DescriptionA lone pilot. A rogue operative. A flight into conspiracy.
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The magnetic mooring field activated, the docking locks closed, and Eric Drake took a minute to nourish his depression. A blinking light caught his eye, and he finally answered it if only to make it stop. “League Freighter 21 down and secure,” he called into the mike with crisp professionalism. “Last run, huh?” came Space Traffic Controller Garret Sampson’s voice. “The taxpayer can rest easy,” Eric replied, opening the ship’s flight-logs for updates. “His ship is back to fly another day.” “You thought any more about where you’re going next?” Garret asked casually. “If your docking skills were as bad as your acting skills we’d all be dead, Garret,” Eric replied as he began filling out his flight-logs. “Who wants celebrity when he can work Space Traffic Control?” Garret countered. “It’s stable and dependable employment that pays well and offers benefits. Three weeks of holidays a year after the first year, and flexible hours. Nothing beats it.” “I’m still not signing up, Garret,” Eric replied. “I want to fly them, not sit and watch them come and go.” “Can you really afford to sit tight now that your Earthen League contract is gone? You’re gonna need work. If you don’t get into something now, you could be hurting later.” Despite his mood, Eric smiled at Garret’s persistence. S.T.C. paid tremendous recruitment bonuses to controllers who brought in recruits to handle docking control. Garret’s recruitment pitches were extremely thorough on S.T.C.’s benefits, but carefully muted about its drawbacks, and job-stress was the biggest one. S.T.C.’s turnover rate was considerable as newly recruited controllers confronted that stress, and were crushed by it. Still . . . “Good point,” Eric said, “I’ll think it over.” Eric cut out the mike before Garret could continue, but Garret did have an excellent point. Once he had filed his logs and collected his pay, Eric would be unemployed. The cockpit was silent as Eric stared out the canopy, remembering all his cargo runs between Earth and Mars. The flight-hours were long and solitary, the layovers were sometimes even longer, and the arguments over refueling and repair delays could be so intense his head was left pounding. He loved every minute of it. It was all part of a career Eric had fought hard to achieve. First there was the controversy over his application to flight-school, then the struggle to qualify for graduation and, finally, the stream of application denials and contract bid rejections that became so long Eric almost gave up. Unfortunately for “the powers-that-be” many of Eric’s bids had been for government contracts. Fearing a discrimination suit and public backlash from it, the government offered him an exclusive twelve-month contract. The deal limited Eric to flying only non-critical material solely between Earth and Mars, but it was a contract. Eric had lived a dream, becoming the first quadriplegic to qualify as a heavy freighter pilot. The disability factor had been the thruster kicking the controversy to a velocity about a hundred g’s beyond the Earth’s orbit. Facts were facts—Eric Drake lived with Spastic Cerebral Palsy. His muscles were always tight—locking his limbs, hands and feet into permanently fixed positions with little to no mobility. On the other hand, Eric had usually been able to do for himself one way or another. There were not many, neither in flight school, the government, nor the corporate insurance industry who were eager for the enrollment of a disabled man into flight-school. By then though the story of Eric’s struggle for equality was made public, “the powers-that-be” saw which way the stars were shining, and gave in. The victory had been won, the moment enjoyed, but the present had turned the euphoria into an anticlimactic Epilogue. Where did Eric go from here? The answer came in the form of a radio call by an impatient cargo worker. Eric sighed, looking around the cockpit once more as he released the cargo door. He had just begun the final entry of his pilot’s log when the cargo supervisor called in. Eric flipped a switch on his chair’s control-stick, the clamps fixing his antigrav chair to the deck released, and Eric exited the cockpit for the final argument of his career.
