'...Three. Two, One...Ignition!' The static voice from the comm filled the cabin.
Audrey clutched her teeth, cracking the pill and the bitterness of the drug filled her mouth. This tranquillizer had a rather unpleasant taste but an immediate effect and a short duration. It was her own brew.
The rumbling of the armadillo cycler reverberated through the ship and take off was a small consolidation to Audrey, at least. The anticipation at pre-launch got her worked up. All the technicalities the team on board had gone through - word by word according to flight protocol; the rhythmical recitation between flight base and deck back and forth had given her the cold sweat.
A sickening sensation in her stomach subsided and she swallowed back the burning at the depth of her throat. The cabin began to swim and her head lightened, her vision blurred; the seat in front of her slowly doubled and her fingers numbed. The effect was getting more potent with each following intake. To avoid embarrassment she leaned down as much as she could and wiped her lower lip; spit was drooling and she was breathing heavily. The world around her became a distant buzz and the report from flight base on the perfect take off an obscure echo.
The armadillo mother ship was a second generation bus vehicle to low Earth orbit. Thickly armoured and capable of multiple re-entries, the model was named after the obvious resemblance with the animal.
The rumbling diminished and the ship switched to scram jet propulsion - it sucked compressed oxygen from the atmosphere. The movement smoothed completely and the ship was now losing momentum. The initial rocket take off was enough to give it the change of velocity to escape gravity to LEO. Shutters slid up and the passengers could observe the view. The land underneath, ever receding, stretched into the contours of continents - white swirls of cloud over the vast green of Africa. Metropolis and the conurbations were not seen from here because of the greenery incorporated in their infrastructure. Europa was not faring as good. Some portion of the land had stepped away to the water and the visibly reduced Old Continent was a mesh of green, grey and brown. A single twinkle, like a star dotted Spain - wide arrays of solar power towers, concentrated in the south, focusing so much solar energy that they were visible from hither. The Mediterranean was muddy green - generously fertilized with Iron. Less than a minute now and the ample Wild West emerged on the curved horizon. Bellow the sparse white, a huge stretch of land without a trace of green; muted shades of yellow, orange, red and brown intertwined to form the land of the free.
The effect of the drug wore off as quickly as it had come. Perhaps too quickly and too soon, Audrey was thinking. She was supposed to still be intoxicated at upper separation, but her body had worked it off. She was promptly building up resistance to the neuro-dampener. Just in time to experience the blast of second take off from the mother ship. When the armadillo reached critical height in the thermosphere it released the small shuttle - the top layer of the cycler. From afar it looked like the armadillo peeled some of its armour. The bracket shaped shuttle separated and hung in brief suspension before a pyrotechnic blast erupted in the space between the two. The shuttle plunged further and ignited it's rocket propellant to initiate its final change of velocity - significantly lower than the initial one. The armadillo mother ship was pushed in the opposite direction and dived back in the atmosphere for its landing and next round of flybys to LEO. The giant hulk became a bright triangle of compressed air that descended into the lower layers for a soft tarmac landing.
Congratulations from flight base were in order and static voice from the comm announced:
The Institute of the Space Academy was situated at Earth Moon Lagrangian Point One. That is, it was orbiting around the Moon in an almost perfect trajectory, needing only occasional rocket fire to adjust. The station resembled the form of a key. The bow duplicated in two giant rings, nearly 5 miles in circumference. The slightly bigger one was linked to the helm and cruiser controls (the blade of the key). The smaller ring, supported by magnetic fields resided inside the bigger. It was spinning slowly to maintain artificial gravity. Smaller cylinders, attached at various points to the inner ring were visible. They also span to maintain their Gee - the smaller the cylinder the quicker the spin. The whole station could propel and move like a ship. Extensive numbers of photovoltaic cells were deployed on the Moon, where the Sun light was some eight times more intensive than on Earth's surface and energy was fed via microwaves, travelling through induction satellites that formed a web around Luna.
