Children of Darkness: Chapter 3
If you ended up here before reading Chapters 1 & 2 you can return to Chapter 1 here
The countdown timer read one minute. Marcus sat on an upside-down storage crate beside the cryochamber and Solomon sat across from him. They’d waited thirty-six hours for the wake cycle to finish. Marcus watched the last ten seconds tick off the timer. When it hit zero the chamber lid hissed and popped open. The woman inside groaned and sat up. They both stood up and edged closer.
Now that he didn’t have to look through frosted glass Marcus could make out her face. She had pale skin, dark brown almond-shaped eyes, and high cheekbones. Her black hair fell to her waist and covered her bare breasts.
Marcus glanced at his friend who stared with his mouth halfway open. He grinned and shook his head. “The blanket.”
Solomon threw off his daze and handed the blanket they’d brought to Marcus who draped it across her shoulders. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
She tried to stand and Marcus offered her his hand which she grasped like a lifeline as she climbed out of the chamber. Marcus restrained a smile as he caught a glimpse of a slim, toned leg. Maybe waking her wasn’t such a bad idea.
“Where am I?” she asked, her voice harsh and scratchy from years of disuse.
“You’re aboard my ship. My name is Marcus Drake.” He offered her his most reassuring smile. “This gentleman beside me is Solomon Keys.”
“How did I get here?” Her voice sounded better already, though still a little husky.
“We found you aboard a battle-scarred destroyer drifting well off the main trade routes,” Solomon said.
“Any of this ringing a bell?” Marcus asked.
She put her hands to her head. “Everything’s so fuzzy.”
“That’s understandable,” Solomon said. “You’ve been out for a while.”
“Would you like to lie down? There’s a spare room you can use,” Marcus said.
“I think I’ve been lying down long enough. Do you have anything to eat?”
“Of course, Miss…”
“Iaka, Iaka Kazumi.”
“Iaka, the galley’s this way.” Marcus held out his arm. She ignored it so he shrugged and led the way back toward the ship’s living quarters.
The three of them sat around a small steel table. The galley didn’t amount to much more than a closet with a table and food prep station. Marcus fixed a bowl of tasty broth from their meager selection of freeze-dried food. Not gourmet but better than anything she’d eaten for the last five years.
Iaka polished off the broth and licked her lips which turned a burned red. Better than blue though, much better.
“That was wonderful. Do you have any more?”
“You’d better take it slow,” Marcus said. “Your stomach’s been empty for a while. If you eat too much you’ll get sick.”
She sighed. “I appreciate your help. Is there anything I can do to repay you?”
The image of her stepping out of the chamber appeared unbidden in Marcus’s mind. He forced his first idea out away then decided the second and third wouldn’t do either. He said, “Well, we were hoping to sell the ship for scrap, unless you want to claim it.”
“I don’t want the damn thing.”
Marcus shared a look with Solomon who shrugged. “One thing I’m curious about,” Solomon said. “What were you doing on that ship in cold storage?”
Iaka’s eyes darted away then back. “I put myself in there when I realized the ship was falling apart.”
Marcus smiled and shook his head. “Of all the Earth Force agents I’ve met over the years, you are by far the worst liar. You want to try again?”
She frowned. “How did you know?”
“When we checked your vitals the scanner picked up your implant,” Solomon said. “The data encryption used military software.”
“It wasn’t hard to guess the rest,” Marcus said. “So do you plan to stick to your story or do you want to tell us the truth?”
“If you know I’m Earth Force you know I can’t tell you anything.”
“We saved your life,” Marcus said.
“Yeah, besides it probably doesn’t matter anymore.” Solomon bit his lip as soon as he spoke.
“What do you mean?” Iaka asked. “How long was I out?”
Marcus sighed. “Best we can figure about five years.”
She sat back and ran her fingers through her hair. “Five years?”
“I’m sorry,” Marcus said, surprised to find he meant it. “I intended to break it to you a little easier.”