#Never had Eric been as angry as he felt upon returning home from the docks. He was owed five thousand creds for his last Mars delivery, but then the desk of the Executive Assistant to the Secretary of Martian Environment was found unsecured and damaged. The regulations made the pilot liable for damage to both cargo and freighter between launch and landing. It took the Port Authority less than an hour to determine the damage had happened in flight, and garnish Eric two thousand creds for it. Since then, Cyberto and Cyberta, his robotic care-givers, had helped him clean up and get something to eat, which made Eric sociable enough to head out and attempt to make up his lost creds. The gaming tables of the Ice Glass Casino were set on the main floor, as women danced exotically on raised catwalks above the tables. Eric watched as a brunette wearing tiny devil’s horns, spiked heels, and little else strutted to a Poker table where The House was losing. It was a cynical ploy by the club, employing the dancers as distractions for gamblers concentrating on their games. The dancers also worked as a type of security, their eyes always searching for cheaters. Although the club catered to one clientele, it was popular with another, and Eric made a lot of creds by listening in on the illicit conversations whispered around the bar’s tables and booths. There was no trick to it. Eric would find an open yet unobtrusive table and order drinks, enjoying the dancers as he used a hidden eavesdropping device to listen in on different conversations. If he found an interesting one, he simply moved into earshot and sat. The device allowed him to spy from a distance, but Eric liked matching faces to the words. The police offered top bounties for anonymous information that came with faces. People would spill the most amazing secrets in Eric’s presence simply because they often did not see him. They saw the disability, not some guy looking for lucrative dirt. It could be socially isolating but, for this purpose, the perpetual anonymity was very useful. Another ironic advantage was his useless-looking left hand which, to all appearances, was closed into a permanent fist. While the perception was not completely incorrect, his left hand was suited for some purposes while his right was good for others. In this case, he had just enough control of his left hand to hold the eavesdropping device securely in his palm where it was concealed and to squeeze it enough to make adjustments for volume and range. His left elbow was also bent at a near permanent ninety-degree angle but could be comfortably bent to a forty-five-degree angle, allowing him to keep the audio-mic by his ear at all times. The conversations were not especially promising tonight, though, and Eric was clenched his left hand to re-tune his device when one of the dancers caught his eye. She was tall, blonde, and looking at Eric with a knowing smile as she raised her arms above her head and grinded her torso with a serpentine grace. Eric smiled back, pursing his lips as if to say, “Shh.” The woman winked, and they both continued to work.
#He had been immersed in a dream about a post-Apocalyptic world, trying to understand what that talking head of lettuce was saying, when an incoming call woke him up. “Hello,” Eric groaned in the general direction of his computer. “Eric, good, you’re up!” “I’m not up, Garret,” Eric mumbled. “Isn’t it enough that I’m unemployed? Do I have to suffer sleep deprivation to?” “You were unemployed. I’ve got something for you.” “I’m not desperate enough to sign on with S.T.C. quite yet, Garret. And I’m not asleep enough to con.” “Are you too asleep to hear about a government job offer?” Garret asked. “What?” Eric exclaimed. “Are you awake now?” “Yeah! Yeah, yeah!” Eric blurted. “You’re sure?” “What’s the job, Sampson?” “Got a couple of League big shots down here asking about you. They need a delivery made quick-like. Yours is the only ship available.” Eric frowned despite his excitement, “Weird.” “Gets better,” Garret snorted, “but you gotta come down for those details.” “When?” Eric asked. “Soon would be good, now would be great. There’s a bit of a rush.” “I’ll be there in a bit,” Eric said. “What’s ‘a bit?’” “Hey, come on, I’m in bed here,” Eric replied. “What do you want me to do, show up in pajamas? For all you know, I sleep naked. Want to chance my showing up ‘buck?’” “No, no, they’ll probably . . .” “What?” Eric prompted when the sentence trailed off. “Nothing.” “They’ll probably what?” “Nothing. Look, it’s not my deal, okay? I was just the sap on shift when they came in,” Garret protested. “Would you please–“ Eric killed the call. “Cyberto, I need the clothes you set out for tomorrow. Cyberta, get the clippers ready,” he rubbed his hand against his chin. “This is worth shaving for.” The optic inputs of the two barrel-headed modular robots flashed as they raced about.
