They stood two by two. In standard squad formation, moving onto their target area.
In front, Bern and Valeri stood, there arms held squarely at their sides. Durand could see that their hands were twitching. Valeri was attempting to hide it by crossing her arms and tapping out the rhythm of some unheard melody against her bicep. Bern however couldn’t decide what to do with his hands, and kept wiping them against his trouser legs.
Durand and Chayond were fortunate that way. In their hands, the equipment bags hung. Though relatively light, they were just burdensome enough to require both hands to carry them. They did not have to worry about idle hands or telltale signs of nervousness as they waited for the elevator to finish descending.
“Remember, no talking,” said Valeri, reminding them as the elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open to admit them to the station’s main hub. Bern nodded forward, and the four stepped out onto the platform.
Evening was now upon them, with several bright lights shining down from the station’s vaulted ceiling. Through the station’s dome, a thick grey haze was just visible. The faint traces of light reflected off of Saturn’s disc turned what would have been the black night into a deep, murky twilight.
The four of them were quickly swallowed up by the din of chatter, footsteps, and the sounds of a computerized voice making announcements in Anglish, Franz, Deutsch, Chin and Swahili.
The station was filled with hundreds of locals milling about, moving from one transit lane to another. Few paid them any attention as they walked through the crowds. Why should they? To onlookers, the group’s blue and orange coveralls designated them as maintenance staff. To all recording devices and sensors in the area, their ID tags also designed them as such.
Still, Chayond felt a tinge of panic every time the bag he carried rattled. None of their party would fare too well if they were stopped for inspection. Chayond felt himself looking at the few Gendarmes mixed in with the commuters out of the corner of his eye. If Bern saw him, she would certainly backhand him across the face. Of course, she would wait until they were no longer in public before doing so.
It seemed to take a terribly long time to cross the main floor. At the far end, they began to descend a flight of stairs, and Chayond felt a little better. The bag was rattling louder, luckily it was being drowned out by the whooshing noise of hypertrains coming and going inside their tubes. The dull, monotone computerized voice continued to announce the arrival and departure of trains, though it was becoming more difficult to hear. The noise was like a cushion that began to cloak their every move.
Valerni motioned to their left as they reached the bottom of the stairs. Commuter traffic continued to pour around them, which made maintaining their tight formation somewhat difficult. Still, they held in their two-by-two stance, moving towards the left track – and to the small door that led to the maintenance tunnel. No one followed them there. All the commuter traffic was drawn to the tubes and left what appeared to be a maintenance crew alone.
As soon as they were through the hatch, the noise stopped. The busy station was now sealed behind the pressure door. The only sounds now the gentle hissing of the tunnel’s pressure controls. of course, Valeri’s commanding voice. Checking her chrono, she made a quick consult of their timetable.
“We’re on schedule,” she said. “Let’s keep it that way. Move out.”
The four collapsed into a single line, moving down the tight tunnel as quickly as they could. Durand threw the strap of his bag over his shoulder and Chayond did the same. Their steps became fast and heavy, their work boots striking hard against the metal grates that lined the floor. Heavy pipes and ducts controlling the settlements flow of fresh water and air whizzed by their heads. The high pressure and heat combined to make the going very uncomfortable.
Yet still, they moved. Rigid discipline and a clear purpose driving them onward. Until they reached their destination and set up, they could not relax.
When they finally came to the hatch that would admit them onto the platform that they wanted, they had all broken a good sweat. Only Valeri appeared to not be out of breath.
“Alright, pay attention because we don’t have time to dither.” Reaching into the pocket of her coveralls, she retrieved a small handheld. She held the transparent device up. Displayed on it was a single-frame. A man’s face.
“This is David Lee,” Valeri said. “He’s the Formist the Chandrasekhar’s sent on ahead to do their dirty work. Our intel says he’ll be travelling alone by the time he gets to the line. So that’s when we take him down.”
She tapped the screen. Lee’s image was replaced by a video feed of him standing with a woman. They stood close to each other, a degree of intimacy clearly implied by their body language.
“This is our contact. She is the one who provided us with Lee’s itinerary. According to her, Lee will be here at the time indicated, and he will be alone. However, if we find that they are together, then something’s gone wrong and we’ll need to take them both down. There can’t be any suspicion on her.”
“Who is she?” Durand asked.
Valeri shrugged. “Didn’t ask. neither should you. All you need to know is, she’s not our target. If it comes down to it, we take them both down. we leave her behind for the authorities to collect. Any other stupid questions?”
Durand was sufficiently shamed and shut up. Bern though had some thoughts on that score and offered them freely.
“Probably some just whore from the Yellow Light District. Point is, she’s a fucking patriot and gave us this information. So she’ll understand, I’m sure.”
