It wasn't as difficult as she'd thought it would be. Nothing in comparison to the journey through Purge.
Valerie had known she was in trouble as soon as the current snatched her away. The Peacekeeper was old, still a powerful machine, but it could not fight the tremendous surging current. Instead, Valerie had focused all her mental faculties on bolstering and reinforcing the Peacekeeper’s hull. She knew how to make an aerodynamic body in seconds. Hydrodynamics were little different.
She'd been tossed around and despite her efforts safe passage through the vortex would largely be down to luck. It seemed luck had been on her side. She'd made it through the Purge, rattled and shaking. The Peacekeeper had been sending her multiple mental alarms, many of the systems begging for attention. But it was functional and she’d come through unharmed.
No, in comparison to traversing the Purge, following the Leviathan had not been difficult at all.
"So this is where you’ve been hiding, Jason."
The cleft in the rock face wasn't large, not in comparison to the cliffs and rock formations about. And it was well hidden. Between the raging waters outside and the shadows cast by towering cliffs, it could be easily missed if you didn't know what you were looking for. Or if you hadn't watched a massive, uncatchable ship disappear inside it.
"All those years, that's where you were," Valerie shook her head. She'd referenced her maps. She knew where she was. A decade ago, she'd lost the same ship in this area. But then she had been desperate; her chase had been aggressive. They knew they were being followed. She’d made certain they had not sensed her presence today, and it had paid off.
Valerie glanced down to catch herself rubbing at the back of her right hand. It wasn't really her hand; it was a prosthetic. Virtually indistinguishable from real flesh, but Valerie could tell the difference. Sometimes she could still feel Jason's knife cutting through her tendons, severing her hand. He'd been removing her Control chip. He should have killed her and she still didn’t understand why he hadn’t. Instead he'd simply ruined everything for her. The loss of her hand simply served as a constant reminder.
It took all her willpower not to take the Peacekeeper straight in there now and do as much damage as she could. That would have been foolish, especially with the Peacekeeper in its current state. Even if she could do some damage she was but one Controller. Despite her skill, Jason probably had a number of Controllers in their hideout. It wouldn't take them long to hijack a single Peacekeeper.
Instead she marked the location on both her Peacekeeper's internal map, and in her memory. And then she turned her Peacekeeper around and headed back towards her old stomping ground. She had been given orders to follow Jason Gray. She’d done that. And now she needed back up.
Backup wasn't difficult to find.
Valerie weaved her Peacekeeper through the towering spires of rock, following her sensors. Some of the territory was familiar. Some not. Even in ten short years the waters had eroded and changed some of the rocky surfaces.
She was beginning to grow weary. The long hours cautiously following the Leviathan, staying just out of their arcane sensors range, especially after the intense concentration it had taken to operate her Peacekeeper through the Purge, was taking its toll.
Then something showed on her sensors. Seconds later, a gleaming white hull shifted into view.
"Unidentified vessel, you have entered Galilee territory. Identify yourself."
"Unidentified?" Valerie growled to herself. "I'm in a bloody Peacekeeper." She activated her communications systems. "This is Valerie Chase. I can provide identification. I'm powering down weapons systems." Even as she spoke, she did this with her mind.
There was a long pause. Valerie was just beginning to grow nervous, when her comms activated again.
"Valerie Chase? I haven't heard that name in a long, long time. You're a bit of a legend."
A legend?! She'd lost her job! Been sent to the City! Valerie felt herself bristle. "Really?" she growled.
The other Controller must have heard the tenseness of her voice. "No, I mean it. I know the System had you sent away, after everything that happened with Jason Gray. But hell, you came the closest of anyone to ever chasing him down. Nearly killed yourself doing it too." He let out a low whistle. "The name's Jeffery, and quite frankly I think you should never have been sent away. So what are you doing here anyway?"
Valerie quickly explained her mission. So, she wasn't to be judged for past failures. Not by this young man at the least, however much that was worth. "The System told me to chase Jason Gray," she finished, "so that's what I've been doing."
"Ha," said Jeffery. "Full circle then. Any luck?"
It didn't sound as if he expected a positive answer and Valerie found herself smiling as she replied. "Actually, yes."
Horatio had never liked Julien from the moment he met him. It wasn't the man's gait or his always slick short black hair, or the way his lip curled when he carried out some particularly cruel punishment on the workers he oversaw, although this did contribute to the general dislike he held. It was more to do with the way the man, barely twenty-seven, seemed to think he knew everything.
"Yes, but you're sure these will solve all our problems, Horatio? Our Controllers are already well apt at keeping the resistance at bay. We haven't had any significant trouble for years."
Horatio forced a smile. "It does pay to be prepared you know."
Julien continued as if he had not even heard him. "And it's not a direct order from the System - I certainly haven't received notification of it. I know you get a bit of lee-way with your work to come up with functional ideas, but it does pay to be careful."
Then there was his habit of referring to the System as if he had some sort of direct line. Horatio scowled. Orders from the System were notoriously slow in reaching below. The man probably received orders slower than even him. Not that Horatio held most of those orders in high regard.
