The man responsible for shooting Sunita Kumar smiled briefly, then picked up his slug rifle, flung it over his shoulder and started to get out of there as fast as possible.
As he ran for his jeep, he realised that he wasn’t entirely sure he’d actually killed his target. This could cause considerable problems later. This wasn’t going to be the sole thing that would cause him problems, which as he got away, he realised suddenly, resulting in him swearing loudly under his breath.
In his rush to get away, he had forgotten to ‘police his brass’, as the very old term went. Leaving behind the used bullet casings on the beach meant that someone was going to be able to track him down…
As he left, the rest of the party on the beach took swift action. Seeing that Sunita had been shot, one of the men removed his shirt to act as an impromptu bandage while the others headed for their shuttle to grab a stretcher and call a hospital to let them know they were coming in with an emergency.
The first thing Sunita heard were some low whispered voices that suddenly got a bit louder.
“She’s waking up!” a male voice said as Sunita began to feel a considerable quantity of pain in her shoulder.
“Ah…” she grimaced and then her eyes opened. She saw a white ceiling and strip lighting above her then bolted upwards in a cold sweat.
“Where am I?” she said as her vision went briefly blurry before starting to focus on a blonde woman in a white doctor’s coat in front of her, “What happened?”
“Calm down, calm down”, the doctor said, “Calm down, Sunita, you’re OK. You’ve been shot and you’re in Odyssa Memorial Hospital”.
“I’ve been shot?” Sunita asked, then remembered, “I’ve been shot”.
“Yes, you took a slug round to your right shoulder. Fortunately it just missed your lung or anything major, otherwise we’d be contacting your next of kin to tell them the worst”.
Sunita felt another sharp twinge of pain, then lay back on the bed.
“You were very lucky”, the doctor continued, “I’m going to give you something for the pain; you’ve got a broken collarbone, which we’ve set. Once you’re in a bit less pain, there are a couple of detectives that wish to talk to you. And some woman named Mary who called the ambulance for you”.
“Right… Got it...”
“Do you have any enemies?” Detective Pierce Grant asked the latest victim of crime that he’d had to deal with. As she looked at the pretty woman in the bed in front of him, he couldn’t help some feelings towards her, but he batted them away quickly. He had a job to do and a wife to go home to.
“I’m a freelance trader”, Sunita said, “I do odd freight jobs and courier runs. I don’t even take passengers. Can’t in my Aurora”.
“Have you any rivals? Particularly those with a vicious streak?”
“Ones with a willingness to shoot me on a beach? Not likely”.
“Well… is there anyone that you might have annoyed lately…”
Something was occurring in the bottom of Pierce’s mind. This woman looked familiar… but surely not, not at all.
“Excuse me one minute”, he said, “I need to use the restroom”.
Pierce popped out of the ward and did indeed go to the mens’ room. He found an empty cubicle, removed his jacket and carefully placed it on the hook. Then he activated his MobiGlas.
Accessing the police database, he did a search for a woman named Liza Santiago… and smiled. The resemblance was definitely there. Nose slightly different, slight hairline change, but the only person who was going to be easily able to tell the difference was a direct family member or lover.
He noticed the red flashing words “DECEASED” against Liza’s photograph. That was definitely believed to be the case, but criminals were never known to take officialdom’s word for it.
He quickly walked back into the ward, where Julie was now with Sunita, pulling some grapes out of a bag.
“I think there’s been an awful mix-up… you see, this is a near-fatal case of mistaken identity. Tell me, have you ever heard of Liza Santiago?”
Sunita looked confused.
“I have…” Mary added for her, “Rather notorious pirate round these parts… come to think of it, she does look a bit like you… but the Xi’an got her. Mind you, they never did find the body”.
“Space is a big place”, the detective said, “But it’s entirely possible that one of her many enemies mistook you for her and decided to make doubly sure that she was dead”.
Sunita began to understand more.
“So what do I do now?” she asked, “If the word is put out that I’m still alive… then what’s to stop them trying again”.
“Very little. However, I have some information that may be of relevance to you. We found spent shell casings at the scene. Mass spec analysis suggests that the ammo was manufactured by a known dealer in the Cathcart system… which is of course out of our effective jurisdiction. I would suggest taking security precautions – maybe changing your appearance?”
