J. E. Chapter Three

Johnny

Johnny left the briefing after a few awkward moments with Sharon. He chuckled to himself. The woman seemed decent enough. Oddly, he felt guilty giving her the cold shoulder. When Li finally returned to consciousness and made it back to SS Diligence, he would have a lot of explaining to do if he wanted to keep Sharon around. Of course, after Johnny sprung Riker free, Li would have bigger concerns to content with. If the plan went off without a hitch, it would initially appear as if Li had freed a high-level criminal. Once he and his brother safely rendezvoused with Sean and the kids in the outer system, Johnny would encrypt an anonymous comm claiming responsibility. Including a convincing amount of detail should exonerate Li from any guilt. He didn’t want any bad karma following him. 

Walking toward the launch bay Johnny heard someone running up quickly behind him with a heavy step. Before he could turn around he felt the hearty slap of Pedro’s hand on his back. 

“Man! You always seem to land the best assignments. Damn you and your luck.”

“Thanks.” Johnny answered dryly. 

“Aw…I can’t remember last time I flew down into Jupiter. Love the murkiness!”

Pedro rubbed his hands together with eyes far off in reverie. 

“What’s your assignment?”

Pedro’s face quickly morphed into a look of chagrin.

“Blasted escort again! Escort for Diligence, mind you. Boring.” Pedro drawled out the last word rolling his eyes. “That’s the second time this month!”

“I’ll swap with you.” Johnny found himself blurting out.

Pedro snorted. 

“Think command is still pissed about the the mishap I had flying on Saturn. It’s not like anyone got hurt. The ship came home with only a little scratch!”

Pedro looked exasperated.

“Sorry, man.”

Johnny chided himself. He couldn’t help feeling for other people. An admirable trait to have, but not while on convert assignment. He was relieved Pedro didn’t take the offer to switch seriously. He doubted trading assignments was something you did in the military. 

“Well, drinks are on me when you get back. That’s assuming no piece of pirate slag attempts to free this guy.”

“Thanks again, Pedro.” Johnny tried to sound brave and concerned simultaneously. 

“Relax, nothing’s going to happen. No one is coming. Criminals like him are expendable. The drug cartels don’t give a shit about nothing, but drugs and money. Now, if your shuttle were transporting a shipment of weapons…that would be different, eh?”

Johnny smiled inwardly to himself. Pedro was in for a big surprise because Johnny’s brother was important enough to rescue.

“Who said I was worried?” Johnny tried to channeled Riker’s legendary bravado. 

“That-a-boy. Besides, me and the others will be watching your back.”

“Then what can go wrong?”

Pedro cracked his knuckles.

“Would be fun to have a little action though. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a scuffle. Feel like I’m getting a little rusty. We should hit the simulator soon and run some of the old engagements we fought in.” 

“Definitely. Might be all the excitement we’re going to see here. Can’t have you getting too bored.”

Johnny noted how easily lying came to him the longer he was on this mission. For a moment he himself almost believed Pedro and he were fast friends. He reconsidered the value his ability to connect with people had for this mission.

“Last action Diligence saw was a year ago on Ariel. The fools didn’t know what hit em. The rout we handed them was legendary!” Pedro crowed. 

“Yeah. But, Pedro that makes the likelihood of illegals making a move this far in pretty slim. Now, if we were out past Titan… maybe.” 

Johnny confidently bantered.

Anyone keeping abreast of the news holos knew about the small battle in the Uranus system. Traditionally, Sol Corps took no real notice of the crime syndicates’ activities in the outer system. Humanity had no significant civilian populations that far from the Sun. The territory was unchartered, loosely governed and provided a haven for criminal elements. Until now, most outposts were generally scientific in nature or small private ventures. Although, the allure of cheap raw materials, readily obtained, had fueled a recent spike in larger commercial enterprises. Big corporations clamored for better protection as an ever larger chunk of profits was swallowed up by pirating.

The inner system governments balked at the cost of policing the vast territory past Saturn. Politicians knew the public cared little about corporate losses to the black market. As long as cheap resources continued to stimulate economic growth everyone was happy. Besides, most agreed many politicians were in bed with the major crime bosses.

