Chapter 9: The Titan's Pride

 
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Chapter 9: The Titan’s Pride

 
 
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No, you’re not crazy. It all tastes different. Bread made from Martian Wheat tastes different from Europan Wheat. Different cultivars for different soils, light levels, atmospheric compositions, and what have you. They say Moses fine tuned the crops to fit each colony.

My personal favorite is hydroponic oats grown in low gravity. They have a certain natural sweetness that no Earth cultivar could ever match. I’m sure dentists love that extra sugar content in everyone’s breakfast.

That said, it’s all the same stuff we brought from Earth. Moses may have pushed every scientific frontier he touched, but he didn’t seem to be interested in playing God. I’m sure he could have given us new and better plants and animals. At least ones that suited us better in the colonies away from the natural environment of Earth.

Maybe he thought that was Pandora’s box or else maybe making entirely new life is just a lot harder than you’d think. I don’t claim to know. Either way we’re still eating much the same thing we’ve been eating for thousands of years.

Except ration bars. Those abominations deserve their horrible reputation.

William Pike
Freight Pilot
Died 13 AM

 
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“Think she’s ever getting up?” Matthew asked looking back down the hall toward the crew cabins.

“She will when she gets hungry,” Yvonne said. “Can’t say I didn’t want another hour myself but, alas, addiction calls to me.” She swirled her coffee, took another sip, and sighed happily. “If the ship ever runs out of coffee I’m turning myself in to the nearest bounty hunter. Won’t even be a hard decision.”

Matthew took the final swig from his own mug and figured he was on the same path of chemical dependence. He wasn’t sure that he cared. “I guess you had better keep an eye on those stock levels. I won’t be responsible for you doing something rash.”

“Already on today’s shopping list.”

“Take a look at it again and see if there’s anything else we need. I don’t plan on spending more than a few hours on Titan’s surface. Get in and get out.”

Sharon stumbled into the common room, looking only half alive and less than half awake. Matthew marveled at her exo-suit for the thousandth time, how fluid and human-like its movements were. The way it shambled along groggily fascinated him. It had to follow her thoughts. There was no other reason it would produce wasteful movement like that.

She poured her own cup of coffee and then spooned an unholy amount of sugar into it before topping it off with about as much creamer as there was coffee.

“Easy on the sweets,” Yvonne said, eyes wide. “This is breakfast. Not dessert.”

Sharon grumbled something incoherent as she prepped a bowl of oatmeal and tossed it into the tiny microwave oven.

“Not even worth the effort,” Matthew said. “Tried to talk sense into her when she first came on board. She doesn’t actually like coffee. At least not how God meant for man to drink it.”

“Black as the vacuum of space?” Yvonne asked.

“Precisely,” he said.

Abigail rolled her eyes so hard it probably hurt. “Go ahead. Judge me. At least I won’t turn into a rampaging monster when we run out.”

Yvonne smiled and took another sip, seemingly content not to respond. They all knew it was true.

“So what’s the plan today?” Abigail asked as she popped open the microwave and fetched her oatmeal.

“We’ll set down on Titan after breakfast,” Matthew said. “Nice little island called Mayda Insula on the Kraken sea. And when I say nice, I mean miserable, like everywhere else on Titan. But it’ll have the supplies we need and then we can get out of here. I’m going to try and line up a job to move us back towards the inner system.”

“Speaking of setting down on the surface,” Yvonne said clearing her throat, “I’m getting a bit stir crazy. If I don’t get off the ship when we get into port, you won’t have to wait for the coffee to run out.”

Matthew chewed on that thought. “Well… If you’re dead set on getting some fresh air, I guess you could come with us. Not really gonna be a job for all three of us but we’ll get it knocked out.” He paused as a second thought crossed his mind. “Or if it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, I’ve got an old friend down there I can check in on. You two can take care of business easily enough.”

Sharon shrugged and went back to eating. “Sure. Pass off your chores to us. We can handle it.”

“I’m not foisting chores onto you,” he sighed. “Two people can handle it and I’m placing my trust in you. If someone recognizes Yvonne and decides to try to cash in on her bounty, you probably have a better chance at protecting her than I do.”

“Well, you got that part right at least,” Sharon retorted.

Yvonne tapped a finger on the table restlessly. “I’m going to need an awful lot more caffeine if you two are going to be this disagreeable. And as far as Titan goes, I can take care of myself. No babysitter needed. I’ll wear a hood. No one will recognize me.”

“No, probably not,” Matthew admitted, “but as long as you’re on my ship you’ll be at least partially my responsibility. If you don’t mind, I’d rather you stick with Sharon.”

