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Chapter Seven: Slouch Toward Bethlehem

Lauren Pizzey sat with her back against the wall in the aft conference room, staring out the window at the vast darkness of the void outside of the Good Samaritan. By the evening, the void would be replaced by numerous assorted space rocks as they entered the Belt, traveling along a Buoy-Lane. The order came unexpectedly from Caine the night before, after his meeting with the Martian man they’d retrieved, Rajinder Singh. The Good Samaritan was to set course for the Jovian Combine, marking its first journey outside of Inner Sol, in search of a Fringer vessel, registered as the Gambler’s Ruin.

Pizzey didn’t quite know what to make of it. The ship was an ancient Skyline model, hardly notable other than the cargo capacity. The ship was registered under a man named Walker Dane. His picture revealed a man with disheveled sandy-brown hair and a freckled complexion hidden behind a short beard. Judging from the vacant look on his face, he was either drunk or hung over when the picture had been taken. A few run-ins with Combine security forces as a youth, but a fairly clean record since the ship was registered under a long-haul service, normally running between the Combine and the Belt, with a few odd trips to Icarus Station. He was rather unremarkable.

His crewmates revealed much of the same. Mckenzie Baird, thirty years old. A black woman with short hair, piercing eyes and lean features. Her expression seemed to be one of mild annoyance, reminding Lauren of a former lover. Mckenzie had spent most of her life on Europa, emigrated to the Combine and then took a position on the Gambler’s Ruin.

His third was mildly interesting, however. The ship had him registered as Ted Short, but his background data was suspiciously sparse. Lauren had seen it before, so ran a facial recognition scan on his photo. Gavin Chen was a runaway from Mars with strong Asian features and complexion. His identification photo was emotionless, but Lauren caught a glint in his eye that suggested smarminess. After Chen had disappeared from Mars, there had been a half-assed investigation that ended after six hours, concluding that he was already off-world. But that was about where Gavin Chen ended and Ted Short began. He came aboard the Gambler’s Ruin as a ship’s medic at Ceres.

But either way she shook it, the people were unremarkable. They neither controlled a vast fortune nor did they appear to have any serious political connections.

Not to mention that the Fringe settlements beyond the Belt were of low interest to the Corporate Congress. They didn’t have an infrastructure for cloud mining on Jupiter, and most of the goods from the Combine were of little-to-no use in Inner Sol. What minute resources could be gleaned from the Combine were mostly delivered to them by third-party cargo haulers. As long as those shipments kept coming in, the Combine was very low-priority.

As such, Pizzey herself had never been further out than the Belt after having to deal with a dispute with asteroid miners at Ceres ten years earlier, before she had been voted in as a LegionCorp representative with the Congress.

But this was something unprecedented. Not only for the Good Samaritan, but for the Seat himself to order the flagship of the Congress past the Belt after a mysterious meeting with a stranger.

Then there was Rajinder Singh.  Singh himself was a rather unremarkable man, comparatively. Born to a miner’s family in the Arabian Highlands, he’d shown an interest in biology from a young age, and as such was recruited into the medical program. Perhaps the only unique thing about him was that he appeared to be devoutly Sikh. In the years following Zero Day that might not have been so rare. After losing a planet, many had turned back to religion in order to find hope in the future. Over the past sixty years, that had mostly settled down. Certainly there were churches and temples on Mars, but it was mostly secularized, particularly after many of the devoutly religious had left for deep space only a few years after Zero Day as part of the New Exodus Flotilla.

All the information led to one conclusion. Caine was working toward something that he wasn’t sharing with her. And if he wasn’t sharing it with her, that meant he was keeping secrets from the Congress.

Thankfully, Pizzey had methods of finding things out. A perk of the job, and a lifetime of working her way through the ranks of LegionCorp, then later the Corporate Congress. She still retained a lot of her friends from before her… disgrace on Mars, but those were politics. And thankfully, she was still owed a lot of favors, even from Exterra employees and communication officers right there aboard the Good Samaritan.

One such officer supplied her with access to communications that Caine hadn’t been forthcoming with, including an encrypted blast out to all known contractors offering a contract out on the location of the Gambler’s Ruin. Also, the replies. A blackship contractor headed to the Fringe reported coming across it in the Belt in a Buoy-Lane, but lost it soon thereafter.