Yet, hysteria about rumors of an impending Rangari invasion had steadily grown. Despite any credible proof the inhabitants for Alpha Centauri were technologically advanced enough to reach humanity’s star system, the political landscape was rapidly changing. Public concerns were addressed with a slew of new measures increasing military presence in the outer parts of the solar system. Calls were made on the floor of the Planetary Union’s lower chamber to fully incorporated the outer territories into a new political entities. Not a few people felt this was an excuse to exert further control over private interests flourishing in the less regulated frontier past Mars.

Johnny didn’t think Pedro gave a damn about politics or system events. The man seemed solely interested in flying and a good fight.

“Yeah, I think you’re right about that Li. No action for any of us this assignment. Jupiter’s become too tame.”

“That’s supposed to be a good thing.” Johnny playfully admonished.

“I know. I know.”

“You’re right Pedro. Simulator needs to be top of the agenda, once we get some rec time.”

“I’ll be your gunner. Love blowing shit up. Even if it’s holographic.”

They laughed.

Coming upon the launch bay, Johnny held out his hand. Pedro took it, giving it a hearty shake. 

“See you in a few rotations, Pedro.”

“I’ll be in my usual seat in the aft cantina. Meet you there. I expect to finally get the whole story about your leave on Mars. Lim stim? Really?”

Johnny grimaced, feigning disgust. He walked away without replying. Scanning the berth numbers for his shuttle, he suddenly stopped short and turned back to Pedro.

“Hey! You know…you’re most likely right on both accounts.” 

“Huh?”

Johnny smiled with a glint in his eyes.

“Definitely, no rescue attempt and Sharon is boring and needy.” 

He continued searching for his ship, weaving his way through the throng of mechs, support crew and pilots bustling about the flight deck. 

Finally locating the shuttle he was assigned to, he greeted his deck crew.

“How’s she looking?”

“Well, Lieutenant, she won’t vent any air and her engines are running at ninety-seven percent. I should have her back up to hundred precent before you launch.”

“I leave it in your capable hands.”

Not knowing if he knew these men well or not, Johnny cut the conversation short.

Moving to enter the ship and start his own preparations, Johnny’s attention was drawn to the large hangar bay space-side entrance. The blast doors were pulled back. The repulser field shimmered as it stretched across the opening, keeping the vacuum out. It sparked as it interacted with pervasive micro space debris.

The Great Red Spot sat filling most of this view from the hangar. Diligence’s launch bay was awash in the rusty, red light reflecting from Jupiter’s surface. The space behemoth’s bloody eye, surrounded by a lid of coiling milky clouds, appeared sullen with an insatiable hunger. As if nursing a grudge, billions of years old, the planet’s surface seemingly roiled with jealousy. Jupiter was ravenous, eager to consume more gas, more dust, more of anything to attain the mass needed to finally erupt into a star.

Johnny shuttered within. He had great respect for this massive planet. Many an inexperienced pilot, running too low in its gravity-well, lost their cargo attempting to wrench free. Escaping only saved your life. If Jupiter didn’t crush you, the loss of the cargo would. 

One of the deck crewmen hollered in triumph as Johnny stepped onto the shuttle’s ramp. 

“Got her back up to factory specs!”

Johnny nodded and gave the mechanic a thumbs up.

“Good luck, Lieutenant! Safe flying!”

Inside, Johnny immediately surveyed the cockpit, eager to see the instrumentation layout. He sighed with relieve.

“Flashy, but standard. Good. No trouble here.”

He would have no trouble flying the craft. There had always been a small risk the military shuttle would have unfamiliar, classified hardware. Any extra difficulty piloting would have just needlessly complicated things. But, Johnny was in luck. Everything in the cockpit was instantly recognizable.

He sat down in the pilot’s seat. Swiveling his chair around, he considered the rest of the shuttle’s interior. The guts of the propulsion system and power generator erupted up from below deck, entirely filling the main level’s aft section. The remaining space was divided into ten small holding cells. Midship, a ladder led to a minute gunner’s nest for the shuttle’s modest ion cannon. Peering below, Johnny found, forward of the engine, survival gear, med support, a lav and two sleeping berths.

