Monday, February 24, 2014

One Way Trip by Vesper AEon

Bryce Arrankan scrolled through the list of job offers on his datapad, idly dismissing most of them without even reading them. It wasn’t a particularly long list, his group’s existence wasn’t known to the general public, but Arrankan rarely did business with people who messaged him without a prior introduction. When he was finished culling he found he had six offers, all from previous employers or people those employers had recommended to him. Reaching out he picked up a steaming mug of kaff and sipped at it as he scanned the six offers.

 Three were calls for bodyguard duty; there was going to be an assembly soon and that always made politicians nervous. Large crowds were a great place for an assassin with a pistol to hide. Two of the contracts were for interstellar escort missions, most likely babysitting gigs to test his team’s ability to react to unusual circumstances. Skittish clients often used this tactic and Arrankan had learned to despise them for it. It wasted time, often cost his team money in terms of replacing and repairing equipment, not to mention the occasional casualty. No matter how often it happened, he was always left wondering:  If they didn’t trust their friends enough to take their word that his crew could do the job, then why bother hiring them in the first place?
        Still, those gigs did provide good training since his team was never completely sure if they were being set up or if it really was just a milk run. That kept them sharp, and that kept them from getting blasted into space debris or, even worse, getting captured and confined to penal facilities.
        The last entry caught his interest, however. It had come in over the secure channel from one of his favorite contacts, the mysterious client he liked to think of as Mr. Zed. He had no idea who the client really was, but they always paid well and their intel was always top-drawer. The missions were never easy, though, but that was the nature of the beast. If it was easy, they wouldn’t be hiring his crew.
        He opened the message and read it through twice before setting the datapad on his desk and leaning back, sipping his kaff. This was not going to be a milk run.
        “Attention on deck!” a slender man with coppery skin yelled as he stiffened. At his command the rest of the men and women in the room immediately leaped to their feet.
        “As you were,” Arrankan said as he assumed his place at the podium in the war room of his ship, The Shrike. After he took his place the rest of the crew sat, watching their leader expectantly. “I hope everyone has enjoyed our little respite from activity, but fortune has smiled on us again and we once again have contracts under review.”
        This news was greeted with cheers and general enthusiasm. His crew were seasoned warriors and pilots, the only thing they liked more than spending money was earning it. And they knew Arrankan always delivered fat paychecks.
        “Martinez, Chan, Sakura, you guys get to do some hand-holding. Your datapads have the orders, so pack your gear and head out.”  As Arrankan spoke the people he named nodded and accessed their datapads, checking over the missions they had been assigned. “Choi, Renault, I’ve got some new clients I want you guys to run with. Pick your teams and move out as soon as your ships are checked out. These guys have solid recommendations so this should be legit. If not, you know how we do things.”
        Choi nodded solemnly, his face inscrutable. Renault flashed a quick smile, her gray eyes dancing in anticipation. “Five by five.”
        As the five warriors exited the room, Arrankan silently regarded the remaining three. Andrus, the big Mannar gunner; Gaurav, the Jin-Mei sniper, and Duluth, the Intaki counter-intelligence expert. They had been with him from the beginning of this enterprise, the only three people in the entire universe whose loyalty he had absolutely no doubts about.
        “The last item on the agenda is a special deal, one I wouldn’t trust anyone else with.” he paused a moment. “It’s a Zed Special.”
        General cursing greeted this. Any jobs that came from the mysterious Mr. Zed were always high-paying, high-risk, and highly unorthodox. This one would be no different.
        “Zed wants us to infiltrate a corporate HQ, and destroy it completely.”
        “How much is he paying?” Duluth inquired, her face impassive.
        “500 million.” Arrankan grunted.
        “Holy could build a station for that much. Well, rent one, anyway.” Andrus whistled. “That’s a sweet haul.”
        “How many employees on site?”  Guarav asked quietly, his dark eyes sober.
        “Four thousand eight hundred and fifty-seven staff, customers, etc.” Arrankan kept his voice neutral as he cued up slides on the main viewscreen behind and to his left. “The target area is right here,” he gestured at an image of a massive Minmatar research station and a section of it glowed red. “That area must be destroyed first, the reactor core must follow.”
