As Sebastian hit the bottom of the shaft, he jerked awake. He could do without nightmares, especially before being dragged in front of his supervisor. According to the bedside clock, it was 03.10. He lay on his side watching the minutes roll by until he lost consciousness.
Somehow, he woke before his alarm and got ready for work on time, but the disturbed night’s sleep had left him feeling more tired than before he’d gone to bed and, with Bannik wanting to speak to him about something, the morning didn’t look promising.
The office seemed quiet when he arrived. His co-workers looked at him with the sort of expression he’d expect to see on people’s faces at a family funeral. He hoped he wasn’t about to walk into his own.
He approached his supervisor’s receptionist. ‘I’m here to see Bannik.’
‘Please take a seat, Mr Thorsson.’ The woman tapped away at her keyboard.
He sat on the low box-seat opposite the desk, picked up an infoslate from a nearby table, and began scanning the day’s headlines to distract himself from whatever lay ahead. More terrorist bombings on the outlying colonies.
‘What’s that?’ the receptionist asked, looking up from her work.
‘Those idiotic ITF bastards again. They’ve bombed one of the far colonies, trying to get rid of alien influence.’
‘I don’t know what their problem is … My great-great-grandparents were on one of the Gliese expeditions.’
‘682b, the one they found the first node on. Bronadi first contact.’
Sebastian’s heart skipped a beat. ‘You never told me that.’
Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. ‘You never asked. Anyway, if it wasn’t for us finding that after the exodus, we wouldn’t be out here now, and none of us would have jobs. And that’s down to aliens.’
He grimaced; he didn’t know if he still had a job – aliens or not.
‘Did you read the Flying Dutchman article?’ she asked.
He looked at the page and scrolled down. Before he could begin reading, she chirped up again. ‘Something’s been spotted in the Pegasus constellation, travelling at near lightspeed. Nobody’s got scans of it, but it’s been seen on and off over the last sixty years heading towards a group of uninhabited systems.’
‘What do they think it is?’
‘A ghost ship. Seriously, people would be mad travelling that fast in this day and age. I wouldn’t want to do it. Not for a long trip.’
‘Me neither.’ He shuddered at the thought of losing family to the ravages of time, and put the slate down. He didn’t want a head full of depressing terrorism or paranormal nonsense, not if he was about to fight for his job.
‘She’s ready to see you now.’
His stomach fluttered, and in an attempt to calm himself he imagined the receptionist had been doing her make-up without a mirror; her wonky lipstick made her look like an inadequate clown. Suitably distracted, he smiled, but as he walked into the office the good feeling vanished.
Bannik sat at the long, black glass desk. To her left sat a man Sebastian had never seen before; he was severe and gaunt, with wide, narrow eyes, high cheekbones, and a thin mouth to match. His short, black hair was oiled or gelled and stuck to his scalp, giving his fringe a serrated look. His uniform was a prominent combination of charcoal grey and white: SpecOps. The man attempted a smile – it would have looked warmer and more sincere on a crocodile.
Bannik gestured to the solitary chair opposite.
Sebastian sat down and folded his hands in his lap, trying to hide their trembling while his stomach quietly knotted itself.
She leaned forwards on the desk and laced her fingers together. ‘Let’s get down to business, shall we, Mr Thorsson? This is Agent Marcus Gladrin, of SpecOps,’ she said, gesturing to the man. ‘Firstly, I have to inform you that your duties have been allocated to several other members of the security department.’
Sebastian’s mouth fell open.
‘Mr Thorsson,’ the agent said, ‘your time working here as a security programmer has come to an end.’
‘I—’ He tried to speak, but the knot in his stomach got tighter, choking him off. How was he going to pay for Erik’s education without a job? What was he going to do instead? How was he going to live?
The agent put his hand up. ‘Before you say anything, please, let me continue.’
It was hard enough to stop shaking, but Sebastian forced his mouth to close. He fixed his gaze on Agent Gladrin’s piercing black eyes and nodded.
‘Mr Thorsson, you have been chosen, based on your psychological profile, for a new security position on the station. It should not interfere too much with your day-to-day duties, although they will take a lesser priority. The other team members will now take over your non-specialised duties. Think of SpecOps as an expansion to your scope of work.’