“I’m with Cole,” Sharon said. “Come on, Yvonne. Girls’ day on the town.”

Yvonne looked back and forth between them. She was frustrated and he couldn’t really blame her. Losing his freedom would be a hard pill to swallow.

Finally, she nodded slowly, in resignation if not defeat. “You win. I’ll take the bullet-proof escort.”

“Speaking of bulletproof,” Sharon said, brightening, “you promised you’d show us the miracle.”

Matthew reached down and unclipped the two golden bracelets from his belt. He’d fiddled with them for nearly an hour the night before and, try as he might, he couldn’t get them to do anything. Not even the latches would clasp. He slid them across the table towards the women. “I can’t make heads or tails of em.”


Sharon took one of the devices and examined it. “If you hadn’t told me this was a piece of tech, I would have thought it was just a piece of  jewelry. I don’t see any sort of controls or anything else.”

“Very gaudy jewelry,” Yvonne agreed, holding it up to the light. “I can see some faint lines on the inner surface, thin seams, fine as hair. Nothing else is visible to my eye. Fascinating.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Matthew said, playing the scene over in his mind again. “One lit up like fire and shattered my bullets into molten shrapnel. The other had a blue light and threw me across the room like I was last week’s garbage.”

Yvonne looked at the device thoughtfully. “Care if I try it on? See if it’ll do anything?”

Matthew shrugged. “Be my guest. They didn’t seem to like me.”

Sharon passed her bracelet to Yvonne and the older woman put one on each arm. “I’m not even sure I have them on the right arm or facing the correct direction.” She tried several different configurations over the next couple minutes, but the bracelets refused to latch and remained inert. Finally, Yvonne pulled them off and set them on the table, the disappointment clear on her face. “I don’t think it’s meant to be.”

“Pity,” Sharon said. “It’d be nice if you had a little protection from bounty hunters.”

“Well, how about you,” Yvonne said pushing them towards Sharon. “Give em a shot?”

Sharon only crossed her arms. “My wrists are too big.”

“I very much doubt that,” Yvonne replied raising an eyebrow, “but I’m not surprised. Not even the chance at working a miracle will budge you from your exo-suit, huh?”

She shook her head. “Already bulletproof. Mostly.”

Matthew reached back across the table for the bracelets and tried them himself for the hundredth time. “And here I was hoping for a third set of wrists to try.” He glanced up at Sharon. “There’s a secret here and I aim to discover it. But if you’re dead set on staying in that suit, I’ll have to make due.”

“Secrets can stay secrets as far as I’m concerned,” Sharon said. “I make it a rule to never mess with things I don’t understand. Seen too many old sci-fi movies. Strange tech always makes people go weird.”

Matthew sat back and scratched his chin. “Says the woman in the wonderful suit of earth-tech powered armor…”

Sharon stood up abruptly from the table and scowled. “Not the same thing.” She turned heel back towards the crew quarters and disappeared without another word.

Yvonne gave Matthew a look, one that said he should have known better.

“Oh don’t you start in,” he said, feeling guilty in spite of himself.” How was I supposed to know a friendly jab would set her off? If she won’t tell us why she’s so sensitive about the subject, she’s going have to accept that we’re going to be curious.”

Yvonne folded her hands neatly in front of herself and still said nothing.

“Well, do you know what her deal is?” Matthew asked in growing annoyance.

She glanced back towards the crew cabins. “No. But I have few theories.”

The Sparrow plunged into the thick soup of Titan’s atmosphere. The environmental shield that protected the ship from solar radiation and dust impacts in space did little to keep out the dense clouds. Droplets of liquid methane ran up the front viewport, vanishing quickly as they warmed and evaporated back into the orange-brown sky.

Abigail watched as Cole brought the Sparrow out of its shallow dive and leveled out over the Kraken Sea, a dark ocean of liquid methane and assorted hydrocarbons. She stared at it with curiosity and growing disgust. After so much time under the relatively clear skies of Mars, she found it hard to believe that people could actually spend their whole lives in some of the less hospitable corners of the solar system. Underground, cramped space stations, and dreary skies seemed to be the norm.

It was a long way from Mars. And even further from Earth.

“There’s Mayda Insula,” Cole said. “Coming over the horizon now.”

A city of industrial spires, smoke stacks, and factories sat on the island in the midst of the Kraken sea. To Abigail’s eyes, it looked a bit smaller than most of the Martian cities, but those things were hard to judge from sight alone. Sometimes half a city was underground. More interesting to her was the clearly visible dome of the environmental shield.

“What’s with the shield?” she asked. They don’t normally shimmer like that.”