Audrey needed another supplement of suppressant before they attached. Just to make it through the functional magnetic imaging - a general standard procedure to maintain the norm. The scan commenced in the connecting corridor and the cheerful crowd did not seem to be bothered at all. Instead they were energetically pushing towards the shutter.
Waking up late in the standard morning she took a refreshing shower and after her breakfast of surprisingly delicious bacon and eggs from the cafeteria she took her first supplement for the day - a slow release cognition stimulant. It was time to get some work done.
Everybody on board would be responsible for what was going to happen next. But under the patronage of the wise Gregory McKenna those who were disgusted could at least share their opinion without fear of persecution. Deemed a collective decision, Phan Yeung needed to be eliminated. The Academy would surely come to no blame as McKenna himself would present his sorrow to the world. It was one of his own going to waste, after all. The resources of the Institute were quickly mobilized to establish a plan. It was to be a public execution - as obvious as possible. The influentials would contact the ground to prevent any serious measure being taken to ensure Yeung did not go into hiding.
Two days later she got a message on the pad that got her bolting towards the office. The first imaging from her tiny robotic fleet had streamed in. Nine hundred sixty three units surviving; Audrey was going through some more details but she needed her tools to start looking into the data seriously. She was already on the way, running.
Audrey was gripping her harness tight, her knuckles white. Cold sweat dripped on her forehead again and her breathing returned to normal only when the chemical rocketing dwindled and the quiet hum of the ion drive purred.
'Ladies and Gents, welcome aboard the Armadillo LC 101. We are now on a five day cruise to Earth - Moon Lagrangian point 1. Please enjoy your flight!'
'Oh, shut up!' A man yelled over from behind. 'You're so full of yourself, man!'
He unbuckled and tapped the comm.
'C'mon Sil! Let me in, already! I want to take a look outside.'
Laughter was heard from behind as the rest of the team released and started floating around in the microgravity of space.
Chloe slowly descended from above and settled in her lap, embracing her neck and shoulders with gentle arms.
'Hon, are you feeling al right?' Her jade gaze was scrutinizing, her face - immaculate feminine perfection.
'I am all good, thanks!' Audrey's voice trembled.
Chloe looked at her for a moment and then kissed her, pushing hard with her arms; her tongue baldly coiling around Audrey's.
Loud approval came from one of the males and momentarily cheers of elation filled the cabin.
Chloe withdrew and spat, fluid settling in small spheres around their faces.
She murmured, 'Hon... Really, you need to cut the crap out.'
Audrey just froze, unblinking.
'I am going to keep my mouth shut. But remember, this no longer is the Faculty. You can't just play with your health like that, Hon. Hear me?'
She just nodded slowly.
'Anyway,' Chloe continued. 'If you ever get lonely up there come by my room.' She said, louder this time.
'Hey, may I join up!'
'Yeah, I'm in, man!'
Several boisterous voices came from the spectators.
Chloe took a small jump drive out.
'You look like you need some fun. If you ever get bored plug this in, OK? Best one I've experienced around.' She playfully bit the air in front of Audrey's before joining the rest.
Attention now shifted to Chloe together with the loud remarks and Audrey exhaled deeply, massaging her temples. She soon fell asleep.
The Academy descended from the old Universities of the West. Unification was the only way they could make a stand and today the Academia was surviving as part of a corporate order. Science, intellectual property, industry and company efficiency all conjoined to ensure an image of prosperity and advancement. Some of the older men were bitter that Red Mars belonged to the 'Reds', as they would describe them, so the project was pushed to establish presence on Luna, instead. The study of microgravity on the human body; the changes of the genome homo; the transgenic plant growing; energy production and mineral extraction techniques development; bio-mimicry in newer Sol-resistant designs all had a significant scientific value. But the mesh of monetary interests were also playing and capitalization of knowledge was a well-developed business of the Academy.
They reunited with old colleagues, research mates and friends and the conversations were loud and jolly as they scattered to their private quarters to rest from the journey.
A different kind of pill from the drug paraphernalia and Audrey quickly surrendered to a dreamless deep stupor. She could not even see the flashes of the cosmic rays when she closed her eyes.
