Always on Time

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She had picked up her prisoner from the bounty hunter on Wembleca just as the sun was setting. Now, as they were coming in to land on Fifica’s third moon, there was another setting sun. As she set the runner down, Ropo Emie looked up at the sky. She was still thankful every time. The inky blackness was as silent as death, and such was the fate of many who ventured out. Though gazing at the expanse she had just left, she did not take her eyes off her prisoner. Her implants gave her a 360-degree view at all times, an ability that came in very useful in her line of work.

She let out a deep breath, “Not far to go now.”

The woman sitting beside her looked up confused, “Where’s the shuttle?”

“Not too far from here. We’re taking the scenic route.”

After flicking the switch for the shuttle door, Ropo motioned for the woman to disembark. She followed her out into cool air. They walked over to a cave. They descended into a set of tunnels. The tunnels were maze-like but Ropo knew the way, or at least she had downloaded the route and she could follow the arrows projected by her implants, super-thin lenses that gave her access to information and processing power in the blink of an eye. After a while, they were heading above ground again and found themselves in a secluded spot, beside a port where a huge shuttle was docked. As they drew close to the end of the shuttle, an airlock opened and a tall old man jumped out.

“Well I never, I don’t think we’ve had a cyber marshal this far from Earth before.”

“I go where the work takes me,” Ropo answered nonchalantly.

“Well, your pod awaits.”

“I take it that you’re Larren.”

“At your service.”

“Right at the back of the shuttle?” she said with a questioning tone.

“You specified that no one else could be admitted to your pod,” noted Larren. “That would not have been possible in a more central pod. We had other offers for this cargo pod, you know; people who actually had cargo to transport.”

“OK Zedka, you head on in.”

The woman was twice Ropo’s age, but where Ropo had opted for tech mods, Zedka had opted for cosmetic mods and still looked like she was in her early twenties. Zedka’s hands were bound together by a graphene fibre restraint. She climbed the steps up into the pod.

Ropo swung herself up into the pod and had a quick look around. It was empty, apart from the platform in the middle of the floor space, with cargo restraints strewn across it, and two rows of seats.

“Who’s in the next pod?” asked Ropo.

“It’s a domestic pod: a family, mum, dad and two kids,” Larren answered. “They’re just coming back from skiing on Lija. “They seem exhausted, so I doubt there’ll be much noise.”

“And all the passengers have been scanned?”

“Yes, no one onboard has a hint of a criminal record and they are all cleared for interstellar travel.”

“Is there a pre-shuttle probe out ahead of us?”

“No,” Larren was growing frustrated. “This route is jumped several times a week we don’t need a probe.

“This isn’t a normal transport.”

“Maybe for you. The rest of us are taking an inter-stellar shuttle home, or to work or just to have a good time,” said Larren. “And as for you, well, you have your prisoner, you have a secure compartment. In a few clicks you’ll be at the Lunar Prison.”

“Yes, but the fat lady won’t start singing until she’s in the cell they’ve assigned to her.” Ropo said’ “So, I’ll stay on job until then.”

“Well, law enforcement is not my game,” replied Ferro. “I can give you a pod, a seat, some food and some amenities, but when it comes to her, you’re on your own.”

“Of course,” Ropo replied. “But I’m just reviewing security measures, it’s standard protocol.”

Zedka Zedka had been harbouring a smirk as she watched the marshal and the shuttle attendant converse.

“She’s scared there might be a rescue attempt,” she winked at Ropo. “Don’t you have confidence in your little plan?”

“What does she mean?” Larren asked.

Though Larren had addressed his question to Ropo, Zedka answered.

“They’re attempting subterfuge,” Zedka said gleefully. “An armed convoy of runners took off from Wembleca with a decoy prisoner, whilst our brave marshal here secretly took me all by herself.”

Zedka laughed in a manic way that indicated that either she or the plan was crazy.

“Really?” said Larren.

