They were three days into their journey to Ares when the Veeps arrived.
Two of them. Wing and Man. Eve had never seen them this close before. Like an ice cream cone on its side, the scoop of cream all sharp polygon edges. Distinctive tri-shaped prime movers. Large guns pointing in all directions. Heavy armour too. They only had two weaknesses. One was inertia, the other was battle cruisers, but most people didn’t have one of those up their sleeve.
They pulled into formation on either side of the Tigress. Eve watched from the cockpit, waiting
“Remember,” Jack said. “Whatever happens, just play it cool. You belong here. This is a PLC ship. It belongs in this system, and we aren’t heading for the gate, so we’re not exactly trying to escape.”
“Sure,” Eve said, though her father’s words from her youth came screaming back. Don’t try to outsmart the badge. Just run like hell.
Static hissed over the comm and then a voice came in with that stuck-up accent of the well-off Pleiaden.
“Freighter, identify yourself.”
“Hi, sure, this is the Light Freighter Trojan Horse,” Jack said, cavalier.
Eve elbowed him in the ribs, mouthed “Trojan Horse?”
The comm hissed again. “Identify your cargo and destination.”
Jack leant back in his pilot chair and activated the comm with a casual flick. “We’re heading to Ares. No idea what the cargo is. Couldn’t care less. You want to know? Come over here and inspect it yourself.”
Eve slapped his hand from the comm switch. “What the hell are you doing?” she breathed. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
Jack’s smile was gone. He leant forward and pushed her extended arm away. “Just leave this to the professionals, eh?” He toggled the comm again. “Look, I’ve got a bunch of engineering nerds hankering for this crap, whatever it is. Do you want to come check it out or not? I’ve got a timetable to keep.”
He pulled his finger back and smiled at her. “People become policeman for one reason: To make themselves feel bigger than everyone else. This kind of person doesn’t want to do a ship search when they’re invited. It takes the fun out of it.”
Eve watched him with raised eyebrows, not quite believing the brash approach. The comm was silent however, which she thought may have been a good sign. Then she gasped. “Who is this ship registered to?”
“The Planetary Adjustment subsidiary of course. Where else do you think I got this idea from? I purchased this ship legally from them, I just, well you know, might not have completed the paperwork. It’s all legit anyway.”
Eve shook her head then returned her gaze to the two ships outside. A single shot from any would cause a ruckus in the ship’s systems. A second would cause fatal damage, a third would probably destroy it. With the proximity of the Veeps she reckoned she’d have about a tenth of a second heads up that she was about to die. Not terribly encouraging.
Moments passed. Eve felt the tension in her twitching arms, her pulsating heart, her rapid breathing. A tenth of a second, a tenth of a second. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. She needed every fraction of that tenth.
“They’re not going for it,” Eve whispered. “Get us out of here.”
“They’d make us the instant I sent power to the engines. For this particular hand we’re going all-in.”
Eve eyed the ships again. She needed to do something. She just couldn’t sit down waiting while someone decided whether she lived or died. She needed-
A flare outside. Eve screamed.
The Veep veered away, its engine wash as bright as a missile launch. She almost had to swallow her heart back down to her chest, long gulping breaths to calm it still.
Jack chuckled. “Everyone falls for the Trojan Horse.”
“Because no one would be stupid enough to be that blatant.”
He shrugged. “When everyone says something can’t be done, a little voice inside me tells me to do it anyway.”
Eve smiled, despite herself. The man wasn’t short on confidence. “Is your little voice telling you to get me to Ares?”
The Trojan Horse sliced through the soupy atmosphere of Ares and they landed on an open platform at the original Adjustments base.
Jack stopped at the ship’s door and donned a breather. He passed one to Eve. “The pressure is good outside, you just don’t want that shit in your lungs.”
Eve felt a quip coming on about the shit she had put into her lungs when she was young, but the door whirred open and the moment passed.
