It was only as she smashed through the glass and found herself suspended in mid-air that it occurred to her - the EMHA might not be able to protect her from an eleven-floor drop. Electro-Mechanical Haptic Armour was designed to enhance a soldier’s physical capabilities, but it didn’t make them invulnerable. Below her hundreds of pedestrians milled about like ants, and from her rapidly declining vantage point she could clearly see her masked target, carving an all too conspicuous path through the swarm of humanity. She tried to ignore the sharp wind stinging the exposed parts of her face and how powerfully her short hair was whipping about as she cut through the air, tried to position herself in the catlike falling position they had used in training– back arched, knees slightly bent, arms and feet extended towards the ground. This was meant to allow the hyper-tensile musculature in the EMHA’s arms and legs to act as a form of shock absorber, cushioning the limbs of the person wearing it from the force of impact. She turned off the rear-view display on her visor to cut off how quickly the building was speeding past behind her. This technique had been designed for falls from far lower than this, and not at this kind of velocity…
Another realisation, rather than the thirty-six meter fall, suddenly tied her stomach in knots: the result of the EMHA landing on top of these people was another factor she hadn’t considered. The body-hugging suit was only slightly bulkier than her own body, but it was a lot harder, and a hell of a lot heavier.
She hit a button on her wrist panel and blared the EMHA’s siren in the hope that someone would look up. Fortunately the sound of exploding glass above them had already alerted the crowd that something was awry, and they were falling over each other to get out of the way. Just in time… She could see her own shadow getting progressively larger and clearer on the rapidly advancing pavement…
The scream of pedestrians. A loud crash. Mind-shattering pain. The sickening click as her shoulders and hips dislocated. More noise and pain as a rain of splintered glass fell around her, bouncing off the EMHA armour and nicking the exposed skin on her face. All these flooded her perception at once, threatening to overwhelm her, but at the same time keeping her teetering on the very brink of consciousness, her mind barely clinging to the real world. She fought with all her strength to turn that teetering into solid balance.
A fight that she was losing.
Then, suddenly, there was more intense pain and another sickening click as her joints were forced back into place – the EMHA’s emergency fall-recovery program had triggered the suit to pick itself up, the tactile feedback in turn forcing her limbs back into their natural position. This snapped her right back to reality. She stood blinking for a while, her mind and vision fuzzy, but already the mandatory painkillers and neural stimulants were circulating in her bloodstream, injected automatically by the fall-recovery program. People around her had stepped off of the pavement slideways and were staring, talking and pointing, some crying.
“Delacroix? Can you hear me?” said a hazy but impatient voice over the communicator, cutting over the noise of the crowd. “What the hell are you standing there for? He’s getting away!”
The stims kicked in – she remembered what she was doing now. She clicked over to the command channel. “Sorry sir, I was taking a shortcut. Resuming pursuit!”
She whipped around, searching through the bewildered faces around her for her quarry. Then she remembered the direction he had been heading. People dived out of the way yet again as she started out running, her joints popping uncomfortably, but still functional.
She decided that she would keep to the road and save any more pedestrians from unnecessary gymnastics. The EMHA’s musculature seemed, miraculously, to be in perfect working order. She hopped onto the nearest slideway to gain momentum, then leapt onto the street, the amplified strides of her run carrying her swiftly past and over the vehicles in her path. She tried to recall the target’s path through the crowd. Where would he be heading? She had to laugh. Such a daring heist and he hadn’t even had a getaway vehicle ready. So how did he plan to split? HE had been running from her and the others for half an hour now. He had no ground transport, he couldn’t risk a pickup from orbit here in the city where his ship could be shot down, and he had no place to park a personal shuttle. That only left…
No… He couldn’t be heading for the Metro station.
She turned for the trains. Not only was the closest Metro station exactly in the direction that he had been running, but the very idea was so audacious and utterly stupid that it suited his style perfectly. What cop would expect someone on the getaway run to take public transport or, more importantly, risk manoeuvring an EMHA in the heavy crowds?
She opened the command channel again. “Delacroix to Wade. Suspect may be attempting to board a Metro train. Request that we converge units onto the Ferris street station.”
“Negative, Delacroix. We are currently dispersing units to all possible exit sites, as well as to that disaster area you caused with your little stunt! Stick to procedure for a change!”
“But sir, think about it! This is exactly why the perp chose this as an escape plan – maximum possible collateral damage to dissuade pursuit! He’s been able to keep us busy for half an hour now!”
