Disembarking from the shuttle took longer than expected. Out of necessity, the outpost was cramped and sparse. Pauline needed to guide Riker’s awkward form through the station hatch into the decontamination chamber. Once sealed inside, she waited impatiently as vents opened, fans whirled, filling the air with disinfecting vapor. The pungent smell of sterilization clawed at her nose, causing her to grimace.
“Blasted decon-mist! Stinks like an old Venusian Sky Colony!” Pauline said.
Riker stood serenely next to her. Under the control of the cortex dampener, he could not react to the chemical stench. Irritated and nervous, Pauline returned to taunting her prisoner.
“Look on the bright side. You’ll never have to deal with decontamination protocols again where you’re going. You won’t have to worry about a damn thing in your new little world. United Planetary provides everything necessary to keep you alive until you’re good and old. Sounds like a huge expense to me, but apparently, it’s the cheapest way to imprison a convict for life.”
Pauline mockingly threw her arm over Riker’s shoulder.
“Just think! No need to fret about planning for parole hearings or heart-breaking visitations. The ultimate retreat into solitude, that’s what they’re giving you. The only thing troubling me, though, Riker, is this whole business of not being about to contact you ever again. How will I know if you’re still alive and suffering?
Pauline wasn’t going to let up. She and Riker already knew there was no coming back, no parole. But, she would take any last opportunity to damage him emotionally.
“Hopefully, one day, some bleeding heart humanitarian will develop the means to communicate with your pod trapped in the depths of Jupiter’s gravity well. If I’m really fortunate, they’ll find a way to pull you back up, so I can witness the blathering fool I expect you’ll have become. Depriving people of social interaction drives them insane, you know.”
Because Riker couldn’t respond, Pauline found herself distinctly dissatisfied. She studied his eyes. They, too, were restrained by the effects of the cortex dampner. Yet, she imagined she saw defiance, desperation, and terror within them. Pauline surmised correctly. Jupiter would destroy him.
“Did you know after plunging thousands of miles into Jupiter, your capsule will land on the solid surface of an ocean of liquid, metallic hydrogen? Who would have guessed? It’s the largest ocean in the solar system!”
Pauline was genuinely fascinated by the mechanics of the giant planet. She liked to think she could have pursued a planetary physics or geology career if Riker hadn’t destroyed her life.
“The ocean’s density coupled with Jupiter’s gravity makes the hydrogen behave like a solid-liquid. Whatever that means!?”
Pauline shook her head.
“Anyways, the buoyancy will stop your fall and repel you upwards, hurtling your pod spaceward until good ol’ Jup snatches it back down.”
Riker’s dread intensified. His mental stability faltered, careening out of control as a maw of insanity gaped before him threatening to devour his mind. Confinement never suited anyone, but Riker survived by roaming the vastness of space. He envisioned himself a descendant of Earth’s ancient nomadic tribes who wandered the deserts, steppes, and oceans, attempting to satisfy a boundless curiosity. Acting, doing, moving kept him alive just as a shark continuously swam or suffocated.
“The gravitational tug-of-war will be intense, but neither force will win. Don’t worry. The pod’s repulser field generator will protect you from the g-forces until it becomes tidally locked in place. The perpetual balancing act would create conditions similar to zero-gravity in the middle of fucking Jupiter if the generator didn’t provide artificial gravity. Ironic, huh?!”
Pauline was so lost in thought she failed to notice the cleansing cycle was over.
“Strange concept solid-liquid is. What’s the term? Oxymoron? Well, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is Jupiter never relinquishes what’s pulled into its gullet. It sounds almost alive, doesn’t it, Riker? The planet’s a titanic, bulbous, cosmic tapeworm!”
Riker howled internally, wracked with frustration. He had always been able to outsmart the system; harrowing escapes were his trademark. But, he knew there was no way out of this situation. Pauline was right. Jupiter harbored a black hole of hunger deep within its bowels. His time was up. He dedicated his life to staying one step ahead of tragedy ever since his parents were murdered. The memory of hiding, immobilized with fear, continuously haunted him. Riker never wanted to feel that again.
The decontamination cycle finished, pulling Pauline out of her reverie and into action.
“Come on, Riker, let’s see your new home.”
Pauline sounded like a proud parent moving her child into a new school dorm room. She keyed the station door open and pushed Riker towards the orbital’s solitary security guard.
