“Okay,” Walker said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. He peered up at Mickey and Gavin, who floated nearby. The two of them had come in together a few minutes earlier, grave looks on both of their faces. Walker had been so focused on keeping his eyes trained on the void for signs of the Rivendell that he’d almost forgotten about their little anomaly. But when he’d been told that the girl, Aura, had been in the pod for a little longer than they’d initially thought, it gave him enough pause to forget entirely about the Jackers. “What are we talking about here? She’s saying she’s been in that box for over sixty years?”
“That’s what she’s saying,” Mickey replied. She gestured over her shoulder with her thumb. “I didn’t believe it at first either… but then Gavin did her blood work. Nothing she was saying made sense until then.”
“I’m going to need this explained,” he asserted.
“Simple answer?” Gavin began. “She’s telling the truth. She’s at least eighty years old. But if I were to take a guess, I’d say it’s entirely possible she’s well over a hundred.”
“And the more complicated answer?”
Gavin shook his head. “I’m not going to pretend I entirely understand the science, but she’s been… augmented. First, her brain anomalies. It’s not normal, her visual cortex is expanded, connected to her math center. It’s not a normal brain. Then, there was the fluid in the pod. I thought it was a simple breathing fluid, not too dissimilar from what you’d find in the womb. During gestation, babies survive for nine months before they come out and start breathing air, right? But… it wasn’t noticeably oxygenated. You or I would drown in minutes. What it did have was a high level of nutrients. You could drink some of that fluid and it’d be like a meal, if you could get past the idea that it had been mixed with her waste.”
“Wait, you mean that stuff was her piss and shit?” Walker asked. “It’s all over the cargo bay!”
“Also dead skin cells,” Gavin replied. “But… not exactly. It didn’t make sense until I got a good look at it under the microscope.” He raised his head. “EthOS, you wanna show us?”
A moment later, the display on the wall behind him lit up with a view of the strange amber fluid. The image zoomed in quickly until small amorphous shapes began to show. Most were somewhat transparent and blurry. But there were small, rigid structures in the fluid as well. The zoom continued to show a small cluster of the darker shapes before the image came into focus.
Walker narrowed his eyes. While he couldn’t make sense of the more transparent shapes, the dark, clearly-defined shapes were a far different matter. He couldn’t be certain what they were, but they were definitely not natural.
“Jesus-on-the-cross,” Walker commented. “Are those…?”
“Nanomachines,” Gavin replied. It was very clear. Small, grey mechanical devices with several small limbs around a long body. “Inactive now, but I’m willing to bet as little as an hour ago those things were busy little bastards. Best I can figure, they were re-working Aura’s waste to turn it into nutrients in order to make sure she didn’t starve to death in there.”
“It gets crazier,” Mickey commented.
Gavin nodded. “Then I checked her blood… EthOS?”
The display shifted again, this time showing a close-up of the girl’s blood cells floating in a mass. The same machines were present, with one difference; they were active. Walker watched in wonder as the little machines went from cell to cell, injecting something into each cell it came across.
“They’re oxygenating her blood,” he replied. “Even outside her body. Her blood is still, in a sense, operating as though she’s still alive. It’s doing more than that, though. They’re self-replicating out of nothing but microscopic minerals in her blood. They cannibalize failed units and fix themselves with it. These machines are tiny production lines. They replicate, and they maintain. I checked the puncture wound from where I drew her blood. It’s just gone. Now puncture wounds don’t take long to heal, but there’d still be evidence of it. You couldn’t even tell I’d taken any blood. So I asked her about it. You know what she said? Yup. That’s normal.”
“So what, she heals fast?”
“Rapidly,” Gavin replied. “She heals rapidly. Now I’m only guessing, but I’d suggest if we were to shoot her in the leg, she could be up and walking within a few minutes.”
“I’m tempted,” Mickey commented. “You know. For science.”
