Mobile Command Centre - Designation: Junior.
“Sir, we’ve got the Central Authority ship hailing us again.”
Mayden took a breath and steeled his resolve. Even if the most powerful organisation in existence wanted to talk to him, he couldn’t afford to be distracted right now. He had to close this deal, and he had to be the one at the command console when it happened.
“Tell them we’re having issues and put them back on hold. Be polite. Play them some music and give them the regular update loop.”
“Sir, they’re the Central—”
“I know who they are. Do it. Creed, respond.”
“Chief Supervisor,” said Commander Creed. “We’re still working on tracking Ulanov. He’s in the system, we’ve got—”
“Yes, yes, keep at it. I want you to increase the coverage from the drone net over the city.”
“But, Chief Supervisor,” said Creed, his voice full of doubt, “we’re already covering the entire city. Nothing can get in or out.”
“I know that. I need it to interfere with my comms here on the city limits.”
“Your comms.” Now Creed sounded confused. “But why would—”
Mayden switched to a private channel. “Creed, listen to me, we’ve got the Central Authority breathing down our necks. We have to recover that box and we have to do it like in the old days, fast and dirty, you understand? This is going to give us the keycode to the executive orbital platform. You and me, Creed, joint credit, we have to push this through at any cost.”
“I’m with you, I am,” said Creed, “but they’re right here, watching us.”
“I know, that’s why you need to crank everything up and give me maximum distortion. We can sell it as a communication malfunction if we have to.”
“Maximum distortion?” said Creed. “That could blow a lot of circuits. I’m liable for damages, you know. It—”
“Hang the damages!” said Mayden. “I’ll cover your costs.”
“Really? Will you put it in writing?”
“You’ll have my digital signature by the end of the day. Just do it. And find Ulanov.”
“Okay. Leave it to me. Joint credit.”
“Right,” said Mayden. He turned off the channel. Joint credit. The man was a fool. He should have gotten the agreement in writing first. End of the day. There was no end of the day, there was only business.
Surf ‘n’ Turf
Terrific JonJo stood in the wreck that had once been the finest dining establishment in Fraiche city, and wondered how it had come to this.
He was not a person people trifled with. His reputation was one of a cold, hard businessman. That was the word he used, and woe betide anyone if he heard them using any other — and he always heard.
No one could get close enough to do him any harm because JonJo always heard them coming. It wasn’t just the sound of their footsteps that gave them away, it was the volume of their intentions. Nobody could keep a cap on their excitement, their agitation, their turbulent thoughts clanging around their skulls when they were planning to commit a misdeed. Something always leaked out. Always.
JonJo poked the end of his cane at what had once been an exquisite wooden table, made from genuine Kordoban mahogany. It had been imported over several light-years, cost a small fortune, and all he had left were dark brown splinters.
He used to sit at that table on a raised platform at the back of the restaurant and conduct his business while watching his customers enjoy themselves. It had given him an immense amount of pleasure to be successful, to be respected, to be feared.
And now what did he have? Rubble.
It was inconceivable that he hadn’t anticipated this. He was the finest augur in the quadrant. His neural network was far more complex than any other organic of his type. There had been no indication.
The boy, the trainee, he was the one responsible. He was the one who would pay, him and his entire guild. And those Seneca mercenaries, he would find a way to pay them back for getting him involved with this catastrophe.
Looking up, through the holes in what remained of the roof, the sky was dotted with small black drones, thousands of them. If it weren’t for the Vendx drones shutting down every communication device in the city, he would have taken care of it already. As soon as the drones were gone, as soon as Vendx disappeared with their bullying technology, JonJo would find the people who had destroyed everything he had built, and he would destroy them.
Scrambling footsteps hurried towards him from the back of the restaurant, or the shell of what remained.
“Boss, Boss,” called out a voice. “Good news, Boss.”
JonJo didn’t bother to turn around. He had recognised the clumsy footfalls as soon as he’d heard them, his newly appointed head of security, Tibro. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be as disappointing as his predecessor.
“What is it, Tibro?”