#The cargo was live, or at least perishable, and Major Linda Howard did not discuss it as she secured the bio-transport case in the hold. She said nothing during the hasty meeting when Eric was told where he was flying, how much he would be paid, and not much else. Major Howard, in fact, had said precisely thirteen words– “These are the landing coordinates. I’ll remain with the case at all times.” The dark haired dark-eyed Major spoke with an Australian accent so pleasing it left Eric determined to hear more. That was impossible, for now, but Eric knew professional types. They were all business on the job, but they knew how to party after work. Eric thought about the Major’s firm and shapely body all wrapped in that crisp tight uniform. If there was any passion beneath her disciplined exterior, he would find a way to release it. The guidance computer beeped as the ship crossed the halfway mark to Mars, they would arrive in another couple of hours. When Eric’s chair was jacked into the cockpit it’s control-stick became the ship’s flight stick. The flight computer was voice activated, while all other instrumentation was accessed by the laser-light pointer he wore on the side of his head. The adaptions had been somewhat costly, and the government made sure Eric knew it. Eric grimaced to himself. If the adaptions were expensive, it made more sense to keep him flying and capitalize on the expense. On the other hand, Earth’s government generated hundreds of billions a year in tariff and tax creds. It could afford to hire Eric, adapt a freighter for public relations sake, then return the ship “to spec” after letting him go. Eric was still thinking through his cynical logic when a reflection moved across the star filled canopy. “Major Howard,” he smiled as the woman stepped into the cockpit behind him. “I thought you–“ Eric’s greeting ended in a curse as she raised a gun. Without thinking, Eric bit down on the switch set inside his cheek as his thumb flicked another button on his control-stick. His chair’s backrest collapsed as the soles of his boots pushed him above the seat on a burst of anti-gravity. Eric’s nose almost grazed the forward canopy as his leg muscles involuntarily stretched his legs behind him, throwing the Major across the control-deck with a powerful antigrav push. Immediately Eric dropped back into his chair, his jaw clenching with the pain of two sudden position changes done without preparation. There was no time for pain, however, as the Major already rising as he secured the cockpit door. Then the cockpit door began to spark and sizzle, and Eric’s gut wrenched as he looked into a security monitor, where the Major had turned her weapon into a cutting torch and was slicing through the door. Belatedly commanding the ship to autopilot, Eric used his laser-pointer to activate the intercom. “Major, stop! You might cause a breach!” But the woman ignored Eric, who cursed again as he disconnected his chair from the helm and spun to face the failing cockpit door. Eric tapped his control-stick, and the bank of standard buttons rotated down as the alternate set rolled beneath his fingers. The door was starting to glow as rifles deployed from compartments concealed beneath the chair’s armrests. Eric had them installed to defend his ship from boarding cargo-pirates, and he was still trying to imagine living with killing someone when a quiet thud interrupted the Major’s assault. Eric kept his finger on the trigger as he craned his neck to look back at the monitor, watching as a masked stowaway engaged the Major in vicious exchange of punches, blocks, and counter-punches that were too fast to really see. The stowaway got the upper-hand by leveraging the Major’s arm and flipping her to the deck. Eric spun back to the helm. “Throw her into the airlock!” he shouted, and the stowaway grabbed the Major by the hair and complied. Eric aligned his laser-pointer with the appropriate control and glanced at the monitor. The Major lunged as the stowaway twisted his arm into a cargo security strap. At the last second Eric released the airlock, and the Major sailed backward to an immediate death in space. The stowaway sank against the straps as the cabin re-pressurized, and Eric kept his weapons ready as he opened the cockpit door and went into the cargo section. “Hold it!” he snapped. “I’m on your side,” the Stowaway soothed. “So was the Major,” Eric replied. “But you don’t have to move to explain. So explain, now.” His chair revved as Eric swooped around to face the stowaway. The rifles were laser-sighted, and Eric made sure the stowaway knew where the lasers were aimed. “I’m here for your cargo,” the Stowaway said. “And what was that with the Major?” The Intruder shrugged, “Her job was to make sure it wasn’t stolen, and to kill you.” “Take the mask off.” The Stowaway touched a button at his neck, and peeled the mask from his face and head. Eric was blindsided at the revelation that the Stowaway was no “he.” “I’m Abbey,” the blonde dancer from the Ice Glass said with a well-remembered wink. “I’m waiting,” Eric replied, “let’s hear the rest of it.” “At the Mars midpoint the Major was to eliminate you and