All heads in the group nodded. A rumble shook the tube, indicating that a hypertrain was going by. It was nothing more than a passing tremor. No sound made it through the sealed pressure doors.
“That’ll be the 2115 to Cassini now,” she said, smiling. “Our Dr. Lee will be making the next one. Better suit up.”
Durand dropped his equipment bag on the ground, kneeling down to open it. Chayond did the same, placing his bag on the floor and separating the tabs on the seal. As Durand began removing their change of clothes, the others began to disrobe. The suits Durand passed out looked like something reptilian, scaly surfaces the same color as mercury. They were thin, no heavier than a stack of thermal blankets, with hoods at the top and small terminals on the left arms.
Valeri and Bern quickly became half-naked, their sweating frames glistening from the tube’s lighting. Quickly, they pulled the silver skins over their coveralls and began doing up all the clasps, sealing the suits around themselves and firing up the cells that powered them.
Durand tossed a suit aside for himself before handing one over to Chayond, who hesitated. His head was swimming from all the heat, the run had left him drained and full of endorphins. Still, he was aware enough to feel damn apprehensive. Accepting the suit seemed like a terrible step, one from which there was no turning back.
Durand noticed his hesitation. “Hey, you good?” he asked. Chayond glanced quickly in Valeri direction. She looked up from her suit to shoot him a look of disapproval and he quickly averted his eyes.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he replied, taking the suit in hand and unzipping his coveralls. Somehow, one look from Vslero was enough to silence any doubts, or enough to scare him into compliance.
A moment later, all four members of the team were suited up in their new vestments. Everything from their necks down was now covered in specialized material. Valeri pulled the last piece into place, pulling the hood up and covering her hair.
“Remember,” she admonished. “Make sure your sticks are charged just right. Too much, and his implants might rupture. that’s the last thing we want.”
All heads nodded again. Chayond interpreted the mention of the sticks as an order to distribute them. Reaching down into the bag, he began pulling them out, one by one. Four slender truncheons, a small console on one side, contained a power indicator, an electrical port, and a few controls. He handed the first to Valeri, passed out the second and third, kept the fourth for himself.
Each team member inspected the sticks to ensure that they were set at exactly the right power level before sliding them neatly into the waistband of their outfits. Each stick connected with the suit’s internal power supply.
“Alright, let’s power them up,” ordered Valeri. “Let’s see if these things were worth the price.”
“Doubt that,” Bern said sarcastically. “ they still better work.”
As one, Bern, Durand and Chayond pulled the hoods up over their heads and engaged the suit’s power supply. Three low-frequency squeals sounded out in the tube, and where three men with silver skins stood, suddenly there were just three faces. The rest of their heads, like their bodies, were now cloaked in advanced stealth fields.
Valeri smiled. “Not bad.” She pulled her mask into place over her mouth and eyes and put her finger to the terminal on her arm. It took less than a second before she completely disappeared from view.
“How do I look?” she asked, her voice filtered and modulated by the mask.
“Like nothing at all,” replied Durand.
“Good.” She suddenly reappeared, removing the mask and hood. “Then be ready. If the target escapes, we may not get another chance. So make this one count.”
3G read the sign on the far side of the station. The stop that would take him to his rendezvous. To her, and all the sensual pleasures she promised. Lee drew in a slow, deep breath and tried not to feel too excited about it.
He knew it was a fight he did not want to win. No matter how many times he had enjoyed her company, the thought of it never ceased to excite him. Perhaps it was the clandestine nature of it. Perhaps it was the fact that it could only be done when he was far from home and the prying eyes of the Survey. That digital second skin that connected and monitored all the Inner Worlds could be a blessing and a curse, and he never knew how liberating it could feel to escape it until he met her. then of course, there was her very unrestrained nature. It seemed only appropriate that she asked to meet him in the Yellow Light District, where so much sleaze and depravity went down already.
What did it matter? All he knew was he would be back in her arms soon.
Calling up an overlay he consulted the time yet again and accessed the train schedules’ live updates. It was running on time, as was he. There was no reason to fret over the train’s schedule. yet, what else could he do? Aside from thinking about her, and making himself more excited, all he could do was lament that the train wasn’t getting to him fast enough.
Jay, my little bird. Oh the things I will do to you.
He drew in another deep breath and ignored the messages coming from his biomonitors. They were asking for permission to regulate his heartrate and epinephrine levels. Why would he want to control himself now when it was the very abandonment of control that drove him?
Jay, if only they knew. Would they even care? Why does anyone care about fidelity anymore?
A small click caught his attention. He spun around, his eyes searching for the source. It sounded much like a footstep, an approaching one at that.
A quick glance behind him revealed that there was nothing and no one there. Not even the faintest hint of a human presence. Looking up at the rafters above he noted the mounted camera that was recording this section of the platform. Though something of a bother, but its presence didn’t disturb him the way the thought of another person might.