Sunita looked surprised and was about to say something, but someone else spoke first.
“She ain’t doing that”, Mary replied, “She’s not going to spend the rest of her life in hiding just because of some sniper. We’re going to Cathcart and we’re going to find out who is responsible for this, then make them see the error of their ways”, she continued.
“I would strongly advise against that. You do know that Cathcart is well known for its pirates and other criminal populations. If you go there, you do so at your own considerable risk. Especially as I believe you drive an Aurora”.
“She may have an Aurora… but I have an Idris”.
The detective rolled his eyes.
“Well, it’s your funeral… I will note on the official report that I did warn you of the risks. Good luck. You’re going to need it in Cathcart”, he said and walked out of the room.
Sunita then realised what Mary had meant.
“Er… it’s going to be my funeral as well”.
Mary looked at her.
“I know you, Sunita, you’re not a coward. Do you want to get these people or not?”
The patient thought about this for about thirty seconds.
“You know what”, she said with a smiled, “I really rather do”.
Five days passed before the doctors at the hospital cleared Sunita for departure. She was advised to go home and get some solid rest, not to overstrain herself etc.
She of course, promptly ignored this. She was soon sitting in the mess of Mary’s Idris, Tuskegee Airman, discussing with her crew as to the best approach for when they got to Cathcart.
“The detective might have a point about changing your appearance”, Mary said, “If they think you’re Santiago, they might well try to kill you on the spot. It’s only temporary. Suggest you cut your hair and go blonde, as they’re not going to be looking for someone like that, are they”.
“I’ve had long hair since I was a kid”, Sunita said, “It’ll be a shame to lose it”.
“Well, hair grows, doesn’t it? Plus, a girl’s got to change her looks every so often, hasn’t she?
Mary pulled out a pair of scissors.
“Right, it’s cutting time, Sunita”.
With her hair shortened and dyed, Sunita looked over the information that Mary had been forwarded by the detective. They were looking for a guy named Donald ‘Right’ Hook, who from his mugshot (taken after a bar fight) was a small skinny blond guy who looked like he would probably crumble if you threatened him with sticking his head in a toilet bowl.
“Looks can be deceiving”, Mary said, “He may look like a wet paper bag, but he travels with a Tevarin merc as a bodyguard. I suggest we try the old bait-and-switch. One of us goes shopping and distracts him, not to mention his minder, while the other finds a way to hack his systems and get his client list”.
“Why would a guy who sells illegal ammo to pirates and other ne'er-do-wells keep a client list?” Sunita asked, not entirely aware of the ways of the criminal world.
“Because he’s a criminal and he needs an insurance policy. The client data protects him from being offed and is a useful bargaining chip if the UEE, the Banu Protectorate or the Republic of Inbred Hillbillies arrests him. Most people don’t really like being spaced or being hung by the neck until you are dead”.
“Ah. That makes sense”.
“I had a chat with some former pirate. He’s now part of something called the Strategic Thinking and Development team. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the acronym…”
Sunita walked as quickly as she could towards her ship, reaching into the pocket of her flight suit for her electronic key. She pressed the unlock button and the ship’s exterior lights flashed twice; she then pressed the open button and the right hand hatch of the spacecraft opened, the boarding ladder deploying.
After climbing up the ladder, she quickly clambered into the pilot’s seat and strapped herself in, then began the start-up sequence.
“Welcome to Roberts Space Industries”, the female computer voice intoned as she reached for the comms button.
“Odyssa Tower, this is SS Robert Holmes in hangar…” she turned to look out of the window to not the number written on the wall, “Seven-Nine-Four Requesting permission to take off and path to jump point”.
There was a brief pause.
“Robert Holmes, this is Odyssa Tower. Thank you for visiting us; you will be cleared to depart in one minute”.
She reached for her helmet as she tapped the series of buttons to start up the engines. As she put the helmet on, the HUD in front of her activated, displaying her current height above sea level (60 metres) and speed (zero).
She mentally ran through what she needed to check before departure, then pressed the button to close the hatch. Four seconds later, the computer intoned that there was a good pressure seal and the engines were warming up.
Above her, the hangar doors were starting to retract as a green arrow appeared on the radar display on her helmet in front of her with the words ‘Go up’ written on it. The tower was giving her a path to follow, but her LX was fully capable of doing this automatically.
