Two days earlier when the solar ship was still docked at the spaceport on Phoebus, Pauline presented her credentials to the MSS Diligence’s EXO. The ship was only frigate-class size, but she was bustling with activity as the crew prepared to set off.
“This is unexpected and very last minute.” the EXO said flatly.
“I had a few personal things to attend to sir. My mother died. Funeral arrangements and such. Buried her two days ago. I was eager to get started at my post. Help clear my head.”
The EXO looked up from the transfer orders he was reviewing.
“Terrorist attack. Looks like you’ve been reprimanded for talk of retaliation against the organization responsible.”
“Yes, sir. Regrettable lapse of reason. Revenge is not justice. I see that.”
“Your commanding officer though it would do you good to have a tour out here. Until you can manage your emotions.” the senior officer grunted and frowned.
He looked you and considered the woman sanding in front of him. His expression was blank excepting the perpetual frown that any EXO she had ever encountered had always worn.
“Sounds like they are trying to pass off a problem to me and this ship. I don’t like that.”
“I understand your point of view sir.”
Pauline said nothing.
“Look Lieutenant. We all have baggage. Most of us find ways to cope, bury it, use it to motivate us to better perform our duties. If not, the soldier in question gets the boot. A swift kick in the ass back into civilian life.”
“This is highly irregular. I don’t like it.”
Pauline thought to herself that the older man was repeating himself. Typical EXO. She was eager for him to just make a decision.
“I am not sure who your connections are or who you are fucking to get this kind of special treatment. Makes no difference to me. Orders are orders whether we like them or not.”
She knew now he would approve her transfer request. Within she relaxed. She could silently hold in him contempt. He was just part of the job now.
“One slip up and you’re out. Off this ship and out of my hair.”
Pauline remarked that what hair he did have was gray, wispy and sparse. More contempt.
“Quarters are on deck 8. Aft of the mess. Section 73. You report to Nickerson.”
“Deck 8. 73. Nickerson. Yes, sir.”
Pauline left promptly. The door closed behind her. No one was currently around. She rewarded herself with a slight smile before resuming a blank face. She headed immediately to her assigned quarters. She was impressed with the people who had orchestrated all this. The plan was working. Her tentative allies had richly rewarded her in this matter. Would there be a price to pay she reflected. Drug lords rarely did anything solely out of generosity. His chance of escape was minute at best even without her here to guarantee that things went smoothly. He was essentially already stuck forever on Jupiter. A timeless hell no one escaped. There were things worse than death. Yes, this current mission seemed like an unnecessarily extravagant opportunity tossed into her lap. But, she relished it. Without her presence his transfer to imprisonment was too clinical; impersonal. He needed to know what the next steps were in her plan for completely destroying all he held dear.
She had taken the main lift down to deck 8, passed the noisy mess and found herself keying open the door to barracks 73. She nodded to the couple other women that were resting and passing the time off duty.
“Who are you?” a woman playing solitaire curtly asked without looking up.
“I can see that. Why? We’re mid mission.”
“Just following orders. Guess, higher ups wanted me off Mars.”
The other woman snorted.
“Yeah, kind of a shit heap. Rough there, huh?” the woman asked.
Pauline shrugged. “Understatement most times.”
“Maloney.” the woman looked up and stretched her hand out.
Pauline dropped her bag and shook her hand.
The gathering of pilots was larger than Johnny expected. He saw Sharon off to the right of the group towards the front. It appeared she had save him a seat, but since she was currently engrossed in a data pad he slipped into an empty seat in the back behind a hulk of a man. There was only a minute before the briefing was scheduled to begin. He slouched down, pretended to be absorbed in some incoming message on his comm and waited. He was eager to get to Riker.
A flight deck officer stood in front of the room and began the meeting.
“Well, we’ve settled into the customary defensive orbit. Long range scans are benign. We all know that means nothing though. This is a routine refuel and supply delivery job with the exception of the transfer of a prisoner. There will be the regular escort for shuttles and the Diligence will provide long range support in the event of an unexpected jump in from illegals.”