“Lt. La Croix requesting permission to come aboard with prisoner for transfer,” she added after a pause. “Brauner, Riker. PID: 3FSNA71423TR.”
“Welcome, Lieutenant. No need to be so formal. He’s the only guy coming this week. We’ve been expecting him.”
“Sorry, of course. Newbie here.”
Pauline grimaced, playing naive. She hoped to lull the man into a false sense of security.
“Just you and Li assigned to this escort?”
Pauline tried to appear frazzled, anxious to prove she had the situation under control.
“Oh, and don’t worry, he’s damped down. Nobody wanted to take any chances with this one. Although, the effect only lasts another thirty minutes. I’ll have to call in for more time if there’s any delay.” she said.
The guard just stood, silently smiling at Pauline.
“You must be pretty good if they let a first-timer like you transport this guy all by yourself.”
Pauline recognized the intent behind the guard’s flirtatious eyes. She decided adding a touch of sultriness to her act would go a long way.
“Trying to make a good first impression. Besides, I’m usually up for a challenge; it helps distract me from the boredom.”
“Formidable. I like it.”
“Where is the rest of the station’s security detail? Is it only you? You must be extremely potent.”
Pauline was smiling now. The guard laughed, looked away, and snickered, returning his gaze.
“You’re not new to the Corps, La Croix, are you?”
“No. Just to this ship.”
The station guard held out his hand.
“My name is Georgio. Always happy to have another experienced security officer on-station. Newbies can be excitingly unpredictable. But, it’s an overrated experience if you ask me.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Pauline found Georgio quite handsome. She appreciated a man with swagger.
“Where you transfer in from? Li told me you came in mid-mission this week.”
“Last post was on Mars. Hated it. Had some family complications back on Earth to deal with. I asked for the chance to get the hell as far away as possible. I wanted to clear my head. You know, change of scenery and all that?”
“Well, an outer-system tour on Diligence will certainly keep plenty of distance between you and Earth. What are you running from?”
Pauline threw a hard stare at Georgio. She snorted.
“How long you been out here, Georgio? Your social skills are rusty.”
“I’m in security. It’s my job to ask questions.”
“When your family fails you, it’s best to venture out on your own. Nothing more to it.”
“This is my third tour. Not always on this station, mind you. I love it out here.” he said.
“Things seem less complicated out here. It’s refreshing. Feels like a second chance.”
“Outer-system is known for giving people a chance to start over,” Georgio pointed at Riker. “Not for him, though. He’s a treacherous piece of shit.”
“Ooh, I like you.” La Croix crooned.
“I hear that a lot.” he laughed again.
“From who?! There doesn’t seem to be anyone else on this station!”
“Yeah, crew numbers are low right now. Backup life support systems are down. Until repairs are made, only essential personnel are allowed to stay.”
Pauline wondered if the Dhirmstrata cartel was responsible for the orbital’s recent system failure. They hadn’t mentioned it when briefing her for this.
“Higher-ups covering their ass as usual.” Pauline laughed. “More work for those of you left behind, I suppose.”
“It’s the military. I’m used to it.”
“Same.” Pauline lied.
Georgio coughed embarrassedly, running a hand through his hair.
“Hey. I don’t suppose you’d want to grab a drink or something after dropping this slag off?”
Inwardly, Pauline crowed with triumphant. Seducing the guard had been easier than she expected. She decided to play it cool a bit longer.
“Oh, I don’t know. Not sure how quickly Li wants to shuttle back. Aren’t you in the middle of your shift? What would your CO say if he found you abandoned your post?”
“Ha! My commanding officer plays loose. She’d slap me on the back and tell me she was jealous I saw you first.”
Pauline smiled, shaking her head.
“Outer-system is a lot different than the inner. It will definitely take time to get used to. But, I have to say, I like it already.”
“You will. Listen. Honestly, I do have a long break coming up. I am sure Li isn’t in a hurry to get back to his ship.”
“Oh right, Huan.”
“Yep. Guessing he’ll report one of the docking clamps jammed to buy a little extra time. He’s good at concocting believable stories.”
Pauline had some skill spinning a tale or two, she thought to herself.
“Well, then there’s nothing stopping us from having that drink,” Pauline said.
“No, there’s not.” Georgio winked.
Pauline glanced over to Riker, frowning.
“In the meantime, I’ve some unfinished business to attend to. Where do I lock him up for the trip downside?”
Georgio spent a moment pouring over the security station console.
“Let’s see. Got some formal transfer stuff to do first. I’ll need you to verify and authenticate the orders.”