When in the shadow of the Moon the thick shields were slid aside and the polymerized glass screens revealed a magnificent view. The transparent covers looped all the way of the inner side of the ring. The greenery of the farms and forests took almost half the width and were a band of jade all across. Moving lights and vehicles were buzzing, getting smaller and bigger, closer and farther as they were travelling the giant ring. To her it looked like the curve of the station encircled the dark side of the Moon, clearly visible against blue Earth and the web of satellites in Luna's orbit, some bathed in Sun light - like bright stars.
All the way to 'Manufacturing' she was gazing up.
Housed in one of the smaller cylinders, the round department was full of additive manufacturing printers. Small robotic appendages moving in zig zag motion inside glass aquariums. They seemed slow in any one moment, but were operating constantly, ensuring large manufacturing output throughout the day. She had schematics for tiny telemetry bots of which she ordered a thousand. There was a long queue waiting - they would be ready by tomorrow.
An image of a spider weaving its web came into her mind and she smiled. Good analogy, but her brain was beginning to speed up and she better got busy sooner.
Continuing on her way she passed by a giant glass cage and observed an elderly researcher sitting next to a chimpanzee, its head wired to devices projecting waves and numbers all around the room. The chamber was not isolated and she could hear inside.
'Do you want to tell me what happened yesterday?' The researcher asked.
The chimp's lips drew out and maintained a grimace for a moment before answering. 'I don't want to!' His voice was guttural, throaty.
'Are you getting tired for today?'
The chimp seemed happy at the question and responded by putting two fingers in a "V" in front of his mouth.
'Ok... let's go for a smoke, then.' The man said, while scribing down on his wrist pad.
Another room was completely sound proofed and she could only observe through a narrow window. Three equally gorgeous women in white coats were standing next to a table filled with small transparent containers. Plants of various shapes and colours were growing in each of them. One was pushed on the side. Green and violet goo was creeping out from it and dripping on the floor. Apparently it was not dangerous, as the three of them were chatting and having a laugh over something. A man entered the room and all three gave him a hug simultaneously, at which point he blushed. Giggling from the trio ensued.
There was the cylinder where the plasma-infused magnet was stored. It maintained the local micro magnetic sphere to shield from particle rays from the Sun. At the moment it was at minimum capacity as they were covered by the Moon.
The Med Bay was her next stop. She gave blood to have her genome read. After the electrophoresis and polymerase reactions a growth of stem cells would be bred with her gene on it. She would inject them into her blood stream for prevention measure against space travel. A bit too overcautious, perhaps. Strands of brightly coloured, intertwined helices started spinning in her imagination.
Tapping on her wrist pad she ordered the papers from the last five days loaded and ready in her office plus the agenda of the board. The topic of the week was Politics, Economics and articles about recent events from Earth. A priority call to all higher standing functionaries on the ground was made on the day of their arrival and a meeting scheduled for the upcoming week.
After viewing the agenda she dug herself in assessments, calculations, editing and processing. Writing abstracts in an appealing manner as if they were selling a product on the market; bartering intellectual property that belonged to the Institute. She enjoyed trading with the Asians and organising the assimilation of the knowledge was a small form of comfort.
Still, when J.J.'s message flashed on her pad it felt like a welcomed break from the chores.
She arranged a meeting with her old friend for tomorrow and carried on refreshed.
Taking breaks only to eat from the cafeteria, she was going through the large amount of information in the virtual banks. Small processing unit provided some thinking abilities in the form of a small artificial neural network linked in vectors to a cloud from the hub, but far from the level of inventiveness or discernment. It was reading the meta information and reorganising it into general folders - segments and articles for an easy access on topics by researchers. It was a huge chunk of the operation and mostly menial labour as well. That did not prevent her from feeling
exhausted at the end of the day. Nearly two o'clock in the standard morning of the station. She collapsed in bed.
On the next day Audrey was awakened by the sound of delivery close to noon. The drone had stood at her door step, politely waiting attention and the sound from the pad had increased from gentle to perturbing. Washing and showering in haste; wet hair splashing drips behind, she inspected the delivery.
