58: Hearts and Minds

Fourth Quadrant.

Planet Fountain.

Gorbol Training Academy.

Simulation Room.


The helmet filling Figaro’s vision pulled back, to be replaced by the barrel of a gun.

“Let’s go.”

The gun waved to indicate he should get up.

Figaro took a moment to try and comprehend the situation. When he had gone into the sim-U, the room had been occupied by the other guild members and Princep Galeli. Two technicians had been operating the hardware.

Now there were three armed men from the Vendx corporation, and none of the guild members in attendance.

They were dressed in the latest tactical armour, as you would expect of employees of the manufacturers of the latest tactical armour. It was a multipurpose suit, full body coverage, segmented at the joints to allow more mobility.  A large powerpack on the back provided propulsion in space, shielded the rear from projectiles and high-intensity laser fire, and powered heavier weapons.

Figaro saw the versatility as design mediocrity. The suit did a lot of different things at an acceptable level but one specialised attack would easily breach its defences.

Figaro turned his head slightly to get a better look around the room. There was someone lying on the floor on the other side of the simulation machine. It looked like one of the technicians. From the way their unmoving feet were positioned, most likely a dead technician.

“Hey!” The gun moved closer to Figaro’s face, waving at him more insistently. “I said, let’s go.”

The gun looked very new; never been fired, Figaro would guess. There was a transparent film across the muzzle from when it was first unpacked.

“What priority am I?” said Figaro.

“Not very high. Get up or I’ll show you.”

Figaro had a rough idea of how Vendx operated, although they were always updating their manuals needlessly. “Priority one, right? Must be taken alive. Something here triggered this response and you need me to work out what happened. If you kill me, you’ll lose your bonus. Might even terminate your contract.”

The agent didn’t seem to like the idea of losing his work-related benefits. His body shifted into a hesitant posture. He was probably requesting advice from his supervisor on the orbiting vessel that brought him here.

Figaro took advantage of the time to assess his options. The rest of the guild must have resisted the incursion. It was possible they were all dead, but unlikely. The men watching the door wouldn’t be so alert and primed for attack if that was the case.

They were trying to grab him and get out as quickly as possible, but for some reason they weren’t literally grabbing him and forcing him to go with them. Why not? He can’t have seemed like much of a threat to them, and they were bound to have the latest restraining devices.

The gun returned to Figaro’s face. “I’ve been given authorisation to shoot you in any non-vital areas if you continue to refuse to comply.” He sounded a little more certain of himself.

“You’ve been told not to touch me, haven’t you?” said Figaro. “Do you know why?”

“Get. Up.” The gun lowered from Figaro’s face to his stomach.

“I think you’re meant to take that off first,” said Figaro, pointing at the muzzle.

The Vendx agent tilted his head and then drew the gun towards his face. He reached up with his other hand and ripped the film off. There was some snickering from the other two agents who were standing by the door, keeping watch.

The moment of levity was all Figaro needed. They had abandoned their attack posture for just a second. Figaro jumped out of the seat, his body shielded from the two at the door by the one holding his gun to his own face.

Taking the gun away from him wouldn’t do any good. Each gun would only operate if held by its designated owner. It was a standard Vendx safety feature on all their weapons.

Figaro slammed the butt of the gun so the other end hit the visor covering the agent’s eyes.

He reacted by making a weird squealing sound, like a frightened child, and dropped the gun. He stumbled backwards.

Figaro followed his movement and grabbed the belt that held all the fancy gadgets Vendx gave its operatives. He pulled and twisted the man around to face the other two who had their weapons trained on them.

“Shoot him!” shouted the disarmed agent as Figaro drove him forward, angling his body so he had to run forward or fall over.

He should have chosen the second option and fallen over but his instincts were to try and stay upright and regain control of the situation. Ego was never a useful attribute in a fight, certainly not one worth defending.

Now that Figaro was up and had a shield, he had to keep going. He only had momentum on his side, but it should be enough to get him out of the room. Then he’d have to improvise.

There had been a full-scale incursion by Vendx, that much was obvious. Figaro knew from his father’s dealings with the company just how dangerous they were, and how lacking in restraint when it came to maintaining the integrity of their brand. But they seemed to be reluctant to make physical contact with him. Even now, he could feel the revulsion in the agent’s body, the danger of becoming… contaminated? By what, Figaro had no idea. He didn’t need to know to use it to his advantage.

The fact there were only three of them also suggested the rest were being kept busy. If there were still some guild members here resisting, they might be useful, too.