“They tune them real high on Titan to keep out the atmosphere, rain, and bitter cold,” Cole explained. “I’m glad you asked, though, because I should have warned you two about it. You’re gonna feel it more than normal when we pass through.”

Yvonne glanced at Cole from the co-pilot’s chair. “How much are we going to feel it?”

The Sparrow shot through the shimmering field and for a brief moment, Abigail felt like her insides had gotten left behind. It was gone as soon as it started, leaving only a lingering discomfort.

Yvonne cradled her forehead in her hands. “That was… unpleasant. There’s no way that’s good for the human body.”

“Hasn’t killed anyone yet,” Cole said. “Mayda Flight Control, this is the Sparrow, SPW5840. Looking for a docking pad on the cheap.”

Abigail ignored Cole as he bargained with the spaceport rep. The discomfort was fading now, and she stretched her arms a bit inside the suit to get her wits back.

She froze.

Why were her arms moving in the suit?

Cold sweat broke out on her forehead as she tried to get her suit to respond.

Nothing.

Black terror gnawed at the back of her mind. Had passing through the shield broken something important? What would she do if...

Like a light coming on, she felt the suit responding to her thoughts again. Maybe the jolt had interrupted the connection between her armor and her neural implant. She took a deep breath and tried to relax, her pulse pounded in her temples. With a sickening feeling, she realized they would have to pass back through on the way out. She’d make sure to be hiding in her room, away from prying eyes next time.

“Sharon, you okay?” Cole asked. His face full of concern.

She waved him off, “I’m fine. Some of my systems didn’t care for that shield.”

He looked back to his controls. “I’m… Sorry. I’ll make sure we’re going slower on the way out.”

“I’d appreciate that,” she said and meant it. Yvonne turned and gave Abigail a look that made her decidedly uncomfortable. “I’m fine. I promise,” she repeated, hoping the other woman would get the hint. “I don’t need the doctor right now.”

Yvonne turned away, and Abigail’s pulse slowed. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, hoping to put the incident behind her.

Cole set the Sparrow down on a landing pad at the spaceport near the edge of town. Most of the surrounding pads were empty. This wasn’t the kind of city that drew too many tourists. You came to Titan’s surface when you had business and only stayed as long as you had to. “I’d like to lift off in five or six hours,” he said standing up and donning his hat. “You sure you two can handle the supply run?”

Yvonne pulled out her tablet and scanned the list again. “Seems pretty straightforward. Mostly food. Some basic living supplies. A few spare parts. Nothing we can’t find in the port district. By the way, I added a new filter for the primary fuel intake. Turns out when you go that long without cleaning them you have to throw the whole thing away.”

“I get it. You don’t have to rub it in,” Cole grumbled. “I’m assuming you two are taking a bike?”

“Seems the obvious thing to do,” Abigail said, finally confident that her suit was operating as it was supposed to. “We’ll need somewhere to stash our supplies.”

“Come on then. No sense running the lift twice.”

On the way out, Abigail grabbed her oversized trench coat. In a strange place it was better not to attract more attention then she had to, especially considering she was supposed to be keeping an eye on Yvonne. If someone got too curious about the extra- tall woman in armor and noticed Yvonne they’d have problems.

A few minutes later they pushed the bikes off of the Sparrow’s lift  onto the landing pad. Bright lamps illuminated the area even in the day. The distant sun was too far away to light the surface of Titan past a dull twilight. Suddenly a bright flash of orange caught Abigail’s attention and she looked up to see a fireball light the sky.

“What in…?”

“Methane burnoff,” Cole answered simply as he mounted his bike. “Even the stronger environmental shield doesn’t keep all the rain out. It seeps in, evaporates, and collects in the upper regions of the dome. The taller spires have pilot lights that ignite it before enough collects to make a safety hazard. Helps keep the atmosphere inside a bit warmer and disposes of a potentially hazardous gas as well. Of course, they recommend you keep your flightpath low on approach unless you like decorating your hull with scorch marks. I’m out. Call me if you need me.”

He fired the engines on his bike and drove off without another word.

“Let’s get this supply list knocked out,” Yvonne suggested pulling her hood low over her face.

Abigail looked around one last time in distaste at the dingy spaceport and sky. “If the rest of Titan is this nice, I can hardly wait to see it.”

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Yvonne had never set foot on Titan, though she and Tomas had spent some time on one of the orbital habitats nearly twenty years ago. It turned out every bad rumor she’d heard about the surface was true. Depressing steel and concrete buildings, a dark sky, and cold. Always cold. Frost formed on any exposed surface that wasn’t near a heat source. Open trenches of molten salt were piped into most public areas in an attempt to keep the local air at somewhat comfortable temperatures, or at least give a warm spot to retreat to in order to thaw stiff fingers.

