Second Lieutenant Theodore Red had a man to kill. He adopted a brisk but casual pace as he debarked from the Argyre shuttle to Hansa Station’s bustling concourse. Should be plenty of time to finish the op and catch the Brussels Air Base transport,he thought as he joined the chattering flow of spacefarers bound for Western Europe. He tried not to think about which of the unsuspecting men, women, and children were sharing a transport with his target.
Red scanned the overhead screens advertising earthside Soc businesses between condescending PSAs. He ignored the perky stewardess’ emergency spacesuit demo and left the white-tiled concourse for a men’s room on his right. A middle-aged man in a charcoal business suit swept out of the restroom and nearly bumped into Red. The older man took one look at Red’s blue CDF uniform, stood aside, and saluted as the Lieutenant passed.
Dumb civilian must think I fought the Kazoku myself. He was probably a toddler during the war.The Earth Sphere had seen little warfare in the four decades since Megami’s coup. Besides a few skirmishes in Europe and Naryal’s manhunts for leftover Kazoku, most of the conflict had come from grounders protesting the Socs’ aggressive expansion on Earth. And the Socs had quashed dissent without firing a shot.
Raining space rocks on Earth’s breadbaskets might’ve been fighting dirty, but it got the job done.The lesson wasn’t lost on the HLO. The earth-based cells were waging covert terror campaigns on Soc officials too clueless to realize they were facing organized resistance. Red’s handlers were sending him to join his Human Liberation Organization comrades, but first they wanted him to show a particular Soc official the cost of complacency.
Red passed a mirror reflecting the hair that had inspired his handle and the violet eyes that often drew comment. He ducked into a brushed steel stall. Automated air freshener made it smell like artificial lemonade someone had peed in. He pulled his handheld from his inside jacket pocket and checked his messages. As promised, a new encrypted missive blinked on his screen. Red entered the decryption key, and the message’s contents revealed themselves.
Target has changed flights. Boarded shuttle leaving for Munich in six minutes. Commence operation immediately.
“Dammit,” Red cursed as he stuffed the handheld back inside his jacket. Had the target made him? With any other Soc, Red would have dismissed the last-minute change as coincidence. But Malov Strauss wasn’t any other Soc. According to his HLO file, the new Assistant Customs Director showed the kind of intuition and nonlinear thinking that could endanger the Brussels cell. It was Red’s job to nip the problem in the bud.
Better get nipping.Red burst from the restroom and rushed down the concourse, taking advantage of his uniform to navigate the crowd. Some of the civilian travelers stopped and babbled nervously to each other about a conjectural emergency.
I’ll show you an emergency, thought Red. He veered down a side corridor that led to a security door reserved for official use. The A.I. in his pocket got him through the unmanned checkpoint. He hurried through the sliding lithium glass doors, confident that no trace of his entry would remain.
The passageway led out of the station’s rotating main hub, and Red left simulated gravity behind. He drifted down the gray-paneled corridor with the ease of one used to maneuvering in space. The harsh LED lighting gave way to intermittent wall lamps whose circles of illumination barely overlapped. Oxygen scrubbers gave the concourse a pervasive sterile scent, but in the utility passage, oily machine smells prevailed.
Rows of molded plastic lockers lined the walls at regular intervals. Red used his handheld to open one without triggering the safety alarm and removed a plain-looking but functional emergency spacesuit. He slipped the baggy one-piece garment on over his clothes, locked the helmet, and glided down the hall.
Voices approached from the T intersection directly ahead. Red slipped down a connecting corridor on his right. Luckily, it would take him to the auxiliary maintenance bay, where the tools of his trade waited.
The reinforced door at the end of the hallway hissed open as Red—or rather his handheld—approached. He ventured into the murky area beyond. The door sealed itself behind him, shutting out the low reactor thrum he hadn’t noticed until it was gone.
A room the size of a small warehouse stretched out around Red. Just below the high ceiling, a catwalk ran along the dingy walls and terminated at a ten-meter-tall bay door. Halfway between it and Red, a metal giant crouched, facing the right wall.
Crouched wasn’t quite right, since the giant lacked legs. Instead it sported a pair of booster nacelles to supplement the standard thruster array on its back. The nacelles were folded under its vaguely humanoid cobalt blue body, giving the rough impression of a roosting underfed jay.
“A Guardian,” sighed Red. His handler had promised to have a combat frame waiting for him in the hangar. A Grenzmark III
might’ve been asking too much, but he’d at least hoped for a sturdy old Grenzmark II
. Saddling him with one of the Customs Bureau’s balsa wood patrol units made a kind of practical sense. No one would question its presence at a major travel hub. But something military—even surplus—would better suit an assassination.