        “That’s a one-way trip right there…” Andruss shifted slightly in his seat. “Ain’t nobody leavin’ their reactor core undefended. That’s fucking suicide right there.”
        “This is blood money, Bryce.”  Guarav pointed at the numbers listed next to the image of the space station. “Those are civilians.”
        “They are also weapons manufacturers.” Arrankan responded evenly. “They make weapons for people just like us, and they sell them to people just like us to sometimes be used on us, specifically.”
        Guarav nodded and shrugged. “I’m just saying.”
        “I have no problem with it,” Duluth folded her hands quietly. “If this be their time, then it has come and they shall be reborn as they are due.”
        The room grew quiet until suddenly Andruss blinked and said “Oh, you guys are waiting for me?  Yeah, sure, I don’t give a shit. I don’t know anybody who works there.”
        “Well, now that we are in agreement, we can begin planning. Zed made this one a priority tasking and I do like to keep clients happy. It’s good customer service, you know.” Arrankan restarted his slideshow, going into greater detail now. “So, let’s take it from the top…”
Planning the mission had taken days of intense work. Mr. Zed had supplied schematics of the facility,  corporate personnel rosters, and even individual schedules. None of it was particularly valuable or useful on it’s own, but after Duluth ran all of this data through complex algorithms she had designed, it provided her with a window of opportunity to gain access to their target.
They had caught a major break when she discovered an inbound personnel transfer, the subject was almost a twin of Andruss. Different hair color and a few other minor differences, but close enough to pass if you had never met either of them before. All they had to do was neutralize the original before he ever arrived.
Zed’s instructions about this were clear:  the original employee was to never make it to the station or anywhere else. Arrankan took care of that himself, figuring it was the right thing to do.
It took Duluth seventy-two hours to devise an attack they could pull off in one week. There was only one catch:  they would never get a second chance, and none of them were leaving the station alive.
        When Duluth and Andruss arrived at the target they presented their forged identification for inspection to the security detachment at the main airlock . Their biometric badges passed, but this was no challenge since Duluth had already submitted forged personnel files to the station’s server. She was posing as a new member of the food services staff, and Andruss was replacing Mason Pierce, the Minmatar demolitions expert that Arrankar had already killed. Getting onto the station wasn’t the trick, though. Getting at the targeted area was going to be the real feat.
        Duluth checked her watch, humming softly. So far, everything was going according to schedule. She moved past a turbolift and angled down a hallway, a blueprint of this floor scrolling in her head. Two turns and she was pressing the button to call another turbolift. When it arrived, she and Andruss entered, neither looking at or acknowledging the other, as is typical in elevators.
        Two floors down the turbolift opened to admit a slender man with thick black hair they both recognized from Mr. Zed’s debriefing packet:  this was Jordan McNaught, head of Qualix Corporations’ top secret R and D department. Brilliant engineer, master weapons designer, and from all accounts, generally nice guy. Andruss almost felt sorry for him.
        Of course, almost only counts in horseshoes and handgrenades.
        No one spoke as McNaught slotted his transponder key into the turbolift control panel and keyed in an access code. When the turbolift arrived at the Engineering section all three personnel exited, Andruss and Duluth moving with the silence of trained killers.
McNaught stopped short suddenly and turned, blinking in surprise as he noticed the two mercenaries. “Oh, hey,” he grinned. “You two must be new.”
“Yes, just got to the station today.” Andruss smiled and extended a hand. “Mason Pierce, demolitions expert.” He indicated his badge, smiling and moving to block McNaught’s view.
McNaught raised an eyebrow as he accepted the other man’s hand. “Oh, you must be part of the company’s recent acquisition.” He grunted slightly as the other man grasped his hand with a rough, callused paw. “Wow, that’s some grip you got there.”
“Well, I really enjoy my job.” Pierce nodded. “What say we get to the labs?”
“Yes, of course, I just need to-” he cut off and glanced around, confused. “Where did that woman go?  The one from food services?”