She’d also been able to take a peek at Singh’s communications and managed to put a few more pieces together. Singh had been in contact with someone named Tzion, an alias no doubt, about the delivery of an object in Singh’s possession, The Red Queen. Unfortunately, due to Singh’s heavy encryption, only a few of the emails from Tzion made it into the file, which gave very little information, other than that he’d hired a ship to transport it.

That would have been where the Gambler’s Ruin fell into the picture.

Lauren went over the events in her head. First, Tzion contacted Singh to negotiate the transport of The Red Queen. Singh contacts Walker Dane to transport it… to where? The Combine, most likely. For whom? Obviously this Tzion character. For what?

She tapped her stylus against her datapad, deep in thought.

What does Thomas Caine want with the Red Queen?

She leaned her head against the wall and looked out to the endless sky beyond the windows in conference room.

What is the Red Queen? The only results she could find on it were mostly references to fiction and math theory.

She was at a loss. Lauren didn’t like feeling like that. There were only three times in her life she felt truly lost. When her father died, when her mother died, and when her life nearly fell apart on Mars.

She wasn’t quite feeling lost yet, but the urgent feeling growing from the pit of her stomach was getting close.

She remained deep in thought for a time when she caught the folder on her datapad refresh from her peripheral vision. She looked back to it. A new file had appeared under Singh’s communications, which meant Singh’s account had been accessed, mostly likely by a monitor.

He’d received a message. Lauren tapped on the file and looked to the message.

Singh,

 

We need to talk about our passenger. Get in touch ASAP.

 

-WD

 

WD? That had to be Walker Dane. Her eyes honed in on the word passenger. Was he being literal? Perhaps the Red Queen wasn’t an object after all. Perhaps it was a person. Another Martian runaway, perhaps, talked about in code?

What purpose would Thomas Caine have with a Martian runaway.

She tapped the datapad a few times and searched for the term again, this time focusing it on personnel.

No hits on employees past or present. A contractor that had been reported lost to the void twenty years ago near Eros. The name of a basketball team from Arabia Terra. A character in several television programs.

Nothing was forthcoming. She expanded the search even further, filtering out results as she came across them, in hopes of narrowing it down.

La Reina Roja was the nickname of a prolific crime boss on Mars that operated thirty years ago, but she too had been killed not long afterward. There was a scientist that bore the nickname, but that was prior to Zero Day.

She tossed her datapad down again. She needed to find out more, and she needed to put it in her report back to the Congress. It wasn’t enough that Thomas Caine was acting strange, that was no proof of misdeed. She needed to find out what he was after, what he was keeping a secret from the Corporate Congress.

They were still three days from the Combine, and she didn’t want to fly blind once they arrived. She needed to know what Caine was up to. She needed to call in another favor.

She needed to talk to Rajinder Singh.

“No,” he said. “No way.” Kenji Takeo crossed his arms. “The orders from the Seat were explicit, Lauren. He’s the only one who talks to the prisoner.”

“Kenji,” she replied, her voice low. From the corner of the bridge they were far enough away from the others, but she didn’t want to risk being overheard. “Come on, you and I both know Caine’s up to no good. Ten minutes, that’s all I need.”

“Great, and I need you to keep me out of your little political games,” he replied. “Lauren, it’s bad enough you took this stupid job, but seriously? Like it or not, he’s the Seat of the Corporate Congress. You know what the punishment is for treason against the Seat is? We shouldn’t even be thinking about this.”

“Let’s be real, Kenji. The Seat has us on a wild goose chase to the Fringes. The Fringes. First of all, what kind of message is that going to send to the Fringers? They already despise us, but we bring our biggest and most heavily weaponized ship and roll up to their doorstep? Hardly a sound political move. They may not have much, but what could we do to stop them from flinging an asteroid at Roving Eden?”

“I don’t like it either, Lauren, but it’s an executive order. We can’t disobey it,” he replied.

“You’re absolutely right. But tell me you aren’t questioning it.”

Kenji remained silent, he only looked her dead in the eye.

“Look, you and I both know the only thing that can overturn an executive order is a vote by the board,” she replied. “He’s got half of the council eating out of his hand, and the other half in his pocket. But if we found evidence that he was up to something not in the best interests of the Corporate Congress, they’d be forced to call him back.”

Kenji crossed his arms again and turned his head to the side, looking away. Lauren knew the look well. She was getting through to him.

“If he catches us, I’ll take the hit,” she added.

“You’ll take the hit? No, if he catches you, we both take the hit. You can’t get in without either his keypasses or mine. If he catches you, he’s going to notice that.”

