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Scorpius Episode II: Down and Out

February 4, 2011

By Mark E. Cotterill

Read Episode I

Stranded on the Blue Sun factory world of Meridian, Kitosa Kurza, Scott Wilson, Dr. Whiteman, Walter Kaine and Jake Cobb have lost their Captain and their Ship. Retreating to the spaceport bar, they witness the execution of their former Captain live on TV and meet an attractive and mysterious woman…

The service corridors between the spaceport and Quing Long City were even more complicated on foot than they had been in the Mule. Margaret Wolff, the woman Kurza had met in the bar, had told them which way to go and given them her word that the surveillance systems would be looking the other way providing they stuck to the route she’d given them.

It seemed so wrong to be going away from the ship, but the Scorpius was locked down and the docking bay was off limits. With the Captain gone they had no more claim to it than anyone else and once he’d been executed it had been put on Blue Sun’s own cortex auction service almost immediately. The only chance of getting it back now was to raise enough money to buy it back.

The computer was now stuffed into Scott’s bag and according to Margaret, it was worth about 10,000 credits to them if they could successfully smuggle it inside the City and give it to her.

“But can we really trust her?” asked Jake, for about the dozenth time.

“Look, if she wanted to get us locked up…” began Kurza, but Jake interrupted,

“She’d tell us to smuggle a computer stolen from a dead Blue Sun IntSec Officer into the city?”

“Maybe,” said Kurza, “but, it’s not the way they operate. If they’d known about us they’d have marched a squad into the spaceport and arrested us there.” They stopped at yet another intersection while Kaine looked at the map. “She’s a journalist, working on a story. You didn’t spend so long talking to her as I did,” said Kurza.

“Yeah, we all know what you were doing. Why don’t you start thinking with your brain instead?” The pilot didn’t rise to Cobb’s insult, instead he looked around at the pipes and overhead compartments which lined the narrow passageway.

“We’re nearly there,” said Kaine.

“I know,” Kurza replied, “Scott, hand me the computer.”

“So ye still dunnae trust her after all, eh?”

“Just playing it safe.”

They waited while Kurza pushed the computer into a dark recess in the ceiling and noted down the numbers on a nearby conduit. A few metres further on they found the exit into a side-street. Stepping through they checked to see if they’d been spotted. Scott looked carefully at the locking mechanism and with a few minor adjustments jammed it open in such a way that no one would notice from the outside. Then he closed the door.

The City was spread out before them and it looked to be made almost entirely of cheap plastic. Every surface was made of this dull, soft material and scathed by years of wear. The design of everything was uniform, all the same shapes, all the same colour. The place was definitely not shiny. What few new structures there were stood out like a Companion in a Marine Corp.

It was evidently quite late by local time and there was nobody else on the streets. Dr. Whiteman, who up until now had displayed a commendable about of patience with the whole misadventure, spoke up,

“Well gentlemen, I’ve had quite enough of this for one day. I don’t care where you might want to spend the night, I’m booking into a hotel.” It appeared that, with one thing and another, nobody had even thought about what they would do for accommodation. Looking at the perfectly engineered lawns and spotless light grey plasticrete pavement they all guessed that the city had a fairly strict policy on vagrancy.

The big ‘Blue Sun Inn’ sign was visible from several blocks away and as they walked Kitosa checked the auction where the ship was being sold.

“How’s it going?” Asked Kaine, trying to get a look at the screen on Kurza’s hand-held.

“Still fairly low. I put in a bid of ninety-eight credits, that’s all the money I’ve got right now.” The hotel looked every bit as old and worn-in as everywhere else, but there seemed little point in shopping around. They all walked into the lobby.

Whiteman approached the desk clerk and smiled. Even after almost twenty-four hours the Doctor still looked reasonably smart in his tweed suit, bow-tie and sun hat. The clerk looked up and met Whiteman’s smile with his own, but this rapidly changed when he looked at who was standing behind him. There was a momentary pause before they slammed a button under the desk and screamed,

Hwai! No weapons, NO WEAPONS!”

A heavy ballistic screen dropped across the front of the whole reception kiosk, knocking Whiteman back. A loud alarm blasted out. Everyone dashed outside to see the flashing blue lights of a patrol car stopping at the end of the street. Scott was nearest the steps and the voice booming out seemed to be directed solely at him.

“Drop your weapons and get down on the floor!”

