Chapter 30: Rimfire
Unpleasant Surprises
The next second, everything snapped back to normal. Vision, touch, even self-awareness was returned to me. I could see steam all around me and feel its warmth. The sound of the tube opening filled grateful ears. My breaths were slow and labored. My arms were still stiff from the freeze, but I managed to leap out. I felt I was saved from death at the last possible second. The next thing I felt was hitting the floor, hard. My legs had again failed me, not yet fully recovered from the cold. Two people lifted me and dusted ice crystals from my suit.

"Easy there, Fox." one of the people, Fal I believe it was, spoke, "You've been in cold storage for about twenty days. Don't expect to run a race the instant you get out."

So I was asleep. Even with the inducer there was some sense of the passage of time. I drew large volumes of air into my lungs and stretched out every muscle. Each limb moaned with pain, not from lack of movement but rather from the drop in temperature. Even my metal arm took a few seconds to return to full operating capacity. Than as soon than as I became fully aware of my surroundings, Fal donned a cryo-suit and entered my tube. It closed mechanically and the inside was filled with a blue gas almost instantly.

A second later it dispersed and there was Fal, resting there surrounded in crystallized ice. Did the process really take that long? Did he experience the same things I did? Did he feel like it took hours instead of milliseconds? These and more questions filled my head than as I checked to see how everyone else was. Than as it turned out, I was the last person to be awakened. After changing into my, more comfortable, uniform of an unarmed Edgerunner I decided to check in on the bridge.

Larani was sitting in the captain's chair reviewing what had happened with the previous two captains. The air was dry and a bit stale. The captain looked at me and with a bit of surprise and apathy said, "Good, you're awake. There was some doubts than as to how you'd take the ice nap. Those cybernetics might have given you a problem. The doctor seemed to have been able to solve them. In the ship's log, he says that you can take the standard treatment with no side affects. For the record, did anything unusual happen?"

Not knowing what was considered usual, I said that nothing happened and added a sarcastic remark about her lack of concern of my well-being. She did not appear to have noticed, but the rest of the bridge crew did. I sat down at a terminal to catch up on the current events. The terminal was next to the piloting station where Loara was stationed. Then I noticed David Harkson at the communications station. He was wearing a headset and seemed to be concentrating on the computer. "What is he doing here?" I asked Loara.

She was a bit tense yet seemed released I asked about him and not something else. "After the fight at N-12, word of the Kin War found its way into the media and he was really catching a lot of flack from the press. So much so he decided to resign and return to Algol."

"OK so he chickened out. But isn't he headed in the wrong direction?"

"Haha. Well his quitting wasn't expected and he didn't want to face the press or the all those Kins so he hid in a shuttle in our hanger. He planned to stay there until he could sneak onto a ship headed back home the next day. By posing than as an average worker being rotated off the station Harkson hoped to avoid any trouble."

"Good idea. What went wrong?"

"Are you ready for this? He fell asleep! By the time he woke up we were well on our way. Dass didn't feel like turning around just for him so the now ex-Mayor had a choice. Either he could spend the entire time in status and risk never coming out, or try to earn a place in the crew. Sal's been a bit upset since he missed Harkson on his last security sweep. He believes the shuttles' hulls blocked his scanning equipment and since the shuttle's computers didn't register any explosives he figured there was nothing wrong."

"Sal is in our group isn't he? Where is he?"

"Rewriting the security programs. He said he didn't want anything like this to happen again. You were revived a few hours after everyone else. The doc wanted to be extra careful with your cybernetics I guess. But anyway, Sal spent most of that time helping Harkson find a spot here. I think it's going to be damage control and repair management."

"My confidence in this mission is dwindling."

"Don't worry. Harkson has plenty of experience with the construction of N-12 and once worked than as a starship construction chief."

"Perhaps, but remember how N-12 turned out."

"I'm going to let that slide, Fox."