Easy now, he thought. It seemed odd to get worked up by a simple noise. he knew that between the thought of being seen by someone who could identify him, there was also the odds of being assaulted. Abductions were common in the Outer Worlds and such actions usually targeted people like himself. Affluent, enhanced, and from the Interior. All the things the radicals hated.
His biomonitors began to scream at him again, and this time he obliged them. With a simple mental command, his system began to flood with endorphins and norepinephrine, his heartrate easing down through the careful blocking of nerve impulses.
He breathed a sigh of relief, right before the searing pain exploded in his side.
He cried out. His voice echoing sharply off the walls before the ground rushed up to meet him. The last thing he remembered was the sight of the girders crossing overhead and the faint smell of ozone, followed by a surreal feeling of weightlessness.
The next few minutes were like fragments. Lee’s mind passed in and out of consciousness. His overlay kept trying to signal him, but he couldn’t stay awake long enough to issue any commands. He couldn’t even be sure how much time had passed, whether it was minutes or hours.
Eventually, his eyes opened long enough for him to realize he wasn’t on the platform anymore. He was sure he could hear a voice whispering to him from close by.
“You’re alive, Doctor Lee,” it said, feminine but firm. “Sorry to interrupt your plans. we have plans of our own for you.”
A sea of stars. Tiny pinpricks in the firmament that bled light through a wall of shadow. Amongst the black, a few shone brighter than the rest. In the eastern sky, the particularly big specks that were the result of Venus and Mars at conjunction hung.
Taking a deep breath, Ward allowed himself a moment of nostalgia, calling to mind the last time he had seen either up close. It had been some time ago; however, the memories were like shoeprints in soft earth, running deep and leaving a solid imprint. Ward remembered the Drift, and the way it felt riding it down towards the vast Red Dunes of Mars. Then there were the glittering lights of Pavonopolis, and how it looked from above.
It was risky business, to be sure; allowing himself to slip into memories that reminded him of where they were now. At times, life on Mercury – known to locals as “The Rock” – couldn’t be endured otherwise. A man had to cling to whatever memories of normalcy he had just to get by.
“Boss?” buzzed the bud in his ear. Ward didn’t immediately answer, either unwilling or unable to tear himself away from the memory. The voice on the other end was not to be denied. “Bossman? Jer? Are you there?”
Sighing, Ward tapped his earlobe to activate the reply function. “Yes, Guernsey, what is it now?”
“Just letting you know,” he said warily, “Terminator is started to creep up on us, sir.”
Ward looked down and adjusted the navsat map on his display. In the center of the field, amidst grid lines and a pockmarked representation of the local terrain, a small speck of bright grey sat on a dark grey background. Around that speck, bright blue lines and a set of alphanumerics designated that this was none other than the Sapper, the large transport vehicle he currently occupied. Ward frowned, zooming out until he could see the long, mottled line that indicated the approach of daybreak. Grumbling, he tapped his earlobe again.
“Guernsey, you idiot, we’re still a good three days away from the Terminator! Why are you calling me with this?”
“Yes, boss, but regulations state that all mining crews need to remain a full seventy-two hours ahead of daybreak at any given time. We’re getting close to that, sir, and our prelim scan says we still got a shit load of ore deposits we haven’t tapped yet. I don’t want to burn alive in my suit… sir!”
Ward scoffed. “I have eyes and a clock, Guernsey. I would never let you die in a spacesuit, you bloody psycho.”
“Yeah, well I don’t want it to be my ass in the sling when we get back, either.”
Ward didn’t reply right away, simply taking another deep breath. He knew it wasn’t strictly Guernsey’s fault. Ever since the arrival of the new Administrator, Elisa Sandoval – aka. the Iron Widow – everyone had been walking around on egg shells. Hermian administrators were all known for being ballbusters, usually on a count of how pissed they were to be stuck on the hellish place that was the Rock. the Iron Widow had a bit of a reputation preceding her.
Allegedly, she had personally supervised mining operations on half a dozen small Belt objects and had been stationed on Ceres before her transfer. It was further alleged that she had busted up several syndicates on these rocks before her transfer. One had to wonder who she had pissed off to have been sent to deal with them.
Alas, Ward was sure she would understand, once she got a look at their total yield for this outing. Hard-ass or not, no administrator could argue with results.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ward put on his best placating tone. “If we get in trouble, I’ll be the one to take the hit. You just make sure the crews keep going. I want that pit scoured before we push off.”
“Don’t forget, boss,” replied Guernsey before signing off.