It would have been easier to live underground and not deal with the atmosphere or the cold, but after having lived in the subterranean cities of Ceres for so long, Yvonne could respect the fierce desire to walk under an open sky. It was a bad decision in the end, from a practical standpoint, but it wasn’t the first or last poorly thought out city built by men.

There was a public square filled with shops that catered to the port and surrounding neighborhood a short distance from the landing pad. It was about the closest thing to cheery they were liable to find. There was even a molten salt fountain standing at its center, complete with globs of red-hot salt dribbling down a steel statue of a nude woman and collecting in a fiery pool. It was probably the strangest piece of public art Yvonne had ever seen. Locals moved to and fro on business, or clustered in small knots warming their hands over the artwork. Abigail spotted the store they were looking for, a grocer, specializing in the kinds of dried and frozen goods that kept well during the boring trips between the different neighborhoods of the solar system.

Yvonne stepped through the store’s front door and environmental shield into the toasty warm interior. “I’d recommend we split up to finish the list faster, but I doubt Matthew would approve of us being separated… Abigail?” She turned and saw that the other woman was hesitant about stepping through the shield.

“Sorry, just thinking about earlier,” Abigail said and pushed through the field into the store.

“I see.” Yvonne filed away this tidbit as another clue to the puzzle. “Let’s get this over with.”

It took less than an hour, even with the additions Yvonne made to the list on the spot. She may not have been a great cook, but sometimes you just had to have a little fresh food. They would run out long before they got to Jupiter or Mars or wherever they ended up going, but it would be better than nothing. She wasn’t sure how the space jockeys didn’t go crazy eating so much frozen food.

They left the store, arms laden with bags. Abigail opened the bike’s storage compartment and loaded their purchases, making sure not to crush any of the produce. “If we were anywhere else we’d have to rush back to the Sparrow with the frozen foods, but I guess they’ll stay fresh out here.” She brushed a delicate crust of frost off the side of the bike.

“Or freezer burnt,” Yvonne added darkly.

“Better than spoiled. Let’s finish up with the other supplies,” Abigail suggested. “I want to check out that Vietnamese place in the square. A bowl of pho sounds amazing right now.”

“Can’t say I’ve ever had Vietnamese.” Yvonne rubbed her hands together to work some blood back into them. “But if it’s warm, I’m up for trying something new.”

An hour later they sat at a small table by the molten fountain with their steaming bowls of broth. Yvonne inhaled the rich aroma. “This was a good idea. Tomas was a picky eater, so the food options were usually pretty bland. Something like this,” she tapped her bowl with her spoon, “would have been a no go.”

Abigail shook her head sadly. “Girl, you have been missing out. First thing I do in any new city is check out the food holes. The locals can always tell you what’s good. On Mars, a good bowl of pho can be had in most of the cities. Haven’t found it in Venice yet, but it’s there, somewhere. Maybe in a dark and scary alley with questionable sanitary practices, but it’s there.” She carefully lifted the spoon in her enormous armored hands to her mouth.

“You use your suit so naturally. Even in the fine movements,” Yvonne said, doing everything in her power not to sound like she was digging for information. She was, of course, but that didn’t mean she wanted Abigail realizing it.

Abigail frowned. “I had silverware with oversized handles that I used to keep with me, but I forgot and left them on Mars in my skyhopper. It’s parked at some long term storage hangar collecting dust at this point.” She waved her spoon in the air. “I can use these things, but it takes an annoying amount of concentration.”

“I guess you’ve had plenty of practice. How many years have you had your exo-suit.”

Abigail set the spoon down and looked away. “Enough. What is it with you and Cole trying to interrogate me over my armor?”

“Curiosity,” Yvonne said, “but mostly concern. I saw the way you reacted this morning when we passed through Mayda Insula’s shield. Further, I’ve noticed other strange tics in your behavior as the day has gone on.”

“I’m… Having a few malfunctions today.” Abigail glanced at Yvonne and sighed. “Look I’ve got an implant in my spine that talks to the suit. I think the jolt of passing through the shield has made something in that process buggy. It froze up entirely for a minute on landing, and it’s been jittery ever since then.”

Yvonne’s eyes narrowed. “Abigail, that sounds like that could be serious. What if something is broken?”

Abigail visibly shuddered. “Scary thought, but I doubt that’s it. I’ve had other issues in the past, but they usually get fixed when I reset the whole system. I’ll have to turn the exo-suit off and crack it open, so it will have wait till we get back to the Sparrow.”

“I see,” Yvonne said.

