(Another piece of Charlie Duke flash fiction!)
The light crept over the ridge that separated the Colonials’ vacated encampment from the land that the Regulators patrolled. Ten kilometers beyond the ridge, domed lights burned yellow and red in a half-circle around the landing area for the Regulator transports. Less than a dozen of the lower-ranking Regulators walked the perimeter, armed yet inattentive. They talked in pairs, their backs to the fence. The low hum of the electrical charge that surged through the coils of wire atop the fence provided false reassurance that nothing could happen to them, not with the Colonials’ recent departure.
Charlie counted ten guards walking the perimeter. Although the posts of the fence went deep into the ground, the mesh barely touched the dry earth. She had scraped out a pocket of dirt since the last patrol had bothered to pass. Charlie flattened herself against the ground and crawled into the rut. Rain didn’t happen in Fortune’s Turn, and it didn’t seem like the Regulators cared enough to put in any kind of irrigation system to keep what was left of the soil from blowing off the rock. She came up on the other side of the fence covered in rust-colored dirt, but it didn’t cling. She adjusted the cloth over her mouth and nose before pulling the small leather satchel through the rut and slinging it over her shoulder.
The most recent transport from the Regulators had taken the Colonials allied with Andy to another station; only a few of them had refused the trip. Charlie had not seen Rhikki at all. She doubted that the young woman would go willingly with the Regulators, especially given what little she had heard about her time in their training camps. At the same time, Charlie wished that she had at least had the chance to say good-bye.
The lights on the landing pad flashed three times and flared red, then flashed three times and flared white. The patrols stopped and glanced up as a small cargo ship bearing an ornate crest on the underbelly came through the thin clouds to hover over the pad. A group rushed out from one of the warehouses in time for a second much larger craft to come through the clouds. The thrum of the engines made Charlie’s teeth vibrate, but she pressed herself to the ground and moved toward the first warehouse and away from the landing pad.
Five years with the Colonials had given Charlie plenty of time to plan exactly what she would do to the Pavori when the time came for a bit of revenge. She had learned enough about explosives in studying the mining protocols for the Colonies. Big had led some of the missions to sabotage the smaller vehicles used in the phosphera mines; those devices were meant to disable, but a few tweaks made them able to detonate just as well. The bricks of explosive, wires, and casing rested secure against her back as Charlie crawled to the first door.
She tried the handle; locks weren’t necessary when the Pavori held a stranglehold on security. Charlie slipped inside and found the reinforced door to the storage container for the phosphera ore. She laid the charge at the hinges of the door and puttied a small nitrous oxide ampule to the charge. The gas would exacerbate the decay of the phosphera ore, spreading the particles in a short period of time. Those who had some measure of immunity to phosphera would have a few minutes to put on their filtration masks before the fine particulate caused their lungs to swell and the mucous membranes to rupture. Those who didn’t would find themselves gagging on their own bloodied phlegm in less than two minutes.
Charlie exited the warehouse, the charges set with enough time for her to finish her task and return to the camp. She crept toward the smaller of the two transports, another brick of explosive and wiring in her hands. If she placed it properly, she could kill a small bird and a fat bird with one shot. The patrolling Regulators gathered around an imposing man with broad shoulders and thick gray hair tinged with red dust. He wore a heavy coat and kept one large hand on the shoulder of a young woman. She had long black hair and a pretty smile, but she regarded the Regulators with an air of disdain.
“When did the last Colonial transport leave?” The broad-shouldered man addressed the leader of the group. He spoke with a rough and heavy accent, spitting his p’s and t’s while rolling the r’s deep in his throat. “There was only to be one today?”
“Yes, Master Pavori. The transport departed at oh-seven-hundred hours Colony time.” The leader rolled his shoulders back and offered a satisfied smirk with his report. “Our records indicate that our patrols intercepted the transport as soon as it entered orbital space. We detained all passengers on a ship bound for the penal colony near Porthendricks.”
“All passengers?” The man addressed as Master Pavori did not share the Regulator’s air of satisfaction. “You detained the leader of the colony?”