The statement hit Sebastian like a brick to the face. They were offering him the SpecOps job. ‘I-I’m pleased to meet you, Agent Gladrin. But I don’t understand. Why my psychological profile? I thought my test results were awful.’
‘Quite the contrary. We always look for those with a specific mindset. An ability to readily pick up new skills and think outside the box. The test you took when you applied for your current post indicated that you would have these traits, and we have been watching you for the last few weeks to see if this was indeed the case.’
Someone had been watching over his shoulder without him being aware of it? Who?
‘I put your name forward to SpecOps after some of your most recent projects impressed the security board.’ Bannik grinned. Yes, it had probably been her watching him.
‘Yes, quite.’ Gladrin cast a fiery glance in her direction. ‘Rather than interviewing potential recruits in the traditional manner and putting them on probation, we give them an introductory task to complete. Your uniform and other equipment will be deposited in your locker shortly and Bannik will forward the details of your allocated shuttle to your terminal. You will also be given your own office for privacy purposes. I suggest wearing your uniform at all times during official business – it has a certain weight behind it.’
Sebastian reeled. It was a lot to take in. ‘May I ask why I get a shuttle?’
‘All Special Projects and Operations employees get their own personal shuttle for use on assignment.’ Gladrin waved his hand in the air. ‘It saves on red tape and is more efficient if they have their own vessels, given the dynamic nature of the work they do.’
‘I see.’ He still hadn’t caught up with the bit about the uniform.
Gladrin dismissed Bannik with a wave of his hand. She pursed her lips, grating the chair backwards as she rose. Gladrin returned the expression with an unflinching stare and waited until she’d gone before speaking again.
‘Your task is to analyse a new technology for us, recently acquired from a terrorist cell that was developing it secretly back on Earth. We don’t know whether the item is functional or not, nor do we know what its purpose is, but the technicians tell me it doesn’t contain explosives, so you’re cleared to work on it. The item will be delivered to your locker along with the other equipment. The box is print-locked for security.’
‘We usually pair up our agents with those of complementing skills. It’s often more effective to allow agents to select others to work with, but given the distinct lack of other SpecOps agents on this station, I will allow you to choose another station employee to bring in on the project. Remember, this is a test of your resourcefulness, not specific knowledge, and a large part of resourcefulness is in knowing who to trust and how to get the most out of those whom you do.’
Sebastian opened his mouth to ask a question but the agent spoke first.
‘Do not speak to your co-workers about this assignment. It is for you and your chosen partner only.’ He craned his neck to look past Sebastian. ‘This includes your supervisor and higher ranking staff. Any questions?’
‘No … I think that about covered it, although I don’t understand why this task doesn’t go through normal research channels.’
‘Red tape, again. It would take too long and we fear terrorists may be using this technology in their attacks. SpecOps often has a need for discretion, and even though we do not always have the free resources to research things ourselves, on this occasion we cannot afford the potential security leaks associated with bringing in third party research companies, especially when insurgents could be anywhere.’
‘I understand.’ It was the reason Sebastian was employed to develop the station’s security software in the first place.
‘So, who would you like to have work with you?’
He shrugged. ‘Who should I choose?’
Gladrin tapped the desk with a finger. ‘As SpecOps assignments often involve a lot of travel, sometimes to dangerous places, I suggest you choose someone with whom you could trust your life. Someone adaptable, and whose skills complement your own.’
‘I know just the person.’
He held out an infoslate. ‘Put the name there,’ he said, pointing to a box on the presented form.
Sebastian typed the name in and handed it back.
‘Born 2228, ex-marine with honourable discharge. Oh.’ The agent read the form and raised an eyebrow. ‘An interesting choice. I’m not sure how that’ll work out, but EarthSec says the records are clean. Very well.’ He stood and held out his hand. ‘I very much look forward to working with you in future and seeing your results.’
‘As do I, and thank you for the opportunity. It’s been nice meeting you, Agent Gladrin.’ Sebastian rose and they shook hands.
