Wormhole Island - Interior.
General Sway watched the VendX employees swarm over the racks of weapons like well-trained locusts. They shouted out what they found in clear, easy to note bursts. Finding and cataloguing items that didn’t belong to them was something they knew how to do.
“Four barrels, three metres. Black with white markings on one end.”
“Six trigger devices. Black. No markings.
“Two magazines. Attached. Black. White markings on the bottom of both.”
Two of the nine that were left of the VendX group — the other twelve having been sacrificed — walked behind the scroungers, writing everything down.
These were weapons that would be needed for survival against an impossible enemy, but what was important was that every piece was accounted for so that no item went missing. It was a shopkeeper’s mentality. Zero tolerance of all petty theft if you wanted to be sure of turning a profit.
Supervising them, their Chairman stood apart with his assistant at his side. His presence seemed to be enough to keep his people focused and functioning in these most trying of circumstances. It was impressive how fixedly they were able to grind themselves down, no external oppressor required. Everything was provided in-store, off the shelf.
The Chairman was blind and yet seemed to be fully aware of what was going on around him. He was huge and heavy, yet forced others to keep up with him. He had momentum. He was not someone to be underestimated. Or trusted.
Her own people had marked out a smaller section to go over. She had five left under her command. They didn’t need to log everything they found, they just needed to find equipment that worked in this place.
“Jupila,” said Sway as she felt her adjutant’s shadow approaching. “What have you found?”
“We have confirmed three out and out strength orgs,” said Captain Jupila in a quiet, conversational voice. “Two are speed. One is info, he’s the one we knew about before. They lost both the other two. One we think is probably structural destruction. And the last one, we can’t say for sure but we’re leaning towards psychic or mental augmentation. As for the Chairman...”
Sway nodded to herself. VendX weren’t the only ones who were good at making lists. “What about the Chairman?” She had already experienced what he could do, but it was best to be thorough.
“Mental suppression and influence, but it looks like it’s only effective against organic users. Which is everyone here.”
“Hmm,” said Sway. That was why Ubik was able to run rings around the man. “How does that explain how he knew about this place?” She glanced around the narrow room full of racks and shelves. An armoury, carefully hidden. But the Chairman had brought them directly here.
Jupila let out a soft snort. “Best we can come up with, the simulation he was in told him.”
Sway turned to face Jupila. “And why would it do that?”
Jupila struggled to come up with an answer. The Chairman had led them here with an air of expectancy. He had shown no surprise when they found a store of oversized weapons. He clearly knew they’d be here.
“It’s possible that… the simulations showed us attractive images, things we wanted or desired as a way to keep us tied up…” She seemed reluctant to finish the thought.
“And the thing he wanted most was to know where the guns were, so it showed him?” Sway was not convinced. “That makes no sense.”
“No,” agreed Jupila. “Unless…”
“It wanted us to come here and find these weapons. As part of a bigger plan.”
Sway found herself nodding again. The Fourth had lit a path for them, showing the way. There had been obstacles and deaths, but that was just a way to thin them out. For some reason, having them armed with weapons that worked was somehow to the Antecessor’s advantage.
It obviously didn’t want them to use the weapons against it, so who were they meant to fight? Each other?
If it wanted them dead, it could have achieved that already.
Most likely, their target was going to be the Antecessors that were on their way here to pick up the Ollo boy. But she doubted they were going to be a serious threat to a fully-functional Antecessor ship, possibly a whole fleet. So, a decoy? A distraction?
There were too many possibilities to consider at the moment. She would need more to go on before she could start narrowing them down.
“What about the weapons? Any that we can put into play?”
“Yes,” said Jupila, sounding surprisingly confident. The guns were huge and designed for much larger operators than a normal-size human being. “We’ve found a way to strip them down to their core fundamentals — seems like they were designed that way. We might need to take some elements from the VendX area — triggering devices mostly — but the actual function of these guns is fairly straightforward. Exactly how powerful they’ll turn out to be is impossible to say until we fire them.”
It was standard practice when it came to looting armaments off the enemy. Strip them down, then mix and match what you can.
“We might still need to have two operators for each one,” continued Jupila, “but it looks doable.”
So they had working weapons. That meant VendX would too. As long as they were working together towards the same goal, that was fine. When they were no longer on the same side, then there would be a problem. And the first one to cause the problem would win.
“How’s the viper?” asked Sway.
“She’s in good condition,” said Jupila. “Do you want her activated?”
“Yes,” said Sway.
“Target? Moon?” Moon was the codename they’d given the Chairman.
