“Something is on the radar. Skip, come look at this.” Dirk toggled from the radar to the thermal imaging camera. The dreadnaught was tearing through the burnt and dusty sky five hundred feet above the scorched earth of the wasteland.
“It looks like a buggy on fire. Run a scan and try to identify what type of vehicle.” The fire was a brilliant white blur on the com screen.
“Negative, I think the CPU is already toast.” The conflagration had burned up any evidence of the buggy's origins.
“Keep an eye out for survivors. They won't last long out here in the wasteland. Might be a battery fire. Those lithium batteries can go up in a matter of minutes.” The navigator turned the radar back on, scanning for any signs of life. Humans had become a precious commodity, even the bad ones.
“Hold on, I'm getting a signal. It looks like it is from a Terradorn municipal device.”
“Citizens don't get those. It has to be from a public safety officer.” Skip had done his time on the beat before qualifying for the Air Service.
“We have orders not to stop. These prisoners have to be delivered to the mines on time.” Dirk was also the scheduler. Travel times were tightly controlled, fuel had to be rationed.
“If we leave an officer out here to die in the wasteland the warden will have our badges. We'll be smashing rock a thousand feet below ground with criminals. Notify the Captain. We can touch down long enough to pick him up.” Being second in command, Skip knew the Captain trusted his judgment.
* * *
“I have to take your service weapon. Sorry, it's protocol. This is a prison transport, no weapons allowed, unless you're a guard.” The man handed over a large frame 9mm automatic pistol. His gamma coat had a badge stenciled on the chest. Taking it off he revealed a bulky muscular frame, long sleeves covered his arms, down to the wrist. A shock of dark hair dropped in front of a stern, chiseled face.
“This dreadnaught has a full canteen, if you need something to drink.” Skip pointed down the hall.
“Thanks. I'm parched.” Heading down the hall, the man turned into the empty mess and grabbed a spare cup and poured a drink from the dispenser.
“I'm Skip.” The dreadnaught's navigator introduced himself. He wore a navy blue flight suit, a few silver stars on his sleeve indicated he was more than an Airman. Skip jabbed his hand out and stared into the man's eyes.
With a firm handshake the man introduced himself. “I'm Karnack. Thanks for picking me up. I passed a pack of crankers on bikes before my rig caught fire. No telling what they would have done to me if they caught me without my wheels.”
“What is an officer doing this far out in the wasteland?” Skip had not released his gaze and the hard stare that Karnack returned indicated he was not intimidated.
“I'm trying to capture a fugitive out here and take him back to Terradorn for processing. He killed his family with a butcher knife and went on the lam.” Karnack sipped his drink and slowly licked a cracked and peeling upper lip.
Skip turned to head back to the flight deck. “If you need anything there is a com set on the wall.”
* * *
“Hey Dirk, log in to the law enforcement database and do a search for me. Look up homicides with multiple fatalities in the last two years.” Skip had a nervous feeling teasing his gut. Murders in Terradorn were rare these days.
“Sure Skip, why what's up?” Dirk signed in with his device and searched for the files. “Last incident was a year and a half ago in Terradorn, an elderly couple was bludgeoned to death in their apartment. The perp was sentenced about a year ago. Why?” Skip jumped from his seat and tore open the emergency weapon cache and grabbed the shotgun with a sling loaded with bean bag rounds.
“That's no officer, notify the Captain and crew.” Skip rushed off the flight deck.
Dirk reacted, setting off the silent alarm, putting the dreadnaught on lock down.
Skip ran down the hall to the back of the ship, his device triggered the automatic doors. Nearing the common room, he jacked a shell into the chamber of the riot gun and crammed four more rounds into the magazine. He was turning the corner near the canteen when Karnack's meta boot caught him square on the chin and sent him tumbling, the shotgun clattering away as he reeled from the kick. He saw a flash of steel as he was trying to regain his footing. Karnack had pulled a double edged dagger from his boot and launched himself toward the dazed navigator as he attempted to get up from all fours. Pulling him from the floor by his collar, Karnack pressed the blade into his throat, as he turned, Skip caught a glimpse of the man's neck and saw the black ink of a tribal tattoo crawling up it.
“How long you been in the system?” The adrenaline caused Skip to push through the mental fuzz from being waylaid. “You're too fit to be a cranker. What are you a drug cook, or a chief?”
“What does it matter to you, little piggy?” Karnack snorted pressing the knife in tighter to Skip's jugular vein.
“If there's an officer's body back in that burned out buggy, they will put you so far back in the mine tunnel, the rats will eat you before you find your way out. You've been in the system long enough to know what happens to murderers.” The shotgun was only a few feet away. Skip was recently training with the tactical team, he knew if he could get his thumb and fore fingers around the knife hand, he could heave an elbow into his assailant's floating rib and buy a few seconds to grab the gun.