“Regardless, that also explains why she still looks like she’s twenty,” Gavin continued. “So, for what it’s worth, her story checks out. But there was still a lingering doubt. What if it’s just all an elaborate ruse, right? Then she told me her full name.” He turned back toward the wall. “EthOS, what do we have on Aura Christianson.”
“Aura Christianson was a theoretical physicist credited for the development of the third generation EmDrive functions that led to the propagation of high mass extra-terrestrial transit,” she said as the display went through a number of articles and papers all bearing her name. “She was embroiled in a controversy surrounding her involvement in the Leon Initiative, which saw the death of sixteen out of the twenty-one participants in the Initiative, which dealt heavily with illegal human augmentation. She was found not guilty in a landmark case in 2094 that led to the formation of the anti-eugenics laws in 2095 due to her being a minor at the time the Initiative was formed. She continued her research at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology on Earth until 2120. There is no mention of her in the Universal Encyclopedia after that year.”
“The Leon Initiative?” Walker asked.
“The Leon Initiative was a LegionCorp Dark Project initiated in 2065,” she explained. “Dedicated to research into human genetic augmentation, and technological integration to prolong human life and increase normal human capabilities to superhuman levels. As a result of mismanagement, the findings and technology developed by the Initiative was leaked to the public after interference from an Exterra Corporation executive in 2093.”
“Could she be lying? Making any of this up? I mean, it seems like a convenient story,” Walker said.
“EthOS, show us a picture of Aura Christianson,” Gavin asked.
A picture popped up on the display. There was no mistaking it. Her hair was slightly different. It was shorter and styled, and she was wearing a lab coat, but it was the same woman that was currently waiting outside the cockpit.
“What the hell did we sign up for?” Walker asked absently.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re really earning that money,” Gavin commented. “I’m more interested in how the hell Raj got ahold of her, and what the hell he’s thinking sending her to Saturn.”
“I don’t like it,” Walker said.
“I hear that,” Mickey added.
Walker sighed. “All right. EthOS, can you ask her to come in?”
“Yes, Walker,” EthOS replied.
A few moments later, the cockpit door slid open, and Aura appeared. She leveled her gaze on the three of them.
“I take it you believe me now?”
“How old are you, really?” Walker asked.
“I was born in 2060,” she said. “That would make me a hundred and twenty-eight years old.”
Walker remained silent for a moment. “And you don’t know why Singh’s got us moving you to Saturn?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” she replied.
“Aura, you can appreciate how this is… difficult for us, right? I mean, my first concern is that we weren’t told you were in there. We don’t make it a habit to traffick in people.”
“I would hope not,” Aura replied. “And yes.”
“And we’re not really… well prepared for this sort of thing. Singh paid us a lot of money to move you to Titan. With the promise of more once we got you there.”
“I understand that,” Aura replied. “I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine why.”
Walker nodded again. “This is difficult, because now I’m… conflicted. If you had just remained cargo, this would never have been a problem. But now that you’re a… human? Mostly human? That changes things.”
“I understand,” she replied. “You say you have to stop at the Jovian Combine, correct?”
“Then I will part ways with you there,” Aura responded.
“Well, let’s not be too hasty here,” Gavin remarked.
Aura turned to him. “I was told I wasn’t your prisoner,” she said. “Am I to understand that’s not the case?”
“No, you’re not a prisoner,” Walker replied. He paused. “Look, I’ll level with you. We’re out of our element here. We move cargo. From time to time we’ll haul ice between the belt and the Combine, and on a rare occasion we’ll take a passenger, but they’re not usually in a cargo pod. But this? This is mad.”
“Clearly,” Aura responded. “I can’t for the life of me imagine why this Singh character wanted you to drop me near Titan, unless he was selling me to someone else. But Titan? I’m to understand we have yet to expand beyond Jupiter, but there could be something I’m missing. I’ve missed out on the events of the past several decades.”
“Singh’s not a bad guy,” Gavin replied. “If he wanted you there, there’s a good reason. I don’t think he’s intending to sell you into slavery.”
“Why were you in that pod, Aura?” Mickey asked.
Aura looked to her. “Because it was the better alternative at the time,” she replied. “It was what was best for everyone.”