“No. Per your orders, he was taken from the group and executed. They have the body in cryostorage on the ship, pending your inspection.” He offered the man a palm-sized tablet. “This is the list of individuals who may know more about other Colonial locations and operations, in case you want our teams to conduct additional interrogations.”
Master Pavori did not accept the tablet. “Do with them as you wish. One death will be sufficient for a handful of truths, but there is little to be learned from a disconnected group of thugs and malcontents.” He stroked the younger woman’s hair with the back of his hand. “Feel free to do with their encampment here as you wish. Consider it a gift to the Outer Colony Regulators for the establishment of a permanent outpost here.”
The leader of the Regulator contingent offered a few hurried phrases of thanks as Master Pavori took the younger woman by the shoulder and led them away from the transport. Charlie trembled with fury in the shadow of the smaller craft, her knuckles white about the explosive package. As much as she wanted to set the charge and lie in wait for them to return so she could watch, Charlie had to know more. If the Regulators had captured others, then she knew there would be a way to rescue them.
Charlie replaced the brick of explosives and wires in her knapsack and sat back on her heels. Tears burned her eyes and she rubbed them away with the heel of her hand. She had to follow the group to figure out a way to stow away on the next Regulator transport. Stealing one of the smaller shuttles would draw too much attention, and Charlie didn’t know enough about the proximity of Fortune’s Turn to other orbitals and colonies to trust that she would have anywhere to go once she broke through the atmosphere. The closest craft would likely be owned by the Regulators or the Pavori; given the exchange she had witnessed, she didn’t think that either would be sympathetic to her late departure.
A small detachment of Regulators returned to their survey of the perimeter. Charlie hurried back into the shadow of the smaller transport, her back pressed against one of the enormous legs that served as landing gear. She counted five of them; her hand went to the revolver at her side. Her aim was good enough to take them all down and have one left over, but a shred of common sense reminded Charlie that leaving bodies behind would guarantee a search of the area as well as a thorough search of both craft. Shooting would be a last resort, but one she could manage if the situation demanded.
The detachment of Regulators carried a reinforced box. The rear of the smaller craft lowered, revealing a cargo bay with a few crates and containers. Charlie crouched down as they passed, straining to hear their grumbled conversation.
“I’m not volunteering as an escort for the girl. Rather put in another Colonial cycle on this rock than accompany Pavori’s daughter on one of her ‘surveys’ of her family holdings.” The speaker pointed to a stack of similar containers next to a ladder. “Put it there. Make sure to secure the locks.”
“How many reserve cores does one ship need,” another grunted as he struggled to lift the box. “Phosphera cores last twenty cycles with proper cleaning and line maintenance on a ship twice this size.”
“You want to tell Master Pavori that you don’t approve of his stores, be my guest.” The first speaker pressed his thumb to a wall panel and pulled it away when answered with a pair of chirps. “I’m just saying that I’ll haul a crate, but not his spoiled brat. I’ve heard she’s worse than he is.”
“I heard she was the one who told him to get rid of Andrews. Said that he needed to send a message.” A third Regulator tugged on his jacket nervously. “You really think it’s a good thing to not do?”
Charlie listened as they argued and gossiped; from what she could gather, the lower-ranking Regulators didn’t want much to do with Pavori or his family. If she could provide some means of distraction, Charlie could get them off the craft and give herself some time to hide. She reached into her leather satchel and withdrew one of the bricks. The shortest amount of time she could set would give her the chance to reposition herself so that when they left the cargo bay, she would be able to slip inside before the doors closed. With a curse and a prayer for one last bit of Fortune to guide her, Charlie pressed the right combination of buttons to give herself thirty seconds before flinging the brick in the direction of the warehouse.
Twenty. Charlie held her breath, her hands shaking as she counted down. When she got to three, a sharp crack cut through the air and the sound of metal tearing made her hair stand on end. The Regulators inside the smaller craft raced out, the leader barking orders while two others raced ahead to the warehouse. Charlie whipped around the landing gear, her ears ringing. She scrambled up the ramp and threw herself behind one of the cargo containers in time for one of the crew to slam a hand against the emergency stop and close the cargo bay door. She tucked herself into a ball, one hand on the revolver and the other mashing the cowboy hat flat against her head.