Apart from the three of us, there was no one else on the bridge. The moment I instructed the computer to display the news from the past few weeks, Larani had left to inspect the mekton bay leaving control with Loaraa few minutes ago. When the door slid closed, Sarka said in a harsh whisper, "Better be careful, Conners. She might decide to throw you out the airlock."

"You seem more tense than usual, Loara. Just what is the problem here."

She sighed and glanced about than as if worried that someone might be watching her. Satisfied that Harkson could not hear us, she spoke normally, "The captain has been rather...upset with you lately. She wouldn't say anything to your face or to anyone else who she knows you're friends with though."

"Do you know why she's mad?"

A look of surprise was plastered on her face, "Are you blind to your own actions?! Remember the rescue? The warning you gave to Dass? Your improvement to the plan to save N-12? Plus how you took over the negations with Harkson? Not that any of them was strictly out of line. Everyone sees them than as either selfless heroism or within the duties and authority being a Special Operative. But to her, what you did is a bad reflection on her own abilities. Take your rescue. You gave everyone a more than fair warning. I admit that hindsight is 20-20. But even then I considered what you derived about the tense situation to be valid and your recommendation understandable. My only complaint is that you backed down and compromised when it was against your better judgment. But Larani ignored what you said and got burned for it. We both know how much she values the safety of her unit. To her to have her fat pulled out of the fire was bad enough, but when you were the one who did it, it made things worse. It's than as if she has something to prove to everyone. She feels she must prove she is a better leader than you are."

"I have never doubted her abilities and have said nothing against her, ever. I didn't even give her a bad time or joke about how she ignored my advice and needed rescuing. Why does she see me than as a threat? In my business, you make some enemies. Let me tell you that having someone who hates you tends to put a damper on life. Most of the time it's for understandable reasons like revenge for killing one's partner, retaliation for stealing the latest bit of technology, or ruining a plan to steal something by stealing it first. Knowing why they hate you is the first step in ending the threat from that enemy. In all my years of Edgerunning, there has never been anyone who confused me more. Not once have I tried to get her position or did something to get a military promotion. Money, yes. Fame and respect, yes. Sense of duty, more often than it has any right to be. So what's the big deal?"

"I wish I knew. You have my respect. More than what I have for her. Maybe that's it. Accidently or not, those things you've done where high profile. The problem might not be how you see her, but how others see her when compared with you. But that goes against everything I came to know about her. I don't think she'd ever put her own comfort above the good of her unit."

"That might be it. Everyone else on this ship save me and Harkson is military, yet I'm the one people think of when they hear the name Fireflight. Me, an unorthodox criminal without the discipline she is accustomed to. I've spoken to her about this shortly after Celine died, but neither of us had any straight answers. But whatever the reason, you can count on the fact that this goes beyond petty jealousy or cultural difference."

She nodded her agreement and returned her attention to keeping the ship on course. There was nothing on radar than as it was since we left N-12, at least according to the computer. I read the headlines. Sixteen days after our departure, the UAA was formally disbanded. In their place the outer space colonies, including Dion1, formed the Nearside Federation. Sunlight1 was formally transferred to their control yesterday. Haversom was appointed the head of the Nearside Federation and we have been labeled than as AWOL. The Federation made their token orders for us to return which were bluntly refused by Fal.

Suddenly I felt a strange itching sensation in my left shoulder. I rubbed it but the feeling didn't go away. It was like someone was digging around inside there. But that obviously wasn't the case. Acting on a hunch, I asked Loara to punch up a view of the mekton bay. Instantly on one of the side screens were two ExSentinels, the camera rotated around but stopped before my Scarab entered its field of vision. Loara shown her confusion about this malfunction and tried to turn it in the other direction. It was the same case than as before, somehow that camera could not get a picture of my mekton. "Is there another security camera there?" I asked.

"Let me check." There was a pause. "Yes, since the merging of our two ships, each mekton bay has its own personal camera." Another pause, "Strange. These cameras have not appeared in any security menu at all. I guess this ship still has a few secrets."

