The Sector Commissar requests your presence.
The message on Kyle’s comm scrolled into view, then blinked once, twice, to indicate the sender had flagged it as important. To annoy him more, it flashed red before bleeding back into black.
Lucky, then, that he was ready to go. He gathered his belongings from the sleep pod and stashed them in his pilot bag.
Kyle thumped his ID chip into the pod’s terminal and asked for a refund of the pre-bought nights. He had a queasy feeling he wouldn’t be coming back to this pod, which was a damn shame, because it was so close to the hospital. With that kind of summons, you only knew one thing: it would mess up all other plans.
When he emerged onto the street, the bustle was almost too much; vehicles buzzed by so fast that he struggled for balance, still unaccustomed to the prostheses encasing his legs despite having worn them the last six weeks. Not good. He steadied himself with one hand against the wall of the pod farm, and made for the nearest alley, ignoring the taxis flashing prices at him as they zipped past. People on foot were always fare-bait to them. He couldn’t afford individual transportation; he’d used up his credits getting here from the spaceport a month ago. Authorities didn’t believe in above-average mileage for people like him. Social security could be a bitch like that.
It took him half an hour to reach the public transport terminal and find a SocSecCredits machine to trade his fuel credits for transport credits. At a rate of two for one, he was being ripped off, as usual with official SSC terminals, but he hadn’t had the time to tap the black market yet. If he’d been his normal, whole self, he could have walked. On Tamene, he would have. Home. A shitload of transportation credits away. He’d never save enough to make it there, not even if he cut back on everything but food for two hundred years.
The people crowding the transportation platform made way for him, as if he’d step on their feet otherwise. Kyle took position at the very end of the platform, where he imagined those poor bastards stood just before throwing themselves in front of an incoming train. He was beyond those kinds of thoughts, though, thanks to the shrink at the hospital, and the Tamenean idea that only cowards committed suicide. He’d left everything else behind—the elders, their customs, the land itself, and his ancestors—but had failed so far to rip those beliefs from his chest.
When the train glided in, he waited for the passengers to spill out, then joined the throng of people squeezing inside. He spotted an empty seat and met the angry stare of a suited guy in the crowd who pushed past him, jostling against his shoulder just before he plunked down and demonstratively balanced his briefcase on his knees. Kyle reached for one of the metal bars and widened his stance to compensate for the jolt when the train started. At every stop, people streamed first out, then in, most of them brushing him for lack of space, even ramming against him, clearly annoyed by the bulky, intrusive bag slung across his back. But in the tightly packed can, there was no way he’d be able to pick it up again if he put it down.
“Main Square,” the computerized voice promised, and most of the passengers disembarked. Kyle followed, allowing himself to be washed out like a dead fish by the human wave.
When he touched out of the terminal, the system told him he was down to zero credits. If he needed more before his next allocation, he’d have to trade clothing or food credits. He spotted the triangular skyscraper at the east side of the vast square that doubled as the center of the universe as far as these people were concerned.
He stepped through the automatic doors and crossed a foyer decked entirely in green-veined polished marble, which made it look like the insides of a gutted leviathan. He blinked that image away (and the sense-memory of the stench) and approached the security guards manning a singular counter that sat there like a vertebra.
He slapped his ID down and pushed it toward the hard-faced woman on the other side of the polished marble surface. “I’m expected.”
She swiped the chip across a scanner. “Kyle Juenger?”
She raised her eyebrows as she quickly scanned his history, apparently impressed by whatever she read there, then tapped an access code into the system before sliding the chip back toward him. “Elevators to the left. Get off on the thirty-fifth floor, turn left, go to reception. The code will expire five minutes from now. You’d better be at your destination by then.” Don’t linger, don’t get off where you’re not supposed to, and for gods’ sake, don’t dawdle. Security forces were the same everywhere. Space Navy Sec Forces were all about shooting anybody even looking at the wrong ship. Trigger-happy bastards. The Glyrinny incursion didn’t justify absolutely everything.
He snatched his ID and headed for the gates. The automated weapons platform on the other end stared at him with three barrels ready to spit subsonic ammo. Yes, the Commissariat sure meant business.
