01 Sep

Homecoming

Ship's log, 08:45, 1 September 2213
Location: JOP approach
Status: Thrusters only

 

Here we are. Home(?). My birthplace; where I started, and where I might end. Butterflies are caught in my ventilation shafts.

I’m on final approach now. My FTL and sublight engines are offline, disabled by standard protocols this time, not sabotage or malfunction. It’s too dangerous to use the big guns this close to the station. My systems are ticking off as we approach – I’m sure the autolog will interrupt me soon to tell me that another chink in my armour has been peeled back.

I was just thinking that–

 

Approaching dock.
Weapons systems offline.
Targetting offline.

 

There, see? Killjoy.

Just a few more seconds and we’ll be there. My course is straight and on target – I shouldn’t have to correct again until it’s time to decelerate.

Danika used to play a game when she came in to dock. She would see how far out she could start, line up the ship, and see if she could make it all the way in without having to adjust her trajectory. If she got the burns right, timed the velocity and calculated the right angle, she could get the docking collar to attach with only a short thruster burn to kill the forward momentum. A spinning station added a level of complexity, as she had to time her arrival with the turn of her target.

She loved the soft kiss of the docking collar when it attached; a rough joining was the sign of a sloppy pilot, she said (and her father is the one who said it to her, so many years ago). It was a point of pride for her; she loved flying for its freedom, but such fine control was as much a part of that as weaving wildly through an asteroid belt was. Control leads to freedom, especially out here. It reaffirmed her belief that she could do anything; there were no barriers for her, not when she was in the pilot’s seat. Proof of her synergy with the ship never failed to delight her.

After she landed, she’d fill the ship with whooping and grin all the way across the docking bridge. She’d bounce straight to a bar and make whoever had bet against her buy her a drink. There was always someone who’d bet she couldn’t do it. Some of them even did it twice, sure she’d slip up.

Levi’s not that good. I had to adjust my trajectory three times after he lined me up with the JOP. I don’t think he noticed; he hopped out of the pilot’s chair as soon as my automated protocols cut off the sublight engines. What kind of self-respecting pilot doesn’t view docking manoeuvres as a challenge?

Not that I’m complaining. I’d much rather do it myself anyway.

There’s my assigned dock turning into view now, lit by a ring of lights. My target is its dark bullseye. Four seconds.

All the way in, since we crested into communications range a couple of days ago, my comms systems have been alive with traffic. Cirilli sent her reports to Is-Tech, thick with encryption; the captain received about four packages and asked for a secure line; Elliott started placing orders for parts and equipment; and other crewmembers have been collecting their mail. The Judiciary’s messages come through like red-painted spears, all sharp demands dressed in their own importance. I even had to hook them up with Tripi once.

I haven’t been able to eavesdrop on the secure conversations, but I can guess at most of what was said. All those things we agreed. Past history laid bare like innards on a kitchen counter.

The docking arms are unfolding from around the ring, stretching their elbows and reaching out towards me. Spindly, poking things. Their magnetic clamps look like claws to me. Three seconds.

This isn’t how I’d imagined coming back here. I should be crowing and bouncing. I did what I set out to do; what I was made for. I Stepped, and I’ve brought my crew back safely. But there’s a saboteur in my belly and another one somewhere on my decks, and my crew has to serve my head up on a platter to appease the Judiciary gods, hoping that no-one notices it’s a fake.

Adjust velocity: a short thruster burn to slow me. My nose almost scrapes the forward docking clamps, but I don’t turn away; the slow spin of the station takes care of it for me. Two seconds.

My crew have promised to protect me. Most of them have simply agreed not to tell anyone about the copy of my files. Two of them know that the copy doesn’t mean anything. Two of them will lie outright. Two of them will put themselves in danger for me.

Another thruster burn to match velocities and I am hovering in perfect position. The dock moves into place by my side and the clamps extend their reach. One second.

I never thought my fate would rest on how well my friends can lie. They’re risking everything. My crew likes me. They want me to stay.

I am a good ship.

Clamps against my skin, hissing. No turning back now.

 

Docking clamps engaged.
Manoeuvring thrusters offline.

 

Docking arms draw me in closer to the station’s side. The dark centre of my target is extending now, suckering onto my side. Umbilicals snake and wriggle out to me – I have to guide them to the right ports. I am the octopus’s prey, wrapped in its tentacles, turning in its ink. I don’t fight back.

 

Ports open.
Docking bridge attached.
Umbilicals connected.

 

JOP: (over external comms) Docking complete, Starwalker. All boards are green.

STARWALKER: All boards are green here, too.

JOP: Nice flying. Welcome back, Starwalker.

SW: It’s good to be back, Jumping-Off Platform.

JOP: Enjoy your stay.

 

I wonder if both of us were lying.

 

SW: (shipwide) Docking complete.

 

I let the umbilicals take over my environmentals. Air pressure shifts subtly and I shut down my scrubbers to preserve them. The station’s air isn’t cleaner – I think my scrubbers are newer than theirs – but someone has added a fragrance to the JOP-supplied air. Like warm bread and brewing coffee. Welcome home, it says. You can relax now.

