By the change in the hum of the ship, Johnny knew the solar frigate had cut the cruising engines. The thrum of the main reactor operating at near peak was replaced by almost silence. He could now more clearly hear the various sounds of the crew making adjustments to the yaw of the ship.
“Time to see if this all works according to plan.” he muttered to himself.
He had been lounging for the entire journey in the shuttle crew quarters feigning shaking off a bad hangover. Avoiding interacting with the routine crew had been fairly easy. This course of action made the most sense given Li was well known to hit the bottle pretty hard when ashore on planet.
“Ah look whose finally feeling better.” one of the other shuttle pilots grunted as Johnny got up gingerly from his bunk.
“You still look like shit though. What the hell did you drink on leave?” a woman asked.
Her name was Sharon and she had been the most difficult part of his mission so far. She and Li clearly had a burgeoning relationship that wasn’t on the intel reports. It must have just started. He had to put out a bit, but managed to fake wooziness effectively enough to shake off most her advances.
“I think someone must of messed with my drink. Lim stim, I’m guessing. Never had liquor effect me like this. Just finally easing up.” he paused to scrub at his face with his hands. “We almost in Jovian orbit?”
“Lim stim?” Sharon recoiled.
Johnny knew any mention of the infamous drug that interacted with the brain’s limbic cortex effectively altering a person’s mood would throw Sharon off balance.
“Guess that explains why you couldn’t perform past two rotations.” she quipped.
The other guy in the quarters snorted.
“Ah, that’s what everyone says who tries to bed Li.”
“Fuck off, Pedro.” Johnny grunted as he stood up wincing as he pretended to be weak.
“Well, that’s a relief.” Sharon said. “I was getting beginning to think you had found some one else to occupy your time with.”
Giving her a doleful look Johnny said softly, “Sharon. I’ve only got eyes for you.”
“Don’t worry Li. You can make it up to me later.”
Reaching out to touch his shoulder she added, “Can I get you anything? Java? That should help.”
“Nah..thanks though.” Johnny reached up to squeeze her hand in a gesture of gratitude.
“Well, you got less than an hour before we are rocking and rolling down to Jupiter. You better clean up and pull yourself together.” Sharon urged.
“Lighten up Sharon. Li is an old hand at boozing himself to death planet side and then flying like a pro out here. I wouldn’t worry too much about your new friend with benefits. I’m sure you’ll be docking again just fine.”
Sharon shot Pedro a dirty look. She made a show of aggressively giving Johnny a passionate kiss. After lingering momentarily to bite his bottom lip, she whispered loudly.
“Bye for now, Baby.”
Without looking at Pedro she sauntered out.
The door swept shut.
Johnny stood dazed his mouth ajar. Pedro whistled.
“What you see in her Li? Yeah, nice ass and tits, but ain’t she a bit praying mantis like?”
Pedro paused studying the bottom of the bunk above him.
Looking up again he asked, “What gives? You never fuck around with lim stim either. And… you’re smart enough to know when someone is trying to tamper with your drink. Just tell her if you’re not interested.”
“You sure you ok? You’ve been acting weird?”
Johnny stepped back instinctively turning away from Pedro. He started to rummage in his locker.
“First time for everything I guess. I’m not the god you paint me to be. I want to clear my head a bit before flying. All this talking hurts. I need a shower.”
He firmly shut the door to the locker and the conversation.
“Ok. Whatever, man. Who am I to get in the way of another getting bunked.”
Pedro moaned as he stretched like a dog. Scratching himself, he got out of bed.
“Can never sleep right on ship. Artificial gravity I bet. Anyways, I’m starving. I’m gonna grab some grub and take in the view. Sure you don’t want nothing to eat?”
“No. See you at the briefing. Thanks though.”
Pedro had sloppily pulled on clothes.
“Suit yourself. But, I try never to miss watching the approach to Jupiter. Such a damn beautiful sight.”