The packet was above a kilogramme with each individual small bot little over a gram. She took one out to look at it closely. Under small oval plastic cover she could see the integrals of a chip, photovoltaic cell, tiny oscillating, near UV LiDAR unit and a battery. Audrey was so excited she did not take anything from the drug stash today. Other than the bots she had also funded the humble network of small satellites, the research equipment needed and the software for the observation. She could use her office to carry out the research, while doing her job up here. And the target was the barren land that used to be known as America; Nebraska/Kansas border. The bots would be sprayed from their capsule and provide laser point mapping of their environment. Alone the data would be worthless, but in the context of the already established global GPS and advanced focused mapping of her own shy collection of satellites the place would come to life in three dimensional projections on her screen. She really could not understand why no body -
' - is interested in anthropology today! Audrey, it really excites me that you're finally doing what you always felt like. But you should know better than me that there is little money in this. How much did it cost you...?’
'J, I know! But really, I have never been so excited! I will finally get to see what is happening down there. And all right here. Isn't this just ...wonderful!?'
J.J. sipped from his coffee and looked at his old friend. One side of his mouth curved up and he said calmly.
'I am glad you are opening to the world, Audrey. I really am.'
'You are being ... very cryptic today, man. Are you OK?' Audrey said in a half joking manner.
'Yeah, I'm good!' He laughed and stretched his arms and back. 'Thank you! Tell ya what. I've been working on this game project. Aside from the rest of the things I have to get along with up here, of course. It's an attempt to revive something only old farts will talk of today. Immersion gaming without all the virtually projected on goggles and enhanced sensation of non-invasive implants... something that is increasingly only found in the history books. But you know what?! People still talk about that time they played a really hard survival game, or had to drown themselves to continue on a quest based only on an obscure text that read 'breathe the waters of his glory and the way is made clear' and so on. There are behavioural consequences in people. And those same people become part of society and grow up playing extremely linear pieces of semi-coherent fiction that hardly has depth at all when it comes to world construction... but have good visuals! There is movement on the web - '
Audrey listened. Not all out of respect. She saw meaning in the project.
But in any case, it was time to get back to work. Another pill tucked in, another day going by. But today was special. She had made a delivery. And in five days she would get results.
In the mean time she was busy fulfilling fast paced bullet points akin more to a corporate character than an academic. She had to convince somebody that their Terraforming Protocols were useful and could be implemented in the overall improvement of their Red Cousin. She herself doubted it. But
there was the resolve to continue working on. Audrey had finally come to an agreeable state in her relationship with the Institute but would never state that openly. More supplements from the magical home brew; try and find the weak points; run the simulations; inquire with colleagues. Push. Our. Product! The shaping of the new home in the solar neighbourhood was truly a collective effort, but sadly the drive behind this group was money.
The meeting came -
'No, it is too early!'
The man's face was red, spit flying out of his mouth. Despite the civil beginning, the heat of the discussion was flaring by now.
'We cannot allow this to happen now! Not at this moment! Just play with the idea -'
'I agree! It is all too sudden.' Another loud voice arose from the opposite in the round room.
The fact that all of the members were present behind closed doors without virtual conference allowed had already hinted of severity on the topic discussed.
'I will see this as a transgression against our very interests!' Yet another black suit was standing tall.
In the following mesh of high spirited declarations Audrey and a few others were keeping their voices low. Some of the people in the room were glancing down and it had become clear to them that following the tide was perhaps the better option for now. It felt like being in enemy territory, though.
The quiet beginning was, in fact, a very interesting debate about the pros and cons of an idea that had just recently been announced and was spreading around the internet like a viral infection. A man named Phan Yeong was presenting a system of renewed Earth Economy, followed by total release of currency. In spirit of the newly established frontier the man had drawn inspiration from the arid red waste and the people braving the deserts of Mars. Despite the many stated benefits of the gradual abolishment of monetary exchange, it infringed deeply on the interests of those present. And to their satisfaction there were others that opposed the notion around the world - not few in numbers and possessing influence as well.