He turned to leave and Gladrin caught his arm. ‘As I said, your normal work duties take a lower priority. Any time you spend on work in relation to your assignment will be paid for. The same goes for your partner. This is effectively a research assignment, and research takes time, effort, and, often, legwork. Feel free to use any resources necessary to make your work more effective. I imagine your partner might need a little help, so focus on those needs first. I need you to be an effective team.’
Sebastian smiled and thanked Gladrin again, and as he left the office his palms began to sweat. To work under his own steam again, without boundaries, freedom. But what a responsibility.
He made his way to his desk and Bannik appeared from nowhere, arms folded. Her stony expression giving nothing away. ‘The equipment has been delivered to your locker. I imagine you have a lot of work to do, Thorsson, so you’d better get to it. I expect everything finished before you start working for SpecOps.’
He nodded and stepped around her on his way to his desk. It would be nice to have his own office.
He worked fervently, putting the finishing touches to some long-standing projects – one thing he didn’t want was her breathing down his neck – and by mid-afternoon the jobs were complete. He couldn’t wait to see what was in his locker and finally be out from under her thumb.
He walked through the open archway of the changing room and passed the aisles of benches. The blue brushed-metal walls watched his every move. A large part of him wished Gladrin hadn’t told him about the terrorists, and had just given him the box with no information. He reached out and touched the palm-lock and his bladder tightened. The locker door swung open.
His casual clothes hung at the front as usual; nothing seemed out of place. He glanced briefly at his old canvas rucksack slumped in the corner and it triggered a vague memory, something recent, but he couldn’t place it. He’d had the thing since his eighth birthday. He remembered it like it was yesterday …
Sebastian sat playing in the sun on the terrace outside the small family home. He stopped pushing the toy shuttle along the grass and looked up at the trees in the recovering forest on the edge of the urban zone as a car silently pulled up at the gate. A tall, elderly man with white hair climbed out and began hobbling up the path with his walking stick.
Sebastian ran down the steps, arms outstretched. ‘Afi!’
‘Shh. Don’t let your mother hear you speak Icelandic. Speak Galac.’
‘Sorry. Hello, Grandfather.’
Frímann bent down and squeezed him tight. ‘Happy birthday, Sebastian.’ He turned Sebastian around and nudged him back towards the house. ‘Go on, I’ll be up in a minute.’
Sebastian ran up the steps and sat cross-legged in front of the white wicker chairs.
Dishes clattered in the kitchen, and Sebastian’s mother ran down the steps past him, her white dress shining. ‘Frímann! It’s good to see you.’ She gripped the old man’s arms and pulled herself up to kiss him on the cheek.
‘Sigrid, my dear! How are you keeping?’ Frímann’s white grin glinted in the sunlight as he turned towards the house. ‘Thor’s at work, again?’
She sighed. ‘He takes all hours the Gods send lately. Mikkael was playing up so he took him to work after the party.’
Frímann shuffled up the steps and took the seat next to Sebastian.
‘I’ll get a drink,’ Sigrid said, patting Frímann on the shoulder, and made her way into the house.
‘I have a present for you, Sebastian,’ Frímann said. ‘I want you to look after this. Take it with you wherever you go.’ He leaned forwards and unhooked a beaten-up canvas backpack with leather straps from his shoulder and handed it to Sebastian.
Sebastian’s eyes widened. ‘What is it?’
‘My great-grandfather’s pack. He used to take it with him when he went exploring. Open it.’
He fumbled with the heavy buckles on the top flap, loosened the rope that drew the neck shut, and put his hand in. Something cold met his touch and he snatched it back.
‘It’s okay. Take it out – it won’t bite.’
He reached in again and pulled the object out. It was enormously heavy in his small hands. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s an antique miner’s lamp. A Davy lamp. Let me show you.’ Sebastian handed the lamp back and the old man turned it in his hands. The light caught on the shiny brass base and fixtures. ‘This is nearly four hundred years old, so I want you to look after it carefully.’ His knotty finger pointed to a dent on the side of the black cowl at the top. ‘The badge has fallen off, and you can see where the lettering has worn away. It says eighteen-something. That’s when it was made.’