“Computer, enable automatic take off on my mark”.
The doors to the hangar fully open, she waited five more seconds.
“Robert Holmes, Odyssa Tower. You are cleared to depart; goodbye and Godspeed”.
“Mark”, she said firmly and felt the ship began to rise off the floor of the hangar as engine gases spread out on each side.
She was off the floor in three seconds and her thrusters began to move her slowly forward out of the hangar onto the aerial taxiway. All she had to do was sit back and make sure the autopilot didn’t pack up. It had on one occasion.
After weaving her way through the enclosed taxiway, she was soon onto the main runway. The route was clear, the lights of the skyscrapers on both sides providing just as much illumination as the lights on the tarmac itself. She smiled.
She pushed the stick slightly to release the automatic controls and then reached for the throttle, moving it forward towards the minimum main setting. The navigation route to the jump point appeared in front of her, but she temporarily ignored it as the main drive kicked in. She pulled back the stick slightly and began to slowly climb.
Once she was clear of the city, she pushed the throttle forward to maximum atmospheric flight setting, feeling a slightly shudder as the boxy Aurora broke the sound barrier and began its course for orbit.
Mach 2… Mach 6… Mach 9…
She took a quick look in the cockpit mirror; she was still coming to terms with her new look. She couldn’t do a great deal about her skin colour, but she’d altered her make-up with some yellow eyeshadow and a cherry lipstick that made her look like she was going to some unusual convention - she was going to have to figure out precisely what that convention was so it would help her cover.
The Mach numbers continued to climb and soon the sky changed with blue to black as she exited the atmosphere. She placed the ship into a low orbit to align with the jump point – which was currently blocked by an entire planet and switched off the artificial gravity; she enjoyed seeing the fluffy dice in her cockpit float up as well as watching the fluffy Tribble she’d picked up float about.
She waited for the jump point to align, then reactivated the gravity and powered up the Quantum Drive.
There was a strong kick in her back as the ship accelerated to two-tenths of the speed of light and once that was done, she closed her eyes for a bit.
Soon it would be time to do the jumpy thing. Although not just yet.
While all Sunita really needed to do was clamber into the cockpit and then take off, pre-flight on an Idris was a bit more difficult. For one thing there was the need to actually get there; for one thing the 238.5 metre long vessel weighed in at over 1,600 metric tonnes and as a result was not something that you could easily land on a planet with any decent level of gravity. So, the eight person crew headed up from surface to orbit in a Constellation Andromeda provided by the port for crew transfer of this type.
Once on board, the crew of the frigate had to make sure that a whole batch of things were strapped down, connected, not connected and on the whole working properly, depending on what they actually were, before powering up the Quantum Drive to leave orbit. This process took a full twenty minutes and then the ship was able to depart.
Mary sat on the bridge checking the navigator had set their course correctly – of course Becky had because she was a brilliant navigator, but double checking was a good habit to check. The rail guns and turrets were all functioning, although they’d not been able to get any anti-ship missiles. Where they were going they probably didn’t need any – it would be overkill on most ships – but Mary still would have preferred to have some, that was for sure.
It was decided, that as it was clearly the most heavily armed (well, Auroras may have had a gun and a missile launcher, but this was the equivalent of giving Humpty Dumpty a hammer), that Tuskegee Airman would make the jump first. While the crime bosses in the system had a standing agreement that they did not interfere with jumpers (for fear that it might bring the UEE down on them like the proverbial tonne of bricks), but there was always someone who didn’t get or just chose to ignore the memo.
Thus Sunita did another lot of pre-jump checks as she watched the Idris approach the entrance to the jump point, power up its engines and then disappear from ‘regular’ space with a multi-coloured flash of energy.
Then it was her turn. Confirming with traffic control that she was going next, she gently lined up her Aurora LX with the navigation coordinates and activated her Jump Drive.
Normal space disappeared and she soon found herself on a magical mystery roller-coaster ride as her ship ducked and weaved through the hole in space-time, surrounded by pretty colours as she flew down the proverbial rabbit hole. If the jump computer didn’t follow the route correctly, however, she was going to lose far more than just her head.
She gripped the armrests tightly with her hands. All she could do was watch and pray.
TO BE CONTINUED