Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 183,173,032 Issue: 472 | 3rd day of Celebrating, Y12
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Occupational Hazard: Part Three


by antiaircraft

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After travelling for several minutes through the station's maze of interconnected hallways, Elaine came to a halt in front of a T junction where a wide, low-ceilinged passage branched off from a main cargoway. Peering around the corner into the smaller hallway, she spotted a solid-looking metal door barring her path at the far end. Painted on the door in bright red letters were the words "STORAGE ROOM: AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY". A fingerprint scanner sat beside the door, looking almost apologetic.

     On any other facility, this might have seemed like overkill, but this was Doctor Sloth's command station after all. Nevertheless, Elaine knew that something far more interesting than a storage room lay behind that door. She'd stumbled across it while searching for a good spot to set up a listening post, hoping to find a quiet, empty space where she could stash some equipment and skulk around for a while. Instead, she'd encountered a small, well stocked, and well guarded private armoury, and decided to leave in a major hurry.

     Last time around she'd slipped in through the station's ventilation system. She didn't have time to take the long way now. She'd have to go in through the front door.

     A distant, echoing whine signalled the approach of one of the station's cargo haulers. Perfect. Elaine stepped around the corner and flattened herself against the wall, listening carefully for any signs of an escort. There were none.

     Sure enough, a lone cargo hauler rolled into view, tugging a massive trolley loaded with hundreds of steel plates. It was an almost comical sight. The robotic hauler was only a metre and a half long and barely a metre high, but it was packed with solid, old-fashioned diesel-fuelled muscle. Extra wide, rubber-coated tracks provided it with the traction it needed to handle loads far heavier than itself, and a spherical control module mounted atop its Herculean engine gave it some limited intelligence and sensor input, so it could get where it needed to go.

     Elaine sidled up beside the hauler, easily keeping up with the machine's lethargic pace. She was careful to stay well clear of its field of vision. Cargo haulers were wired into the station's alert network - she couldn't afford to be discovered now. Ever so slowly, she extended her right arm and reached into the robot's exposed control module. Eventually, her fingers found the connector for its optical sensors, squeezed, and pulled them loose. The robot coasted to a halt immediately, emitting a series of confused beeps, and shut down to run a full diagnostic.

     "You do that," murmured Elaine encouragingly. She quickly turned and knelt down behind the hauler, squeezing into the gap between its rear bumper and the cargo trolley. Ignoring the grease that was starting to run into her fur, she found the four bolts connecting the trolley to the hauler's tow hitch and worked them loose. In a matter of seconds, she had successfully decoupled the hauler from its cargo. Straightening up, she glanced both ways to make sure there weren't any other vehicles approaching, then carefully reconnected the hauler's optical sensors.

     Fifteen seconds later, the robot came back online, beeping heartily when it discovered that its vision problem had been fixed. It promptly restarted its engine and trundled happily away, not noticing that its load was about three tonnes short. Elaine couldn't help but wave to it as it vanished around the next bend.

     Now for the hard part, she thought, gazing up at her new makeshift battering ram. With some well-calculated pushes and a lot of effort, she managed to manoeuvre it around and aim it down the hallway towards the 'storage room'. Slipping in behind the trolley, she shifted a few of the plates to make sure she had a clear view of the way ahead.

     "Here goes nothing." The Wocky pressed her shoulder firmly against the end of the trolley and shoved as hard as she could. The trolley began to roll forward, slowly at first, but with rapidly increasing momentum as she continued to nudge it forward. By the time it was halfway down the hall, the trolley was moving dangerously fast, and she turned her focus to pulling on the left and right sides of the trolley to keep it moving in a straight line. What mattered now wasn't so much the speed of the trolley as its mass, but that only counted if it actually managed to hit the door.

     With one final yank towards the right, Elaine let go of the trolley and stepped quickly aside. The improvised siege weapon bore down on its target with unstoppable force. Three, two, one...

     With a surprisingly quiet 'Crunch!', the trolley popped the door clean out of its frame and barrelled onwards into the room beyond. Of course, Sloth hadn't been relying on one measly door to protect his hidden armoury. He'd been relying on the three hunter-killers stationed behind it, which were now assuming combat positions and aiming their weapons threateningly at the intruder.

     There was a series of clangs, a loud screech, more muted crunching, and some faint sizzling. The hunter-killers were no longer threatening. Very few robots are built to withstand being run over by three tonnes of steel.

     Elaine dashed into the room, skipped over the remains of its robotic guards, grabbed onto the rapidly retreating trolley, and pulled back with all her strength. Her boots squealed as they were dragged across the smooth floor, but she simply dug them in harder and redoubled her efforts. A few moments later, the trolley slammed into the opposite end of the armoury with a gargantuan 'Whumph!', and with some more heaving she was finally able to bring it under control.