The group of pilots appeared nonplussed. As the officer had said this was basically routine for them.
“Whose got the honors of bringing the perp down to his new home on Jup?” someone queried from up front.
“I’ll get to the assignment now. Knossus. You and your team will be taking Bertha down to the new colony. They’re waiting for a hefty amount of supplies to help speed up construction. Guess they’re behind schedule.”
“Bertha. Whoo-ah.” someone Li assumed was Knossus shouted out.
“Be careful with the old space cow. Last time the fool who decided to get fancy with flying her needed a tow. The construction site is in high altitude so you should be in for a smooth ride. You’ll have plenty of down time while they unload, so I want you and your crew to use the time for a full preventative rundown of maintenance and diagnostics.”
“Uh oh..ok..sir.” Knossus said dejectedly.
The commander gave a hard stare at his pilots before resuming the assignments.
“Rarebit. You and your team have escort. Shinny you got supply runs to the science stations at both poles and at storm observatory. They also have some stuff for us to take back and delivery home. Fergus you and your team are running out to Europa to drop off some medics. Guess there’s an outbreak of some kind. Do not leave the ship. That’s an order. If I find out you ventured off for a drink, I’ll clip your wings until tour is over. Whatever they got…I don’t want it on Diligence.”
“Ain’t that what we got all those shots for Commander? I got a friend at Clancy’s waiting to see me.”
“She can wait. Stay on ship.”
There was a general stirring and grumble of dismay from a group off to Johnny’s left.
“Connor, George, Lightening and Diamond. Your teams will sweep the planetary system. I leave the strategy to you. Diligence can scan well enough, but this bloated giant has enough junk around it that anyone can easily hide a small craft. Higher ups are concerned our prisoner might have a few friends looking to spring him free.”
“And if that turns out to be the case? Pursuit and monitor?”
“Actually, this guy pissed off enough of the wrong people that orders are to shoot to kill.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Who’s the lucky one piloting the penal shuttle?”
“We randomized the assignment. Li I regret to inform you that you will be flying the prison transport for this mission.”
Everyone turned around and looked at Johnny. He was not comfortable with all the attention. He felt as if everyone could see through this disguise. The chance of that was remote of course unless someone did a full body DNA scan. The usual facial and hand scans would not crack his cover. Johnny shrugged and put on a grim face.
“All in the line of duty, sir.”
“Aha! That’s it Li.” Johnny recognized Pedro’s voice.
Johnny ignored Sharon’s attempts to get his attention and looked straight ahead. He wondered how Louis had managed to pull all the strings to make sure he was assigned this mission. It never ceased to amaze he how corrupt the government could be when offered enough money. Of course there were other forms of persuasion. But, Johnny felt that most people had a price.
“You’ll be given time to eject from the shuttle unless you are compromised.”
Johnny didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the briefing. He was more concerned with what he had to do once on the prison capsule launch station. He had only so much time to study the prison pod systems. But, he couldn’t think of failure. Riker was counting on him.
Riker and his new warden had left the cell block and as far as he could tell they had taken a circuitous route through the ship. He had expected to be immediately brought to the transport that would take him to the orbital station. Instead the lieutenant seemed to want to walk and chat. He was wary and confused. If this was a rescue, which he doubted highly, it was a very unusual one. La Croix appeared to be sticking to the more deserted areas of the frigate.
“You know Riker. I understand you better than you think.”
She had told him to walk normally next to him once they had gotten out of the door. Of course with the cortex dampener he couldn’t do anything on his own volition especially talk. Science and lawmakers had hoped to find a way to use the device restraining him to force people to talk and confess withheld knowledge, but it didn’t work that way.
“In fact since you can’t talk, I’ll let you in on a little secret soon.”