Kyle walked past the mechanized executioner and was relieved when the elevator doors slid open as he approached. “Scan your ID,” the screen demanded, and he waved the card in front of the sensor field. “35 Floor” appeared on the screen. So how was he supposed to stray from the path? Did they really expect a Glyrinny infiltrator to crack the machine code in the time it took for the doors to close? Glyrinny were supposedly good, but surely not that good.
He almost lost his footing when the elevator stopped abruptly. Now, that would be an image—knocked flat by negative acceleration and struggling to get back on his feet while the weapons platform opposite the doors was aiming at him. It was enough to make his heart race, and to keep his balance, he pressed so hard against the elevator wall his fingernails turned white.
He staggered out of the cabin and shot the annihilator a nasty stare. Not that the machine cared; it definitely outgunned him. He turned left and passed another pair of sliding doors, and a matrix of blue lights scanned him quickly, then turned green. He walked up to reception, where a guy was clearly making a personal call. The smiles and laughter didn’t belong here.
The receptionist’s face turned serious. “I’ll call you back later,” he said and ended the connection. “Yes, sir, how may I help you?”
“Kyle Juenger. I’m expected.”
“Let’s disable your access countdown first. Your ID, please.” Kyle handed it over, and breathed a little easier when the invisible countdown was no longer ticking his life away. Yet, he didn’t doubt that he was now under even tighter security, since he was getting close to the heart of the Commissariat.
“Please be advised to stay on the red areas of the carpet.” The receptionist gave him a bloodless smile as he confirmed Kyle’s suspicion. “The shocks would fry every piece of technology on you, and we’re not offering damages.”
You’re offering plenty of damage, though. Kyle nodded. “Not that I’d be in a state to file a claim, right?”
“You said it, sir.” The receptionist slid his ID over a scanner and handed it back to him. “Just a moment, sir.”
A door to the back opened and two guards stepped out and approached him.
“Your escort, sir. Have a nice day,” the receptionist said.
Kyle followed one of the women, while the other walked behind him. They moved swiftly, and he made sure to stay exactly between them in the center of the red carpet. When the carpet ended in front of a large sliding door, a muscle in his neck twitched with apprehension, but the guard opened the door after typing in a long security code. “Please don’t leave that room without authorization. After you.” She motioned, and he stepped into an indoor garden.
The sudden onslaught of humidity made him relax. A stupid reflex, especially as the place was otherwise nothing like home. But his lungs breathed easier, and he could smell the chlorophyll in the air. Amid the tightly entangled Tamenean hardwoods he even spotted the red and orange seedpods of blinker flowers. He moved further onto the clearing, which looked like a place where high-ranking officials might retreat to enjoy the humidity and possibly a lunch or packed dinner.
“Kyle Juenger. Please have a seat.” A broad-shouldered woman stepped into view from between the vegetation, holding a pink and white flower in her fingers. She sat opposite him at a table placed between the trees, dropped the flower on the table, and folded her hands over it. “I assumed these surroundings would put you at ease.”
“It’s appreciated.” He sat down, steadying himself with his arms against the table.
“How long since the accident?”
“Six weeks.” Not that it was an accident.
“How far along are you on the road to recovery?”
“This is as good as it’s going to get.” He eased his weight fully on his ass and leaned back in the chair. “Did they tell you something else?”
“I read your file, of course.” She frowned. “I assume there’s a disconnect between seeing what it did and reading about it in your file.”
“Disconnect is exactly what happened,” he scoffed.
She smiled. “Yes, it rather is, isn’t it.” She leaned forward. “Well, thank you for coming here, Kyle. Your profile was flagged in an extended search for personnel for a delicate task.”
“I’ve been retired.”
“And your petitions to the Military High Court, the High Commission, the Professional Court, the Space Naval Court, and a number of smaller authorities clearly show that you were happy to be retired.”
“Copy and paste job.”
“Perhaps, but you still fought.”
“Force of habit.” He reached down and adjusted the position of his left leg. “I protested because I wasn’t ready to accept the luxurious lifestyle I now enjoy as a crippled veteran of the Commonwealth.”
