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Chapter Ten: A Serpent in the Garden

The Galaxy Skyline S-29 was a unique sort of ship. Prior to Zero Day, it had been mass produced specifically for long-distance hauls. It featured a massive cargo bay, four crew quarters capable of accommodating two people a piece, a fully operational galley, modular engine and external tow lines for hauling small asteroids or ice chunks.

It hadn’t been the most popular ship before Zero Day. At least, not among the long-haulers of the era. They much preferred the LegionCorp model of long-haul ships, which often came fully stocked and ready to go. The S-29’s production was discontinued after abysmal sales, and eventually Galaxy Shipworks went out of business. Their entire stock was sold at auction, and it remained mostly forgotten about.

Until Zero Day, that was. While LegionCorp indeed had the more advanced ship, it suffered from one major drawback. All of its parts were proprietary, made in factories on Earth and stored on Legion’s ports.

It didn’t take long for the S-29 to come back into favor. The ship had been designed for compatibility from its bolts to its high functioning systems. Computers could be upgraded infinitely, the engines could be replaced, you could even repurpose the cargo bay or galley to serve any number of functions, from scientific to industrial.

What Valenti couldn’t understand was how some nobody from the Combine got his hands on what appeared to be a pristine model.

He knew what he needed to know. That was how his contracts tended to work. He was given names, Inter-Ship Recognition codes, a task and an offer. This offer was larger than most other contracts he’d taken from the Corporate Congress, and it was simple.

Retrieve the ship, its personnel and cargo and rendezvous with the Good Samaritan. Cargo essential, personnel not so much. This time, the ship’s name was the Gambler’s Ruin.

Valenti couldn’t believe his luck when he received the information for the contract. Only a few days prior, he’d been on a Buoy-Lane, headed for the Combine in relation to another contract, when he’d pinged a ship bearing the very same name. He’d monitored the ship for a while until it disappeared. Likely due to hiding.

Valenti recalled being amused at their paranoia. They’d obviously picked him up during one of his sweeps, and engaged their passive mode. That wasn’t something that came stock with the S-29, either. That meant the ship was well rigged. Likely upgraded engines, computer systems.

And it was currently docked just on the other side of the door Valenti was floating in front of, literally three docking ports away from his own ship, the Rivendell.

And he wanted it. The Rivendell was a fine ship for the most part, but it severely lacked in terms of cargo and personnel space. With an SR-29, Valenti could bring on a crew.

He was certain if he turned in the bounty, the Congress wouldn’t be opposed to letting him keep the spoils on top of the bounty, and that suited him just fine.

He scrolled down the surface display outside of the airlock. Of course it was locked, and there was quite literally no way aboard. The only people who could access the ship were those who were authorized. That would be Walker Dane, McKenzie Baird and Gavin Chen, the three names he’d been sent.

He needed to gain entry. In order to do that, he needed one of those three.

After that, he would need to secure the cargo. That part concerned him. When the contract had first come through, it was only described as a cargo pod. The second time, it came with a picture of a young woman. She gave Valenti the impression she was a Martian science nerd, due to her white lab coat. It didn’t, however, come with a name. Valenti didn’t like that, but he understood what need to know meant. He didn’t need to know who she was. Nor, he supposed, did he care very much.

Regardless, she was marked essential to the contract. That meant he couldn’t harm her. The other three, however? Optional.

Ideally he wanted Dane, the ship’s captain. He’d have total access over the ship’s systems. With him, he could entice the transferral of command to Valenti. Valenti didn’t question that. People were willing to give over anything to prevent another fingernail from being removed. But considering the skeletal nature of the crew, Valenti suspected that any of the three would have total access to the ship’s systems.

All he needed was to gain access. Once he was aboard, he could simply wait for the others to return.

And if they gave him any trouble? Well, tits for them. They were optional, after all.

Lauren had been dreaming she was under a blue sky, in a green field with grass as far as the eye could see. She’d seen that sight a thousand times in virtual reality. This time, however, a large shape looming from the sky, the colossal husk of the Good Samaritan was falling toward the ground. She had been staring up, watching it bear down on her.

When the impact came, she jerked awake. It took a moment to regain her bearings and realize where she was, but eventually she calmed down. She looked to the display at her bedside and activated it with a tap.

Six hours she’d been asleep. They were still another twelve hours out from the Combine. She picked up her datapad and scrolled through her email. There was nothing new there other than minutes from a missed meeting and an inquiry from the LegionCorp Board of Directors regarding her most recent report.