“We’ve just heard from the warehouse. We’ve got an order for the provisions. It won’t go to waste now, we’ve got a buyer. For all of it.”
JonJo turned to face his man, a small, sweaty thug with broad shoulders and hands like mallets. “All of it?”
“All of it,” confirmed Tibro, waving away the dust he had kicked up running to tell JonJo the good news. “Every last crate. Had to sell it a bit cheaper than we would have liked, but we made our money back.”
“Who bought it?” asked JonJo.
“Offworlder. Wants it delivered to his ship.”
JonJo’s eyes flashed red and his ears tingled. He tilted his head and scanned the sky. Nothing; every signal suppressed. “Offworlder? How did he get through the blockade?”
Tibro’s elated pug face turned to confusion. “I don’t… I’m not sure. It wasn’t me that spoke to him.”
“What ship was it?” said JonJo.
“The, ah, the…” Tibor fumbled to get his communicator out of his jacket pocket. “The Red Devil,” he read off the screen. “It’s not very far, just outside the Magellan belt. Registered to the, ah, the...”
“Free Volunteers Guild,” said JonJo. Were they mocking him or just stupid? Both, it would seem. “Do you have the recording?”
“Yes, yes.” Tibor scrolled through his files and then played the audio of the order. Everyone in the organisation was under strict orders to record everything.
JonJo listened, eyes pulsing with light. He recognised the voice, one of the guild’s pilots. But he also recognised the background hum. A kitchen, in orbit, in a Vendx ship. Every space, every environment, had its own unique sound. Unmistakable.
He looked back up at the sky. The guilder was on the Vendx ship ordering food to be sent to his own ship. Well, he would get his order, plus a little extra. Never let it be said Terrific JonJo didn’t give value for money, to friends and enemies alike.
“Complete the order. Have Inigo deliver it.”
Tibor’s eyes widened. “Inigo? But he’s—”
“Do it,” said JonJo. “And make sure—” He stopped and looked up. His ears were burning. Something was happening to the drone net. A flood of noise washed over him.
Gorbol Training Academy.
Princep Galeli checked the readings on the simulation machine. Everything seemed to be stable. All vitals were steady. The entire Vendx assault team were in the buffer, which was probably the safest place — for them and for the guild. Only Trainee Fig was left inside the sim-U.
“What’s wrong with it?” said Hickory.
Galeli looked up at the black screen. “I don’t know.”
“It’s Vendx, isn’t it?” said Bev. She was standing by Trainee Fig’s chair, staring up through the gaps at the bottom of his helmet. “It’s their machine, they must know how to hack it.”
“That would be highly illegal,” said Galeli, “and open them up to a massive lawsuit.”
“Only if you can prove it,” said Bev.
Galeli had to admit she had a point. He fiddled with some more buttons, tried to get back in, but he was completely locked out.
“If that weird guy was here, I bet he could fix it.” Bev blew on Trainee Fig’s face.
“Please don’t do that,” said Galeli.
“He can’t feel it,” she said.
“I know,” said Galeli, “but the way things have been…” He stopped as the readings fluctuated.
“What is it?” said Hickory.
“The drones,” said Jace, who was bent over his comms device. “They’ve stopped.”
“Stopped what?” said Hickory.
“Stopped working,” said Jace.
“The net’s down?” said Hickory. “All of it?”
“Yes,” said Jace. “Every one of them. The skies are clear.”
“Then get a message out to the ship,” said Hickory.
“They’re contacting us,” said Jace. “Red One, Red One, can you hear me. This is Jace.”
“Tell them to get here, now,” said Hickory. “Cloaked.”
“They’re asking… they’re asking if we ordered a shipment of food.”
“What?” said Hickory. “What are you talking about?”
“They’re saying they have a delivery incoming. They want to know if—”
Hickory ran to the window and looked out, his eyes glowing an intense crimson. “That’s one of JonJo’s. Tell them to open fire on it.”
“Open fire!” Jace shouted into the mic. “Open fire!”
Planet Fountain (orbit).
“Open this door right now,” said Chukka.