“The legal budget isn’t infinite, Delacroix, and Brian Morbex will NOT be happy with that kind of bad PR! Keep it clean and stay the hell out of ther…”
She clicked off. She needed backup, not a lecture! By this point she was within sight of the station, siren blaring to spurn even more passers-by into evasive acrobatics. A single jump carried her over the heads of the commuters on the stairs and down into the station, sending her slamming into the wall of the narrow lobby area. Tiles splintered and advertising holograms flickered out of existence, but already she was sprinting towards the platform, siren now deafening as it echoed through the narrow underground passage. Soon the passage would split – one path for passengers, the other for the loading of cargo and freight.
There it was. She veered into the cargo passage. Taking this route, she could avoid civilians and still reach the platform in good time. She hoped she could keep her pace for another few minutes. Despite her top physical conditioning and mechanically augmented movement, her limbs were starting to ache from the long exertion and from their previous injury, the pain dulled but not eliminated by the stimulants still flowing through her system. Sweat was leaking into her HUD visor, stinging her eyes. In the corner of the visor she noticed an indicator blinking. The EMHA’s power pack was nearly spent after a chase that had taken her halfway across the city, up a skyscraper, down again, then a few city blocks further. This was cutting it close!
She turned a corner, vaulted over some packing crates and… There it was – the platform, several hundred meters long. And there at the other end was the perp, standing in front of… What was that? Some sort of holographic projection? She tried to zoom in with her HUD visor to get a good look at it. It looked like… Well, she couldn’t tell… It was fuzzy, seemed to be constantly shifting, moving, and the perp was doing… Something… She gave a massive leap forward, tried to close the gap, see what he was doing, and catch him at last…
But suddenly, as she was in mid-bound, the floor beneath her shimmered and turned from rough concrete to a smooth reflective surface.
The foot of the EMHA met its reflection on the newly resurfaced floor with a noticeable lack of traction, and she found herself in mid air yet again for a split second before she was helpless on her back, skidding uncontrollably along the floor. Then her breath was knocked out by a sudden and powerful impact with the platform wall. There was a beep, and her HUD faded from view. Her EMHA was out of juice.
This was too much for her. She just lay there, tried to concede that she had been beaten, defeated by some nameless, faceless geek with a palmtop, but before she even had a chance the floor shimmered again…
The last thing she remembered was being slid inexorably towards the tracks and the unmistakable sound of an oncoming train…
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauties! It’s showtime!” The voice pierced through the haze of Yvonne Delacroix’s mind like an acid-tipped arrow. The haze gradually lifted, and she realised she had been asleep. She tried to rub her eyes, but her limbs felt like lead, and moved so very slowly… Too slowly, as if she was trying to move them through syrup. And she couldn’t reach her eyes… Something blocking them… Where…? What was this…? Hadn’t they discharged her…?
Her eyes opened slowly, and she blinked in the blue-tinged light.
Blue tinged? Of course… She was in the transport ship. The dense blue gunk that was inhibiting her movements was the inertial dampening gel that stopped her and the other passengers from being squished into gel themselves by the intense G forces of the ship’s movement. She still wasn’t used to it. She sighed into the oxygen mask and sluggishly turned her head to look around. She blinked a couple of times, the other blurry forms resolving themselves into her comrades. They were stirring as well, and were probably as disoriented as she was. Some were fidgeting in the grey rubber travel suits, others were trying to disentangle their limbs from the myriad wires that provided the medical monitors with passengers’ vital signs (the gel was too dense for wireless signals, and you never knew when those could fail).
She sighed again, this time in relief. This journey had reminded her a little too vividly of the regeneration tank that she had needed to spend a week in after her last assignment, and now it was over. The Regen tank had been hell – constantly drifting halfway between sleep and waking, unable to move while the machines rebuilt her bones, muscles, tendons, basically her entire body. She had been in pretty bad shape, which was more than could be said for her EMHA… It had taken the majority of the impact, after all, and was now little more than scrap metal in the Mech Pits.
But (as her comrades and commanding officers often remarked) she was made of strong, if incredibly reckless, stuff. It was a well-known fact that Yvonne Delacroix never came back from a mission uninjured., but then again she never came back without bagging a perp either… Many people had believed the spell broken. Her commanding officer was so pleased she had survived that he completely forgot about reprimanding her for the skydiving stunt. Many considered it a miracle that she was already up and heading for another assignment.
The blue gel became thinner and thinner as it was pumped from the transport chamber, and their squad leader’s voice sounded once again, echoing through the room. “Well, ladies and gents, here we are! Let’s see if I can tune us into the automated welcome channel. It’s annoying as hell, so it should motivate you to get your butts off the ship in double time!”
There was some static, followed by an instrumental interlude and a sweet female voice.
“Morbex Corporation welcomes you to Jumpstation One, Gateway to the Stars! Here at Jumpstation One we offer you, our loyal customers, the finest in interstellar transport with our state-of-the-art JumpShips, stylish conference venues and luxurious accommodation! And please don’t forget to visit our top-class bars, restaurants and entertainment areas! Whatever your requirements while travelling, Jumpstation One delivers in style!”