No sense complaining. He had a job to do, and the clock was ticking.
Red skipped the ladder and leapt from the zero-g bay floor to the catwalk abutting the Guardian’s chest. He hit the cockpit release. The hatch retracted to reveal a mini-jetpack lying on the seat. Red strapped it on and jumped into the cockpit’s tight confines. His hands flew over the Coalition standard controls. The hatch closed, and the bay door opened. In moments, he had the glorified police cruiser powered up and speeding through space.
Despite the Guardian’s general inadequacy, at least the space-use version was reasonably fast, though Red firmly adhered to the design doctrine that fast could always be faster. The CF’s sole fixed weapons—a pair of 30mm Vulcans—were another problem. He might as well try taking the military shuttle down with a popgun.
To Red’s relief, his handler had outfitted the Guardian with single-shot missile launcher. A note in the launcher’s weapons inventory entry read, “Discard immediately after use.”
Red put eight klicks between himself and the station to stay out of sight but just within the missile’s maximum range. He turned right and came about in a wide arc to face the Munich gate. A thrill raced up his spine when he saw Malov’s shuttle still docked with the white tube of the spacebridge.
Hansa station hung in the void between Red and the mottled blue sphere of Earth. He drew the missile launcher from the Guardian’s back rack and gripped it in both the CF’s hands. Using active sensors would give him away, so he’d have to make the shot without benefit of fire control. Smooth motions of the control stick traced his targeting reticle over the white, two-wheeled axle of the station. Red fixed his sights on the shuttle, exhaled, and took the shot.
Red would have hit the target if he hadn’t aimed a couple of degrees too high. The missile zoomed over the cigar-shaped transport and detonated on the station’s central hub in a bright orange ball of burning gas.
Red slammed his fists against his seat’s armrests. “Damn it!”
A bright flash and a violent tremor that jarred his teeth punctuated Red’s curse. The single-use missile launcher had self-detonated in his Guardian’s now mangled hands. He cast about for another way—any way—to complete his mission.
The shuttle pulled away from the station and picked up speed. In mere moments it would fly out of reach.
An idea emerged from Red’s shock. He set an intercept course with the fleeing shuttle on a ten-second delay, rigged the Guardian’s reactor to overload, and bailed out. His safety harness dug into his chest as the ejector seat’s explosive charge propelled him into space. He released himself from the chair, engaged his jetpack, and spun about in time to witness the overloading Guardian collide with the shuttle amidships. A blinding explosion erased both vehicles.
thought Red, but effective.
His nitrogen-propelled flight back to Hansa Station gave him ample time to bask in his success. Those student dissidents on Earth might have disgraced a Fel bureaucrat or two, but not even they had assassinated a Soc official. I’ll show them how it’s done.
Red slipped back onto Hansa through a neglected airlock. The chaos gripping the station made it easy. Every emergency spacesuit had sprung from its locker like a pale, bubble-faced jack-in-the-box. Adults—already suited as per safety protocol—fumbled to suit up their crying children as the harsh light strips flickered.
Missile must’ve hit the main reactor, thought Red, who’d blown his borrowed suit out the airlock. Ignoring protocol would be easier to explain than being caught in a spacesuit pilfered from maintenance.
Red followed the gruff voice to another blue-uniformed figure standing out amid the crush of white-clad humanity. The uniform’s broad shoulders bore captain’s bars, and the man whose bronze-skinned head sat on those shoulders was gesturing toward a gate behind him.
“Emergency evac for military personnel,” said the Captain. “Shuttle leaves in two minutes. Move your ass!”
Red joined the steady flow of CDF members boarding the shuttle. The colorful upholstery, the residual smell of alcohol, and ads for Earth consumer goods betrayed its origins as a civilian transport commandeered for military use.
A sergeant standing at the head of the cabin barked instructions for each man to take the first available seat starting from the front. Red slid into an empty aisle seat on the left. Only after buckling up did he notice that the man seated next to him was wearing a midnight blue business suit instead of a uniform. His golden head of hair was combed back in a fashion more befitting a junior executive than a soldier.
The blond man neatly folded a newspaper bearing the headline “Western Europe Region Governor Resigns” and laid it on his lap. He fixed his piercing blue eyes on Red. “You’re wondering if I’m a civilian stowaway. I’m with Customs. My last shuttle exploded.”
Red’s stomach lurched as if he’d suddenly gone weightless again.
“Where are my manners?” The blond man extended his hand. “Malov Strauss. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant.”