She changed the current view with one from above the Scarab. I couldn't believe it. Larani was there with a blow torch doing something with the left shoulder of my mekton! "Please tell me you're recording this." I said to Loara.

She make a quick motion to press some buttons, "Yes, I am. What's she doing?"

"It's called sabotage." I said than as I ran for the door.

"Why would she do that?" she called after me.

"When I catch her, I'll ask for you." Time was of the essence. I could feel the pain in my shoulder getting worse. Upon reaching my quarters, I found the security code had been changed by order of Captain Larani Kynis. Expanding Rapid Fire into security systems paid off again. During some downtime I made a note to study the locks on the doors. By ripping the keypad lock from the wall and hooking it up to my interface plug, I was able to send an open signal to the control circuits. Fortunately she did not have the time to mess with my stuff. I grabbed an Uzi and a pair of stun pistol grenades and ran to the hanger. By the time the door opened, my aud/vid link was recording and I was ready for answers.

Loara secretly told me she had alerted everyone else to what was going on and gave orders to revive Dass and Jabess. The sound of the welding torch wreaking havoc on my vehicle's servos was loud enough cover my footsteps. Propping myself on the junction between the main body and the left pylon I aimed my weapon and shouted her name. Her head turned in slow motion than as my boosterware activated. I saw a gun inching into view. Without a second thought, I fired a three round burst. The second bullet hit her pistol sending it flying in the null gravity field and the other two hit her toolbox.

The fuel for the welder was hit and there was a fiery explosion. I covered my face and leapt backwards, bits of metal richoeting off my armored clothing. For a brief second, my left shoulder was warm. But it died down than as the fire burned itself out in 0G. I caught Larani by the leg than as she flew by. The bile in my stomach rose when I saw what had happened to her. Her face had several cuts and there were still bits of metal imbedded in her skin. The front of her uniform was burned off and her chest was charred. Both her arms were bloody stumps. Surprisingly she was still breathing. What was left of her torso moved up and down in shallow labored breaths.

I heard multiple references to Algolian deities than as the crew poured inside the hanger. Jabess pushed himself to the front and was the first person to reach us. Using his medical kit and my cyberarm, we were able applied a crude tourniquet to each arm. Jabess shouted for more medical supplies than as he tried to "swim" to the artificially gravitied area of the hanger with Larani. I grabbed Jabess my the arm and used my grapple hand to pull us to safety. "We saw an explosion, Nathan. What happened?"

Dass demanded. But the explanation would have to wait until I emptied my guts than as an offering to the procililen god. Actually it was Karin's helmet, but at the moment I didn't care. I fought back memories of my family reunion. By the time I felt sturdy enough to return, Dass had already seen the security tape and her gun had been found (at least what was left of it). Replaying my own tape shown everyone what they needed to know. Jabess reported that Larani would live, but only if she was placed in deep freeze soon. Laian and Ariel were revived in hopes they could telepathically discover why she betrayed the crew. But both were reluctant to than as they both felt that jealousy got the better of her.

Loara insisted that there was more to this than what everyone thought and convinced them to do the scan. I was asked to contribute whatever I could. My empathic abilities could also help in uncovering the truth. Soon, after Jabess had done what he could to stabilize her, Ariel, Laian, and myself entered the mind of a traitor.

We hovered over a turbulent sea of black ooze. The sky was equally than as violent with shaded lighting sparked between the dark clouds which stretched out to every horizon. But there was something familiar to all of this. I looked down and saw a light. Normally I guess that it would be than as bright than as a sun, but the sea above it reduced its luminicity to that of a match stick. I waved the others to me. Though I pointed enthusiastically, they could not see it or hear me.

"Different powers reveal different things." Laian said.

Then, like some old-style superhero, beams of light from Ariel's and Laian's hands cut through the darkness where I had indicated. The thunder boomed in defiance. Just than as we were about to reach the light, the sea attacked us. It formed into a vaguely humanoid monster. Ooze dripped from rippled limbs and melting face. Its creation pushed us back. The ocean around us was calm than as all the blackness merged into this twisted apparition. In this realm, thoughts are translated into action and vice versa. With a sweeping motion of its arm, droplets of ooze was sprayed over us.