‘Wow! How does it make light? Does it have a battery?’
Frímann laughed. ‘No, it uses liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Do you know what that is?’
Sebastian scratched his head. ‘That’s what old cars used to run on, isn’t it?’
‘Good lad.’ Frímann rubbed the boy’s head. ‘At least you’re paying attention at school. You’ll probably never see it lit in your lifetime.’ The gnarled fingers turned the lamp over and pushed a lever on its base.
Sebastian watched as Frímann demonstrated opening the glass. He imagined himself walking through dark tunnels, shining the light ahead of him like his great-great-grandfather might have done. Just like his heroes from the movies, or the characters in his grandfather’s stories.
‘Can I go and play with it now?’
‘I don’t see why not. Go on.’
He put the lamp and toy shuttle in the pack and slung it over his shoulders. It almost came down to his backside. He giggled with excitement, ran down the steps and around the back of the house, and crawled under the terrace to watch his grandfather through a split in the floorboards.
Frímann grinned and sat back to write in his worn leather journal.
Sigrid came out of the house minutes later, carrying a tray of glasses and pitcher of lemonade. ‘Where has he gone off to now? You didn’t let him go into the wilderness, did you? I wish you wouldn’t keep telling him those stories about giants and magic. You’ll have him thinking the Gods are looking out for him.’
Frímann looked up from his notes. ‘Oh, let the boy play, my dear. He’ll be fine.’ His wrinkles deepened and he shook the book in her direction. ‘There are much worse things in the universe to worry about than wild boar and rutting deer …’
The pack and lamp had stayed with Sebastian after that, and he still felt bad that his grandfather got the blame for letting him run off. The childhood desire for adventure rose in his veins, and this time, rather than stifle it, he allowed the urge to wash over him; now that he was SpecOps his desire to travel might finally become a reality. He put the rucksack back in its place in the locker and caught sight of a silvery glint of metal at the back. He slid his clothes to one side on the rail to reveal a SpecOps uniform hanging behind them. How had he missed that?
His eyes followed the uniform down to the bottom, where a small metal box sat along with several other items. He picked up the box. It was a cube of approximately three inches with a print-lock on the front. It felt fairly heavy for its size. His attention moved to the other objects: a ruggedised infoslate, a medical kit and nanobot injector, a pair of AR glasses, and a handgun.
A gun! He’d only used one a few times. Once as a child, when his father had shown him his service pistol, and later, when he took the basic security training in weapons, armour tech, and tactics. He’d proven to be less than confident with them. It would probably be wise to book in for a few hours on the practice range. Resourcefulness is part of the test, he reminded himself.
He turned his attention back to the uniform. Not particularly colourful; mostly a charcoal grey with a white panel that ran across the top of the chest and down the arms. A second set of panels ran down the sides of the abdomen and legs. He rubbed the fabric between thumb and forefinger. The outer skin was rubbery and segmented into hexagonal cells that bulged in the centres. He’d never seen the material up close before, but recognised the technology – it was an N-suit. He squeezed one of the cells and its neighbours bulged. He draped a leg of the suit over his palm and punched it with the other hand. The area around the impact immediately became rigid and a fraction of a second later returned to its previously flexible state. Definitely a non-Newtonian suit. He grinned and turned it around to inspect the design. It was stylish despite the lack of colour – still a vast improvement over his regular uniform – and at least a fraction of the weight of traditional ballistic armour. He couldn’t wait any longer to try it out.
He pulled the suit on. Its stretchy fabric fitted well and was immediately comfortable. Its inner lining looked porous. Within the collar was a small cap. He flipped it open and out popped the end of a plastic tube. What was that for? He smoothed the uniform down, fastened the unilok seal, and noticed one flaw – no pockets. How was he supposed to carry anything?
He looked in the locker, and with the suit off the rail he spotted a belt with several small pouches and a holster. The items, with exception of the infoslate, might all fit in the belt pouches. Evidently he was supposed to keep the sidearm on show. How much of a target would that make him?