“What happened out there?” A woman’s voice cut through the space. “Doyle, what was that noise? What did you do to the ship?”
The crewman with his hand on the orange button shook his head. “I didn’t do nothing, Captain. Something out there crackled and ripped itself apart. Those other fools went running toward the noise, and I figured…”
“You figured that you’d lock down the ship to keep us safe?” The captain appeared in the entry between the cargo hold and the rest of the ship. “Or something like that?”
“You heard the stories. Colonials blowing these places to hell and back, not caring how many bodies they leave behind. That’s the price for working with the Pavori, never knowing if you’ll live from one port to the next.” He motioned to the new cargo containers. “You think they’re going to actually pay us in phosphera?”
“No.” The captain strolled down the walkway, boots clanking on the metal lattice that served as the walkway. Charlie craned her neck back, trying to catch a glimpse of the woman. Close-cropped hair the color of an angry sunset stuck out in all directions from her head. She wore Regulator fatigues, the pants jammed into worn boots and the sleeves of the jacket hacked off at the shoulders. If she was a captain in rank as well as in reference to the ship, Charlie couldn’t see any markings on the uniform to say as much. The woman climbed down a ladder, causing Charlie to lose sight of her. The footfalls grew louder, and Charlie curled herself tighter, her knees jamming her lips against her teeth.
“What, you think we should take some of it for ourselves?” A second set of footsteps grew closer to Charlie’s position. “Stealing from the Pavori, that’s more risk than you usually take. I heard that you’re one for risks, Captain Reed, but that’s suicide.”
“You’re right. Not really how we operate, here. But, then again…” The pile of phosphera containers hiding Charlie shifted a half meter. She froze, unsure of what to do. The captain stood an arm’s length away, scowling at the unapproved cargo. “Looks like someone else likes taking risks. What do you think, Doyle?”
“Think it looks like a piece of Colonial trash.” Doyle bent down and grabbed Charlie by an elbow, hauling her up to stand. She kept one hand on her hat, a gesture that prompted laughter from both the Captain and Doyle.
“Not sure if it’s trash, but it’s definitely Colonial.” The Captain reached forward and cupped Charlie’s chin with a rough palm. “Might be prettier if she got cleaned up, though. You got a name, baby girl?”
“I’m not your baby girl, you Pavori lapdog. And there ain’t nothing wrong with being Colonial,” Charlie spat. She pushed the hand away from her face. “Better than being a piece of no-good Regulator scum.”
The Captain’s face split into a grin. “Yeah, she’s a Colonial. A pretty one, too. Always had a thing for blondes, Doyle.” She patted Charlie’s cheek and stepped back. “Especially the ones with the foul mouths. But I don’t think you snuck on board to get into my bunk, did you?”
Charlie’s face screwed up in an expression of disgust. She didn’t know whether to believe the other woman or not. The crewman roared with laughter at her horrified expression. “That’s a no, Captain. Probably a hell, no.”
“Probably. Get her bag.” Before Charlie could react, the crewman snatched the leather satchel from her and gave it to his Captain. She rifled through its meager contents before pulling out the remaining brick of explosives and wiring. Her expression hardened as she examined the device.
The crewman let out a low whistle. “Lot of work in your hand there, Captain. Don’t think she brought that on board to impress you.” He grabbed Charlie by the shoulder and gave her a rough patdown. When he got to her revolver, he paused before stepping back. “She’s got nothing but that piece. You want me to take it off her skinny little hips?”
Charlie bared her teeth, ready to fight for the six bullets in the chamber. The Captain didn’t force that fight; she waved off the crewman’s offer with a hand. “Leave it. She’d have shot the both of us from her hiding place if she’d have meant to do us harm. Go back up to the bridge and see what the word is from the other ship. Get the engines hot in case they decide to leave.”
“Captain, I —”
The crewman hurried up the ladder and through the passageway to the rest of the ship. Charlie stood eye to eye with the Captain, who regarded her with a mixture of interest and amusement. She tested the weight of the explosive device in her hand. “You carrying this for someone else, or is it your own design?”
