. She mounted her bike. “Better not dawdle. Cole seems to be good at finding trouble.”
Matthew looked around at the small but well furnished apartment. “What are we here for? We need to move.”
“Mr. Cole, you don’t have to remind me to hurry. I believe I’m the one that informed you of our current danger.”
He stood awkwardly in the entryway as Yvonne went to her bedroom to pack a bag. A pair of framed diplomas hanging on the wall caught his eye, and he walked across the room to get a better look. “You didn’t mention that you were a doctor.”
Yvonne’s voice came from the next room. “Forgive me for not starting with my life story. My husband and I ran an emergency clinic on the southside. Half the people we treated were victims of their own crimes. Eventually, my husband became a victim of the people we were trying to help.”
“I’m sorry,” Matthew said glancing at the second diploma. Tomas Naude it read, from the University of Ganymede.
“It was the life we chose. And it’s what got me into this trouble. I saved Piggy’s life some months ago. He had a bullet lodged in his spine. That I was able to remove it and him still walk is nothing short of a miracle.”
“And he’s been smitten with you ever since,” Matthew said filling in the blanks.
“Precisely. When an up and coming White Void enforcer asks you to dinner, it’s rather dangerous to say no.” Yvonne appeared from the back room with a duffle bag over one shoulder. “I should apologize for getting you into this.”
“Let’s not talk about blame and just get out of here,” Matthew suggested.
Yvonne took a look around her apartment, and Matthew felt a twinge of pity. It wasn’t easy to lose a home. She walked to the wall and took down a portrait of what Matthew assumed was her late husband and slipped it into the bag. He wondered if the portrait was the main reason they had bothered to come here.
“I’m ready,” she said. “Let’s go.”
They left the building and returned to Matthew’s bike where it sat parked on the street. No sooner had they boarded it and fired up the engines, when two black grav cars pulled up.
“I think we’re out of time. Hang on.” Matthew gunned the engine to full. Yvonne’s hands gripped tightly to his waist as they darted between the two cars. He glanced behind them. Someone leaned out of the window and fired a few shots in their direction, but they went wide. The drivers were good though. In just a few seconds they had turned around and were in hot pursuit.
Matthew began to weave in and out of traffic, glad to be on a nimble bike. He would have to lose these guys before going back to the Sparrow. Maybe he ended up on the White Void hit list, but he wasn’t willing to have his ship on that list too. Unfortunately, he didn’t know the layout of Bright Crater all that well. He’d be at a disadvantage here.
A bullet pinged off the back of the bike, and he turned around. The syndicate cars were catching up. They were muscling their way through traffic and other drivers were getting the hint and giving them the right of way.
Matthew swerved onto a new, larger road, not bothering to heed a single traffic law or read the signs. “You trying to get us killed?” Yvonne shouted over the roar of the engine.
“I’m trying to keep us from getting killed, hang on.”
The new road had more cars to keep their pursuers busy. Matthew stared ahead and frowned. Something didn’t line up with what he was seeing. Suddenly the road turned sharply downward. Gravity changed directions with them so that they were traveling straight down a wall. The tunnel stretched in front of him as far as the eye could see. Above him on what appeared to be the ceiling, was another lane of traffic moving in the opposite direction.
“Tell me what I’m seeing here, Yvonne. Where are we?”
“You’ve turned onto one of the Core Roads. This will continue for about a hundred kilometers through the ice mantle to the core regions where most of the mining takes place.”
“Is there no way off this road?”
“Not that I know of.”
That wasn’t good. No doubt the syndicate vehicles would call ahead and have someone waiting at the far end of the tunnel. Matthew bit his lip and risked another glance behind him. The black grav cars were gaining again. He looked up at the lane of traffic above him leaving the core regions, and a crazy idea worked its way into his head.
“I’m about to do something dumb. If we die, well… I’m sorry.” Suddenly he swerved to the side. Pointing the grav bike upward, he jumped over the highway’s sidewall. Gravity switched back to its proper orientation, and instead of being in a long tunnel, they were over a shaft so deep they couldn’t see the bottom. He throttled the engines and pushed them across the shaft as they began to fall, rapidly gaining speed.
When they were nearly to the opposite line of traffic, he turned the bike and faced it straight down the shaft, lining up the bottom of the bike with the road. Gravity switched and they dropped to the surface of the new road.
Only problem now was they were going the wrong way with all the accumulated speed of their fall. Matthew ignored Yvonne’s scream and expertly dodged a few vehicles that scorched past at blinding speed as he hit the braking thrusters as hard as he could. After several tense seconds and many near misses, they’d slowed to nearly a halt. He spun the bike back towards the surface and throttled up the engines again. In two minutes they were out of the Core Road and heading back towards the Sparrow with no syndicate cars in sight.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty proud of the way that went,” he said grinning ear to ear. Yvonne didn’t answer at once, which was probably for the best.
That’s when he saw the tail. A grav bike, painted black, keeping an even distance behind them. Must have been at the exit waiting for them. Matthew kept an eye on it, but it didn’t make a move. Probably just keeping tabs on them and waiting for reinforcements.
He pulled out his comm. “Sharon. We’ll be at the Sparrow in ten minutes.”
“I’ll be there in two.”