He finished fastening the suit and stuffed his regular clothes into the rucksack along with the gun – he wasn’t comfortable with the thought of wearing it immediately, given he hadn’t had any practice – and put the bag over his shoulder. Should he take box with him? The idea of carrying some unidentified terrorist technology back to his apartment made his stomach churn. Better to leave it here for safekeeping, for now at least.
He turned to the mirror at the end of the row of lockers. It was surprising how much more athletic he looked now everything was held in place properly. It wasn’t that he was unfit – more that the horrible courier-outfit he wore made him feel the wrong shape. Aryx would be so jealous. Speaking of which, he should probably give him a call before he finished his shift.
He called up the security TI on his wristcom. ‘Computer, locate Aryx Trevarian.’
‘Aryx Trevarian is in shuttle maintenance hangar, bay two.’ Of course he would be. He said he had to get a shuttle finished, and the Antari didn’t have the nicest of tempers at the best of times.
Aryx lay on a trolley underneath a shuttle. A position he hated, especially since the accident.
The stabiliser access hatch hung open, exposing a maze of cables, conduits, and wires. A crack ran the length of the main housing – it would need to be replaced. He picked up a spanner and reached in as far as his elbows. Turning his hands in the space, the tool collided with something.
‘Ouch!’ He pulled his hand out. His knuckles were grazed. Time to use the CFD tools – there simply wasn’t space, not with his hands. He rolled over, picked up one of the six-inch metal rods next to him and turned it on with his thumb. A glowing orange screwdriver head appeared two inches from the end.
‘Set to spanner.’
The tool changed shape and the screwdriver became a small C-shaped wrench.
‘Off.’ He reached up inside the stabiliser with the rod – at least now there was space. ‘On.’
The spanner-head reappeared and he unfastened a pipe coupling. A small amount of thick gunk dribbled out and covered the glowing end of the tool. He pulled it out of the workspace and grabbed a rag, but rather than wipe it he held it over the cloth and switched the head off. It vanished and the tacky film fell onto the fabric. He put his hands back inside the machinery and went to unfasten another coupling, but the spanner-head didn’t fit.
‘Enlarge by three millimetres.’
The tool resized itself and he applied it to the offending nut. Perfect.
‘Incoming call from Sebastian Thorsson,’ the computer terminal nearby said.
He jerked forwards and bashed his head on the underside of the shuttle. ‘Ow! What now?’ He slid out from beneath the shuttle on the trolley. ‘Accept call.’
‘Aryx? I can’t see you,’ came Sebastian’s voice.
‘I’m on the floor, still working on this damned shuttle!’
‘I thought you had that finished.’
‘Just a couple more tweaks then I’m done with it. It’s got to be perfect. I don’t want the Antari bringing it back and complaining – you know how they are.’ He pulled himself fully out from under the ship, sat up, and wheeled the trolley over to the screen. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I was checking to see if you were free for drinks this evening, that’s all. I have some news.’
Aryx weighed up the work that remained. ‘I should be free when this is done. Call by in about an hour and we’ll go to the bar.’
‘Fine. I will see you then.’ The screen went blank.
He slid the trolley back under the shuttle to finish off the stabiliser.
It took a little over half an hour to insert the remaining bits off the floor and another half hour to go around cleaning the greasy handprints off the lower part of the hull.
Sebastian waited for the lift to arrive and entered. ‘Shuttle maintenance.’
It moved off and after a few moments stopped to let him out. Several yards down the passage he came to the door of the hangar. A sign on it read Secure area, authorised personnel only. He pressed his hand against the palm-lock and walked in.
The shuttle maintenance hangar was vast, about the size of a sports’ stadium, at least fifty metres high and several hundred metres long. The place had a metallic, oily odour that reminded him of the lift system. It was one of those smells that made you want to wash your hands as soon as possible.
The nearest workspace was the only one occupied. Floodlights created a pool of yellow light around the bay, while the rest of the hangar receded into darkness, giving the impression of a large cavern. He could make out the gleam of metal in the distance, hinting at the presence of several other ships, unattended.
He approached the angular shuttle nestled under the warm lights of repair bay two. Numerous tools and diagnostic devices lay strewn on the surrounding floor. A loud, rhythmic banging came from underneath interspersed with the occasional flash and bout of cursing.
