"... I'll gather melodies... I'll gather melodies... I'll gather melodies from birdies that fly."
Alarms blared in the cockpit as Joe desperately tried to level his ship, his hands and feet in a heated battle with pitch, yaw and roll. The blast had destroyed most of his thrusters, leaving his ship at the mercy of the shockwave and the gravity of the planet below.
"... on the Milky Way, if that don't do. I'll have to try something neeeeww."
Twenty-five hundred meters separated him from the icy world's burn-in altitude. If he didn't slow down he would disintegrate, if he didn't get his angle of attack right his ship would bounce off the atmosphere back into space. Eighteen hundred meters. Biden cursed as he pulled the yoke with all his weight, kicking the pedals at his feet and keeping his eyes fixed on the data scrolling on his screens. Gravity, density, surface conditions, he instinctively picked out all relevant numbers, using them to command his immediate actions. Nine hundred meters. Joe stopped the ship's spin with one final push on his pedals and was now able to hold it, barely. In front of him debris from the space station lit up like flares as it crossed the planet's Kármán line.
"... you will be King of the Staaaars!!!"
"Shut the fuck up!"
The music abruptly stopped and he eyed the countdown as it crossed five hundred meters. He checked his angle: somewhere between adequate and perfect. Speed: somewhere between too fast and a sure death. Realizing he wouldn't be able to slow down before hitting the atmosphere he strapped himself in. As the nose of his ship slowly ignited in an array of brilliant, red flames he gripped his controls, keeping both of his thumbs on the airbrakes and parachute, now only able to sit, wait and hope.
The Run -- Drop
Joe awoke to cold metal on his face, pulsing red lights and blaring alarms. Groaning he slowly turned on his back and a pain in his head and abdomen immediately grabbed hold. It overpowered his senses, leaving the alarms muffled and the cockpit a blur, the only clarity being his heartbeat and heavy breathing. Lying on the floor he tried to piece together what had happened, his eyes moving across the cabin.
His seat was no longer in the center of the cockpit, but instead lay completely mangled in the corner.
Outside were no stars, only a thick layer of snow blocking any light from coming in and his screens showed no vectors or wind speeds, just a collection of red warning signals and static.
"Heh... nice one Joe." He awkwardly laughed as he sat up and slid himself backwards. His right arm felt oddly strained as he pushed his back against the hull. Slowly he pulled his sleeve up, finding several cracks in his skin reaching from his palm to his elbow, revealing layers of glossy black artificial muscles and tissue. He formed a fist, the cracks widened as he tightened his grip.
"Ah, great." His arm was damaged, superficially, but damaged all the same. He would need to get it repaired. That would put a dent in his payment.
"Right, payment..." He wouldn't get any, seeing as he completely failed to deliver his goods. He pulled himself up, grabbing hold of the center console and got to his feet. Carefully, he tried to walk, much to Joe's surprise though this went reasonably well. Perhaps he wasn't hurt as badly as he thought, or maybe he was going insane from blood loss. Was he bleeding? He looked down to check as he set foot outside the cockpit, only to lose his balance and stumble through the doorway.
"Ooh... I'm okay... I'm okay." He grabbed the sides of the corridor and got himself up again.
The ceiling oddly bulged above him; his ship had taken quite the hit. Station debris maybe, or a result of his landing? Either way it explained a lot. Slowly he moved toward the portside hatch, trying to keep himself in a straight line. His damaged hand reached for the keypad, the other for the handle.
Alarms still screaming, he heard voices... He waited, but they were gone as soon as he tried to listen. Was he now imagining things? Maybe he hit his head harder than he thought.
Suddenly the locks were released and the door swung open.
Muzzle, barrel, sight, gun. Joe's pain subsided as his mind processed the information in front of him. His eyesight sharpened as his heartbeat accelerated. He grabbed hold of the rifle, pulling it towards him and plunging his right elbow in the visor of the unfortunate soldier carrying it. The orange plastic cracked at the impact. Disarmed and unconscious his limp target fell to the ground, Joe pointing the weapon at him, ready to fire. With the immediate threat neutralized his heart slowed down and his breathing followed. Aiming down the sight he realized he was surrounded by two other men. His eyes danced across dark military grade armour with no visible markings and rifles modified for arctic operations. Looking around he could feel his combat stance slowly weakening his muscles. Mouths moved under their visors, but all he could hear was a constant ringing in his ear, slowly increasing in volume. What focus his eyes had left now faded, his heart unable to keep them going and he started to gasp for air. He looked down, his neck trying to keep his head straight: blood dripped from his body. A lot of blood. He dropped the weapon, his palms stained in red.
"Ah... shit." And he collapsed in the snow.