Pierce shrugged his broad shoulders indifferently. “No clue, but I’m sure she’ll turn up soon.”
“Yeah, sure. I just need to inform security that we might have someone lost on the floor. Ms. Evanovich wants this place on total lockdown and we can’t have unauthorized people wandering through.”
“No, I suppose we can’t have that.” Andruss agreed quietly as he followed McNaught to a security station.
“Ever since Evanovich annexed these floors for us we’ve had our own special catering staff.” McNaught confided as they walked down the hall. “I guess that woman from the turbolift must have gotten her orders confused.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Andruss agreed as they entered a door marked “SECURITY.”
The security station consisted of two men in gray uniforms, Flaylock pistols in their holsters. They nodded at McNaught in greeting, sliding a datapad across to Andruss.
“You must be Pierce, yes?”  one of the guards asked.
“Wow, you guys are really on top of things.” Andruss remarked as he passed his forged credentials over the datapad.
“Hey guys, real quick, there was a woman on the turbolift with us. I think she got off on the wrong floor.” McNaught began when an insistent chirp sounded from the datapad.
“Could you pass that card again?”  one of the guards asked Andruss as the other moved to speak with McNaught.
“Yeah, sure…” Andruss smiled, his face betraying none of the anxiety that he was beginning to feel. He passed his forged ID across the datapad a second time, receiving another electronic rebuke.
“Hey Gary, I’m gonna go with McNaught and intercept that straggler.” one of the guards, Aemon by his name tag made a quick notation in his log book. “Won’t be gone long.”
“Yeah, no worries.” Gary responded, frowning at Andruss’ card. “Let me see your badge, please, Mr. Pierce, I’m going to have to run that again to confirm your magstripe hasn’t been corrupted.”
Andruss nodded and passed his badge across, smiling quietly as McNaught and Aemon exited the room.
Gary scanned the card again, frowning as it was rejected a third time. “Mr. Pierce, I’m going to have to ask you to have a seat while I call upstairs to get a confirmation on your biometrics. Your card made it past the main station server, but we’re quarantined from the rest of the station’s network and I’m getting different readings from what we received last month when your transfer was first approved.”
“Oh, wow. The labs aren’t part of the main station computer network?”  Andruss smiled again, his heart racing.
“Just stand by, please.”  Gary reached for a phone and took his eyes off Andrus to look at the keypad. It was just barely enough time for Andruss. Moving like a striking viper Andruss lashed out and caught the guard’s collar, pulling him forward and smashing his forehead against the desk, knocking him unconscious. Leaping the desk he began disabling alarms while simultaneously locking down the engineering labs.
        Once that was finished he liberated Gary’s Flaylock pistol and disabled the guard’s terminal, then exited the room heading for the receiving bays.
        “Miss?  I’m going to need you to come here for a second.” Aemon called out to the small, slender blonde woman.  She stopped and turned, attempting a smile, something that didn’t go too well with her narrow, suspicious eyes.
        “Is something wrong?”
        “This is a restricted area, ma’am, I’m going to have to see your authorization.” Aemon turned to McNaught as the blonde approached. “Thanks, Doc, I’ll take it from here.”
As the guard turned his attention back to Duluth, she struck, her fist crashing into the guards nose as she landed the first of a series of blows that left him lying unconscious on the floor. McNaught stared in disbelief.
        “We need to talk, Doctor.” the blonde said quietly as she rubbed her knuckles and advanced on him..
        Andruss glanced around the corner and found it empty. One more corridor and he would be in the loading bay where, if everything had gone as expected, he would rendezvous with Gaurav. Duluth had arranged a last-minute delivery to the station, something that wasn’t all that unusual, fortunately. Qualix’s engineers apparently had the run of the place.
        As Andruss entered the loading bay he smiled and waved at a couple of dock workers who waved back but didn’t seem especially interested in coming over to him. He paused to get his bearings, the loading bay was huge with tall, evenly spaced racks reaching high overhead. The dockworkers were watching him now and Andruss was worried they might decide to investigate when suddenly Gaurav rounded one of the racks.