Ward grumbled and returned his attention to the screen. Zooming in on the Sapper team he had deployed, he dragged the image around to get a better look at the mining site itself. With the assistance of the miner’s own proximity sensors and the impressive sensor suite the Pipe had built into its frame, he was able to get a comprehensive view of the area being dug out. Computer-generated graphics added a few bells and whistles too, simulating small flashes from the beam emitters slashing away at ore prior to the Pipe sucking it up.
Ward quickly became bored with it and went back to looking out the Sapper’s side window. with his mind awash with the bullshit concerns of ore mining and administrative rigmarole, he discovered he could no longer focus enough to discern the beautiful hazes of Venus and Mars anymore. In fact, the natural light of the star field seemed oddly piercing and abrasive now.
Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the thought of far-off places, and not the particularly nice ones. The memory of doing a job in the Belt years ago, back when he was still an investigator for Interpol, came to him. A double-homicide on Piazzi Station had left all the miners shaken. Something that had left him somewhat confused at the time. Working the Belt came with all manner of risks, not the least of which was death by explosive decompression or radiation exposure. Then there were the cabals to worry about, people who ran protection rackets and smuggling rings on all the stations.
The stats on that kind of work were clear enough, with at least one-hundred miners dying every Standard Sidereal Year. Why anyone would be so concerned over two more deaths was beyond him. of course, murder was another issue. Especially when it involved workers losing their minds and turning on their fellows. That was one thing the local drillers could not tolerate.
Then there were the darker places on the Drift and its companion, the Thread. High above the skies of Terra and Mars, where so many people and so much freight came and went daily – and the Survey’s coverage was sometimes spotty – bad people did bad things. Ward had seen enough of them that they had all come to look the same.
Even know though, such places only reminded him of better times. A life of service and of dignity, of respect and honor. When faced with an indefinite future on the Rock, every moment of the past – even the grimiest and shittiest of them – seemed pleasant by comparison.
Reaching into his pocket, Ward removed the pill dispenser he had stashed there. He was a few hours shy of his regular dose, but he doubted anyone back at Prokofiev would care. As long as the dispenser was empty upon his return, and none of the pills showed up in his anal cavity during the next routine body scan, he was sure he could get away with a little self-medication. Depressing the tab over the compartment marked with a seven, he was rewarded with a small yellow nanopill that he quickly downed.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, knowing that within a few minutes, his neurotransmitters would achieve a state of normalcy. Another day of being mentally balanced, or at least as close to that as powerful pharmaceutical intervention would allow…
“Bossman, you there?”
Ward’s eyes snapped open. The dark, ashen-colored surface flooded into his eyes. A dead landscape, one which was currently frozen, but which would be set ablaze again in due course.
“Bossman,” Guernsey said again. “Are you with us here?”
Ward blinked a few times to get his eyes used to the suit’s heads-up display. The bright lines, fields of color and active matrix-displays were a little distracting when first looked at. Nothing like the mediated displays he had once known, fondly. they helped his mind to reconnect to the present.
Being inside had grown very tiresome, and reminiscing had become difficult. So, he had slipped on a pressure suit and decided to join the crew, hoping to distract himself with some menial labor. It was unfortunate coincidence that he had chosen to narcotise himself beforehand. The effects of his daily meds weren’t making things easy for him.
“I’m here,” he answered. “Just a little tired.”
“Uh-huh. Well, were nearing the end of the vein.”
Ward edged slightly forward, peering over the edge into the pit. The maw was now a good fifty-meters across, descending into total blackness save for the lights that dotted the Pipe. By now, it was too deep to see the beam-cutters doing their work, but he could sense it was still digging. The vibrations in the ground, and the fact that he had ordered the crews to keep going, were indication enough of that.
He felt a hand descend on his arm and his head snapped angrily to his left. Through the clear faceplate of his helmet, he caught sight of Muscovy’s angry face staring at him, and some expletives blaring over the shared comm frequency.
“Chto yebat’ vy delayete, vy dura?!” Moscovy barked, sounding out a long string of Slavic-toned syllables Ward could not understand or translate a word, given his limitations. Guernsey was quick to cut through the chatter and ask the obvious question.
“Sir, is everything alright?”
“I’m fine!” Ward yelled back angrily, neglecting to mention that the drugs were taking their effect on him, or that he had chosen to commit to a surface walk while under their influence. “Just a little tired, is all. I was trying to see into the hole, maybe get a sense of how we’re doing.”
A flimsy excuse, since Guernsey was getting real-time updates on the tablet he held in his arm. Consulting it, he quickly nodded to confirm the latest.
“Well, it looks like we’ve tapped the vein, sir. Should be the last of it coming out now.”
“Good,” said Ward. The Pipe continued to emit a low rumble through the ground as it sucked up the remaining bits of unprocessed ore. They were close now, and could finally begin to contemplate bringing this little outing to an end. Until that time however, all they could do was stand around and watch.