Johnny settled into the pilot’s seat and began preparing the shuttle for launch. 

“Let’s see now. Initiate? Yep, right where I expected.”

Johnny was impressed with the sleekness of the design.

“Time to wake up, you beauty.”

He keyed a monitor awake. Scanning the screen, he found what he was looking for.

“Ah, here’s the preflight list.”

While Johnny monitored systems booting up to operational levels, he heard the sound of someone boarding the shuttle. His stomach involuntarily clenched.

“Finally. One more time playing Li and I can drop this act.” he muttered. 

Johnny tried to relax. Pretending to be absorbed in his task, he kept his back to the entrance.

“Prisoner aboard.” a voice called out. 

Johnny got up and turned around. 

“Copy that. Prisoner aboard.” he called back following military protocol. 

Johnny watched a female MP officer step up onto the main deck. He noted her weapon was holstered. Riker followed behind, hands held in standard military restraints. Johnny smothered a visceral desire to tackle the guard straight-away. Seeing Riker, after weeks of uncertainty, was more emotional than Johnny had prepared for. He reigned his attention in, constrainting his focus solely on the guard. Noting the name on her uniform, he realized she was not listed on his intel report. He instinctively took a gamble, instantly regretting his rashness. 

“Welcome aboard. Lt. Chou here. I’ll be piloting you and your friend down to the orbital station.”

Johnny cringed inside. Not only was he stating the obvious, but he was sure a military pilot would talk differently. But, the guard seemed unfazed. 

“Lt. La Croix. Just transferred mid-mission while Diligence was docked on Mars. Nice to met you, Lt. Chou. When do we launch? Eager to jettison this trash.”

She jerked a thumb over at Riker. 

Johnny was awash with relief. She was new! This part of his rescue mission was continue to look brighter. 

“Ah, we’ll get going once you secure the prisoner. I still need to run through a last bit of prep. Then we’ll just be waiting on the go ahead from Diligence.”

“Excellent.”

Johnny sat back down. He continued to run through the pre-launch checklist. He wasn’t just acting that part either. Entering Jovian atmosphere could be tricky. He wanted a quick, simple run down. The flight out would be dicier.

“What’s this one in for?” Johnny asked without looking up. 

“This man’s in for distribution of limbic stims, theft of a star freighter, aggravated cortical assault, and the murder of countless innocents.” 

Johnny scoffed at the idea his brother had murdered innumerable people.

Stealing? Yes. Smuggling drugs and other illegal stuff. True. Killed people..sure.

Yet, Johnny knew Riker took a life only when he saw no other way out. Johnny suspected his brother was in this tight spot because he hadn’t killed someone. It took all of Johnny’s effort to whistle a casual tone of disapproval. 

“He’s also here for treason. Got caught giving intel to Rangari. He’s true scum.”

This accusation had gnawed at Johnny for weeks. He was confident, his brother had nothing to do with the Rangari. He doubted anyone really did. Johnny was glad his back was to La Croix. Taking a moment to compose himself, Johnny drop back into his role as a Sol Corps pilot. 

“Rangari? Really?”

“Well, why else would a man be bound for Jupiter these days?”

“Can you really call a someone, who sells out his own species, a man? For that matter, can we even call him human?”

“Oh, I misspoke. He’s a monster.”

“I still can’t believe it. Humanity makes contact with another intelligent life and it’s with a hostile, resource-starved species intent on taking what’s ours.”

“Well, all the tech-heads are confident the Rangari don’t possess faster-than-light propulsion. And let’s hope, if we ever develop it, traitorous slag don’t share it with the aliens.”

“Yeah. Distance is the only thing preventing actual physical contact and an ensuing war. So, who figured out this guy is one of those peace-loving zealots wanting to welcome the aliens?”

“How should I know? I’m not a prosecutor. I’m just a guard and, when lucky, executioner.”

“Well, keep a close eye on him. I’m surprised you’re transporting him solo. What gives? He sounds violent.”

Johnny suddenly realized his brother, known for his bluster, had said nothing. He ventured a look over his shoulder at Riker. His brother didn’t look right either. Riker simply stood silently behind the guard. 