There was a collective groan from the soldiers, and the CO had been right - they pulled their uniforms on as quickly as possible and made their way to the airlock.
“Morbex Corporation welcomes you to Jumpstation One, Gateway to the Stars! Here…”
Yvonne looked down at her own uniform. Silver and blue, emblazoned with the most recognisable, admired, and feared, emblem in the known galaxy. An emblem that had sent her to her death more times than she could count.
The emblem of the Morbex Corporation Security Forces.
Seen from the exterior, the Jumpstation was nothing spectacular to look at. A large rotating torus about seven kilometres in diameter served as the station proper, housing all the starport and accommodation facilities. From the outer circumference of the ring where the electromagnetic rotation motors were situated, four equidistant pylons curved away to intersect at a large semi-conical construct about ten kilometres away. The larger end of the cone pointed towards the habitat ring, and seen from the front one could see that it was positioned centrally to the ring. In this cone was housed all the power generators and spatial distortion emitters that were needed to catapult hundreds of Jumpships per day through subspace to any of seventy Jumpstations across the known galaxy, and receive just as many. The pylons themselves served as more than support for the habitat ring and the vortex generator– since they and the cone were of extremely high mass (and therefore not rotating) they made a perfect place for visiting starships to dock. It was towards one of the pylon docking ports that the transport made its way to, being careful to avoid the projection path of the subspace vortex generator as it approached.
The new slideways weren’t completely installed yet, so the soldiers were forced to walk through the narrow corridor linking the docking bay to the station. For many of them (including Yvonne), this was the first time they had ever been offworld, and their excitement was electric. All along their path, the omnipresent sound of the welcome speech filled their ears, interspersed with the rhythm of boots as they marched.
“In all of recorded history, there have been few inventions that have changed the lives of all humanity forever. The Jumpstation has been considered, along with fire, electricity, nuclear power, and the more recent nanotechnology, as one of the most influential technological leaps in human history.”
Some of the soldiers groaned yet again. Their annoyance was fully understandable - they had been exposed to Morbex propaganda from before they had even entered the training academy, and had been submerged in it throughout their training. Some executive was under the impression that it cultivated esprit-de-corps, but cadets and trainers alike regarded it as the cruel punishment it really was.
“It is the Jumpstation that has enabled us to span the stars, the Jumpstation that provides us with the infrastructure we need to maintain our interstellar ties, the Jumpstation that benefits all of humanity.”
Wow, thought Yvonne, the Marketing department had been in full swing when they wrote this. It would only be a matter of time before they mentioned…
“Alas, the Corporation Wars took what we had created and turned it against us, exploiting our JumpShip technology to wreak havoc in a shameful and mindless grab for territory and resources by rival MegaCorporations. Morbex Corporation is proud to have fought for you and our government during the Corporation Wars, and now we are proud to protect what we have fought for by providing our elite Security Forces to supplement the regular police and military whenever they are needed.”
Yvonne barely suppressed a smile. Yup, she thought, that’s us. Saviours of the known galaxy, keepers of truth, justice, and the Terran way. What nobody seemed to realise was that the current Force had been toddlers during the Wars. The only Corporation War veterans were either dead from old age or in the senior ranks. They were carrying a legacy that wasn’t even theirs. But hey, Morbex paid well and provided them with a very decent standard of living, better than many had ever known while growing up after the war. The other corporations (naturally highly diminished in size) could never offer the kind of job security Morbex could and besides, Morbex had been instrumental in the rebuilding of the interstellar economy after the war, unlike their only remaining wartime rivals Starr Microdynamics, and Misashi Biotech.
“With our quality services and cutting edge technology driving the interstellar economy, you can count on Morbex Corporation to remain a stable and reliable foundation for the future.”
Morbex corporation: stable and reliable, the foundation of the entire colonised Galaxy. That was the image held by trillions, including the galactic government itself. What if the adoring masses learned that one man had single-handedly sneaked past supposedly impenetrable security into Morbex headquarters, hacked their supposedly “cutting edge”, unhackable multi-terabit encrypted central database, and still got away with every MCSF unit in the city after him? What if they learned that the situation was severe enough for Brian Morbex himself to fly in from his inspection of the latest Jumpstation in Delta Serpentus to handle the situation personally? For the first time it became obvious to Yvonne how fragile the situation really was.
“Enjoy your stay on Jumpstation One!”