Ward looked around at them, the half-dozen suited figures standing over the pit with small spots of light hovering above their heads, denoting ID numbers in his display field.. Ward recognized them all. With ease, he could mentally recite the names and the criminal offenses that went with them.
Muscovy – Trafficking/Terrorism/Multiple Homicide
Guernsey – Possession/Assault/Resisting Arrest
Wesley – Arson/Sexual Assault/Homicide
Anouk – Grand theft
Burton – Assault/Theft/Possession
Jordan – Volunteer
Now, he wondered who he considered to be the worst of them. The murderers, rapists, and thieves, or the one guy who had chosen to be here. For such people, the desire for adventure and the chance to perform the toughest, grittiest and most dangerous labor in the known universe was a rush. Was such a person less dangerous than a man who would kill, given half a chance?
Then again, he knew he was leaving himself out of the mix. If he were really to task himself with figuring out who the least trustworthy person on his crew was, he knew he had to include the Foreman.
Ward – Negligent Homicide
Yes, he had to admit, of all the people standing within the circle, he was the only one he wouldn’t trust his life with. He knew the others did, and were doing so right now. they didn’t know him as well. Were it not for the drug-laced nanoparticles slowly percolating through his system and balancing out his neurochemicals, he would surely find his thoughts depressing to the point of despair.
The hum finally subsided as the Pipe seemed to go idle. Through the soles of his feet, Ward could feel that the vibrations, at least the ones that indicated it was pulling up ore, had stopped. To his right, Guernsey checked his tablet again and confirmed his earlier appraisal.
“That’s the last of it, sir. Looks like we made one hell of a haul.”
“Alright, crew,” Ward said tiredly. “Bring it on up. We’re done for this trip.”
Guernsey pressed his suited finger to the tablet and commanded the Pipe to retract. All along its spiny reach, embedded mechanisms activated and began to collapse it, starting at the tip and slowly retracting it upwards. The crew stood around and waited wearily as it gradually made its way to the surface, at which point they would begin to drag it back to the Sapper.
Nothing more to do here, Ward thought. Looking north, he spotted their vehicle slouched there against the dark surface. Its status lights and windows were barely visible amidst the deep night. Of course, his display was sure to place a rather bright icon overtop of it. The last thing his suit’s navigation system wanted was for him to get lost.
Keying the com he called back to the Sapper to get Labra, the vehicle’s driver, on the horn. Her voice came to him through a thick haze of disorientation, sounding especially jubilant and saccharine.
“What’s the word, boss man?”
“Sandy,” he said. “We’re all done here. Crew’s coming in from the cold. Set navsat for Prokofiev. We move out the moment we’re back inside.”
“You got it, boss. Looking forward to getting back.”
“Yeah,” he said, ending the transmission.
The Pipe had now returned to the surface, retracting backwards towards its resting point on the surface. As one, the crew came to four predesignated spots along the length of it and grabbed a handhold, walking slowly back towards the Sapper. Ward joined them, grabbing the nearest handhold between Jordan and Anouk. Foreman or not, he was still wailing to bear his share of the weight, even though he knew that there wasn’t much to speak of, and his suit’s powered mechanisms would be doing most of the work for him.
A voice sounded in his ear, startling him a little.
“So what do we want to do when we get back?”
Ward calmed down as he realized that the com was still open amongst the crew, and that he was not, mercifully, suffering from a psychotic break. Responses began to come in,
“I’m just looking forward to hot shower and some real food. Think they’ll have anything worth choking down?’
It was Jordan saying this, as always, the most positive of anyone working the Rock. Somehow the poor lad always suspected that a change of pace – in essence, showers that weren’t frigid, food that didn’t suck, and conditions that weren’t appalling – was waiting around the corner.
of course, Anouk was there to set him straight.
“Doubt it. From what I hear, it’s going to be protein cubes and veggie gum until they get another fucking shipment of meat and hydro-grown stuff from the Core. we all know long that takes.”
Ignoring Anouk’s pessimism, Jordan promptly asked someone else. “How about you, Sal?” he said, looking to Guernsey. The man’s cockney drawl responded a second later.
“I’m just looking forward to some cards, man. I’ve been spending my time researching everyone’s tell.”
“That better not include me,” said Anouk. Some traces of laughter followed.
As the laughter died away, Jordan thought to ask the one man he was usually too afraid to speak to.
“Zory, how about you? What do you want to do when we get back to Prokofiev?”
Surprisingly, the hardened Slav had an answer that wasn’t a threat or string of expletives.
“I was thinking of a hot meal. Watching de launch that is next. then I was thinking about kill zee boss here in his sleep.”
Ward noted the hesitation on the line before Guernsey piped up.
“Uh, Z, I think he can hear us.”
