Identity Theft, Chapter 21

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 21/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: At the best of times, the most dangerous part of space travel is atmospheric re-entry. These are not the best of times…
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

21.
Matador Falling

“Here,” Jack told Kyra, handing her a protein bar she’d stowed in her bag. “Breakfast.”

She pulled out one for herself as well. In all honesty, she had almost no appetite. The stress of the new situation, the new crisis, had stolen it away. But they needed to eat. They needed their wits about them if they wanted to maneuver their way through this latest disaster.

The speaker on their comm panel indicated that the crew had stayed on the flight deck for the moment. They were arguing, with little enthusiasm, over how long they were likely to have to stay quarantined once they landed.

Nibbling at the protein bar, Jack stood up and looked around the utility closet, taking in its contents and estimating how likely it was that the crew of the Scarlet Matador would decide any of it was important during the next twenty-four hours. After a moment, she sighed with a small amount of relief.

Most of the items on the shelves, beneath their protective webbing, were things for a port crew to use to clean up and recondition the cryo tubes between uses, and to tidy up the cryo deck once all of its occupants had debarked. There were some spare comm panels and other bits of hardware, some hazmat jumpsuits and helmets, and a handful of scanners—Geiger counters, toxic gas detectors, others she couldn’t identify at all—but very little else.

Jack grabbed a bin of comm hardware and pulled it down for a closer look. After a moment, she began assembling some of the pieces.

“What are you making?” Kyra asked in a whisper.

“Video screen,” Jack answered, unwrapping a screen unit and settling it in its housing. “So we can see what’s on the ship’s cameras.”

Once she realized that Kyra was interested in what she was doing, she kept up a soft running commentary as she worked. She never mentioned that it was her father who had showed her how pieces like these fit together, hinting instead that this was another thing Paris P. Ogilvie had taught her while she was “running” with the smuggler. But she explained what each part was for, what each connection would do, as she assembled them. Finally, she was ready to plug it into the comm panel.

There were dozens of cameras placed throughout the ship, more than Jack had expected. She went through their pre- and post-launch feeds first, strategically erasing any footage that she and Kyra had appeared on. Once that was done, she began examining the feeds from right before the emergency revival had been triggered.

“What are you looking for?” Kyra asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. I want to know more about what went wrong.”

Nothing seemed to change, anywhere on board the ship, during the half hour leading up to the moment she burst out of her cryo-tube. She erased the footage of her and Kyra, up to the moment when they had vanished into the utility closet.

Maybe, she thought, the Isomorph Drive would have something useful in its logs. She pulled them up, and sighed. Most of the records were identical.

2517.03.18.21:15:30 ARRIVING AT FIRST JUMP POINT.
2517.03.18.21:15:33 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U137. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.03.20.15:32:02 ISOMORPH DRIVE DISENGAGING. RETURNING TO U1. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.03.20.15:32:37 NO ANOMALIES DETECTED. MOVING TO SECOND JUMP POINT.
2517.03.20.19:15:21 ARRIVING AT SECOND JUMP POINT.
2517.03.20.19:15:24 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U23C. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL…

The log went on like that. Some of the jumps lasted two or three days, while most lasted only a few hours. Jack scrolled down to the final star jump.

2517.04.12.18:25:22 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U322A. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.04.16.20:43:04 ISOMORPH DRIVE DISENGAGING. RETURNING TO U1. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.04.16.20:43:39 ANOMALY DETECTED.
2517.04.16.20:43:42 ISOMORPHIC OVERLAY IN PROGRESS. ATTEMPTING TO CORRECT.
2517.04.16.20:43:45 CORRECTION FAILED. REATTEMPTING.
2517.04.16.20:43:48 CORRECTION FAILED. REATTEMPTING.
2517.04.16.20:43:51 CORRECTION FAILED. ANALYZING STRING FREQUENCIES.
2517.04.16.20:43:54 STRING FREQUENCIES FLUCTUATING BETWEEN U322A and U1. LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT CONFIRMED.
2517.04.16.20:43:57 QUINTESSA CORPORATION NOTIFIED. DATA PACKET DISPATCHED. ADVANCE REVIVAL PROTOCOL INITIATED.
2517.04.16.20.45:48 REDACTED
2517.04.16:20:47:27 REDACTED
2517.04.16:20:58:57 CREW REVIVAL COMMENCING.
2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:08:15 INSTRUCTIONS FROM QUINTESSA CORPORATION RECEIVED.
2517.04.16:21:11:32 ISOMORPH DRIVE DECOMISSIONED.
2517.04.16:21:11:33 ISOMORPH COORDINATE DATABASE WIPED.
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

“Well, shit,” Jack muttered, after reading it over a third time.