There was barely any surprise when The Director of Corporate Security himself briefed them fifteen minutes after they had arrived. He was a veteran (some said a hero) of the Corporation Wars, and as such he was short, sharp, and to the point. The Jumpship carrying Brian Morbex would jump from subspace at 22:35 Station Standard Time, and complete docking procedures approximately one minute later. He would proceed by slideway from the Pylon 1 Arrivals terminal along a personally pre-programmed route to any of three luxury transports in Pylon 3, Docks 2, 4 or 8. Once aboard the transport, it and the two remaining decoy ships would leave at scattered intervals, each for a separate and undisclosed landing location on Earth.
Regardless of which route Brian Morbex took, it would take approximately ten minutes to reach his chosen transport, during which he was open to view, and therefore to attack. The role of the MCSF was to keep a lookout for any suspicious characters along the slideway routes. Just to be safe all weapons (projectile or potential melee) were being confiscated at airlocks, and no luggage was to be unloaded until the route was complete. This way nobody on the station was armed, not even the MCSF soldiers, so should anyone make an attempt on Morbex’s life it would have to be using their bare hands, at which point no less than ten Security Force units would spring out and nail them. Quick and simple.
Yvonne made her way out of the auditorium that was serving as the briefing room. It was all moving so quickly… Morbex was due in only ten hours’ time, and they had an entire Jumpstation to secure. And she hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet.
“Private! A word, if you please?” called a voice behind her as she approached the exit. She whipped around, surprised. There was nobody left in the briefing room but the Director of Corporate Security and his direct subordinates. One of those subordinates was motioning to her to join them.
“Take a seat, private,” said the DCS. His voice echoed ominously through the auditorium.
Yvonne couldn’t believe her ears. “Er… Thank you, sir,” she said, and did as she was told.
“Can I offer you anything, Private? Tea, coffee?”
“NO SIR! I mean, um… No thank you, sir!” she stammered. The DCS’s casual manner wasn’t helping.
‘State your name and rank please.”
“Yvonne Delacroix, Private.”
One of his cronies pulled out a sheet of paper and loaded up her file. Through the paper’s transparent surface Yvonne saw a rotating image of her face appear, with a column of text beside it. The crony fiddled with the paper’s interface, scrolling the text until he hit upon a block highlighted in green. He passed the sheet to the DCS.
“I see you’ve been busy, Delacroix. A fine record of arrests,” He frowned, “and an equally long record of medical and repair expenses. Especially on your last mission. I understand you needed a week in the Tanks for that.”
“Would you care to explain to me how it happened?”
Yvonne could feel herself trembling. “No sir. I have no idea how that happened. Everything I know is in my report.”
“So it is. So it is…” The DCS handed the paper back to his assistant. “And what a very exciting report it is.”
He looked right at her. A harsh, piercing look that he held for several seconds. She felt sick. Now she understood why they hadn’t reprimanded her when she left the Regen Tank. They were waiting for the DCS to do it personally. She must really have screwed up during that chase.
“Delacroix, we need your help.”
This caught her completely unprepared, and the DCS couldn’t help but smile slightly at the look of wide-eyed shock on her face.
“No, this meeting isn’t a court martial, as you appear to have interpreted it, and no, you won’t be going to the asteroid mines just yet. I have a better use for you.”
“Sir?” She still couldn’t believe her ears.
“Delacroix, when you were chasing that man you showed a unique insight into his methods that nobody at headquarters could match. You practically predicted his every move.” He eyed her thoughtfully and she felt her palms begin to sweat.
“Now, I am forced to come to two conclusions about this. The first is that you were an accomplice. Your psychological profile, however, refutes this. The second possibility, and the one I choose to accept for the moment, is that your blatant disregard for standard operating procedures gave you a unique insight into what he was trying to do.”
He stood up. “Private, this man you nearly captured is more dangerous than you know. We’ve already informed the soldiers of what he did, namely hacking our central database. However, we haven’t revealed the extent of what he accomplished. The answer is that we don’t know. I’ve had IT forensics go over our system hundreds of times, and we have no idea where he even got into the system, let alone what he did in there. All we know is that he DID, and I find this worrying. Even more worrying is your encounter with him, more specifically the means by which he disposed of you.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
He began pacing. “I’ve had IT forensics go over the train station as well. You no doubt know how secure our central database is. Well, are you by any chance aware of the operating details of Dynamic Surfaces?”
Yvonne nodded. Dynamic Surfaces were everywhere, and had a multitude of applications. They consisted of a thin layer of billions of nanoscale robots, the positions of which could be dynamically altered to change the frictional properties of the surface they created. Recent advances even allowed them to be spurned into peristaltic motion, in order to move objects resting on them (the slideways operated on this principle). In other words…
Yvonne sat wide-eyed once again. “He didn’t. He couldn’t have.”
The DCS sighed. “He could, Private, and did. Our perp managed to hack the Dynamic Surface control system for that train station to the extent that he was able to convert the entire platform to the frictional equivalent of an ice rink, then into one big slideway, something it was never even designed to do.”
