The lights in the cockpit went out, blanketing Walker in absolute darkness. Not even the red, white and green indicator LEDs present in the Ruin’s console were lit up. The engines were dead, and everything was quiet. Normally it might have been a calming experience.
Nonetheless, Walker’s heart was beating out of his chest. They’d managed to skirt in between two asteroids as they traveled past the Buoy-Lane, temporarily breaking the line of sight between the Gambler’s Ruin and the approaching ship, the Rivendell. Maneuvering was left to EthOS. A human couldn’t have done it nearly as well, not even Walker, who prided himself on his ability to pilot.
So there he sat, in abstract darkness, waiting for the moment the Rivendell came into sight, hoping beyond hope that whatever systems might be running aboard the Rivendell took no notice of their skulking in the shadows.
It wasn’t his first time dealing with Jackers. The last time was before Gavin had come aboard, long before passive functions were even one of Mickey’s pipe dreams. Back then, they were being pursued by a larger ship, which was probably their biggest saving grace. They’d simply disconnected from the Buoy-Lane and piloted the ship manually into the Ceres Constabulary Zone. The Jackers broke off their pursuit as soon as they realized there was no way to continue pursuit without pissing off the Ceresians.
This would mark the first time they’d simply hid. Walker didn’t like it. He felt vulnerable. However, it was likely the best possible course of action considering the size and assumed capabilities of the ship in pursuit.
Walker waited in silence, keeping his eyes trained on the Buoy-Lane, watching intently for the first sign of the Rivendell to come into sight. He’d know straight away if they were spotted. The question was whether or not they’d have time to do something about it.
The way Jackers operated was rather simplistic, but brutal. Most of their ships were salvage jobs, either from derelicts or simply picking up the pieces left after a successful attack. Weapons fitted onto a spacecraft was a rare thing, unless you were with one of the Corps, or mounted to the outer hull of a station like the Combine. For Jackers, it was much more primitive. They would reinforce their hulls with scrap from some of their conquests, or rig up some sort of rudimentary propulsion system meant to damage the hull of whatever they were attacking. Casualties weren’t something they tried to avoid. Rather, they intended to kill everyone on board so they could salvage in peace.
Very little was known about the Jackers. Where they operated from, who they were, or otherwise. He’d heard rumours, of course. Even on the Combine, people tended to speculate on them. The theories ranged from the mundane to the absurd. Some said they were incestuous cannibals. There were even theories that suggested they were operating entirely on the orders of the Corporate Congress in order to justify their increased policing of Inner Sol.
Frankly, Walker didn’t care what they were. He only cared about not being seen by them.
Before long, he caught the tip of the Rivendell as it drifted past at high speed. So far, so good. It flowed through the Buoy-Lane, showing no signs of slowing down or altering its trajectory. If it had seen them, the ship’s behavior showed no evidence.
It was smaller than he’d expected, and nowhere as grungy as he’d expected a Jacker ship to appear up close. Walker didn’t recognize the model, either. If it was originally a derelict, it was a rare model.
Something didn’t sit quite right. Something about it was off. The ship was painted a flat gray, with a solid red strip coasting down the exterior.
The ship carried on past them, moving away at incredible speeds. Speed that relaxed Walker’s heartbeat. So long as it kept going at that rate, Walker was relatively certain it would pass right by them.
Behind him, he heard the latch on the cockpit door clunk open. Walker didn’t turn his head. He was too focused on the Rivendell.
“Walker?” came Mickey’s voice. “We good?”
“So long as they keep moving,” he replied. “But I don’t think those were Jackers.”
“What makes you say that?”
Walker shook his head. “A hunch.”
“Well, when it’s safe, I need you in cargo,” she said, coming to a rest next to him. She watched the retreating form of the Rivendell. “We got another issue.”
“Are we gonna die in the next thirty seconds?” Walker replied.
“No,” she replied. “But I couldn’t tell you how the next thirty minutes are gonna go.”
Eventually, the Rivendell reached the edge of another asteroid, and carried on past it. “Looks like they’re carrying on,” he said. “Let’s give it at least ten minutes before we go back online. We’ll rest here for a few hours.”
“Walker, we got… a stowaway,” Mickey announced.
Walker remained silent for a beat. “I’m sorry, what?” he asked.
“Looks like Singh’s cargo had an extra treat. There’s something inside. Alive, looks like.”
He turned to her. “Something? What kind of something?”
“Human. Female, according to Gavin. But… shit Walker, there’s something really weird about it.”
“Weirder than moving human cargo?”
