Free Will

Book II of The Antithesis Progression

by J. Daniel Sawyer

Prologue

Official Transcript
Transmission from Gagarin Station, Operations Division
Intercepted 17:35GMT, 25 December 2129

This is Gagarin Station to Persian vessel Rubaiyat. In deference to the lives of the ten thousand civilians currently on board, and by the unanimous vote of the command staff, I am authorized to deliver the following message:

We surrender.

I

Tycho, Lunar Surface
18 November 2129

Nobody could have known what was coming—there was no way to know. Down in the deep south, under the shadow of Lunar night and bathed only in Earthshine, something moved.

Gray against gray, a small figure clawed its way through the spires jutting rudely at the ridge of Tycho crater. One step at a time, its feet left a permanent trail in the dust heading north by northeast from the New Zion colony toward Mare Tranquillitatis and civilization.

Eighteen hundred kilometers.

If the traveler was lucky, she could do it in one Lunar night.

Other girls had escaped before. Other girls’ bodies had been found in the dust, poisoned by their own breath building up in the scrubbers or dried out from too long an exposure to the brutal Lunar sun.

This one wouldn’t make that mistake.

She’d signed up for the surface gardening class at school because she knew they put something in you that kept you alive for a long time if your oxygen bottle failed. Another year in school and she’d have gotten her introductory nanotech class, and learned all about the respirocytes, artificial red blood cells that increased the human body’s oxygen efficiency by a factor of thirty. She had no way to know that, and she wouldn’t have stayed another year for any knowledge or money. All she knew is they might help her get a little farther.

So she’d stolen a rebreather and some extra bottles that she dragged behind her. She’d packed her p-suit helmet full of appetite suppressants and amphetamines—without food, she needed them to keep moving.

Luna City was farther than anyone had ever walked outside before, but it was the only place she could go. She couldn’t cross the mountains to get to Firstown on the south pole—there were no roads between settlements in the southern hemisphere, and people lost their way and died in the mountains. It was go north and maybe die trying, or nothing.

At twelve years old, she’d rather die trying.

The stars were a good guide for direction. You couldn’t grow up on Luna and not know them by heart. They were dimmer when the sun was up, but right now they showed through her face plate as clearly as through a clean porthole window. The distant fires lit her path, showing her the way through the spires and ridges.

She didn’t know if she would make it. If she had asked an adult, even one that wanted her to escape, they’d have told her that it wasn’t possible. But she was too young, too stupid, and too desperate to know what couldn’t be done.

On the far side of the mountains, the mottled, rock-strewn mazes of the high plains stretched out before her to the horizon. She’d been on the trek for about twelve hours, enough that they’d miss her, maybe even send out a search party. Maybe they’d catch her. She didn’t care. She just knew that she had to get away and choose a new name.

This year at school, they’d learned about certainty. They’d talked about death and taxes—how death was optional if you were willing to forgo your destiny in the celestial realms, and how there were no taxes in their colony. Her teacher said that the only certain things were God’s love and the word of the prophet.

She’d walked out on both, and she’d do it again even though the catheters chafed her every time she moved and her bones ached from loping across the open ground. She was alone in the night, with no air, no animals, no friends, and no God to comfort her, and she’d do it all again. That was the only thing she knew for sure.

She held on to that surety as if it were the only man-made light in the long Lunar night. Nobody in the world really knew anything for sure—it was a lesson, once learned, that she’d never forget.

II

Nineveh
14 November, 2129

Nineveh’s central docking bore did not accommodate corvette-class cargo ships, even one that could technically make all the clearances. Such ships were relegated to clamp-docking along the top of the large cargo loading bay running along the spine of the station. Even though Kyrie was a few centimeters under the size limits, her proportions and mass made her unwieldy enough that the docking authority didn’t want her gumming up their equipment in the central bore.

So, unlike some smaller ships Cassy had seen recently—Fugitive, for example—Kyrie had to park on top.

It had been a thirty-six hour affair, starting up her reactors from cold, going through the pre-flight checklists, and loading stores and cargo for the return trip, but Cassy finally had the old girl ready to lift off.

Reeves made the last shuttle tram before their scheduled departure. Cassy knew she should have felt something about it. Relieved, maybe, that she didn’t have to wait on him anymore. Or annoyed that he’d spend the skew flip hanging around in the galley with that beaten bounty hunter, smoking her bud and putrefying her ship and eating her stores. Instead, the fact that he was on board and getting settled into his quarters just seemed like one more item off her checklist, of no more emotional importance than the reactors.

It suited her just fine. She had a few more items than normal on her checklist this time.

“Nineveh docking control, this is Kyrie, awaiting final clearance to clear moorings and disengage docking clamps.”

Kyrie, this is Control, you are cleared to enter the pattern in eight minutes.”