“No you don’t,” Abigail muttered under her breath, “But that’s okay.”

“Then try me.”

“What?”

“Try me. Make me understand why you’re so protective over your precious exo-suit. I’ve got my suspicions, but I don’t think you want me to start voicing them.”

“You’re right. I don’t.” The younger woman took another spoonful of her pho and then shoved it aside in frustration.

“Don’t you think someone should know?” Yvonne asked softly. “In case something goes wrong. What happens if your suit takes serious damage?”

Abigail didn’t answer at once and Yvonne started to wonder if she was going to answer at all. Finally, she spat it out, voice full of bitterness. “Then go on without me, because I’m done if that happens.”

“Abigail, don’t…”

“What do you care?” she bit back. “We’re not friends. None of us really even know each other. It’s just convenient to be together right now. No way this lasts more than a couple months. No reason to get cozy.”

Yvonne glanced at the spoon Abigail had been holding. At some point in the last few minutes, she had closed her fist around the utensil and mangled it. Abigail's eyes fell to her hand and she sighed as she released her death grip on the utensil. It fell to the table.

A period of silence followed. Yvonne allowed Abigail to stew in her thoughts for some time before continuing. “I’m not sure you meant any of that. I think you want us to be your friends. You want us to stick together as a crew. And that’s what really puzzles me. You can’t seriously expect to wear your armor in front of us from now until the end of time.”

“Pity. Because that was the plan.”

A waiter came by and collected the spoon Abigail had destroyed. She mumbled an apology as she was given a new spoon and promised it wouldn’t happen again. The waiter was clearly terrified of Abigail and assured her that it happened all the time.

She didn’t even notice, which was somewhat out of character. She loved flaunting her strength and never minded showing off.

They finished their meal in awkward silence.

It was only as Yvonne finished her bowl and pushed it away from her that she saw them.

“Abigail.”

“What?” she replied with a grunt.

“I was just wondering if you’d noticed those two men on the other side of the fountain, leaning against the wall.”

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Abigail shifted so that she could see the men out of the corner of her eye. Her heart sank. So much for this just being a shopping trip. “Yeah, they’re watching us. Have they been there long?”

“No idea,” Yvonne admitted. Abigail could hear the nervous shift in her voice, the slightly raised pitch betraying a creeping fear.

“Hey, could just be a couple punks looking for a mark,” Abigail said calmly. “No reason to think they’ve identified you.”

“If they were simply looking for a mark, then they wouldn’t be interested in the table with the seven-foot woman,” Yvonne countered.

“No probably not.” She set a handful of coins on the table to cover their tab and the tip. “Guess we’re not going back to the Sparrow or our bike just yet.”

“Why not? We need to get out of here.”

“Because we don’t want them identifying the Sparrow. White Void and your friend Pig Man don’t need to know the bird you’re riding around on.”

Yvonne deflated a bit. “Piggy,” she corrected.

“Same thing.”

“So what do we do now? Hope they go away or try to lose them?”

“Or I could just clobber them.”

“What if they have friends?”

“Then I clobber them as well.” Abigail frowned. To be fair, the good doctor hadn’t seen her in action yet so she may not have realized just how one-sided most fights were when Abigail was around. She had been interested in her exo-suit, so it at least seemed fair that she get a demonstration. “Either way, I think we lead them away from the spaceport. Make them think we’re going the other direction before turning the tables.”

“Then we loop back around to the bike. Okay, I’ll trust your judgment here.”

“Good. Let’s get up and take a walk. See if we get followed.”

They stood from the table and walked across the open square, away from the parked grav-bike and the sanctuary of the Sparrow. Abigail walked right past the two men. They wore nondescript street clothes, which meant they were either nobody civilians or they were trying to look like nobody civilians. She saw their eyes following them. They weren’t even being subtle about it.

If she were alone, she’d take them out right then and there. But they weren’t after her. Odds were they’d ID’ed Yvonne, even with the hood over her face. She would take the fight on her terms, where she wanted. Otherwise, there was a chance they could pull out a surprise that put Yvonne in danger.

They left the central square and walked down a set of stairs towards a side street. The street formed a dark canyon in the twilight between the buildings, lit only by the streetlamps. Abigail stole a glance behind them. Sure enough, their tail had followed and one was talking into a comm.

“When the trouble hits, and it will,” she said, “stay behind me. No heroics.”

“I can…”

“But you won’t,” Abigail put a hand on her shoulder. “Just trust me.”

Abigail could feel Yvonne fairly boiling in her shoes. Probably felt helpless.

A feeling that Abigail understood all too well.