Johnny sighed. Alone now he stepped into the adjoining bathroom. The room was still dark. The lights were slightly delayed in coming on. He waved his arms a bit in the air to trip the sensor. Sensing his movement, the lights flicker on. He caught a glance of himself in the mirror. His breath involuntarily caught in his throat. Another man stared back at him.
Despite knowing about his altered appearance, he found himself surprised every time. Moving in close to the mirror, Johnny took a moment to marvel at the thoroughness of his disguise. Li’s Asian dark eyes, small nose and mouth, dark hair and smooth tanned skin looked back at him. His hands, the rest of the skin on his body and even some of his musculature had also been transformed. How much had this cost he wondered. What would be owed in return for this desperate gift?
“Hope someone is going to pay to put me back to me?”
The reconstructive surgery had been painful, but that was over now. What continued to unsettled him was looking at a stranger’s face when expecting his own. He trusted Riker would devise some profitable scheme to come up with the funds due when all was said in done.
Johnny had been sent by Louis, Riker’s immediate superior in the cartel, to free him during the trip to Jupiter. Louis was adamant that normally he wouldn’t bother to rescue a smuggler who got his ass in trouble. He figured it was best to let the chips fall where they may. He subscribed to the notion that relying on others to pull you from the jaws of misfortune made someone soft and ineffective. But, Riker was to serve his life imprisonment on Jupiter; a fate equal to or worse than death. No one, more accurately, nothing had every returned from the prison on Jupiter. Human society may claim it was merciful to outlaw capital punishment, but Jupiter was anything but humane. Perhaps he imagined it, but Louis’ reaction to the news made Johnny suspect he knew more than he let on about the inner workings of the new cutting-edge technology penitentiary. Louis played it as he owed Riker one. Johnny kept to himself his thought that Louis owed RIker way more. The cartel owed much to the talents of the doomed man. But, something about the whole affair stunk and Johnny was determined to free Riker before Jupiter enclosed him within its imperious embrace.
“Hang on Rike. This time it’s little bro’s turn to return the favor and save you from this mess you’ve fallen into.”
Running his finger across one of his eyes, he turned considered his nose; his mouth. Yes, the retro-DNA reshaping had worked wonders. Johnny had managed to fool everyone so far. Luck willing he’d pull this rescue mission off.
Riker sat in a confinement cell. He was keenly aware that he was closely monitored. There was of course the guards, but they were more of a formality. An indication of how serious a threat they took him to be. This cell however was quite capable of monitoring its prisoner on its own. Sensors measured his pulse, breath, core body temperature, chemical state of his musculature and even his brain activity. Whoever was watching knew exactly when he was about to move and when his brain activity spiked. He did take at comfort though in the fact that technology had not advanced far enough to actually read a person’s thoughts. He was still his own man in that regard. He hoped. Besides there was nothing he could do. He was in an almost complete cube of thick, solid metal plating. Any utility conduits were smaller than his fist. A repulser field served as the fourth wall. The air ventilation was programmed into the rapid variations of its energy matrix. Touch that and he’d be lucky to walk away with just a third degree burn. As usual any chance of escape would be when he was transported.
“It’s gone quiet.” one of the guards remarked.
“Yep. They powered down. We’re preparing to come into orbit.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I actually miss the hum of the ship in transit. This silence sets me on edge. Always feels like an alarm waking me up from a comfortable sleep.”
The veteran guard seemed to realize he might have shared a bit too much with his new partner. He quickly changed the conversation.
“You said this was your first tour?”
Riker went back to ignoring the men on the other side of the security shield. His mind returned to fruitlessly sifting through the details of the past week’s events. He was flummoxed by how throughly his predicament continued to deteriorate since his routine capture. Things had moved at light speed. He never placed any trust in the justice system, but Riker was surprised when he was only afforded a military tribunal; despite his civilian status. Scoffing to himself he shook his head. No lawyer. No communication with outside allowed. Hearing lasting all of fifteen minutes. Surely that mockery of a trial was illegal and off the books.
