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' WARNING: Your vessel has entered a restricted area. You must... '
The automated message was only one of a dozen warning signals that were bombarding the control room of the survey craft Dawkins. Cali Moore shut that particular warning signal out of her head. She couldn't think about it right now. She had to focus on finding an emergency landing site. The vessel wouldn't last long in open space.
"Where the hell are we?" Cali demanded of her co-pilot, Klayne.
"It doesn't make any sense ... it's like we've been going the wrong direction for days. We're nowhere near a station or colony."
"Improvise. Find me a landing site, NOW!"
Another automated message pumped into the control room.
' WARNING: Power system failure is imminent. Commencing emergency protocol..."
Fuck, Cali swore to herself. It didn't make any sense at all. These systems shouldn't be failing.
Klayne scrolled through the navigation displays at a blinding speed.
"Here's one..." he froze the display on a scan of a nearby planet. " Damn, we're right on top of it."
Cali wasn't waiting for a second choice. According to the control panel, the systems of the Dawkins were shutting down, one by one. Without delay, she barked out the voice-commands that would land the vessel onto the surface of the planet. The computer acknowledged her orders. She only hoped that the computer would remain on-line long enough to carry out the commands.
The landing was actually perfect. A little too perfect for a vessel with so many problem, Cali thought briefly, but she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Besides, there were more pressing matters.
"Cali, " the voice of Sonya came in through her headset. She was the second shift pilot, and had been trying to track the source of the system problems while Cali piloted the craft. " Sensors are reporting a dangerous hot-spot on the outer hull. I'm suited up. I need to get out there and cool it down before it becomes critical."
Fuck. One more problem.
"Understood Sonya, go ahead."
A light flashed on the panel, showing that Sonya had opened an access port to the outside. It was one of several warning lights that were still blinking relentlessly on the display. Not a moment later the computer churned out yet another automated message.
' WARNING: Intruder alert. Unidentified personnel have boarded the vessel. '
Cali's training took over.
"Lock down all systems. Send a distress..."
The blade was at her throat.
Ann/R/K felt the Dawkins come to rest on the remote planet, and allowed herself to relax for the first time in days. Whatever else they built these survey vessels for, it left little room for comfort. Her back ached from the cramped position she took on the edge of her bunk while accessing her console. Now that the ship was down, she allowed the her fingers to drift away from the keypad.
Her moment of rest was short lived. The man who burst into her room gave no sympathy for her aching muscles. The man was huge, nearly naked, and covered in a foul smelling mud paint. He grabbed her by the arm, and led her, at knife point, out to the small clearing surrounding the Dawkins. The smell of the damp jungle air filled her nostrils.
The crew members were here too, she noted. There were Cali and Klayne from the control room, the secondary flight crew, Sonya and Beth, and herself. Sonya was wearing a portion of what used to be an environmental protection suit, now dismantled by their captors.
Surrounding the occupants of the Dawkins ware the dark, thick walls of the jungle which covered the surface of this planet. On the edges of the clearing there was a large group of men who seemed to fit in very well with the jungle setting. It wasn't easy to know how many of the men were around them. Wearing full body paints of green, brown and black on their bare skins, they blended into the edges of their jungle home.
"Who here is with McPhail?" A tall man stood forward from the edge of the clearing. His accent was Scottish, but the war paints did nothing to confirm his ethnic origin.
"That's me, " responded Ann/R/K. She could see the looks of confusion passing among the other captives. She produced a small metal pin from her pocket. It identified her as an agent of the McPhail corporation. Ann held it out to the man she knew to be called BlackWatch. He inspected the pin briefly.
"What's your name?"
"Good. You've done well. I'll see that you are rewarded for your efforts."
His voice rose in volume to address the entire crew of the Dawkins.
"As for the rest of you, it's important that we come to an understanding quickly. BlackWatch is my name, and make no mistake, your lives are in my hands. Perhaps my colleague, Ann/R/K can shed some light on your recent difficulties."
Ann was pleased that BlackWatch deferred to her about the technical details. Like every hacker, she enjoyed taking bragging rights to her work, and this job was a thing of beauty. She turned and smiled at her astonished ship-mates.
"There's absolutely nothing wrong with the systems of the Dawkins, " she explained. " My job was to force you into this star system, and to land on this remote planet. It wasn't easy, I'll tell you. After two full days of trying to crack the command system, and take control of the Dawkins, I had to give up. The command system is fool-proof. It will accept only voice commands from the crew."
"I checked the system for other weak links. Finally, I found one that I could exploit. With the help of some very sophisticated hardware, provided by my generous benefactors at the McPhail corporation, I was able to insert myself as a link in the sensors, and feed false data to the control room."
"First it was little things. I shifted the star charts a bit. Predictably, you adjusted your course. By small degrees, I had you change the course of our travels to bring you to this system. Once we were within range, I began to feed system error messages to the main computer. I knew that if you thought the Dawkins was close to failure, that you would be forced to land. Lastly, I fooled the ship's sensors into thinking that these co-ordinates were the only safe landing site."
As she spoke, she could see the crew shaking their heads in disbelief. Their sole passenger had hijacked the Dawkins without so much as brandishing a weapon, or even leaving her quarters. Ann/R/K was in her glory.
"But, why?" The captain of the Dawkins asked quietly.
BlackWatch was the one to answer Cali's question.
"Because of me, " he said, in his thick Scottish accent. " If you haven't figured it out yet, your vessel has landed you on Penal Facility 7, your government's final solution for criminals who are beyond hope of correction. You are participating in the first escape attempt in the history of this penal colony."
Ann/R/K had heard stories about the penal colony long before she was 'recruited' by the McPhail corporation for this mission. Everyone had heard the stories, but no one knew how true they were, because no one ever came back. No one even knew where the colony was.
After she was briefed on the mission, Ann could understand why no one had ever escaped. The location of the planet was a closely guarded secret. Nestled among some of the more remote star systems, it was a virtual needle in a haystack. Dropped here without any technology, in the middle of the savage wilderness of the jungles, the convict was lucky to survive, much less consider building means of escape.
What means of escape? The convict was left her without even the basic foundations of technology, on an inhospitable planet, amongst the worst criminal deviants that human society has ever produced, and light years away from the nearest outpost. No, the justice system had very little worry of an escape attempt.
Until, of course, a high level covert agent for the McPhail corporation was imprisoned here; namely BlackWatch.
Hiroshi Nagato, McPhail Corp's top technician, was the one who had found the location of the colony, with the aid of technical gadgetry that frankly made Ann/R/K drool. The more Ann learned about the power and influence of the McPhail Corporation, the more impressed she was.
BlackWatch was impatient to continue.
"If I understand Ann/R/K correctly, only a member of your crew can reactivate the Dawkins, and navigate us away from this hell. She was able to fool you into landing here, but it is a method that cannot succeed again, and so I now must convince one of you to co-operate with me."
This was going to be tricky, Ann knew. The standing policy of the pilots, no matter the circumstances, was to refuse to negotiate with hijackers or terrorists. The policy was held sacred amongst the union of pilots. If any of these crew members violated the ordinance, they would never fly again. It was a policy that had virtually eliminated hijacking attempts over the last three decades.
"Now then, which one of you will it be?"
.... There is more of this story ...