“I want the code to open the cell. You let my boys out and I'll not slit your throat.” His over confidence spawned a weakness, as Skip felt the man's grip briefly relax, he grabbed the thumb on his knife hand and slammed his elbow into the man's ribs. Karnack let out a grunt as his wind was knocked out of his lungs. As he hunched down, Skip lunged across the floor and grabbed the short barreled shotgun and jumped to his feet, pointing it at the convict's center of mass, a look of determination on his face.
“You gonna drop that shank, or do I drop you with these rounds to your gut?” The click of the safety echoed in the silence.
Karnack quickly recovered from the elbow and stood up with a gnarled look on his face. Now that his hand was extended, Skip could see the tip of a death spade tattoo on the wrist of his knife hand. They didn't ink you with that for baking cupcakes.
“You know I'm wearing body armor. You poke me with that puny fire stick loaded with bean bags and I'll stick this blade through your skull.” Karnack didn't twitch.
The tense standoff turned seconds into perpetuity. The convict finally made a move and Skip pulled the shotgun tight to his shoulder, ready to fire.
Karnack slapped the com link on the wall and the Captain came online, a worried look on his face. “Looks like we have an impasse el capitan! I need you to turn this bird and set a course for Aldor, or you're going to have a dead crewman on your hands.”
“Aldor? Do you even know what you're asking for? That place is so infested with burned out crankers, you'd be better off in the mines. At least there you can buy back your freedom. All those men in the cell are in line for promotions to B shaft. If I do the paperwork, you can grab an alternate spot. As long as we don't find human remains in that buggy wreckage, you'll walk in five years maybe less.” The Captain was using his mind to try and diffuse the situation.
“There ain't a judge in Terradorn that will give me my freedom. Why do you think they had a spook chase me so far out in the wasteland we both nearly died from exposure. Your system wants to see degenerates like me die slow.” Karnack drew the blade across his tongue and spit at Skip's feet.
“All right Karnack, If you back down, Dirk will open the cell door. Set a course for Aldor, I guess these inmates are getting a free ride to hell.” Skip backed away as a guard rushed up and pulled him through a portal, closing the safety hatch to separate the prisoners from the rest of the ship.
The dreadnaught changed course and headed for the most vile city in the quadrant. Aldor was a ghetto of castoffs, and ruffians. Debased human acts were currency, drugs were bought with sex favors and body parts. Criminal gangs ran a tribal government as ruthless tyrants.
The cell opened to a common room. From the com on the flight deck, the Captain watched with dismay as a potluck of misfits and miscreants poured out of the cell giving out high fives and making lewd gestures into the cameras. He could set the dreadnaught down anywhere, but he knew that catch and release was the normal way the business of incarceration was handled. The ship was designed so the floor of the common room fell away and anyone in the cell or common room was dropped unceremoniously to the ground below the ship.
“I'm tempted to let'm go a three days walk from Aldor.” The Captain was brooding.
“They would all be dead to dust before midnight.” Dirk scoffed.
“You know the politics of Terradorn, handing out pacifiers instead of punishment. We have to start an investigation about the burned out buggy, they still have a few undercover in Aldor. Maybe he will be brought back in and held accountable.” The Captain looked up at the com unit, letting out a sigh of frustration.
* * *
The trip to Aldor was only a few hours. “Dirk are you keeping a monitor on the common room?”
“Yah, they have kissed Karnack's butt so much he's looking around for a toast with champagne.” The room was bursting with energy, the prisoners were relishing the idea of new found freedom.
“O.K. Skip, let's put them down in the neutral zone. Turn these ruthless bastards loose before I change my mind.” The Captain was dreading what he was going to report in his video log. Releasing prisoners even to a place like Aldor was frowned upon by the top brass. They wouldn't be a problem for Terradorn any longer, but the labor shortage at the mines could get worse.
“Aye Captain.” Skip jerked the release lever and twenty-one people tumbled down to the dusty ground below. Before the dreadnaught had turned up it's jet propulsion to lift off, the com screen had already lit up with gunfire from the drop zone. Crankers had shot one of the prisoners point blank in the face as most of them scattered toward the gates of Aldor. Karnack grabbed his mark by the neck for ransom. He knew the ruthless routine. Humans were valuable, even when parted out. Skip, Dirk and the Captain watched in gruesome awe as Karnack gutted a cranker without even losing position on his hostage.
“What a life.” The Captain messaged Dirk to schedule a new load of prisoners for B Shaft.
Dirk wiped away some beads of nervous sweat. “You're lucky that psycho didn't kill you just for fun Skip.”
“I can't get over him handing me the handgun. His marked man on this flight was more valuable to him than making an attempt on me.” Skip was turning the pistol over with gloved hands to scan it's ID plate. “We need to find out whose service piece this is.”
“Please unload that thing before you put a smoke hole in the hull and we all die out here in the wasteland.” Dirk was ducking as Skip rolled the gun in his hand.
“Don't worry. Didn't you know I used to be a Range Master?” Skip had removed the slide and was swabbing the barrel for powder residue.
“I'll have forensics do a full work up. We have 'Karnack's' finger prints now. He ain't gonna get far.”