“But sir, Dynamic Surface control systems can’t be hacked! The nanites are hard-coded, and even then…”
“… Fractal-mapped memory addressing, dynamic port switching, etcetera, etcetera. I know what this implies, Private. His aim is clearly to destabilise Morbex Corporation, and he was able to put himself in the perfect position to do that. Only he left us standing when he could have brought us to the ground.”
“I will not lie to you, private. The Board of Directors is concerned. He has made his capabilities very clear. But why didn’t he cripple us when he had the opportunity? We naturally suspect an ulterior motive, at the very least a Plan B of some sort. Such as luring Brian Morbex here, perhaps? Do you see what this implies?”
Yvonne just sat silent. Her stomach seemed to be filling with ice water.
“We need your insight, Delacroix. We need you to cover all the angles we haven’t in our security and our procedures. We have to catch this man, and catch him soon, before he can show us exactly what he’s capable of.”
“I… I’ll do my best sir, but I think that our standard low-key escort procedures will be more than enough.”
“Perhaps so… Nonetheless, I want you to keep your eyes open and your wits sharp. That’s all I ask.”
“Yes sir. I will, sir.”
The DCS smiled. He looked as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Good. Now get yourself some coffee and pull on your combat gear, soldier! The boss arrives in five and a half hours.”
Yvonne saluted and trotted out of the auditorium. Just like that, she held the life of Brian Morbex in her hands. The asteroids mines were starting to sound better by the second.
Normally, Jumpstation One was the exactly the bustling haven of commerce that the Welcome had described - shops swarming with endless customers from all over the colonised galaxy. A scene alike that in any shopping mall on any established planet, bar the occasional dimming of lights as power was diverted for the arrival or departure of yet another Jumpship.
Today it was different. Shop owners were furious because of the disruptions to their business, subspace traffic controllers were going into nervous breakdown because the disruptions were rendering their well-calculated arrival/departure schedules worthless, and everyone else was furious because the station had essentially been placed under martial law.
The wise chose to remain in their rooms or in their Jumpship cabins. The rest (and there surprisingly many of them) were forced to navigate through the numerous detours, cordoned off areas, checkpoints and no-go areas that had been imposed all over the station. People were being searched left, right and centre for any potential weaponry, and were subjected to retinal, handprint, and flash DNA scans practically everywhere they went.
Standing in her EMHA, Yvonne watched the arrivals board intently while her mind tried to put everything together. There were too many mind games afoot for her liking, too many unknowns for her to feel comfortable about the situation. VIP visits were normally handled in a low-key fashion to draw minimum attention, but this time they were making a real show of it. MMCSF might as well have announced that something high profile was going on. Evidently the Commanders wanted to draw any potential assassins out, even if it meant placing Brian Morbex himself at risk. So why the big song and dance after the briefing? Did they suspect an inside job? Did they think that one of the soldiers had turned traitor? Was that why their weapons had been confiscated? Was that why the DCS had looked so relieved when she had suggested standard procedure?
It was a testament to the subspace traffic controllers that the moment that the clock clicked over to 22:35 the lights dimmed noticeably, meaning that the space-time vortex that would translate the Jumpship from subspace was being generated. Some of the soldiers clustered around the emitter-side station windows to grab a glimpse of it, but the light from the vortex generator was too bright to make anything out. There was a sudden flare and the Jumpship appeared clothed in a layer of plasma, arcs of energy dancing around it and striking the massive discharge coils that lined the inside of the Jumpstation ring.
Soldiers now moved to their posts in typically efficient military style, and what civilians were left gathered to see what was going on. Yvonne started her run to the Dock exit where Brian Morbex would emerge. As she ran towards the bay, she noticed that the concentration of civilians was increasing, probably to welcome their friends or relatives aboard.
She clicked over to her command channel. “Delacroix here, Commander. This is all wrong! These civilians should have been confined to quarters!”
“Roger that, Private.” There was a pause. She gritted her teeth. What was Command thinking? The corridors were getting narrower, and becoming so crowded that she was having difficulty making her way through without crushing the people in her way.
Finally the response came. “Negative, Private. The civilians remain.”
“What? Sir, we can’t…” she began, but the channel had already been closed. So much for her “unique insight”… There was no sense in trying the command channel again. She was on her own.
She sounded the EMHA siren, but the throng of people was now so thick that they couldn’t move out of the way if they wanted to. Why were there so many people here all of a sudden? Was she the only one stuck?
As if in answer, another voice sounded over her local channel. “…re all these people doing here?”
She started in surprise, but realised that she must be close to the docks if she was picking up local comm signals from a patrol.
“I don’t know,” said someone else half-jokingly. “Maybe they’re trying to leave because of us!”