She’d been slogging through a lot of work in the days since she’d had her little clandestine meeting with Rajinder Singh. Thankfully, it hadn’t been discovered by Thomas Caine that she was meddling in his business. Most of her work involved research. Namely on a pre-Zero Day scientist named Aura Christianson, and references to a place called Tzion.

Information on Aura Christianson was overwhelming. There were numerous records on her. Over six hundred hours of recorded lectures involving all manner of quantum and astrophysics spanning thirty years. Thirty years in which she didn’t appear to age a day. There was more. Birth records, employment records, a laundry list of degrees and patents, and a highly redacted document that she couldn’t make sense of, other than that she had been involved in a case in the a United Nations court case that had been labelled classified by the powers that be on Earth during the era. All she could glean from it is that it involved a class action and that the case was used as a citation in the Augmentated Life Accord of 2088.

That part was interesting. Particularly since it suggested that Singh was being truthful to her. Aura Christianson, it appeared, was augmented to be ageless. She could never have guessed that might have been a reality, but now it was looking more and more likely.

But she was at a loss when it came to Tzion. There were no known colonies, space stations, asteroids or otherwise that bore the name so far as she could tell. Historically, she learned, Tzion was a hill in the city of Jerusalem on Earth. Obviously it was no longer, but having a historic reference allowed her to broaden her search.

No colonies, stations or asteroids bore the name Jerusalem, either. She continued to broaden her search and discovered that another name for the city was Bethlehem. Now that was interesting. Slouch toward Bethlehem, he’d had her send to the Gambler’s Ruin.

It was from a two hundred year old poem and appeared to describe the birth of a beast… or the return of Jesus Christ. She couldn’t quite tell. Poetry had never been her strong suit.

Still, there was something to the religious symbolism that she couldn’t quite place her finger one. Singh was Sikh, but all the references she came across were coming up to be mostly Judeo-Christian in origin. Tzion, Jerusalem, Bethlehem. Was Tzion really a place? If it was, where was it? Was it a codename?

She desperately needed to talk to Singh again. She got him to trust her once, it shouldn’t be difficult to do again. And thus far, Singh had been cooperative. After all, he’d willingly taken the Oblivis. He’d given her information that as far as she could tell, Caine didn’t have, fully knowing that he would never be able to remember he’d told someone about it. It might have been out of desperation, but Lauren got the impression it was because he actually believed her when she said she’d help.

She fully intended to, of course, but not until the circumstances were just right. Before that, she needed to know more. There was something missing.

The information on the John Galt was as she expected. Censored with few records in the LegionCorp database. Even with her security clearance, it came up with nothing but a few cargo manifests that were also heavily redacted. All it told her was what she already knew. The John Galt was lost on Zero Day. Barely a footnote compared to what else was lost that day. The records didn’t even identify any personnel aboard the John Galt.

But she was nothing, if not resourceful. She knew Aura Christianson worked aboard it. Through her research, she pinpointed exactly when she would have accepted the job, four years prior to Zero Day.

She also identified a number of her colleagues that also disappeared from any other records around the same time. That was much more eye-opening to her.

Gregor Solzhenitsyn and Dawn Kulak. The two were up-and-coming stars in the science world at the time Aura disappeared from the records, and they were her grad students. Chances are, they ended up on the John Galt.

But there was something else as well. Dawn Kulak’s name appeared just once after that time. On a passenger manifest from four years after Zero Day going from Mars to Eros. Dawn Kulak, it appeared, had either not been on the John Galt, or somehow survived its destruction.

But after that, there was nothing. That either meant she spent her remaining days cramped up on Eros, or there simply weren’t any more records. During that era, Eros was highly active as well, which didn’t help with detailed recordkeeping. It was a midway point for refugees waiting for room on Mars. For a brief time during that year, it had even served as a gathering point for the New Exodus, a group of suicidal religious fanatics that set off for deep space. Being a quantum physicist, however, she doubted Dawn Kulak was involved in that. But then, there were the religious overtones associated with Tzion. That didn’t make sense, though. The New Exodus fanatics were sixty years into deep space.

It brought her to another blockage in her research.

She brought up an external display on her datapad. Jupiter loomed in the distance, bigger than she’d ever seen it. They would be at the Combine by the afternoon.

She wondered if the Gambler’s Ruin would still be there. She wondered if the message she had sent them might have warned them that they were on Thomas Caine’s radar. She wondered if that had been a mistake that would come back to bite her in the ass.

Lauren Pizzey was sick of wondering. But for now, she was at an impasse. Takeo wouldn’t let her talk to Singh again without some serious assurances. Assurances that, for now, Pizzey couldn’t make. All she could do was wait until they reached the Combine and hope that more information would be forthcoming.

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Published inSol: Ruin
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