“Well her vitals are failing,” she replied. “Gavin’s down in the hold trying to figure out what he can with a flashlight. We’ll need the lights back if we’re going to make sense of this. But he says we gotta get her out.”
Walker frowned. “Not our problem,” he said.
“Walker, she’s dying.”
“Hell no. That’s not our business. We were paid to move cargo, I–” he paused, meeting the accusatory look in Mickey’s eyes. “Ah hell.”
“I seen you do some messed up things, Walker Dane, but you ain’t the kind to just let someone die.”
Walker didn’t answer right away. Instead, he looked back out of the cockpit. The Rivendell was long gone. Still close enough to pick up their engines if they went back online, but not close enough to pick up internal lighting.
“Dammit,” he said. “Okay, hit the lights. Let’s see this.”
“This is a head scratcher, eh mon Capitan?” Gavin asked as Walker descended into the hold. He was floating horizontally above the cargo. “Can’t wait to meet our new friend.”
“What do we need to do?”
“There’s a release command in the OS,” Gavin replied. “I hit it about two minutes ago.”
“You what? I told you to wait,” Mickey said.
“Hey, I can’t make sense of her vitals from out here,” he replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was looking at her vitals. For all intents and purposes, when they look like that, they’re in the process of dying. But… that’s where it gets weird. Cessation of bodily functions usually breaks down in stages. Y’know, the heart slows, the organs shut down, the brain dies,” he explained. “But that wasn’t happening to her. Her vitals are telling me she’s dying, but they’re not changing.”
“So she’s… not dying?”
Gavin shrugged. “That’s why I opened it up. But then it gets weirder, see?” He gestured to the haptic display. “This should be opening right away, but it’s on a timer. Still two minutes left. And then there’s this.” He pointed to some writing on the exterior of the pod. It was small, hardly noticeable against the gray lines.
“LSS John Galt?” Walker said. He leaned in closer. “Jesus, this is LegionCorp property.”
“I figure it’s the name of the ship it came from,” he said. “Was probably used by a survivor to escape the John Galt, then probably gathered dust for years before it ended up on Mars. But I don’t think this is a regular escape pod.”
“Because this one was designed differently that others I’ve seen. I took a closer look and realized this thing’s full of fluid.”
Walker looked to him, blank-faced. “That’s impossible.”
“Well, depends on the fluid. There are some that are completely breathable, but I don’t know why you’d want to,” Gavin replied. “And since we lost Earth, it’s probably in very short supply.”
“So she wasn’t dying?”
Gavin shrugged. “Maybe?”
Walker sighed. He rubbed his eyes in frustration. “You’re lucky I don’t knock you out,” Walker said. “If this costs us two hundred and fifty grand, it’s on you. You hear me?”
“Did you figure anything out about identity?”
“Logs are clean,” Gavin said. “Someone purged them. But there’s that.” He pointed to the red Q adorning the exterior cargo pod. “The Red Queen.” He laughed.
“Red Queen,” he said. “The Red Queen in the Gambler’s Ruin?” He looked at the blank stares on both Walker and Mickey, then sighed. “Gambler’s Ruin isn’t simply the rule that the house always wins. It refers to a theory of biological evolution too, specifically as it relates to extinction. The idea that evolution has to happen as quickly as possible in order for species to avoid extinction. It’s the same with the Red Queen. It alludes to the idea that you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.” He shrugged. “Just a funny coincidence, is all.”
Walker furrowed his brow. “That’s a little too much of a coincidence,” he replied. “I don’t like too much coincidence.”
“Yeah, thing is that Singh’s the man who taught me about those theories,” Gavin added. “So you might be right. I think he may have chosen us for this because of the name of the ship. He was always superstitious.”
Walker looked down to the countdown. Thirty seconds. “Should we leave the room before this thing releases?”
“Wouldn’t do any good,” he replied. “Even if this were some long-dead virus, it’d kill us just as easily no matter where we were on the ship. We’re screwed regardless.”
“I’m revisiting that idea about knocking you out,” Walker informed him.
Gavin only shrugged sheepishly.
The pod started to beep as it reached the fifteen second mark.
“But I do suggest keeping a distance,” Gavin added before pushing himself away from the pod. Gavin and Mickey followed in suit.
As the timer counted down toward zero, the beeping coalesced into a single long tone. Walker and Mickey moved toward the edge of the cargo hold, both uncertain about what was to come. The beep came to a sudden stop.