“Well it’s a good thing he won’t catch me,” she replied. “I know my way around these systems, I’ll wipe the log.”

“Yeah, and what if the prisoner yelps about it?”

She paused, then looked him in the eye. “I have some Oblivis,” she admitted. She patted her pocket, indicating the location of the synthetic drug. It was a memory suppressant, developed well before Zero Day, but was quickly outlawed due to its use as a method of date rape. It essentially blocked its user from forming any long-term memory, relying only on short-term. As long as she kept the discussion short, Singh wouldn’t remember a thing.

Kenji paused. “You what?” he suddenly hushed his voice. “Shimatta! Lauren, what the hell are you thinking? You have to be kidding me. We can’t be having this conversation.”

“Relax,” she said. “I didn’t steal it from medical, if that’s your concern. I had it well before I ever boarded.”

“From where?”

“Not important,” she replied. “Point is that I need to talk to Singh, and I’d like to get to it before Caine wakes up. You know he’s a light sleeper.”

Kenji leaned back, breathing heavily through his nose while his eyes darted around the bridge. Finally, he turned around. “You owe me big for this,” he announced. “I’m talking really big.”

“You’re right,” Lauren replied. “I do. You won’t regret it, Kenji.”

“I damn well better not,” he replied.

He led her out of the bridge and down the corridor. He made his way toward the brig, and gestured for Lauren to stay back while he spoke to the guard. She heard yelling from down the corridor, then watched as the guard hurriedly move away. A moment later, Kenji’s head appeared.

“You have ten minutes tops until he gets back,” he said, bringing her along with him as they approached the door to the brig.

“What did you say to him?” she asked.

“Being captain is a stressful job,” he said. “Some employees bear the brunt of his frustrations more than others. It helps separate the wheat from the chaff. It also means I get to make unreasonable demands from time to time. I sent him to the galley to fetch me some apple sauce.”

“We have apple sauce on board?”

“No,” he replied. “But it’ll take him at least fifteen minutes to figure that out. That’s why I want you out in ten.”

Lauren nodded. “I’ll be quick.”

Kenji led her into the brig and stood outside the only closed door. “Ten minutes,” he repeated. “I’ll give you a sixty-second warning, then you need to wrap it up and get okay. Deal?”

She nodded. “Deal.”

He pressed his smartwatch against the door, and it slid open. Lauren stepped into the room.

Rajinder Singh sat on the bed with his back to the wall, looking up at her in confusion. He said nothing.

The door slid shut behind her. “Mister Singh?” Lauren asked. “My name is Lauren Pizzey. I’m a LegionCorp representative with the Corporate Congress.”

“I’ve already told Caine everything I know,” he said. “What do you want?”

“I have some important questions to ask you, Mister Singh, and not much time. So I’ll make this short. I might be in a position to help you, but I need you to take this pill,” she said, pulling the Oblivis from her pocket.

Singh looked to the pill, then back to her. “What is that?”

“It’s called Oblivis,” she said. “It’ll–”

“I’m quite aware what it does, Miss Pizzey,” he interrupted. “Why?”

“Because there are risks I must take, and there are risks I cannot take. Talking to you is one I must take. But you telling Caine about it is one I cannot take.” She proffered the pill. “I promise you I can help you, and I realize I’m asking a lot. But this is the deal. You can take it or leave it.”

Singh looked to her, and then back to the pill once more. She could see the gears turning in his mind, no doubt coming to a decision. It was another look she knew well. That last look of hesitation before taking action. While his body was slower to react, his mind had already made a choice.

A moment later, he reached out and took the pill.

“Let me see,” she said.

Singh opened his mouth and lifted his tongue, satisfying her enough to continue.

“Mister Singh, we only have a few minutes. What you need to know is that there are some within the Corporate Congress that suspect Caine to be using Congress resources for a deeply personal agenda. He’s issued a number of executive orders that make little sense, including ordering your capture and setting course for the Jovian Combine in search of this ship, the Gambler’s Ruin.”

Singh furrowed his brow. “This seems like a trick,” he said.

“I assure you, it’s not. Why were you arrested?”

Singh cocked his head to one side. “With all the resources expended on taking me from my room in New Toronto to this ship, he never offered you an explanation?”

“Wanted for suspected espionage was all we were told. I looked into your history. Medical school, later a physician. No offense Mister Singh, but you’re rather unremarkable. Why did we arrest you?”

