Part 3: Talon - Chapter 17

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The slim young man messaged his qualifications to Stefan Rix's fone, but he didn't bother to look at them.

'I don't need you,' he said to the man. 'The AI can fly the ship.'

'It's Syndicate policy, sir,' the man said. 'This is a Syndicate ship, and therefore must be piloted by a designated Syndicate pilot with at least a Level 3B licence. Of course, you're right, the AI really does the flying, but traffic control won't let us launch without one of us being a dedicated pilot....' He trailed off. Both men knew about the infernal safety regulations of the Syndicate, especially when one of its ships was at stake.

The ship that would take Stefan Rix to the Shepherd Moon was some special transport organised by Zeus. It was fast and serviceable, and bore the bureaucratic designation HY-146 rather than some fanciful name. They were at Clavius spaceport—not at the part of it the public used, of course, but at a private docking bay normally engaged by noble Elites who preferred discreet access. There were a number of other yachts parked beside theirs, all owned, no doubt, by Elites too rich for their own good and who thought Rix, as a Lunar, beneath their contempt. He had toyed for a while with stealing one of their ships and using it to transport himself to Shepherd Moon, but of course that would be dangerously stupid. He needed the Zeus sub-routine's help, and if it insisted on supplying a Syndicate ship then that was what had to be done. It was a logical enough cover: the Shepherd Moon itself was a Syndicate vessel, and it made sense that it should be visited by another. Zeus was hiding things even from itself.

'I don't have much choice, then,' said Rix, and the young man smiled.

'Don't worry, sir. I'll get you there. Ready?'

There was no one else around; they'd passed through security and were alone on the ramp. The door of the ship was open, a pale blue light spilling out. Rix balked at the entrance. It was the first time he'd been off the Moon. He regarded the visible part of the ship's hull and found himself swallowing a sudden rush of moisture in his mouth.

'In the event—' he said.

The young man grinned. 'In the event, as you say, we'll suffer a long and arduous death from asphyxiation or whatever. But don't worry. That sort of thing doesn't happen these days. Much.'

Rix forced himself up the ramp onto HY-146. Thankfully there were two separate cabins, although they were mere holes in the wall, scarcely bigger than the bunks they contained. There was a tiny bathroom cubicle and a bridge containing two seats, an AI panel and nothing more. The ship wasn't capable of Void, so it would take a couple of days to reach Shepherd Moon, wherever it was.

The door closed and a male voice came over the comlink giving details for launch. The pilot ensured Rix was strapped in securely and grinned again when Rix swore at him. It was embarrassing to be coddled like this. However, when launch came it was an anticlimax: with the inertial dampers engaged there was no sensation at all of departing.

'Smooth as silk,' said the pilot, who was already stretched full-length on his bed. He hadn't even bothered to strap himself into a chair. Rix swore and slapped the buckles that confined him. He stood upright and continued to feel no sensation at all. While they were under acceleration the AI adjusted the inertial dampers to give them a pleasant ride. In a few minutes, once their trajectory was finalised, no doubt they would be switched off to conserve power and they would be in microgravity. Rix saw the ominous hand-holds and grips arranged around the walls of the craft to enable them to manoeuvre within the cabin.

He sat down again and removed his gun holster which was way too high and cutting into his shoulder. The pilot saw the motion.

'I haven't yet been informed of your mission.' For the first time doubt had crept into the young man's voice.

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