Captains Clarissa Kragen, Gennaji, and Ildico square off. But something’s not quite right…
When she jumped out of the Artemis cargo hold, waving goodbye to the Hopper and her crew aboard her, Riss had experienced a familiar dread. Even the quantum entanglement cabling tether, which she knew would guide her, could not eliminate the fear that, somehow, she would veer off into the endless vacuum of space.
The blackness rushed up to meet her, envelop her.
And she embraced it. Eyes and arms wide open.
Unlike her dreams, this time a wave of acceptance seemed to pass through her.
She had walked where none had gone. She had become part of a greater whole. The darkness was within her as well as without.
She laughed, the noise sounding only inside her helmet.
Now, finally, she understood the exhilaration her navigator must feel in his vidgames. Relaxed, she toggled her suit rear thrusters. The entry port to the mining station rapidly approached, and Riss realized she had never seen the port from outside a ship. It looked so huge, and yet so tiny and fragile.
Was that all that kept the forces of chaos at bay? The only barrier preventing the internal atmosphere of Ceres from escaping, suffocating and freezing everyone inside? Surely, they could create something of more substance.
Suddenly she could sense the gravitational field of the dwarf planet. Faint, but present. Like ribbons extending, overlapping. All she had to do was tug on them a little…
The port lights surrounding the gates blinked white and red, and the gates opened. In silence, Riss descended, head first. The microgravity of the planetoid grew stronger, slowed her. She reversed her thrusters to orient her feet beneath her (above her). She looked up to see the open gates and blackness beyond.
Her helmet comm crackled.
“Riss, we’ve got it.”
“Come down in five minutes,” she ordered. “Radio silence from now.”
The port gates overhead began to close. She touched down, and the port itself was bathed in light. Her helmet sensors showed an atmosphere rushing in from all sides. The gates soundlessly closed, locks sealed. As she waited for the O2-CO2-N levels and pressure to equalize, Riss thought she could feel someone watching.
The fields appeared before her. Yes. She sensed at least four people on the other side of the bulkhead in front, behind the exit door. Willing herself to calm down, Riss steeled herself. She had to expect the worst.
The sensors confirmed safe conditions. She removed the helmet, and the door opened.
Gennaji was the first through the door. He was followed by Andrej, who stood arms folded by the door.
Gennaji strode directly toward her and stopped.
“This is for Lena.”
Ripped out a weapon from his sleeve.
Riss flung her arms up, crossed, as if to fend off the attack. Her upper body twisted to one side; she saw the projectile penetrate a shimmering shield in front of her, then deflect barely a few degrees away. The report from the shot reverberated around the port, followed immediately by a loud thud.
Riss looked behind her. The bullet hole was visible in the port wall.
No ricochet? She stared at Gennaji.
He stared back, in disbelief, then raised his pistol to fire again.
The bullet left the chamber and sped toward her. She focused, and a dense layer of air formed in front of the projectile. It spun, then the tip mushroomed, and fell with a clang.
“Enough!” Ildico’s voice rang out from the entrance door.
Gennaji glanced at his useless weapon, then back to Riss, his face registering shock, then anger. Dropping the weapon, he raised his hands in fists and made to run at her.
“I said enough!” Ildico barked out again. She walked toward them, accompanied by a taller blond woman in a mining suit and a short young man in some sort of diplomat’s dress. The three stopped next to Gennaji, who stood motionless, but breathing heavily.
Andrej, Riss noted, remained at the door, surveying the scene with a face devoid of expression. The young man, she didn’t know. The woman, she recognized immediately.
“Sub-chief Talbot,” she breathed. “Then the Ceres Mining Council—”
“The Mining Council is now under my control,” Ildico cut in. She stepped forward, face to face with Riss, and smiled. “As I told you before.”
“Sorry, Riss,” Talbot said. “But I knew somehow you could take care of yourself.”
“How,” Gennaji began. He swallowed, gesturing at the spent shell on the floor, “How in God’s name did you do that?”
Talbot answered for her. “However she did it is besides the point. The most important thing for now is that she will know that justice has been served.”
“Justice?” Riss said incredulously. She laughed. “What justice?”
“Justice?!” Gennaji roared. “Here the murderess stands, and you speak of justice!”
“Hush, Gen, dear,” Ildico purred. She stroked Riss’s cheek with a finger, then stepped back. “Riss has not suffered the hand of justice. Not yet. But she will.”
“What?” Gennaji demanded. “You promised to deliver her into my hands!”
“No,” Ildico said, eyes flashing. “I promised you vengeance on her. And that we shall both have, soon enough. Right, Gen?” She turned to the young man who had been standing silent up to that point.
Gen? Riss thought. Who?
“As you say, Captain Ildico,” the young man responded softly. “The UA strike force should have reached Luna by now.”
Luna? Riss turned pale.
So did Gennaji. “It…no…” he stuttered.
“Our operative infiltrated some days ago,” Gen continued. “The Sisters saw to it before they even met you.”
“In return,” Ildico said, “we will deliver the ditrium, as promised.”
“But,” Gennaji said, “my bonus?”