     She paused briefly to get her breath back, then moved to inspect the racks of weaponry around her. There wasn't much in terms of quantity, but what was present packed more than enough punch to make up for it. Most of what she saw consisted of generic high-end guns, ranging from sniper rifles to heavy cannons. Unfortunately, those classes of weapons were far too heavy to be of any practical use to her.

     Rummaging through one of the storage cabinets, she managed to find a usable backpack and swiftly loaded it with a toolkit and several small grenades. Probing further into the room, she spotted four sleek black blaster grips protruding from one of the racks. That's more like it, she thought, grabbing one at random. As she spun around to leave, she almost fell over in surprise.

     The weapon she had picked up was almost as light as a feather. What little weight it had sat neatly in the palm of her hand as she held it, offering virtually no resistance as she swung it around. She could aim it as easily as she could aim her own hand, if not better. Wondering if she'd picked up a mock blaster of some sort by mistake, she placed it on a table and knelt to take a closer look.

     The blaster was more than just sleek - the smooth lines of the grip danced upwards in a bizarre, strangely attractive pattern, merging seamlessly with the barrel's external cooling tubes. The barrel itself sloped forward gracefully from a smooth tail into a single, piercing, perfectly circular muzzle, with none of the ugly glow or radiating heat you'd expect from a normal blaster. The entire construction was perfectly symmetrical, encased in a uniform layer of matte black Skaridian-7 composite.

     It was a work of art.

     Elaine smiled, turning the blaster over so she could get a look at the grip's underside. There was only one company that made weapons this elegant. Sure enough, moulded discreetly onto the very bottom of the grip was a tiny logo: a stylised vortex split into two by an equally stylised thunderbolt. It belonged to RipMatter, a fledgeling start-up that had entered the Neopian weapons industry and quickly garnered a reputation for their ingenious innovations and unparalleled attention to detail. Their blasters were regarded as the very best on the market. If you were anything close to a real professional bodyguard accompanying high-level officials on their fancy space yachts, then you used RipMatter.

     But of RipMatter's two main models, the A2 was a pocket-sized concealable blaster, while the G3 was more of a high-powered assault rifle. The blaster Elaine was holding didn't fit either of those profiles. It was far too big to hide easily, but lacked the G3's twin barrels and automatic scope. She leaned in to scrutinise the logo some more. The model number should have been visible right in the middle of the vortex... and there it was. Two characters just barely visible in the poorly lit armoury.

     It's a RipMatter A1! she exclaimed silently, letting out a quiet gasp. RipMatter's very first finalised design was the stuff of legend: a single micro-fusion reactor powering two-hundred thousand minute low-power plasma emitters, meticulously coordinated into a perfect dispersion pattern. The result: four times the power and triple the accuracy of any similarly sized blaster, fired at barely subsonic speeds with zero failures, zero recoil and absolutely no sound. This was a weapon that would never jam or run out of ammunition, yet could still shoot the wings off a fly half a kilometre away. The fly wouldn't even notice until it hit the ground.

     Sadly, the A1 had proved too expensive for full-scale fabrication, and only sixteen units of the concept blaster had ever been made. A year ago, four of those blasters had been reported missing. Now she knew where they had gone. No wonder Sloth kept this armoury a secret.

     Never one to miss an opportunity, Elaine swiftly pulled out the other three blasters from the rack, checked them, and tucked them into her waistband. Nothing short of a Reaper could outgun her now.

     Berating herself furiously (but half-heartedly) for wasting far too much time gawking, she donned the backpack and headed straight for the exit. As she neared the shattered doorframe however, something caught her eye. It was a high-yield plasmite charge. The same explosive that she had accidentally detonated on that ill-fated mission three months ago.

     She let out a pained groan. And just when I thought I was in a good mood, she sighed, giving the dangerous package a wide berth. But instead of the agonising recollections she had been expecting, it was a different memory that surfaced in her mind. This one went back more than a decade, back to her first year of training sessions under her old hand-to-hand combat instructor. Sessions that had largely alternated between the instructor slamming her against the wall and pinning her to the floor.

     As she was struggling to escape one of the instructor's unbreakable grips, Elaine had once asked him for advice on what to do if she screwed up.

     "Take responsibility," he had replied, allowing her to stand, "stay in there no matter what. Fix what you've messed up."

     The conversation hadn't ended there of course. "What if I can't fix it?" she had asked. "What if someone dies? You can't fix that, right? How do you fix an unfixable mistake?"

     In his typical nonchalant manner, her instructor had shrugged, delivered his answer, then delivered a knockout blow to her right temple.