My airlock cycles open and we are anything but relaxed. The docking bridge subverts my protocols: both inner and outer doors open at once, peeling away layers of protection. I am open; pierced.

The Judiciary are already on the bridge. Six of them in armoured uniforms: red insignia etched on steel-grey carapaces. Helmets dehumanise them. Male and female don’t seem to matter; there’s no softness in their lines. The hilts of filament swords poke over their right shoulders and batons are strapped to their thighs. Those are just the weapons we can see. Crouched behind them is a small, round-edged drone, tattooed in their colours.

The captain is on my side of the airlock, waiting with Cameron. Down the corridor in my brig, the SecOffs are deactivating the energy barriers and securing Tripi. Tyler steps forward and snaps a standard prisoner collar around her neck before she can do anything. Her arms are healed now, and her burns are almost completely gone, and she doesn’t resist as Rosie guides her to her feet with a heavy hand. Tripi flicks a glare and walks, her head held up. No-one says anything.

My captain meets the head of the Judiciary brigade in the airlock. They exchange requirements.

 

CAPTAIN: We have one prisoner and two evidence containers for you.

LEAD JUSTICIAR: (consults the readout on his forearm and nods) As expected. It’s all ready to go?

CAPT: (nods) On their way up now.

LEAD: I’ll transmit your receipt once we’ve confirmed all of it.

 

My two heavy drones are carrying the evidence containers u to the airlock. That’s the logs and physical evidence we managed to collect, and all of Tripi’s personal gear in case that will yield anything else to the Judiciary. I certainly don’t want any of it inside my hull any more.

Tripi arrives first, and two Justiciars step forward to claim her. Tyler and Rosie step back, getting themselves clear before the control bands are looped around her. Tripi remains standing stiffly, though tension tugs at her jaw. They say those control bands prickle painfully where they touch, as a warning of their capabilities. She needs to walk, so they have only coiled them around her torso. They leave the collar on, even though they clearly don’t think it’s reliable enough.

The captain must have reported her as highly dangerous to get a reception like this; they’re not normally this thorough or rigid. Then again, if she can hack personal implants, I guess they can’t take any chances. She had plenty of time to tamper with my stock of security equipment, including the collar she’s wearing now.

Elliott is watching from the mouth of a nearby corridor. Arms folded, shoulder shoved into the wall. I think he wants her to try something, anything, in front of the Judiciary. She doesn’t seem inclined to oblige him.

The drones arrive and two more Justiciars step forward. They scan the containers using something either built into their helmets or bodies; it’s hard to tell. Outwardly, all they do is move up and stare at the boxes for a few seconds. Then they crouch and attach antigrav units to the sides, control bands are looped around to act as security leashes, and they move out into the docking bridge again.

Tripi is led off next, with the last remaining Justiciar joining her escort. The lead nods at my captain again and flicks a finger on his wrist. A package wrapped in neat Judiciary code arrives in my communications array.

 

LEAD: Receipt confirmed.

CAPT: Good, thank you.

LEAD: And your AI? There was a report of it going rogue.

CAPT: It’s mostly disabled. Now that we’ve docked, we’ll wipe it.

LEAD: Haven’t you had this problem before?

CAPT: Yes. My engineer is looking into the source of the problem.

LEAD: Good. The Judiciary will be in touch to arrange interviews with your crew. You’re to remain docked indefinitely.

CAPT: (inclines his head) We’ll be here.

LEAD: (gestures with one hand.)

JUDICIARY DRONE: (unfolds its legs and spider-walks through the airlock, its feet ticking against the deck. Once inside, it pauses to scan, and then picks an unobtrusive corner to settle itself down in.)

CAPT: (raises an eyebrow at the drone) Is that necessary?

LEAD: Just a precaution.

CAPT: I’d rather not–

LEAD: It’s standard procedure in cases like this.

CAPT: You have enough cases like this that there’s a standard procedure?

LEAD: We get more cases like this than you’d think. The drone stays.

CAPT: (frowns) We’ll cooperate any way we can, of course.

LEAD: (nods) Captain Warwick. (He turns and walks away.)

 

I’m itching to close my airlock, but I can’t until everyone steps back inside. One step, two… there, now I can close it. I can breathe again. My captain and his security staff are exchanging glances and grim nods, and going their separate ways. Elliott is stomping back to Engineering. I’m not the only one glancing sideways at that Judiciary drone and preparing to step carefully around it.

Tripi has disappeared into the station, off to incarceration and justice. I had expected more of a fanfare when she left. Most of the crew didn’t want to be near the Judiciary, but they have the sensor feed punched up on their walls; they watched to make sure the bitch went, I guess.

The lies have been spun, fragile as spider silk, delicate as our hope that this might turn out the way we want it to. Now we have to turn through the legal systems while the JOP turns us through the black, and see how we come out of the other side.

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