“That’s a little too cryptic for my liking,” came Mickey’s response.
There were a few moments of silence before Aura continued. “I was… dangerous,” she explained.
“Emotionally unhinged,” Aura clarified. “I was not sane. When I saw the earth… when I saw our home destroyed, I became catatonic. My mind was overwhelmed. Stuck in a semi-permanent form of fight or flight. Considering who I was… we all felt it best I enter the pod. I don’t believe it was intended that I spend over sixty years in it, however.”
“Who is this we?” Walker asked. “When you first woke up, you mentioned Greg. Who’s Greg?”
“He was my assistant aboard the research station John Galt. In the aftermath of the Earth’s destruction, the station was… damaged. Five hundred staff, and only a dozen of us escaped. If it hadn’t been for Greg forcing me to leave, I would have gone down with the station. I… I still believe that might have been for the best,” she replied. “I have to find out what happened to him.”
“You could ask EthOS. She might know. What’s his full name?”
“Greg… Gregor. Solzhenitsyn.”
“That name ring a bell, EthOS?” Walker asked.
“There are several mentions of a Gregor Solzhenitsyn in the Universal Encyclopedia. His name appears on several research papers involving discoveries building upon Quantum Theory, but there is no record of him past 2122, two years prior to Zero Day.”
Aura nodded. “That was the year he came to work as my assistant aboard the Galt,” she explained. “It makes sense. John Galt was an Exterra Corporation Black Project, and–”
“Whoa, Exterra? You were an Exterra employee?”
Aura looked back to Walker. “You’re familiar with Exterra?”
Gavin, Walker and Mickey all looked to each other.
“Exterra was one of the two corporations who survived Zero Day. I mean, there were remnants of the others, but Exterra and Legion were the only two with enough infrastructure in orbit to actually survive. They helped form the Corporate Congress. They run Inner Sol, but they have their fingers throughout the system. Nobody’s beyond their reach.”
Aura remained silent for a few more moments.
“Perhaps it is best that I do speak to Rajinder Singh,” she said. “If nothing else, to find out if he knows what happened to Greg and the others.”
“I agree,” Walker said. “After that, if you’d still like us to leave you at the Combine, we’ll comply with that. But I’d be really disappointed if we didn’t at least try to get to the bottom of this.”
“We’re still a week out from Jupiter?” Aura asked.
“Six days,” he replied.
“Then let’s do that,” she replied. “And then we’ll play it by ear.”
“Right,” Walker said. He looked over to Gavin. “Can you reach him?”
“I’ll send an email,” he replied. “The rest is up to him.”
The floor was cool against Rajinder’s face and helped to soothe the throbbing pain coming from his swollen cheek. It was, he realized, a momentary comfort, and not much of one at that. But then, that was a subjective matter, especially considering his treatment the last… what, two hours? Three? His smartwatch had been stripped from him. His clothing. He’d been beaten, stripped naked, doused in water that he was certain had been purposely made cold and sprayed with a hydrogen peroxide sterilization vapor, his orifices had been poked and prodded, as though there was some risk he had stored a weapon. The treatment was far worse than he had expected in the event of his capture, so the cool floor was a temporary relief. The storm had yet to pass. He was merely in it’s eye. There was more; possibly worse to come.
He’d realized this was a likely outcome. He’d been warned of its eventuality, but even then he had hoped it wouldn’t. He wasn’t certain of the exact moment he knew he was out of luck, whether it was the moment he stood aboard the Icarus viewing deck to ensure the Gambler’s Ruin had left Mars safely and witnessed the approaching mass of the Good Samaritan, one of the six close calls he’d encountered in the week since, or if it was the appearance of the black-uniformed thugs that invaded his room at a downtrodden brothel in New Toronto.
Regardless, it happened, and Rajinder had to resign himself to his fate.
He knew, however, that far worse would come. Normally he would have been detained at some facility on Mars run by the Corporate Congress. Instead, they brought him to the Good Samaritan. The feeling in the pit of his stomach overwhelmed the leftover pains from his beating at that.