“Is that normal?” Walker asked. No sooner had he asked it, he heard a clunking noise, then a long hiss as the pod opened as an amber liquid began to float out of the pod, unrestricted by gravity and propelled by the internal pressure. Within it, Walker could make out a form. It was human, all right. Human and female. Very female. Her pale form became more apparent as the fluid began to dissipate into the air as it got sucked up through the microducts. The three of them could only stare at her with a mix of uncertainty and no small amount of fear.
The woman was young. Perhaps twenty-five at most. Little beads of whatever fluid was with her inside the sarcophagus floated around her as she drifted over the cargo bay floor. Her long brown hair obscured her face, but that wasn’t what shocked Walker. Rather, it was the woman’s legs that drew his attention.
It wasn’t an attraction thing, although he did make a mental note of her curves and filed it away for later review. The fact that she was dressed down to her underwear left a bit of an impression. But her legs were… full. Thick, but not from the same sort of body fat the comfort girls at the Jovian Combine were known for. They were lean, the muscles well formed, almost like the Jovian Skimmers, who were used to high gravity during their corrective burns while harvesting Helium-3 from the Jovian atmosphere. He’d heard sometimes the gravity got so heavy that lesser men’s hearts would simply stop, unable to support the weight.
He looked over to the others, who were also staring at the prone young woman, slack-jawed. She was pale, but alive. It was obvious.
It was even more obvious she started to cough violently, expelling whatever fluid filled her lungs. The three of them could only look at each other in shock while the woman retched, filling the air with floating bubbles of the amber fluid. She gasped for air, and then her eyes started to flutter open. Breathing heavily, she focused her vision directly on Walker.
Suddenly, the woman jerked away, sending her careening end over end into the wall. She frantically grabbed for it, but her hands slipped from its purchase. She flipped upside down for a moment before she managed to grab onto the floor and pull herself down. She quickly turned back to Walker and the others.
“What is this?” she asked. The way she spoke was odd. He’d heard it before, in movies. Her speech was accented. British. At least he thought it was British. Some people on the Combine still spoke that way, but it was… different. “Where’s Gregor?” She coughed again. “Who are you?”
Walker immediately put his hands up. “Whoa,” he said. “It’s cool. We’re not gonna hurt you. We don’t know any Gregor. We… got you from a man named Rajinder Singh. Listen, are you all right?”
She blinked, shook her head. “I don’t… I don’t recall,” she said. She paused, then looked to Walker. “Where are we?”
“We just entered the belt at Buoy-Lane Gamma about twenty hours ago,” Walker explained. “We ran into some… Jackers, we think. We had to shut down your magnetosphere, and that’s when we discovered you were in there.”
The young woman looked over to the pod she had come from, and reached out to touch the red Q on the side of the cargo. She turned back to Walker. “I’m… What’s the date?”
“We got you about a week ago at Icarus,” Walker said. “When did you go in?”
“Icarus?” she replied. “Mars?”
Walker looked back to Mickey for a moment. She was still pretty disoriented, that much was clear, but she seemed honestly surprised to hear she had been there.
She looked back at him. “What is the date?”
“Eleven-twenty-three,” Mickey responded.
“Eleven… November?” She shook her head. “That’s… the year. What year is it?”
“What year?” Walker asked. “It’s… sixty-four.”
“Twenty-one sixty-four?” she asked.
“What? No,” Walker said. “That was like twenty-five years ago. Miss, when did you go into that pod?”
She kept her eyed trained on Walker for a moment before her eyelids started to flutter. A moment later, her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she began to convulse.
“Seizure!” Gavin exclaimed. He rushed in alongside Walker and cradled the woman in his arms, pulling a pen from his pocket and putting it between her teeth. He held her as her shaking began to subside, and she lay limply in his arms.
“What the hell was that?”
“Not sure,” Gavin said, checking her out. “She’s alive, breathing.” He looked up. “We gotta get her into the galley so I can take a look at her.”
Walker folded his arms. “Do what you gotta, but strap her in. I don’t want her wandering around this ship until we get a bead on her. That was too weird,” he said.
“She thought it was twenty years ago,” Mickey said. “That’s not weird, that’s delusional. She was more wigged out about being here than we were.”
Walker shook his head. “I don’t wanna read too much into that right now,” he replied. “I need to get back into the cockpit and make sure we’re not staring down the Rivendell, and you need to put EthOS back online.” He looked to Gavin. “Don’t be an idiot. Figure out what’s wrong with her and try to make her better.”
“Come on, when am I ever an idiot?”
Both Walker and Mickey stared him down.
Gavin blew a kiss. “You guys love me.” He started moving her toward the galley. “Come on, honey. They’ll never stand in the way of our love.”
“Weirdo,” Mickey commented.