The sky was red and burning, like gaseous fire. Standard atmosphere flowed through her lungs but the pressure and the view curdled her stomach. She lowered her gaze to the catwalk ahead. Triangular support structure ran below the walk to the barren ground below. Ahead, Jack had nearly reached the door to the base. He pressed a hand to a console and the door irised open and he stepped through. Eve raced forward and followed him into the airlock. Jack closed the door and the airlock cycle started. A green light flared, the inner door opened and then Jack removed his mask.
“Ok, let’s head to the control room,” he said.
Eve removed her mask, breathed in the air. It felt fresh and clean.
The facility was about twenty years old, Eve guessed, based purely on the style of the place. Empty, bland, a stark grey colour across the floor, walls and ceilings, it was at once both unattractive and hostile, setting her on edge.
Again Jack seemed to know the route from rote, though she suspected a few of the turns were lucky guesses. The corridors all looked the same. If there had ever been anything in the facility to personalise it, it had long gone with everyone else to the second stage Adjustment base.
She paused midstep, something nagging at her, but it was gone and she kept moving.
They entered the control room, a circular space of chairs and control screens and standing space in the middle. Eve glanced at the screens quickly. Atmospheric content and density, rock and mineral spectra, gas bore depth and other such things.
Jack was fiddling at one of the controls. “Ares has a pretty long orbital period. Ideal situation is we wait until it’s at the right part of its orbit to minimise travel distance to the map plus give us a speed boost.”
“How long will that take?” Eve asked, though she figured she could probably guess.
Jack kept typing then turned to her, an embarrassed half grin on his face. “Fifty two days.”
Eve’s jaw dropped as she studied his eyes for the glimmer of a practical joke. No luck. He was serious.
“Fifty two days?” she repeated, still unsure.
“Ideally,” he said, rising.
“That’s a quarter of a Terran year!”
“It’s only half a Paradijs year,” Jack retorted. Then he went serious. “But agreed, we can’t wait that long. We don’t have the supplies for one, but the risk of exposure increases exponentially the longer you stay still.”
Eve nodded. Finally, something she could agree with, not just logically, but deep in her bones. Movement meant life. Always moving, always one step ahead Jack turned back to the computer. “We could stay here a few weeks. Seventeen days tops, then we have to get moving.
“A fortnight is doable,” Eve said. “As long as you don’t get ideas.”
Jack laughed. An honest laugh. It sounded good. “Well now you’ve jinxed it. You see all my ideas are really just great plans, the groundwork laid long ago. For me to come up with new ideas would take some time, and we only have a fortnight.”
Eve laughed back. She felt the stress flowing out. “You are a true gentlemen.”
A clang beyond the door froze Eve. Jack’s gaze snapped to the door. Eve suddenly realised what had bothered her before. When she had removed her mask the air hadn’t felt musty or old, as if no one had breathed it for many months.
It had felt fresh.
As if someone was still here.
The door to Eve’s right opened.
A man stepped through. His head down studying a pad, he immediately sensed their presence and his head snapped up, long blonde hair bobbing.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. His eyes narrowed, glanced at Jack, turned to Eve. He backed away.
Jack put his hands up. “We’re bleeding lost is what we’re doing here.” He stepped forward. “Some sod orders me to come in with a cargo load of converters and I show up and no one is here.”
Blonde stared at Jack, his feet spreading for stability. The silence built. Eve moved her own feet, inching closer.
Blonde squared his stance toward Jack, clear confrontational body language. “What kind of converters?”
Jack mirrored the stance, put his hands on his hips. “Catalytic converters.”
“Of course,” Blonde said. They continued to stand off, neither moving, gazes locked on each other. Eve could feel the testosterone flaring from both sources, like magnet poles trying to push each other through invisible forces.
Eve was ready.
Blonde dived for an alarm console to his right, but Eve swung her leg forward, crashing into his genitals, dropping him to a knee.
Jack was already running and when Blonde got back to his feet to reach the alarm, Jack crash tackled him through the open door. They hit the corridor floor, fists already flying. Jack was on top. He slammed his fist down, pulled back his other, then jerked and rolled sideways as Blonde snap punched his throat.
Jack kept rolling, his gasping echoing through the corridor. Blonde jumped up, swung his foot out, missed Jack by millimetres.