“What does it mean?” Kyra asked.

“Um, okay… so the last star jump for this trip was kind of long, looks like. It started four days ago and ended today.” Jack pointed to the first two lines in the final log segment. “The Isomorpher took us into ‘U322A,’ I’m guessing that’s the number they assigned to the universe with the wormhole where they wanted it… and then today it tried to bring us back to ‘U1,’ which is—”

“Our home universe. Got it.” Kyra nodded, reading the log over her shoulder again.

“So about thirty-five seconds after we were supposed to be safely back home, the system detected that something was wrong.”

“The isomorphic overlay?”

“Yeah. I’ll bet it was getting readings that matched both universes.”

“So then it tried to fix it?”

“Yeah, three times. And when it didn’t work, it did some kind of quantum-level analysis that confirmed we’re physically in both universes at the same time.”

“So then it declared this ‘Level Five Incident’ thing?”

“Yeah, and sent an alert out to the corporation that makes the Isomorpher, with all of the data, looks like.”

“How come it took another fifteen minutes to wake up the crew?”

“’Cause the system had instructions that it had to wake us up first. See those two redacted entries? That’s when I closed my cryo-tube and then closed yours. It redacted the logs of our revival, just like it was told to.”

“Damn, it really took us that long to get from the tubes to this closet?”

“We were pretty wobbly. But here’s the crazy part. The Quintessa Corporation seems to have sent instructions back to the ship’s mainframe, while all that was going on, ordering it to decommission the Isomorpher and wipe its database. That’s stuff you’d think accident investigators on the surface would want access to.”

“That’s crazy—hey! Look what just happened to those entries.”

Jack blinked. While the two of them had been talking, the entries had changed drastically.

2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:08:15 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:32 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:33 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

A second later, they had changed again.

2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

Jack noticed that even more had disappeared from earlier on.

2517.04.16.20:43:54 STRING FREQUENCIES FLUCTUATING BETWEEN U322A and U1. LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT DECLARED.
2517.04.16:20:58:57 CREW REVIVAL COMMENCING.

“Holy shit. Did this thing just cover up…?”

“Everything we did and everything the Quintessa Corporation did. Yeah.”

There was now no record that the Quintessa Corporation had ever been notified of the incident, no record that it had instructed the system to trash the Isomorpher. And, fortunately, no record of two stowaways being given a fifteen-minute head start before the crew woke up.

Kyra’s eyes, meeting hers, were awed and a little horrified. “Everybody’ll just assume that the drive got wiped by the Incident, won’t they?”

Jack nodded, feeling a little ill… and a lot confused. What had been in the drive and the database that needed so much protection? Mr. Reilly had told her that the Quintessa Corporation was secretive, but…

“We cannot get caught,” she muttered. Aside from the whole issue of being arrested for stowing away, and potentially identified as fugitives from a mental hospital, there was now the issue of what the Quintessa Corporation might do to inconvenient witnesses.

Exactly what they were witnesses of, she wasn’t even sure. But it scared her almost as much as the prospect of straddling a universe that was on fire.

“So what do we do?” Kyra asked after a moment, looking around at the closet’s shelves.

“I don’t know. Not yet. If we can just… stay unseen by the Matador’s crew, and then by the relief crew, maybe we can get out after they’ve evacuated the ship.”

That, she suddenly thought, could be an hours-long or days-long process, as the ground crews switched cryo-tubes over to portable feeds before moving them, and their occupants, out. Could they manage to stay hidden all that time? A quick check of the schematics showed her a single set of restrooms at the other end of the cryo deck.

“We’re gonna have to ‘hold it’ until the Matador’s crew goes to sleep,” she realized. “Or at least, until I can figure out how to switch off active feeds between here and the bathroom while we’re on the move.”

“Fun,” Kyra muttered. “Any chance we can blend in with the ground crew while they’re working? I mean, we’re dressed in pretty standard ground crew gear, right?”

Jack glanced at Kyra’s jumpsuit as she gestured at it. “Maybe. But there could be official logos, or colors, that we don’t have. And they’ll probably be wearing protective—”

She didn’t even try to finish her sentence. Instead, she keyed in one of her highest-level ghost codes, inputting her search parameters once she was sure they would be concealed from the flight deck.

STANDARD PROTECTIVE WEAR FOR LEVEL FIVE INCIDENTS

“Why do they call it ‘Level Five,’ of all things?” Kyra huffed. “What are levels one through four?”