Pauline inserted the data card from Riker’s last holding cell into the console allowing Georgio to run a scan of both hers and Riker’s biometrics. Everything came up green.
“Frankly, I’m surprised you don’t have backup for this guy.”
Pauline waved the fob for the cortex dampener in the air in front of her.
“I got all the backup I need.”
Georgio shook his head.
“Someone’s clearly anxious this guy will escape. Odd to go to such lengths at this point in the game. Lots of extra paperwork and judicial bullshit to go through.”
“Don’t know. I’m just a secure transport officer. Those decisions are above my pay grade.”
Her knowledge of the cortex dampener was a surprising detail she had only learned of during her last briefing with the Dhrimstarma before the Diligence left Martian airspace. She figured the crime syndicate hoped to minimize her contact with other crew.
“I appreciate it, though. Kind of a lone wolf kinda gal, here.”
“Even the wolf needs a pack sometimes.”
“Did I say wolf? I’m meant a tigress, a solitary hunter.”
They both laughed.
“Let’s wrap this up. You flush this piece of trash downside and wait for me in the mess. I should be less than an hour.”
“Mmm, perfect. This tiger is hungry.” Pauline purred playfully.
Georgio smiled wickedly.
“You fascinate me, La Croix. I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.”
Pauline understood the severe isolation of living on the orbital fueled Georgio’s desperate behavior. She had no delusions about his intentions. But, it didn’t matter. She played along, feigning interest. Pauline felt like an apex predator. The sensation intoxicated her.
“Really now, that makes me feel all special.” Pauline teased.
Pauline laughed, thinking how absurd they looked, toying with each other as Riker stood between them lifeless and absolutely still.
“Now, where am I bringing my prisoner?” she added.
Georgio focused his attention on the data screen, punching away at the console keys. He frowned briefly. Pauline regretted not being able to see what he saw on the orbital computer.
“Everything ok?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. Seems like this whole station is falling apart sometimes. Computer or the data feed is slower than usual.”
“The Jupiter prison program is new. This orbital can’t be too old.”
Georgio scoffed, sporting a smug smile.
“It’s the military, La Croix. Contracts go to the lowest bidder.”
Pauline bit her lip apprehensively.
“True. Hope secondary life support isn’t the only system to fail.”
Georgio rolled his eyes, exasperated. His face indicated there was nothing to do but wait as the system slowly processed Riker’s transfer.
“How was the voyage in? I heard the solar winds were crazy the past several days. Auroras must have been spectacular.” the man asked, trying to make small talk.
“Yeah, needed blinders to view them at one point. I was just telling our friend here how much I love Jupiter. This planet has captivated my attention since I was a little girl. And now I’m bringing my own captive to Jupiter.”
“Oooh. A pun? Lame.” Georgio smirked.
“I know.” she laughed.
Pauline’s stomach clenched as anxiety prickled up and down her spine. Suspicion threatened to ruin her composure. She wondered if the security system’s delay had something to do with her. She huffed impatiently, hands on her hips.
“Tell that blasted security console to hurry up! My prisoner’s cortex dampener is now going to expire in less than thirty minutes.”
“Working on it.”
Georgio remained engrossed by the data readout.
“It’s responding normally now.”
“Spikes in the solar winds or electromagnetic radiation can block the transmission. We really need a frequency modulator to adjust for events like this. But, as I said, it’s the military.”
Pauline willed herself to relax. She told herself she was simply getting jumpy with the mission’s end in sight.
With the formalities of transfer protocol complete, Georgio led Pauline and Riker down the corridor to a secure entryway. He keyed in his credentials, opening the door and illuminating the deserted section of the station.
“To the right here. He’s been assigned to number eight B.”
Stopping in front of a pressurized hatch, Georgio inputted his security code again, bringing the drop pod system to life. Pauline heard the hiss of station atmosphere filling the pod as its jagged, interlocking doors parted. She positioned Riker directly in front of the open hatch and commanded him to enter.
Riker desperately willed his body to stop, refusing to enter this coffin. But, his body obeyed another mind.
“Well, Riker. It’s been fun. For me, anyway. This is where I leave you. I’d say goodbye for now. But, it’s actually forever.”
Riker entered the pod as instructed, turned around, and stood helplessly watching the doors slowly seal him permanently from all contact with the outside world. He would have screamed, thrown himself against the hatch if he could. Riker cursed his inability to control his own body. Surely, he thought, the continued use of the cortex dampener was unnecessary. Suddenly, he remembered Lt. La Croix had said the device would deactivate soon. How much longer, he wondered.