“All at once?” came the reply. “They must really not like us! We’re flushing the station clean!”
“Hey, stay frosty. Our blockade’ll keep them back!”
At that moment, Yvonne burst out from the narrow corridor along with all the would-be passengers in the enormous circular hallway that acted as the arrivals bay for Pylon 1. As she stumbled on her visor lit up with EMHA transponder data that hovered above each soldier in the room. True to their word, the patrols had set up a large semicircular blockade around the Pylon exit. Presumably they would maintain a protective radius around Brian Morbex as he moved through the station. Good thinking on such short notice… Or had it been planned behind their backs? She walked on.
“Hey, it’s Delacroix!” shouted one of the soldiers as he noticed her transponder pulse on his visor. “Let her through! Special priority!”
The blockade parted to let her through, and none too soon, because at that moment there was a rush of air as the arrivals door slid open. Standing there on his own, carrying a slim briefcase, was a Face recognisable around the Galaxy. The crowds clamoured to see what was happening, smashing against the EMHA blockade like waves in a tempest.
The Man took a look at the chaos around him, breathed in deeply, and stepped into the Arrivals hall.
“We have quite a crowd today, don’t we Private?” he said as Yvonne walked up to meet him.
“Yes sir. Private Yvonne Delacroix at your service.”
“A pleasure, private. Shall we move on?” He started towards the slideway, and Yvonne rushed to his side.
“If I may, sir, perhaps we should wait until the crowd clears? It isn’t very safe at the moment. You could be in danger.”
“Your concern is touching, Private but I trust my Security Corps. Lead the…” and he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.
The crowd went eerily silent. Yvonne saw universal shock in their eyes. She turned to face the Man, who was staring blankly ahead, frozen in mid stride. At the centre of his forehead was a small red hole, and blood was slowly oozing down his face and dripping from his nose onto the floor and onto his gleaming shoes. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, he collapsed in a clumsy heap onto the floor. She knelt down beside him, but she knew there was nothing she could do. They had failed.
In the crowd somebody screamed over the eerie stillness, but somehow the magnitude of what had just happened kept the remainder just standing there, staring in shock. Even the EMHA blockade had turned to look, and seemed just as stunned as everyone else. They had failed.
Had they failed? Not entirely. Yvonne used every iota of her training to keep calm, tried to focus on the immediate problem, which was who had fired off that shot. The DCS wanted her to keep her mind sharp? That’s what she would do.
She glanced around the frozen crowds. Nobody seemed to be running or making any attempt to get away… Curious… It meant that the assassin was probably still there, unwilling to move lest he betray himself. So how could she…?
A brainwave hit. Could she really bareface her way through this again? It had worked once before… Years ago…
She leapt to her feet, and pointed at the nearest section of the crowd. “Hey, YOU!” she shouted to nobody in particular.
The people in the crowd looked around uncertainly, still dazed and trying to work out what she was talking about. All except for one… She zoomed in with her HUD visor. Yup. He didn’t look confused. He looked tense.
“HIM!” she shouted, and she placed a target marker on him - a broadcast that relayed a relative position to the other EMHAs, manifesting itself as a blinking red mark on their HUD visors. They all whipped around to face the suspect, and his face dropped as he realised what had happened…
He whipped out a pistol and fired a couple of shots, which ricocheted off her armour and struck somebody in the crowd. The shock lifted instantly, and suddenly everybody was screaming and pushing for the exits. The local channel exploded into sound as the soldiers tried to coordinate their actions. The man seized the opportunity and ran. Yvonne rushed into the fray, throwing people out of her way, but it was to no avail. She couldn’t paint a marker on somebody she couldn’t see. Whoever he was, he had disappeared. As she turned to join her comrades in calming the crowd, she felt herself kick something and saw a silvery block of metal scoot across the floor into the crowd. One of her comrades, who was standing a few meters away, picked it up.
The crowd was too dense for her to walk over for the moment. Hell, she couldn’t even stand still anymore! She opened a local channel to him. “Hey, Forde! What is that?” she asked.
“Dunno. It’s just a hunk of metal with a switch on it. Weird.“
“Toss it over!” she said, and the mysterious object went sailing over the heads of the jostling people. She allowed her EMHA computer to take control of her arms and made a perfect catch despite her almost Brownian movement.
She examined it closely. It was an elongated, smooth metal rectangular prism, one end rounded and semi-transparent. Through the covering she could discern what looked like a lens system of some sort. She noticed a seam near the flat end and probed it lightly with her finger. A standard power cell sprang out like a clip from a gun handle. In fact, it was almost as if… She held it like she would a pistol, and was surprised to find that the switch Forde had mentioned was exactly where the safety catch would be on a regular weapon. Interesting. She flicked it.