“Seems docile enough.” Johnny offered. 

“Yep. Tame as a kitten. Higher ups approved the use of a cortex dampener.” 

Johnny almost jumped out of his seat.

Cortex dampner! She had better know how to use that thing!

People could end up thinking like the mold found on expired air scrubbers, if the operator was inexperienced. Johnny struggled to keep his cool.

“He must be dangerous indeed. You’ve use that often?”

La Croix laughed. 

“First time.”

Johnny’s breath caught in his throat. He swallowed hard.

“Never cared for that tech. A decent pair of restraints and sharp eyes behind a blaster are more my speed.”

“Guess that’s why your a pilot.”

Keep it cool! I’m going to blow this cover. Supposed to be acting like I’m in Sol Corps!

“Yep. Flying beats dying!”

Johnny hooted, hoping he sounded macho. 

“Ok, Ace. Calm down.”

The two forced a laugh, unaware both of them were trying to vent off stress. 

“Well, we’re just waiting on final space and atmospheric weather report before heading off.”

“I’ll secure our friend. Wouldn’t want him falling over during transport.”

La Croix guided Riker to one of the holding cells. Backing him in, she nudged him just hard enough to hit his head on the partially raised door. 

“Ooh, sorry, Honey. You might feel that in the morning.”

Johnny looked back.

“You didn’t raise compartment door high enough.” he called back to the woman.

“Hmm, you know, I didn’t notice. I was so preoccupied with this piece of trash.”

Johnny was picturing Riker neutralizing this smart-ass bitch once free. He visualized the surprise on her face. The reverie caused him to chortle and snort.

Hold Rike. You’ll get your revenge. Almost time to free you. Meantime we’ll play her little game.  

“Tsk, tsk. What would Command say?” Johnny queried. 

“Say to what? Command don’t need to know everything.”

Having secured her prisoner, La Croix plopped into the co-pilot’s chair.

“No real need to actually watch him now.” she explained, flashing a smile.

Johnny continuing to banter with La Croix in an effort to further lull her into a false sense of security. Trying to bolster his mood, he imagined Riker’s reaction after discovering Johnny was hidden behind this stranger’s face. 

“What’s his name?” Johnny asked. 

“Does it matter?”

“To someone, I assume. Anyway I like composing little rhymes for my passengers while ferrying ‘em down to their doom.”

Johnny winked.

“You’re morbid, Chou. I like it. ” Pauline sneered. “His name’s Brauner. Riker Brauner. Or you could just call him…?”

La Croix consulted the small data pad she had clipped to her belt.

“Call him, Lifer 3B56T90.”

“Lifer it is. Short and sweet. Funny, I hear that name a lot.”

“Mine’s Pauline. Pauline La Croix.”

“J…” 

Johnny sputtered and coughed trying to hide his slip. 

“Trouble with your spit? You aren’t one of those fly guys consistently chewing on bacc chaw tucked into your cheek? That disgusts me.”

“Nah, just swallowed my gum unexpectedly. Name’s Li.”

Johnny was relieved to hear the comm signal an incoming call. 

“Shuttle 23 here.” Johnny said. 

“This is Jupiter CJS Drop Station. Conditions are ok. You can dock at Port 4 D.”

“Copy. Port 4 D. Thanks. See you in under an hour.”

“Looking forward to it, Li.”

Johnny had been expecting this. Li was a well-established player. He had “friends” all over the system. Intel had chosen Li for Johnny’s alter-ego precisely because the pilot was known to rush off whenever possible to meet up with his local love interest. On Jupiter, her name was Huan Yee. 

“Huan?”

“Yep.”

“I was hoping you were off duty this rotation. I was planning to have a drink with you in the mess after I drop off? Don’t tell me I won’t be able to spend any time with you? I’ll just die.”

Johnny was enjoying this part. 

“Don’t worry. I’m off in an hour. I picked up this shift for Melissa. She’s sick.”

“Looking forward to it. Transport 23 out.”

Now, they just had to wait for command to give the all clear. A minute later the comm chimed again.

“23. This is Command. Your escort is in position. You are ok’ed for launch.”

“Copy that.”