Singh looked her up and down for a moment. His tense shoulders began to drop. “Because of my inheritance,” he replied.

“Your inheritance? Is this the Red Queen?” she asked.

He raised an eyebrow. “You appear to know more than you claimed,” he replied.

“I’ve been able to read through some of your emails,” she explained. “I was also privy to something else. A message from Walker Dane inquiring about a passenger.”

Singh looked up to her in shock. “A passenger? Idiots!” he exclaimed.

“So this Red Queen is a person?” she asked.

Singh looked at her suspiciously again. “You’re really not working with Caine? You’re working against him?”

“I’m working for the Corporate Congress,” she said. “What it stands for, not the man who is currently occupying the Seat.”

Singh sighed. “Yes, it’s a person,” he said. “A person I’ve never met.”

“I don’t understand,” she replied.

“The Red Queen was… an escape pod. More than a simple escape pod. One from a research station called the John Galt,” he explained.

“The John Galt? That was a LegionCorp research station. We lost it at Zero Day,” she said. “What’s special about this escape pod?”

“It has a deeper functionality. Stasis, a way to keep those inside of it alive for extended periods, provided their… physiology could handle it.”

Lauren raised an eyebrow. She’d never heard of such a thing, and she spent a good amount of time looking into lost sciences from before Zero Day. But then, if he wasn’t lying to her about the John Galt, it could have been believable. Few knew of the John Galt, even among those under the LegionCorp Umbrella. It was technically a blacksite, with few records of the research done there. Certainly that sort of thing might have been studied there, but–

“You’re saying that this Red Queen is someone from… before Zero Day?”

He nodded. “Yes,” he said.

It was farfetched. Perhaps a little too farfetched, but not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Besides, what the Red Queen was didn’t matter as much as what Caine wanted with it.

“What does Caine want with this Red Queen, then?”

Singh shook his head. “I don’t know,” he replied. “He isn’t the sharing type.”

“Tell me about it,” she replied. “Look, whatever this Red Queen is doesn’t interest me, but if Caine wants it, I need to understand why. Is there anything you might be able to tell me?”

Singh thought about it for a moment. “I never met her,” she said. “All I was told is her name, and my father told me that she was important. That some day, someone would contact me about her and that when that happens, I should send her to him.” He looked up. “But keep her far away from the Corporations.”

“This is Tzion, then?” she asked. “The one who contacted you?”

“In a fashion,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that. But… if Caine wants her, it’s got to be because of who she was.”

“And who was she?”

“A scientist,” he explained. “Her name was Aura Christianson. She was augmented. Different. Even outside of stasis, a she was a woman who didn’t age. A survivor from an experiment in technological augmentation from over a hundred years ago.”

Now it was even more farfetched. But from the look on Singh’s face, she knew that he believed what he was saying. And if he believed it, that was the information that Caine had as well.

“What have you told Caine? What do you think his next move would be?” she asked.

“I told him that she was being moved to the Jovian Combine aboard the Gambler’s Ruin.”

“What’s your connection with them?”

He looked up to her. “An old friend,” he explained. “Gavin Chen. He serves with them. I contacted them through him, hired them to move the Red Queen.”

“So that’s where Walker Dane comes in,” she said. “So why is he an idiot?”

“They weren’t supposed to know they were transporting a human being,” he said. “That means they peeked. To what extent, I don’t know. I hope she’s still in stasis.”

“Why is that so important?”

“She needs to survive till…” he looked up at her. “Can I really trust you?” he asked.

“Even if I was lying about helping you, I’ve not asked you anything that you haven’t already told Caine, have I?”

He thought about it for a moment. “I won’t remember any of this conversation,” he replied. “If I tell you something I didn’t tell Caine, can you make a promise?”

Suddenly, a bang came to the door. It came sooner than she’d expected. She had to wrap it up, quickly.

“I can promise I’ll do it if it’s in my power to do.”

“You need to send a message to the Gambler’s Ruin,” he said. “You already have the ship’s ISR, you could do it tonight. Encrypted.”

“Tell me,” she said.

“First, the message. It’s very important. Tell them to slouch toward Bethlehem.”

“I’m sorry?”

“They’ll understand.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said. The door behind her began to slide open. She had no more time, she had to leave. She turned back to Singh one last time.

“He thinks Tzion is a person,” Singh informed her. “It’s not. It’s a place.”

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Published inSol: Ruin
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