For IDJ eyes only: Target secured. En route to rendezvous point on Ceres station. Estimated arrival: 0417, 15:56 by Earth reckoning. Delays or changes to be communicated immediately.
Agent Talat paused, considering whether to add any additional details to the message. She decided against it -- there would be plenty of detail in the full report, which the agency could read at its leisure. As thrilling as the capture had been, she was sure they’d be as riveted as the dry language required by the Intersolar Justice Department allowed. She sent the message, with the report attached, then pulled up the navigation information.
Two Earth days prior, she’d lifted off from Europa moon, her cargo stored in the aft hold of the small transfer craft. For now, the AI was predicting a smooth, month-long journey back to IDJ headquarters on Ceres.
With the navigation verification and message to her bosses complete, the next item on her maintenance list was to check on the target itself. She turned away from the communications console and made her way toward the craft’s hold. At the entrance to the cryochamber, she stood in front of the bioscanner, letting it verify her identity, then inserted her ID card into the access slot.
The door slid open, and she stepped inside, feeling the chill of the room even through her thermal uniform. The only light in the room came from the equipment maintaining the cryosleep of the asset, whose pod rested against the left wall of the room. Agent Talat walked up to the pod, and looked down into the unconscious face of Jasnau Kenna.
He didn’t look so threatening now, pale and blue-hued under the lights of the cryo equipment. Even so, she couldn’t look at him without feeling a small glimmer of fear. Of all the violent, depraved criminals she’d hunted down over her fifteen-year career, he was the only one that had ever truly terrified her. For the past five years, she’d dedicated her career to his capture, chasing him throughout the solar system as he left a trail of murder, assault, kidnapping, and robbery behind him.
And on Europa, he’d taken his cruelty out on more than just humans. When she’d finally caught up with him, he’d gotten involved in an operation smuggling the moon’s unusual alien wildlife. And what they couldn’t smuggle, they either kept in filthy, neglectful conditions, or simply killed.
Now, however, his reign of terror was over.
Assuming, of course, that everything went smoothly during his transport to IDJ headquarters. She leaned in and tapped the status screen on the cryopod. All systems read normal, and Kenna’s vitals were stable. Next, she double-checked that the power lines were properly connected to the ship’s feed, and verified that oxygen and fluid levels were in no danger of needing replacement. Then she tapped her wristcomp, noted that she’d completed her check of the cryopod, and set a reminder to do so again in two days. Although the prisoner couldn’t go anywhere, and the system would alert her to any changes in his condition or that of the cryopod, one couldn’t be too prepared or conscientious.
Her next stop would be the storage hold, to be sure she had plenty of supplies for the rest of the five-week trip. In the doorway, she looked over her shoulder, back at the cryopod. Inside was a very dangerous man. Emphasis on the was.
Satisfied, she smirked at him. This was where he belonged -- in a cell. The smaller, the better.
In the storage unit, Agent Talat went through her inventory list on the wristcomp, checking off items as she verified they were present in the correct numbers and undamaged. The most critical items, the oxygen and nitrogen tanks, were all accounted for. Next, she moved on to the food stores. Ten boxes of freeze-dried assorted vegetables, another fifteen of fruit. It was dull, but necessary work. Two dozen-count cases of canned beans and another of salted meats.
She paused, looking up from the list. What was that sound? A soft tapping was coming from the hall outside. Agent Talat dropped the ration box she’d been holding and walked to the door.
From a bit closer, the sound was more rhythmic, almost like footsteps. Curious, she took a few steps into the corridor, looking to her right and then to her left. It was as empty as the entire ship, save for her. For a full minute, she waited, listening for more odd sounds. Nothing. It had gone as quickly as it had come on.
Agent Talat made a mental note to double-check the craft’s system diagnostics when she was back at the main console. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard random noises even while alone on a IDJ transit craft. In her experience, it was usually an issue with the environmental systems. She doubted it was anything serious, but she didn’t believe in taking unnecessary chances.
She returned to her inventory count, methodically verifying she had enough supplies to take her to her destination safely.
M. TALAT: ETA confirmed. High-level security to be present upon your arrival, and additional safety precautions to be in place. Continue updates per protocol. Capture report received -- official review underway. Safe travels. IDJ Dept of Prisoner Transfer.
