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Chapter Four: The Briar Rose

The ECG display on the wall rose and fell with perfect regularity. Mickey could tell that much as she entered the room, but the little numbers on the screen were beyond her understanding. She was certain one of them had to do with blood pressure, and maybe another had something to do with brain activity? Gavin had hooked her up to every device he had. Thankfully, the Starline series of ships came stock with medical peripherals. Some parts had to be replaced, but fortunately Gavin knew exactly what to get. It was a huge change from the simple first aid kit that she and Walker had been riding on since the early days.

To Mickey, everything looked normal. But the way Gavin was frantically going over the data hinted that not all was well.

He looked back at her. “Something’s weird, Mick,” he said. “We good upstairs?”

“Yeah, Walker’s waiting for the next Buoy reconfiguration before we move again. EthOS says it’ll be another half hour before we can get underway. But we’ll be far enough away from the Rivendell’s exit point that they’ll never find us. What’s up here?”

“Well, her heartbeat’s normal. Blood pressure’s another matter. It’s perfect.”

“Is that weird?”

“That pod was filled with some sort of fluid. It’s all over her. EthOS is analyzing a sample right now. But I didn’t see any food in there. Not that she could eat it if she was unconscious, so my guess is that we’re going to find it’s full of nutrients. There have been experiments in that sort of thing before, but none recently that I’m aware of.” He looked to her. “But that heartbeat I found was weak. I’m starting to think that was the point.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think she was in hibernation,” he said.

Mickey raised a skeptical eye. “Hibernation? No way. Every time we’ve tried that it’s ended in disaster.”

“I know,” Gavin replied. “The times it didn’t result in accidental death, it resulted in enough brain damage to revert them back to childhood. So that’s why the first thing I wanted to do was check her brain activity.” He swiped the display, and brought up an image of the woman’s brain. With a few more taps, a second brain appeared alongside it.

“On the right is the data from your last check-up,” he said. “Normal human female, 20-30 years of age, right?”

The difference was like night and day. While Mickey’s brain activity flared up enough to offer a good visualization of her mind, the girl’s brain activity was tenfold.

“This is the opposite of brain damage,” Gavin said. “She’s unconscious right now, and yet it looks like she’s got a lot going on upstairs.”

“Are you sure that’s not a dream or something?”

“See, I thought of that,” he explained. “Her visual cortex is highly active though, but so are her math and short-term memory sections. During REM sleep, the visual cortex has very little activity, and most visual information comes from the extrastriates.”

Mickey’s eyes glazed over. “English, Gav,” she said.

“She’s accessing parts of her brain that people who are asleep tend not to, and yet she’s still unconscious,” he said. “Just before you came in, I noticed this.” He tapped on the girl’s brain image and zoomed in. “There is a lot of information going back and forth between her visual cortex and math center of her brain. A lot.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m still working on that one,” he said. “But if I were to guess, I’d say she doesn’t have a normal brain.”

The meaning struck Mickey like an asteroid impact. “Hold on,” she said. “You’re saying she’s… what, not human?”

“I didn’t say that,” he said. “She’s human. But she might have a weird brain mutation that allows her to survive hibernation. We might be looking at a test tube baby. They’ve been experimenting with gen-joking since before Zero Day. But how Raj might have gotten mixed up in this sort of thing is beyond me. In school he counted himself as a conscientious objector to the practice.”

“What I’m getting from all of this is that maybe we should have left her alone?” Mickey said.

Gavin gave her a sheepish grin. “Yeah, maybe. Sorry.”

She shook her head. “It ain’t me that’s gonna have your balls.”

“I took a blood sample,” he explained. “It’s running in the centrifuge right now, then I’ll have EthOS analyze it.”

A notification rang from the display and Gavin turned to look at it. “We might get some answers sooner than later. She’s waking up.”

Mickey turned her attention to the girl. She sighed. “Let me handle questions,” she said.

“You?” Gavin asked.

Mickey shot him a stark look.

“Hey, no offense. It’s just… you’d just as soon knock most people over the head than talk reasonably.”

“Most people aren’t confused girls we pulled out of a pod,” she said.

A moment later, Aura started to stir. Her eyes began to flutter open, and she looked around blearily as her vision focused. They settled on Mickey’s face and shot open. She struggled against the straps.

“What is this?” she asked. “Why am I strapped down?”

“Easy,” Mickey said. “We’re in Zero-G. We just didn’t want you floating away while we checked on you.”

The girl suddenly became aware of the devices attached to her. She looked toward Gavin, then past him to the display. She looked back to Mickey.

“Am I a prisoner?” she asked.

“No,” Mickey said. She looked to Gavin. “Can we disconnect her, Gav?”

Gavin nodded. “I’ve got all the info I need for now,” he replied. He reached out and started to pull the peripherals from her chest and head. He loosened a strap, allowing her free use of her arms.

The girl met Mickey’s gaze. “I… apologise,” she said.

