Author's Note: This novel is dedicated to Dillon, Maddy, and of course, Jackson. You guys rock and without you this story would not be possible.
The vast emptiness pulled at him.
For a moment, Jackson felt the overpowering vacuum of space ripping him violently into the dark void. He was back again; the day he lost his eye. The day his world exploded around him. Bright orange flames licked out, turning his vision blurry.
Then it was all gone.
Jackson sat up with a start, the smart-material in his bed covers going slack. He shivered, the sudden coolness of his starship cabin chilling him through his kadvair. The adrenaline soon faded, though much faster than the memory of his dreams. Those lingered, leaving an unpleasant grimace scrawled on Jackson's face. He growled, banishing the memories again—before he saw the faces.
With little more than a flick of his fingers, the bed coverings parted from around his body. Pushing off gently from the bunk, Jackson floated up into the empty free space of his cabin, drifting in the null gravity. Another flick of his fingers sent his outer wear and body armor out from their holding compartments in the wall. It began arranging itself around his form, streaks of white and blue lights running along the creases of the semi-metal fabric. Beneath it all, his rubberized kadvair had already absorbed the moisture collected from his body in sleep, leaving him a little more comfortable.
Too bad they couldn't absorb the bad memories.
"Hey Jackson," Mitch's disembodied voice chimed in, "you all right?"
"Just nightmares," Jackson grunted dismissively.
Mitch didn't reply. Why should he? He had read Jackson's file when they assigned him as the AI of the ship; he knew more than most what Jackson had experienced that fateful day. And Mitch certainly wasn't his therapist. Jackson wasn't about to delve into a "feelings session" anytime soon with the AI.
Jackson let his momentum through the null gravity carry him up to his ceiling floor, where the charged clingers caught his feet, returning him to standard gravity. Years of space living instantly reoriented his spatial awareness. Now his bed was on the ceiling for all his brain cared. Glancing over, he spotted Dog still snoozing in his kennel. Dog's German shepherd ears perked ever so slightly at Jackson's arrival, but he didn't even sit up. Like Mitch, Dog knew well enough about Jackson's rough sleeping patterns. There was nothing new there.
A small wall screen winked to life at Jackson's approach. It was four in the morning according to Gibraltar military clocks. For Jackson's internal body clock…well, he had slept enough. Might as well have been a lazy Saturday morning for all the sleep he needed.
"Mitch, how far out are we from the Aquarius system?"
A hologram sprung to life behind Jackson, casting warm orange and yellow radiance across the dim cabin. He turned slowly, watching as his ship's avatar glowed to life outside a virtual re-creation of the Aquarius solar system. A brilliant yellow star glowed in the center, surrounded by tiny orbs signifying the various planets of this particular star system. A targeting symbol appeared above one in particular, covered entirely in crystal blue oceans: planet Aquarius.
"We're less than two hours out from our scheduled docking permit at Christmas Tree Station. I was debating whether or not to wake you yet."
Jackson stared wordlessly at the holographic starmap. Although he had instructed Mitch on alarm clock procedures, he had known the AI would never have to wake him. That's what the nightmares were for.
"Prepare an Intel briefing on the bridge," Jackson finally spoke aloud. "I'll make the most of our next couple of hours."
Pushing off the ground again, Jackson navigated through zero-g towards the doorway on true ground. He pulled a simple somersault in midair to realign his feet. The pull of artificial gravity from the clingers tugged on his body again as he made contact, brief dizziness giving way to realignment. Now Dog looked like he was sleeping on the ceiling.
"There's a lot to go over," Mitch began tentatively, "but you should know something before you start reading: I think this is it."
Jackson felt the adrenaline return with force, his heartbeat kicking into high gear. Mitch could easily process through all of their Intelligence without blinking. But even for an AI, he didn't have the military training to make the interpretations that Jackson could. He could certainly make guesses, though. And Mitch's guesses had never been far off.
"Are you sure?" Jackson replied, trying to keep his voice from quivering. He felt himself unconsciously speed up down the narrow corridor.
"If my programming allowed me a belief, I would believe in this."
That settled it, then.
Jackson understood little about artificial intelligence technology. He understood less about the specifics of the AI he had been paired with. But after the last few years, he knew one thing for sure: when Mitch was certain about something, he wasn't usually wrong.
On the bridge, Jackson strode confidently to his command terminal. The holospace lit up as Mitch's Intel briefing filed into the air. Jackson scrolled through the list of facts they had managed to scavenge. It was thorough; including their recent findings, plus several years' worth of clues Jackson had painfully sought across dozens of worlds and star systems.
It wasn't anything for certain, but Mitch was right. This looked like it might be it.