“Humph. A criminal complaining of illegal activity. Ha. Ironic. I hate irony…just leads to surprise and mystery. Blast! I hate no knowing what’s going on!” he groused quietly.
The way Riker saw it he was clearly being framed. But, why? Was this revenge or a distraction to throw someone off from a grander, more important scheme. Either way it was a messy entanglement and he had devoted his entire life trying to avoid shit like this. Again, he wallowed in self-pity asking himself why, who and who and why all over again. One thing was sure, despite being quite good at what he did, he knew he was not that important in the grander scheme of the lim stim cartels. Perhaps some seemingly insignificant misstep had landed him here?
Riker yearned to know how he had called down upon himself this unwanted attention? Riker had a few possible ideas, but none seemed to warrant this. The only possible thing that made sense was that a deal had been brokered higher up. He hadn’t done a thing out of the ordinary. When boarded, which happened all the time, he was on a routine smuggling run. But, the officials knew exactly where everything was hidden. Odd? Yes. Yet, it wasn’t until charges were read and sentencing recommended that he became concerned instead of annoyed. He had been busted before and weathered captivity. This was different. He felt like a pawn being sacrificed for a greater good. For who’s benefit he give anything to learn. Rumors of this kind of thing were familiar to him. Tales spun for rookies and used as a means of keeping them fearful enough to behave and unquestioningly follow orders.
The guards laughed loudly pulling Riker again out of his thoughts with their idle chat.
“So …after that I spent a couple years in New Tokyo with the security forces. I did some lunar flights obviously, but never could afford anything fancier.”
“I enjoyed visiting New Tokyo. There was this little bar tucked away from the main pavilion…”
“Yes! That was it.”
“You saw the show in the back, huh?”
“Oh yeah…definitely don’t see that on Earth.”
The guards’ raucous laughter irritated Riker. He tried to shut out their inane banter. He was getting restless. He felt itchy and hot. He started to sweat as his breath quickened and became shallow. He was trapped here on a ship he had no control over. As it voyaged on ever closer to his doom, he found it harder to keep his emotions at bay. He was beginning to hyperventilate and his head felt light. A vision of a free floating piece of wreckage drifting aimless through space entered his mind. The image of twisted metal slag from a damaged craft, devoid of thrusters, tumbling forever in the black of space absorbed his attention completely. Time stretched. His ears didn’t seem to hear. His body was icy cold. In this vision he sat within a hulk of twisted debris, as it danced serenely through the void. Yet, he was alone. He become aware of other objects all around him. The various sized hunks of rock slowly twirled, bobbed and danced about him and his ruined ship. As he rotated around again he spied the looming, immense asteroid directly in his path. Something shifted in his mind. He recognized this monstrous rocky object. Suddenly, his vision cleared. Sound came rushing back. The terrifying daydream dissipated. He remembered something from years ago that he had tried to forget. There was wreckage from his past that might account for the dilemma he was in. Yes, maybe, this was all about revenge after all! His pulse quickened further. He could hear the monitor outside his cell by the guards chime out a warning. But, Louis had assured him that nothing had linked Riker to that disastrous mission.
“Looks like our guy is getting a bit worked up in there?”
“He must have been to Geranimo’s too.”
They both laughed wickedly.
“Hey buddy! Cool it in there!”
“Yeah, forget about it. Where you’re going all the action you’re gonna see is your hand!”
One of the guards made a lewd motion with his hand and the other laughed harder.
Riker flatly ignored them. He remained focused on retrieving answers to so many questions.