I felt purely evil thoughts being forced on me. But I ignored them with ease. The ebony liquid poured off me and faded into nothingness. Than as the last drop cascaded off me, I noticed that it never actually touched me. It was than as if I was wearing some form of completely transparent armor which was generated by my mind. Than as my mental shield forced the gunk off my mental body, I noticed the other two were having difficulty doing the same. Unaware of how to help, I could only wish they had my strength. My hopes became reality than as my arms raised and my own light beams burst forth and strike them.

It was like sending a bolt of electricity through them. Each stood straight at attention than as the ooze exploded off. Saved, the retaliated riddling the creature with their telepathic lasers. I made an attempt to mimic their actions/thoughts but nothing happened. Different abilities have different powers. I realized that since I did not have telepathic abilities, I could not assault something in that manner. But what could I do? Telekinesis was worthless in the realm of the mind.

With my mind block, I could protect my comrades but the strain I felt the first time told me that such shielding would not last forever. All that was left was empathic. I extended my arms to reach beneath the creature, to the light. When I touched it, things became clear. I felt Larani's true essence and personality struggling under the sudden onslaught of brainwashing. What was happening here was exactly like the mind of Maria when it broke through the overwhelming persona of Arnellia. I fed her my feelings of courage, righteous anger, and independence.

Under my care, the faint light which was once my commanding officer grew until it shone like the sun. It rose from the depths taking a human shape. Large glowing arms broke through the surface and grabbed the beast. Above us, the clouds broke and things became brighter. Laian and Ariel were tiring, their mental attacks were less frequent and powerful. It did not matter. Than as I sent it more emotions, I made an effort to send those which bet fit her personality.

The glowing mass became more human and feminine than as it grew in strength. With a new body slightly larger than the mental representation of Dremmond's brainwashing, a new Larani pushed her way into the light. Than as she grew, the creature shrank. Encouraged by this, Laian and Ariel helped vanquish the ooze. Within moments it was reduced to a horrible memory. Unable to continue feeding Larani emotions, her glowing form sank back beneath the waves. I felt relieve and thankfulness than as I left her mind.

Reality faded into view. I touched my aching head and noticed my face was wet with perspiration. After wiping the sweat from my eyes I saw Jabess wrapping Kryis in a cryo-suit. The experience had left me too tired to speak. Laian and Ariel appeared to have awaken first leaving me to assume they had told the captain about how Larani was influenced. He was just about to lift her into the sleep tubes, Dass stopped him.

"What did you find out. Should we save her or throw her out the airlock like any other spy?"

Using my metal limb to support myself, I uttered brief and staggered statements to summarize what had happened inside her mind. Dass wondered when she could have been brainwashed. There had not been enough time for such an opportunity since Dremmond first recognized Fireflight than as an enemy. That is except for the time spent in ice sleep. He asked Laian if it was possible for a person to be mind altered while in suspended animation. Laian mentioned about a recent development in Muria, an electronic device which sent regular pulses into the psionic plane. Or at least that was the impression I got.

There was some mumbo jumbo which a person could only understand after a few years in Murian schools. It was like a mental sign post when telepathically scanning for a particular mind. During periods of low brain activity, like cryo-storage, mental attacks met weakened resistance. The only explanation Laian and Ariel could think of was that using one of these beacons, Dremmond reprogrammed Laian to sabotage our mektons. Her initial dislike for me was what choose the Scarab to be the first. Now the question was how did she acquire the beacon in the first place. Jabess pulled back the suit and we saw a half-melted broach. Laian recognized it than as a present from Larani's father she received while on N-12.

"But why would any father would do such a thing?" she asked.

"Maybe it wasn't really from her father." I answered examining the jewelry with a technologically enhanced eye, "Was there a note or anything which came with it? Anything personal in nature?"

