“It is perhaps a delicious irony that during the most enduring peace mankind has ever known, our world should become undone before our very eyes. Our hopes became our desperations. Our desperations became our prisons. And our iron prisons soon became the greatest freedoms we could hope for. Without the terra beneath us, man was adrift without purpose. No longer could we see find hope in the future, but rather found only in glimpses of a past that we had mostly lost. Thousands of years of human history and advancement, removed from the universe by little more than a passing whim of something greater than man.”
– Elder Gregor Solzhenitsyn, The Book of Sol
Decoupling took relatively little time. It was always easier to detach from a port than to dock. Even with EthOS available to handle all the precision maneuvers, accidents were more likely to occur during docking procedures. Very few, by comparison, happened during departure.
Everyone had strapped themselves in for departure in the cockpit while EthOS projected her flight path to the Jovian Combine on the retinal display. It would require some time asteroid skipping within the belt, as Jupiter’s orbit was still far out– Saturn’s even farther. But the path was traversable.
From a distance, Icarus station didn’t look like much. It took on the appearance of a floating disk, tethered by thick cables to the surface below. Icarus station employed at least two hundred technical staff, not to mention all the workers and traders within the promenade. If one looked close enough, they could see the telltale light of the elevator platform as it rose from Tharsis City below, the central hub for all trade on Mars. The Gambler’s Ruin had moved a safe distance away from Icarus, allowing it room to maneuver in preparation for its trip through the asteroid belt, a trip that would take up most of the time before they reached Jupiter.
It was during EthOS’ calculations that Mickey took note of something a little out-of-the-ordinary out of her side of the cockpit. “Holy,” she commented. “EthOS, what is that? Can you put it up on the screen?”
EthOS complied instantly. The retinal display high on the center console flared to life, showing a clear image of space out the port side of the Ruin. On it, a massive hulk of a ship appeared.
“Pingback confirms ship’s registry as the CSS Good Samaritan,” she replied. “The ship is registered to the Exterra Corporation. Shall I shake hands?”
“No,” Walker said. The last thing they needed was for the biggest, fastest ship in the Exterran security fleet to have a record of them. “God no, just keep at it, EthOS.”
“That thing is massive,” Gavin commented.
“Six hundred meters long,” Mickey replied. “I hear they got functioning gravity everywhere on the ship. The same shit they use on the LaGrange stations. Speced out at eighty million kilometers a day if the rumors are true.”
“That’s a hell of a lot faster than us,” Walker said. “Let’s not be the tallest nail right now.”
Mickey laughed. “There’s a crew compliment of over 200 people,” she said. “Sensors could pick up an iron filing from thirty clicks. That thing’s not only noticed us, but probably knows us each by name.”
“All the more reason to get out of here,” Walker said. “How we doing, EthOS?”
“We have been cleared for acceleration from Icarus Control,” she replied. “I have come up with the optimal transit trajectory. Eighteen days, thirteen hours to the Jovian Combine through Buoy-Lane Gamma. Is this acceptable?”
“Not ideal,” Walker said. “But not horrible. Let’s take it. Start acceleration.”
With that, the EmDrive began to hum from the engine room below the cockpit, and Walker felt a weight press down on him as the Ruin began to accelerate. Mickey continued to watch the display as the Good Samaritan start to shrink away into the distance.
“I just want to sit down for five minutes and pick the brain of their lead engineer,” she admitted. “Only two hundred crew, and all that space? You could fit an old earth city in one of those.”
“I think you’re underestimating the size of old earth cities,” Gavin commented. “They didn’t have to worry about radiation or oxygen production. They used to number in the millions and some used to sprawl out for a hundred clicks.”
Mickey waved her hand. “Whatever, Poindexter. Point is, that’s a whole lotta real estate for such a small crew. Makes you wonder, is all.”
“Hey, we stay outta their business, hopefully they stay out of ours,” added Walker. “Not many ships out there fitted with weapons. I counted at least six mounted projectile batteries on the hull. If Exterra ever got it into their head to pick a fight, nothing’s winning against that. And boy do Exterra ever like to stretch their legs.”
“Pirates in the belt,” Gavin suggested. “Having weapons like that makes for a hell of a deterrent.”
“Maybe, but with those guns? Hell, they could exterminate Mars in a few days, and so long as they took out Icarus first, there’s not a damn thing they could do to defend themselves. It’s overkill. Not to mention it’s been… what fifty years since the Remembrance Rebellion? How much open conflict we seen since then?” He shook his head. “That’s not for pirates, man. That’s a reminder not to step out of line. Keep the goods flowing toward the sun, or you’re done.”
“Yeah,” came Mickey. “Even on Europa growing up we’d have Corp-Cattle popping in from time to time to… negotiate. The entire colony would walk on eggshells when they were around.”