When things had first taken a shaper turn for the worse he blamed himself for ratting out some of the Havarati family’s more profitable smuggling routes. This was due to an unexplainable foreboding that the authorities meant business. He tried to make a deal with the investigator. Perhaps he had overreached. The other cartel must be retaliating. Yes, that made more sense. This was still about revenge. Yet, something continued to gnaw at him. He knew this explanation couldn’t fully account for his predicament. He had hit the Havarati family harder than usual and expected them to be frothing mad. But, attempting to eliminate Riker by framing him for a very serious treasonous act was an overreaction to say the least. He had been following protocol after all; pulling from long established smugglers’ tradition. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Everyone knew that. When he was caught carrying his shipment he deflected the authorities with intel about another cartel’s dealings. That was business. The family that took the loss could ask for recompense from another family if they felt it necessary. The crime syndicates conducted damage control like this. A constant ebb and flow of this kind of activity kept peace between the criminal organizations throughout the solar system.
“Tell me about Jupiter.”
The mention of the planet sent a jolt like feeling through Riker not unlike biting into a space ration bar and inadvertently getting a piece of the aluminum wrapping between your teeth.
“Newbie…you’re in for a treat. First time you lay eyes on Jup. It’s…I…can’t explain it. It’s life altering.”
Riker agreed. Jupiter had and would always forever change all that encountered it. The gas giant would be an unforgiving, ruthless prison. He changed his mind again. This couldn’t be revenge. No, this was a strategic move. Yes, a deal had to have been struck. For what reason he could only guess. Riker was just a piece on the board. Someone high up in the Jannswan organization decided it was best that Riker went to Jupiter. He was adamant about that now because Jupiter truly didn’t make sense. Sending him there was the last thing he would of imagined. The Jannswan family, which he worked for, would never agree to send him there in exchange for losses incurred by the Havarati’s from lost smuggling routes. Jupiter was reserved for high treason; crimes against humanity, not smuggling, theft and drug dealing. If he thought life on Jupiter was in the cards he would have vented the air on his ship. Better yet, he would have just gone suit-less out the airlock when Sol Corps tractor beamed the vessel. No need for everyone onboard to die.
“Who the hell would set me up? Rangari operative! That’s ludicrous! I wouldn’t know the first thing on how to contact an alien from fucking Alpha Centari; let alone how to speak to one.” he thought.
Riker needed to pull himself together. If he cracked wide open now there was no hope. He had almost been in a places this tight before, but this…well… he could feel the Jupiter’s gravity starting to pull at him. He knew the red-eyed planet would relish smothering him like a real life tyrannical nesting space dragon from one his childhood stories.
One of the guards cried out louder than usual.
“Whoa! That’s crazy! You mean some poor mech got launched by accident?”
“Never to return my friend.”
“No thanks. Never get me doing that job no matter how much you paid me…or the space mech job.”
More laughter from the guards as if they in frat brothers sitting around drinking.
Riker knew these guards were low fruit, nothing but piss ants. They were talking now about Jupiter’s urban legends. Stories to menace the weak and gullible. No doubt about it. But, he was good at recognizing when others tried to manipulate. Knowing that had kept his head on his shoulders. He was a smart little ant. He did his job. He flew below the radar. If he did grasp for more, he was calculated about it. He tried ever so hard to weigh gain against worst consequence. He was not in cahoots with a threatening alien presence light years away from the solar system. Not that it mattered. No one cared. A fall guy was an invaluable commodity. He hoped the Jannswan organization had traded him for something of real valuable. There was plenty of money to be made providing people with their addiction of choice. Everyone wanted a piece of it; including the official governing jurisdictions. Anyone intelligent knew there was corruption. Keeping the stream of drugs and money reliably flowing took a lot of effort. Each group was always vying for an edge; to gain a bigger slice of the action. His actions must have disgruntled some Havarati drug lord who then sought to exact something from the Jannswan’s in return. That must be it. How the negotiations had led to him being framed for treason he could not work out. Riker was hurt that they were prepared to let him take the hit. Surely, Louis had fought for him? Like a little fish swimming within the whole school suddenly finding itself the one out of countless others to be snatched up for meal, he couldn’t stop the unending question echoing within.