Suddenly Yvonne startled. “I think we’ve got two more walking towards us.”

Sure enough. Looks like they were trying to enclose them. Abigail glanced at the street, wondering if it was worth the risk to cross. Enormous industrial grav-trucks and smaller personal vehicles roared by. It’d be risky.

Too risky. She’d never taken a hit with a grav-car in her exo-suit and wasn’t particularly ready to give it a try, especially not today when it felt so sluggish. Looking ahead, she saw a side alley on their right. She pushed Yvonne towards it and they darted in.

“Abigail, this is a dead end.”

“I see that. On the bright side, at least we know which way they’ll be coming from. Get behind me.” She ignored the withering stare that Yvonne gave her as she tossed aside her trench coat and deployed her riot shield. The reassuring hum of its grave plate rang lightly through the alley. Maybe they’d have second thoughts when confronted with the Shield Maiden.

Both pairs of men rounded the corner into the alley and abruptly stopped short. She never got tired of that reaction. “Sorry, boys. I’m afraid your prey has teeth today. Any last words?”

They were brave. Abigail would give them that. They spread out to encircle her as best they could in the tight alley and drew clubs. No guns. She kept her face shield up so she could see better. “Just gonna go with the silent attacker vibe. Disappointing. A bit of verbal sparring always brightens up any fight.” She lunged for the attacker on her right.

And missed. He easily rolled out of the way before she could send him flying. That shouldn’t have happened. Her suit was still responding slowly. It felt like she was fighting in tar.

She felt a sting of fear work its way into her mind. If only she’d had time to reset her exo-suit, the jitters would have probably resolved. Now she was putting Yvonne in danger.

Abigail followed through on her missed swing by lunging at the attacker on her left. Either he wasn’t as fast as the last guy or was completely taken off guard. Her shield caught him and sent him flying across the alley into one of the brick walls. The other three were on her then, and she felt a stout metal club land across her left forearm.

“Tickles,” she said and took a frustratingly slow swing at him with that same arm. She caught him but with far less force than she intended. He went down, but might not be out of the fight yet. One of the two remaining enemies slipped past Abigail and made a move towards Yvonne.

Abigail turned and leaped towards him. And then she realized she could no longer feel her suit. For an instant, the connection with her spinal implant gave out. It came back online in time for her to grapple the thug but not soon enough to stop her fall. She heard a crack as she tumbled over the attacker. One of his legs had been caught beneath her and gave out like a twig.

That’s your own fault, she thought viciously as she tried to get to her feet. Her implant flickered again and she fell back to her knees, teeth gritted. The last attacker swung a club at her face. She saw it coming and barely managed to shift her shoulder and turn her face away. The club nicked her armored shoulder, deflected off, and dealt her a glancing blow behind the ear.

Darkness crept in around the edges of her vision as she staggered to her feet. Suddenly, there was a metallic thump and her attacker fell to the ground, the back of his head damp with blood. Yvonne stood behind him, a metal pipe in hand that she’d scrounged from some corner of the alley.

She tossed her makeshift weapon away with disgust. “I am the worst doctor ever. Are you okay?”

Abigail staggered to her feet, still feeling sluggish and seeing stars. “Will be when we’re gone. Let’s get out of here in case they have back up.” She picked up her shield. The only attacker to avoid injury had also managed to regain his feet. He turned wide eyes toward her. She gestured to his fallen allies. “I’d consider calling a paramedic. One of your friends took a nasty hit to the head. Now get out of the way.”

He obeyed, nervously shuffling aside, and the two women wasted no time leaving the alley.

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Yvonne led them down several more streets, making numerous random turns along the way to make sure no thugs were following. Abigail followed passively, content to be led now that the threat was past. Yvonne had seen her take the blow to the head before she had delivered her own. Odds were good she had a concussion at the least. She’d also seen the dark trickle of blood running down the side of her head. The doctor in her wanted to assess the damage, but she knew they had to put some distance between them and their attackers.

After some time, they came to a small park near the edge of the city. The shimmering environmental shield stood like a wall in front of them, and beyond that, a broken cliffside tumbled down to the Kraken Sea. She found a bench in a grove of tall junipers that would shield them from prying eyes. Large artificial sun lights shone over the park, giving enough light for the plant life to grow and to make the area a little warmer. Abigail sat heavily on the bench and rested her head in her hands.

Yvonne pulled out her comm and called Matthew.

“What’s up? You guys need something?”

“Afraid so. We were attacked.”

“Everyone okay?” he asked quickly.

“I’m good, but I think Abigail has a concussion.”

Matthew was quiet, as if deciding what to do with that information. “I’m sorry,” he finally said.