Scott immediately drew his shotgun, but didn’t get a chance to drop it as automatic fire split small sections of the wall into dust behind him and he felt a deep pain in his shoulder. Now, rather than dropping the gun as he’d intended, he raised it and began pumping off shots towards the car. Glass and cheap alloy exploded around the IntSec officers as they ducked for cover, but more units were arriving.

None of the others could do anything to stop what came next, the inevitability of it was apparent to all of them except Scott, who for some reason thought he’d be able to take on the whole of the local security force alone. Blinded by rage he kept firing until shot after shot pierced his body and he finally went down, squirming in pain on the blood-soaked steps.

The Doctor had to fight every urge to keep from rushing to help him, but he knew he’d never make it and live. Without immediate medical aid though, Scott’s prospects looked bleak. When the shooting stopped the others threw out their guns and lay down on the ground as instructed and just hoped the Blue Sun medical services were as efficient as their Security.

* * *

The next six hours went by excruciatingly slowly. All of them except Scott had been taken to the nearby IntSec Office where they were all thrown together into one cell. They assumed, rightly, that they were being watched, but none of them felt like talking anyway. They knew how each other felt and there was really no point in saying so. Even Kitosa seemed at a loss for words.

One by one they were dragged off into a small, dingy, malodorous interview room. Each of them told roughly the same story; they’d been brought here as crew aboard the Scorpius and then taken outside the City by Captain Eastman. They’d found their way back somehow and must have got inside without going through the usual checkpoints. There was no other explanation any of them could think of, mostly it was the truth, but naturally they all left out the part about the dead IntSec officer and the computer.

As the last interviewee, Walter Kaine, was bundled back through the door into the holding cell by the guards, there was, at last, something to talk about. News that Scott had been taken to hospital, was in a critical condition but was alive. They all forgot their troubles for a moment, but as the blueish white disc of light rose in the morning sky, none of them dared to wish for any more good news.

They were amazed when, less than an hour later, a senior looking officer cranked open the cell door and told them that they were being let out.

“What d’ya mean ‘let out’?” Asked Jake, “you mean like, as we ain’t done nothin’ wrong? Or what?” He seemed genuinely confused, after all he’d been forced by circumstances to tell the truth, and that had always landed him in trouble in the past.

“Don’t argue with the man Jake, let’s just get out of here,” said Kurza.

“You’ll be taken to the customs officers at the spaceport and processed. Your weapons will be returned to you when you leave the planet,” then through gritted teeth the officer added, “we’re sorry that on this occasion our security process was not sufficiently clear to you and your ‘misunderstanding’ led to these unfortunate consequences.”

They scooped up the flimsy boxes containing their possessions and followed the officer out to a waiting ground car. It was a short trip to the customs desk adjacent to the spaceport and on the way Kitosa checked first with the hospital to get the latest on his friend’s condition, and second with the auction on the ship.

“Good news is Scott’s going to be ok, but not so good news on the ship. I got out-bid.”

When they got to the customs office they faced another long morning filling out forms, disclaimers and identity checks. Being the most ‘schooled’ of the bunch, Dr. Whiteman finished his pile of documents first, and even had time to help the others a little, before excusing himself and making the trip to the hospital.

Scott was surprisingly conscious and lucid, but then Whiteman reminded himself that this was Blue Sun. Their medical research was years ahead of anything else in the Alliance, even in this small hospital. The engineer had lost a lot of blood and was very weak, but they had taken out the bullets and patched the wounds and now he just needed rest. Whiteman sat down beside his bed.

“The nurse says you’re going to make it, just hang in there and you’ll be fine.” Scott struggled to say something, but only managed,

“Wha, what about…”

“The others?” Scott managed a nod.

“They’re ok, everyone’s going through customs like we should have done the first time. Hey, we might even get the ship back. You just relax.” The last part was what seemed to cheer him up the most. The Doctor told himself that a small lie was worth it to get Scott well again. Even though he’d only known these people for a few weeks, it already felt like they’d been through a lot together. Like they were a proper crew now, not just a collection of folks who happened to be on the same ship at the same time.

* * *

For Kitosa, fixing up this meeting with Margaret and somehow avoiding getting ripped off now meant the only chance to turn a profit and leave this corporate hell-hole. He’d never been happy being planetside anyway and once he’d had a few lungfulls of air on a world he was ready to climb back behind the controls. Now, if things worked out, he could be working for himself for a change.

Margaret showed up as arranged, at the far edge of the small park which looked like nobody ever used it.

“Did you bring it?” She whispered, though still with great urgency in her voice.

“Show me the money first,” he grinned. He liked Margaret, more than he had realised at first, and he wondered if she would notice and try to exploit the fact.

