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Previously on Project Lotus, Agent Rankin was being debriefed by her superior (and ex-lover) Agent Stemmons on her latest assignment. Things had gone sour, and she was explaining why. Another unnamed superior sent her orders to meet tech-savvy exoskeleton specialist Charlie Kino with her helicopter off the shores of an unclassified location, somewhere south of Florida and north of Cuba.

When Gina Rankin was a child, she remembered being glued to the TV set whenever the NASA Space Shuttle blasted off or landed. “Astronaut” was on her short list of careers growing up, along with “cowboy” and “princess” and some others, She didn’t recall paying much attention to any naysayers that said space exploration wasn’t a place for women. However, by the time she made it to college. astronaut no longer seemed viable. This was not because she was a woman. Rankin was not the sort of person to see her gender as a handicap. She found it to be a strength. Sometimes specifically because others foolishly percieved it as a handicap. This meant they were underestimating her; a glorious place to be in when you want to turn the tables on someone.

Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had already proved women could be astronauts in 1963. Sally Ride affirmed that for Americans 20 years later. Mae Jemison covered the first place for a black woman in 1992. Gina didn’t like the idea of coming in second place. Furthermore, Gina observed as the late 20th century turned into the early 21st century, the future of spaceflight for both genders hit the same glass ceiling. The sky was not the limit; funding was.

Then The Agency came along, and a young Gina Rankin found herself taking some of the same training courses she would have taken anyway as an astronaut, but for completely different reasons. Outer space was not so much out of reach as it was not worth reaching for any longer. We’d made it to the moon and we found it was made of pretty much the same stuff we have down here. Meanwhile, The Agency had far more lucrative missions in store for her, and in the early heady days of her life as a young agent, she just left space far behind.

Still, this scenario Charlie Kino had briefed her on seemed alien to her. She could tell CK was holding out on her. That was an occupational hazard in the spy business, but she was used to her peers confiding in her when her superiors didn’t. That was several ‘incidents’ ago. “Even CK” she thought to herself, and managed not to audibly sigh, “they even got him to shut me out now.” She could have pushed him. She knows how space travel works. For example the drops from orbit usually end up in the Pacific ocean, not the Atlantic. Certainly not this close to the Gulf of Mexico. Gina Rankin had done extensive research on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s. She wrote some papers on the topic. She had even seen footage of the splashdowns. With the mothballing of the Space Shuttles due to the more recent cutbacks of the NASA space program in this century, and the rather dodgy efforts to privatize the industry in general, more recent space flights had returned to older, cheaper methods. The Space Shuttle had been able to land on land, at special air strips, or in a pinch most any major municipal airport (tho it had never officially formally come to that she knew otherwise) NASA’s landings for personnel from the international space station and the upcoming Orion missions to asteroids and Mars were new using the ocean to land instead of landing strips, just like the old days. So what CK was proposing sounded believable to a degree. She decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, what other choice did she have? She wanted to keep her job.

Russia officially used the Soyuz capsule off Kazakhstan for all landings since the end of NASA’s space shuttle program. Then, officially, a military boat would rendezvous with the Soyuz capsule somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Unofficially, The Agency was allegedly using Gina Rankin and Charlie Kino somewhere in the Atlantic, in a chopper barely suitable for island hopping. Rankin half expected to see the Soyuz capsule as they approached, but it could be anything really, cuz she really didn’t think CK was leveling with her. This just sounded dodgy.

“So.. why us?” Gina asked Charlie as she piloted the only copter they could their hands on at such short notice.

“Cuz we’re closest,” Charlie lied to her as he nervously did his twelfth spot check list of his suit. Charlie wasn’t counting. Gina was. She knew he loved his little suit and was habitually always tinkering with it. It drove her crazy.

“And cuz we’re the craziest!” Gina added jovially.

Charlie played along, “Closest and craziest! That’s us!”

“So they didn’t plan ahead? They didn’t know that what they send up must eventually come back down?”

“I guess their plan A and B fell thru. They didn’t brief me on the particulars.”

“That seems to be going around nowadays.”

There was a palpable tension in the air. Gina knew CK was lying. CK probably knew she knew, but there was enough trust between them, she thought surely CK would tell her what she needed to know, orders or not. If she was in danger, he’d let her know.. wouldn’t he?

They were about 90 seconds or so from the coordinates CK had given Gina, but Gina could already see smoke off the horizon. Not a good sign.

“Kino did your intel mention anything about what to expect when we get there?”

His back was to her and the front window, going over his suit. He wasn’t seeing what she was seeing. “Extract astronaut. Neutralize any resistance–”

“Resistance? The kind that sends smoke signals?”

“Observe and report. You know, routine stuff.”

“Will there be any anti-aircraft artillery?”

“Shouldn’t be. They’re probably expecting an amphibious transport, not a chopper.”

“I think the frog’s done croaked.”

She rapped on his helmet with her free hand and then pointed ahead of them. The smoke was coming from a large (still vaguely) seaworthy ship. No Soyuz capsule. She didn’t see anything that might have looked like it came from outer space. Kino didn’t seem surprised, but it was hard to tell his facial expression even tho his face plate was up. He’s not usually this good at poker, she thought.

“it’s cool Gina.”

“Where’s the capsule?” Rankin asked.

“I never mentioned a capsule.” Kino snapped the face plate shut, “You did.”

“And you let me assume.”

“Yeah.” Now CK’s voice sounded more like a robot than a nerdy Asian kid from Silicon Valley, and even harder for her to read for clues. “Just keep her steady while I’m out there and don’t take off without me. It’s a long walk home.”