Johnny smiled and turned his full attention to the controls. Disengaging the docking clamps, he eased the shuttle out into space. The speed of Jupiter’s rotation had carried the Great Red Spot out of view. Before them now the scene was relatively serene. Atmospheric currents of white, ochre and brown gases meandered across the surface. 

“I love the view out here.” Pauline commented. “I’ve actually never been farther out than Mars before.”

“Really? Well, it is a lovely sight. Deceptive though. Jupiter is an unforgiving place to fly.”

Angling the shuttle for approach to the orbital, Johnny engaged the orbital boosters to gain velocity. The change in perspective left the bottom half of the view port filled by Jupiter, but the top half was an inky black. The space was punctuated by a few bright spots, he knew to be moons. One larger crescent loomed off in the top right corner. His nav charts indicated it was Io. 

The comm came alive. 

“Baby Bird, don’t you worry a bit. We got you covered, if any mean old, nasty pirates try to get you.” one of the shuttle’s escorts teased. 

“I feel so safe.” Johnny quipped back. 

“Let’s try to keep alert out there escort. This is the Sol Corps, not a VR holo drama. Get sloppy and you’ll miss any hint of trouble. Don’t want to get caught flying with your pants down.”

“Right you are Command. It’s too cold out here for that.”

“Gertz, your small enough as is with out the cold shrinkage.”

The comm waves erupted in laughter.

“No matter how unlikely it is to happen, keep your eyes peeled for unfriendlies. Silence from here on out. That’s an order.”

“Roger, Command. Understood.” replied someone.

The other pilots quickly signaled off. 

Quiet descended on the cockpit, disturbed only by the hum of the engine drive and random sounds from the instrumentation.

Johnny became preoccupied with the monitors, having to adjust to the ever changing atmospheric conditions. He was tense again. The time to discard his disguise approached. The real fight to save his brother was just gearing up.

Pauline also sat silently wrestling with unease.  Swiveling her chair around, she stared back at Riker’s rigid body. His belly slightly moving with an even breath. His face was expressionless under the dampner’s relentless control. The high from from revealing her true identify to him had worn off. She felt tired, used up. Her dream of revenge was nearly complete. But, she had no idea what came next. Would this help her? Could she finally begin to assemble some kind of life for herself now? She discarded the idea of further action to destroy Riker’s family. It was only important Riker believed she would. She turned back to watch their descent.

“It’s getting misty out there.” Pauline said breaking the silence.

“Yeah, we’re beginning to enter actual atmosphere. It will be turbulent.”

Pauline rolled her eyes, folding her arms across her chest. 

“I’m new to this crew and Diligence. Not to flying.”

Johnny glanced over to La Croix.

“Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be condescending.”

He reconsidered his decision to talk to her. She was not his friend. Johnny reasoned it was better to know as little as possible about the women. He didn’t know how things would play out. If she discovered his true identify, he’d have to neutralize her somehow. He was prepared to kill, but it would be the first life he took.

“Oh don’t give me that shit, Chou. We’re in the fucking military. If I was offended every time some lug tried to one up me, I wouldn’t have made it this far. I don’t need to be good at flying. That’s why you’re here. I’m along for the ride because I excel at eliminating threats.”

La Croix’s swagger sickened Johnny.

“I’m sure you are… like that beast back there?”

“Yes, filth just like him.” she said quietly. 

Johnny cut back on the velocity, letting the ship fall lower into orbit. They flew without talking. Moments dragged into minutes.

The comm awoke with a chirp, startling both of them. 

“23. This is as far as we go. You’re on your own, now. See you back top side.”

“Copy that. Thanks for the back-up.”

The shuttle was now solo, relying on its meager cannon to fend off an attack Johnny knew wasn’t coming. As far as the military was concerned the risk of illegals intercepting them at this altitude was low.  Larger capital ships, capable of seizing the shuttle, would have been sighted already by Diligence’s scans. Smaller fighter craft would struggle with unstable atmospheric conditions and electromagnetic interference. Gravity was a constant threat. Just flying to the orbital was challenging. Jupiter was an impossible place to fly evasive or attack maneuvers.