Jackson yawned, reclining in his chair. Reading through the Intel report had killed a lot more time than he expected. "How long now until we reach Aquarius?"
"Less than half an hour," Mitch replied. "You could try getting some more sleep…"
Jackson leapt to his feet, floating briefly in the air from the force of jumping up. When his feet made contact with the surface again, he quickly strode back out into the central corridor.
"Now's not the time for sleeping."
"Jackson," Mitch chimed in through his earpiece, "we need to talk about something."
Jackson grunted, making his way through the quiet bowels of Christmas Tree Station. He didn't even run into any staff. "Can this wait?"
"No," the AI pressed. "We still haven't talked about contingencies."
"You know as well as I do that he's here. Or that he's going to be."
"That's not what I meant and you know it. What am I supposed to do if I get a signal that you failed?"
Jackson felt a twinge of irritation starting to rise. "That's not going to happen," he growled back.
"Right. But what is the contingency?" For an AI, Mitch sounded rather condescending right now.
"Keep the Crimson in high orbit. And take care of Dog."
Mitch didn't have anything else to say. What else was there to say? If Jackson failed now…well, nothing else mattered. Mitch was capable; he could do whatever needed to be done.
But Jackson hadn't come here to fail. He had come here to finally settle an old score.
And he wasn't walking away with failure.
Eventually he took a service corridor leading to one of the expensive observation restaurants. He was surprised when he spotted Jarkko.
Trying not to give himself away, Jackson leaned against a galley railing casually to get a better look. The man was sitting one level down from him, in conversation with another man in a plain suit. Empty plates sat around their table, indicative that they had been there for some time. They were alone, no sight of armed body guards.
Fifteen minutes later, Jarkko took a private call. It lasted all of a few seconds. The two men nodded, paid their bill, and made to leave.
The luxury yacht was well built, barely making a rumble as it detached from the Station, entering Aquarius' atmosphere. Jackson's body armor filled him in with their location and movement via displays inside his helmet's internal heads-up-display. While there were a few planetside ports and attractions, built on large raft cities floating on the water, Jarkko's yacht ignored them all. Jackson watched inside his faceplate's projected screen as they ventured far out away from any of the traditional sites, several thousand kilometers over distant ocean waters. The only thing in the database this far out were a few native settlements far below the water's surface.
They were far out where they were alone and unseen. Jarkko had chosen the meeting place well.
To Jackson's surprise, the yacht didn't settle down into the water, but activated its repuslor engines and held a position about two hundred meters above the ocean surface. Then they waited.
Jackson took the opportunity to move from his hiding place. His infiltration into the yacht's software told him that Jarkko had brought along minimal crew. Jackson remotely disabled a few security sensors and made his way close to the observation deck. He knew whatever would happen it would be out here.
About half an hour later, another yacht took shape in the sky, cruising down casually until it was along starboard side with Jarkko's yacht. Jackson watched from the shadows as the two yachts docked, forming a walkway between the two ships. Nothing stirred on the other yacht's deck, but Jarkko and his buddy in the suit strode across to the other side.
Jackson swore, moving quickly.
Checking briefly to make sure security didn't detect him, Jackson swung himself over the edge of the observation deck. Activating clingers powered by his armor, he clung to the edge of Jarkko's yacht, the new force fighting a dizzying battle against Aquarius' natural gravity. Climbing as fast he could, Jackson dodged underneath the walkway, using the clingers as he crawled upside down to the other yacht. Once over, he let his armor's software briefly ping the new yacht's system and disable a few security systems. They were surprisingly easy, all things considered, but Jackson didn't have time to count his fortune. Once he was sure no one was watching on this end, he swung up around onto the new deck, killing the armor's clingers.
Jarkko had started down a new corridor. Jackson followed discretely behind, a map springing to life on his faceplate's internal screen. It searched impatiently for the target.
Clingers on again, Jackson clung by his hands and feet to the underside of the ceiling overhang, five meters above the new observation deck. Sweat pooled on his forehead as Aquarius' gravity fought with his armor's clinger system. But it was worth the discomfort.
The target was finally in his sights.
"I should get going," Jarkko muttered, glancing anxiously at the man in the suit that had accompanied him.
A third man stood leaning against a railing on the deck, wearing a dark uniform and long trench coat bearing the crest and style of Draconia. The man chuckled, staring out over the endless ocean far below. He ran a hand through his thinning hair, turning to face Jarkko properly. Even after all this time, there was no mistaking the face or those dark eyes.
The man Jackson had chased across the known galaxy since the day his old life ended. And he was here, right within his line of sight.
"What's the rush?" said Axel. "You afraid we were followed?"