Desperate hope flared to life. Frantically, Riker scrutinized what he could of his surroundings. His heart lurched, spying an interior control console next to the hatch. Its presence was ironic and cruel. By the time his body was his to control again, opening the hatch would result in instant death. But, if he could move before the drop pod launched into Jupiter, he might have a slight chance of overriding the lock and escaping. He fought to move his body.
Pauline watched the prison capsule seal shut as it prepared for launch. Seeing the countdown flash on the computer screen, she hesitated. Emotions warred within her. She had expected relief watching Riker finally meet his end. But, she felt empty inside.
“Well, that’s that. Another bad guy locked up forever. The solar system is a safer place thanks to people like us.”
Pauline flinched discreetly as Georgio laughed.
“Yeah. He was a monster. It’s good he’s going down into Jupiter.”
Georgio noted Pauline’s somber demeanor.
“Listen, it’s never easy dropping a prisoner, no matter who it is. The horror of it can really mess with you if you think too much about it.”
Pauline waved Georgio away.
“Oh, I’m fine. Really, I’m quite pleased. The government saves this kind of punishment for people who deserve it, right?”
“Right. Listen. I’ve got a few things to wrap up, but I don’t see why I can’t take that break sooner rather than later. Let me show you the way up to the mess. You can wait there. There’s a refresher if you need it.” Georgio said.
“Yes, a refresher is a good idea! Afterward, I could use a strong drink and an amusing distraction.”
“I can be very distracting.”
“I was counting on that.”
Walking back out toward the security station, Georgio pointed to a lift.
“Take that up to deck nine. It will let out onto the mess and a small observation platform. The lightning storms can be impressive.”
“Thanks, Georgio. See you in a bit.”
Pauline got into the lift. The doors swung shut. She reached to press the button for deck nine but then hesitated. She couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong. Knowing she still had access to Riker and not taking advantage of it created a sense of incompleteness within her. She realized she had to be with Riker until the actual moment his pod dropped.
“Shit,” she muttered.
Keying the door open, she cautiously stepped out. From this vantage point, she only had a peripheral view of the security checkpoint. Georgio sat with his back to her, hunched over the console. He hadn’t seemed to notice her.
He didn’t actually say I couldn’t watch the drop.
Pauline decided to risk going back to watch Riker plummet into Jupiter’s interior. Having no doubt monitors were recording her every move, she formulated an excuse as she walked quickly back to the launch corridor. There wasn’t any need to deviate too far from the truth. She’d simply explain curiosity got the better of her. Judging from Georgio’s actions, Pauline reasoned the crew operating the orbital station was used to bending the rules.
Tension soared within her as she again stood in front of cell Eight B. The control panel screen displayed an interior view of the capsule. Riker still stood motionless within. She noted twelve minutes remained on the countdown. The sophisticated life support and shielding systems took a while to power up and calibrate to its occupant.
“I’ve got time.”
Without thinking, Pauline rushed to the console. She wasn’t sure if opening the hatch would stop the countdown. Carefully reviewing the data display, she browsed through the control menu to find out how the system worked. The temptation to talk once more to Riker grew.
Foolishly, impulsively, she entered the command to open the hatch. Pauline held her breathe, waiting for an alarm to go off. But, unbelievably, she heard only silence. This flabbergasted her. Pauline concluded another safety feature must exist, ready to prevent the unsecured pod from launching. Her body pulsed with nervous energy, her breathing quickened, and she broke out into a cold sweat as the hatch doors pulled apart.
Pauline stepped into the pod. The rational part of her screamed, begging her to walk away. Her current course of action all but guaranteed her cover would be blown. But, somehow, she didn’t care anymore. This realization shocked her.
Riker didn’t notice the door open. The experience of watching the prison capsule seal shut ruined him. He withdrew entirely within himself. But, he could not escape the relentless flood of emotion welling up internally. The memory of the awful struggle between his parents and the thugs breaking into his childhood home returned to dominate him. He felt the same paralyzing helplessness, but there was no running away, no escape this time. His mind reeled in a sea of anguish.
“You’ll be going down soon. Something about final adjustment to your capsule.”
Pauline’s words spilled over him like an unexpected deluge of frigid, ice water. His eyes snapped into focus as shock emptied his mind of all thought.