In her bunk, Agent Talat re-read the message from the IDJ, then opened the one from her supervisor again.
M. TALAT: Congratulations, Maria. Excellent work. The board is v. impressed. There’s a lot of talk of a promotion and a medal, so don’t be surprised if a commendation is waiting for you when you arrive. And two of the victims’ families have reached out with personal thank-yous for finally putting Kenna on ice -- I’ve forwarded them to you. Drinks at the Stagecoach are on me when you return. Well done. A. RODON.
Attached to the message were text files from the families of two of Kenna’s victims. She’d read them earlier, on the verge of rare tears. Now wouldn’t be a good time to revisit them -- thinking about Kenna’s crimes for too long would make it impossible to sleep, both out of fear and sheer disgust.
Despite long experience transporting prisoners alone across the solar system, she’d never really taken to sleeping in space. At least this craft had artificial gravity -- a few years back, the IDJ had decided they couldn’t risk their top hunters getting muscle atrophy on long investigative journeys. Still, the bunk was too narrow and hard for her liking, and despite having been on crafts like these dozens of times, she still couldn’t quite acclimate herself to the less-than-ideal rest conditions.
She turned off her wristcomp, rolled onto her side, and focused on her breathing. Briefly, she considered taking a sleeping pill, but soon felt herself drifting off.
An unknown amount of time later, she stirred on her cot, some instinct dragging her out of a deep and sudden sleep. In the deep recess of her brain, she felt a presence. Like she wasn’t alone. She rolled over, the sound of scratching nagging at the back of her mind. Groaning, she opened her eyes and sat up.
In front of her, looming over her bed, was Jasnau Kenna. His powerful arms, laced with illegal augmentations, flexed over his chest. Then, he extended one vise-like hand toward her, reaching for her throat.
Agent Talat rubbed her eyes, then blinked, hard. Kenna was gone. She collapsed back into her bunk, heart beating fast, throat suddenly dry. Instinctively, she started to reach for her gun, sitting on a nearby shelf, but stopped herself. That was absurd -- it had been a dream. A particularly intense one, but still just a dream.
After a search that had consumed so many years of her life, she supposed she shouldn’t be surprised that even after it was over, the effects would linger in her psyche. Sighing, she eased herself back down and stared at the hull, slowly calming her breathing and heart rate. Sleep was slow in coming, but eventually, it did.
Maria lifted the welding mask, wiping away the sweat that was gathering on her nose and cheeks. On one of ship-wide maintenance routes, she’d discovered a few power lines that were on the verge of coming apart from their casings. Since there wasn’t much else to do, she busied herself with their repair.
Lowering the mask back down, she flicked on the welding torch and returned to work, letting the heat of the torch and the mundaneness of the task cause her mind to go blank. Before she knew it, the wires were almost fully cased. She stopped, then turned off the torch.
There it was again -- that steady tapping she’d heard outside of the storage unit. It was coming from down the gangway. Maria lifted the mask again and stood, senses at attention. There. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
The night before, she’d run diagnostics on the craft’s stasis systems. All had come back normal. Despite the sweat from the helmet, the hairs on the back of Agent Talat’s neck stood up. She picked up the torch and started walking, ready to turn it on if need be. A few meters down the corridor, the motion-activated light path ended, giving way to darkness punctured only by the occasional utility light. She flicked on her helmet’s overhead light, aiming the beam down the hallway.
There was nothing there. The tapping, however, began again. Whatever it was, it was moving farther away, toward the aft equipment hold. Slowly, she started to follow the sound. Whatever it was, she needed to figure it out. In space, even minor technical problems could turn into disasters if left unchecked. So she continued down the hall, listening intently, steps nearly silent from years of practice -- she was, after all, a hunter.
A few meters down, she reached an intersection. Left or right? Maria stood still, listening for the taps. After three minutes of waiting, she decided that it had stopped. She couldn’t stand there forever -- she had welding to finish up and more other maintenance tasks scheduled.
Something slammed into the hull, making her jump. Whatever it was, it had come from farther ahead, down the left access corridor. Calmly and slowly, she made her toward the sound, keeping her light trained ahead, vigilant for any sign of damage to the ship. When another bang echoed ahead, she flicked on the welding torch, feeling a sudden sensation of being under threat. That one had been farther away, but still far too loud.