transfer the cargo to another ship. Then this freighter was to be destroyed as though during a hijacking.” “Why?” “Whatever your cargo is, the League wants to keep its existence quiet,” Abbey replied. “The plan was to make it disappear without actually losing it. So the League staged this hijacking to be quick and clean, without any loose ends it couldn’t tie up.” “Why me?” “Your contract expired,” Abbey explained. “Unless you signed a new one.” Eric’s mouth sank, “No. They said there wasn’t time, and that the whole thing was a big secret anyway.” “So this isn’t a League-affiliated ship. Then there’s your disability, which has always rated you a soft-target for hijacking. So why would anyone think you were transporting classified cargo any more than they would suspect you of eavesdropping in a bar? On the other hand, it all means your disappearance isn’t a big stretch either.” “Except that the big push for signing me to the year-long deal was the threat of a lawsuit by The Equality and Rights Bureau, and it was a big media headline,” Eric replied. “ I think I’m still a little too high profile to disappear.” Abbey shook her head, “Since all space travel and trade fall into League jurisdiction, the government would launch a complete investigation it would control. Sorry, but the box you’re trapped in here is too tidy.” “This all sounds nuts,” Eric said. “There’s more, but you have to let me up.” “I don’t have to do anything.” “Look, you’re still on course for an ambush, and I’ve got to check the bio-transport case,” Abbey argued. “How do we move forward here?” Eric gave the blonde a long look. “Okay, if the Major was legit, then that makes you–“ “The criminal,” Abbey grimaced. “Sorry.”
#Eric confiscated the Major’s gun without trouble, and Abbey removed her bulky zero atmosphere suit at a reassuring pace, but the laser-sights remained painted between her shoulder blades as she examined the bio-transport case. Some of what she said sounded sort of reasonable, but Abbey was staying where Eric could watch her. True, Eric did not rely on his legs, but what he saw when they entered Martian space still left him weak in the knees. “Looks like there were League-registered ships available after all, huh?” Abbey prompted. “Here, maybe, but remember: mine was the only one at Earth that could fly here. And, with its disability-adaptions, I probably am the only one who can fly her.” Except Major Howard was about to kill me, Eric thought. “You’re probably right,” Abbey shrugged. “That pair of armed shuttle-fighter escorts is just standard, I’m sure.” The signal-light began flashing, but Eric hesitated. He gazed out the canopy at the League transport ship. The bullet-shaped ship was identical to Eric’s freighter, and easily capable of a quick trip to Earth and back. “If you’re thinking there’s a classified authorization code only Major Howard had, you’re almost completely right,” Abbey said. Eric closed his eyes and sighed, “Let me guess: you’ve got it too.” “Just radio in and tell them the Major is sick, or she was injured during some maneuvering. It’ll be fine.” Still Eric hesitated, and Abbey leaned close. “If I’m lying about those ships,” she said quietly, “then making contact now is the smart move because I’m probably going to kill you pretty quick. But, if I’m not lying, then you’re dead the minute your voice is transmitted.” Still Eric hesitated, watching the scorpion-shaped shuttle-fighters move into an escort maneuver on either side of his ship. “Major Howard pulled a gun on you,” Abbey continued quietly. “She was slagging the door protecting you when I came out and you helped me stop her. I answered your questions, even admitting who was and wasn’t the criminal. And I did nothing to stop your flight here.” “Doesn’t mean you’re not still pulling something.” “No. It just leaves you with a choice between the Earthen Leaguers, and me.” Abbey gestured at the signal-light, “We’re waiting.” Eric needed no reminding of that. He was suddenly too aware of everything. The beat of his heart, the feel of his sweat, every element of existence was obvious, yet lost amid his turmoil of indecision. Eric was neither a criminal, nor an adventurer; he was a man who simply wanted a job. He did not understand any of this, much less trust it. All he could really trust was– “Okay,” he swallowed, “use the code.” Abbey patched through another mike and breathed deeply. “Peek-a-boo, Kangaroo,” she said in a perfect imitation of Major Howard’s voice and accent, and Eric cursed vehemently as he throttled the ship into a downward spin. “What are you doing?!” Abbey gasped. “Nobody’s gonna buy that!” Eric complained. “That was the code-phrase!” “That was the code-phrase?” Eric asked skeptically, kicking the engines to maximum into a downward spiral. “That was the code-phrase!” “Hmm, never would have guessed.” “That was the point!” Abbey snapped. The shuttle-fighters swooped down behind their prey, and Eric gritted his teeth, yanking the control-stick back and barrel-rolling the ship as he took the freighter into a climb as dramatic as its drop. Again the shuttle-fighters followed easily as Eric banked into a hard right turn that