“Roger that, control, Kyrie out.” Cassy locked the buckle of the five-point harness and checked the call off her list.

That left one last pre-launch item on the list. After a day and a half working with naps and popping pain pills for the wound in her shoulder, the truth was she didn’t have spare energy to feel anything. She was saving it up for her last chore.

Once the docking clamps disengaged, Nineveh control would run her to the edge of the docking pattern on remote, and from there the autopilot would take over running her on the most expensive possible route—a sloping arc down the rim of the gravity well into Lunar orbit. One gravity the first day, two gravities straight shot after that with the standard flip schedule. That, at least, would help her keep her passengers under control.

Which left only one thing before she let herself nap through the launch.

Cassy punched up Kyrie’s IR telescope and scrolled through its records. She’d caught Fugitive’s track when she launched, and it looked like Joss’s boat was making for the inner planets, still under boost. Risky move, but he probably thought he didn’t have much choice.

“Where are you going, Joss?” Wherever it was, he’d better see his way clear. With war coming, she needed him in her pocket on Luna—and she hadn’t let him shoot her just so that he could disappear without a trace.

She aimed a laser dish at the retreating heat bloom of Fugitive’s engines, now already a quarter astronomical unit away and burning through fuel fast. She tapped a quick message and sent it, three times, in a narrow-beam burst.

You’re covered for the next five days. Don’t waste them.

“VAL, restrict information on this track to my voiceprint only and classify it as a root privilege. Edit it out of the IR survey for all other users.”

The AI answered: “Affirmative, Captain.”

Cassy toggled the intercom on. “All hands, strap yourselves in. Dust-off in one minute.”

With that done, Cassy finally let her breath go. As she felt the docking clamps disengage, the adrenaline ebbed out of her bloodstream leaving her lolling in her chair. The vibrations sang her to sleep as the chemical engine roared to life, pushing Kyrie once again into interplanetary space.

III

Cargo Ship, Name Unknown
12 November 2129

First, it was a little whir, like one might expect from a dental drill. Then, two chirps in quick succession, followed by a solid, piercing beep. A few seconds later, the pressure changed. The hiss, followed by the clang of the exterior hatch opening, presaged the blast of warm that rushed into the hold.

The body, laying crumpled against the cargo nets next to a frozen puddle of sick in the hold, knew this; its hearing was the only thing still working.

Four days in the pressurized, freezing hold had left Percy Scott frostbitten all about his face. His eyelids were chapped, his ears were beginning to turn dusky, his mind had long since slipped into a hypothermic delirium. The insulation in his ill-fitting SkinPres suit was the only thing that kept him warm enough that his eyes and brain didn’t freeze.

For his part, Percy Scott was only vaguely aware of the hands that seized him and dragged him under all the heavy gravity, out the door, and into the scratching, burning, needle-bright corridors outside.

IV

Fugitive, Destination Unknown
16 November, 2129

Through Fugitive‘s forward viewport, what had been a pale blue dot was now a cyan pea. Joss had allowed himself three days solid acceleration before cutting the engines. It was a risk—stealthiness in space was a bit like playing hide and seek while naked in a brier patch; it could be done, but it was a thorny business that depended upon the fact that nobody would believe you were crazy enough to actually try to pull it off.

The simple fact was that even enough life support to keep a single body alive and comfortable burned a god-awful amount of power, and burning power meant that somewhere, somehow, you had to have a heat sink to radiate the waste energy away. In a black sky, anyone with a child’s infrared camera could see you, no matter how well you’d done with disguising your transponder, or stealthing your ship for radar or laser scanners. Common wisdom said it couldn’t be done, even in theory.

If there was one thing Joss Kyle prided himself on, it was poking holes in perfectly good theories.

While it was just as impossible to make a ship disappear from all wavebands as it was for a stage magician to make an elephant disappear from an enclosed glass case in front of hundreds of people, magicians had been doing just that thing with elephants for hundreds of years. Successful stealth didn’t depend so much on people not seeing you as it depended on them not knowing it was you they were seeing.

Confusion. That was the secret.

And, that was why, three days into his heavy boost escape, Joss Kyle started the countdown to cut the engines, ratchet up the radiators, and drift in tandem with a three-ship convoy heading back to Luna. The single passenger liner and two cargo ships already had their own heat bloom. Fugitive dumping its excess heat at them would make the bloom even bigger—and, from the point of view of Nineveh, Fugitive would just melt into the scenery. After a few days of drift, he’d be able to execute the next part of the plan.

As long as Reeves hadn’t already spotted him, it should work. Cassy’s promise that she had him covered might have been comforting, if he thought he could trust her. Every relationship had its difficulties, but after shooting her he doubted that he’d ever be able to sit in the same room with her again and keep his hide. The fact that she’d let him do it didn’t help—the strategic situation changed the moment he’d run out of Phalanx, and what that change might look like from her point of view was something he could only guess at, and badly.