“I got about fifteen minutes of gas to hover before we’ll both be swimming to shore on the way back.

“This should take less than five minutes.”

“Well just in and out no sightseeing.”

“Awww, don’t be such a momma.”

“Don’t be such a momma’s boy!”

In the glory days of her career with The Agency, Rankin would be in a fancy Agency hovercraft with all the bells and whistles and the latest technologies. This chopper was an old classic that she was enjoying immensely, but she was barely keeping it in the air over the seas below. it wasn’t designed for Agency work. She rented it from Marina Marcus and promised him she’d get it back in one piece. She used to crash Agency equipment (always in the line of duty for a good cause etc) and now she couldn’t risk damaging any gear, or losing the only other agent who seemed to trust having her back. Charlie manually struggled with the side door as Rankin caught her own right hand habitually reaching for where the door switch would have been on a standard Agency craft. Old habits die hard.

“I’ll be back!” Charlie said in a really bad Arnold Swarzzeneger impersonation, made worse from the electronic voice through his helmet. He fell out of the copter like a sack of potatoes. A couple seconds later she watched him float on electromagnetic currents towards the smoldering vessel.

Charlie insisted his suit was one of his own design, but it had obviously been inspired by a certain “Consultant” on The Agency’s payroll. Said consultant’s lawyers sent Kino a “cease and desist” letter which officially meant Charlie couldn’t use his suit in any capacity without The Agency being taken to court. The official word of The Agency to The Consultant was that Kino’s been removed from field work and was strictly in R&D now, away from exoskeletons. Unofficially, Kino was The Agency’s only “iron agent” who actually took orders without being a jerk about it. His gigs were usually “get in. get out. leave no trace.” He was really good at it, and Rankin was the only other agent Kino and their superiors could count on to keep her mouth shut. Kino could prove all the designs were his own. Rankin had seen the evidence herself. Though similar, Kino’s energy source wasn’t a blue cylinder in his chest for one thing. He used solar batteries and electromagnetism in the air around the Earth to generate energy within the suit. It wasn’t anywhere near as powerful as a certain Consultant’s exoskeleton, but it got the job done. No pulse beams, but Kino could jam any metallic firearm from a hundred paces. His HUD was simple elegant software that didn’t talk back. He could absorb kinetic energy and redistribute it or store it into the suit’s batteries. However, Rankin was with Kino during recent tests where he failed to use the suit’s gear remotely to absorb more than a few pounds of ampho and C4 at close range.

So ninety seconds after she observed Kino enter the smoking ship, and thirty seconds after the last time he made any kind of wisecrack over her radio, when the first explosion occurred on the surface of the boat, she was pretty sure could not survive an explosion like that.

“CEEKAY! THIS IS MOTHER! GET OUT OF THERE! COPY?”

His voice came over her headphones but there was plenty of static that hadn’t been there before. Interference was normal with his gear. He manipulated electromagnetic energy in the air, but had rigged his commlink to account for it. The interference Rankin was hearing now was coming from something else.

“Negative. I can see target.”

“I still out rank you! Abort!”

Rankin heard Charlie’s voice again but it was clear he was talking to someone in the room with him and just left his mic on, “I’m here to save you, just stay calm.”

“No!” came a new voice Rankin didn’t recognize. “Get away from me!” This is probably their ‘target’ she thought. The ‘astronaut’ CK had been ordered to rescue.

The ship exploded again, this time a good third of the boat immediately burst into flames and there was now sufficient hull damage. It began taking on water.

“ABORT AGENT! THAT’S AN ORDER!”

“Dammit Gina he rabbited. Look, I am engaged with the target and my five minutes ain’t up yet!”

“YES THEY ARE!”

“I can’t leave here empty handed!”

“Aren’t you hearing the explosions?”

“What explosions?”

The third explosion had such a shock wave, it almost caused Gina to lose control of the copter. She dropped dangerously close to the waves before she was able to stabilize. As she regained altitude, her copter’s nose was now aimed away from the ship, and at about 10 o’clock was a small armada of ships fast approaching the remains of the ship to her six.

“CEEKAY! WE GOT COMPANY! DO YOU READ ME!?”

No response. Just static, and she was now suspecting the jamming was coming from the uninvited armada fast approaching. They were not yet close enough to engage her in battle and may not have even seen her for all the smoke and debris. Though she couldn’t make out the markings, she was familiar with the design, and knew she would be no match for them in this rusty old tin can. She counted at least two dreadnoughts but no airships. Even so, they had anti-aircraft artillery. She had no choice. She was gonna have to leave him. Her chopper couldn’t take on a kite.

Gina spun around and flew over the carnage, looking for some sign of life or death or something. The boat was practically gone. All that was left was either on fire or sinking or both, but this wasn’t caused by distant shelling. She had seen no missile activity. The first explosions had come from the surface of the ship but the third one was from deep inside. This thing was rigged to blow before they arrived. What remained was in several dozen pieces. The third explosion took a boat the length of a football field and turned it into scrap, like it had been made out of Popsicle sticks.

She turned westward and retreated, angry at herself for the cowardly act, but there was no point in defending the area, even if she had an Agency armed transport, Kino was already dead. There was simply no surviving that. One of the dreadnoughts appeared to have noticed her and turned in her direction but she was already way ahead. What this old classic chopper lacked in armory or weaponry, it more than made up for in speed and maneuverability. She had been planning on buying it from that local guy upon her return, cut some kind of deal with him, but due to the need to gun the engines to escape the enemy, she now wasn’t sure if she’d have enough gas to return to the rental place. She’d be lucky to land on fumes…

[part four coming soon]

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