“Why? Why? Why me?”
It didn’t really matter now. But, he did not relish the idea of facing the rest of his life mulling over something he would never definitively unravel. He would already carry the torment of not being there for Amelia and Jack. He knew what it was like to lose a father. His only solace was Sean would be strong enough for them. He could count on Johnny too. He was more of a parent than uncle. Riker chastised himself for giving up. He had to focus on connecting with any lucky break that he knew must come his way. His good fortune had been legendary. How could it fail now?
Lt. La Croix
Riker was ripped away from his self-pity and fruitless search for clarity. He remained outwardly calm, but on high alert inside. The guards cut the small talk the instant a stunningly beautiful female MP Sol Corp trooper came on to the prison block. The two men stood straighter and saluted.
They made no indication of relaxing except dropping their hands down from the salute.
“I decided to see what all the fuss is about here and deliver this one myself down to the orbital drop station. Let’s get him prepped.”
“But, ma’am. Our orders are to. . . Don’t you..?”
“Trooper. What’s you name?”
“And your’s private?”
“Well, Smith. Novalski. When a commanding officer remands your orders and issues new ones what is your normal response?”
“Follow orders, ma’am.”
“But, the comm pad with the news orders, ma’am?”
“Novaliski. I am new to this ship and I want to make a good impression. EXO seems a bit more hairy than your typical second in command ape. In all the bustle this morning, I left the comm pad behind. Embarrassing, I know. But, you soldiers have made that kind of oversight before. Sure, you can understand. I don’t want to start my tour on a bad note. Help a girl out, won’t ya? Prep the prisoner and I’ll get the orders on the way.”
Smith looked confused.
“You want us to prep the prisoner? How so, ma’am?”
“Cortex damper, Smith.”
“We don’t have authorization for that, ma’am.”
“I’m authorizing it.”
The two men looked at each other quickly and then back to the lieutenant.
“My rank alone is sufficient. I’ve made one mistake already this morning and I am not going to follow it up with an incident transporting this very dangerous criminal. Now, prep the prisoner. That’s an order. Besides, I believe you will see the details to his transfer have been amended appropriately in the system. Guess, someone above is getting last minute chitters about this transfer. ”
The woman flashed a snarl of a smile.
“Thank you.” the woman walked slowly down the small corridor to the only cell with an active repulser shield and studied Riker.
“Hello, Riker. Riker W. Brauner. You’ve got quite the reputation.”
Riker said nothing. He glowered at the woman. He heard one of the guards curse to himself over at the console.
“Well, I’ll be damned. They change the transfer protocol for this guy not more than thirty minutes ago.”
Lt. La Croix shook her head slowly, rolled her eyes slightly and raising her voice as she continued to stare at Riker called out. “Oh and Smith? I can help you with that. Being damned and all. I’ve got lots of experience with that.”
Riker snorted and smirked. But inwardly, he sensed there was something about Lt. La Croix that hinted at a level of danger beyond your run-of-the-mill Sol trooper. He didn’t know why, but, he did not believe she was being honest with him at all.
“My name is Lt. La Croix. I am here to make sure you successful make it to Jupiter. Seems command feels you might be trouble.”
Riker continued to stare her down with a smile that clearly signaled, ‘Fuck off.’
La Croix raised one eyebrow, as if to answer, ‘Sounds fun… if you’re man enough.’
The two continued to silently sized each other up as the seconds ticked by.
“The cortex damper is ready for install. Orders?” Riker heard one of the guards call out. He lost his composure and frowned.
“Install, Private.” La Croix beamed.
Riker looked hurriedly about him and spotted the implant mechanism protruding from one of the small opening he had concluded earlier to be some kind of vent. He was indignant and outraged. He knew there was nothing he could do. He wasn’t a man prone to emotional displays. His poker face was excellent. He held Lt. La Croix gaze as a medical robotic arm rapidly descended from the ceiling and efficiently injected a tiny implant behind his right ear.