“Yes. Have her stay on him. Take him down once I give the signal, and only then.”
Jupila gave a curt nod.
Viper was a class of special soldier hidden within regular ranks. Nothing was made of their presence, not even the other members of their squad were aware of who or what they were.
If they were never called into action, they carried out their duties like any other member of the Corps. Once they were activated, though, they became a death sentence for their target, using their special skills to strike quickly and without mercy, by any means necessary.
Currently, the team Sway had under her command contained one viper. It was sheer good luck that she had survived, although if anyone was to survive, it would be a viper. Although, having said that, several had not. A large-scale disaster in space lessened the impact of individual talent. It was hard to dodge your way out of an exploding spaceship.
“General Sway,” said the Chairman’s assistant, Daccord, as he walked up to her. “I have here an itemised list of everything we’ve found. I’m sure if we combine resources, we can fashion functioning weaponry out of this stock.” He held out a piece of paper. “May I see your list?”
“We don’t have a list,” said Jupila. “Records leave unnecessary evidence.”
Daccord looked confused. “You must have a very understanding accounts department. Ours start foaming at the mouth if we don’t deliver every docket in triplicate.”
“I can give you a full rundown of what we’ve found,” said Jupila, scanning the list he’d given her. “We could use some triggers, if you can spare a couple.”
Sway watched Jupila and Daccord negotiate trades, both being polite and reasonable, a mutually beneficial transaction with no ulterior motives. Both were very skilled at hiding their true intentions and quickly came to an understanding with a clear set of requirements on either side.
“Stop!” bellowed the Chairman of VendX just as the trading was about to be finalised. “First, we need to be sure of our overriding objective.”
Sway had no doubt he had been waiting for just the right moment to step in and reveal his true agenda, dangling the carrot within reach but refusing to let go.
“Yes, I agree,” said Sway, eager to find out what he was really after, but not revealing any of it in her voice. “We need to have a clear idea of how we will proceed from this point on.” She could see he was ready to continue, but she didn’t give him the chance. “It is fairly obvious the Fourth only revealed this location to you with the expectation you would lead us here to arm ourselves. Any other information it gave you will be as likely to lead us into a disadvantageous predicament as not.”
Chairman Crafbeg loomed over her like an edifice of basic but imposing architecture. “Yes. Obviously you are correct. But we can use this knowledge to our mutual benefit.”
“How?” asked Sway, willing to hear him out. She expected a semi-earnest explanation of his objective, but she expected that to reveal a lot more than he would wish.
“From here to the sigil, there will be very little resistance. The Fourth wants us to reach the sigil, limited in number, but armed to the teeth with very powerful ordnance. We are going to face an opponent we will be expected to engage but not overwhelm. We might even be pushed back.”
“A stalling tactic,” said Sway.
“Precisely. We slow them down, get overrun. Once we collapse, our usefulness will be at an end and I don’t believe we will be shown any gratitude.”
“I don’t suppose we will,” said Sway. So far, his assessment of the situation mirrored hers.
“I suggest this,” said the Chairman. “We agree to work together to get to the sigil as quickly as possible and disable it. The Antecessors won’t be arriving by ship, they will get here via a transdimensional passage connected to the sigil. We have files on this sort of thing so we know it’s possible. The Fourth is waiting for them to arrive, I believe it is in our best interests to stop them from doing so.”
“Alright,” said Sway. This was more information than she had expected him to share. Which made her a little nervous. What he was still hiding had to be even more important. “We get out of here and head directly for the sigil. I presume you know the shortest route.”
The Chairman smiled. “Indeed. But first, in order to guarantee we don’t do anything as foolish as turn on one another, I propose we sign a contract.”
“A contract? For what?”
“For the intellectual property rights of the technology we have found here,” said the Chairman. “There is no point trying to be coy about this. Our two groups are very likely to become opponents either before or after we deal with the Fourth. I think there is no doubt the Fourth knows this and is counting on it. I can’t say I have a full understanding of its intentions, but I’m sure there is some point to it. I am happy to never find out what that is.”
Sway nodded along. They were absolutely headed towards a conflict between the two of them, and nobody other than the Fourth would benefit.
“When I say a contract,” said the Chairman, “I mean something binding, something that will greatly inconvenience and embarrass us both if either party were to break it.”
A businessman first. Sway was happy to sign anything, it meant nothing to her. The legal system in this quadrant was robust and powerful, but far from being able to censure her to any meaningful degree.
“I agree,” said Sway. “It will be best if we make our positions clear. I will lead the combined forces of our two groups, with a goal to get to the sigil and avoid any kind of conflict with the soon to arrive Antecessors, and in return, you can have the IP and general salvage rights on any of the technology and weapon systems found here.”