Charlie didn’t answer. She glared at the other woman, forcing her to make a guess. Outside the ship, a warning siren wailed and people barked orders. Charlie crossed her arms over her chest and waited for the Captain to say something else. Instead, the woman stretched a hand toward her as if to take Charlie’s hat. As the fingertips neared the brim, the cowgirl snarled and slapped the hand away.
“I asked you a question, you little ranch rat. Either you answer me, or I’ll punch that door open and we can take you down to Pavori himself. He’ll have his own way of dealing with you, and it won’t be pretty or civilized.” The Captain’s threat had a hint of warmth to the words, truth in spite of her annoyance. “I’m willing to have a chat with you, so how about you answer the question.”
“How about you stop helping them steal phosphera from my family’s land,” Charlie snapped back. “Or do you just come in and clean up after they bury the bodies and send in the miners?”
The Captain passed her hand over her face. “Kid,” she began, “I work where they put me. I got three years left on this ten year post, and then I’m carving out a comfy existence hauling fish and rice between the Roche system and the Echo sector of the Colonies. No Regulators, no Pavori, and no smart-ass girls questioning what I do to get me to that point. As far as this being your family’s land —”
“Yeah, I made it,” Charlie interrupted. “There ain’t no one else to make ‘em here, because they’re either detained or dead.”
“And you figured you would come down here, blow the rest of the place sky-high, and then?” As she spoke, the Captain pulled apart the wires and casing, the gummy explosive crumbling to the floor. “Live in one of the warehouses that somehow escaped the phosphera contamination? Baby girl, I hate to tell you, but that kind of mess takes years to clean up.”
“I know. Been living it for a good long time.”
“I can tell.” The Captain disconnected the rest of the wires with a rough yank and separated the casing from the largest chunk of explosive. She dumped the components into Charlie’s leather satchel and tossed the bag at her feet. “Pick it up. How much longer do we have?”
The question didn’t make sense to Charlie at first. She ignored the bag. “How much longer for what?”
There was no humor in the Captain’s voice. “How much longer until the rest of the charges you set go off? What I just pulled apart had a board set for a maximum time of a quarter cycle, and don’t think I didn’t notice the nitrogen cartridges in the bottom of the bag. That’s a standard Colonial sabotage protocol, and I’d prefer to get my crew up and out in one piece.” Her voice took on the hard edge of one who had gone through extensive officer training, and Charlie’s bravado faltered. “How many others, and how much longer?”
“I said, I ain’t —” Charlie didn’t see the punch coming. The Captain’s fist slammed into her cut, pushing all the air from her diaphragm. A second fist connected with her mouth, splitting her lip. Charlie fell against the container, spitting blood.
“So there’s at least one. Probably soon.” She pushed Charlie against the container, holding her down by her neck and planting a knee against her spine. With her other hand, the Captain took the revolver from its holster. “Keep it up, and I’ll take that ugly hat off of your pretty head.”
“You can shoot me first!”
“Ain’t worth the bullet.” The Captain hauled Charlie up by her collar and pulled her toward another, smaller cargo container with an open end. Charlie recognized it as the sort for transporting livestock; they’d drug them for the longer journeys and keep them in these crates to minimize the animals’ stress. From the size of this one, Charlie figured it had been used for sheep or goats. From the smell, she guessed it was likely goats.
The Captain threw Charlie in the container and palmed the lock on the side. A hazy green field jumped to life. “You just sit tight. I’d get into a back corner and stay out of sight if you want this to be the worst that happens to you. If you’d like to give me any other information to make sure we get out of here in one piece, feel free. Otherwise, you can enjoy the ride.” She tucked Charlie’s revolver in the the front of her pants and zipped her jacket up to hide the evidence.
Charlie tested the field and was rewarded with a shock that threw her back and left her head buzzing. She put her hand to her nose and found blood. “What the —”
“You and me, we’ll talk more later. You better hope that none of those containers flip when we take off, because that field lets in the air you breathe as well as any phosphera dust in the space.” The Captain slammed her hand against the side of the container. “And don’t do anything to make me regret keeping you alive, baby girl. Wouldn’t want to have to turn you over to Stanislav Pavori to make you answer to all your foolishness.”