“Dimensions, maybe. The whole point is to connect points in our spacetime with… isomorphic… points elsewhere in the fifth dimension… I think.” Jack frowned. “Maybe ‘Isomorpher’ isn’t such a bad name after all.”

The system wasn’t especially cooperative. She had to rephrase the search a dozen times before she found a series of pictures someone had clandestinely taken of an incident on Atreyus 4. The crew seen offloading cryo-tubes in the images wore standard hazmat suits.

A search for emergency protocols on Tangiers Prime generated a list of what ground crews were expected to wear during different emergencies. But she couldn’t find references to Level Five Incidents…

“There,” Kyra said, pointing to a paragraph at the very bottom of the long screed she’d been reading.

Due to the unpredictable nature of Level Five Incidents, there is no standardized requirement for protective gear. In most cases, the effects of the Level Five Incident will only be directly experienced by the occupants of the distressed vessel. Some secondary damage, however, is possible, if the physical effects (ex: fire) cross the threshold via the body of a crew member or passenger, or via affected materials on the ship. The recommendation is for full hazmat gear.

“Fire,” Kyra muttered. “So we could find ourselves on fire.”

“It’s happened at least once,” Jack told her. “So maybe hazmat gear would be a good idea even if we weren’t trying to disguise ourselves.”

Damn. The crew might be coming to this supply closet after all.

Jack switched over to inventory and breathed a sigh of relief. Each member of the crew had their own hazmat gear stored in their flight deck lockers. The suits she’d seen on the shelves were surplus.

Potentially useful surplus…

Finding recent pictures of the hazmat suits worn on Tangiers Prime took just a few more minutes. Jack pulled one of the suits off of the shelves to compare.

“Did we just catch a really big break?” Kyra breathed.

“I think we did.” Some worlds loved to gaudy up standard gear and make it unique, but Tangiers Prime apparently had no such pretensions. The suit in her hand was an exact match. She looked over the details and then began scrounging through the shelves. Hazmat footwear covers, in a variety of sizes, were stored below the pile of suits. She began searching for the gear closest to their sizes.

For the next several hours, Jack and Kyra practiced putting on the suits, miming the ways that they would seal them shut with the included tape. Then, after Jack mentioned the amount of time it would take to offload the cryotubes, they called up instructions for the process of detaching an occupied cryotube from a ship’s central hub and attaching it to a portable feed. They watched videos together, quizzed each other on the different buttons and switches they would need to press and in which order—Jack, of course, had no problem remembering, but pretended to make mistakes so that Kyra could correct her and remember them all the better—until finally they heard the crew talking about bunking down for a few hours before it would be time to land.

With the crew asleep, Jack switched off the camera feeds in the cryo deck long enough for them to make use of the restroom. The utility closet, they had decided, was the best place for them to be when the ground crew boarded. They would wait for a lull in the activities, a moment when nobody was within line of sight of the closet door, and then emerge, fully garbed in their hazmat gear, to blend in with the ground crew and help evacuate tubes. Once they were off the ship, they’d do a quick fade and make their escape.

Both of them were sure it couldn’t be that easy. But they spent the whole time that the Matador crew slept working out every possible complication they could imagine and what they might do in response. Jack found and modified a pair of linked comms, open-channel but scrambled against surveillance, so that they could still talk to each other once they were fully suited up and mingling with the ground crew.

When the Matador crew woke up and began preparing for the landing, they were ready. Or as ready as they could possibly be. Their cards, from Helion Prime, were back in their smalls. They had changed into fresh clothes, swapped wigs and carefully put them back on, and stowed the rest of their clothing and toiletries, all replaceable, far back in the top shelf where hopefully they wouldn’t be found for a long time. As the crew took their seats in the flight deck, Kyra and Jack exchanged a grim look.

“This is when things could start getting crazy,” Jack whispered.

“How?”

“Well, we don’t know what the other universe’s Tangiers Prime is like. Odds are it’s never been terraformed. So the atmosphere on that side could be really different.”

“Like, not breathable?”

“That’s a real risk, yeah. But it could be thicker or thinner, too, and that could change everything about atmospheric entry.”

“How do you know all this?” Kyra asked.

Jack decided that she might as well come clean, at least a little. “I have a photographic memory. If I hear it, see it, or read it, I’ll remember it forever. As long as I’m paying attention, anyway.”