She held her head in her hands and stared at the floor. “I would like to lie down after all.”
“Of course. This way.” Marcus helped her up. It seemed she hadn’t regained her full strength yet. They left the galley, took three steps, and turned to face the spare cabin. Marcus tapped the control panel and the door slid open. “If you need anything we’ll be in the cockpit.”
“Thank you.” She went in and shut the door.
On their way to the cockpit Marcus punched Solomon in the shoulder. “That went well. I’m surprised she didn’t have a heart attack.”
“We had to tell her some time.”
“Yeah, forget it. Let’s see when we can get a landing pad tomorrow.”
* * *
Iaka sat down on the small bunk. She didn’t feel tired. Five years. It seemed impossible those bastards at Omni cost her five years.
She got back up and tossed aside the blanket she’d used for a robe. She took a deep breath and began the movements of a simple kata. Her sensei called it moving meditation. She flowed from one form to the next, testing her body. She’d lost a little strength which didn’t surprise her. The chamber had a muscle stimulation system, but it couldn’t substitute for actual exercise. She felt a little stiffness, again no surprise. The precise movements of the kata soon worked the kinks out. As the familiar exercises relaxed her body her mind drifted back.
Everything started out well enough. No one questioned her false papers, and the trip to Alpha 114 went okay even if the captain kept staring at her when he thought she wouldn’t notice. They ferried her down to the planet right after the ship arrived.
The scientists seemed pleasant enough and she had a degree in xenobiology so she fit in with no problem. Iaka worked in the lab for six months gathering information, contacting her superiors when she could. She didn’t run into any problems until they caught her sending an unauthorized hyperspace transmission. She still didn’t know what gave her away. Iaka piggybacked her message with a batch of reports for Omni. Her data packet should have blended in until it hit a specific router then bounced to Earth Force HQ.
The guards had burst in and hit her with a stun baton. When she came to they’d stripped her and locked her into the cryochamber. The next thing she knew she found herself aboard this ship. When she learned who blew her cover…
Iaka sighed and lay down on the bunk. A thin sheen of sweat covered her. Who was she kidding? After five years what chance did she have of finding out what went wrong? She should let it go. She had a life again and she should enjoy it.
Sure, and after that she’d learn to breathe vacuum. She couldn’t let it go and Iaka doubted she could find out what happened. Christ, what a mess.
* * *
Marcus smiled as the ship came shuddering out of hyperspace. On the viewscreen Mars loomed large, though after three plus centuries of industrial growth the haze of pollution chugging out of the domes had the red planet looking rather gray. Since the domes went up a little over two centuries ago Mars had become one of this sector’s premier manufacturing hubs. Hundreds of companies built factories all over the planet, and the smokestacks vented out into the vacuum. The pollution created a thin haze that always surrounded the planet.
“This is Mars Control to Rogue Star, please state your business.” The prerecorded message came on as soon as they reached a distance of 100,000 miles.
Marcus nodded at Solomon who said, “This is the Rogue Star. We have a load of microchips for Universal Computer Corporation.”
A moment passed as the landing control system processed their information. “Acknowledged, Rogue Star, you may land at the following coordinates in one hour.” A stream of numbers appeared on the screen.
“Contact Universal and tell them where we’re landing,” Marcus said.
Solomon went to work and Marcus put the ship on autopilot until their landing space became available. He left the cockpit and made the short trip to the guest cabin. He tapped twice and the door slid open.
Iaka had found an old pair of coveralls in the storage locker. She spun in place. “How do I look?” She’d rolled the sleeves and legs up about a dozen times and wrapped one of his old belts around her waist twice. The synthetic threads of the coveralls repelled the worst of the grime and splatter but they still looked faded and worn. Iaka resembled a filthy cloth hourglass. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail. The look reminded Marcus of a jet bike mechanic he knew but cleaner.