Before long, the station’s dark, oblong silhouette began to materialize within the mists of the planet. The nose of the shuttle was ablaze within a cone of bluish haze from the electrical charge acquired as it pushed through the atmosphere.

“Pretty.” Pauline remarked.

“Whole planet is supercharged with electromagnetic energy. Did you know that it rains diamonds here?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yeah, massive arcs of lightening fry the methane molecules into diamonds. It literally rains diamonds. Charms the shit out of me, honestly.”

“Suppose Huan doesn’t need a diamond ring.” Pauline teased. 

Grimacing, Johnny shrugged.

They could see the orbital clearly now.   

“There she is. Still amazes me to this day, how they can essential grow a station in these conditions. Did you know the whole thing was built from a fusion-run manufacturing hub? It just sucks the methane up and transform it into this fantastically strong carbon composite!”

“Li, you sure you’re a pilot? Sound more like an astro engineer to me.”

“What? I read. This stuff fascinates me. I watch anything I can about living this far out. I’m saving to move out here. I have’t had a real home, since I was a kid. Mind you, I’ve been enjoying myself roaming about. But, some day, I want to settle down. Maybe, fly a regular route. Imagine being involved in the founding of those new colonies planned for Neptune?”

“I’d just assume be a nomad on ship. No desire to settle down any time soon. Being stuck in crap job, in the lower levels on Earth makes one eager to travel. I don’t have anyone tying me down. It’s just me.” 

Pauline realized, as she said it, that was exactly what her next step was to be. Travel. Small jobs here and there. She needed to get as far away from Earth as possible. She wanted to reinvent herself.  

“Never?”

“Not anytime soon. Too much to see. I’m not going to be like this guy here. One more rotation and he’ll be settled for good.” 

“It’s hard to wrap your head around how quickly this planet rotates. Five hours to complete a whole rotation. Crazy!”

Johnny shook his head as he prepared the ship for docking.

Pauline suddenly realized she liked this Sol Corps pilot. Her past experience with military men was very different. Those guys drank too much, bragged about everything and nothing at the same time. The brutes were always looking for a fight. It was all just an attempt to prove their’s was bigger than everyone else’s.

Li was different.

He reminded her of Stephen. The thought made her sad. 

“So, Huan? She the one?”

Johnny was glad this woman was new to the crew. There was only so much you could glean from an intel report. Avoiding real personal topics was the best approach. But, Johnny reasoned his time as Li was almost at an end.

“Sex, booze, eatable grub and a decent night’s sleep is all I hope for right now. Although, Huan is an angel. Suppose she’d be the right kind. Not like all the others.” 

Johnny winked at Pauline. She rolled her eyes and scowled. Now, he was acting more like a typical laser head she thought. 

“Ok. I’ve got to concentrate. The wind sheer can fluctuate wildly and I don’t like relying on the nav-computer to do it all.”

“No problem. I’ll ready our friend.”

Pauline got up and walked over to her prisoner. She noted the time. 

“Cortex Dampener should still be good for another 38 minutes. You’ll be all tucked into your new digs by the time that wears off.” she hissed.

Pauline stared into Riker’s eyes. Her rage had flared back to life. She could believed she could see the fury and indignation in his eyes. Pleased, she decided to rub a bit of salt into his wounded pride.

Ensuring the pilot was pre-occupied, she leaned in and whispered. Her business with Riker was something she didn’t want to share. 

“You’ve heard all about life imprisonment on Jupiter? They say it’s more civilized than capital punishment. I read up on the details. If you ask me, I think it’s worse.”

Riker’s eyes strained with the effort to look directly at her. 

“I don’t see anything humane about sealing you inside a capsule only to drop it into Jupiter’s core, never to return. How do they know even know the pod isn’t actually destroyed? It’s not like any probes have ever returned. Even the comm signals can’t escape the gravity.”

She searched Riker’s blank visage a reaction, despite knowing the cortex dampener would suppressed any. But, the cell monitored his vitals. She was delighted to see all his readings spiked, indicating extreme emotional stress.

“I need this prison to live up to everything the techies claim it can do. I’m counting on it to be a living hell.”