"The new Peacekeepers are specifically designed to be inoperable to all but their own Controllers..."
"You've explained this to me already, Horatio," Julien said with a sigh. "The protection system you've installed. There are machines with this already. It’s hardly new technology.“
He could remember everything Horatio had told him? Great. He just didn't seem to be able to understand it. "Protection systems are large and bulky, Julien. That's why you only have them on your mining machines."
"Protection bracelets only protect nanites," said Horatio, not skipping a beat. “Nanites are tiny. In comparison to them, their protection equipment is huge. The protection in these Peacekeepers isn’t.” Horatio gestured behind him to the two white metal beasts sitting on the rooftop behind them. Two bi-pedal machines, three meters tall, gleaming white in the fading light.
There were discussing Horatio's latest project on the rooftop of Galilee's main control tower. Perched on the edge of the massive coal field, the cluster of smooth grey buildings were dwarfed by the immensity of the mining machines they oversaw. Though perhaps the closest was more than a kilometre away, beyond the closely packed and dirty mud huts making up the workers accommodation, those machines still towered over the landscape.
Like alien crabs picking the seashore for food they crawled in slow motion over the pitted plateau that was their home. Their intakes scoured the surface, digging deep and extracting the rich ore, pulling it up into their bodies to await collection.
Even these were dwarfed by the landscape. The Galilee coal field stretched out from the control tower as far as the eye could see. Pitted and shrouded in red dust. It was said it could keep the City and its factories, as well as the supporting infrastructure below, supplied for nearly two centuries. But Horatio had seen the figures. He considered that estimate fanciful at best.
"I understand how the protection works. I don't see it's value," Julien said, folding his arms.
But Horatio knew how this man's mind worked. "It'll help keep the workers under control, you know. Every bit more difficult you make it for them to rebel, or put their hope in the resistance, the more they'll be motivated to do their jobs properly."
Julien eyed him from under a raised eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," said Horatio, forcing himself to smile. The man really was a bastard.
"Perhaps,” Julien mused.
The buzz of approaching Peacekeepers cut the air around them. Both men looked up.
"That must be Jeffery returning now," said Julien. "Alright, Horatio. I'll see what his report is - how much damage he was able to do at the test site and whether any Controllers were able to interfere."
Test site? Horatio felt his lip curl. Then he frowned. "Is that one of your older models?"
Trailing behind the third new model Peacekeeper Horatio was trying to convince Julien to accept, was another Peacekeeper. It's hull was the tell-tale white, but it had lost some of the crisp clean sheen that characterised the machines. So the nanites in its NIAsteel hull were struggling to maintain its integrity.
But both Peacekeepers imitated the same flight design. This consisted of a cockpit able to fit one. White metal wings sept outwards and back. In the centre of each wing was a single horizontal rotor. The rest of the machine's body swept back, tapering almost to a point, where another vertical rotor resided.
The second Peacekeeper, though obviously older than Horatio's new design, near perfectly matched Jeffery's newly acquired version. The Peacekeepers came programmed with a number of designs that they could morph into at the whim of their Controller. Horatio had added to these over the years. But as well as this function a skilled Controller could alter the exterior to their own liking, as well as the sub components, though to a lesser extent. Sometimes this didn't turn out so well; not unless the Controller had some understanding of mechanics or aerodynamics. Most just left that function alone, or simply added pointless flares or fins to the bodywork for their own amusement.
Yet though old, this Peacekeeper still displayed a great deal of skill in its modified flight design. So much so that Horatio had trouble picking exactly what year it had been made.
Horatio and Julien stepped back to the edge of the roof, allowing both Peacekeepers to land next to the two already standing tall on the rooftop.
The cockpit on the newest Peacekeeper hissed open, and Jeffery stepped down. From its battered twin stepped Valerie Chase. Horatio drew in a breath. Gods, he hadn't seen her in almost twenty years.
Valerie looked haggard. She had dark circles under her eyes. Jeffery walked over and offered her an arm, but she waved it off.
"Jeffery," said Julien casually. "You bringing home stray dogs now?"
"Stray dogs?" Jeffery frowned. "Julien, this is Valerie Chase. She's one of the best Controllers that ever..."
Julien raised an eyebrow. "Valerie Chase? Yes, I do know that name. If I recall she caused all that trouble a decade ago. Nearly had Jason Gray, but then let him get away. Let him do a heck of a lot of damage to this mine and our Peacekeeper force, if I remember correctly."
"Yes, but..." Jeffery protested.
"How do you even know it's her?" Julien pressed. "You've worked for me for less than two years. And I can send you back to the mine if you muck up, just remember that."
Valerie stepped forward, holding up her wrist. "I have identification," she said. "And orders from the System. I'm sure that you can verify them."
"Yes, but there's the lag..." Julien began.
Horatio had had enough of the man. He was a bully. But he couldn’t bully Horatio; he didn’t have the authority. "There's no need for that," he said stepping forward.
Julien fixed him with a glare. Didn't like being interrupted himself, did he?
Valerie finally noticed him. She frowned. "Horatio? What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same thing." Horatio spared a glance at Julien's scowl. "And I think that explanation might also be the more pertinent one."