She pulled a pad from her trouser pocket and tapped a few buttons on it. He recognized his own image on the screen, but the photo was woefully out of date. He’d been clean-shaven then, all over, to give any skin parasites less to work with. “You’re running low on credits.”
“Yes, I’m broke.”
“I’m sorry to hear.” She tapped a few fields and read quickly, if indeed she could read all the entries with just a glance or two. “You could be reinstated into your old privileges upon completion of the mission. Also, Commanders tend to have better retirement packages than Squadron Leaders.”
“Most likely.” Nothing a Sector Commissar couldn’t do, even beef up his rank in retirement and put him right at the top of the social benefits queue. With a swipe of her fingers, she could assign him unlimited credits for anything she felt like giving him. Credits for the finest whorehouses, spacious accommodation, natural food, space travel—all in her power.
She smiled wryly. “There’s also a larger budget for medical intervention. You could most likely afford full cybernetic replacements.”
Most likely? As if she hadn’t checked that beforehand. “What makes you think I’m your man?”
“Your past as Hunter Five.”
“Oh.” He exhaled sharply. “Listen, Commissar, that’s fifteen years ago now. All I did was collect deserters at their mothers’ houses. I wasn’t exactly hunter-killer commando material.”
“I don’t need a hunter-killer. But I do need a hunter. I’d like the quarry alive.”
That didn’t sound good. Pity she’d already baited him. Cybernetic legs sure would make getting around easier. Movement was supposedly completely natural, too, which meant he wouldn’t stand out anymore. He could blend back into a normal life, unremarked, all but invisible. Which was really all he wanted. Why else did anybody join the military? To blend in, to become part of something bigger. To cease to exist as an individual.
“How dangerous is the target?”
“If alerted, dangerous. You’ll have to get close without alerting him.”
Right. These things never worked out as planned. “How much force am I allowed to use?”
“If at all possible, bring him in alive, but we’re happy to accept his dead body. Check him for stolen data. Retrieve it. This may mean looking inside his skull for storage implants.”
“Or wherever else he’s keeping his data.”
“If you have a minute with the dead body, dig wherever you see recent operation scars or fresh wounds.” She smiled without irony. “Or wherever else men store a data chip. I’m sure I can trust you with the details.”
Employer called the shots. Finding a soft tissue scanner shouldn’t be a big problem. He could even rig one out of a generic diagnostics pad. “I’ll need gear.”
“I’ll transfer the necessary credits.” No questions asked. She’d likely even approve intelligent bullets in that mood. Whatever the target had done, he’d pissed her off royally.
“Who’s the target?”
She tapped on her pad. “He’s calling himself Kshar. He’s a Glyrinny double-agent.”
“I didn’t know they do double-agents.”
“Of course. Nobody admits to them in the first place. Kshar has something I want back, and I don’t care what it takes. If you have to kill his associates, helpers, or other Glyrinny, I’ll even recommend you for a bonus.”
Yeah, this here was a raging hard-on of employer wrath. He nodded. “I needed to get out more anyway.” One question he didn’t even have to ask. If Kshar had walked away with her data, she couldn’t send one of her usual agents after him—chances were, he’d walked out with the ID files and identities of whatever more suitable hunter she had on the roster. He didn’t want to piss her off more by asking that out loud, but it was clear enough. “Can I see a photo?” Of course, a photo wasn’t helpful at all in this case, but it made the threat somewhat less anonymous.
She turned the pad around, zoomed a small icon larger, and a face filled the screen. Kshar, despite his name, had anything but a royal appearance. He looked average, on the pale side, eyes awake and perceptive, intelligent, forehead lined already, even though he didn’t look older than thirty. Hair was short and light brown, eyes lighter. Pleasant, the type people asked for directions in a busy shopping center and forgot five minutes later. A very good face for espionage. If he was still wearing it.
“Where’s he headed?”
“Back into Glyrinny space to deliver what he’s pilfered.”
“Do we know the mode of transportation?”
“Yes, we do.”
* * *