“Riker, look. I admit I’ve been a bit unfair to you.”
Was this a hallucination, he wondered. He didn’t think so.
Why had she returned?
“You see, Riker, I’ve done all the talking, called all the shots during our time together, and that doesn’t sit right with me. I realize I need something more from you.”
Riker still could not believe she had returned. He gawked uncomprehendingly. He heard the woman’s words but struggled to understand what she was saying. Her voice and body language conveyed sarcasm and ridicule, but desperation was seeping out from underneath the bravado.
“Funny, I’ve dreamed of this moment for years, carefully plotting my revenge. But something’s wrong. I feel empty inside. Why?”
Riker couldn’t care less about how the woman felt. He could see she was becoming crazed.
“I decided long ago, killing you would be too merciful. Prolonging your suffering has been paramount to my plan. But, now something gnaws at me, an irritating need. I can’t just toss you away. I have to know I can access you, Riker. Thoughts of you coming to terms with this isolation plague me. I will not allow you an opportunity to find a way of coping, peacefully whiling away your life like a secluded mystic.”
Riker ached to realize a glimmer of hope sprung to life as he listened to Pauline’s rant.
“I refuse to let you haunt me from the depths of Jupiter!”
Pauline looked at her chron, noting the cortex dampner would expire in minutes. She adjusted a setting on its control fob.
“Tell me you could have saved my brother. Tell me why the Dhrimstama cartel desires your end. You owe me this, Riker. I want an explanation.”
She asked for merely a scrap of what she needed from him. Pauline had difficulty recalling Stephen’s face now. She needed to know more about how Riker fit into her brother’s life. There were too many unanswered questions.
“Tell me! What last words do you have for me?”
Her demand, more a plea, embodied her despair.
“Speak!” she screamed as she slapped Riker across the face causing him to flinch.
It took him a moment to realize what had happened. Either the authorization on the device, ruthlessly controlling him, had expired, or Pauline had turned it off. A growing numbness replaced the previous absence of sensation. Straight away, he tried to reconnect with his body. His arms and legs felt awkward, heavy, and uncoordinated.
“Damn you, Riker! Why did the Dhrimstarma help me?”
Riker moved his jaw side-to-side, opened his mouth, and wriggled his tongue. Pauline stood before him, her body trembling, staring manically. He could see her nerve beginning to break. He reasoned the only thing holding her together was her hope he could provide answers. He wasn’t surprised when Pauline suddenly drew her blaster from its holster.
“Tell me what I want to know, and I’ll kill you now. I can save you from Jupiter. It will be a clean death which is more than you deserve.”
Riker stopped to consider what had just happened. He carefully took stock of his surroundings, searching for any advantage. Something briefly caught his eye.
“We’re running out of time. Please answer my questions. I need to understand.”
Riker strained his eyes to discern what he saw out in the corridor. He thought he had seen someone. The notion preoccupied him, causing him to ignore everything else, even Pauline’s surprising offer to facilitate his escape.
“Just promise to tell me what I want to know about Stephen, and I will help you overpower the guard. There’s an empty shuttle throttling nearby.”
A man quietly materialized from behind her, almost on cue with Pauline’s words. Riker thought she would turn around and acknowledge him. But, he realized she was unaware of his presence. Riker’s mind raced, wondering if this hidden observer was a friend or foe.
Could Louis have actually managed to secret someone out here to rescue me?
Riker coughing raggedly, clearing his throat. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it. Riker sneered, deciding to throw his luck in with the man lurking in the shadows.
“Fuck you, Riker. Bastard! Guess you do deserve the hell awaiting below on Jupiter! “
Riker endeavored to maintain Pauline’s focus. He wanted her oblivious to the stealthy presence creeping up from behind. Riker shrugged and sighed, feigning capitulation. Relief visibly washed over Pauline’s face as she eagerly waited to hear Riker’s words. His hopes soared, seeing the man held a heavy, metal object preparing to strike.
“Go to hell! Bitch!”
Electric blue sparks exploded across Pauline’s vision as a hefty blow struck her. Searing pain obliterated all awareness as she slumped into a heap.
“Come on! Let’s go.” the stranger urged.
Full mobility still hadn’t returned to Riker’s legs. He stumbled as he tried to move, falling roughly to the floor. Dropping the makeshift weapon, the man rushed forward to help. Riker stared up at a young Solar Corps officer. It was the pilot who had flown the shuttle.