Valerie drew in a breath and nodded. "I'm here to track Jason Gray."
"Even though you failed the first time? Well, better late than never, I suppose," muttered Julien.
Valerie's eyes narrowed. "And I've found him."
Julien blinked "Excuse me?"
"His hideout. I found him. I followed the Leviathan."
"I don't believe you," said Julien. "No one can catch that ship. Believe me, we've tried. "
"Maybe not. But I can track it. I've tried this before, remember? I have a fairly good idea of her sensor capabilities."
"It's true," said Jeffery, stepping forward. “She told me on the way over. And I've tested out my Peacekeeper - the modification you installed worked perfectly, Horatio. And I doubt the resistance is aware of the new capabilities. If we attack their Refuge now, they won't be prepared."
Horatio doubted they'd be prepared at all. As far as he knew, no one had attacked or even found their hideout. At least, none that had lived to tell the tale. Objectively speaking, it would be a perfect test.
A grin had broken out on Julien's face. "Yes, I think you may be right, Jeffery. We can attack their Refuge. They won't know what hit them! It'll be both a perfect test and an opportunity to wipe out much of the resistance. We'll be killing two birds with one stone."
Horatio glanced at Valerie. She too wore a smile, though it was faint. Julien would gain sheer amusement from the attack. Valerie would likely gain little enjoyment, but that didn't mean it wasn't something she needed to do. He could forgive Valerie, she had reason enough to despise Jason Gray. And there was no doubt in Horatio's mind an attack was the logical option. Julien's eagerness just grated on him.
"Yes, that's what we'll do," Julien continued, "you can take two of the new Peacekeepers..."
"I'd like to be in on this too," Valerie growled.
"What in that?" Julien frowned in disgust at the outdated and badly damaged Peacekeeper.
"No," said Jeffery. "Let her take one of the new Peacekeepers. She'll do fine."
“You going to vouch for her then?”
Jeffery hesitated only briefly. “Yes.”
"Alright," said Julien. “But if anything goes wrong it’s on your head. And only after we check her credentials, or course."
"And we really should take all of them, we have no idea what we'll be..."
"Don't push it, Jeffery," Julien snapped. "You know I need one of the new Peacekeepers myself."
The younger man fell silent.
"Come in then, Valerie Chase," said Julien, sweeping his arm towards the rooftop entrance to the rest of the building. "You look like you could use a rest and Jeffery will need time to prepare his plan of attack."
"And you need to wait for my credential check to come through," said Valerie. Though exhausted, she was still sharp as ever.
As the four of them entered the building, Valerie moved to Horatio's side. Through the crisp clean white corridors, so in contrast to the outer walls and lower buildings that were covered in a thick red dust, for a few moments they simply strode beside each other in silence.
"I didn't expect to see you here again," Horatio finally said. "I knew you were somewhere in the City, but I never had a chance to look for you when I was there."
"I was a Retrencher. It wasn't a job where it was desirable to be largely visible."
"Ahh." Talk of the City had dragged Horatio's mind back. He thought of his children. But they were safe in the City; and they were old enough to look out for themselves now. That didn't mean he still didn't miss them. He shook his head. Sentimental. "And now you're here chasing Jason Gray again."
"I doubt he's pleased to see me either," Valerie said with a low growl. Horatio didn't miss the way her left hand moved to her right, stroking the back of it sub-conciously.
"And why would he be? You fused the woman he loved into a machine."
Valerie looked at him sharply. "You... you knew?" she said nervously.
"I don't know which machine, if that's what you mean," Horatio looked at the floor. "And I don't blame you for it either. I simply don't care."
Valerie nodded slowly. "There's something I do need to tell you though. About why I came down here."
"When Jason came to the City he took a young girl. It was her I was supposed to track down, at least initially. I think he's taken her to Refuge."
"And?" Horatio frowned.
"Rebecca Forsythe. Your daughter."
Horatio stopped in his tracks and Valerie halted beside him. "What... Bec's here?"
"Yes. With the resistance."
"Son of a..."
"I don't think Jason took her unwillingly. He gave her a Control. She's a Controller, Horatio. She's actually quite good. At least for a beginner."
Despite the pounding of his heart, Horatio smiled faintly. "That doesn't surprise me."
"She's good, not exceptional though, which is why I'm not sure exactly what Jason has in mind for her. I just thought you should know."
Horatio thought he may have had an inkling what Jason's plan was. But he wasn't sure, for it would have been foolhardy at best. And he certainly wasn't prepared to share it with Valerie.
"Horatio, we plan to attack Refuge. If your daughter is there... But I doubt Julien is going to back down," she paused for a moment. "And neither will I. Jason has a lot to answer for."
Horatio had always admired Valerie's directness. And she had chosen to let him know about his daughter’s involvement. She wouldn’t have done that if she planned to wipe her out with the rest of the resistance. The gesture had to mean something. He would have to trust her. “Yes, of course. But do whatever you can to keep her out of the fighting, Valerie. Please."
Valerie slowly nodded. "That I can... I'll try."