     There was a smile on Elaine's lips as she advanced confidently out of the armoury, blaster in hand and backpack bulging with the weight of the powerful plasmite charge. For the first time in months, she felt in control of the situation.

     "How do you fix an unfixable mistake?" she whispered.

     "You kick butt."

     * * *

     Like any good villain's command centre, the space station's primary TACOM node was quiet and dark, lit only by the glow of the myriad of predominantly red screens plastered over the walls and desks. Accompanying the screens were various complicated arrays of colour-coded buttons, interspersed with the occasional lever or data port. A small army of Grundos occupied a slightly larger army of swivel chairs, tirelessly operating computer consoles and relaying information through their headsets. Occasionally, a Grundo would scoot their chair over to an adjacent desk to help out with an especially difficult task, or stand up and fire a series of hand signals across the room.

     Overseeing all this activity was a pair of cold, precise eyes, sweeping steadily across every last corner of the command centre. These were eyes that could pierce through the darkness with more clarity than any night-vision equipment, zeroing in on the slightest blip or mishap, wherever it might occur. If you slipped up on their watch, there might not be any immediate consequences, but you could rest assured that you wouldn't be allowed to make the same mistake twice.

     A harsh buzzer sounded, and Commander Gormos turned his cold and precise eyes towards the small security door behind him as it slid open to reveal the distinctive silhouette of an Acara in light armour. Ylana Skyfire strode confidently into the command centre, sparing barely a glance for the Grundos working around her.

     "My shift," she announced, ignoring the fact that Gormos probably knew more about her shift times than she did. "Anything happen that I should know about?"

     The Kougra didn't bother acknowledge Ylana's disrespectful tone. They were both valuable to Doctor Sloth, and neither of them had the slightest modicum of respect for the other. They'd agreed on that point long ago, and there was no point in revisiting it.

     "There have been no reported incidents," he replied calmly, turning to face the bounty hunter.

     Ylana scowled, radiating irritation as she found a convenient set of controls to lean against. A nearby Grundo opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it and turned back to his console.

     "Well, it's only a matter of time before one of these dolts screws something up," the Acara remarked.

     "Only a matter of time," Commander Gormos agreed, turning to leave. "Doctor Sloth has informed me that he will be ready for his first session with the prisoner directly after his conference. He wants her on a shuttle to his location in an hour. I suggest you start making arrangements as soon as you're settled in."

     "I'll take care of it. I can only watch cargo haulers running back and forth for so many hours anyway."

     "Don't be late."

     "I won't."

     Gormos stepped out of the command centre and turned down the adjacent hallway, sealing the door behind him. "Idiot," Ylana snapped. She straightened up and picked out a random Grundo to interrogate, walking over to him and placing a very firm hand on his shoulder.

     "How's the prisoner doing?" she inquired casually, her grip making it clear that this was anything but a casual question.

     "Um... well, the prisoner's cell is solid Skaridian-6," the Grundo explained hesitantly. "We have no monitoring devices available inside."

     Ylana treated the unfortunate Grundo to a long, silent stare. I already know that, the stare said, so you'd better work on giving me some useful information before I decide to show you just why my hand never leaves this blaster.

     "Er... please wait for just one more second," he foundered. "I'll pull up the system logs for cell block 22F immediately."

     Ylana impatiently drummed her fingers on her blaster grip while the Grundo punched in a rapid series of commands.

     "Um... okay, the logs show all systems normal for the first one hour and eighteen minutes. There is a slight anomaly after that point, however. The LP9 seal controllers reported an impact, and the locks were run at increased power for the next five minutes. No impacts were detected after that."

     "Rattling the bars. Typical Nevergreen," muttered Ylana. "Anything else?"

     "Negative, the logs show normal activity from that point until three point five seconds ago. The only noticeable exception consists of one small glitch that has already been filed with maintenance for further investigation."

     "Glitch?" Ylana raised an eyebrow. Her expression didn't show it, but alarm bells were already going off in her head.

     "Well, precisely twenty-two minutes and thirty-six seconds ago, the logs indicate that the prisoner's cell door was opened. Since that is a technical impossibility, it must be a sensor malfunction of some sort. The error corrects itself three seconds later."

     Ylana's hand clamped down so hard that the Grundo winced in pain. "Sensor malfunction my foot!" she growled angrily. "Call a lockdown! Secure every possible way off this station! I want twelve HKs guarding every escape pod bay, and at least thirty in each hangar. Make sure all patrolling units are assembled into their full squads. Nevergreen's not going anywhere on my watch!"

To be continued...

 
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Other Episodes


» Occupational Hazard: Part One
» Occupational Hazard: Part Two



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