An itch, crawling on his forehead just under his hairline. Joe raised his hand and tried to scratch it, only to feel bandages wrapped around his head. He opened his eyes and found himself in a room lit by a pale blue light and covered with metallic tiles. He could see a reflection of himself in the ceiling, along with someone else's. To his right was a dark haired woman, busy packing equipment. She didn't wear any armour save for a pair of knee and shoulder pads, the latter of which emblazoned with a red cross. There was a first-aid kit next to his bed, with a half empty shot of morphine lying on top. That explained his lack of pain, and provided a possible weapon. He saw no other medical equipment, which hopefully meant he wasn't too badly hurt.
Yet he wasn't tied to his bed, nor did he see or hear any guards. This could've meant two things: they were extremely dimwitted and didn't see him as a threat, or there was an entire battalion waiting just outside the doorway. Though given his injuries, lack of a ship and no idea where the hell he was, an escape was unlikely either way. So he simply sat up, careful not to hurt himself,
"Hello." and he greeted the medic, who promptly dropped what she was holding with a loud clatter. She turned around and an awkward silence followed. A pair of youthful, if not naive eyes stared at him, immerged in a lightly coloured, round and soft face. She wasn't a soldier.
"Charmed." Joe said, nearly letting out a snort.
Gathering her composure the medic left the room, not saying a word. Surprised, Joe figured she was off to get her superiors. He could hear her pace quicken as she turned a corner. Very well, he would patiently wait and allow his curiosity to reign free. His eyes darted around the room: its walls were coloured in a joyless black and white, topped off with a clear, dark gray trim which seamlessly carried over to a pattern of plates making up the ceiling. Every inch of the room was free from as much as a speck of dirt; completely sterile, with a smell so neutral it made him queasy. He leaned to his side to see a corridor leading to several other rooms, all looking exactly alike. This was an outpost: a dull, cold modular base designed to depress anyone inside.
Three sets of footsteps marched towards the room and Joe sat back, not knowing what to expect, yet curious.
Two men entered, wearing dark gray military armour, though lacking any helmets. The medic followed. Biden looked at his captors: blonde and brown and in many respects polar opposites. 'Blondie' was buff and had a stern look in his eyes, complementing his confident stance. 'Brown' was a few sizes too small for his suit and nervously crossed his arms. Topping off his uneasy appearance was a big, fresh black eye. A grin slowly formed on Joe's face.
"Hello Mr. Biden, I'm Commander Warren Summers and on behalf of the First Snakes, I apologize for the destruction of your ship. We didn't expect you so... soon."
'Blondie' introduced himself with carefully chosen words and a serious tone. Joe checked his pockets for his PDA... Gone. They had come prepared, awaiting his arrival, yet didn't come across as hostile. Their leader didn't make any demands either. Peculiar.
"Well, Mr. Summers. I apologize for messing up the kid's face."
Playing it safe, Joe replied with a touch of humour.
"Name's Oswald and... apology accepted."
The 'kid' spoke, albeit with thinly veiled annoyance. Nevertheless this left Joe surprised.
"So, the First Snakes? What are you, terrorists?"
He fired off his first question.
"Heh no, we're not."
Warren toned down his seriousness.
"Then what are you?"
Biden had a hunch, though figured it was quite the stretch. Hacking traffic control of three different planets required careful planning, coordination and a lot of manpower. Characteristics he didn't readily associate with these 'First Snakes'.
Warren didn't answer right away, instead looking at his associates as if he was asking for their permission.
"We... are on a mission to expose Brahma for what they really are."
Joe had been caught by a pair of boy scouts. Great.
"Really now? And blowing up space stations is the best way to do that?"
The immediacy of Warren's answer bordered on humorous, yet worried Joe. A troop of inexperienced would-be soldiers expected his arrival, blew up a station in orbit and went to great lengths to find him and patch him up. Would-be soldiers wearing high tech gear and carrying highly explosive ordinances. What exactly did they want from Joe?
"Ok..." Joe nodded, "Well, thanks for taking care of me," passed a wink to the medic, "I think I'll be going now." and rose from the bed, trying his luck.
"I'm afraid I can't let you leave."
Warren blocked his path and Oswald reached for his sidearm. Joe glanced at the syringe which was just in his reach. He played all possible scenarios in his head. Half of them though ended with him getting killed, the other half left him seriously wounded. An escape was indeed unlikely.
"How so?" He sighed at his conclusion.
"You are going to help us."
"Help? With what?"
Joe didn't like where this was going and his grin slowly faded, turning his face into a restrained worry. Warren meanwhile allowed the corners of mouth to curl up.
"First you're going to help us open those containers of yours and then you're going to tell us who your supplier is and where we can find him."
Joe's dislike was well placed. Handing over the identity of his contact would mean his reputation would be destroyed and his days as a Runner would end. Then there was the chance of him being chased throughout the galaxy and subsequently killed.
He let out a feigned chuckle,
"Heh, you want to know what's in those containers? Body parts."
and tried to prevent the worst from happening.
"Body parts?" Warren wondered.
"Yes! Hands, arms, legs, feet, kidneys, spinal cords, lungs, boobs, big..."
Joe explained his last example vividly using his hands. "... Really... really big."
Warren remained unconvinced.
"Follow me." He said, beckoning Oswald to stand down.