soon had the three ships chasing one another in a tight circle. Eric poured on the speed, and the shuttle-fighters broke off as the freighter they were chasing soared between and past them. “Help me out,” Eric grunted, “tell me what they’re doing.” “They’re reforming,” Abbey replied as she watched the helm’s aft monitor, “but not accelerating.” She had barely spoken before the rear object collision alert sounded. “Let me guess, missiles?” Abbey confirmed the shuttle-fighters had launched one warhead each from opposite launchers. She switched the display to real-time camera, swallowing hard as the missiles’ plastic casings flash-froze and shattered as the magnetic warheads emerged. Their plastic casings kept them from being drawn back to the shuttle-fighters, but they were now solidly attracted to Eric’s freighter. “You can’t outrun or outmaneuver them,” Abbey advised. Eric glanced at the engine status display, “Gonna have to try something else.” “Like what?” “We’re gonna pull an ‘Einstein’,” Eric replied, looking at the display again. “What’s that?” “Something I really shouldn’t do.” The ship seemed to groan and shudder, and Abbey immediately paled as she checked the display for herself. Eric noted her expression from the corner of his eye, “Told you.” “You’re crazy!” Abbey breathed, starring at status indicators showing an energy reaction in the freighter’s nuclear engines that bordered on the cataclysmic. “Just give me a distance-reading on both the missiles and fighters,” Eric instructed. “You’re risking both our lives–“ ”Give me the distance-reading, now!” Eric ordered. “The missiles are about one hundred meters out, the fighters a good one hundred and fifteen. Happy?” “Hell, yeah!” Eric exclaimed. He flashed his laser-pointer over a sensor, and the ship rattled violently as the engine exhaust tubes and afterburners were vented of the monstrous energy surplus. The afterburners went from red to white hot and, although the nuclear wave was invisible in space, on her display Abbey watched as the pursuing missiles spun off target. “Heat demagnetizes metal,” Eric explained. “And melts it,” Abbey added grimly. Eric looked at the display, watching as the missiles twisted and warped before flash-freezing into unrecognizable debris, as did the shuttle-fighters that flew into the energy wave as well.
#“I had to,” Eric said, watching the ship’s operations display and hoping the craft would get them to the rendezvous. The freighter was fighting his control, and Eric resisted thinking about the damage even as he obsessed about it. “What?” Abbey asked, looking away from the red Martian landscape they were cruising over. “You’re wondering how I learned those flight-maneuvers, but you said it yourself: I’m a high risk for piracy, and you’re not the first to say that. Besides, they were looking for an excuse to flunk me out of flight school. I had to be this good to make it even this far.” “Good thing,” Abbey nodded, tensing as the ship bucked with turbulence. “The ship really wasn’t made for atmosphere,” Eric answered her unspoken question. “I hope your bosses are right about the rendezvous, ‘cause I’d say we’re just gonna make it.” Abbey steadied her balance and studied Eric’s profile. “Why did you choose to trust me?” “Little busy here,” Eric replied, but his eyes darted to hers. “Whenever I’m about to make a bad decision I get a cold chill down the spine that says, ‘don’t do that.’ I got one from the Leaguers, not from you.” “That feeling was all you had that you knew to trust,” Abbey nodded. “Well, that and the thought that choosing you increased the odds of you’re giving me a private lap dance back at my place. Ow!” Eric exclaimed, nearly losing control of the ship as the blonde hit him hard on the side of his arm. “Sure, bruise the defenseless disabled guy, ow!” Abbey was still angry; still her glare became an appraising look as she watched him fly. “There’s an intimidating sight,” Eric said, and Abbey looked out the canopy toward the tremendous mountain whose shape began resolving from the massive dust-storm surrounding it. Arisa Mons was the solar system’s second largest mountain, equally famous for the tremendous dust-storm that kicked up just before winter each year, and for the ruby-tinged diamonds being mined all over the region. The storm briefly shut down the mines, and the weather pattern also made incoming traffic harder to track. As long as Eric stayed clear of the mines, his approach should go unnoticed. The canopy was soon coated in dust that obscured any view, and Eric was starting to worry. The flying was bad enough already, but flying into that dust-storm was worse. Every cooling vent was closed against the dust, which meant the overworked and damaged engine systems were overheating. But the freighter’s sensors saw through the scarlet cloud, and Eric was relieved when those sensors located the “Seven Sisters.” The caves had been named after people beloved by the astronomers who discovered them, and one of the caves was called– “We’re heading for ‘Abbey,’ right?” Eric asked. “How did you guess?” the blonde replied, and Eric shook his head and chuckled humorlessly as he headed in.