The lenses on the rounded end lit up in a flash of neon blue, and, before her very eyes, a perfectly normal pistol shimmered into existence in her hand. She blinked in shock and involuntarily flicked the safety on again. The pistol flickered out of focus and disappeared, leaving only the metal device, the blue glow slowly fading away.
“What the hell…?”
“Hey, Delacroix! Scan it for prints!” said Forde, who hadn’t been able to see what had happened. “Maybe he dropped it by accident!”
Not a bad idea, but surely a highly trained assassin would be more careful. She held it half-heartedly over the scanner on her left wrist.
Over the local channel, Forde heard the last sound he would expect to hear under the circumstances. Yvonne was laughing, a high, clear laugh that made all who heard it doubt her sanity. But she didn’t care because she had every reason in the world to laugh. Yes indeed. Because the scan output window on her HUD visor was displaying, against all probability, a perfect set of fingerprints.
Yvonne stood in the dark central computer room of Jumpstation One with the local security man, the only light in the room radiating from the numerous holographic projections floating around them. The riot had eventually calmed down, with amazingly few casualties. The Board of Directors had been notified, and an investigation was pending. Heads would roll. Until then the station had been placed under lockdown. They had even called in an old Corporation Wars Battleship to dissuade anybody from leaving.
Even with the mystery of how a weapon had been smuggled on board solved (despite the technology being unlike anything they had ever seen), it still remained to find out who the killer was. All they had to work on were the fingerprints Yvonne had scanned. And now she was in the middle of an argument that was making even those worthless.
“These are fake prints,” said the security guy.
“They can’t be,” said Yvonne.
“They aren’t on our system.” said the security guy.
“How can they not be on your system? We handprint scan everyone that comes on board! You can’t even get onto the station if your handprint isn’t registered! Hell, you can’t do anything in the Galaxy if your handprint isn’t registered!”
“No ma’am. You can’t. Any unregistered prints are rejected and logged on the system, never mind triggering every security alert on the station. Which means that the prints you scanned are fake, otherwise we’d have caught the guy before he’d even set foot on board!”
She shook her head in frustration. “No. Why go to the trouble of fabricating fingerprints on a weapon when you can just wear gloves, or even use somebody else’s prints to create a frame-up? There’s something we’re missing here…”
“Can I see those handprint logs of yours?”
The security man looked a little uncomfortable. “Well, you see…”
“What? Don’t I have the proper clearance?”
“No, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. It’s just that it’ll be pretty pointless. We never check them ourselves. There’s never been any reason to. We’ve never had any alerts.”
She stared at him for a full minute with the most contemptuous glare he had ever seen.
“I’d consider this an ‘alert’. Pull up today’s logs.”
He did so, setting the text to scroll gradually, and they started reading.
Every time a person placed their hands on an identity scanner, the print was instantly compared to the galactic Census database, which contained every datum about that person from their birth date to their last grocery purchase. It allowed a person to be tracked anywhere in the Galaxy, should it be deemed necessary. For this reason the list that scrolled in front of them was filled with hundreds of ID photos, home addresses, and other useless information for every handprint scanned. Yvonne suddenly realised why they were so reluctant to read the logs.
“You see?” he said a few minutes later. “Nothing out of order.”
They read on, until suddenly the security man stopped the list. “Hold on…”
Yvonne scanned through until she noticed it as well – a blank entry. Just a blank photo with null information in every field.
“What is that?” she asked.
The security man shrugged. “I don’t know… Probably a minor glitch in the system.”
Yvonne smiled. “Or a very good hacker…”
The security man smiled. “Oh, I don’t think we need to worry much about that. Our security is airtight.”
They scrolled on. A few pages down another one appeared. In fact, blank entries were popping up constantly throughout the log with increasing regularity. Yvonne felt herself getting more excited with each null entry, while by contrast the security man was getting paler and paler. Somebody had obviously circumvented their security system, and it had been right under their noses.
The security guy looked ready to faint. He was briefly wondering if he would be able to find another job after a screw-up of these proportions.
“Tell me,” asked Yvonne, “would it be possible to track where these handprints were taken? Such as a specific docking bay for example?”
He pulled up the query without a word. He was deciding on a good place to retire.
After a few seconds it was becoming increasingly clear that the search was fruitless. Then there was a beep. A single entry had popped up.
“Where is that from?” she asked.
“Pylon 4. The private docks,” he read. Just as he finished, the entry disappeared.
Yvonne laughed. “He’s keeping the location data in the system long enough to grant him access, but deleting it before anyone notices. Very smart. But it still means we can track his progress!”
There was another beep. Pylon 4, Dock 12, flashed the entry, before vanishing from the screen.