When he’d decided to run, he’d justified it to himself by saying he’d clear his name, but he’d been kidding himself. There was always a choice, and this choice was too big to make on impulse.

There were two paths open to him: run into trouble, or run away for good. Both led through Earth orbit, but he’d need more luck than God in a dozen places to even have a prayer of making a run into trouble work: if Congress got deadlocked over Shelley’s policy proposals; if he was able to catch the right breaks to make planetfall before the Christmas recess; if Shelley spent Christmas somewhere vulnerable; if…he didn’t know what else, because he hadn’t gotten that far yet, but Joss suspected there was a monumental pile of ‘ifs’ still to be uncovered.

Three days wasn’t enough to even begin planning an operation like this. At least another three days of research, and analysis, and going over the recordings from the standoff in Phalanx lay between him and a final decision. He had to be sure he wasn’t walking into another trap. Reeves was the kind of man who’d have a backup plan—the only question was if the backup plan could have anticipated this.

And then there was Alyssa. She might be the backup plan. She had to be gotten rid of, somehow, and without giving her a clue what he was up to or how to find him. She’d turn him in as soon as she walked off the ship—the hormones were barely keeping her quiescent enough now. Pump enough bonding potion into a woman’s wetware and her willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt skyrocketed. She wasn’t getting itchy feet. At least, not yet.

That situation would not last forever. She didn’t like being a prisoner, and her quiescence certainly wouldn’t stick after he turned off the intestinal device that time-released the drugs—something he had to do as soon as he let her go. Part of the bargain he made with his conscience—something about self-respect. He wished the fucking thing would just go back to sleep.

Not that he needed to worry about inventory. At this rate, he could stay adrift for a year without having to restock on the hormones—though food might be a problem if he wound up having to go in by the slow-ship cargo route. Mondu had left him well situated—he should have been pleased.

Fugitive herself was performing as advertised so far, at least enough that he trusted her to earn her keep. The gentle slopes of her lightweight polished interior were miles different from what he remembered of Kyrie’s clunky, all-switches-and-buttons aesthetic. Then again, Kyrie had been built before magnetic shielding got cheap enough to make a full fly-by-wire setup feasible. It wasn’t just solar radiation one had to worry about in the dark, there were pirates out here, and their favorite weapon was EMP. Without a full Faraday cage and mechanical overrides, a ship like Kyrie would choke under it.

Fugitive had no such problems, not with the Bussard Polywell Dynamo secreted in its belly, and her interior reflected the fact. She was fully automated—he suspected that the coffee machine ran on brew-by-wire.

No, the ship wouldn’t get in his way. Neither would his passenger. Joss winced when she floated back to the top of his thoughts. It wasn’t that she was easy on the eyes, or that he thought Cassy would begrudge him if he slept with her—trading lead slugs pretty much put questions of fidelity into the “less than trivial” category, and it wasn’t that kind of relationship in any case. And it wasn’t that he didn’t think he’d find a way to give her the slip without screwing himself over. It was just…

Goddammit, it was only a neurotransmitter cocktail. It was a temporary measure. Once they reached port, he wouldn’t need it anymore. Besides, as drugs went, it was essentially harmless.

He kept telling himself that. He almost believed it, too, when he could ignore the nagging memory of a paper he once read:

“…when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to their lies.”

The conscience which had caused him so much trouble wouldn’t quite allow him to indulge in Goebbels for comfort. Not yet.

 

Joss Kyle, a man with no home, paced the bridge of his ship under his last few hours of acceleration and tried to avoid his passenger. The passenger who kept buzzing at his door. The passenger who was going out of her mind with boredom. The passenger who, thanks to him, couldn’t figure out what to do with herself when he wasn’t in the room.

He hadn’t meant to trap her here. If she hadn’t been so fucking tenacious and swift-footed, he’d have gotten away clean. All Joss had wanted from the beginning was to keep his skin, but when the price on his hide went up, the price he had to pay to keep it went up too.

His passenger, Alyssa Hartman, and her employer Douglas Reeves, had cost him his home. It was the second time someone working for Senator William Shelly had done so. So far the price for keeping his skin more or less intact tallied up at two children, one ex-wife he was rather fond of, two homes, one business, two jobs, and four years of his life on the run—during which he’d left more than his fair share of carrion on the vulture’s heap.

Joss poured himself a cup of coffee from his thermos to keep himself from traveling any farther on that train of thought. When he knew how to get rid of her, then he’d have plenty of time for qualms. Right now, it was chemical restraints. Dosing her was a simple matter of self-defense. But that didn’t help him shake the feeling that this time he might finally have left too many cards in the blind.

Perhaps it was time to rewrite the rules again.

End of sample. ©2011 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved

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