“Riker! Riker! Get up! Time’s running out! This capsule is preparing to launch any minute. I have no idea if it will still drop with the hatch open, but I don’t want to find out!”
“Who the hell are you? Did Louis send you?”
Riker fumbled to stand. It would be another hour before all residual effects from the body control technology faded. The corpsman pulled him to his feet.
“You’re in for a shock, brother. It’s me, Johnny.”
“Johnny? That’s impossible.”
“Retro DNA reconstructive surgery makes it possible.”
“Believe me, it’s excruciating, but I’d go to any length to save you, Swagger.”
Riker froze hearing his childhood nickname. Only his parents and his brother had called him that. But, Swagger died long ago when his parents were murdered. He had made Johnny promise never to utter the name again.
“I don’t know how else to convince you. I doubt we have much time left. I had patched into the station’s mainframe earlier and gently tinkered with this level’s security and surveillance systems. I hoped to create a brief window of confusion, allowing us a chance to get back to the shuttle with only one guard to deal with. But, that woman, Lt. La Croix, opened the capsule too soon!”
Gently tinkered with the security…sounds like Johnny.
Riker didn’t understand anything, but getting on a shuttle and off of this station made perfect sense. If he survived, there would be plenty of time to sort everything else out.
“Well, your offer is infinitely more appealing than a lifetime of solitary confinement inside a prison capsule within the depths of Jupiter. Lead the way, Lieutenant.”
“Glad to see this ordeal hasn’t robbed you of that charming cynicism I know and love.”
Riker leaned heavily against Johnny as he tried to walk.
“Ah, I can’t carry you. You’ll need to help a little.”
They managed to maneuver around Pauline’s unconscious body, awkwardly shuffling through the hatch into the corridor. Johnny leaned his brother against the wall. Riker’s grimaced, his face awash with pain and doubt. Johnny smiled reassuringly at his brother, warmly slapping his shoulder.
“I feel bad about it, but Lt. La Croix is in for a nasty surprise when she wakes up inside that capsule instead of you.”
“Johnny? How? I don’t….”
It pained Johnny to see his older brother uncharacteristically confused and vulnerable.
“Who else knows what Mom and Dad called you?”
“Johnny, what have you done? No, no. You shouldn’t have come. Louis should have sent someone else.”
“Little bro’s got your back for once. Don’t make a habit out of it, though. I prefer it when you’re all smug and annoyingly self-assured.”
“Your face? Your voice?”
“A price I willingly paid. Now, we can talk later. I need to get you on that shuttle, and then, Riker, I will need you at your best. I’m counting on you to figure out a way past the Sol Corps ships and far away from Jupiter.”
Johnny glanced up at the capsule’s control monitor noting two minutes and eleven seconds remained until the pod launched. He cursed himself for what he was about to do.
“Be right back. I can’t in good conscience leave anyone in that fucking pod to rot, forever alone.”
Sensing his brother’s plan, Riker tried to stop him from turning and stepping back into the capsule. He watched as Johnny bent down and struggled to pick Lt. La Croix up.
“Johnny! Leave her!”
But, it was too late. Further down the corridor, a door suddenly crashed open as a guard rushed toward them. Riker willed his body into action, but it failed him. He only just managed to shout out a warning.
Johnny started, quickly whirling around only to find he had run out of time. The other man barreled into him, throwing him to the floor. Johnny damned himself for trying to help the woman.
“You’re not Li! What the fuck have you done with my friend?”
Johnny attempted to twist out from underneath the security guard’s grasp. But, he was outclassed by the other’s superior strength and military training. The guard didn’t even bother to draw his weapon. He viciously tossed Johnny around, thrashing him against the pod’s metal interior. Within seconds, Johnny lay unconscious, blood seeping from a gash in his head.
“Now, you are supposed to be on your way down to hell! So get the fuck in here!”
The soldier lumbered forward to yank Riker back into the capsule. But, adrenaline and a stubborn will to survive gave him the strength to roll backward just in time to avoid the guard’s grasp. He pushed himself back up onto his feet, using the wall for support.
“You’re a slippery, little space slime!”
Riker knew even under normal conditions, he would have struggled to subdue his opponent. In his current state, he simply could not overpower the guard. Riker glanced about, desperately looking for anything advantageous to use. Luck seemed to favor him, he thought as he spied a length of metal pipe lying nearby on the floor next to the capsule door. He realized it must be what Johnny struck Pauline with. Riker pounced toward it.