They had turned off to the left and Riker could see they were coming to a small viewing platform at the side for the solar ship used in conjunction with the anti-small-craft guns. They stopped and gazed out at the swirling clouds of Jupiter. It was all they could see since their orbit was so low.
“Beautiful isn’t it? I think I feel drawn more to its raw power. Looks so gentle from here, but the violence it hides behind this facade is well…intoxicating.”
She gazed over at Riker.
“You’re like that I think. Even if I turned off this dampener you’d still wear that same placid, flat gaze. That’s kind of your thing isn’t it? Keep your cards close to your vest as the saying goes. Best poker face I’ve ever seen. Smile and charm your way through life…never show a hint of turmoil do you?”
She looked back to the planet surface
“I could tell when you looked at me in the cell that you don’t recognize me from the days when you introduced my brother to the Jannswen business.”
Riker was instantly ablaze with curiosity and alarm. Was this a friend, a coincidence or an enemy? She was from one of the families that much he was clear about. Which one? Havarati? Must be. Or a subsidiary. But she spoke of a brother once being associated with the Jannswen clan. He briefly wondered if this was a hit. No, not a hit. He wasn’t thinking. The knowledge she had shared had indeed completely caught him off guard. He was rattled inside. She was right. Even without the restraint from the damper he would show no trace of concern. He excelled at presenting whatever face he thought the circumstances warranted. But, this…this walk..this conversation didn’t add up. Like most of what had happened to him lately; it didn’t make sense.
“Why should you remember me though? We barely interacted. I was too young to be anyone you’d notice. Ha! Of course even if I was older…I’m not exactly your type anyway. You know wrong gender and all that.”
If she was trying to taunt him with his preference for men then maybe she didn’t actually know him as well as she said. He had never been ashamed of that. Although, he did wonder how old she was. He could only see her now with his peripheral vision. Lt. La Croix was of the age a woman reaches when it is difficult to discern how old she it. She looked to be about his age, yet out of uniform in civilian clothes, hair down, relaxed expression and in a crowd of younger people she would certainly look 10 years or more his junior. So, whose kid sister was she? 10 years ago he was still very much on the market. There had been few attachments and lots of acquaintances. Sure, there were lots of hurt feelings in his past, but nothing that wouldn’t be long forgotten now. More than ever now he chaffed internally against the restraint on his speech.
“But, I saw you again when I was older. It was a few years after tragedy viciously ripped the veil of mystique my brother had woven over my eyes regarding his work with the Jannswen clan. The money was good. We had things we never had before. For the first time he felt powerful. He wasn’t just a scared street kid anymore. I was introduced to this new “family” who cared about him; me. He talked about how it wasn’t only us anymore fighting to keep afloat in this world. I remember he told me I was actually going to be able to go to academy. The Jannswen bosses would see that I was educated. I dreamed of learning how to be of some use to my brother and the clan. Yes, it was a gloriously high for a time. But, lim stim is a dangerous venture. My brother had two weaknesses. The drug itself and you.”
Riker inwardly trembled. She wasn’t some old flame’s sister. He couldn’t remember exactly who her brother was, but he was clearly a fellow drug dealer from his past. He had worked with countless people. What she was describing was true. Many young lives quickly flashed bright in this business only to snuff out entirely too soon. It was always the same. The drug they peddled was highly addictive. The general rule of survival was don’t dabble in the shit you sell. Some could pull it off. Everyone at least tried. Usually, the higher ups would tolerate that initial fascination; the cockiness. They expected people to fall down and screw up. They would pick you up once. Sober you up. Set you back on your feet to succeed again. Always with the parent-like warning that to be around lim stim and making your living off of it meant it had to be something you abstained from. For Riker the choice had been easy. Coming off lim stim sucked. Besides he liked to be in control, especially of his emotions. He conceded he was lucky. He never really had a taste for the experience. He found his high in other vices. Again, fortunately, he didn’t make his living from the demons that tormented him. He could conjure up no face or name for her brother, but Riker was confident that he knew what the rest of this women’s story would be.