        “Hey, there you are.”  Andruss moved over to his partner who he noticed was carrying a clipboard. From the corner of his eye he saw the dockworkers begin to disappear. It seemed the idea of ending their break by actually working wasn’t high on their priority list.
        “Any trouble?”  Gaurav asked as they hurried off to the shipment of explosives he had brought.
        “Let’s just assume it’s going to start in the next five minutes, shall we?”  Andruss grunted.
        “Then I guess we better get cracking.”  Gaurav muttered.
        After Guarav and Andruss had planted the charges in the loading bay they moved to the next, and most dangerous phase of the plan:  the assault on the reactor core.
        According to their research Qualix had a rotating four person guard team on every core access port on the station. If things kept to schedule they had exactly 20 minutes before shift change, which meant they had 10 minutes before the replacement troops showed up. Three against eight was going to be a bit much, so they had to move now.
        Duluth was waiting for them as they rounded the corner and approached the t-intersection that would lead to the reactor core access door. The three of them met in the middle of the hall, apparently going over something on a datapad that Gaurav had brought with them.
        “Excuse me, I’m going to have to ask you to move along.” one of the guards at the access door called out. Unlike the men on the security detachment that Andruss and Duluth had dealt with earlier, this one was wearing Shock Trooper armor. Only a fool leaves their reactor core undefended, and Janus Evanovich was no fool.
        Andruss waved and nodded without actually looking at the guard.
        With a muttered curse the guard shifted the Breach submachine gun he wore and grimaced at his companion. “I hate these assholes.” As his partner watched the young man advanced on the group standing at the juncture.
        “I said I need you to move along. You all know this is a restricted area, so please don’t cluster here. Ms. Evanovich’s orders.”
        Everything seemed to happen at once.
        “Code red!  We have hostiles in the AO!.” a voice barked out of a comlink on the guard’s dropsuit. “They knocked out comms to the rest of the station and disabled security! Lock the core!”
        Before the voice was finished the three mercs had drawn their weapons, Duluth and Andruss armed with stolen Flaylock pistols, Gaurav using a pair of ZN-28 Nova knives he had hidden under his jacket. As the gunner and the intel officer unloaded rounds into the guard, Gaurav slid low across the floor, springing up beside the other guard as he struggled to bring his weapon to bear on the assassins.
        He never knew what killed him.
        “Get in there and get the charges planted! Duluth and I will hold them off!”  Andruss snatched up a backpack that they had left halfway down the hall and threw it to Gaurav who caught it deftly. “See you on the other side!”
        Gaurav nodded curtly and saluted as he entered the Core access room and locked the door behind him.
        Andruss and Duluth exchanged a look as a squad  of Shock Troops rushed around the corner. Qualix security was a lot faster to react than they had been led to believe.  The mercs  tossed a couple grenades then opened fire.
        Arrankan checked his watch and grunted slightly, raising his eyes to the three clone tanks in front of him. “Any minute now…”  he thought.
        As if on cue the lights on the CRUs lit up and whirred to life and he breathed a sigh of relief he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Another successful run, judging by the fact that all three chambers were active.
        With a pneumatic hiss the three chambers popped open, and the mercs staggered out, naked and dripping from the bacterial bath their bodies had been suspended in. Arrankan didn’t move or speak, letting them regain their senses as they adjusted to their new surroundings. Getting killed was never easy, but being reanimated was no picnic either, especially if you weren’t jumping into a dropsuit with its comforting array of neural stimulants and narcotic buffs.
        As they readjusted to their surroundings he wordlessly tossed each of them a towel and let them dry off. When they were dry he handed each of them a steaming mug of kaff.
Eventually Arrankan broke the silence.
“How did it go?”
        Duluth sat on a nearby desk and shrugged mildly as she sipped her drink. “They  had good security, just not good enough.”
Arrankan nodded, but kept his eyes on his Jin-Mei friend. “What about you, Guarav?  You had some reluctance at the beginning of this mission.”
The sniper met the other man’s eyes levelly, not speaking for a long moment. “I don’t mind blood money, bro. I just want to make sure we call it what it is though.”
“You’re a cold bastard.”  
“Yep. Immortality will do that to ya.”