April 8th 2020
Settling into her customary seat on the small transport shuttle, Kayla took a sip from her thermos of mate and involuntarily grimaced. No sugar, she thought, the bitter taste of the tea lingering. Another of Susan’s attempts at encouraging healthier habits. Back on Terra, Kayla had depended on a constant stream of sugar and caffeine to keep her fueled through 12-to-15-hour work days, but now that she was working a desk job, the extra calories had begun to “soften her edges,” as Susan politely put it. Sigh. Unsweetened mate it is. Bracing herself, she took another sip of the astringent brew, adding it to the long list of things on Crusader she needed to get used to.
One of the biggest hurdles so far had been trying to adjust to the gas giant itself. Out the window of the transport, the sun crested the horizon, casting a deep, desert rose hue over the endless sea of clouds. Knowing that there was no solid ground underfoot would still freak her out a bit if she thought about it too much. Sure was a pretty view though.
Kayla felt the ship slow and leaned forward to confirm they were approaching the commercial hub landing pad. Her stop. As she rose from her seat, a throng of shipyard workers riding the shuttle quickly cleared a path for her with smiles and nods. One of the perks of wearing the Crusader Security uniform.
“You have a good one, Officer Frost,” said the shuttle pilot as the side hatch unfolded, speaking loudly to be heard over the gusting wind outside.
“Thanks,” said Kayla, stepping down, one hand holding her cap in place. She quickly cleared the pad so the transport could continue on to its next stop at the neighboring shipyard complex. Once past the windbreak, she slowed her pace, used her badge to shortcut customs and turned towards the promenade.
The wide garden-lined walkway provided access to most of the various shopping plazas and services that comprised the bulk of the hub’s structures, with the added bonus of serving up some of the best vistas of Crusader’s massive vessels being constructed. Even at this early hour, tourists congregated along the length of the overlook, eagerly snapping vids as if someone was going to demand proof of their trip once they got back home. She had heard that the visitor numbers were down this year, but it hardly felt like it as she waded her way through the crowd.
It was a relief when she finally made her way inside the Crusader Security Office, a calm oasis from the buzz of activity outside. Though that was a bit disconcerting in itself. Most of the stations she had worked in were usually a jumble of officers, criminals and their unfortunate victims shouting, crying and yelling. Crusader’s insistence on using contractors to handle the mounting workload in the sector left the office feeling a bit like a ghost town. The building itself stood in sharp contrast to the bleak functionality of the bullpen that had been her second home for a decade back on Terra. With its pleasant atmosphere and ergonomic designs, you could tell that “team flow experts” and environmental psychologists who specialized in harmonizing workers with their surroundings had probably been consulted during construction. Basically, there was a lot of natural light, way too many potted plants and hallways that nearly all lead towards the “interface lounge,” i.e., the break room. As she crossed on her way to her desk, she gave her traditional greeting to the two officers coming off shift. “Hey, Bautista. Hey, Gibbs. Good shift?”
“The usual nightmare,” replied Gibbs.
“Wasn’t as bad as that,” said Bautista, stirring some creamer into his coffee.
Like her, the pair worked in the Liaison Division coordinating various contractor operations. But unlike her, they had the unsavory job of working the “lemonade stand” — the small auxiliary community outreach office. She would take her job in dispatch any day. At least that way the people she interacted with had already cleared the first hurdle of screening. Bautista and Gibbs were supposed to be “accessible,” which, in practice, meant that they spent a lot of time dealing with every wanna-be-merc coming in off the promenade.
“Had a chance to send out a few of our newer prospects on a job, and they seemed to handle the contract pretty competently as far as these things go,” he explained. “At least two of them have the potential to be regulars.”
“Sure, but tell Frost what the contract was,” said Gibbs.
“Kareah,” said Bautista with a sigh.
“Seriously? Again?” asked Kayla.
“Again and again. Why the hell the execs would build that station, just to let it rot, is beyond me. Four years of telling us how having the new security post was gonna fix all our problems and now instead of opening the damn thing, we have to deal with it being raided twice a week.”
“The chief talked to Harris about getting some kind of regular staff posted there,” said Kayla, “but apparently it’s cheaper to deal with the raids.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“But on the bright side,” said Bautista, “at least we have a good idea of where most of the outlaws will be at any given time.”
Just then a shrill chime sounded and all three of their mobiGlas pulsed red. Kayla keyed open the emergency comm alert. A starliner had been hijacked.
“And now we know where the rest are.”
Owned by an independent tour operator, the starliner Baba’s Gift catered to visitors by offering close-up views of the shipyards and Crusader’s three moons. At 09:32 SET, the first officer aboard the Gift sent an ECN broadcast with a short message announcing that they had been boarded by hostiles as they left the surface of Daymar. There had been no more communication since.