“Good. I’ve got a bike on my tail that needs dealing with. Think you can set up an ambush for him before our destination? I don’t want them knowing my ship.”
“Okay. Umm… Look for me at the tunnel entrance to the industrial complex.”
“Got it. See you there.”
Abigail pulled off at the prescribed spot and found a dumpster by the road that would provide the cover she needed for herself and the bike. She pulled her shield off her back and engaged it, hearing the faint whine of the grav plate powering up. She poked her head around the corner, and watched the nearly deserted road.
Right on schedule, two grav bikes appeared, Cole’s beat up piece of junk and a flashy black one. Abigail cracked her knuckles and got a better grip on the shield. Poor guy would never know what hit him.
Matthew and his mysterious passenger blasted past. She gave it a three count and stepped out from behind the dumpster. The black bike was upon her. Taking her shield in both hands she bashed it forward, catching the bike as it passed. The force of her strike combined with the grav plate sent the bike careening out of control into the wall beside the tunnel. It blossomed into an orange fireball, sending flaming shrapnel arcing outward. Abigail caught a piece of it on her shield.
She returned to her own bike. Whatever Cole had gotten himself involved in, there had better be a good explanation. Ceres was fertile ground for a freelancer, and she was going to miss out because of him.
By the time she had reached the Sparrow and loaded her bike, the engines were already hot. She rode the lift back up with the bike, climbed the ladder out of the hold, and walked straight to the cockpit. A well-dressed woman with deep onyx skin and a ribbon of silver hair sat behind Cole. She startled when she saw Abigail, but recovered quickly and smiled graciously.
“You must be Mr. Cole’s partner. I’m Yvonne Naude.”
Abigail nodded. “Abigail Sharon, but I think partner is a bit too strong of a word. More like tense acquaintances. Cole just offered me a lift.”
“It appears, he’s offering to give me a ride too,” Yvonne said smoothly. “I wonder if this happens often?”
“I promise you, it doesn’t,” Cole said as he flipped a bank of switches. “Strap in.” Abigail ignored him and braced against a wall. “I’m having a bad week, all right?”
Abigail chuckled. “And you’re still not off the hook for getting us kicked off Ceres.” She turned to Yvonne. “I want the whole story later. So he doesn’t paint himself into some kind of hero.”
“Well, he was actually trying to be chivalrous…” Yvonne said.
“See! Not my week!” Cole said. The Sparrow lifted off the ground and he turned it skyward. The main engines roared, rumbling through the deck as they made for space. Cole kept his eyes on the instruments. “Not seeing any movement in response to us. I don’t think they marked us.” He visibly relaxed and took off his hat, setting it on the console.
“So where are we going now?” Yvonne asked Cole.
“Got any family? Anyone you can stay with?”
“Not since my husband. We never had children.”
“Hold on,” Cole interrupted. “Just got a message from my broker.” His eyes scanned the message then went wide. “Actually I don’t think anywhere is going to be a particularly good idea right now.”
“Why’s that?” Abigail frowned stepping forward to read the message over his shoulder.
Cole glanced nervously at Yvonne. “Broker knew I was on Ceres and saw a new bounty posted. A half million dollars on Yvonne Naude’s head. Double if she’s alive.”
For the space of ten minutes, the only sound in the Sparrow’s cockpit was the rattle of the engines as Matthew finished putting the ship into orbit. Finally, Yvonne broke the silence herself. “The most sensible thing to do would be to turn me in. I understand. A million dollars is a dream come true to a pair of freelancers.”
It was tempting. Anyone faced with an opportunity like that would be a fool to admit otherwise. But as much as Abigail wanted a ship of her own, she knew that turning a woman over to a syndicate like this was dirty. She didn’t even need to hear the story. Playing dirty with a rival like she did in Kyoto with Cole was one thing, but this was a line in the sand that just wasn't worth crossing.
Cole sighed and deflated a little. “Much as that many zeroes attached to a dollar sign would be appreciated, I just can’t do that. We couldn't do that,” he clarified, glancing at Abigail for assurance. She nodded. “You’re welcome to stay aboard the Sparrow until we figure out how to get you out of this mess.”
“That’s very kind of you Mr. Cole,” Yvonne said. There was gratitude on her face, but no trace of surprise. “If I can be of service to you in any way possible, I will not hesitate.”
“So where are we going now?” Abigail asked. “I’m guessing Mars is out because White Void has a heavy presence in several of the cities.” She said this hopefully. Maybe she could avoid going back to Mars for a bit. This might not be as good as having your own ship, but hitching a ride with another competent freelancer was a close second. She’d have to contact a friend to put her skyhopper in storage, but that wouldn’t be a problem.
“Yeah, that pretty much seals that,” he agreed. “I don’t know where we go yet. Give me some time.” He ran a hand across the scruff on his chin. “Sharon, if you want to show Yvonne to the cabin beside yours, I’d appreciate it.”
Abigail stepped back into the hall and gestured. “This way.”
She showed the woman the cabin. “They aren’t exactly roomy, but I think you’ll have a better time in the cramped space than I do.”
“Thank you,” Yvonne said setting her bag on the floor.
Abigail laughed. “I think I should be thanking you.”
“I wasn’t ready to go back to Mars yet.” She winked. “Welcome aboard the Sparrow.”