“I don’t think there’s a place outside of Third Rock where it isn’t like that. You don’t have to like ‘em. You just had to follow their orders,” said Gavin.
“Walk tall and carry a big stick, right?” Walker asked.
“I believe the saying was: speak softly and carry a big stick,” EthOS interjected. “President Theodore Roosevelt, 1900.”
“EthOS?” Walker asked.
“Unless I’m about to kill everyone, please stop correcting me.”
“Either way, that thing’s a beast,” Mickey said.
“All the more reason for us to get out of here.”
Mickey nodded. “Just as well then.” She looked over to the display, which was now displaying Mars as it shrunk into the distance. They were getting up to their speed limit. Soon, they’d reach cruising speed and would remain there until they reached the Buoy-Lane through the asteroid belt. Then they’d slow just enough to ensure they wouldn’t collide with anything. But that was still days away. Plenty of time for her to perform the upgrade for EthOS.
It was a week into the journey when, after days of troubleshooting while also being incessantly hounded by Gavin, Mickey was finally ready to handle EthOS’ upgrade. They were already well into the asteroid belt by then, traveling along the Buoy-Lane on remote autopilot, so taking her offline wouldn’t effect the Ruin’s operation. Just as well, since the upgrade took a little over a day, mostly due to Mickey’s having to check on all the ship’s systems manually, which saw her go through every nook and cranny in the place, including Walker’s quarters. He hated having people in his quarters, unless it was a Ceresian blonde.
“Okay, let’s fire her up,” Mickey said, looking over to Gavin. A moment later, the center display came to life. It remained blank for a moment, and then a face appeared. It was the stock face that EthOS’ personality had come as, that of a young olive-skinned woman. She had been originally intended to be a multi-ethnic representation of the human race.
“Oh, what the hell? I spent like six hours tweaking her last time,” Gavin complained.
“Give it a moment, she’s loading the old configuration up,” Mickey replied.
A moment later, EthOS’ face shifted. Her dark hair grew longer, more red, while her skin tone lightened and small freckles appeared on her face. She opened her eyes, which were an unnatural shade of green.
“Hello, Mickey, Gavin,” she said. “I have recognized a software upgrade, eight new universal serial ports, and a processor-memory upgrade. Speed and capacity has increased by four hundred-fifty percent. Three new personality modules have been registered, and sixteen new entertainment experiences.”
“New personality modules and expees?” Gavin asked.
“Get your mind out of the gutter. I can hear the hope in your voice, but no. There’s no porn. They all came with the patch,” Mickey said to him. “EthOS, run a full diagnostic. Vocalize irregularities.”
“Yes, Mickey,” she replied. Suddenly, her face was replaced by statistical read-outs. “All systems appear to be operating without hard faults. I have noticed a third party interface routine… I am now connected to the Loido Drive, would you like me to monitor it regularly?”
“Yes,” Mickey replied. “How’s it working?”
“Artificial magnetosphere is stable. Risk of radiation is within safety parameters.”
“Weird,” Mickey muttered.
“I’m sorry, Mickey. What is weird?”
She shook her head. “I was checking the Loido Drive earlier when you were being patched. It said our magnetic field was stronger than it should be. Can you pick that up?”
“Affirmative,” EthOS replied, then paused for a moment. “I have detected a secondary magnetosphere.” Suddenly, a three-dimensional schematic of the Ruin appeared on the display. A crosshair ran through several sections of the ship, starting in the engine room, then to the cockpit and back down the corridor to the galley, the medical room and the four staterooms before settling in the cargo bay. There appears to be a second artificial magnetosphere being emitted from the cargo hold.”
Mickey looked back to Gavin. “That’ll be our cargo,” she replied. “That thing’s generating a magnetosphere.”
Gavin raised an eyebrow. “What? Why?”
“Probably something biological. Could be some frozen seeds or something.” She shrugged. “Back in the day they used to ship seed and soil to Mars remotely using little pods like that. Never seen one with heat shields, but it’s not a huge stretch. There’s nothing wrong with having a stronger magnetosphere around the Ruin. Unless you want to die a horrible death from radiation poisoning.”
“Mickey?” EthOS asked.
“I have detected a potential passive ping signal.”
Mickey looked up to her display. “What do you mean? From the buoys?” She felt immediately concerned. Passive pings weren’t necessarily a cause for concern. More often than not, it meant another ship was nearby that was simply going about its business. Most ships wouldn’t even notice a passive ping.
But there were ways. And in the belt, it sometimes meant life or death.
“Negative,” she said. “Transit buoys are handshaking with ship’s systems. The ping is coming in randomized bursts somewhere from ship’s aft..”
“Another ship coming through the belt?” Gavin asked. “It’s not unheard of.”
“No,” Mickey said, shaking her head. “But it’s not normal, either. Let me know the second you have a source, EthOS.” She pressed a button on the console. “Walker?”