Eve ran in behind Blonde as he swung again. Eve grabbed the long blonde locks and yanked his head back as he swung. He spun around his centre of gravity and dropped to his back.
Jack was back on his feet, but staggering. He dropped onto Blonde, a knee either side of his head, locking his neck between his legs. Gasping for air, Jack launched a fist down into Blonde’s nose.
The explosion of blood followed the snap of cartilage and Blonde was still.
Jack rolled off the limp body and lay there sucking in air, rubbing his purpling throat.
“Son of a bitch nearly killed me,” Jack gasped, the words a struggle, as if he were breathing through a straw, which in some ways he was. “what kind of scientists are they hiring?”
Eve glanced at the Pad that hadn’t left her person since she’d escaped Eden and the data that had made her public enemy number one. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
He lifted an arm and Eve helped him up. He leant against the wall, still wheezing, doubled over. He stayed that way for a minute, then gulped in another breath and kicked Blonde in the head. Then he leant back on the wall for another breather.
“So,” Eve began. “Catalytic Converters, huh?”
Jack shrugged. “I panicked.” He pushed off the wall. “We’d better get going.”
Eve looked at both of them. One was a dead weight, the other a liability. She wasn’t sure which was which. “What do we do with him?”
“Probably best not to kill him,” Jack breathed, straightening up a touch. “Find a closet to lock him in, smash the controls.”
Eve eyed Blonde. He was actually well built, probably pushing ninety kays. Jack was barely upright, she’d have to do the heavy lifting. “Does it matter? As soon as he doesn’t check in we’re screwed.”
“Better they find him than he alerts them,” he said. He grabbed one of Blonde’s arms. “Now suck it up and help me.”
They manhandled Blonde into a locker and fritzed the controls. Jack was breathing hard by then, his throat a fireworks of purples and reds. She helped him across the external catwalk and back into the Trojan Horse.
She settled him into the pilot’s chair. “Are you going to be able to fly?”
Jack grinned, then grimaced, coughing. “Honey, I’ve flown this rig whilst mostly dead. I can handle only half dead.” He fired up the ship, and was half way through his pre-flight when he swore. “How long were we in there?”
Eve shrugged from the co-pilots seat. “An hour and a half?”
Jack’s eyes glazed over and Eve thought he was about to pass out but they hardened again. He shook his head. “We’ll have to risk it.”
“Our re-entry would have caused local warming of the air. If we take off again before it disperses it might register on the Adjustment sensors.”
“They can’t be that sensitive.”
“They’re trying to rebuild an entire world. You need a high level of accuracy for that.”
He pulled back on the controls and they jarred free from the surface. The world tilted around as Jack pushed them nearly vertical and blasted up through the sky. Eve pulled up the rear view and watched the engine plume run bright but quickly lost in the red atmosphere. Soon even that faded to black and they were in space, their exhaust a neon sign to anyone watching.
Jack arced the Trojan Horse back around the planet as if trying to catch orbit, but he kept accelerating.
“Slingshot?” Eve asked.
Jack nodded. “Aye. A rough one, but it should give us a boost.”
The ship shuddered as it brushed the upper atmosphere. The planet hung just above them. The engines screamed, a steady vibration through the ship, soon eclipsed from the shaking of the manoeuvre. Around they went, keeping a steady distance from the planet so it looked like they were making little progress, but the speedometer kept climbing and then they were away, the shaking diminishing to the simple thrum of the engine.
“Where are we heading now?” Eve asked once the noise had dropped.
“Kuiper Belt,” Jack said. “That’s where the Map is. At least the Map I know of.”
“That’s pretty far out,” Eve said, thinking travel time, exposure to risk.
“Has to be. Any closer the PLC would find it.” He shrugged. “It’s a blessing and a curse. Its orbital period around the star is so long that for all intents and purposes it’s stationary. But eventually a pattern of flight paths will emerge that the PLC might be able to figure out.” He checked something on the display. “I’ll make a course correction once we hit the asteroid belt, then we turn off and coast and we should be home free.”