“I never had the time to get intimately connected with the Jannswen’s. My brother had kept me a secret for as long as he could. I think instinctually he knew I would struggle to give the same level of devotion he had for you and your crime syndicate. I think he made up some lie about losing track of me while peddling in Buenos Aires. But, eventually, he realized it was impossible to continue with that. He introduced me with a story of us reuniting miraculously. He had told me so much already about working for the family as he called it that I felt I knew you too. He taught me everything he was learning and rattled constantly about his doings. I remember being jealous of the way he idolized his new friends. I did my best to learn all he shared with me. Of course, he talked the most about you. I could tell he idolized you. I knew what you looked like, your mannerisms, the way you talked, what you wore, your favorite food, drink, music and how you also had been a street kid. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I know he was in love with you. Not long after I was initiated and tattooed. So yes, I had in name and tradition become one of the clan’s own. But, a heart takes longer to attach. I had only been at school a month when he died. Strangers came to break the news to me. They explained everything had been done to help him, but his were too sick. I wasn’t as naive as they thought me to be. I knew he did lim stim. He felt he could control his habit; no one would know. No one knew he said except someone he trusted. Fool.”
She was silent for a moment. He could feel her looking intently at him. There was nothing he could do. He was at her mercy. He waited to hear his name.
“I ran. A streetwise punk like me knew how to disappear. I lurked in the shadows. I howled with rage and grief. I hated the Jannswen clan and especially you. It was you, Riker, who found him. You introduced him to an easy was off the streets. He trusted you. You must of known from very early on he couldn’t handle the allure of the drug. You could have kept him out. You could have helped him escape like I did into the oblivion of the slums of the city. Instead, you eventually turned on him when it was too late. You took him from me. I know how the clans work. He was your responsibility. You brought him in. They expected you to remove him.”
Again there was a long pause. The two stood looking out the churning atmosphere of Jupiter.
What had happened to Stephan was something that took place years ago. Yes, Riker remembered clearly now. Stephen was her brother. But, she only knew some of the story. Riker himself had been young and naive when he met Stephen. He wanted to do some good to balance out the life of crime he led. It was not as black and white as she painted it. He had tried to help her brother, but in the end he had failed. Riker owed allegiance to the Jannswen family and was bound by the code they enforced. Some choices can not be easily undone. Stephan could have ran. He had told him to do so. But, Stephan wouldn’t leave. Riker had done what he had to do to protect his own standing. This woman had no idea what kind of responsibilities he had carried even back then. She wasn’t the only one who had lost people. Stephan should have left to save himself and her, but the lim stim was too attractive. That’s what he told himself to ease the guilt. How could you tell someone to stop loving you? He knew he was the reason Stephan had stayed. He had blocked out the memory of taking Stephan’s life as best he could. But, it came rushing back now. Strung out on lim stim for the last time, he told Riker he didn’t blame him. Stephan had made Riker promise to look out for…Pauline! But, he had failed her too. By the time he managed muster the courage to reach out to her she had fled. In a way he felt it was for the best. He felt she would find a better life. He was wrong.
Riker had gone inward in a way he rarely did. He was so lost and absorbed in reliving the past that he was startled when La Croix spoke again after a bitter sigh.
“It felt like no time, but after rotting for years in my own self-imposed exile, I realized my only possible chance of becoming somewhat whole again was revenge. Not kill you. No. I want to hurt you like you hurt me. I want to see you suffer as long as possible. But, my broken mind couldn’t formulate any way to do this.”
She laughed, shaking her head. She moved to look directly in Riker’s eyes. Her face blocked out the view. The mighty gas-giant was nothing compared to the unhinged expression on her face.