Glancing once again verifying Li continued to be busy, her mouth hovered next to Riker’s ear. She needed to be careful. She was so close to watching him vanish forever. The next words Pauline uttered were barely audible.

“The Dhrimstruma have provided me with this priceless opportunity. I’ll forever be in their debt. But, don’t you worry about me. Use this time on Jupiter to work on yourself. The micro reactor will power the repulser shields and supply all your life support needs for decades. You can just forget about everything else. I’ll see to your loved ones. Lots to decide about that. Either way you’ll never know.” 

Feeling she had pushed her luck far enough, she sat back down next to Johnny. He was intensely focused on navigating their final approach to the station. Pauline’s gaze was transfixed on the viewing port. The rapidly intermittent flashes of lightening dazzled her eyes. The station’s charcoal black, matte surface blinked in and out of existence replaced, during those seconds of darkness, with a perfect purple-green, after-image of the station seared into her agitated retinas. 

“How can you see anything?”

Without looking up, Johnny responded. 

“Best to use the monitor. You could go temporarily blind staring out there.”

The shuttle jolted, a sudden updraft tossing the ship off course. Johnny compensated, realigning the spacecraft. A bead of sweat trickled down along the side of his face. Frustrated with the shuttle’s auto-nav, he flipped it off. Trusting to his own experience flying, he waited for a window to dock. Mere meters separated them from the orbital. The conditions were deteriorating. He sensed it was now or never.

“Hold on.”

Johnny throttled the main thrusters up momentarily. With a lurch forward, deftly tweaking the ship’s attitude, he successfully wrenched the shuttle into position. The sound of the station’s magnetic clamps locking into place reverberated throughout the craft. Johnny exhaled and flashed a smile towards Pauline. 

“Journey’s end.”

Pauline nodded. Looking down she saw her hands still clenched about about the armrests.

Johnny opened the comm. 

Diligence Shuttle 23 arrived.”

“Welcome 23. Sorry about the sudden change in conditions. You handled it beautifully, as usual.”

Johnny actually blushed.

“Thanks. All in a day’s work.”

“Li, I’m off at 2100. Drinks at 2200?”

“2200 it is.” 

Johnny quietly worked backwards through he steps he took to prepare the shuttle for flight. A docked craft usually powered down most systems, but Johnny left the ship as close to flight ready as possible while trying to avoid unwanted questions. He noted Pauline watching him.

“I like to leave her a little warmer on a mission in environment like this. Call me superstitious, but I hate the notion of having no quick way to evacuate in an emergency.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

Pauline took another long look at the pilot. She sensed something very unmilitary about him. She wondered why he joined.

Getting up, she returned to Riker’s holding cell. 

Watching La Croix preparing to bring Riker onto the station, Johnny mapped out his next move. The temptation to go off plan was intense. He weighed overpowering La Croix now and making a run for it. He knew the orbital had defenses, but he doubted anyone was actually sitting at-the-ready behind a cannon. Surprise would be needed to pull off such an overt prison break. Riker immobilized by the cortex dampener was an unknown factor. Would Riker be combat ready immediately he wondered. Johnny would need his brother’s help to evade Diligence and her fighters. Johnny deliberated his options. He concluded their best bet was remaining concealed, faking Riker’s imprisonment and then slipping off the station undetected on the next resupply vessel.

Having made up his mind, Johnny jumped into action. His first task was to find an unused data port in a quiet, out-of-the-way part of the station. Jennsan scouts had discovered much of the station was currently inactive and moth-balled. They assured him finding a place to hid would be no problem.

“Need any help?”

Johnny cursed silently. He needed every second he could to get in position.

I’ve got to keep my head clear. Johnny you, idiot! 

“Nah. I got Riker all under control. You go ahead and make yourself beautiful for Huan.”

Relieved, Johnny grinned from ear to ear. He didn’t care anymore about how it looked. He was beginning to panic.

Hopefully, she’ll think I’m just eager to get Huan into bed. 

“Great. See yah.” 

Johnny rushed down below. He stopped short in front of the docking hatch. He keyed it open. A short, empty passage connected the shuttle to the station. Security would be just outside the decontamination chamber. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself for what lay ahead. 

“Hope this works.”