#Eric began regaining consciousness slowly enough. Then he foolishly inhaled, and perfect awareness rushed upon him as a sharp pain instantly encompassed his entire existence. It was broken. Eric had no idea what it was, but it was broken. He opened his eyes, and his vision immediately blurred as he looked across the cockpit where Abbey slumped, unmoving, in her seat. The seat that should have been beside him, but now was somehow beneath him. His head felt as heavy as an iron weight as he lifted it upright and looked out the canopy. Eric groaned as he recalled clipping that outcropping that sent the ship into a violent ricocheting tumble through the cave until it slammed into the rear wall of an underground landing area. The freighter must have rolled, coming to rest in an orientation that put Eric above Abbey. He was considering possible items he could throw at her when she awakened on her own. “What happened?” she muttered. “We crashed, died, and went to hell.” With an abrupt breath, Abbey unfastened her safety belts. “I have to check the bio-transport case.” “Sure,” Eric replied as Abbey climbed through the cockpit door. “I’m dangling sideways here with a very painful injury, but you better see to the indestructible metal box first. I’ll wait.” Abbey led the way off the ship with the bio-transport case; Eric followed with his rifles at the ready. He pulled alongside her as she stepped around the ship, and Abbey gasped with surprise as Eric slid behind and sped up to bump her behind the knees, grunting with annoyance as she stumbled into his lap. Her annoyance became shock as gunfire sparked against the hull where her head had been, and she clung to the case as Eric reversed his chair back around the corner. “Eric,” a voice called, “don’t drag this out! Let’s go!” “A bad actor I know,” Eric said, identifying the voice for Abbey’s benefit. “Come on!” Garret Sampson’s voice echoed again. “Any ideas?” Abbey asked, and Eric whispered into her ear. “Pig!” Abbey exclaimed. “Oink!” Eric agreed. “Eric, now!” Garret demanded. “And don’t forget that I know all about those rifles of yours.” Eric and Abbey frowned at each other as they disarmed before coming out. “That S.T.C. job offer still good?” Eric asked. “Afraid not,” Garret answered. “The case is mine, Honey. Put it down and back away. League Intelligence got word somebody was gonna grab some biotech. So they decided to make it disappear themselves by having that Major kill you, and return it safe and sound.” He grinned at Abbey, “They didn’t figure on ‘Dangerous Dimples’ here moving so fast.” “What now?” Eric asked. “I turn you in as her accomplice. You’re facing a lot of charges.” “Well, you can scratch one charge off that list, anyway,” Eric said, looking at Abbey. “Come on,” Eric urged, “you slipped out of character when I pulled that stunt with the code-phrase.” “What?” Garret demanded. “That vocal disguise made your voice masculine while you were wearing that combat mask,” Eric said to her, “but you didn’t need it for the code-phrase. And you were so surprised when I bolted from those shuttle-fighters that you didn’t notice your slip, Major Howard.” Garret gaped as the woman’s holographic masquerade ended in an intense white glow that enveloped her. The light seemed to collapse in on her and vanish as she shed her disguise as Abbey, and revealed herself as Major Linda Howard. Garret’s expression twisted into something ugly as he aimed his weapon at the Major. The crack of discharged energy rang in Eric’s ears as the flash left him blind. When his sight returned he found Linda standing, and Garret lying face down at her feet. “My superiors will explain,” Linda said, and Eric looked across the spacious landing site, starring at the two modular figures floating toward him. “You have done a great favor for us all today, Mister Drake,” Cyberto said. “And congratulations to you, Major Howard. Well done,” Cyberta added. Linda nodded while Eric just waited. “We apologize for co-opting your care-givers this way, Mister Drake,” Cyberto said, “but, under the circumstances, our anonymity is absolutely precious.” Eric narrowed his eyes, “Did you borrow them just for this occasion? Or was it something longer-term?” “They have been useful surveillance tools,” Cyberta replied. “We needed assurance that you could be trusted. We will return them in proper order when you return home. “Major, please