Ropo nodded, “That’s the plan.”

“Is it advisable for your prisoner to know so much about said plan?”

Ropo shrugged, “She doesn’t leave my sight, so she sees what I see and hears what I hear, for the most part.”

“Seems a bit dangerous if you ask me,” remarked Larren. “Just one woman escorting the Butcher of Bezalis.”

“This has been a long operation,”Ropo sighed. “Her associates who are not dead or already in prison are in hiding. This is a final lap three months in the making.”

Larren coughed, he was clearly intimidated by Zedka, but he mustered up the courage to speak to her directly.

“What I don’t get is why you killed someone who was helping you.”

“And who might that be?” Zedka asked bemused.

“Jani Fizon,” said Larren.

“She was cleared of Jani’s murder,” interjected Ropo. “A witness testified that someone else committed that particular crime.”

“I saw her sister on the news. She seems pretty convinced that it was you.”

Ropo was getting annoyed.

“Grieving siblings aside, let’s focus on today. The decoy convoy is well on its way by now. We’ll set off shortly. Our focus is getting Zedka across the galaxy without incident. We have a plan, let’s just stick to it.”

Larren was annoyed now. “Let’s calm down with that ‘we’. I’m a shuttle attendant. I’ve made arrangements for you, but when it comes to her, you’re on your own.”

Ropo sighed. She blinked and swiped the air.

“I’ve just given you access to move my runner, it’s on the landing pad,” said Ropo “If you could stow it in the shuttle bay onboard, I’d be much obliged.”

“Now that, I can do,” replied Larren.

The pod was spacious. There was enough room for fifty people. A small window on each side, each with a row of seats beneath it.

Zedka lay down across the seats on one side of the pod. Opposite, Ropo sat on a single seat, hands on her pistols.

“You look tired, maybe I should hold your guns while you sleep,” Zedka was on her back, looking over at Ropo

Ropo stared out of the window above Zedka’s makeshift bed. Beneath them the ground started to rumble. The shuttle began to move. Warp speed was not permitted in the Xelon sector, so they would continue with standard propulsion until they reached the Tectracht Corridor.

“Let’s set some ground rules. You are not to move. No you cannot take a closer look at anything anywhere. No, you cannot make use of some facilities to relieve yourself. You stay right where you are until we reach the Lunar Prison.”

“How about a blanket?” Zedka asked rubbing her hands together.

Rapo blinked and swiped the air, “I’ve just sent you some nanomites.”

Zedka’s hands began to feel warm.

“I’ve got nothing against you, I’ve just got a job to do,” said Ropo. “I get a name, I bring them in. 160 to 0, I always find my con and I always bring them in, always on time.”

Zedka stared at the marshall. Her eyes darted to the window above the marshall’s head and then back again. She inspected the graphene fibre wrapped around her wrists.

Ropo sat down, and closed her eyes. After a few minutes, Zedka rose slowly. She glanced over Ropo’s kit. At least three pistols were in plain sight. Zedka focused in on one and walked over slowly until she was standing right over Ropo.

Without opening her eyes Ropo swung her gun up so that it was pointed right at the center of Zedka’s forehead.

“Mods, Zedka,” Said Ropo, “Even when my eyes are closed I can still see you.”

With her left hand, Ropo launched Zedka into the air, against the far wall.

“AR lenses, nanomites and an exoskeleton,” Zedka said coughing, her body writhing.”You really went all out..”

“What can I say, I like a bit of DIY on the weekends.”

“You built this all yourself,” said Zedka. “Impressive.”

“Well, if you’re sufficiently impressed, I hope we won’t have any incidents for the rest of our journey.

“I had to try.”

“There’s nothing to try Zedka.”

“You know what I can’t get my head around,” continued Zedka. “I can’t help thinking, what’s a woman like you doing travelling across the galaxy, bothering people simply minding their own business?”