Now there was a man, who had true influence in this room. Silent to this moment he stood up and roared, like a furious Nicodemus at his Pharisees.
'That is ENOUGH!'
For one another they would yell, despite that they supported their ideas. But for him there was silence. The mighty voice of Gregory McKenna had thundered.
Now he spoke calmly.
'Once this idea is so well presented and out there it will not go away. Now I feel for all of you, but do not try and justify this with some system of efficiency or programmes of development or anything else that comes to your mind. You are afraid.' He paused for a second. 'Hell, even I am! And I am a hundred and forty. I imagine what it should be like for you muts.' There came no response. Those who were looking down lifted their heads. Audrey was relieved to see Chloe, the smooth-skinned mother of the three women from transgenic lab, also keep her wits about her throughout the discussion.
'But we can do nothing to stop it!' McKenna's voice continued as if reciting from the pulpit. 'And it will happen! But for once, I will agree with the lot of you,' he pointed at some of them energetically. 'It is happening too quickly and too abruptly. And we will have to do something
about it. And I warn you. If you do not start thinking about what comes next, you may find yourselves in a very unpleasant situation. Perhaps in the span of your life times, too! It is not easy to estimate what turn the world will take. But I say, let us not turn it today!!'
And that was the agreed status quo.
A network of superconducting capacitors and resonators would be printed and housed in a single unit, attached to a body capable of maintaining a precise geosynchronous orbit at LEO height above the ground. An electromagnetic flux of electrons would be fed into the contraption using a satellite system. The flux would be trapped in the network, circulating inside it until it undergoes population inversion and transforms into a stream of photons. Regenerative amplification process would emit the photon ray as a short pulsed, nanosecond long, near infra-red laser beam of death four hundred TW of power. Invisible to humans it would deliver the sentence unequivocally and with exactitude. No more than half a cup of gasoline worth of energy would be spend and there would be no other casualties as long as the man was caught in the open. It was the scientists' clause. A space lab for insured profit seemed to be the deal.
An unsolicited image of gore and red spills, covering the room, emerged in her mind. It sickened her tremendously and she scampered around her office to find a dish; she threw up, little of it landing in the container. Heaving, pale and shacking, Audrey rested in her chair. What a nightmarish vision! She was revising details for simulations of the hellish contraptions they were about to unleash, when calculations happened all too quickly and re-emerged visually in her head. No, of course she knew there would not be any ... body parts loosely thrown up around as her unruly mind depicted it. But the unexpected and violent image had formed too suddenly. 'When did you become such a wimp,' she thought. Almost instinctively she reached for one of the small pill boxes on her belt.
' - perhaps there is a reason after all.'
Hands still trembling, she started wiping off the mess.
Everybody else was invisible to Audrey today. They were hurried and stressed with the big project; people darting up and down the alleyways, waving papers and shouting, and she in her haste appeared just as normal in the crowd. Nobody really paid any attention to her. It would be another day or two before everything settled back into the usual pace.
'No home brew today, girl!' Audrey promised herself.
Closing the round shutter behind her, the chatter from the station comm muffled.
It was night on the ground but the batteries would make it through the morning. She powered the equipment and loaded the signal into the wide three dimensional screen interface. The original projection was a web of violet, incomprehensible and looking like a cloud with saturated bands of purple breaking the mono-chromaticity. She integrated the distance detection algorithms from the satellites and the cloud disappeared, leaving only lines and dots from items, shuffled in all directions. She rotated the whole projection around and looked at it from several angles. She could almost work out random objects. The most obvious thing was the ground - defined by those units which fell with their emission units down. She superimposed the pre-mapped details of the global network and synchronized it with the image from her satellite grid. The visual context of the ground made it much easier to determine the forms of walls and items. She tasked the ANN (artificial neural network) to start simulating scenarios for the environment. In the mean time she started drawing on the projection, connecting straight lines and fed the information into the processing unit to narrow the range of possible outcomes. Running out of obvious choices she loaded an old satellite picture form the time civilization still existed on the spot. Some of the buildings did not match. Others of the rectangles, however, laid perfectly on each other and enhanced the projection.