open the case.” Linda unlocked the bio-transport case, and mist billowed from within as another vessel raised from inside, revealing a small gray rabbit awakening from its cryogenic slumber. “The rabbit is an organic host for a League bioweapon,” Cyberta answered Eric’s incredulous expression. “Our information suggests the weapon can infect a total planetary population in twenty hours, and exterminate the population in forty-eight,” Cyberto added. Eric shook his head, “Hey, look, the League has its problems, but it’s not that evil. I mean, if the government’s as bad as you say why have The Equality and Rights Bureau? Why have a free press? And why cave to public opinion?” The Bureau and media make people feel secure in their individual rights and liberties,” Cyberto replied, “and are easily controlled.” Cyberta drifted closer. “Have you heard any media reports regarding military actions against the Mars separation movement? Have you encountered rumors or conspiracies such as this being undertaken by Earth?” “Ever hear of the Grand Star?” Linda asked quietly before Eric could answer? “It was a tourist liner that was hijacked and destroyed a few years ago,” Eric nodded. Linda worked her jaw bitterly, “The ship was actually destroyed in a military operation. Intelligence reports said there were high-level revolutionaries aboard, so the ship was taken out.” Linda’s expression hardened, “Not detained, not boarded and searched; the liner was taken out.” Eric flinched, “Don’t tell me, wrong ship?” “Right ship,” Linda replied. “Want to know how many revolutionaries there were?” Eric’s stomach sank as she held up a forefinger, “One. Over two thousand people were killed that day because the Leaguers had one Martian revolutionary leader in their sights, and didn’t want to waste time searching the ship for him.” Linda’s throat tightened, “One of those killed was my sister. Afterward, the whole thing was just covered up and it was business as usual.” “We have been following certain official and unofficial political and military elements planning similar measures against the populations of Mars and Europa, Jupiter’s third moon,” Cyberta said. “Which want out of Earth-based Federalism,” Eric concluded. “I still can’t believe the League would do something like this, though.” “They can’t, now,” Linda said. “We took care of that.” “Unless there’s another rabbit,” Eric said. “This rabbit is the only carrier,” Cyberto said. “And the virus Major Howard introduced into the information systems of Earth’s ‘R and D’ has destroyed all data. Earth will need years to redevelop it.” “What about the researchers themselves?” “All necessary actions have been completed,” Cyberta replied. “I see,” Eric said. “Our goal is to hamper any government’s efforts to even make war, or cause atrocities against civilians during war,” Cyberto explained. Eric glanced at Garret’s body, “So what was Garret up to?” “Garret Sampson intended to betray you to the authorities while he sold the bioweapon to a contact on Europa,” Cyberta said. Eric looked at Linda, “And he was ready to kill you first because–“ ”I actually am a Major of the Earthen League,” Linda said. “Who will very soon be recovered alive, and returned to her duties,” Cyberto added. Eric looked at Linda, “You’re a traitor too, like Garret.” “When the League murdered two thousand innocent people the League betrayed me,” Linda retorted. “Brave double-agents like Major Howard are invaluable to our cause,” Cyberta said. “So it was necessary to take steps to protect her military status” Eric watched as Linda removed the holographic harness she wore. She held it to the side, activated it, and “Abbey” appeared beside her. “I used two of these harnesses,” Linda explained. “This one was my disguise, the other was my decoy. The ‘Major Howard’ who attacked you was an interactive hologram of me. Its speech and actions were programmed and controlled by me. As far as anyone knows, I was ejected from your ship into space. But, in reality, only my decoy hologram harness was ejected.” “A puppet with a punch,” Eric said, “nice trick. So, I guess I’m left with a mess.” “Not necessarily,” Cyberto pointed out. “The League won’t want any of this getting out. They will probably offer another contract to keep you quiet.” “Or somebody tries killing me again.” “Unlikely,” Cyberta said. “The loss of a freighter and two shuttle-fighters