Nothing appeared in her beam but the empty gangway. Grip firm on the torch, she continued forward. Ahead, the narrow access gangways opened up into a true corridor. Based on the echo, she guessed that was where the sound was coming from.
At the intersection, Maria aimed her beam to the left. Nothing. Then she turned, taking in a full 180-degree view. When the beam illuminated the hall to her right, Jasnau Kenna stood in the center of it.
Maria staggered backward, heart pounding. No. She rubbed her eyes with her free hand, but this time, she wasn’t dreaming. Somehow, impossibly, her prisoner had busted loose. Cryotubes hung from his pale body, and he smirked. Then, he started to move toward her.
Gasping, she dove backward, fleeing into the access gangway. Suddenly, she was very aware that all she had to defend herself was the welding torch. Her gun was back in her quarters -- safe from loss or damage, but useless in the impossible event that she wasn’t alone on this ship.
Behind her, Kenna’s footsteps sped up, getting closer and closer -- he, too, was running. In spite of her training, a close-quarters, hand-to-hand fight would not end in her favor. What she needed to do was barricade herself in somewhere, then work on flushing Kenna into a situation she could control.
Another bang sounded behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, still disbelieving her own eyes. Her prisoner was there, narrowing the gap between them by the second, still smirking at her. She needed to make a move. If she hurried, she could make it to the next intersection. About fifteen meters down that access corridor was another storage area. One with lockers.
With a cry, she forced herself to run even faster, drawing on adrenaline. When she reached the access junction, she dove to the left, her legs tangling with some cords on the floor. She didn’t bother to look behind her -- no doubt Kenna was about to overtake her. She thought quickly, realizing if she tried to get up, she’d likely trip again. Instead, she dragged herself toward the nearest storage locker. When she reached it, her hand slipped on the handle, covered in sweat. “Damn it!” She tried again and gained purchase, jerking it open. Furiously, she kicked the remaining cords off of her legs, then shoved herself inside and locked the door.
The sounds of her hard breathing and pounding heart turned the locker into an echo chamber. This wasn’t going to work -- she needed to listen for Kenna. She pushed herself as far from the door as she could (not far, in the tight space), and focused on leveling out her breathing and calming her heart rate.
For the moment, she was safe. Kenna had no weapons, and had spent the past ten days in a cryotube. He was in a weakened state. She, on the other hand, was strong and alert. And she had the welding torch to defend herself, if push came to shove.
Feeling calmer, Agent Talat approached the locker door and rested her head against it, listening intently. It didn’t sound like he was right outside -- she couldn’t hear his breathing. But she could hear his footsteps further down the hall, almost a scrabbling. Perhaps the sound of cryotubes dragging on the floor?
Unfortunately, she couldn’t wait him out forever. Eventually, she’d need to eat or drink. What she could do, however, was lock down the ship. That would enact advanced security protocols, seal off access to key areas of the ship, and restrict movement throughout the craft. It would make it easier for Maria to flush Kenna out and ambush him.
It would also notify the IDJ.
She turned on her wristcomp and pulled up the ship’s systems management program. Before she commanded the lockdown, she paused. Lockdown was an extreme measure, one the IDJ wouldn’t ignore. They’d know she’d lost control of the prisoner. And her promotion and accolades, all of her hard work and personal sacrifice would be as good as gone.
Annoyed by her own selfishness, she pressed the button. With someone as dangerous as Kenna out of containment, she couldn’t afford to take any chances, no matter what it might cost her.
And now, she had to wait. The footsteps faded away after only twenty minutes. Maria, however, waited in the locker for over two hours. The fact that he’d left so quickly troubled her. As a killer, he’d been terrifyingly tenacious. However, she reminded herself that Kenna had somehow exited cryosleep without medical help, and was almost certainly sick, disoriented, and in significant pain. He wasn’t thinking or acting clearly.
If either of them had the advantage, she did. Steeling herself for immediate hand-to-hand combat, she eased the locker door open and moved into the narrow access hallway.
It was empty. As was the main hallway, stained red by the lockdown lights. Maria strained every sense as she made her way toward her intended destination. She needed to find out how Kenna had escaped.
When she reached the cryochamber, she examined the door thoroughly. There was no obvious damage, no sign that augmented hands had pulled the door apart. A chill ran up her spine. How had Kenna escaped, if not through the door? It was the only access point.