“Oh, that.” Ildico waved her hand dismissively. “You can have the Artemis. I’m sure Riss won’t mind. Seeing as how we are taking away the only thing important in her life.”
“Wait!” Riss suddenly said. “Gennaji, what if I offered something in return for my ship?”
“Your crew is safe,” he snorted. “I have no interest in a bunch of half-breeds.”
“No, I mean gold.”
He laughed. “I don’t think your iceberg was worth much. I have the ditrium, after all.”
Now it was Ildico’s turn to laugh. “No, Gennaji, not you. Gen.” She nodded. “As I said, it is already being delivered.”
“What?” Gennaji cried.
“I thank you, Captain,” Gen said gravely. “It shall be put to good use. Now, we should vacate the port before the cargo arrives.”
“Ildico, you double-crossed me!” Gennaji said savagely, taking a step toward her. His move to strike her was countered by a sudden flurry of blows. Before he could react, Gennaji found himself on the floor, nursing a left jab to the jaw. Between Ildico and his prone form, Andrej stood, weapon drawn and aimed.
“Andy.” Gennaji spat. “Traitor.”
“I had a better offer,” Andrej shrugged. “And you are a terrible captain.”
“Gentlemen,” Gen said. “I must reiterate. The port will open momentarily.”
They went towards the door without another word, Andrej backwards, weapon still aimed at his former captain. Gennaji lurched to his feet, glaring at them all in turn. But he followed them all the same into the port access room.
The door slammed behind him. Hands seized him on either side. Taygete and one other whose name he had forgotten.
He briefly struggled, then stopped as Ildico pointed out the door window to the port.
“Why is that here?” she cried. “Is that one of yours, Riss?!”
They all looked around the room.
She was not among them.
Gennaji tried to turn his head to look at what Ildico was pointing at.
Hands dropped away in shock. He wrenched his arms away and rubbed his jaw. Andrej kept the pistol trained on him.
She was standing in the middle of the port, its gate wide open to space. An almost imperceptible sheen surrounded her, as if a bubble of air had decided to keep her alive. One arm gestured to the object that slowly lowered between the gates.
Gennaji watched in disgust as the squat, vaguely urn-shaped vessel drifted downward to the port floor. Logically, he knew that there was little reason for space-only ships to look at all aerodynamic — there being no air, of course, such shapes simply weren’t needed, and often cost more to produce — but as a former fighter pilot he couldn’t help finding the Hopper a primitive, ugly thing. He had never understood Sergey’s desire to always take one and land on every rock they captured.
And here it was. Another reminder of the captain who had given away his right to rule. The captain he would have followed no matter what. And yet—
The Hopper had landed. Riss approached it as the occupants emerged from a sliding side door. Overhead the gate began to close again and the atmosphere return.
“Ildico,” Gennaji snapped. “What is happening to Sergey?”
She laughed. “I promised you justice, Gen dear.”
“What you gave me was a traitor and a bruised jaw.”
Andrej’s expression remained neutral. The pistol didn’t budge.
“Andy,” Ildico purred, “put the gun away. Someone might get hurt.”
The gun lowered. Gennaji clenched and unclenched a fist. He looked up. Next to him, Taygete had crossed her arms and was staring out to the port.
“Captain,” the clone said. “We should find out what she wants.”
She meant Riss, Gennaji supposed. Yet the clone did not look particularly pleased. Irritated, in fact. Was there something she already knew and hadn’t let on about?
The warning light changed to yellow then blue. The door reopened, and they walked back into the port, this time warily. Gennaji hung back, then grabbed Taygete’s arm before she could join the rest.
The clone quickly seized his hand and thrust the nozzle of her rifle into his side.
“Wait,” he gasped. “A, a question.”
She paused, then nodded.
“What does Ildi—Captain Ildico—mean by justice? What is happening on Luna?”
“If the Captain does not see fit to answer you,” the clone said tonelessly, “it is not my duty to respond, either.” She let go of his arm and resumed walking.
“But what if her plans for Luna take precedence over your plans for Ceres?” he called after her.
Taygete pulled up short.
She glanced over at the group gathered by the Hopper. They could not hear clearly what was being discussed, but based on the frequency and rapidity of Ildico’s gestures, along with the general emotional tone of the conversation, it looked like the Pleiades captain was not in the best of moods.
“What plans for Ceres?” Taygete responded.
Gennaji smirked. “Come, now, Taygete. I can put two and two together. You clones are the ones really in charge. Aren’t you?”
She looked at him and squinted. Then back to the group argument.
“I think you’d better intercede before something goes amiss,” Gennaji commented lightly. “Before the Seventh Sister decides that Captain Ildico has gone too far.”
Taygete grabbed his arm. “She would never—”
She caught her breath, dropped his arm. Shouldering her weapon, Taygete marched toward the group. Gennaji rubbed his arm where the clone had seized it. A lucky guess, he thought. But probably accurate.
The clone had mixed feelings about Ildi. And about the plan for Ceres.
And it looked like his guess about the “hidden” Seventh Sister was right, too. But how to play it to his advantage?
Next: Bringer of Light, Chapter 31: Ceres – The mining station (Part 2). One backstab deserves another.