“Yeah, what’s up?” Walker’s voice carried over the speakers.
“EthOS is picking up a passive ping from aft. You notice anything weird?”
“Uhh,” Walker began. “I may have been otherwise occupied. Checking out optics now though.”
“I have already analyzed the optical sensors, Walker. I could find no anomalous artifacts.”
“Well, there’s something out there, and it knows we’re here,” Mickey said. “And my gut’s saying we got Jackers.”
Gavin suddenly grew pale. Mickey realized that Gavin had yet to deal with Jackers since he’d signed up. Even she and Walker had only ever had to deal with them once, but they’d been close enough to the Ceresian Constabulary Zone that they could outrun them. They were, in essence, pirates. They regularly hid in among the asteroids, looking for unsuspecting ships. They were quick, methodical and ruthless, and unless you were lucky enough to hide from them, or outrun them, you were often never heard from again. And Gavin had heard the same stories.
“I have received another passive ping,” EthOS announced. Her display shifted to a view of the camera. “They are approximately three hundred-sixteen kilometers to our aft, at twelve degrees north, six west. Sensors suggest pursuit.”
“Okay,” Walker said over the comms. “EthOS, I need you to take over autopilot and park us behind an asteroid. Play it cool, get us safe, then drop into passive mode and shut down everything. We’ll wait until they pass.”
“Affirmative,” EthOS said. The sound of engines whirring rose from the walls of the ship.
“Wait, if we can detect them in passive mode, what’s to stop them from finding us?” Gavin asked.
Mickey shook her head. “We’re turning all the machines off,” she replied. “EthOS isn’t even going to scan for them, we’re going to operate solely on visuals.”
“I have received a pingback,” EthOS announced.
“What do you have, EthOS?”
“There is no discernable Inter-Ship Registry number. Name request returned as Rivendell.”
“Jackers,” Walker swore over the radio.
“You sure?” Gavin asked, growing even more worried.
“No ISR,” Mickey said. “Just a name. Can you think of any other type of person who would blank-slate an ISR like that?”
“Okay, stick to the plan, EthOS,” Walker ordered. “Hide us, then go quiet.”
“I will,” EthOS announced. “However, I have no way to interface with the artificial magnetosphere present from the cargo hold.”
“Shit,” Mickey swore. “Shit. EthOS, how long till they catch up with us?”
“Provided they continue at current velocity, between ten to twelve minutes,” she replied.
Mickey looked to Gavin. “Come with me,” she said.
“What?” Gavin asked. “What are we going to do?”
“They can detect us through that magnetosphere,” she announced. “We gotta shut it off. Keep her steady, Walker,” she said into the comms.
“Ten-four,” he replied.
Mickey ran her hands over the exterior of the cargo container, feeling for any sort of latch or panel that she could access. She whipped her head over to Gavin, who floated in the air closely behind her. “Give me a hand here,” she demanded.
Gavin took a position on the other side of the cargo and ran his hands along the outside. The cargo had been remarkably nondescript, betraying no hint of any sort of access panel. He ran his hands along the outside, then stopped as he reached the brightly-painted Q on the side.
“Hey,” he said. “Here, I got something.” He found a small button embedded in the center of the Q and pressed it. A panel popped up next to it, and Mickey turned her attention to it, opening it. Beneath was a haptic feedback display. She tapped on the screen impatiently, but received no response.
“Goddammit,” she swore, turning her attention to her smartwatch. “The screen’s burned out. I’ve got to pair with it.” She frantically pressed at her smartwatch. “Get me that tablet over there,” she ordered, pointing toward a tablet that sat in a small depression in the cargo bay’s wall.
Gavin did as she asked and retrieved the tablet. Moments later, and after several more verbal curses, her watch made an audible ding, signalling a successful pairing of devices.
She then turned her attention to the tablet. “Christ, this is an old system,” she commented while the tablet flared to life. On the screen were several options, many of them that seemed out of place.
Diagnostics, Payload, Support Systems. She tapped on Support Systems, then looked at the readout. It said nothing of a Loido engine. She swore again, then tapped on Diagnostics. It immediately ran through a complete diagnostic of the container’s systems. At the top of the readout, a single line informed her of the last diagnostic– less than a week prior. That would have been a day or two before they received the cargo.
She let the diagnostics run, paying close attention to each line as it appeared on the screen. “This doesn’t make sense. It says there’s no control unit for the artificial magnetosphere. All this does is manage the cargo.” She swore.
“I cannot pair with the device, Mickey,” EthOS informed her. “It is rejecting my handshake attempts.”
“Then how did I get in?” Mickey asked. She shook her head. With the Jackers on their tail, she couldn’t afford to wonder. She tapped out to the main menu, and tapped on Payload.
A number of new options appeared on the screen, the first of which giving her information about the liquid mass within the container. She scrolled down the list, reading each and every option. Finally, she found it. “Here,” she said. “The MCU is part of the payload.”