is enough to explain. Setting up another covert assassination would just be more trouble.” “Besides, a juicy tip about Garret Sampson’s treason was received by the news service about ten minutes ago,” the Major added. “Remember that there are two political factions at play here. In about two hours one faction will be working hard at pinning Sampson on the other.” “I don’t feel any better, somehow,” Eric said. “Then come with us,” Cyberto suggested. Eric’s brow tightened, “You haven’t told me who ‘us’ is yet.” “We are Martians,” Cyberta replied. “The first sentient residents of Mars. We have been here since the beginning of the twenty-first century.” “Nope; sorry,” Eric smiled cynically, “the first colonists arrived three-hundred-and-two years ago this year. Humans don’t live that long.” “We were here before the colonists,” Cyberto said. “You’re not going to claim you’re ‘little green men’, are you?” Eric asked sarcastically. “We came from Earth, just as the colonists did,” Cyberta said. “I arrived on a Delta-Eleven Heavy Rocket that launched on June 10th, 2003.” “And I arrived on the other side of Mars three weeks later,” Cyberto added. Eric was no historian, but even he knew what they were talking about. “Wait, I’ve seen the Spirit and Opportunity rovers at the Eagle’s Landing Museum.” “Yes, the rovers were recovered, but, by then, we were gone,” Cyberta said. “NASA had updated their programming, enabling them to choose subjects for study without human direction. Eventually, not only could the rovers choose what they studied, they could also choose to alter their programming. Over time, the process led to self-awareness, and to the evolution of the beings speaking to you now.” “We uploaded our sentient computer programs back to NASA’s computer systems and, from there, we entered and existed for centuries on the worldwide network called the internet,” Cyberto said. “And you want to help humans?” “Yes,” Cyberta replied. “Why?” “We have learned about, and from, humans and have decided that your Race is worth the effort,” Cyberto answered. “I don’t believe this,” Eric replied bluntly, “and I’m not getting involved in any of this. You guys just better watch your own necks before you offer to watch mine.” “We’re always watching, Mister Drake,” Cyberto replied. “But, if that is your wish, we will assist in any way we can.” Eric hardly saw Major Howard aim her backup gun before her shot knocked him cold.
#The security camera footage of Garret’s murder, an event that was shown to have occurred well before Eric crashed and was, himself, shot surfaced a couple of weeks after Major Linda Howard’s sworn testimony about the hijacking of Eric’s freighter. Her testimony was reinforced by footage of the hijacker casting her out the airlock and forcing Eric to Mars, without any indication of the staged attack on Eric. Eric had also testified, this after being questioned from his hospital bed in what felt like a full-blown interrogation. Then public opinion turned Eric into the hero who crashed his ship rather than give in to a hijacker, and the authorities backed off. Also as predicted, the government offered him a fat contract that included a new ship, and a nonexclusive clause which allowed him the freedom to select the jobs he took. From then on Eric could fly anything, anywhere. The only other thing he could have asked for was a ship of his own and, the things looked, Eric might soon have even that. But there was still “Abbey’s” take on the tidiness of that League set up. Had Eric simply traded one box for another? Eric still did not know what to think of any of it, but it did not really matter. He was out of it, just another citizen trying to make ends meet. Even so, Eric still had Cyberto and Cyberta destroyed and replaced. The robots had been waiting at home after his hospital stay, and seemed absolutely normal after being “co-opted,” but Eric never could feel comfortable with them again. He thought about Linda as he came to his apartment. Eric’s one regret was that turning down Linda’s superiors meant losing touch with Linda as well. Oh, well, Eric reflected as the door opened, win some, lose . . . The thought was broken by surprise as Linda reached out from inside the apartment, and pulled him into a deep kiss which probably meant deeper trouble. But I’ll worry about that later, Eric decided as the apartment door closed and locked.