“Let’s call it a lucrative hobby,” replied Ropo. “Bringing in one of your kind feeds my family for a month. Then I spend the rest of my time as a research scientist at the Daga Institute.”

“So you do the research for the love and the wrangling for the loot, got it,” said Zedka.”But that’s what, all in, ten thousand intercredits a month?”

“Thereabouts.”

“Not exactly the lap of luxury..”

“It’s an honest living.”

“Let me tell you, a dishonest living is a lot more comfortable.”

“Well, that dishonest living has earned you at least 25 years of extreme comfort.”

“You’re very confident aren’t you?” “That we’ll make it to the Lunar Prison.”

“Like I said, I always get the job done.”

“We’ll see,” said Zedka. “How did you even become a marshall, I take it the science career came first.”

“I spent a lot of time consulting with the cyber marshals on new kit,” explained Ropo. “I ended up testing a lot of the kit in the field with them and the rest, as they say, is history.”

“So basically you were bored as a scientist, so you decided to take a side job with the risk of death.”

“The woman responsible for the biggest fusion reactor disaster in history wants to talk about risky professions.”

“I’m just concerned for the children,” Zedka said feigning concern. “Surely they’d pay any price for their mother’s safety.

“So that’s what you were getting round to,” Ropo said, the realisation dawning on her. “You wan to know if I have a price.”

“I may be… calculating.”

“There’s not enough money in the universe.”

Zedka scoffed. Ropo opened her eyes and looked at her prisoner intently.

“The real reason I do this job is because scientists like me are responsible for enabling criminals like you to wreak chaos across the universe. And then we kit out marshals to risk their lives going after you. I can’t build things with such high stakes and completely cut myself of from the reality of all that.”

A green light began to flash on the panel next to the doors signalling that they were about to enter warp drive. Both of the women sat down and strapped in. Atmospheric and gravity controls on a ship the size of a shuttle meant that even at the highest warp speeds, things were stable, but caution was always the order of the day in space. For the next few hours, the two sat in silence.

After several hours, the shuttle dropped out of warp speed.

“We’ll be coming up to your new home soon.”

Zedka reached her still shackled hands over to undo her seatbelt and twisted her body so that she could kneel up and look out of the window.

From behind, Ropo could see a change in Zedka. Tension was leaving her body, her shoulders fell, she raised her head up straight.

Ropo walked over to see what she was looking at. A ship was approaching them. It Seemed to be heading directly towards their pod but then it veered off towards the front of the shuttle. Ropo craned her neck in an attempt to get it back in her view line, but it was no use. However, shortly the ship came back around. It was closer now, not close enough for her to see who was piloting it, not even with her implants, but she could see that it was a runner, like hers but smaller.

For the meantime, the ship maintained its distance. Out of the corner of her eye, Ropo noticed the comms panel. Something didn’t look right, but she couldn’t tell what. Ship’s fuel was OK. Sensors had detected the other ship, but no ship-to-ship capable weapons were present. Then she saw it. Life support systems were failing in pod seven. Which would initiate the emergency stop procedures. The shuttle ground to a halt. Ropo moved back towards the window. The runner was coming towards them.

Even though they still had a fair distance to cover, she could see three figures through the window of the runner, she could even see their faces. There were two women and one man, her eyes scanned their faces, three criminal records were returned: Kutch Pin, wanted for robbery and murder, Fictu Wanga, wanted for robbery and fraud and lastly, Lizzi Lookona, wanted for eight counts of murder..

“It looks like your friends have come to pla.,”

Zedka turned to Ropo, a smile stretching across her face.

“Don’t get your hopes up.”

“We’re way past hope now,” Zedka said confidently. “Maybe you don’t have a price, but there’s no need for you to get yourself killed. You can head back to your husband and your kids. No one needs to get h,,,”

Suddenly a sound came through the speaker on the comms panel.

“Zedka!”

Ropo pulled out her gun and pointed it at Zedka, who was now reclining on the seats. Apart from her hands being bound she looked positively serene.