“I know,” Muscovy said indifferently. Ward would have turned around just far enough to give Muscovy a threatening look or a reprimand, but was too tired and doped up to bother. Smiling to himself, he let Big Z continue with his little threat. “Sweat dreams, boss.”
The Sapper tentatively negotiated its way through the winding route that would lead them back into Prokofiev. From the cabin, everything outside appeared a uniform, black canvass. No contrasts or indications whatsoever to indicate spatial differences or surface features. With virtually no natural light to guide them, such was to be expected. The moment they entered the artificial canyon, the Sapper had become a tiny beacon in an endless sea of black.
It was a blessing that the vehicle’s controls were entirely automated at this point. Were it to be left up to a driver to get them through the last leg of their return journey, they surely would have hit something and become stranded by now.
If it were within his ability to do so, Ward would have pulled down an overlay a long time ago. With nothing but a thick layer of glass that could never be called smart to stare though, the feeling of intense boredom was palatable. It was obvious everyone else on the control deck felt the same. If not for the kindly medication that was still coursing through his blood, Ward might even have felt the slightest bit anxious about it.
Luckily, the display before him provided a modicum of stimulation. From the navsat’s point of view, they were now three quarters of the way through the Scythian Passage, an artificial basin that had been cut into the rock several kilometers behind them and which led directly into the Prokofiev Crater.
While tedious as all hell, the passage was a bit of a blessing for the miners. In decades past, crews were forced to drive their Sappers directly over the lip of the crater, mounting a series of steep switchbacks to enter, before descending another series to get home. Accidents were rare, but even with an automated approach system, things could still go wrong.
It was only after enough Sappers and crews had been lost that someone in the Solar Assembly decided that the expense of blasting a hole in the crater’s wall and digging a road to its outer edge was justifiable.
“Anybody got a game?” enquired Labra, sitting idly at the helm.
“I do,” said Burton. “I spy. I’ll go first. A fucking field of black.”
Mild snickers emanated from the crew. Labra was not to be deterred. “How about marry, kill, bang?”
Just about everyone laughed. Jordan was the first to explain why her suggestion was a dumb idea.
“Have you seen the workforce, Sandy? Not exactly a lot of options for us dudes here.”
“I don’t know, Mick,” said Guernsey, leering in his direction. “Under the right circumstances, you might start looking good. A little rouge, a little wig on top, maybe tuck ya’ sack back. Make a lovely girlfriend, you would.”
That elicited a lot of painful grunts from around the deck. Jordan also began to look just the slightest bit nervous. Naturally, Ward surreptitiously glanced around making sure to check the door. At times like this, he was thankful for the absence of guys like Muscovy and Wesley. It was only out of sheer bad luck that he had managed to pull that pair as crew this time. On the plus side, they seemed content to stick to their bunks.
An absolute blessing. Violent offenders like them didn’t do well with sex-themed games.
“What about where I’d most like to be right now?”
“I’ll go first again. Anywhere but here,” Guernsey quickly said. That got him some noises of assent. A few more strained and anxious seconds passed as the Sapper adjusted its heading, only apparent by the minor lurch they all felt.
Ward broke the silence. “I got one,” he said. “Kind of a variation on Sandy’s suggestion. Best place in the System you’ve ever been.”
He watched as everyone on the deck paused to consider his question. Within a few moments, he had multiple answers.
“Syria Planum Speedway,” Guernsey replied. “Great stretch of road, beautiful lights strobing overhead. The closest thing to freedom I ever felt.”
“Not bad,” conceded Labra. “ my favorite place in the System has to be Ares. So much color, people, and energy. It’s like all the benefits of being on Gaia, but without all the pretense.”
Ward laughed. He knew exactly what she meant, and was glad to know someone else thought so. Given that it was the hub of Terra’s off-world commerce and shipping, those who lived in Gaia had been known to put on certain airs. Whenever his old job had taken him there, he had rubbed up against it and came away chafed.
“How about you, boss?” asked Guernsey. Ward wasn’t expecting to be quizzed, and didn’t like the prospect of thinking about it much. Thinking of the nicer places he had been seemed like an effective way of reminding himself where he was.
Ward mentally berated himself. After all, he had suggested the game he couldn’t think of a good reason to back out of it now.
“I don’t know,” he mused. “Recent memory? I guess that would Ri-La.”
Labra hummed thoughtfully. “Haven’t heard of that one.”
“It’s a LEO Hab,” he replied, as if by stating that it was a Low-Earth Orbit Habitat explained everything. “I went there as part of a case back in 73’. The whole place had been built by some old Terran magnate named Xian. Some Chin gentleman, born in the previous century who made his fortune running bio, shipping and software. Before he died, he had a Hab commissioned in orbit for his wife and kids, then invited his entire extended family to move in with them so they could have their own orbital estate all to themselves.”