Still, his concern for now was absorbing as much comfort as he could from the cool metal floor in his cell, and trying to ignore the uneasy feeling of being in lighter gravity. He’d never been further away from the Martian surface than Icarus which had a unique gravity compared to Mars, but aboard the Good Samaritan, he was even lighter. Despite the uneasiness, there was a unique sense of relaxation from it that made him want to drift to sleep. That may have had more to do with the fact that he was exhausted from being woken up, beaten, humiliated and emotionally scarred than whether or not it was legitimately relaxing, however.
When the door slid open with a hiss, however, he still startled fiercely and curled up into a fetal position, guarding his neck and head as he prepared for a further beating. He felt strong hands grab at his arms and shoulders as he yelled out and looked up to them. They weren’t the same men that grabbed him, but they wore the same face. Stern, unfeeling. They looked at him no differently than they might have looked at a tool, their red uniforms pressed neatly and their boots were immaculately clean.
They lifted him to his feet and pushed him back onto the elevated cot near the rear of the cell, then forced his arms out to the side, binding them with plastic straps to the edge of the bed. He pleaded with them to let him go, to be gentle, but if they’d heard him, they made no indication.
Without uttering a sound, they turned and left the room, the door still open.
Rajinder watched as a tall figure leaned into the doorway, his shoulder against its frame.
“Mister Singh?” he said with a smile.
Rajinder recognized him, of course. There wasn’t a person alive who didn’t. Thomas Caine, the CEO of the Exterra Corporation, and the Seat of the Corporate Congress stood less than six feet away from him, looking down at him in satisfaction.
He looked away, like he had seen a devil. In a way, perhaps he had.
Caine stepped into the room and the door closed behind him with a swish. Rajinder looked up to him. Caine reached out and touched the man’s face gently. “I have to apologize about the unnecessary use of force. Some of our Martian security forces are rather… well, uncultured. Backwater, if you will,” he explained. “But in fairness, you were more elusive than most.”
“What do you want with me?” Raj asked.
“You? Nothing,” he said, then tapped him twice on the forehead. “What I want is in there, and you know exactly what I’m looking for. Your Red Queen.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied.
“You see, I thought you’d say that,” he said, pulling a small datapad from his front pocket. “You see, I’m really good at predicting outcomes. I’ve been working at it for a long time now. Longer than most would believe, actually. Would you like to hear how I predict our little discussion here will end?”
Rajinder didn’t reply, he only looked up at him.
“I knew you’d play dumb to begin. Then I knew I’d read a few passages from some emails that we picked up on, including one from Tzion.”
Rajinder looked up to him in shock. He was certain his encryption protocol was uncrackable. It was a non-linear fractal algorithm, not even the smartest AI in reality could have cracked it. How could Caine have broken through it?
“I even knew you’d look at me that way!” he exclaimed, slapping his knee as though he’d told a great joke. “You see, Raj. Can I call you Raj?” Another smile. “You see, you can’t hide things from the Corporate Congress. Especially not on Legion devices. All the encryption in the world doesn’t matter if we’re looking over your shoulder while you’re communicating.” He cocked his head to one side. “So let me tell you how this is going to go.”
Raj remained silent.
“You’re going to tell me two things,” he said. “First, I know you’ve squirreled her away somewhere. Whether she’s still on Mars somewhere or you got her smuggled off of Mars I don’t know yet, but rest assured, we have contingencies for both options. And second, you’re going to tell me exactly who Tzion is.”
Raj’s gaze shifted up toward Caine as he absorbed his second question. He knew about the Red Queen, that was obvious. But the question about Tzion…
Thomas Caine revealed a weakness to him: he didn’t know who Tzion was. Raj wasn’t a gambler, but he was rather good at evaluating chance. If he played it right, he might buy just enough time to ensure Caine never laid a hand on the Red Queen.