“Zedka!” The call came through the speaker again.

“Shall I respond?”

“Tell them that it will be best for everyone if they just turn around and head back where they came from.”

Zedka laughed as Ropo flicked the switch on the Comms Panel to transmit.

“Hey friends,” she said. “The marshal here is not too happy to see you. Give us a second.”

“So, Marshal, what’s it going to be?”

“What do you think?”

“OK, so the way I see it, you have two options: you let me walk out of here unharmed or my buddies out there will come in and deprive your little ones of their mother.”

Ropo stared back at Zedka, unflinching.

“There’s only one logical decision for you Marshal,” Sadka said. “Don’t throw your life away…”

Ropo now felt an overwhelming sense of unease. Her intuition was confirmed when she began to hear noises from their air lock. They were trying to get in.

“On the platform,” Ropo instructed.

“What?” Zedka was confused.

“Lay down on the platform”

Zedka had a perplexed smile but she complied. Ropo made quick movements, using the cargo restraints to secure Zedka. She walked over to the air lock. She could here muffled banging and the sizzle of a laser cutting metal.

Ropo pushed the air lock emergency release lever. Both sets of doors slid open and Ropo and the three space suit clad figures who were trying to enter were sucked out. The airlock closed automatically behind Ropo. At the same time, her exoskeleton began to expand until her whole body was encased. She looked through the visor of the helmet that was now covering her face. Next her thrusters kicked in and she was able to move purposefully rather than drift. The three bandits had similarly oriented themselves and were reaching for their guns. After thinking better of it they left their guns alone and propelled themselves towards her. Small guns were at best pointless and at worst dangerous to their owner in a vacuum. They would have been better off if they had got to her in the pod. She would have been better off if she had been in her runner, with missiles available to her. As it was, they would have to fight it out the old fashioned way.

Ropo powered towards the bandit closest to her. She grabbed the front of his suit with a tight grip. She punched his visor hard. It cracked and a look of horror was etched deep into the creases of his face. She tossed him towards the runner. One of the other bandits followed his body as it zoomed towards the ship. Now there was only one. She looked at her remaining opponent. The bandit had somehow pulled out a knife. She was inching towards Ropo, cautious but determined. Ropo kept an eye on her but kept a distance between them. Numbers were flashing across her eyes. Calculations that she didn’t understand, but that would help her to achieve her goal. When they were completed, she pinged a message to the bandit’s runner. It responded immediately and sped towards the last remaining bandit, crashing into her from behind and catapulting her off into the distance.

She dialled into the shuttle’s comms and patched herself to Larren’s station.

“How long until we get back on track?”

“I was wondering when I’d hear from you,” Larren said nervously. “There was an incident, we are re-initializing the engines now. We’ll be running again in three minutes.”

Ropo watched a mechanical arm emerged from the runner and pull in the bandit it had just injured. More lines of code across her eyes and the runner set a new course and headed away.

The artificial atmosphere on Lunar was stuffy and itched the back of Rojo’s throat. Zedka was by her side and opposite them was a woman in a long Council robe standing with two officers in uniforms, one standing on each side of her.

“We are most grateful for your service Ropo,” said the robed woman. “Not only have you brought in this prisoner, on time as always, but you sent three others who we processed just a few minutes ago. You will of course receive bonus payments for them.”

“Thank you, Governor Ation,” said Ropo. “As ever, I was just doing my job.”

Governor Ation gave a respectful nod. She stepped back a few paces and turning her attention to the prisoner she said, “You may approach.”

Zedka walked the white line until she was between the two guards. As she stopped, the force field sizzled back into effect. Zedka turned and looked back at Ropo.

“You did it.”

Ropo tipped her hat towards the group, turned and walked away. In the distance, Ropo could see her runner being rolled off the shuttle. And past it, even further in the distance, was the gleaming blue ball that she called home.

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