Dass nodded to Arisa who ran off to check. "Even then," Loara thought out loud, "it's possible that it was attached after any letter was written and without her father's knowledge. We don't even know if that locket is what we're looking for."

"Oh, it's something special." I said. Taking a scalpel I pried it open. Inside was a maze of complex circuits. Laian examined it closely and confirmed that it was a disguised beacon. Arisa returned and reported that there was nothing that came with the gift. A scan of the computer reviled nothing until her personal log was opened. It was captain's privilege to restrict the contents to only himself. Using the fact that she tried to kill me, I tried to read it myself. That idea was soon on my list of real big mistakes.

Never had I seen Dass so mad. Pushing luck beyond any reasonable limits, I asked why he would deny me clearance in light of my Special Operative status after he finished reading them. "Listen to me Conners! I don't like what happened here and feel it shouldn't have wound up this bad. Accident or no accident a good officer might very well be dead. Now you want to burrow through her private thoughts? Hoping you'll be able to find something I couldn't? Maybe there's another reason. From what I have heard about you, devising alternative motives is than as common with you than as breathing. Maybe you want to know how she feels about you? Is that it? Now tell me why you want to look at her private dairy?"

This made me take a step back. After all this time, after all I have done for this ship and crew, I thought he trusted me. By surprise turned to anger and I told him what I what was on my mind. "I believe I have more experience with conspires and treachery than anyone else on this ship. If there is something in her diary then I have the best chance of finding it. You owe me that much."

He turned away for a moment and spoke more calmly, almost in a whisper, "You're right you know. If there's anything to find, you'll find it. But there's something else. I cannot tell you what it is, but I know there is nothing to find. It was the broach and only the broach which made her turn against us. When I read her personal log, I found something disturbing. It was something I had suspected since I became captain. She wrote about her feelings with the intention that no one else will ever read them. Reading it made me feel shamefully noisy. What it was has nothing to do with the current situation, but it is something I feel you should not see. My decision is final. Please accept it."

With no other option, I left his office with more questions than answers. What did he mean by her feelings towards me? By now, Larani was in cold sleep. Jabess said this was a medical version of hibernation, one designed to hold a body for extended periods of time with only one reanimation. "This way we can keep here until we reach a proper medical facility with little worry of permanent damage." he finished.

"How bad is it, Doc?"

"Bad. She'll need both arms replaced, multiple skin grafts, several feet of intestine transplanted, and some hefty cosmetic surgery if we ever expect her to resemble a woman again. I guess if we were in your Night City, this would be a breeze."

I pressed my hand against the glass and looked at her, "Maybe. With vat-grown skin and some cybernetics, the good captain will be back piloting her mekton and giving orders to the rest of us. I'd say it would take a few weeks for total recovery. More if you want to include therapy time to reduce the trauma."

"Trauma, from the accident?"

"That and trauma of finding your arms were replaced my inhuman machines. Is there anything you can do in the meantime?"

"Not with our plans. Even then it would be a great risk to her. Oh, I checked your cryo log. There was a malfunction in the automated procedure. You were to have been injected with a sedative before the process began. But the unit is on the right side and tried to inject it in your metal arm. I'm sorry, but without that you were conscious throughout the whole thing."

"Yes, not something I would care to repeat. I assume you have fixed the problem."

"Of course. Just keep in mind you have to be in this specific chamber." he gestured to the tube on the far right, "That one has the unit placed on the left. Next time, you won't feel a thing. I've heard stories about people who had to enter cryo without the injection. They said it felt like a slow and painful death, one of the most frightening things they ever experienced. Is it true?"

Recalling what happened to me, "No. What you heard did not begin to describe what it was like. They only chose those words because there were nothing more severe. Believe me, you make sure this doesn't happen again ... to anyone." anger began to swell inside me, "You should have remembered this injection wouldn't work. At the least you should have told me what would happen!"

"I'm sorry, but with all the work, I assumed you had already been briefed. I honestly forgot."

"Well don't let it happen again!" Five minutes later, I had taken my post on the bridge.