Audrey selected one of the simulated projections and went on working out details - broken windows; long abandoned and smashed vehicles; destroyed walls; rubble; a trodden dust path.
She was looking at the abandoned and ruined, fifteen or so small buildings in a village in old Nebraska. Other areas of large interest had gotten burned to a crisp and the heritage was an overload of Sieverts (Sv) for decades. But here, she was hoping there would be survivors. Audrey could already pick up movement. But to define the outline of the object she would need to spend another tireless day. It was two o'clock in the morning and the day had went on without rest or food, but most importantly - without drugs. She blacked out in her office.
The following morning she set a different pace for the day and started by having an enormous plate of food, together with a generous cup of coffee and a lot of water. Audrey was in a good mood and took a long shower, ignoring the outside messages completely. She could pull another day under the radar. Today was the big day, when their labour was coming to fruition and they would lay the verdict of a ruling class upon a man they barely knew.
Walking down the corridors her face was blank and her gestures to the colleagues impersonal. Everything she wanted lay behind the shutter of her office.
Audrey loaded the overnight recording onto the final product she had constructed yesterday. There were shadows cast, obstructing the laser projections. Quickly working out which of the objects were just rubble and tumbles dragged by the wind she was left with one larger shade. It was moving with deliberation, stopping here and there. She made several thin cross sections from different angles by recording obstructions to individual units and piled them up in the ANN. Legs, body and head soon formed in a general outline. It looked like a robust mannequin. She superimposed the model over the recording and gradually worked out more details by looking into the inconsistencies, and moved on to things like clothes and items. Having expanded on her experience from yesterday progress was quick. It was definitely a man; although the face was featureless there were the thick jaw, short hair and burly neck. The forearms and palms
were accentuated. His left shoulder was wrapped in some sort of massive material. He appeared heavily dressed, as if armoured.
Continuing on with the recordings she observed the man skulk around the ruins; searching, digging and packing items she could guess little of into a bag or a sack. Sometimes he would come to one of the units, examine it and throw it away. He was a scavenger of sorts, a survivor perhaps. At certain points she would stop to improve the details of her projection or work out a few more specifics on his body. But all in all everything fit.
When she was happy with his built she let him roam for a bit, playing and replaying short sections of the recordings from different angles. The man settled down on a pile of rubble to eat and drink.
Shortly after that, there appeared another large shadow from the edge of the village. It was moving slowly and advanced to where the man was. This one had resemblance with the shade of the man before details were worked, so she just copied the man's image and positioned it over the second shadow, running the recordings again. It took several tries to work out the inconsistencies with the streamed data. It appeared to be a smaller, leaner figure. Definite feminine aspects; cowboy hat, graceful movements like a cat, thinner limbs; wearing some kind of protective guard over her gangly shoulders. Further details would be too much assumption so she went on with the record.
She saw the woman crouching behind rubble and walls, until there was a direct line of sight on the man. He was not looking at her, but was busy tinkering something. She went back to the road around the corner and started digging, cautiously and slowly depositing soil on her side. After that she took out and placed a small item in the hole, that Audrey could not identify and layered the dirt back on top. The woman finished with a few sweeping motions over the ground and walked further down the road where she stopped, turning around. There was no hint of secrecy any more. At this point the man abruptly stopped his activity and turned his face in the general direction of the woman. She was obviously waiting on the path and it was the man who seemed cautious now. He left the object and slowly exited his hideout. Walking around the corner he stopped when he spotted the woman. She extended arms forward in a gesture signalling 'stop' and vigorously repeated it before lifting them over her head. The man relaxed his cautious posture and stood for a while. Perhaps they were talking in the minute or so it took before he lunged forward with surprising speed. Instantly he found himself over the spot where the woman had dug. His body was then thrown back; there was a momentous disturbance from the signal around and some of the bots close by blanked out. He seemed shocked, his legs were not moving and his head lifted slowly; one arm reaching around sluggishly. As soon as the man was on the ground the woman ran to him and motioned, as if taking something out from her behind. She stretched hand, pointed at the head of the man and a moment later he was not moving anymore; his body had made one last abrupt spasm and settled down, now completely motionless. The woman hesitated for a bit and started searching the body.