“Look, I don’t have time to play games Kitosa, we have about two more hours if we’re lucky before the Bugs find us.” Kitosa gave her a blank expression. “You know, Bugs? IntSec’s?” He got the reference, but not the reasoning. “The systems in that computer are rigged to soft-destruct in a set time if they’re not code activated, then it’ll be useless to me.”

“So you know how to unlock it? How to deactivate these systems?” She’d obviously gone to a lot of trouble. Kitosa wondered what dark secrets she had on Blue Sun.

“I have contacts, I’m a journalist, remember.”

“Was it you who got us out of jail?”

“Yes! What else do you need from me before you’ll trust me? Where is it?” She looked him over and could see there were no pockets big enough and no bag which could have the computer in it.

“Can you help me get my ship back too?”

“Yes, yes anything, but tyen-sah Kitosa, get me that computer, okay!” She grabbed him by the collar and shook him. He rather enjoyed it.

“Ok, I’ll bring it to your place.” She muttered the address then hurried away. Kurza waited until she was out of sight then signalled to Kaine and Cobb to come out of the trees where they’d been hiding.

Doc Whiteman was back with them by the time they had detoured around to retrieve the computer and he was wheeling a large trolley stuffed with grubby looking boxes.

“Freebies!” He announced, “they’re giving them away to everyone, Fruity-Oaty bars, a new flavour apparently,” he chuckled. The others could tell that this meant Scott must be doing ok, the Doctor had seemed the most worried out of all of them. Kitosa meanwhile checked his hand-held computer and saw that the auction price for the Scorpius was now approaching 980 credits.

“It’s just a heap of junk to anyone else, it ain’t worth that much to nobody,” said Jake, who obviously had his heart set on winning it back as well.

“Maybe they know it’s not really a piece of junk,” said Kitosa, making sure they were still heading in the right direction. He knew time was short now, if Margaret was telling the truth about the timer.

They found her apartment in the sub-level of an old block which looked like it was originally built for factory workers, probably the same ones who used to commute out to the abandoned city they’d been in the day before.

“This is it,” said Kurza. They descended the steps into a narrow corridor, the entrance was open and Margaret’s door was first on the right. They knocked and she quickly appeared and pulled them inside. The place was neat, non-descript and with nothing about it to give away anything about the personality of the occupier. On a simple table at the other end of the room was a screen linked into the local cortex and some electronic gizmos.

“Right! Money up front, I’m not messing around this time,” demanded Kitosa. He felt naked without a gun, it was the one thing he knew he could rely on to fix a deal, things weren’t serious enough when you couldn’t threaten someone’s life.

Margaret closed the door and made sure it was locked. She took in a measured breath.

“There’s no money,” she confessed, “I have about 2,000 credits in the whole ‘verse, but not here, not now.”

“You ji nu!” cussed Jake.

“That doesn’t matter, you’re only hope is to give me that computer and let me work on it right now. Or else there’ll be so many ‘Bugs’ coming down on this building your visit to the IntSecs last night will seem like a school trip.” They all looked at Kitosa, if he’d had a gun he would have shot her right there and then, but a big part of him was glad he didn’t have to. He could see no other option. He gave her what she wanted and followed her to the desk.

She wasted no time and hooked it up to about half a dozen leads and wires. Monitors came to life and showed inputs and logic states in the machine. It switched into a setup sub-routine. Margaret was lost in the moment and seemed to have forgotten they were even there. Then a full screen display popped up on the terminal and she leant back in victory.

“Is that it? Is it safe now?” Said Kaine, looking to the others for any clue.

“It’s safe.”

Nobody seemed quite sure what to do now. Here they were sitting in Margaret’s apartment with no more to show for their days and days of trouble than a cart-load of fruity-oaty bars.

“Look, I need a few hours to pull up the evidence I’ve been looking for. This thing is good for a while but I’ll get shut down once they realise what’s going on.” She didn’t stop typing and seemed to be frantically connecting up memory pods to the purloined computer.

“What about afterwards?” Asked Kurza, realising that he might never see her again.

“Afterwards?” She looked at him, and smiled. “I’ll need to get away from here, quick. That ship of yours?” Kurza knew what she was thinking. “Wait, I’ll disqualify all the other bids from the auction using a Blue Sun admin pass.” She tapped out a few simple commands, “there, the ship’s yours. Go and get her ready I’ll be with you in two hours, maybe three. Don’t leave without me!”

To be continued …

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