They entered the outpost's storage facility: a large hall with numerous crates stacked against its high walls. Warm, natural light came in through the roof, giving it a much more inviting look than the dreary blue corridors.
In the corner, near the containers from Joe's ship were four scientists huddled together. Another member of Warren's team closely watched them, rifle in hand.
"You've already met Nika, our medic and Oswald, our technical expert. This is Keith,"
Warren approached them, "reconnaissance." Keith greeted with a nod.
"If you've got an 'expert', why do you need me?" Joe asked, catching Warren off guard.
"Brahma's locks aren't easily picked," Oswald quickly stepped in, "their security is... the best I've ever seen."
Joe snapped at him with a mixture of disdain and disbelief. His arrogance though left the ball in his court and seeing the looks on everyone's faces he realized he had to prove them otherwise. He searched his pockets for his datastick, coming up empty once again.
"You got my stuff somewhere?" He sighed.
Nika grabbed a duffel bag, opened it and presented it to Joe. He searched through his things, finding out some rather personal items had been taken from him: a pack of old condoms, a Purple Heart, cigars, his golden ring.
Scraping his throat he found his datastick and walked up to one of the containers. He inserted it, let the program boot up and soon after metallic clicks sounded from within. Cold air hissed through the cracks as the container's innards decompressed. Joe impatiently tapped his thighs, creating a beat of sorts as the mechanisms continued their sequence. The lid slowly rose and he built a crescendo with his hands.
"And here we have..."
Clouds of vapour dissipated, revealing the container's contents. His tapping slowed, then stopped altogether as his eyes widened, settling on the organic shape lying in front of him.
The blue light coming from underneath lit up a silhouette, a body, slightly smaller than a human. Its skin was smooth, elastic and nearly transparent. It had two long, thin arms and legs with four digits each, along with a tendril like limb attached to its chest. Attached to a slim neck was a small, rounded head with a pair of dead eyes looking back at Joe.
"Wh-what the hell is that?"
He stepped back, turning his head in shock. Warren came forward, inspecting the lifeless body.
"This... is what we're after."
Blowing his coffee, Walt stared through the glass panels which made up his office's outer wall. Their edges lit in green, they provided a complementary frame for Hipparchus' skyline; its buildings drenched in a deep crimson.
The view was nice, beautiful even but sadly that was the only likeable part of the Bureau's fancy new building.
"An exercise in vanity."
He had called it and tried his coffee: horrid. He was about to continue his train of thought when he realized now wasn't about complaints, it was about shutting up and enjoying the moment. Weekend was starting in a few hours and the next two days he would have peace of mind.
Rob was meanwhile busy processing the rest of this week's paperwork. Walt turned his head to see his partner conducting his holoscreen like a maestro.
"Found something?" After turning up little so far, Rob's whiff sounded just like what this investigation needed.
"I think so, but I'm not sure if it... hold on."
Rob moved a few images and pages before flipping the screen, showing his findings to Walt.
"That Joe Biden we spooked earlier this week?" he continued, "turns out he's lying. His real name's Joe Donahue. Joseph Donahue in fact."
Walt walked up to the hologram, reading a slew of headlines revolving around one and only one thing: '...Keppler Incident...', '...Five Dead...', '...Scandal...', articles which all dated back just over six years.
He brought up photos of a man being escorted out of a court building. Though looking completely different, cleanly shaven and sporting a military haircut, it was definitely the pilot they met a few days ago.
Walt sat down and with a few gestures moved the files over to his own workstation, just when a call labeled 'Chief' popped up. Walt let out an annoyed sigh.
"What can I do for you ma'am?" Nevertheless he greeted his superior with genuine enthusiasm.
"Walt, we have a situation and it needs to be handled delicately."
Immediately she went to business even though she was calling from a rather usual place. Seeing his superior in a black evening dress and a musical ensemble in the background Walt figured it was a fundraiser of sorts.
"I'm listening." He leaned forward.
"Check your inbox and you'll find reports concerning a Brahma research station which disappeared from the grid a few hours ago." Despite her noisy surroundings her voice was easily heard.
Walt opened up a second window and found the reports she mentioned.
"From the grid? How?"
"We don't know. Oddly there's no data from the last four hours, but logs show at least one ship had docked before the facility went dark."
"Sounds like it could be anything." Walt skimmed the intel. The ship which had docked had a Brahma signature.
"I know, but Brahma already sent their own security force and now UnSys wants us to follow their lead, 'keep an eye out'."
"... And lick their heels while we're at it."
Walt sighed, seeing his plans for the weekend crumble.
"Look, I don't like this either Walt..."
"It's... fine, really."
He stopped her from apologizing and straightened up, accepting his new assignment.
"Alright, I've already dispatched a car which will pick you up in front of the lobby. Good luck Walt." With that she closed the call.
Walt chuckled, once again realizing just how well she knew him. He looked at his partner, who was already putting on his coat.
"Duty calls?" Rob passed Walt's coat.
(To be continued)