“She’ll be fine. We made it away, but I think you should swing by and pick up the bike. It’s parked at a market square near the port.”

“I know the one. ‘I’ll take care of it.” He hesitated for a moment. “Do I need to come get you two? If we’re done here I’ll break the rules and land anywhere I need if you’re still in danger.”

“I’ll let you know once I get a chance to examine Abigail, but I think we’ll be okay. I’ll be in touch.”

“Be careful.” The comm cut off with a pop as the connection ended.

Yvonne sat on the bench next to Abigail and leaned over to look at the mat of bloody hair behind her ear. “I’m going to brush your hair aside to see if you need stitches. Let me know if it’s tender.” The flinch told her everything she needed to know, but Abigail held her tongue. “I think I’ll sew it back together when we get to the Sparrow, if you don’t mind. I wish I had something here to cover it with.”

Abigail shook her head. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbled.

“For what? Happy ending and no permanent damage.”

Abigail bit her lip, and Yvonne realized she was fighting back tears. “I’m sorry my damnable pride almost got you captured and shipped back to White Void. I knew… I knew I was having technical difficulties, knew I needed a full system reset. And I didn’t do it. Just kept going through the day like nothing was wrong.”

“Abigail, it’s fine. There’s no harm…”

“No, it’s not fine. I was more worried about my petty dignity than your safety. I was supposed to be your bodyguard today. You ended up saving us both in the end.”

The sound of the pipe hitting the head of their attacker played through Yvonne’s mind. She hoped she would forget it soon, but knew that it would probably stick with her far longer than she wanted. “We do what we have to.”

“It shouldn’t have ever been a concern. A handful of thugs on the street should have never been a threat to us.” She slid off the bench to her knees. “I’m resetting my suit.”

“If you’re sure,” Yvonne said quietly. “I… I feel a little guilty for pressing you about it earlier.”

“Don’t.” The back armor plate split down the middle and separated with a whine of servos. Abigail’s arms, her real arms worked their way out of their metal cocoon. “Can you give me a hand?”

Yvonne offered her hand to Abigail. The other woman gripped it and, using her other arm for leverage, pulled herself out of the kneeling suit of armor onto the bench beside Yvonne.

She was not a tall woman outside of her suit. In fact, if she was standing, she might have been a little on the short side. But Yvonne saw in an instant that she couldn’t stand. Her legs were thin, like those of a small child, and lacked the muscle mass required to support her body weight.

Abigail was a paraplegic.

“So now you know,” Abigail whispered.

Yvonne had suspected there was a disability involved, but expecting it made it no less heartbreaking to see.

“Were you born with this or…?”

“Spinal injury when I was a teenager,” she said with a sniff. The tears were flowing freely again. “There… was an accident and I fell over a balcony. Three stories.” She wiped her hand across her face. “I lost my freedom that day and was confined to a wheelchair until… well. This.” She leaned forward to reach into the suit. “There. It’s resetting and should go back to normal. I hope.” She looked at Yvonne, forehead furrowed. “Well, say something, already. Don’t just stare.”

“I understand why you hide your condition,” Yvonne said thoughtfully. “In your profession, I’m sure you don’t need word getting around that you have a weakness to be exploited. But why keep it from your friends?”

Abigail looked away, probably to hide a fresh batch of tears. “I’ve not really had any friends in a long time, so you’ll forgive me for being a bit cynical.”

“Your secret is safe with me,” Yvonne said putting a reassuring hand on Abigail’s arm. The younger woman jumped at the touch, and Yvonne wondered how long it had been since she felt the comforting touch of another human. Far too long most likely.

Abigail nodded slowly and wiped the tears away for the second time. “Please don’t tell Matthew.”

Yvonne raised an eyebrow. So she was going to hold onto this desperately then? “You know he can be trusted, don’t you Abigail?”

“I know… I… I don’t want him thinking less of me. It’s stupid I know. But we’re professionals in the same line of work. I just… Don’t tell him.”

Yvonne held her eye for a moment and then nodded. “I’ll respect your wishes, but this isn’t the right call. He will find out eventually, no matter how careful you are. You won’t be able to hide it forever. Maybe you should share it on your own terms rather than wait for circumstances to force the issue.”
“He won’t find out if I can help it,” she replied.

A silly notion, Yvonne thought, born of either naivete or denial.

The exo-suit chimed. Abigail lifted her legs with her hands and threaded them into the gap in the armor plates. Yvonne offered her a hand again as she wormed her way back into position. After a minute she seemed to be situated and the armor plates closed. With the whine of servos she stood to her feet.

“Feel better after the reset?” Yvonne asked.

