I took a long drag on my burner while hanging in harness and drew my sidearm to check it over. The gun lit up in contact with my palm, and its diagnostic text spilled across
I took a long drag on my burner while hanging in harness and drew my sidearm to check it over. The gun lit up in contact with my palm, and its diagnostic text spilled across my vision. I ignored it as I cleared the chamber and checked the firing contacts.
I slid in an eighty-round helical mag of mixed ammo. I got dirty looks from the civvies for the lit nic-stick and sidelong glances from the young bucks for the old-fashioned piece. Or maybe it was my gray hair. Most of them were ex-Legion, judging by the high-and-tights they sported, but especially those plasma rifles. They were too young to know better. One EM burst would crash the target-assist on their shiny toys. They’d be dead in the few seconds it took to reboot.
I used a mechanical slug-thrower when I could, but telescoped ammo was even harder to find than caseless these days. My backup piece was electrical—no firing pin, but practically pre-transistor. It’d keep working, even if the “smart” systems got fried…probably. I heard someone clear their throat behind me. I turned. Our principal, Caspian Donovan, glared at me.
“Mr. Escher, do you plan on putting out that coffin nail?”
I puffed out a smoke ring. “Why do you ask?” A cold-sleep hangover pounded behind my eyes.
He reached over to snatch it from my mouth, and I caught his hand by the wrist. Donovan seemed shocked that someone would touch him.
“Do you have something to say to me?” I favored him with a stare that, back in the day, had made young recruits fill their pants.
The blood drained from his face, but to his credit, he didn’t flinch. He lowered his hand and used the other to smooth imagined creases on his overstretched pressure suit. “I would appreciate it, Mr. Escher, if you would put it out.”
“Of course, sir,” I said, with my best pretend respect. I took the butt from my mouth and held it over the receptacle which sucked it away. If I take a man’s money, I do the job, but I don’t stoop.
I shared a look over Donovan’s head with Zhang Yifeng. He was the second man hired for this security detail. An old hand like me, he looked thirty years younger, except around the eyes. I worked a job with him in the past. He was as solid as they came. We’d both fought in what was now called the Orbital Wars. I just called it good clean fun. Cyberwar and dueling satellites meant that the fight came down to guys like us, crawling around in ghost suits with monoblades. We were on different sides—he’d seen action in Outer Mongolia while I humped it through the jungles of Brazil.
Zhang motioned with his chin to the third and final member of our security team. About half our age, Ms. Yael Refaeli, our “cyberwarfare tactician,” as they called them in the service, was short and mousy. That was perfect for corporate espionage, but she’d never spent time in a combat zone. She might’ve been a great coder, but I wondered how she handled pressure. She snapped out of her abstraction—she’d been consulting her implant—and showed surprise at the two grizzled men looking at her, but then she stuck out her hand.
“It’s good to meet you, Mr. Escher. I was surprised that Mr. Solomon had to withdraw from the contract.”
Mr. Solomon, like Ms. Refaeli here, had gone for the latest full-package neuralink. In fact, he’d signed a waiver for the experimental “synergistic machine-learning assistance for cognitive and motor functions.” Depending on what he could access—remote sensors, drones, the local grid—he could pass through a building of armed attackers like a ghost or leave a trail of bodies behind him. That is, until some punk set off an EM sparker when he was in the blast radius. Last time I saw him, his wife was holding his hand while he stared vacantly out a window. The money from this job was paying his medical bills.
“Glad to meet you too, Ms. Refaeli. Mr. Solomon had…personal matters to attend to. Do you have questions?”
She waved that aside. “I have a local copy of your resume, which is impressive, but I didn’t see any jobs within the last five years.”
Of course, that was the redacted copy. I had set up a small shop of my own for…specialist work. My clients strongly preferred discretion. I raised an eyebrow at her implied question.
Donovan waved his hand at her. “Humor her. She handles these matters for me.”
“I haven’t done open contract work for a while.” Donovan gave me a sour look, but Ms. Refaeli understood.
“Fair enough,” she said. “I gather that you know the details of this job, at least in outline.”
I rattled things off in my best debriefing voice.
“We are headed to Calpe Mons station, which is owned and operated by Galileo Angstrom. At a distance of 0.47 AU, it orbits Erebus, which is presently 297 AU from the Sun. This places it outside the jurisdiction of the Colonial Protectorate.” It would take six months for the Protectorate Legion to get here in any case, but the legalities have to be observed.
“There have been two attempts by unspecified forces to seize Calpe Mons,” I continued, “with robust local security in Angstrom’s employ, the station is now set to host high-level business negotiations between Angstrom and several NGOs.” The politic term for megacorps. “As a precondition, each party to the negotiations was allowed a security detail of only three people.”