“You know that VRHolo drama, Reluctant? You know the one where the politician teams secretly up with opposition to bring down a sinister plot within her own party? Well I see this holo ad for it running on the podway. I’m just sitting there, riding, feeling sorry for myself. Numb. I’m listening to the tagline for the Holo playing over and over again. It was annoying…The enemy of your enemy is your best friend… right? Then the idea strikes me like lightening. It was a long shot but, I knew who might help me.”
Riker thought. Sworn enemy of Jannswens? Lt La Croix wasn’t here on behalf of the Havartis. She was working with Dhristruma family.
“I sought refuge with the Dhristruma’s. It was touch and go at first, but once I got them to listen to my story and to realize what kinds of things I could tell them they considered my value. Riker, I might not have worked for Jannswen, but my brother taught me a lot! He was adamant I memorize what he knew. He said no secrets were between us. He insisted knowledge was a leverage point. He said it was insurance if anything ever happened. So, I knew lots of little trade secrets. But, what they were most interested in was you, Riker. I guess your success has left a trail of wreckage through others’ lives besides mine. I don’t know what happened, but they were upset about something that happened on a hidden refuel depot on the asteroid Cephas 3. I’m tempted to let you speak just so I can find out what that’s all about.”
She considered the fob to the cortex damper, but decided against satisfying her curiosity.
“No, it doesn’t matter. Nothing about you really matters now. Soon you’ll be tucked away nicely, within the bowels of Jupiter.”
Riker knew why the Dhristruma would want him dead, but he wouldn’t have indulged La Croix. He had been tasked with obtaining details regarding a newer refined lim stim the Dhristruma were developing. He had been told to leave no trace behind. After getting what he came for he trigger an alarm for a lethal reactor malfunction. He had given people enough time to reach and launch escape pods. But, no one abandoned the station. He recalled watching on his ship’s sensors from a distance in horror. More than 20 people manned the station. The explosives he set destroyed the depot and all within. RIker recalled hearing one of the bosses son, Ravi, had been there at the time. He must of died in the explosion. He thought he had covered his tracks. But, no one should have connected him with Cephus. He had reported back to Louis only. Riker considered the possibility that Jannswen operations were compromised. It was not impossible. Johnny and Sean knew some details of his mission, but not enough and he trusted them explicitly. When you share your life with someone they can see through the lies. Sean was concerned and Johnny too. They saw how he was tormented by the mission. With gentle coaxing, Riker relented and explained just enough to release some of the bent up pressure. It had helped. Sean was gracious enough to give him space. Riker needed the time and isolation to muddle through his feelings as he tried to erase the guilt he felt. He was used to keeping things to himself. He was not prone to talking about his feelings. So, he went to this hedonistic place on Luna and utterly distracted himself. Riker indulged in a binge of drinking, gambling, and sex to try to forget. He was not an upstanding citizen, but he really had a dislike for watching people needlessly die. A slight shadow of doubt now grazed him as he suddenly recalled how utterly drunk he was at the lunar resort he stayed at after the mission. Honestly, he didn’t remember much of it. He had to admit he might have said too much to the wrong person.
La Croix, oblivious to Riker’s inner conflict, continued to confess to Riker how her plans had evolved.
“I made a deal with the Dhristruma. They weren’t interested in making me one of their own. Not that I asked. I was only looking for help and I was willing to offer whatever I could in exchange. I figured they might be interested in some of what I knew about the Jannswan’s.”
Riker wondered just how much Stephen had confided in her. He was, as all operatives were, told to keep everything confidential. Failure meant death to the rat and his or her family.
“I was at the last meeting of all the families on Ceres. I was attending as an observer remotely. I was asked to read faces, body language and try to decipher the subtext behind what your team said. The Dhristruma were looking for me to prove I held any value. Perhaps, I could suss out the lies and subterfuge. I know they suspected my story was only a cover to spy. I was desperate and hoped against hope that what I knew would actually convince them to help me. So I used what my brother had taught me to help; to prove my sincerity; my worth.”