Many people had thought her an odd child because of that. Where most small children thrived on and sought out repetition, watching the same movie dozens of times and repeating the same silly jokes ad nauseam, Jack had always found herself wanting to move on. She could remember whatever it was just fine, and repetition just felt like a waste of time to her. As she grew older and began to understand the social effects of her behavior, she had learned to tolerate and even engage in a certain amount of repetition… and to hide just how far ahead she was reading from her classmates and even teachers.

Right now, though, it was a strategic asset, and Kyra had a right to know it was at their disposal.

“Okay,” Kyra said after a moment. “So landing could be rough and unpredictable. Dangerous and fatal, even.”

“Pretty much, yeah. And then there’s the question of the landing site. If they are trying to have us land in an area that was artificially smoothed out…”

“There could be bumpy terrain on the other side. Shit. No wonder they’re making such a fuss about this. So we could burn up during entry, or crash during landing…”

“Or find ourselves choking on a half-poisonous atmosphere when the doors open.” Jack touched the helmet of her hazmat suit. “Once we try to take these off, anyway.”

“Well, hell. At least it’ll be an adventure, right?” Kyra grinned, but Jack could see the gallows humor in her eyes. The auburn wig, now carefully seated over her braided-back hair, was less jarring on her than the blonde bob—which Jack was now wearing over her much shorter, straight hair—had been.

“Everybody’s gotta die sometime, yeah.” Jack sighed. “At least it’ll be in good company.”

Kyra suddenly looked touched. She reached out and took Jack’s hand, giving it a squeeze.

“Tangiers Prime Ground Control,” the pilot said, her voice doubling slightly as it came through from both the flight deck microphone and the comm signal, “this is the Scarlet Matador on approach for our entry window, requesting clearance to proceed.”

Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers Prime Ground Control. Your descent vectors are looking good. You are cleared for landing. Do you have any anomalies to report at this time?”

“None detected yet, Ground Control. Scans indicate no atmospheric variances in density or temperature. Fingers crossed.”

“Godspeed, Scarlet Matador. We’re setting up emergency staging at your landing site.”

“Thank you. Entering the upper atmosphere now. Adjusting descent angle… resistance is textbook. So far, so good.”

The ship shivered a little beneath Jack’s crossed legs, through the floor of the utility closet. The hull groaned.

“Looking good from our end too. You’re nearing comms blackout.”

“Roger that. Talk to you on the other side.”

“Looking forward to it, Matador.”

For several minutes, only the hushed voices of the flight deck crew came through the utility closet’s comm speaker. Everyone seemed calm, although Jack had listened to comm recordings from some legendary accidents and almost-accidents that sounded every bit as nonchalant. Flight crews tended to have nerves of steel. She wished she could have watched Fry crash-landing the Hunter-Gratzner.

She probably never even broke a sweat… Johns had obviously been full of shit.

“…do you read? Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers Prime Ground Control, do you read?”

“Ground Control, this is the Scarlet Matador, reading you loud and clear.”

“Welcome back, Matador. We show you centered in your lane. Any anomalies to report?”

“None yet, Ground—hold on. I’m picking up some… Ground Control, please verify our landing coordinates.”

“42.434719 degrees north, 83.985001 degrees west.”

“Ground Control, we have an anomaly. We are intermittently picking up a large body of water on our scanners at the designated location.”

Scarlet Matador, please send us your readings.”

“Transmitting.”

There was a pause.

“They’d better come up with something fast,” the Captain grumbled. “We’ll be there in fifteen more minutes.”

Scarlet Matador,” Ground Control finally said, “you will attempt landing at the coordinates. You will need to spiral in and then hover over the landing site, just above the detected water level. We will tether you at that height and bring in support scaffolding. Ground support has been notified of the revised plan. Do you need further instruction?”

“No, but thank you. Adjusting approach trajectory now.”

“Once the ship is secured, we recommend you put on your protective gear.”

“Great minds think alike. God only knows what could be in that water.”

“Your readings indicate normal saltwater. About 28, 29 degrees… bathwater temperatures. Might be a tropical paradise on the other side.”

“Might have sharks, too.”

Ground Control laughed. “Well, if you find any coconuts, you pull them over to this side.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll have a luau.”

The captain turned off her microphone for a moment, her voice only coming in from the flight deck feed. “Tropical paradise my ass…”

One of the other crew members started singing an ancient sea chanty. “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship…”

“Don’t be an idiot.” The captain switched her microphone back on. “Ground Control, my readings are showing a five meter depth to the water. Seafloor appears to have roughly fifteen centimeters of variance from the tarmac of this ’verse. Can you confirm?”