“Nothing to apologise for yet, honey,” Mickey said. “But we got some questions and would appreciate some answers.”

“I could say the same,” she replied. “What is your name?”

“I’m Mickey,” she said. “That’s Gavin, and the other guy from earlier, that’s Walker.”

The girl nodded. “Aura,” she offered. “My name is Aura.”

“Great,” Mickey replied. “Listen, Aura. We ain’t bad people. And I want to believe you aren’t a bad person either. So I’m gonna do you a solid and lay it straight, okay?”

Aura nodded.

“We don’t wanna have to worry about you, but you know how it is up here among strangers. You play it cool and we’ll make sure you stay fed and taken care of at least until we hit the Combine. But screw around, and I’ll personally see to it you’re breathing void by the end of the day. We on the same page?”

Aura looked momentarily offended, but she soon nodded. “The… Combine?” she asked, then shook her head. “If you’re true to your word, then yes, we are on the same page. But I have questions.”

“And we might have some answers for you, so let’s do it shot for shot. I ask, you ask. Is that acceptable?”

“It is,” she replied.

“Okay,: Mickey said. “So my first question is pretty simple. How’d you end up in that pod?”

“I… entered it willingly, if that’s your concern,” she replied. “Although at the time, there were few options available to me.”

“How long were you in there?” Mickey asked.

“I thought it was my turn to ask a question,” Aura said.

Mickey leaned back with a smirk. “You’re right. Shoot.”

“You said you… acquired me from a man named Singh,” she said. “Why, and for what purpose?”

“As for the why, we have no idea. Walker said he was pretty tight-lipped on the whole thing. He did stress that we weren’t supposed to be tampering with you, but… we didn’t have a choice. Jackers were bearing down on us, and we had to hide. Your pod had an artificial magnetosphere and we needed to shut it down. But the purpose was we were supposed to throw you out near Saturn. Titan, to be specific.”

“Titan,” she repeated. She looked confused.

“You don’t know why you were going to Titan, do you?”

Aura looked back at her. “Is that your question?”

Mickey only looked back at her. She then let out a short laugh. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

Aura shook her head. “No idea. Are there any stations or settlements there?”

“Is that your question?” Mickey asked.

“Sure,” she replied.

“None. That’s what made it so weird,” she replied. “How long ago did you go into that pod?”

“February eighth,” she replied. “Twenty-One Twenty-Four.”

Silence suddenly filled the room. Suddenly, Gavin let out a short laugh. Both Aura and Mickey looked to him.

“What? That’s… that’s absurd. That’s… the day after Zero Day,” Gavin replied. “That’s over sixty years ago.”

“So it has been that long,” Aura replied. She looked to her hands. “I hadn’t expected…”

“Hold on,” Mickey said. “I’m still processing that. You’re saying you been in that pod for over sixty years?” she asked.

“It would appear so,” Aura replied.

“Well, may I be the first to say you’re looking pretty damn good for your age,” Mickey said. “Pull the other one, Aura.”

Aura’s brow furrowed. She looked over to Gavin. “You’re the medic, correct?” she asked.

Gavin nodded.

“Then I’m guessing you saw some things on my medical readouts that confused you. Probably to do with my brain activity. Have you done my bloodwork yet?”

Gavin folded his arms and smirked at the girl. “It’s on the centrifuge. And yeah, there’s some weird activity happening, but you’re having a laugh if you think I’m going to buy you being in there for over six decades.”

“Then allow me to explain so we can move past this hurdle. The increased brain activity you no doubt noticed is caused by two factors. First, the physiological make-up of my brain is different than most. You no doubt noticed increased activity within the intraparietal lobe, correct?”

Gavin glanced over to Mickey for a second, then back to Aura. He nodded.

“And I imagine your first thought was that it was genetically engineered in such a way?”

Another nod.

“On that point, you are partially correct. I was, unfortunately, an early recipient of human gene editing. But that’s in part due to the circumstances of how my brain formed in my mother’s womb.” She looked back at Mickey. “Ask me a math question.”

Mickey looked to Gavin, then back at Aura. “Okay, I’ll bite. What’s four thousand sixteen times five-hundred and twenty-three?”

“Two million, one-hundred thousand, three-hundred sixty eight,” she replied without skipping a beat.

Mickey looked to Gavin for a moment. Then looked up to the ceiling. “EthOS, is that right?”

“Affirmative, Mickey. Aura is correct.”

“EthOS?” Aura asked. “You have an EthOS system on board?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Mickey said. “So you’re quick at math, that doesn’t prove anything.”

“You’re right,” she said. “Perhaps you’ll believe me better when my blood results come back.”

“Why? What are we going to find?”

“I’d rather leave that to be a surprise. So until then, I’m okay with you not believing me. Do you wish to continue these questions, or wait until you’re certain I’ve been truthful?”

Mickey was somewhat taken aback. There was something… off about this girl. Not in what she was saying, but in… how she carried herself. She’d seen attitudes like that before, when she’d first emigrated to the Combine and spoke to some of the people in charge.