Impatiently, she waited for the bioscanner to finish, glancing over her shoulder every few seconds. When she finally stepped through the door, she immediately fell back against the wall.
There was Kenna. In his cryotube, where she’d left him.
Trembling all over, Agent Talat approached the tube. Kenna’s ashen face lay beneath the plexiglass. Unmoving.
She collapsed to her knees next to the tube’s monitor panel. It beeped quietly, calmly, nothing amiss. Kenna was in perfect suspension, as he’d been since they’d left Europa.
Slowly, Maria backed away. Deep in her brain, she felt a sense of unraveling, of unreality. She’d seen Kenna on the other end of the ship. He’d followed her, attacked her. As she ran from him, he’d tried to kill her.
But there he was, secure in the cryotube. The steady blinking of the monitor lights filled her with irrational rage. Unable to understand what was happening, she shouted at herself to wake up. This had to be another dream.
Of course, nothing changed. She didn’t know how long she sat and stared at Kenna’s frozen face, in utter disbelief. By the time she forced herself up from the floor, she was shaking uncontrollably, both from fear and the cold of the cryochamber.
If she wanted to keep whatever was left of her sanity, there were some things she needed to check. On unsteady legs, she made her way to the cryochamber door and exited, gaze fixed on Kenna the entire time.
Agent Talat lay in the medical cot, listening to the various instruments as they moved over her body. She didn’t watch them; instead, she kept her eyes on the camera feed. She’d placed a small recording device outside the door of the medical bay. All prisoners were in cryosleep on these IDJ transit crafts, so there was no need for every inch to be covered with security cameras. But she’d brought a few tools of her own, and now was thankful for her preparation. And next to her sat her gun. She wouldn’t be caught without it again.
On an intellectual level, she knew it was impossible that Kenna was out there somewhere, wandering the halls of the craft, waiting to attack her. She’d confirmed that he’d been in his tube since their liftoff from Europa -- the cryochamber was one of the few places on the ship under surveillance. The footage showed nothing -- Kenna didn’t somehow rise from the tube like a vampire from a coffin. The only real movement came from her. Maria had watched herself come in, then collapse against the wall. The look on her face was one of pure horror, one she’d never seen on herself before.
The med instruments stopped moving, and a small beep came from the diagnostics screen, indicating that her results were ready. Slowly, she eased herself to a sitting position, then took a deep breath. She knew it was an awful thing to want, but she hoped the diagnosis was some kind of brain tumor or neurodegenerative condition. Otherwise, she was losing her damn mind.
According to the diagnostics, she was in perfect health. Her blood pressure and heart rate were slightly high, which was expected. But other than that, all other parameters were within normal limits.
That meant whatever hallucination she was seeing had no physical cause. Sighing, she lowered her head into her hands and closed her eyes.
Apparently, she’d suffered some kind of psychotic break. Perhaps that wasn’t terribly surprising, given what she’d gone through, not just in her pursuit of Kenna, but as an IDJ hunter. For the past 15 years, she’d tracked down some of the system’s worst criminals. Kenna had been the most depraved, which was saying something.
The horrors she’d witnessed at Kenna’s hand would have driven just about anyone to the breaking point. On Mars, she and her team had arrived at his safehouse only a few hours too late to save the young women he’d taken hostage. Their bodies had been scattered on the filthy floor, bled nearly dry. Two of them had been holding hands.
Her wristcomp buzzed, bringing her back to the moment. A message from IDJ. Almost fearfully, she opened it.
M. TALAT: Lockdown notification received. Please explain situation and need for additional resources immediately. IDJ Dept of Prisoner Transfer.
Agent Talat sighed, then sent a quick response, noting that it had been a false alarm and giving no more detail than necessary. All she could do now was make it back to IDJ headquarters, hand over the prisoner, and report to the agency’s psych evaluators. Seeing the IDJ message had reminded her of another sobering fact -- that her mental state might become an issue at Kenna’s trial. Talat thought of the victims’ messages, and again buried her head in her hands. If her breakdown cost them the justice they deserved, she’d never forgive herself.
Fighting back tears, she pulled up the ship’s control systems for the second time that day, then disabled the lockdown protocol. An error message appeared on the screen.
Action unable to be completed.
She tried the command again, and got the same error. Wondering what else could possibly go wrong, Maria made her way to the main control room, took a seat at the console, and commanded the AI to run diagnostics.