Abigail made a few quick moves, testing her motions. She smiled brightly. “Back to normal. Come on. Let’s get back to the Sparrow.”

And like that Abigail was back to her old self, confident almost to the point of belligerence. Yvonne smiled to herself, glad that a mystery had been solved. The girl’s suit empowered her, and in some ways it was her. It was her escape, her freedom from her broken body.

And yet, Yvonne thought darkly, it was also her prison.

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By the time the women returned, Matthew had already retrieved Sharon’s bike. It’s handlebars were way too far forward, being sized for Abigail’s rather large frame, but he managed with little incident. His friend, Carlos, had ridden with him. Carlos was one of the only friends he’d kept from his past life, the last link to the man that Matthew used to be. Even so, he didn’t exactly get to see the old technician very often, since Titan was a bit out of the way.

He’d meant to send Carlos on his way before Yvonne and Sharon returned, but they lost track of the time. When the women approached the ship, Carlos stood from where he had been sitting on the port side ramp.

“Well, I imagine you’ll want to get off this forsaken rock, so I’ll take this as my cue to head out. Take care of yourself, Padre.”

“You too, Carlos.”

The man turned to leave and tipped his hat to Yvonne and Abigail as they approached the ship. They watched his carefree gait as he crossed the spaceport without so much as a backwards glance.

“Padre?” Yvonne asked, a note of amusement in her voice.

“An old nickname,” Matthew explained. “I hated it back then too.” He looked at Sharon and changed the subject. “How’s the head?”

“I’ve got a splitting headache that I’ll be glad to be rid of, but I’m alive.”

He scratched the scruff at his chin. “This is my fault. I knew better with that bounty on Yvonne’s head than to let you two go out alone. I’m sorry.”

Yvonne shrugged. “We handled it fine and you got to see an old friend. No harm. Let’s get out of here.”

An hour later they drifted in orbit over Titan, safely away from prying eyes looking to cash in on a bounty. Matthew recorded a quick message and sent it to Benny. Hopefully, the broker would have sniffed up a new job for them in the last day. If not, maybe he’d pull the Sparrow into one of the Freeport stations around Saturn. Someone, somewhere would have a job for them.

He kicked his feet up on the console and tossed his campero aside. The door opened and he looked over his shoulder as Yvonne entered the cockpit. “Sharon doing okay? Hope the shield didn’t give her any problems on the way out. I was going a lot slower this time.”

Yvonne sat in the copilot’s chair and spun it to face Matthew. “It was better. I gave her a few stitches for the hit she took. She’ll be good as new in a few days.”

“I’d expect nothing less. She’s tough.”

“And human.”

Matthew shrugged, not sure where the doctor was going with that. “Obviously.”

“I’m just saying there’s a person under all that armor. Have you bothered to get to know her yet?”

He bristled at the implied accusation and thought of a half dozen sharply worded rebuttals that fell flat one after the other. Instead, he felt his jaw clench in annoyance. “Are you done framing me as a cold and cruel human being?”

“I would never suggest that you are cruel, Matthew Cole, though you’re definitely a bit on the chilly side.” Yvonne chuckled, something Matthew found unnerving at that moment. “No, your moral compass seems to drag you kicking and screaming in spite of your best resistance to it. I don’t think you’re capable of cruelty, at least not deliberately.”

“Thanks for that. I think.” There was both compliment and condemnation in there. Best to take the one at face value and the other under consideration. “It’s been… A long time since I’ve had other’s around. I guess the social skills are rusty.”

“We’re not alone anymore, Matthew. Not one of us. At least no more than we choose to be.” She stood and left him to stew in his thoughts. She was right, naturally. The eyes of another are often the best mirrors in which to see ourselves. Didn’t make it any easier to hear.

Sometime later Matthew left the cockpit and was surprised to find the light out in the common room. Sharon sat on the floor in front of a display and Yvonne had pulled up a chair. Some old movie was playing. From the looks of it an ancient one from the classic days of cinema.

“Take a seat, gaucho,” Sharon said smirking. “Movie night. Unless you feel like brooding by yourself in your room.”

He grimaced. Now he would have to stay and watch the movie if only to be contrary. “What are we watching? It had better be worth the…” He paused as he watched the current scene for a moment. “Why Pride and Prejudice?”

“Because this is the best version ever made,” Sharon stated. “I think they may have even read the book before writing the script. Oh come on, don’t be such a spoilsport. Look. You can pick the next movie.”

Matthew looked at the screen flickering in the dark. He thought about retreating to his room and settling into a book. Grumbling under his breath, he pulled up a chair. “You win. This time.”

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Michael Kane2 Comments