Lt. La Croix laughed conceitedly. Riker burned with anger. This woman more than mocked him. She thought herself superior to him. She was just a street rat like him trying to be something. He tried to tune her out and imagined flushing her out of an airlock. He was tired of this conversation. Why wouldn’t she just kill or take him to the damn transport. He suspected she risked blowing her cover with this little luxury she in indulged in to torment him. But, he couldn’t shut her out. Did he feel sorry for her?
“Riker you haven’t changed much thankfully. I couldn’t believe you still use so many of the same code words and phrases that you taught my brother years ago.”
Riker mentally reeled as this psychological blow squarely make contact with his pride. Inwardly, he scoffed, sputtered and mentally spat out various crude names at La Croix. Why should he change tried and true methods? As far as he was concerned anyone who knew his “smuggler’s cant” was an ally or dead. He felt stupid.
“Yes, Riker, baby. You were easy to read! I could stay one step ahead of you and predict with fair accuracy what you might do. Fate was kind to me since you were leading the discussions for your family along with that lug Louis. It was simple really. Possessing an intimate key to deciphering your words, actions, and body language made it possible. Stephen would be proud. Honestly, it was the closest I had felt to his memory in a long time. It was as if he was there whispering over my shoulder.”
Riker knew self-assuredness was a major character flaw. He had been too lucky for too long. Good fortune was dangerous. It made you feel cocky and invincible. He also had a penchant for tradition and routine. He realized he was probably compensating subconsciously for the uncertainty of his youth. No matter how old or successful he was, he found himself channelling that fourteen year old street kid. Too often he felt that rawness in his belly. The same pain he felt when first homeless with a younger brother to look after. That had been some twenty odd years ago. Funny, he had been forced to grow up fast, but aspects of him were frozen and refused to mature. These parts of him stagnated, mirroring who he was when his parents were murdered. Sean liked to point out his immaturity when they fought, but Riker knew he’d never really understand.
Riker tuned back into La Croix monologue. He was exhausted by everything. He felt weak.
“So the Dhrimstrama were convinced when I was able to hint at every little step you made. I almost felt sorry for you.”
Well he thought finally something made sense now, despite being too late to do anything about it. He had struggled mightily to gain even a minuscule advantage in negotiating in that meeting. But, the Dhristruma representatives seemed one step ahead of him at every turn. He ended up handing the lead to Louis out of frustration. The whole affair was quite unproductive for the Jannswen syndicate. Now, he knew why. Absurdly, he was crestfallen at the notion of having to re-craft all his personal tricks of the trade.
“But, what shocked me to the core was the way I found myself attracted to you.”
Riker wasn’t expecting that.
“Fuck! I hate you for that. I hate myself more. Damn you and your smug carefree presence. Knowing what you took from me, how is that even possible? Yet, I subconsciously found you intoxicating and mesmerizing as you tried to twist and turn the negotiations for the Jannswans. Poor Stephan never stood a chance against you. He followed you blindly to his death. I hate you for that.”
La Croix slapped his face. He couldn’t react under the control of the cortex dampner. Her face contorted, red and livid. She spit at him. Some of her saliva caught him in the eye. He could feel it start to weep across his cheek. La Croix turned from him a step or two away. She took a deep breath, composed herself.
“Wipe your face off.”
Riker felt his arm come up and brush the spittle away from his cheek.
“Time I get you to this shuttle before I kill you myself and waste all the effort I put into ensuring you suffer for as long as possible.”
Riker thought to himself she was doing exactly what he would do if someone had taken Johnny, Sean or the kids from him. La Croix was exacting revenge. Personally, he’d prefer to reunite her with her brother, undo the tragic loss of life on Cephas and escape from the impending doom of Jupiter. But, the first two things were never going to be reversed and his hope of stopping the third was all but gone. He wanted to recover the ability to banish the memory of Stephen’s death and that of the fate of the crew trapped on the refueling depot. Yes, he’d kill her to save his own life and even his sanity, but it wasn’t personal. He did feel sorry for her.