A slight look of surprise crossed the Chairman’s sightless face. “You are being very generous.”
He was suspicious at how easily she had capitulated.
“I don’t have the time to negotiate,” said Sway. “Don’t get me wrong, we will research all the technological anomalies we’ve come across here, and any useful developments will be integrated into the Corps’ arsenal, but it won’t be made available outside of our worlds. The open market is all yours.”
She was offering him all markets outside of the Corps. They would use what they had found for themselves, but they wouldn’t try to sell any of it. Not much of a concession since the Corps rarely interacted with outsiders, but if it suited VendX to have it in writing, so be it.
“Very good,” said the Chairman. “Daccord, the contract.”
With no working tronics, the paperwork was written on actual paper. VendX had the requisite documentation for making deals in numerous formats, analogue and digital. Their priorities were abundantly clear.
Daccord quickly filled out the document in his hands and then passed it over to Sway for signing. It seemed vaguely ridiculous to be making legally binding deals at a time like this, but if it made the process smoother, then there was no reason not to.
Obviously, the Chairman understood the value of a written agreement — it would make little difference in the immediate short-term, but once this matter was over, and assuming they survived, then it would be of immense value.
The Chairman was thinking long-term, as most investors would. Sway preferred to go from battle to battle, as any commander would.
Once the deal was done, both sides exchanged goods and began to quickly jerry-rig functional weapons. Between the two groups, they had four guns, each needing to be borne on shoulders and requiring two people to operate — one to stabilise and aim, the other to fire.
The next thing was to do was test them. Their firepower was an unknown quantity and not something you’d want to find out in the middle of a fight. At the same time, if they were as powerful as the Chairman claimed, then they could bring the roof down on top of themselves if they weren’t careful.
What they really needed was something to aim at.
“Good,” said the Chairman. “Very—”
“Attention, all of you,” said General Sway. “From this point forward, you will be taking your orders from me. That means all of you.”
The VendX people looked from Sway to Daccord.
Daccord nodded at them. They accepted the order like any drudge would. They had no loyalty except to whoever paid their wages. Seneca training instilled a refusal to work under anyone other than the Corps, no matter who gave the order. Even if the person issuing the order was in the Corps, once you betrayed the values of the Corps, you were no longer Corps.
The VendX drudges returned their attention to Sway, their deadened eyes hoping she wouldn’t demand too much of them. They were in luck. She had no intention of relying on them whatsoever. Other than as a meat-shield, she saw no advantage in having them play a significant role going forward. What having command of them would do, though, was give her the ability to make sure they didn’t get in her way.
“Who is the ranking officer for assault and intervention?”
Daccord cleared his throat. “That would be—”
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder. “I will need you with me,” said the Chairman. “Where is Chukka.”
“Yes, Major Chukka would be next in line,” said Daccord, looking across at the others.
A woman stepped out. She had a serious face and eyes that were cold but alert.
“My orders will be short and direct, just follow them exactly,” said Sway. “My troops will be leading the way and engaging any obstacles. Do not, I repeat DO NOT engage without permission.”
Relief flooded the faces turned towards her. They were capable of doing ‘nothing.’
“We won’t get in your way,” said Chukka.
“Good. Which way to the sigil?” said Sway.
“There,” said the Chairman, pointing at the wall at the far end of the room.
It was a blank wall with no shelving and nothing to mark it out as special. No door or control panel. But it did provide an excellent target.
Sway looked over at Jupila and nodded.
With only a couple of hand-signals, two women carrying one of the oversized barrels turned and faced the wall. The one in front kneeled on one knee, the barrel resting on her shoulder, and the one in rear crouched to line up the shot.
Everyone else moved back and out of the way.
“Fire,” said Jupila.
There was a click, then a hum, followed by a screech. The wall exploded into a puff of dust, revealing an open area behind it.
Jupila went forward to investigate, peering through the newly created hole. “It’s a shaft. Goes down thirty metres. Looks clean.”
“Follow us in,” said Sway to the VendX employees.
Sway turned back to Jupila and nodded.
“Go,” said Jupila.
The four Seneca troopers ran at the hole in the wall with the Antecessors weapons on their shoulder and jumped in. Jupila followed. Sway was right behind her.
She heard the others running and jumping behind, along with shouted threats, probably about wages being docked. It was no wonder VendX was still only a first-rate corporation. It would take several hesitant safe landings before they trusted her. And then would be the perfect time to betray that trust.