He smiled. “I think you’d better get to a clothing store as soon as we land.”
She laughed, a warm, bright sound that sent a tingle through him. “I won’t argue with that.”
“We’re in orbit,” Marcus said. “It’ll be about an hour before we land.”
She nodded. He thought she wanted to say something so he waited, but the silence stretched on. Marcus turned toward the door. When he reached for the control panel she said, “I wish I could have told you more. About my mission I mean.”
Marcus turned back and shrugged. “Forget it, probably better if I don’t know anything anyway.”
“Maybe after I report in and complete my debriefing we could get together, my treat.”
Marcus winced. “About that debriefing. If you didn’t mention my name I’d appreciate it. I’m not on the best terms with Earth Force, a result of my misspent youth.”
“I’m sorry, but my implant records everything I see and hear. They’ll have your name and picture even if I don’t say anything.”
“Of course.” Figures, he thought. “We’ll be on Mars for a week or so. We usually stay at the Spacer’s Lounge.”
She nodded. “I’ll stop by if they let me.”
The intercom on the wall beeped. God damn it, he left the cockpit five minutes ago. Marcus hit the speaker. “What?”
“They cleared us to come in early.”
“That’s a first. I’ll be right there.” He turned to Iaka. “Would you like to come to the cockpit and watch the landing?”
“I think I’ll wait here.”
Marcus left Iaka in her room and hurried up to the cockpit. He hopped into the pilot’s chair and took the Star out of autopilot. He flipped a switch that superimposed a grid over the viewscreen. A flashing red light showed their landing coordinates.
He powered the shields to full just in case they bumped into any debris. Marcus guided the Star down through the haze until Spaceport Two’s dome appeared. One of the largest domes on the planet, it had a huge set of steel doors that allowed massive cargo ships to enter. Four spaceport domes dotted the planet. From those four domes all the goods brought to Mars got distributed to the smaller domes.
Marcus guided the Star closer to the doors and activated his antigravity generators. He killed the ship’s momentum and hovered in front of the doors. It took several minutes for the ponderous doors to open all the way. Marcus read somewhere that each door weighed several thousand tons.
When they stopped Marcus eased the ship in. He had fifty feet to spare on either side. Beyond the outer doors waited the purification chamber. Marcus stopped the ship in the center of the room and waited as the outer doors closed. The purification chamber served the same basic function as the airlock on the Star, the differences being scale and the hundreds of nozzles that lined the walls. Powerful solvents sprayed every inch of the ship washing off the accumulated grime and any potential contaminants they may have picked up in their travels.
Once the solvents finished their work a powerful energy field vaporized the liquid and giant fans sucked it out into space. The ship’s hull gleamed like new, they just needed someone to buff the chrome.
The purification process finished and the inner doors slid open. They measured the same as the outer doors but only an inch thick. Marcus maneuvered the Star into the spaceport. Hundreds of ships filled the tarmac, each one settled into a square of glowing lights. Once a ship landed, the trader gained temporary ownership of the square. The merchants handled their own security, and the spaceport accepted no responsibility.
“Which square are we in?” Marcus asked.
Solomon consulted his screen. “Three hundred, northern quadrant.”
Marcus flew to the designated five-hundred-by-five-hundred-foot square. He flipped a switch and the ship’s heavy pneumatic landing gear came down. He reduced power to the antigravity generators until he felt the landing gear touch down. Marcus killed the power and the Star settled down on the cement, her pneumatics smoothing out the landing.
“Home, at last,” Marcus said.
Marcus and Solomon left the cockpit and found Iaka standing outside her room. They headed back to the cargo hold and she followed. Herc powered up to challenge them as they entered the hold. “Time to go to work,” Marcus said.
This command deactivated the robot’s defense mode and it walked back to the rear of the ship. Solomon followed on its heels and opened the main door once Herc got out of the way. Marcus went to the storage locker and retrieved his control gauntlet, a leather glove that went almost to his elbow. A small keyboard sat on top along with a digital readout and a weapons module above his hand.