“Died?” asked Burton, a frown creasing his forehead. “This guy, he was an Extro? he died? Like… for real?”
“No, no…” Ward replied, waving his hand dismissively. “Though he did forego the whole facsimile thing. The old man uploaded himself like anybody else before he got too old and suffered brain death. That way, his children, nieces and nephews had the run of the place and could summon him whenever they wanted.”
“Descendants calling up their great ancestor,” said Guernsey. “Fucking vain, if you ask me. Makes sense if you’re one of them types though, all rich and shit.”
“Well and he was the traditional sort, that guy. Not a lot of people back home like him anymore. Most people take the idea of post-mortality too literally.” Ward’s mind went back to the station itself, its lavish décor, the very reason why he had chosen it for the sake of their little game. “Every bulkhead was made from white jade and gold. Intricate lattice work, bamboo fences, little waterfalls running everywhere. You hardly knew you were in a Hab at all. Beautiful place…”
A moment of silence ensued, at which point, Labra thought to ask the obvious.
“So… what was an old dick like you doing there?”
“Same thing as always,” said Ward. “Someone killed someone else. Interpol sent us in to determine who the culprit was.”
“Oh my God,” shuttered Jordan. “One of the kids killed one of their own relatives?”
Ward waved a hand dismissively. “Nah, nothing that bad. Turns out some of the Xian clan were not as traditional as their forebear. Some of them went about creating facsimiles of themselves, even woke them up before they died. I don’t know, all that time in orbit, they must have feared they’d die out unless they started cloning themselves.”
“It didn’t occur to them to get some new blood in the place? Or even someone’s DNA?” Queried Jordan with a half-raised eyebrow.
Ward shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they couldn’t find anyone they thought worthy. Point is, having more than one version of yourself around can get ugly, especially when there’s inheritance on the line. in this case, one kid was killed by another version of himself.”
“Wow…” Jordan whispered. “Was it hard to figure out who did it?”
“Not even a little bit,” said Ward, shaking his head. “Forensics took all of five minutes. The trickier part was trying to deduce if the victim was an original or not. As you know, the penalty for a facsimile killing their original is way higher than the reverse.”
The small gathering nodded and smiled. Ward had been wrong. Reminiscing about that old case hadn’t made him feel bad. Quite the reverse really. He was sorely tempted to keep the stories going.
“ if we’re talking all-time best place…” he groped into the distant past, hoping to find something that fit the bill. “I don’t know. Earth-side, I guess. Shores of Zanzibar, along the coast of the AU. Real –”
The proximity detector began to beep, warning them that they were approaching an obstruction. Everyone in the cabin seemed to jump in place, eyes darting out the window into total darkness.
“What is that?” yelled Jordan over the din.
At her station, Labra was the first to see it on her monitor.
“Boss, we got an obstruction on the Scythian. Autonav is asking permission to disengage.”
“I don’t see any – oh, there it is!” Ward watched as the bulky object resolved itself on the display. The autonav had to be cycled through a few filters to enhance the ambient light and sharpness. sure as shit, there it was. A large rock. Measuring at least four-hundred meters square, right where the right tread would be in less than a minute.
“Disengage,” he ordered. “Then bring us to a complete stop. Everybody strap in!”
The crew braced themselves as the Sapper powered down, the massive vehicle coming to a slow, rolling halt. When at last they stopped, everyone lurched forward, held in place by their seats restraints. The view outside the window seemed even darker now. The sudden absence of any engine noise gave the deck a certain stillness that was quite uncomfortable.
Into that quiet came a battery of questions all at once.
“What the fuck is going on?” demanded Burton.
“Enormous chunk of debris is sitting in our path,” replied Labra, busily punching buttons on her console that would return full control of the Sapper to her.
“Where the hell did it come from?”
“Not sure,” she said, irately making the last of the necessary keystrokes before grabbing the driver’s wand. “Could be what’s left of a meteor that landed while we were out. Could be a piece of the crater wall. Point is, we don’t have enough clearance to get around it.”
“We’ll have to blow it,” Ward said, agreeing with her assessment. Even the mottled representation on his display was enough to let him know that the obstruction, wherever it had come from, could not be circumvented. The Passage was just too small and the Sapper far too cumbersome.
“What the fuck is going on?!”
Ward turned to see the door to the deck was now open, two very agitated looking convicts standing directly inside it.
“Zory. Amos. Hope we didn’t disturb your sleep.”
“What-the-fuck?” Moscovy repeated. “We’re sitting in our bunks and you decide to throw this whole fucking crate sideways! You trying to kill us?”
“No, but your next job might. I need you two to get into pressure suits, grab some Class-4 munitions, and plant them on a rock that’s sitting exactly fifty meters in front of us. Think you can do that?”
