The Last Horizon
Author:Anthony Hartig

Chapter 5

The first four days went by without incident. I upheld my personal policy of absolutely zero transmissions and steered clear of the main shipping lanes and military supply routes. Where Scotty was concerned, we kept the small talk on neutral ground by avoiding personal questions.

In an odd way, he reminded me of my father. Wherever he originated from I could tell that he was well traveled. I still had no idea what he did for a living or what his business entailed at Nexus. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good if he was involved with Kurlie and I refused to believe that he was employed by him. No, this guy had a story. It was none of my business, but my curiosity was killing me.

The Zephyr was a light hauler but extremely maneuverable in zero grav and atmospheric environments. She had a fixed inverted gull-wing delta configuration with an eighty foot span; the vessel’s double-vertical rudder’s dihedral symmetry and the two smaller twenty-degree anhedral ventral fins made the craft really stable and gave me an extremely tight turning radius. The hull was a hundred and twenty feet long, thirty feet wide, and twenty-four feet tall; it was plated with poly-alloy armor composed of radar absorbing, infra-red signature reducing materials.

It cost me a fortune to get my ship customized, especially the retractable retro-jet modifications, but it was worth every credit. I took a lot of pride in black market kit bashing the instrumentation and controls to suit my needs.

The Zephyr was fast. Illegal, sensor-scrambling fast with what’s called a Bokka bomb defense system that would make any smuggler drool.

The Bokka was one of a kind, it used to be the small emergency shuttle that came with the Zephyr; a Phoenix-Alpha2 parasite ship attached to the belly of the ship, but I converted it into a Bokka drone when I retro-fitted the e-pod and slide rail ejector system. It took me almost a year to get the Bokka tailored with the custom software that wasn’t readily available on the black market. I had eight different techies making wafers without them knowing about each other to avoid raising suspicion, and I integrated the components myself to create the drone. The Bokka still looked like a harmless factory shuttle and could pass the scrutiny of any life-safety inspector, but it was an unlawful weapons platform armed with ion virus charges that a friend acquired for me.

The one drawback with the Zephyr was that she only had one escape pod if things went terminal. One. It was really all I needed since I traveled alone. The e-pod was sufficient to keep me alive for a while if I had to eject, but it was only designed for one person for a short duration. I’ve never been concerned about my escape system since I never carried passengers…until now. Let’s face it, in this game every voyage had the potential of being a one way trip. It’s something that I’ve accepted as the nature of the beast.

I looked over at Scotty and decided that he didn’t have to know any more than I had already told him. He seemed more withdrawn after I disclosed our flight plan and we drew closer to the Pipe each passing day. He spent most of his time studying his SCaT Pad and basically kept to himself.

One night, as he stared blankly at the Zephyr’s instrument panel (as if it could reassure him that everything would be all right), he broke his own spell with a sigh and slowly turned his head toward me and asked “So where did you learn to fly, Nikki?”

“I thought you said no personal questions.” I chided playfully hoping to lighten his mood.

“Is asking how you got your pilot rating personal?”

“It is for me.” I felt bad for him, he looked so dejected as he turned his attention back to the console.

“Sorry.” He said weakly.

“I grew up on a farm back in the Midwest and my daddy taught me how to fly dusters when I was a teen.” I smiled as I cast an eye over the plotter.

“Flying dusters and navigating a deep space freighter are two different things.”

“By that you mean working on a farm knocking bugs off crops and smuggling weapons outside our solar system for a living are on opposite ends of the scale.”

“Yes.”

“Well to make a long story short, I was twelve the first time I made a solo flight in a duster. It was a sixty-year-old JD Fischer turbo that my father and I spent months secretly rebuilding in our barn. He’d taken me up a bunch of times in the duster that he flew, so I already knew my way around the controls. I was hooked the moment my father handed me a helmet and I strapped into the cab with him.

Anyway, it was an early spring morning, wickedly cold but the sun was out and the sky was a bright crystal blue--a perfect morning. Everyone was still sleeping when my father and I went out to the barn and hauled out the duster to a staging area at the end of the air strip. Once we got it fired-up, I hovered around next to the fields to get a feel for the controls. I’ll never forget my dad’s expression as he ran after me when I took off.

My spirit flew higher than the duster that morning. My mother heard the racket we were making and came out to see what the commotion was all about. She was really pissed when she saw me strafe the livestock yard and take out a section of fence before crash landing on the side of the main road. She didn’t talk to my dad for a week, but I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face for a month, especially at the dinner table when my dad would wink at me when mom and my brothers weren’t looking.