Riker was instantly unaware of any sensation in his body. He knew he was still breathing. He was acutely aware of the sound of his heartbeat and the in and out of his breath. A bead of sweat oozed into his eye. He tried to blink away the sudden blurriness.
Riker found his body sitting.
He stood up.
“Raise you right hand.”
His hand went up by his head.
“But you middle finger slowly into you mouth and suck on it Riker.”
Shocked. His mind seethed. This woman was not what she seemed to be. That much was very clear. He could see she was formidable, calculating and smug. The last he considered a weakness that he would exploit when giving a chance. Taking orders or having her orders questioned was distasteful to her. He could see that. A low ranking officer of the Sol Defense Corp did not act this way. This was predatory behavior. He was flooded by emotions he hadn’t felt since his parents were murdered. He had stood there now like then… unable to move.
“How’s that finger taste, Riker? Wish it was something bigger and longer?” she laughed.
He had been barely a man when he heard his parents struggle with the thugs. Another time of seemingly random misfortune. He thought he had shook that. Riker refused to be a victim ever again. After that he told himself he would make sure he was never arbitrarily unlucky. He vowed to fail through personal undoing only.
“Put two fingers in you mouth Riker. That’s it.”
He had to kept it together all those years ago for Johnny then. His initial shock had save his and his brother’s life that day. After being paralyzed momentarily, he had swiftly moved into action. Had he rushed to his parents he probably would have died too. The men violently ransacked the house looking for anything valuable and a fight took place between his parents and the intruders. It was over before it even started. Riker instinctively knew that. Johnny and he quietly fled out the bedroom window and down the fire escape to the ally below. They sought help from the police. Neighbors kept low and out of sight. A couple hours later the police finally bothered to respond. His parents were dead and the home destroyed. They trusted no one after that for a while. They eeked out a living on the streets something not uncommon in the slums they lived in. Ultimately, it was Louis who Riker turned to for help. There had been a price to pay, but it saved their lives.
“Now grab yourself.”
The more veteran guard chuckled clearly seeing this new officer in a more favorable light. However, the look of dismay and embarrassment on the other guard was one of a person who still believed the Sol Corps were above such misuse of power.
“Ma’am. That is not…”
“Oh relax, Private. I was just having a little fun. This man, if you want to even call him that, is endeavoring to help the Rangari learn more about us, our worlds and solar system. He only cares about making a profit and isn’t bothered if it means selling out his own kind. Just imagine what will happen if him and others like him succeed. By all accounts the Rangari are hostile. The death and destruction of all of us would follow. You think he has any rights?”
“Yes, I get it. It’s not protocol.” she sighed.
Lt. LaCroix took a moment to turn around and take a long, measuring look at the man questioning her ethics.
“You’re right, Novalski.” she said. “Emotions can effect even the strongest of us in adverse ways.”
The lieutenant turned back to her prisoner.
“Funs over before it started. Didn’t realize the general-inspector was with us.”
Smith rolled his eyes at his new partner’s scrupulousness.
“Riker take your fingers out of your mouth and stop sucking on it for God’s sake. Oh and you can stop examining yourself too for lumps.”
He again stood still. Hands by his side.
“I do have to admit though that a cortex dampener is a big responsibility. But, if it ensures no loss of life… I think it’s worth it. Don’t you agree Novalski?”
Lt. La Croix keyed off the repulser field. She walked into the cell and took hold of Riker by the arm.
“I’ll take the controls now.”
Private Novalski worked the computing panel briefly and detached a small fob. He handed the control fob to Lt. La Croix.
“Thank you. You’re both dismissed. I think I can handle this prisoner on my own from here.”
The two men looked at each other and then back to the lieutenant.
Riker was guided by Lt. La Croix off the prison block and out into the corridor.