“Take him out, take him out,” shouted the agent. The other two continued to ignore his instructions.

Figaro watched them closely from behind the agent. Their body weight was angled towards the door. They were more likely to run than fight. They had orders not to kill him, but they could shoot him. The leg, the arm, that would be enough to incapacitate their target, so why didn’t they?

Vendx operatives weren’t the best trained but they were the best equipped. Their weapons could target specific areas, their ammunition could take indirect routes to their designated endpoints.

Their cutting edge gear made up for their lack of skill, but it didn’t improve their mental stability. If they were doing well, it helped them finish the job, but when things went wrong they had poor reactions. It was a win-more strategy, only useful when things went smoothly. The Vendx solution was to make sure things never went wrong, and going in early with only one objective was how they accomplished it. Most of the time.

These men didn’t have the tools they needed to do the job they’d been assigned. They also had a bug they couldn’t hotfix. Fear. That was what was stopping them.

Figaro put his hand on the back of the agent’s helmet.

“I’m popping this open,” he said, knocking on the side of the helmet.

“No, no,” screamed the agent. He was a simple grunt who went in to do repairs, fix things and get out. This wasn’t what he had signed up for. That’s what the screaming was telling Figaro.

That was a key part of Vendx’s business model. The people who worked for them did so because their job requirements were very clearly drawn up and generously paid for. In most war crime trials, the soldiers claimed they were following orders and people reacted with horror at the lack of humanity. In the two times Vendx had been accused of war crimes (and found innocent in both cases) those on trial had simply claimed they were under contract and had no choice.

Figaro didn’t actually know how to open the helmet. He wasn’t familiar with this model and didn’t have time to check it over for an emergency release button. But the agent’s reaction told him there was one.

He let go of the belt and put both hands on the helmet, one on either side.

One of the men fired at him. The projectile pinged off the helmet, just next to Figaro’s left hand. A warning shot.

They were being very wary of hitting him, but they were making it too obvious, giving him the freedom to not worry about getting shot. Figaro still didn’t know why, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t use it to his advantage.

He angled his body, used the shift to keep the agent off-balance while making it look like he was struggling to keep him upright, and exposed his side.

“Grab him!” shouted the agent in Figaro’s grasp, which he hadn’t expected but was actually helpful since that was what he was hoping for.

They took the bait and ran forward, hoping to overwhelm him while he wasn’t in full control.

Figaro pushed the agent out of the way, took the agent trying to tackle him into his arms and spun him around.

The other agent was desperately trying to halt his forward momentum while the one Figaro had dropped fell at his feet.

Figaro swung his dance partner’s arm up, the gun still held in the hand, and pressed his finger down on the finger over the trigger.

If the agent had had the presence of mind to move his finger or to stretch his arm — his reach was greater than Figaro’s — he would have avoided shooting both his colleagues. But Vendx prided itself on the standard of its products, not its employees, which they would have replaced with drones, if they didn’t break down so often in intemperate climates.

It was hard to aim with another man’s arm, but Figaro did his best to hit the other two in the hands. The gloves were thinner than the rest of the suit to allow better tactile response, and easier to penetrate with the projectiles from the gun, specially made to not penetrate the rest of the suit. Friendly fire was the number one cause of equipment damage in Vendx.

Both men pulled their bleeding hands into their bodies to protect them. It would do to keep them busy and unable to use anything that required dexterity to operate, which basically accounted for all the gear they carried.

Figaro twisted the arm back and up, dislocating the shoulder with a crack. The segmented suit helped make this move a lot easier. The agent cried out and then fell forward. Figaro let him fall and made for the exit.

“Stop,” called out a voice. It came from the suit he had just left as a mangled pile on the floor, but it didn’t sound like the man inside, who was still groaning with pain.

Figaro stopped by the door and turned.

“This is Commander Creed of the Special Service Octanaria. Give yourself up by order of Vendx Galactic. I can’t guarantee your safety otherwise.”

“We both know you won’t risk killing me, Commander. And I don’t intend to allow myself to be caught any other way.”

“We might not be willing to hurt you, but we have your fellow guild members pinned down. Surrender yourself or I will give the execution order.”

“Go ahead,” said Figaro. “I choose those I am responsible for, not you.”

There was a pause. “That’s a Seneca slogan.”

“Yes, Commander. Send better armed men next time.” He left the room at a run hoping the commander would do as asked, he would probably need more firepower to get out of here.

The good news was that there were guilders pinned down somewhere, which meant they were alive. Which meant he could use them as bait.

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