Years later when my father died, I felt like I had nowhere else to go. My mother and brothers inherited the farm, and we all got a percentage of the property rights. Then there was an insurance pay-out from daddy’s death. My father stipulated in his policy that eighty percent was to be given to me when I turned seventeen. I couldn’t see myself living there the rest of my life, so I turned my property share over to Mom, then took my cut from the policy, moved to New Detroit, and forged my own business after working for the Aerodyne/Genesis Corporation for a year.

You know, growing up, my father used to tell me there where worlds out there I needed to see…he told me to “dream beyond the fields and fences.” When he was home, we used to sit in the backyard with the telescan and look at the star systems on clear nights and chart them.

“What did you mean when you said “when he was home”? Was your father gone a lot?”

“Yes, he was gone for long periods of time. My mother and brothers were the ones that really kept the farm running.”

“You and your father sounded close.”

“Yeah, we were tight. I was his only daughter and the youngest in the family, so that kind of made me..”

“A daddy’s girl.” Scott grinned. “I’ve been meaning to tell you that I thought the way you handled that lizard at Montrell’s bar the other night was impressive.”

“You saw that, did you?” I grinned as I shook my head.

“Where did you learn to fight like that?”

“When you grow up with three older brothers you sort of have to be able to stand up for yourself.”

“You really expect me to believe that you’re self-taught with those kind of moves?”

“You really expect me to believe that you’re going to Nexus on business involving cosmetics?” I squinted as I took a closer look at the scanner. “And what’s up with your personal weight, Scotty? When you boarded my ship you tipped in at a hefty two hundred seventy-three pounds, someone with your build should be at one eighty. There something you need to tell me?”

“Wouldn’t know where to start, Nikki.”

“How ‘bout with something simple, like an explanation about your weight. Tell me that and I’ll ignore the fact that you’ve got a 9-mill strapped to your left ankle.”

“Okay,” Scotty nodded his head with a resigned grin, “I’ve got artificials.”

“How much of you?”

“Legs and my left arm are integrated bio-mech.”

“May I?” I reached over and pulled up Scotty’s left sleeve and ran my hand over his left forearm. “Your peripherals look and feel real,” I gasped, “your arm feels natural…a warmth, I’ve never seen anything like it. They did a nice job on you. Can you feel me touching your arm?”

“Yes, I can feel your touch. Cutting edge technology.”

“What happened to your real limbs?”

“Car accident.”

“You’re lying. This kind of technology isn’t available to the general public yet, even the best AI’s don’t have this kind of finish. You’re artificials are flawless. So what happened to your real ones?”

“I’ll keep it simple, young lady. I lost my legs and arm during the Terekian war. I don’t remember much. All I have are fragments that I’m still trying to piece together.”

“You had to have been someone important to get implants like those. The Council put serious money into you.”

“So where did you learn to fight?”

“My father.”

“You’re not going to tell me your father was a farmer versed in close quarter combat, are you?”

“Yes I am.” I exhaled sadly as I turned to look at the instrument panels. “Looks like we both lost something to the war. You lost your limbs, and I lost my father. He was a pilot with Fleet.”

“Okay, Nikki.” Scotty nodded. “Are you satisfied with my answers?”

“Not really, but it’ll have do for now.”

“Truthfully, the less you know about me the better off you’ll be in the long run.”

“Funny, I was just thinking the same thing for you and our flight through the Pipe.”

Charon. I had him memorized. I knew his face, I knew his habits, I knew where he liked to go on certain days and the times he went there. I knew his life. I just about had the lay-out of Fluture mapped in my head and began visualizing the logistics of how I was going to get myself in range undetected, make my move, and get out.

Charon had two places he liked to call home: a sixteenth floor penthouse in the La Rouge Hotel of the casino that he ran in the heart of Fluture, and his two story villa located among vineyards on the side of the Sertina’s Pass mountain range overlooking the city. I decided Charon’s life would end at his villa.

Before I left North River I sent in a laundry list of items I wanted for the mission. Drop spots should have been arranged for me by now, all I had to do was get there, pick up what I wanted, and set up the hit. I would be alone for that part. Everything would be on me. If I was successful, the pay-off would be tremendous. If I failed and got caught, I’d die as an unknown. I had my fingertips sanded before I left home and did a chemical scrub on my body known as “scaling”. Now I’m untraceable. I am become invisible.

If something happened to me, officials would be working for a long time trying to find out who I was and where I came from.

Nikki asked a few probing questions but it was no big deal. I learned more about her than she did about me. She had a slight accent that was barely detectable, and she always seemed to be on edge. I had to be careful with her, she seemed to have a talent for reading people, and an eye for detail.

I sensed that Nikki wasn’t telling me everything about our voyage and that was fine. I figured if I didn’t ask her too many questions she would reciprocate by withholding her own queries.