Marcus, Solomon, and Iaka went out and stood by the base of the ramp. Marcus took a deep breath and sighed. The air carried just a hint of pollution and exhaust. Nowhere he’d ever visited smelled like a spaceport dome on Mars; plenty smelled better, a few worse, but none smelled just like home. “When’s Universal’s transport supposed to get here?”
“They said an hour,” Solomon said. “So you can figure two.”
“I should go check in,” Iaka said.
Marcus dug through his pocket and pulled out five twenty-credit tokens. “Here, this should get you some decent clothes and a ride on a hovertrain wherever you need to go.”
Iaka hesitated a moment then accepted the coins. She stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, for everything. I promise I’ll pay you back.”
“My pleasure,” Marcus said. He assumed he’d never see her again, but who could say, it was a small universe.
She headed for the hovertrain boarding ramp, waving goodbye. When she’d gone Solomon said, “How come you get the kiss? You didn’t even want to rescue her.”
“I gave her money.”
The Universal rep arrived fifteen minutes late, not too bad for them. A ten-car hovertransport glided up beside the unloading ramp and settled to the ground. From the passenger side of the command car a stiff in a suit climbed out. It wasn’t the same stiff that hired him, but whatever, as long as he paid, one stiff worked the same as another.
“I’m here for our merchandise,” the stiff said.
Marcus smiled. “Of course you are. I just need to see your corporate ID and my credit transfer slip and we can get started.”
The stiff sighed like he’d just asked him to clean the Star’s waste tank and reached into his inside jacket pocket. Marcus tensed and readied the stunner built into his gauntlet. He felt like an idiot as soon as he did it. One look at this guy and you could tell he’d never held a blaster. Hell, better safe than sorry.
Marcus took a small plastic card with the stiff’s picture and swiped it through a slot on his gauntlet. The information matched what Universal’s headquarters provided. “All right, Mr. Meeks, now the transfer papers.”
Meeks took his card back. “Just a moment. Before I hand over the transfer slip I want to inspect the cargo.”
“No problem.” Marcus tapped a short command into his gauntlet and a few seconds later Herc came tromping down the ramp, holding one of the two-ton containers. Herc set the container down beside him and Marcus popped the seals. He set the lid aside and stepped back.
Meeks studied the glittering microchips. Any idiot could see they looked perfect. Marcus wanted to stun him, but didn’t dare until he got paid. Satisfied, Meeks reached into another pocket and withdrew a slip of paper. Marcus grabbed the paper and read it. Forty thousand credits, as agreed. Everything looked good so Marcus typed a command into his gauntlet and Herc began loading crates onto the transport.
An hour later the loaded transport flew off toward an exit tunnel. Marcus put Herc on recharge and activated the ship’s security system. When they’d retrieved their gear Marcus used his gauntlet to close the loading bay.
“Where’re we staying this trip?” Solomon asked.
“The Spacer’s Lounge is always good.”
Solomon frowned. “Can’t we stay somewhere a little nicer this time?”
Marcus smiled. The Spacer’s Lounge catered to the less reputable members of society. Smugglers, thieves, and worse hung out there, old friends most of them. “Where would you suggest?”
“What about the Fireside Inn?”
“That place costs two hundred fifty credits a night.”
“Yeah, but a lot of rich business people stay there. We might be able to pick up a job. That would cover the cost plus some.”
Marcus hated to admit it but his friend had a point. If he wanted to transition from smuggler to serious business man he’d have to stop hanging out with crooks. Unfortunately, serious business men bored the hell out of him and that phony hologram fireplace at the inn sent a shudder through him. “Tell you what, let’s stay at the lounge a couple nights then we can go and play upright citizens.”
They left the ship and went to catch a hovertrain. Marcus figured they’d have a party at the lounge that night – they had a party every night – and he didn’t want to miss it.
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