Sebastian looked down at where the noises were coming from. ‘I suppose Karan told you the news first, did she?’
‘What news? I haven’t seen her,’ came a voice with a faintly Australian accent.
‘I got promoted.’
An oil and grime covered head with hazel eyes and black hair, combed and gelled into a wide Mohawk, popped out from under the shuttle. ‘How can you get promoted? You’re the only person doing your job and there’s not exactly any upward career progression in it. What is it, security programmer plus?’
‘It’s a new position—’
Aryx slid back under the shuttle.
‘What—’ A loud bang reverberated from the hull, followed by another bout of cursing. Aryx’s head popped out again, this time being rubbed by the back of a greasy hand holding a constrained field tool. He stopped rubbing the growing lump on his forehead, turned the tool off, and wiped the grease from his hands with a rag. ‘At this rate I’m going to have to start wearing a padded helmet!’ He slid out from under the shuttle up to the waist and gestured at something behind Sebastian. ‘Bring me my wheels, will you? My shift’s over.’
Sebastian brought the wheelchair from beside the box and put the brakes on. The mechanic slid himself out to reveal his oil-streaked olive overalls ended at the knees with the trailing length pinned back under the thighs. Aryx climbed into the chair and, leaning to one side, whispered, ‘How the hell did you land yourself a job in SpecOps?’
‘It never occurred to me to ask before,’ Sebastian said, as they made their way down the corridor to Aryx’s apartment, ‘but why don’t you get bionic legs fitted or have some transplanted – or even that new stem-cell cloning?’
‘That’s why I liked you from the day I met you. You never asked. You just accepted me without being patronising or pitying.’ Aryx’s eyebrows flattened. ‘So why ask now?’
‘I— Just curious, that’s all.’
Aryx’s jaw muscles pulsed. ‘I can’t have transplants because the anti-rejection drugs won’t do me any good, and the gene-mods aren’t up to scratch. I don’t qualify for the stem-cell clones, either, because of a complication, and that’s also why I can’t use prosthetics. I’m ill.’
Sebastian stopped. ‘What do you mean, ill?’ His throat tightened as he said it.
Aryx turned to face him. ‘I got infected with a parasitic virus during my accident. It’s weakening the bones of my legs and has knackered my immune system. That’s why I can’t get clones or transplants. The anti-rejection drugs will drop my immunity to zero, and probably kill me.’
Sebastian almost couldn’t speak. ‘Nanobots—’
‘—don’t help. They tried. It’s a parasitic virus, intelligent enough to avoid them.’
No wonder Gladrin was dubious about his choice of partner. ‘I never knew …’ He went to put his hand on Aryx’s shoulder.
Aryx slapped it away and pushed off. ‘Quite right! Besides, I’m used to my body now.’
‘Are you going to die?’
He glared at him. ‘Don’t talk stupid!’
Sebastian swallowed his feelings and tried to shift the topic. ‘Why stick with that manual chair?’
‘How else am I supposed to get exercise? Anyway, plenty of people seem impressed with these …’ He stopped wheeling, raised his arms and flexed his huge biceps. ‘We shouldn’t feel pressured to fit in and be like everyone else. We all have to wear our scars or we repeat the same mistakes. I don’t want to cover up and hide. It doesn’t affect anyone else.’
Sebastian remained silent. He didn’t feel like telling Aryx that it affected him.
‘It’s funny you should mention my chair. They still won’t let me do field repair because it’s too cumbersome on uneven terrain, and I don’t really want to build yet another one so I’ve started work on something new. Why did you call by, anyway? You could have just sent a message about the job and we could have met up later.’
‘I wanted to see you, and I thought—’ Sebastian stepped behind Aryx as a large tentacled mass lumbered by in the narrow corridor, and he continued to walk behind him after it had gone.
‘Don’t walk behind me. You’re making me strain my neck.’
Sebastian sped up and lowered his voice. ‘I thought it would be better to tell you the rest in person.’
‘Hmm,’ Aryx grumbled, ‘I don’t think I’m going to like the sound of this.’