She gave a chuckle and slapped the security man on the back. “We have him.”
The security man sighed in relief. His job application wouldn’t look quite so pathetic after all...
The docking bay door loomed in front of her, as if daring her not to enter. She could feel herself sweating despite the EMHA cooling systems. They had elected that she lead the assault. The image of a train ramming into her kept surfacing in her mind, but she shook it out, determined not to be afraid. She tried to remind herself that her fellow soldiers, who would spring to aid if necessary, surrounded her. Justice would be served after all. Now if only they had issued her with a gun…
She stepped inside.
Inside the dimly lit docking bay stood a large private starship, big enough to comfortably carry and house at least five people on extended trips. She walked on cautiously.
“Hello!” said a voice behind her. “May I ask what a soldier from Morbex’s private army is doing near my private ship?”
She turned slowly to face her quarry. He was tallish, with unkempt blonde hair and a few days of stubble on his face. In actuality he would have looked quite unassuming, had it not been for the rather large machine pistol he was pointing at her. Odd. She had expected to meet the same man who had shot at her earlier, but this man… She had never seen his face before. But he was flying a five-man ship, meaning that he was probably part of a team. She only hoped that they wouldn’t come investigating, along with their big camouflaged weapons.
Their camouflaged weapons… Of course!
Using her EMHA amplified reflexes, Yvonne shot her hand towards her holster and drew the silver device, flicking the switch as she brought it to bear on him. It glowed blue and flickered in and out of focus, resolving itself into the pistol almost before she could blink. She levelled it at the assassin, the laser sight painting a luminous dot over his heart.
He stared intently at the gun, eyebrows raised in surprise, but kept his own weapon steady.
“Miss, that is a very dangerous toy for you to be showing off so carelessly,” he said. “I would recommend you put it away before somebody gets hurt.”
They started to circle each other in a curious dance, weapons constantly trained on each other. The man’s face was in a half-smile, which unnerved her even more than his casual manner. It made him seem invulnerable.
“You know, I’m fairly disappointed in you,” said the man. “I expected you fine soldiers to find me sooner.” Was that sarcasm in his voice?
She countered his smile with one of her own. So that was how he was going to play this? Fine. She could ruffle his feathers as well.
“Well, you know how it is. I just had to thank you for ramming me into that train. Professional courtesy.”
His face dropped slightly. “Oh… That was you?” It was weird. He seemed embarrassed. This unexpected response threw her off entirely. More mind games? What was this guy’s deal?
The dance continued. Time to bring the conversation back to familiar territory.
“So, what’s it like to shoot a CEO? Was killing Brian Morbex everything you expected?”
He shrugged. “Honestly, I wouldn’t know. Firstly, he wasn’t Brian Morbex, and secondly, I didn’t kill him.”
“Of course not. One of you friends did. Well, I’d like to hear you deny it when the Board has you roasting over a slow flame.”
He smiled again. A confident smile. “I rather doubt that. Look, how about we put down our guns and talk this out like reasonable people?”
“Do reasonable people ram other reasonable people into trains?”
“You just have to keep bringing that up, don’t you?”
“For good reason. Ever had to spend a week in a regeneration tank?”
“Hmmm… Not really.”
“I would think that in your line of work you could call them a second home.”
“And what do you know of my line of work?”
“Oh, assassins tend to get beaten up a lot in my experience.”
He laughed. “I gather you’re the one doing the beating. Besides, as I said, I’m not an assassin, nor,” he glanced at the door, “do I have any associates.”
He looked around, suddenly nervous, then dropped his gun. “Look, we don’t really have time for this. The fact that there are others here means that the longer I stay here the worse for everyone on the station. I’d appreciate it if you let me go.”
Yvonne laughed out loud. “You’re insane. Enlighten me as to why should I let you go? Because you dropped your gun?”
He laughed back. “No, but not only would you not believe me if I did tell you, but it would take more time than I have at the moment to explain.”
“Suffice it to say that it’s better for everyone if you let me go. Now.” Now the humour was gone. Tension was clearly visible.
She centered the gun’s laser sight firmly on his forehead. “I don’t think so, buddy. I’m not letting you go this time.”
He seemed to struggle with himself. Then he shrugged. “Suit yourself!”
His left forearm flickered and distorted. A searing pain filled her chest. “You… You…” she tried to say, but nothing came out. She looked down. There was a terrifyingly large hole in her armour and a smoking cavity where the left side of her chest should have been. The first shocked thought that passed through her brain was that the regeneration tanks would never be able to heal her. This would have made her heart jump, had she still had one. Her mouth made futile movements as she fell, the world blurring again as it had so many times before. The man bent down over her, and she saw a glint of silver before she heard his distant voice.
“I’ll see you later.”
End Part I
Onward to Part II!