“No, you don’t, you bastard!”
The guard deftly kicked the pipe, causing it to ricochet down the corridor.
“Just give up, slag! It’s over! The station’s locked down. My backup will be here any second.”
“Sorry, it’s not in my nature.”
Suddenly, the drop pod’s control console began to bleep loudly, flashing the last sixty seconds of the countdown. The two men instinctually paused to size up the situation. A comm chimed, and Riker heard a woman’s voice.
“Georgio. I’m stopping the countdown. There’s not enough time.”
“Let it run, Huan. Keep recording everything.”
“Georgio, wait for Bastien and Sara! You don’t have to do this alone. You should have triggered the alarm sooner.”
“I wanted to eavesdrop long enough to get the whole story.”
“The commander isn’t going to like you going solo on this.”
“I’m trying to clean up my mess. This is my fault. I allowed myself to fall for the oldest trick in the book, a beautiful distraction. Lucky for me, I finally got around to reviewing yesterday’s intel. Someone claiming to be our friend Li was arrested the other day on Mars. I decided to check in on our Li. After failing to locate him, I checked down here.”
“I’m busy right now, Huan. I got this!”
“Thirty more seconds, and I’m terminating the launch.”
Riker suspected the prison capsule would still launch with the corridor hatch open. This station section would be subjected to pressure loss and an influx of freezing, toxic atmosphere until the exterior launch tube door resealed. This would kill anyone within the immediate vicinity of the door.
“Do what you feel you need to, Huan,” Georgio said with a shrug.
While the orbital crew argued, Riker prepared for one, last, desperate attempt to take the guard down. Recognizing the futility of trying to evade the larger man’s powerful grasp, he decided to allow himself to be grabbed. Posturing aggressively, Riker hoped to goad his opponent into launching a full-body tackle. He would use the other man’s weight and momentum to throw him off balance. Riker would try to seize the guard’s blaster in the ensuing chaos.
“I’ve heard enough to justify my actions. It’s time you joined your friends.”
“What are you waiting for? Afraid I might have regained my strength?”
The guard practically flew through the air as he rushed forward. Riker didn’t resist. Falling with a twist, he escaped becoming fully pinned to the floor. Miraculously, his hand made contact with the blaster. He pulled it free from its holster, struggled to aim, and pulled the trigger.
Shock paralyzed Riker.
The guard swiftly subdued him. As he hauled Riker back up onto his feet, the blaster dropped loudly to the deck. The guard stared incredulously at the weapon.
“You tried to fucking shoot me with my own blaster! Idiot! A Sol Corps firearm won’t fire unless it detects registered biometrics!”
The guard laughed as he dragged Riker over to the hatch, tossed him into the pod, and shut the door.
Leaning against the hatch door, Georgio took a moment to recover and catch his breath. The struggle had taken more out of him than he expected. Vowing to redouble his efforts to exercise, he swiped at the beads of sweat running down his face. He remarked the launch count had passed the thirty-second mark.
“That was a little too close,” Huan said.
“Agreed,” he confessed.
Rapid footsteps echoed loudly as two other guards came rushing toward him.
“Georgio! Are you alright?”
“What the hell happened?”
Straightening up, Georgio smiled in response to the other’s bewildered expressions. Neither of them had ever seen any real action. They were too young to have served in the more recent conflicts. Georgio shook his head and sighed. He and the rest of the crew had become lax and complacent within the station’s relative safety. There would be a lot of explaining to do. But for now, the veteran soldier allowed himself to enjoy watching the countdown end. He laughed hysterically as the prison capsule finally plunged down into Jupiter.
“Georgio? Are you ok?”
His laughter intensified as he saw the panicked look on their faces.
“I told you guys. I got this!”
As the prison capsule swiftly fell into Jupiter, Pauline stirred. Fluttering her eyes open, she winced in pain. She pushed herself up off the floor to look around.
Li lay unconscious next to her, his hair matted with dried blood. Confused, she wondered if they were back on the shuttle. The pounding in her head made it difficult to think. But, everything became clear seeing Riker huddled on the floor across the small room. Collapsing to the floor, panic engulfed her as she realized what had happened.
Pauline wept violently until a familiar voice spoke inside her head.
Don’t cry, Pauline. You worry needlessly. Remember when one door closes, another one opens. We were only expecting Riker, but you and the other man will also be safe with us.
It was her brother, Stephen’s voice.