“I should’ve known.” She sighed, swept back hair that was drifting around her face, gave a vulnerable smile. “Thank you for indulging me.” She presented the perfect image of a meek clerk just doing her job. Good training, and gifted. Wonder where she picked up her trade?
I returned a polite smile and then looked around the cabin. The chronometer said we still had three hours till rendezvous. Some of the young bucks were still eyeing me. I knew what was going through their heads as they measured themselves against the old wolf. They had more time in ziggy than when I was their age, just having left the service. Being earthbound, most of my experience out of atmo was with ballistic insertions. I puked my guts up on my first outbound contract. Now? I smiled. I could kill every one of them floating upside-down and backward, if I had to.
Zhang and I played “I Spy” with hand signals to pass the time. After the dozenth round, I decided to head for the observation blister, which was one of the advantages of a corporate yacht over chartered transport tub. The sun was dimmer than a full moon at this distance. The looming bulk of Erebus, ten times Earth’s mass, was barely visible in eclipse. Calpe Mons came into view, like a lazily-spinning barbell. From our view, it danced around, as the yacht adjusted its orientation to dock.
The chime rang for everyone to get back into harness, so I went back up to the main cabin. We were met at the docking collar by a security team, all wearing Angstrom’s corporate livery. They were armed with needlers and scanners, if the station’s sensors weren’t enough. I noted the sensor studs in the walls and saw Ms. Refaeli doing the same. My estimation of her went up a notch.
One of Angstrom’s lackeys passed his scanner over me. “Wyatt Escher?”
“The one and only.” I passed my sidearm, holster, and monoblade to another security man, along with the slim comm unit from my pressure suit’s one external pocket. “Got any questions?”
He held monoblade like it would chop his arm off. “You know these things are illegal for civilians, right? And we don’t allow them on-station for personnel.”
I smiled. “Turn it over.”
The light caught the seal on the other side of the hilt, a wolf’s head inside a circle with an arrow pointing upward and to the right. Around its border was Latin, Ex Tenebris Percutimus. It was the seal of MARS—Mobile Aegis Reconnaissance and Strike.
“Son, are you former Legion?” I used my best drill instructor voice.
He straightened a little. “Yes, sir.”
“I’m guessing you know what that is.”
There was a long pause before he answered. “Yes, sir.”
“It goes where I go. Is that a problem?”
In answer, he traced a salute and handed it back.
We went through the security tango and, left feeling vaguely violated, I was handed the rest of my things. I took point, Zhang took the rear, and Ms. Refaeli stayed by Donovan’s side and combed the signal traffic. Centripetal gravity was 0.8g, so movement was no trouble. I spat, got dirty looks for my trouble, but didn’t see any Coriolis on the spitball’s arc. Aiming wouldn’t be too bad either.
Our collection of security teams and corporate chieftains formed into a loose pack, with enough room to move and shoot, though escorted by Angstrom’s security forces. We passed through passages and intersections—I noted the turns—till we arrived at the audience chamber.
It was too large to be called a conference room. We were met by staff that were young and beautiful and dressed in clothing cut to reveal their physiques. Being a professional, I noted this detail as I surreptitiously grazed at the buffet table.
Donovan milled about and conferred with his associates as Ms. Refaeli escorted him. Zhang ghosted behind and I circled the room. I noted entrances, exits, cover, choke points, and potential kill zones. The ceiling was shaped like a giant funnel. At the center of the chamber was a circular dais with equidistant pylons. From them ran thick cables. All of it had an unfinished, utilitarian appearance. A prototype? Guess we were getting a demonstration.
In came in Angstrom with an entourage of lab coats. He made a straight line from the dais, and the crowd parted for him, but he stopped short and turned to face everyone. “I’m not one for pageantry.” He’s got the theatricality down, though.
“As you know, I’ve been working on superluminal travel. I built this station in this dark corner of the solar system to get as far as possible from the Sun’s gravity well, and from all outside interference. I was determined that here humanity would take its first steps to the stars. Instead, I discovered something more wondrous.”
Between the pylons, space seemed to fall in on itself. Then there was a hole, but it was…a sphere? It was hard to keep my eyes on it, but the surface was like a mirror, except it reflected some other place. Looking into it, everything was distant and close, all at once.
“What is it!?” Someone shouted from the crowd, though there was only the roar of silence.
Angstrom swept his arms like a carnival barker. “It’s a stable wormhole, a gateway to another world. We have access to the multiverse, to the infinite permutations of reality. We can find every path, every possibility. We can learn all there is to know, learn how to control our destiny. We can become gods!”
To be continued…