“What does that mean?” Gavin asked.
“It means we’ve gotta get inside this thing shut it down manually,” she said. She then swore again. “How much time do we have, EthOS?”
“Approximately eight minutes until we are overtaken. It is advisable to shut down the artificial magnetosphere within five if we want to hide effectively.”
“Goddammit,” she said. “I can’t open this thing from here. I’ve gotta go in,” she announced, then dropped the tablet and allowed it to float away freely. She pulled a flat-head screwdriver from her utility belt, then crammed it into the space between the console and the edge of the compartment. She applied pressure, using her legs to create more torque. Moments later, she heard an audible crack as it came loose, exposing a number of wires underneath. She quickly pulled them out as far as they would come, and examined each carefully before pulling out a pair of wire strippers.
“This is all guesswork,” she said, then cut two of the wires off. “Let’s just hope whoever put this thing together didn’t bother tamper-proofing it.” She twisted two of them together and reconnected them, then took a small metal device and touched it to the exposed wire. “Tell me what I need, EthOS.”
EthOS remained silent as she analyzed the data coming from Mickey’s diagnostic tool. “We can interrupt the locking mechanism manually by disconnecting B-2 and applying a charge to the port.”
Mickey wasted no time in yanking the wire in question out, and stripping the end off of it. She pressed one end of the wire back into the port and attached the other end to another tool. Lights erupted from within the panel for a moment, and then she heard another audible click as the container began to shift. Suddenly, the entire top of the cargo container slid open, revealing a secondary container within. This one was white, if a little grubby, with red paint along the outside that bore the words: John Galt. Next to it, a small device hummed. It was the Magnetosphere Control Unit. It was a different model from the the Loido engine used aboard the Ruin, but Mickey knew exactly what to do.
She grabbed of two exposed wires coming out of the unit and tore them off. The unit ceased humming almost instantly. “Tell me something new, EthOS,” she said.
“I can no longer detect the secondary magnetosphere,” EthOS announced.
Mickey leaned back for a moment, floating in the cargo bay and let out a sigh of relief.
“Mickey?” Gavin asked.
“Yeah?” Mickey replied as she gathered up her floating tools and returned them to her utility belt.
“I’ve seen this before,” he announced, referring to the interior container. “This is a sarcophagus.”
She looked to him. “A what?”
“Before we composted the dead,” he said. “We used to place them in units just like this.” He looked up to her. “Like a coffin.”
“A coffin?” she asked. She looked down at the display. She tapped another button on the display and took a moment to read it over. Even in the low light, Gavin could see her expression change. “Jesus-on-the-cross,” she commented.
“What is it?” Gavin asked.
She looked up to Gavin, then back to the display. “Biomatter,” she said. “Lots of it.”
“Isn’t that what you were expecting?”
She shook her head. “I was expecting… I dunno, seeds or something. This is…” she tapped a few more buttons. “Shit, Gavin. I think there’s someone inside of this.”
“What?” Gavin shoved Mickey off to one side and started tapping on the display himself. “That’s impossible. How long has it been since this thing’s been opened?”
Mickey checked the tablet, which was still paired with the exterior container. “There are regular diagnostic and access logs going back decades. But most recently accessed… yeah, last week.” She looked to him. “Your old friend has us smuggling people.”
“Raj?” Gavin asked. “That doesn’t make sense, though. If he was just helping smuggle someone off the surface, there are easier and cheaper ways of doing it.”
“Well, someone is inside here, Gavin,” Mickey said. “But it doesn’t make sense. How long could a person survive in one of these?”
“Depends? A few weeks if there’s enough oxygen, food and water,” he replied. “But… that’s still a really stupid risk. Raj is smarter than that.” He pressed a few more buttons on the haptic console and shifted through the displays. “That’s not normal,” he said.
“What’s not?” Mickey asked.
“The vitals, they’re not… Jesus, I think whoever’s in here is dying, Mick,” Gavin replied. He looked at her. “We gotta get them out. Like now.”
“We’re not opening that,” she said. “We have no idea if that’s even a person in there at all. For all we know it’s a dog or… hell, some kind of virus or something.”
“It’s a person,” Gavin said. He tapped a few buttons on the display, and a skeletal structure appeared on the screen. “A woman.”
Mickey looked at the screen. “Dammit,” she said. There was no denying it. It was, indeed, a person. She looked to Gavin. “How long does she have?”
“Let’s just say the sooner we get her out of there, the better the chance she’ll survive,” Gavin replied.
“We gotta go dark,” she replied. “If our asses are still in one piece when that ship carries on by, we’ll pull her out of that box.” She looked up. “EthOS, how we coming?”
“I am prepared to shut down all systems and enter into passive mode, Mickey.”
“Get it done,” she said.