Audrey did not notice her jaw had dropped.
'It looks like a small explosion to me, Audrey,' J.J was replaying the sequence over and over again. 'I think your unknown ranger down there shot him here.' He pointed at the image of the woman, extending arm over the lying man.
'Did she really now...?' Audrey's eyes were wide open.
'Just think about it. It's harsh down there. There is more to her, though. Look here. It is as if she is gesturing him to stop. Don't go any further, she says. Maybe she wants to talk or something. I don't know. And here! She is just standing there, obviously not causing harm but he is the one who runs at her. He jumps her, Audrey. She was obviously prepared for that too, though.'
'With this... mine?'
'Yeah. It seems the woman is quite resourceful!'
The next several days saw a change of pace. In the aftermath of the execution, the media was blazing all over and the internet was full with emotions ranging from angry broadcasts to analytical reviews, explaining that perhaps it was all for the greater good. The neutralization of Phan Yeung was everywhere. Righteous vows, memorials, programmes launched by the hour, mass quitting of jobs, virtual social spaces full of woe and repent. An earthquake of tremendous magnitude was shaking society. But all that seemed distant to Audrey. She had just exited her private place of magic to find an erratic and neurotic world full of reports and short notices. In mere two days the Institute had grown capricious. She had a new supervisor who was pressing hard for coverage over the internet and she was sure he had a boss who was equally stressed out. They had to insure the survival of the Academy and despite the lack of any suspicion linked to them, they had to work to influence the tide of opinions, and help those who would drag the prevailing system further.
She was not performing well. It was not the science she was used to; she knew of the disgusting deed and she had just spent the two most exciting days in her recent years. The boxes of pills were sitting on her desk and she no longer wanted to have anything to do with them. Her mind was wavering; she was thinking about the ranger down there. She wanted to play with her map. Her supervisor god mad at a point and Audrey refused to react at all. She did not defend herself, make an appeal, get scared or promise to work harder. She knew she was sub-standard, but there was not a single thing to give her the incentive to try and execute the task. It was not even giving up. She felt like a fraudulent and it was clear she would lose the position soon.
'You have to help me!' Audrey was not bulging at the slightest from her plea.
'Hon, you will lose everything you have worked for all this time!' Chloe's voice was stern, like of a mother admonishing her child.
'I have already lost it, Chloe! There is nothing else I want from this place.'
J.J. was sitting beside them, gaze locked on the table. He was leaning on his hand and his face looked tired. Blue semi circles were drawn beneath his eyes.
'It has been hell all over this last week. You, her, me,' he pointed at each individually. 'But this will pass. It is going to be OK, you know? Are you sure you want to leave at all?'
'I am! I want to! And because of their stupid games I have to suffer. Shitty cowards!'
Chloe's eyebrows locked in a steep angle, her green eyes unblinking. She was silent for a moment, looking at Audrey.
'I have not seen lil' Hon there like that since my budding years,' she glanced at J. 'So what'll be, Ace? You in?'
J. slowly raised his head, looking lost in thought. He stretched his hands and yawned before saying, 'The evacuation pods. If we set you up, you will be able to descend. But you will have to bear full responsibility for that. They will have to find information on you reprogramming the protocols so the rest of us are good up here. You understand? It has to look like you did it yourself.'
'- and no coming back. They wouldn't like it,' J. added.
Crossing his hand, J. leaned back on his seat and glared at the table again.
'I can slip in some algorithms in your cloud while doing the coding for the Academy. You will have to cover the trails yourself. I'll show you how. The final piece will be a program that will restrict one of the pods to your I.D. Full authorisation,' he pointed at the card, attached to her uniform. 'There will be no track in the archives, and no response from surveillance. If somebody does not see you leave with their own two eyes they will need time to figure you're gone. Where do you want to go, by the way?'
Chloe's expression changed to surprise, her features softening and looking girlish. 'You've always been a dreamer, Hon.'