Whoever Aura was, she was a person who was used to at least some measure of authority. Mickey couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but it was a concern. She reactively pulled a spanner from her utility belt and pointed it at the girl.

“You know what?” she asked. “I think I’m gonna take you up on that offer. But in the meantime, you’re staying put. You hear that?”

Aura nodded. “Very well,” she said. She looked over to Gavin. “How long until you have the results?”

“Fifteen minutes,” Gavin said with a shrug.

“Then perhaps you should get your captain here as well for this. Because what’s about to come will be something you’ll all need to hear.”

Mickey and Gavin both looked to each other, the unsurety showing clearly on their faces.

The incessant chiming roused Thomas Caine from his light sleep. He’d always been a light sleeper, for as far back as he could remember. In his childhood even the slightest noise would wake him. And even today, he often had trouble getting to sleep against the din of the engines of the Good Samaritan.

Truth be told, he hated travel, but as the Chief Engineer of Operations for the Exterra Corporation, and the currently Seated Speaker of the Corporate Congress, travel simply came with the job. He regularly shifted between the LaGrange Stations situated along Earth’s former orbital path, and occasionally went to Mars. At least with the completed construction of their first Solar Class ship, the Good Samaritan, he could travel in conditions a bit closer to his usual comforts upon Roving Eden, the headquarters of the Corporate Congress. Roving Eden, back when Earth still hung in the skies below the station, had been a luxury hotel reserved for Earth’s elite. When Zero Day came, it had sustained the least amount of damage, and after a few weeks of corrective operations, once again maintained a stable orbit. It had been state of the art then, a revolving mass that boasted of having near-Earth levels of gravity, glamorous accommodations and a station-wide arboretum filled with all manners of earth vegetation.

With the loss of the Earth, the station had briefly served to house refugees and survivors of the orbital stations that hadn’t fared so well, at least until such time as the remaining forces of the  Exterra and Legion Corporations had come to a consensus about how to proceed. The decision was made objectively; ship workers to Mars, except those needed to maintain and operate Roving Eden.

With few exceptions over the years, Caine had remained firmly upon Roving Eden, working his way to the top position first with Exterra’s extraterrestrial operations division, and then the Corporate Congress itself.

He sat up in bed and felt momentarily dizzy, lightheaded. He wasn’t sure if it was a side-effect of being on the Good Samaritan with its weak gravity in comparison to Roving Eden, or as a result of his blood pressure. Regardless, he pushed his discomfort out of his consciousness and leaned over to press the red display light on his intercom pad.

“Caine,” he said, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “What is it?”

“Mister Caine,” came the reply. He recognized the voice easily. It was Lauren Pizzey. Lauren had been a Councilwoman for the Congress once before her activities on a Mars project disappointed Caine’s predecessor. Now she served as a liaison from Legion Corporation aboard the Good Samaritan, part of the Network of Trust between the two Corporations that ran the Congress. “I’ve been asked to inform you when we have an update on the Rajinder Singh situation.”

Caine rolled his eyes. Pizzey always was a particular pain in his ass, right from when she was a young, fresh-faced attache for a Legion Councilmember. Caine used to pay her no mind until he realized her ambition. There was a time he saw her as a threat to his own ambitions, but now that she’d been disgraced, that wasn’t a concern. Still, her presence aboard the Good Samaritan was an annoyance.

“Well?” Caine asked.

“Security forces located him in the Arabian Highlands at New Toronto two hours ago,” she explained. “He is currently in transit from Icarus.”

“Ah,” he said. “How long?”

“He should be aboard within a few minutes,” she continued. “However, I have to question the necessity of directly questioning him. If you’d explain why he’s so important, I could have–”

“Don’t concern yourself with that,” Caine replied. “He’s a high security asset, that’s all you need to know.”

There was a brief silence on the other end of the intercom. Caine smirked. The only time Pizzey went quiet was when she was chewing her cheek. She was offended.

“I would like to remind you, sir, that I still hold level fifteen security clearance–”

“–and?” Caine interrupted her. “Ms. Pizzey, you know as well as anyone else that that doesn’t entitle you to information unrelated to your position as liaison. I would encourage you to remember that, especially when addressing the Seated Speaker.”

“I meant no disrespect,” she replied.

Yes you did, you cow, Caine thought to himself. He stretched his arms and stood up, looking out the window of his stateroom toward Deimos. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes. Have security put him in the brig. I want complete privacy while speaking to him. Am I understood?”

Another moment of silence. “Yes, sir.” The intercom went silent.

Caine yawned and began to get dressed. He ventured a look in the mirror, checking to see if any of the short, greying hairs in his goatee needed to be trimmed. The greying was a recent development, only a few years old, but one that he had feared in his youth. Truth be told, he now found the look to be quite distinguished, if a little worrisome. Aging was always going to be a matter of contention for Thomas Caine. And that was exactly why he needed to hunt down Rajinder Singh.

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Published inSol: Ruin
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