It was Kayla’s responsibility as the dispatch officer on duty to re-establish contact with the ship. From her workstation, Kayla followed the protocol prompts to ensure that everything was by the books and all recordings were active. Taking a moment to settle herself with a deep breath, she hailed the ship.
“Attention, Baba’s Gift. This is Officer Kayla Frost of Crusader Security. Please respond.”
Before she could repeat the message, the comm channel clicked open, audio only.
“Hey, Officer Frost. We’ve taken the ship and got around thirty-two hostages,” replied the digitally-altered voice. “You make sure to let every sec in the area know that if we even get a whiff of them on radar, that number’s gonna start droppin’ fast.”
“And who am I speaking with?”
The brief pause told Kayla she was gonna get an alias.
“You can call me Jack.”
“Okay, Jack. Let’s talk about how we get those people you have on board home safely.” Humanize. Humanize. Humanize. One of the most important rules when dealing with a hostage situation. Never refer to them as hostages. Hostages are a thing that can be gotten rid of. People, on the other hand, have homes and families.
“Easy. All you have to do is return some lost property. Twenty crates taken from an outpost on Yela.”
Kayla immediately knew the crates in question. Two weeks prior she had run an op to clear out a suspected drug lab. It had been a huge win for Crusader, thanks in large to the team of contractors successfully seizing a large shipment of pure WiDoW before it could hit the distribution network. Crusader’s PR exec, Harris, had seen to it that the story made headlines all over the local spec. With the amount of coverage the score had gotten, it was hard to say if she was talking to someone connected to the lab, or just an ambitious criminal who saw the chance for a big payout.
“Okay, I can look into that for you, but I’m going to need something first.” Always negotiate. Try not to concede anything without getting something in return, even if it’s purely symbolic. This helps establish you as an equal and makes later, bigger concessions easier to secure. “I need to know that the people with you are still okay.”
The line muted, but the channel was still open. Good. That meant they were taking her request seriously.
A moment later a shaky, stilted voice came on. “This is Captain Donovan. Please. Do what they say.”
“Any injuries? Casualties?” Kayla asked, knowing that the captain wouldn’t have long to respond.
“There’s a couple people hurt, but no one —”
The line muted, cutting the captain off. The next voice she heard was the assailant. “You have six hours.”
And then the channel went dead.
“What’s the issue?” asked Harris. “We give them the drugs and we get the hostages back safe.”
Kayla, for the second time that day, had to choke down a bitter taste in her mouth.
After speaking to the hijackers, she had commed her section chief who had immediately tossed it up the ladder. A few minutes later, she had found herself explaining the situation directly to the PR exec himself. So far, his main concern had been if the press had gotten wind of the situation and if there was anyone “important” aboard.
She attempted to voice her objections again, hoping this time they would get through. “As I said, sir, there’s no guarantee that if we comply with the request that the hostages will be safe. And even if we do get through this without any casualties, by capitulating to the demands we will ensure that this will happen again.”
“I have to say that I agree with Officer Frost, sir,” said Chief Pontayo. “Her plan to stall and prepare a viable extraction route is the course of action I would recommend.”
“Look, I get it. Trust me, I do,” said Harris. “But if we go in there and even a single one of these hostages dies, that’s on us. You know what that headline says? ‘Crusader gets a bunch of civilians killed.’ On the other hand, we meet this asshole’s demands and they kill the hostages anyway? That’s on them. Then we get to sell the story of how these evil monsters killed a bunch of innocent people. We’re the victims. Hell, we spin this right maybe we can finally convince UEE to send some Advocacy out here to actually do their job.”
“Sir, please —” Kayla begun.
“No. It’s done,” interrupted Harris. “Arrange for the drugs to be delivered. I’m gonna go prep the boss and start working out the press statements. Let me know as soon as the crates are in-flight.” With that, Harris disconnected.
“I’m sorry, Frost,” said Chief Pontayo. “But even if it’s not ideal, there is still a strong chance that we will be able to get these people out of this safe and sound, so I need you with me on this.”
“I know, sir,” said Kayla. “I’m with you.”
“Good. I’ll contact evidence lock-up and have them begin prepping the crates for release. I’ll leave arranging the transport to you.”
Kayla nodded. She already had the perfect team in mind for the job.
As soon as Pontayo was off the channel, Kayla contacted her best contractor, Maneet ‘Diamond’ Corvin. The same contractor, in fact, that she had hired to raid the drug lab in the first place.
“Diamond. You free? Have a covert job for you and your crew. Might get messy.”
Diamond smiled into her mobi, “We’re wrapping up something now, but should be able to squeeze you in, Frosty. How soon you need us?”
“Depends. How quickly can you get your hands on a hauling ship?”
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