"Not followed," Jarkko emphasized, "but I certainly don't want to get caught in Gibraltar space."
Axel laughed again; that same, high-pitched cackle that Jackson had grown to know intimately years ago. "It makes no difference whether they catch you here, in the Expanse, or even on Draconia's front doorstep. But if you want your false sense of security, be my guest."
Jarkko looked relieved. "Send us the signal when you're ready."
"You won't miss it," Axel replied, his tone growing serious.
Jarkko and his associate nodded, then left; heading back to their yacht.
Jackson waited, the tension killing him. Part of him wanted to kill his clingers now, drop down from high above, and plunge his knife through Axel's chest. It would be quick and easy.
Then it would be finished.
Axel turned to gaze out over the bright blue green ocean, stretching off in all directions. He relaxed, his pose casual. In the background, Jackson heard the other yacht fire up its repulsors to full strength. They faded as it disappeared unseen back into the sky.
"Are you going to stay up there all day?"
Jackson felt a stone drop in his stomach. He vainly searched around, both visually and with his armor's sensors to see if Axel was addressing someone else. Maybe even transmitting a message to a ship in orbit. But no, it was just the two of them.
Ever so slowly, Axel spun on his heels, grinning as he gazed up at where Jackson hung suspended from the overhang ceiling under the yacht's upper deck.
"Hello, Jackson," he said in a homicidally cheerful tone. "It's been awhile, hasn't it?"
How the hell had he spotted him? It didn't matter. It was too late to replay this now. Axel had clearly anticipated this encounter. The only thing to do now was finish it.
Jackson killed his clingers, spinning around as he dropped so that he landed upright on his feet. His body armor absorbed the ground shock, leaving him unmoved as they stood facing each other.
Axel held up his hands, showing that he was unarmed. "Ready for another tango in the circle?" His grin grew wider. "I think I can still beat you."
Jackson growled, moving forward to attack. What choice did he have? He had to disregard all his other plans now.
Axel was ready, both side stepping the attack and grabbing hold of the arm meant to strike his chest. Using Jackson's momentum, he flipped him up into the air and flat on his back against the deck.
Jackson quickly rolled to the side and sprung to his feet. Axel nodded, impressed.
"Glad to see you've been keeping up with the form since our last spar. Too bad it won't do you any good."
Axel was quick; much quicker than Jackson remembered.
He's been training; he's been improving all these years.
The blows came quick and with merciless aggression. Jackson soon fell flat on his back again, too winded to leap to his feet. Axel stood over him, off to the side, still cackling with amusement.
"Some things never change I guess," he said, exhaling.
The pain gnawed at him from all sides. Axel was more brutal than Jackson ever remembered from any of their matches. It hurt just to breathe.
"I've got something to show you," Axel said suddenly, a sinister grin crossing his features.
Jackson kept his breathing even, willing strength to return to his limbs.
Axel loosened his uniform sleeve, rolling it back to reveal his bare arm. A stab of horror suddenly welled up inside of Jackson. He knew what Axel was doing; what he had done on a few painful occasions before.
The sleeve cinched back, Axel pressed firmly on the exposed flesh. As if on command, the hidden tattoos summoned forth to the surface, revealing his sadistic list. Anguish washed over Jackson inescapably as he watched new lines slash through the inked names.
All his lost comrades.
Axel cackled again. "Thought you might like that." He began rolling back his sleeve. "Just like good old days, choppin'-block-doc."
Wrath and agony replaced the physical pain. Jackson leapt to his feet with what strength he could muster.
Axel had expected the move. He easily sidestepped Jackson's three-pronged attack. The last swipe on Jackson's part took the last of his strength. As Axel slipped out of reach, he felt himself tumbling forward, ramming his gut into the balcony railing.
Somewhere from behind, Axel landed an air kick that sent Jackson upward and over the railing.
"Goodbye, Jackson!" he heard Axel call out after him. "Hope to see you in Hell…!"
The last of Axel's words faded as the yacht vanished behind him, the world tumbling over. Jackson was numbly aware of the sensation of falling. The expansive ocean below raced up to meet him.
So it was over. Axel had finally won.
While tumbling, Jackson briefly caught sight of Axel's yacht firing up its repulsors. It was leaving him behind, alone.
Sense finally caught up to Jackson as he realized how close he was to the water. Sending several abrupt commands to his body armor, he braced himself for the impact. It wasn't much, and even if he survived, he'd probably drown.
The water swallowed him with explosive force. Bones shattered, muscles screamed in agony, and medical alarms sent warnings across Jackson's HUD. His vision quickly blurred to black, sunlight becoming faded as the surface disappeared above him.
And then the angels came for Jackson.