(Written July 2007)
This is a brief short featuring bounty hunter Crimson Black, a character from an old video game design of mine, and who I first wrote about in my short story Dark Agents, although you don't need to read that first.
The descent through the atmosphere was unusually smooth. Crimson praised the ionic shielding upgrades he’d purchased for the shuttle that the Council had loaned him. Originally it had been a complete rust bucket, lacking in any manoeuvrability or defences. Now it was just a slightly fancier rust bucket. The fact that he would be allowed to keep it on completion of the contract didn’t really add anything to the already rather mediocre pay, but times were lean.
He had been sent to retrieve a terrorist who was responsible for sabotaging and ultimately destroying an entire orbital station, complete with a crew of two-hundred and thirty-one. Lonnie Barrakkas had first uploaded a virus through the station’s neural net that wiped out the sensor arrays wired into the proximity alert system. He had then careered a hijacked shuttle via remote pilot into a vulnerable mid-point, and effectively snapped the station in two before it started to burn up over the planet below.
Originally the Council had believed Barrakkas dead in the attack, but when they later discovered that he had fled the system, they put out a contract hoping to bring him to justice. Crimson hated space travel, more so travel by shuttle, but in this instance he had little choice. Barrakkas had run to a remote system and there was no other way of pursuing him.
The shuttle levelled out after drifting down through the thick, dusty, orange cloud layer and entered the flyby mode Crimson had programmed into the nav-com. It passed over the landing site detected by radar from orbit. From below the clouds the visual scans suggested it was a somewhat rougher landing than intended, showing fragments of debris scattered along a dark scar in the dry red earth. There were no signs of activity, no signs of life, but Crimson touched down at a distance anyway. Now was no time to be careless.
As he approached Barrakkas’s wrecked ship he could see there was a hatch open, although there was nowhere obvious to go from here. The probability of a trap was uncomfortably high, but on closer inspection the infrared mode on Crimson’s visor showed the whole area to be cold as night. A set of footprints in the dust lead away from the wreck. “A job’s a job,” he said to himself, and set off along the trail towards the horizon.
After an hour of following the footprints through the dust, that horizon appeared to be getting lower and closer than it was when he started. Crimson noticed no change in the pace or determination of the prints as he approached the edge of the cliff he had seen during the flyby. They lead him right up to the edge. Written in the dirt, beside the last impressions of Barrakkas’s boots, were the words FUCK OFF!
“Stupid bastard,” remarked Crimson. “You came a helluva long way to die a free man. And now you’ll never be free. Stupid bastard.”
Crimson contemplated Barrakkas’s fate on the long march back to the shuttle. From the air he located the battered remains and let the A.I. grapples retrieve them. On board, he prised open the fractured skull and removed the cortical data pack.
Every Council member is fitted with a data pack, recording every memory, every thought, every impulse, a human flight recorder. It was commonly known that Barrakkas was a former Council member. Perhaps that’s where his motivation had come from. The Council would bring Barrakkas back in the flesh labs, just so that they could make him pay, bring him to justice, but also so that they could let the lab-bots run a full diagnosis, and satisfy any unanswered questions.
It was then that Crimson noticed the integrity diode. It should have been flashing periodically to indicate that the data pack was functional, but it plainly wasn’t. Perhaps just the diode was faulty. Crimson lifted the port flap and plugged a drive wire in from the shuttle’s console. The console display indicated the pack was empty, flash formatted.
He looked back at the body on the floor of the shuttle. There was something in Barrakkas’s gloved right fist. A flash module. He wouldn’t have been able to use it on the ground, it would have stunned him, and he would have been captured and interrogated the old fashioned way. He must have used it in free-fall, after throwing himself off the cliff, to make sure his body and brain died too.
“Clever bastard,” Crimson laughed. “You died a free man after all, as free as a bird, you clever fucking bastard.”
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