“I can’t,” said the senior technician. Chukka had no idea what his name was, but she knew he was a coward. Anyone with a cushy job like this one wasn’t going to take any risks. “I have a gun trained on me,” he whined. “Several.”
“I thought you said he was in the sim-U,” she said through the locked door. The guards on either side of the door stared past at her, over the heads of the security team waiting to go in. They looked embarrassed. They would look a lot worse once she had them brought up on charges of gross negligence.
“How can he have a gun on you, then?” she said.
“Not him,” said the frightened voice. “The drones.”
This was getting her nowhere. The executive simulation room was one of the few areas she didn’t have direct access to. How could the little shit have known that?
“Break it down?” she said to the man behind her.
“But, sir…” He was carrying a large boron laser, a power cell strapped to his back. This was why he was here. “This is Vendx property.”
She was proposing something sacrilegious, and also very expensive. You break it, you pay for it — that was the Vendx company motto.
“I’m taking full responsibility,” said Chukka. “Now—”
“Excuse me, sir,” said the guard floating to her left. “I can open it.”
“You can? How?”
“Emergency key. For emergencies.” He said it like he didn’t want her to ask what kind of emergencies he meant. Knowing the calibre of Vendx executives, she didn’t want to ask.
The guard vented his suit and turned to face the door. He would never do this normally, but he’d already messed up. This was his way of trying to win her over. At least he wasn’t a total idiot.
She didn’t see what he did, but the door slid open.
Chukka floated aside and the team shot inside in pairs, weapons raised. She followed, rising up into the large dome to get a clear view. The two techs were cowering on the floor beside one of the sim-U pods.
“Who is holding a gun on you?” she demanded to know.
They pointed up. Chukka looked up at three interceptor drones outside the dome.
“They’re outside,” she said.
“They have cold laser modifications,” said the senior technician. “It can fire through glass.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She floated down.
The two men cowered even harder, then looked up when nothing happened. Somehow they had been fooled into thinking the drones had cutting edge weaponry attached.
“Right,” she said. “Pull him out of there. The rest of you, aim at his head.”
The circle of men around the pod all raised their weapons.
“Give me an update,” said Ramon Ollo.
“The readings are—”
“I can see the readings from here,” he said into the comms mic. “Give me an update. What can you see? What has changed?”
“Nothing, sir,” said the voice on the other end, from deep inside the facility. “It’s exactly the same as before. Nothing has changed.”
He was standing in the control room of the small asteroid that floated in front of the wormhole that dominated his world’s sky. And he was frustrated.
For some unknown reason, the asteroid was now full of breathable air. Breathable by humans.
It made no sense.
If it were possible to transform the atmosphere, he would have found the mechanism by now. And even if it did exist before, why had it suddenly decided to activate now? There hadn’t even been anyone inside the main floor at the time.
Antecessor sites didn’t just spontaneously begin spouting oxygen for no reason.
“What about the droids? Are they behaving any differently?”
“How would you categorise their behaviour?”
“Hostile, sir. Very hostile.”
Why provide air that humans could breathe and then attack them as soon as they tried to enter?
“Where are you now?”
“We’re approaching the end of corridor six. We’ve taken care of the first wave. We can see the — wait.”
“The door to the lower floor…”
No, sir. But it’s glowing.”
“What do you mean, glowing? The whole door?”
“No, sir. Just the middle. It looks like a…”
There was no way to see inside the facility. Any video signal would be blocked. The only reason sound could get out was because of the organic on the team who could amplify auditory signals.
“What is it, man?”
“It looks like three… like a… sort of a flower?”
“Just wait there,” said Ramon Ollo. “I’m coming down. Don’t touch anything until I get there.”
He moved away from the console and signalled to his team. They swiftly brought his battlesuit forward, floating it into position, the rear open. Ollo climbed up the steps built into the leg, which was as tall as he was, and climbed in. It was his latest prototype, a suit that could magnify the wearer’s power. He had planned to use it to break through the door to the lower floors after some more testing, but it seemed this was going to be a live test. He strapped himself into the cradle and powered the suit up. He headed in.