“Roger, Scarlet Matador. The good news is that means you won’t sink. Adjusting landing plan accordingly. We will bolster the landing gear to match the seafloor height. Prepare to receive new trajectories. You will still want to come in at a hover and then do a slow descent.”

Jack looked over at Kyra. “Once they land, it’ll be time to put on our suits. They’ll be doing the same thing… and they won’t open up until they’re secure. Then we watch and wait. We’ll put on our helmets last, when we’re ready to join the ground crew.”

Kyra gave Jack a worried look. “Do you know how to swim?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty good at it. Just wasn’t sure if you came from a world where people swam. Most of the girls at the hospital didn’t know how. Not much swimming on a world that’s surface is only 10% water.”

Jack grinned. “I’m good. But… we should try not to swim in front of the locals.”

Kyra snickered. “Yeah, that might look a little weird.”

The floor began to tilt to one side, gradually and gently. Jack could feel them turning, a sensation that left her a little queasy since everything around her showed no signs of the motion. The tilt steepened, and the turning sensation grew more pronounced. The ship shivered against some turbulence.

“We’re spiraling in,” she told Kyra. “Another moment and they’ll switch to repulsor engines so we can hover.”

Kyra nodded, looking a little pale and nauseated.

The switch was a little rough. The ship shuddered, hard, as the repulsors switched on, and wobbled for several gut-clenching seconds before settling into a strange new attitude that reminded Jack of a floating dock.

CLANG!

She and Kyra both jumped.

“What the fuck was that?” Kyra gasped.

CLANG!

“I don’t—oh! They said they were going to anchor the ship while it hovered, didn’t they? I’ll bet that’s what it is.”

The loud noise repeated six more times, from various directions, before stopping.

Scarlet Matador, this is Ground Control. Platforms are in position below your landing gear. Begin dialing down your repulsors and descend.”

“Copy that.”

Jack could feel it, the moment the ship touched the surface of the water in the other universe. Suddenly there was resistance. Something wanted to keep the ship floating, even as the gravity of U1’s Tangiers Prime was trying to draw it down.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the Scarlet Matador descended the final fifteen meters. It was a remarkably gentle landing for one so harrowing.

“Ground Control, this is the Scarlet Matador. We have touched down. We will need additional anchoring. There’s some tidal forces at work on the other side.”

“Roger that, Scarlet Matador. We are moving in to bolster your anchor points. Boarding will commence in twenty minutes. Please be in full protective gear at that time.”

Twenty minutes was just enough time to finish getting ready. Jack and Kyra tested their comms, making sure they’d hear each other’s voices if they whispered but not be deafened if either of them had to shout. Jack switched the video feed over to external cameras so that they could watch the approaching ground crews and make sure that their protective gear would blend in.

“It’s like trying to watch someone on the other side of an aquarium,” Jack murmured to Kyra after a moment.

“Never tried that. But this is seriously trippy.”

The cameras kept registering the presence of water on the surface. The crews preparing to board the ship sometimes appeared to be doing so in open air, but frequently looked distorted by water, while the cameras struggled to refocus.

“Ground control, please be advised. The water level seems to be rising slowly. It’s now at 16 meters. Please enter via the upper decks to prevent flooding on board the Matador.”

“Copy, Matador. We will use flyers to transport you and the passengers. Keep us advised of water levels. We don’t want to drown anybody.”

Hanging the Geiger counters and other detection instruments on their belts—the approaching ground crew all had them—and preparing to don their helmets, Jack and Kyra watched as the Matador crew approached the airlock that had been chosen as the initial entry point. Large, one deck above the cryo deck—which, Jack realized with a shudder, was fully underwater in the other universe—and opening on a spacious room, it made a good staging point for the rescue operation that was about to begin.

Hopefully.

The captain stepped forward, wearing a hazmat suit emblazoned with the Scarlet Matador’s logo.

Good, Jack thought. Her suit, and Kyra’s, would suggest even more that they were from Tangiers Prime and not the ship. Just as long as they could stay above the water, anyway.

On the other side of the airlock, the leader of the ground crew approached the door.

Jack realized she was holding her breath as the unsealing commenced.

“Captain,” the leader said, stepping into the airlock. His voice was the voice of the Ground Control officer who had talked the ship down. “Permission to come aboard?”

“Granted,” the Matador’s captain said with obvious relief. “It’s good to meet you in pers—”

A wave broke against the ship, splashing through the open airlock and smacking the captain down to the floor.

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Bie

*bounces!* NZWs!!! Ya already know I loves this chapter but in case ya forgot?

I loves this chapter! 😀

Ardath Rekha • Works in Progress