'Just remember,' J. added. 'Calculate the exact position and simulate descend. You will figure what is the best time to leave.'
Audrey's mouth curved in a smile.
'Thank you.' She uttered.
The blue LiDAR matrix swiftly passed across the ID card, reading the abrasive intaglio printing and the small shutter door surfaced out from the metal, hiss of pressurisation shortly filling the cargo bay. The emergency pod was shaped like an egg with sparse interior consisting of five large seats arranged in a circle. The rest of the capsules were spread in every direction, metal platforms encompassing them like a web. The place was eerily silent.
Audrey sat and a safety frame descended from above, strapping her securely. A holo screen visualised, bathing the small space in blue.
'Commander Audrey Atkinson.' A methodical static voice filled the cabin. 'Pod one five seven is ready for descent and atmospheric entrance.' It was making short pauses after each word. 'Please check secured coordinates and wait until system carries out stability check. Danger level on deck - none. Full mechanical inspection is under way.' That was getting her nervous. She was already sweaty and pale and now this machine wanted to have an afternoon tea in the middle of the most important thing in her life. She stomped angrily on whatever part of the seat she could kick.
'Work! You junk!'
"Security Protocol Violation" sign flashed in a corner of the screen.
'Stress behaviour is not recommended for your own safety.' The metallic voice reverberated. A mask dropped in front of Audrey's head. 'Commander, we advise that at least one passenger remain conscious on board. Please consult with board flight rules.'
The metal door started to slide back and Audrey felt obtuse. But her flight sickness was kicking in as well and she had left her medical apothecary in her office. For good.
'One last time,' she thought, while putting the mask on.
Taking in deep breaths, she was tapping on the screen. Her fingers became numb and when the voice finally announced 'Eject!' it rang distant. She drifted away, "Life Support Engaged" blinking on the screen.
A foggy, dimmed light filled the cabin of the pod from the open hatch. The featureless environment slowly took shape. The screen flickered in and out of projection with "Landing Complete" sign. She unfastened and tried walking, sliding on the tilted surface. Creeping out of the pod on all four, grabbing the edge with two hands she finally gazed at the outside. The pod was leaning, half buried in the sandy soil. The ground around the landing was charred and black. There was no noise safe for the wind sweeping across the arid flat land, sparsely dotted with growth. She stepped on the hard ground with a crackling noise and looked around. The ruins of the village were there and a figure, sat on a stone. Audrey hurried in that direction. She could see the cowboy hat; as she got closer more details became clear. Sliced tires strapped around the shoulders of the woman with chains criss-crossing her torso. Old leather covered the skin on her body, kept in place by straps and the she wore a pair of dusty aged boots.
'Hold it right o'er there, partner!' Her voice seemed exceptionally loud, considering her lean frame. Audrey stood firm in place. She awkwardly raised her hands above her head, not sure what to say.
The woman lifted her head, covered in dirt under the hat. Her bleached blond hair was ashen but her eyes were sharp, pale blue; almost the colour of polished steel. She was slowly sliding a piece of metal, resembling an edge on a stone.
'Have you come to fight?' She pulled out a hand gun and placed it in her lap. It seemed kept together by bend strips of metal - incredibly makeshift.
'No.' Audrey had nothing else with her except her station uniform. That seemed to convince the barren lander somehow.
'Where yer' from, partner?'
Audrey glanced at the blue sky and pointed at the pale thin crescent of the moon.
The woman smiled, revealing surprisingly white teeth. 'Yee Haw! Comin' down 'ere in your fancy tin can?!'. She began laughing, 'You look'd like yer' bein' cradled by your momma, there. HA! Sleepin' like a baby for a day. Dontcha know these are dangerous parts, partner?'
'Yes, I do,' Audrey's answer came sharp and quick. 'But I am going to live here.'
'Dunno 'bout that.' The woman stood up. 'But I better show you to the rest. Maybe yo'll gonna share an interesting story or somethin'?'
She was still gripping the gun, not pointing it at Audrey, though.
'Keep walkin' in front o' me dear. No sudden moves now.'