Moscovy and Wesley shared a look. Their animosity diminished slightly, making room for the incredulity that was creeping into their expressions.
“Why us?” demanded Wesley.
“Because the two of you are the only members of this crew, last I checked, that had any experience in blowing shit up. I figured this would a treat for you,” answered Ward.
Moscovy and Wesley glanced at each other this time with looks that suggested they were about to say something obscene. Ward pre-empted them. “ if that’s not cutting it for you, how about the fact that I’m in charge and I fucking told you to?”
“Sukin syn!” swore Moscovy, followed by a minor spit excretion.
The door slid shut behind the unhappy pair a second later. Ward spun back around to see the dubious-looking expressions aimed at him.
“You think that’s wise, boss?” asked Labra.
“Ah, they’ll get over it,” he replied. “Bastards could use the exercise too.”
“I think she means trusting those goons with explosives. Suppose they don’t place them quite right and blow us all to shit,” Guernsey asked, a worried expression on his face.
Ward chuckled. “You know they can’t try that without getting hit by a neural spike that’ll leave them as capable as a puppet with the strings cut, or if we’re lucky, dead. Besides, I know those guys’ rap sheet well enough to know that they know where a bomb has to go to cause maximum damage.”
Ward may have mouthed the words, but he wasn’t supremely confident in them. Death by incompetence was not something the Spike had been known to prevent. However, he was certainly not going to let any other member of the crew risk their lives on such a hazardous task.
Alas, his crew was not finished with their objections.
“Suppose…” Labra started, swinging her chair around to face him. “They don’t kill all of us… just themselves.”
Ward was about to ask how that could possibly be seen as a bad thing, then it struck him. Two dead miners, killed in an accident that happened on his watch during the commission of a controlled demolition that was outside of standard procedure.
Yes, that certainly would be a very bad thing indeed! Labra recognized the pained realization on his face and shot him a look that suggested mutual understanding. Ward nodded uncomfortably to let her know he was right there with her.
“Well… one can only hope they remember their training. that their penchant for blowing shit up works in their, and our, favor.”
Labra spun back around, the look of worry disappearing as the back of her head turned to face him. Ward looked around at the other crew members and offered a confident smile. A smile that evaporated as he made eye contact with Guernsey. To him, Ward allowed the sudden feeling of anxiety to bleed through.
A few very tense minutes passed before Muscovy and Wesley made contact.
“Fifty meters to obstruction,” called Wesley through the comlink. “Can’t see shit.”
Ward was a bit relieved to hear the man’s voice.. Pressing a key on his chair, he replied in kind. “Just trust in your automap, it’ll point you straight.”
Several more minutes passed before Wesley signalled again.
“Approaching the obstruction.” Another long pause. “Obstruction reached.”
Fuck this is dragging out, Ward thought, keying the comm. “You be careful placing that explosive.”
This time, it was Muscovy’s voice on the line. More muttered expletives, followed by an angry chastisement.
“We know what we are fucking doing!” A few more expletives followed.
That fetched a few laughs from around the deck. Ward decided to leave them alone for the time being. Micromanaging at this point would only hurt their chances of pulling this off. Instead, he curled his hands into fists and took several deep breaths, counting down the seconds.
“Okay, charges set,” Wesley said at last. Everyone on the deck breathed a collective sigh of relief. Ward did his best to appear as unsurprised.
“Are we receiving?” he asked Labra.
“Remote signal’s up, reading it loud and clear.”
“Good job,” Ward signaled. “Now get back in here on the double!”
Laughter reached him over the link. Letting Muscovy and Wesley know that he cared about their safety, even if it was selfishly motivated, certainly amused them. They would be certain to drag out their return for as long as possible just to piss him off. with the likelihood of them blowing themselves up, and his liability now at zero, the few minutes it took them to get back to Sapper seemed to fly by.
“Got ‘em coming in the lower airlock,” said Anouk. “Cycling through now…”
“Alright,” Ward said, extending a hand to pat Labra gently on the arm. “Sandy, if you would be so kind as to get that rock out of our way.”
Labra favored him with a blinding smile before happily depressing a key on her console. Through the window, a bright flash erupted, banishing the darkness outside for the briefest of instants. The windows automatically responded, thinking the Sapper was caught in a sudden burst of sunlight and adjusting their polarity to filter out the majority of the intense flash.
What did make it through in that briefest of instants was seared into their memories. A violent explosion that permanently removed an impediment in their path. There was something strange about that.
Burton was the one to put it into words. “That felt… good!”
“Yeah, who knew blowing shit up could make you feel awesome?” enthused Guernsey.
Ward smiled. Another unintended bonus to taking the matter into their own hands and clearing the path back to Prokofiev: for one instant, his crew felt like they were in control. He wished that had been his intent because it was about the nicest gift he could give them right now.