“Look, Raj. Either way you’re going to talk. I hate unnecessary violence. I saw too much of it as a child, and I find it all… too much. So I’ll be generous. You can tell me without the use of drugs or torture, and we can both sleep well tonight. But if you don’t, there’s a man right on the other side of that door that is very loyal to me, and lacks any sort of conscience who can remove up to fifty body parts painfully without any risk of you dying. But you’ll feel every part of it, and you’ll never be the same man again.” He smiled. “I’ll even sweeten the deal and offer you an employment contract with Exterra with full employment benefits and a room aboard Roving Eden.”
“You have a strange sense of generosity,” Raj commented.
“So I’ve been told,” he replied. “So which is it, Raj?”
Raj kept his tongue for a few moments. “I don’t suppose you’ll give me some time to mull it over, now would you?”
“Under all this pressure and you still retain a sense of humor?” Caine said, his smile widening. “I like you, Rajinder Singh. It would be a shame to remain on opposing sides. So let me simplify it; loyalty to this Tzion character will net you pain and suffering like you could never imagine. But… do me this one favor, and you’ll be well-fed in luxury for the rest of your days, with your choice of contributions. Now, this is the defining moment of your life, Raj. Choose quickly, or the choice will be made for you. And I guarantee you won’t like it. Where is the Red Queen?”
Raj looked away for a moment. Caine was serious. He knew that. For all the power the man had, he was still a business man, and as such was only as valuable as his word. His mind worked, trying to find a solution. Something, anything that might have him show mercy. It had been a week since the Gambler’s Ruin had left orbit. There was a chance they wouldn’t catch up with the ship before it could deliver the Red Queen to Titan, but it was slim. Still, it was the option that left his body parts attached, and the possibility of interrupting Caine in other ways. Before he knew it, the choice was made.
“A Galaxy Skyline model,” he said. “Gambler’s Ruin. I shipped it off with them a week ago.” There was no point in lying about the ship or time of departure; it was inconsequential if his plan worked, and would help sell his story better since there were records and they’d find it anyway.
“And where are they taking it?”
“To Tzion,” he explained. Another truth, but one that was to be bound within a lie. “At Jovian Combine.”
Caine tapped a few buttons on his datapad. “Set course for Jovian Combine immediately,” he said into it. He looked back to Raj. “And Tzion? Who is he?”
“I don’t know exactly. I’ve never met him,” Raj explained.
“But he still trusted you enough to entrust you with the Red Queen?”
“No,” Raj replied. “I inherited the Red Queen.”
Caine paused for a moment. Good, that was good. He’d been warned that Caine was a curious man. That curiosity would buy him the time he needed to formulate a more convincing lie. He could distract him with a narrow truth before he broadened the lies.
Caine started laughing. “Oh, that’s brilliant,” he said. “Aura’s been in stasis the whole time, hasn’t she? Since Zero Day?”
Raj blinked. Caine knew more about the Red Queen than he’d expected. Still, he could work with this. “For as long as I remember,” he said.
“And what does Tzion want with her?”
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“We both know better than that, Raj,” Caine said sharply, his demeanor shifting. “I warned you about lying. Nobody inherits a woman in stasis, keeps her secret and hidden and then just ships her off to the first anonymous account that emails him about her. Especially not you, Raj.” He leaned in closer and gripped Raj by the shoulder. “Now, what does he want with her?”
Raj swallowed. “He knows who she is,” he said. “He thinks she… he thinks she can help him. That’s all I know, I swear.”
“Help him do what, Raj?”
Raj had only one choice. He couldn’t reveal what was to happen. It had to be allowed to continue as planned, no matter the threat to his life. Now is when the lie had to be told. “He’s gathering a resistance against Inner Sol,” he said. “He’s organizing revolution. He believes she’s the key to making it happen.”
Caine leaned back and regarded Raj for a moment. He let out a low chuckle. “Not a bad idea,” he commented. “Futile, even with Aura Christianson, but there is a certain level of respect that I have no choice but to hold for him. I hope I get to meet him.”
“I’m certain that you will,” Raj replied. That wasn’t a lie.