Apparently, one of the key wiring junctions in the starboard access corridor was damaged. That was odd, but Maria was starting to feel numb to odd things. By now, she was feeling fear and adrenaline giving way to listless emptiness. Robotically, she gathered up her tools, and wound her way through the ship’s empty corridors to the affected breaker. Turning on her flashlight, she could see that several wires had been shredded. When she cracked the breaker open, she saw even more evidence of tearing.
This was impossible. Nothing on the ship, nor normal wear and tear, could cause this kind of damage.
Suddenly, she heard it again. The footsteps. She cried out, numbness melting away like ice placed in an oven. Somehow knowing what she’d see, she aimed her flashlight beam into the dark corridor. In the center of the hallway, a few yards beyond the damaged junction, stood Jasnau Kenna.
This was a hallucination. A very vivid one, but no more real. She blinked, trying to force Kenna away. When she opened her eyes, he’d moved even closer. And as before, he charged.
Intellectually, she knew he couldn’t hurt her. But instinct took over, and Maria turned and fled. Panic was blossoming in her mind, driving her forward. She couldn’t think, couldn’t plan. All she could do was run.
By instinct, she reached for her weapon, now in its rightful place on her hip. Her mind screaming that she should do something, anything, she pulled it from its holster, turned, and fired on her hallucination.
The bullets went right through him. The hallucination didn’t slow, didn’t stop. Instead, it sped up. And she screamed.
To her right was another corridor, a narrower one and full of boxes, stacked against the walls and each other. But it was too late to turn back. She ran, nearly tripping on one box, her own desperate gasps echoing down the corridor.
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Kenna nearly upon her. She closed her eyes, but kept moving. This was it. This hallucination was going to kill her. An impossibility, she knew, but it felt undeniable. With a cry, she grabbed the closest metal box from against the wall. Using all of her adrenaline-fueled strength, she pulled it from the wall and shoved it over, directly into Kenna’s path.
For a moment, it teetered on its edge, then fell onto Kenna.
Maria collapsed to the floor, moaning. For a while -- she didn’t know how long -- she just lay there, unable to believe the threat, imagined as it was, was gone. Slowly, however, her heart rate came under control. Her arms and legs still trembled with residual adrenaline, but her breathing grew less ragged, and the panic started to recede from her mind.
One of her pant legs suddenly felt wet and warm. She opened her eyes, and saw a pool of blood, extending from beneath the box she’d used to “crush” Kenna to her outstretched legs.
Still shaking, she got to her feet, and with a huge effort from her exhausted muscles, shoved the box back against the wall.
On the floor lay an animal, about the size of a fox, with blood-stained slate-gray fur. Its hind legs were outstretched, one of them obviously badly broken, and its smaller forelegs were collapsed under it, as if to break its fall. In its mouth were two rows of pointed teeth -- between them, Maria would see tiny, shredded pieces of wire.
She stared at the creature, trying to make sense of what she was seeing. It must have found its way aboard her ship during Kenna’s capture on Europa. And somehow, it had been projecting his image. Like a blowfish on Earth, puffing itself up to seem more threatening when faced with a predator. And that predator was a hunter -- her.
Maria was no astrobiologist, so the mechanics of how such a defense would work escaped her. But she couldn’t deny what she’d seen, and what was now lying bleeding on the floor at her feet. This was no hallucination -- the blood was wet, sticky, and stinking of bitter iron.
Carefully, she crouched beside the animal. The injured creature was still breathing, but barely. Carefully, she picked it up. Moving as gently as she could, she picked her way through the corridors until she reached the cryochamber.
Next to Kenna was an empty tube. She didn’t know whether or not this would work, but the creature’s injuries were far beyond her skill to treat. Cautiously, she lowered the Europan animal into the cryotube, then hooked up the various wires and feeds as she had for Kenna. Then she stepped back and let the system take over.
A few moments later, a beep came from the crytotube. Almost afraid to look, she glanced at the status readout.
Maria let out a sigh, letting relief take over. Her mind, although a bit shaken, was still intact. And this alien animal, with its unique biology, could have untold applications. It was worth far more than the murderous, pathetic creature in the other cryotube.
Confident that both pieces of cargo were now fully secure, Maria returned to the main console, ready for the final leg of the journey home.