“First time we’ve found anything military around here,” he added. “First I’ve heard of anyone finding anything military.”
The short man was Friar Abraham Tonerit, a noble name given by an optimistic abbot who hoped it might offset the then-child’s propensity for mischief. These days, Abraham was better known as Schnook, and he wasn’t so much a cleric as a problem solver, recruited by the church right from the orphanage to handle its less palatable interests. He wore a brown monk’s habit with a yellow rope tied around his waist.
The tall man had been sent to Schnook by Father Zosima, with no introduction, and with no name attached. Judging by the quality of his clothes, Schnook decided he was a potential client.
“I apologize for the walk,” Schnook continued, grasping the center pole and stretching a bare foot over a missing step. “We have only one hoist, and we’re using it for the excavation.”
He turned to offer a hand, but the tall man moved effortlessly across the gap, his movements obscured beneath the black cloak that covered his bulky, formless body from shoulder to foot. The man’s eyes were hidden in the shadow of his hat, which was black, unadorned, and of a quality Schnook had never before seen. His chin, long and cleft, would lend itself to a smile, but his thin lips were pulled tight, neutral. He kept his left hand on the railing and his right arm buried in the folds of his cloak, which seemed to radiate black, as if erasing the color around it. It was raining back on the surface, and drops of water clung to the fabric like glimmering gemstones.
“I don’t mind the walk if you don’t,” Schnook added, then decided he was talking too much—his companion had yet to speak. But after a few minutes, he forgot.
“I knew old Kessler was onto something down here,” he said. “That skinflint wouldn’t start laying out for hired men without he’s got a reason. I offered to partner with him, but he had no ears for it. Wouldn’t even let me in to see, if you can believe that. His own private dig, he called it. He even hired security.”
The friar’s hearty laughter echoed through the long stairwell. The air had grown heavy and cold, and still there was no sign of the bottom.
“What a conk,” Schnook continued. “He honestly didn’t know who ran security around here. But, as I was saying, I knew he was onto something even before I learned this had been an old military installation. I don’t mean to get your expectations up, but brother, you are not going to believe what’s waiting for you down here.”
“It is my hope not,” the tall man said. His voice was husky and dry, his accent foreign. Very foreign.
“I wouldn’t waste your time with nonsense,” the friar said, fiddling with his rope belt. But the tall man showed no irritation; he just waved his exposed arm, motioning the friar onward.
They descended in silence for some time, the light below growing brighter. The cement shaft came to an end, replaced by a wider one cut into the dirt. The square walls were supported by a wooden framework and smelled of wet clay. The metal staircase joined one made of wood, which continued down along the edge of the shaft, leading them even deeper into the earth.
After another dozen flights, the shaft expanded to a room and the stairs came to an end. Hanging in the center of the room was a thick cement slab, three feet thick by twelve square, lit by harsh floodlights. The slab had been cut from the floor, then raised a few inches above it. The air down here was musty and antique, and a half-dozen novices stood next to the slab, smoking and waiting.
“Brothers!” the small friar called out.
The novices looked up, extinguished their cigarettes, and straightened their habits. They were a rough-looking bunch, clearly older than their rank implied. Their rope belts were plain hemp.
“We have an important visitor, brothers,” Schnook said, taking a light from its stand and carrying it to the cement block. He motioned his tall companion to follow. The novices lined up against one side of the slab and shoved it, creating a foot-wide gap to the darkness below. The friar dropped to his knees and thrust the floodlight into the gap, searching.
“Ah, there it is,” Schnook said, pointing at a gleam of metal. The tall man squatted beside him. “It’s too wide to bring out all at once,” Schnook continued, “so we broke it into three sections. But it’ll fit back together well enough.”
The tall man took the light and swept it across the object, pausing to inspect it in several places. He let out a low whistle.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Schnook said. “But can you sell it?”
“No,” the tall man said, straightening up. “No one can sell this. Just to know that this exists will bring death to any man.”
The friar cocked his eyebrow as the tall man’s right arm emerged from the folds of his cloak. It was pale and withered, the skin tight to thin bones and a knobby elbow. His skeletal hand held a scepter with a crystal sphere mounted on top.
“Now, let’s not be hasty,” Schnook said, stepping back and holding his hands up in placation.
The tall man raised the scepter over his head and chanted in a language Schnook didn’t recognize. The crystal glowed white, purring as something spun inside; then flame-colored beams shot out, striking each novice in the chest. Their chests swelled and exploded, ribs piercing brown cloth as their guts dropped from the bottom of their habits and flopped to the floor. The six men toppled, and silence filled the damp room.
Several long moments passed, and the friar broke into a deep-belly laugh. The tall man regarded him curiously.
“That’ll keep payroll low this month,” Schnook said.
The tall man angled the scepter at him, a dark shadow racing around inside the glowing crystal.
“Ah,” Schnook said resignedly. “A minute, if you would, kind sir.” He raised the dull aluminum medallion that hung from his neck—a circular cutout that was sliced through the middle by an elongated triangle.
The tall man nodded and the friar knelt on the floor, pressing the medallion to his forehead and praying quietly. A minute later, he sat up, moved his hand in a shoulder-width circle, and rose to his feet.
“I appreciate your magnanimity, sir,” he said, bowing. “I wouldn’t want to die without preparing my immortal soul.” He tucked the medallion into his habit, his hand returning with a small black globe that he raised to his mouth and kissed. When the globe came away, the friar had a metal pin clasped between his teeth. “And more importantly,” he added, spitting the pin out, “I don’t much care to die alone.”
An explosion filled the room.
“Not a lick,” replied Musc.
“Check the political office.”
“I’m standing in it.”
“Shit,” Paul said, forgetting himself. Not that Musc cared if he swore, but the incoming ship was close enough to monitor their internal communications. “What about the diplomatic pouch?”
“Lying by the desk.”
“Well, grab it and meet me at the landing bay.”
“Aye-o,” Musc said.
Paul clipped the radio to his belt, surprised and a little angry. As irresponsible as the commissar could be, he hadn’t expected her to miss the arrival of their bimonthly supply ship. No one was onboard—the ship was entirely automated—but its video recorders were the only glimpse Central Command got of the orbital’s crew, so they made every effort to clean up and do it by the book—to at least act like they were running a tight ship out here. And, of course, there was the exchange of the diplomatic pouch.
Paul looked up and saw he was almost to the bridge, which was on the exact opposite end of the station from the landing bay. Distracted, he had been walking on autopilot.
Cursing himself, Paul scrambled down a narrow stairwell to B-deck. He reached anxiously for his beard and for a moment was surprised to find it missing. He reached the bottom of the stairs and started back across the orbital, taking a short cut through the marine barracks.
Lights clicked on as the barracks’ door slid open, displaying rows of bunks on either side of the room. Every bed was neatly made, and beside each sat a gleaming aluminum locker. Paul was always surprised by the pristine condition of the room and by how the scentless air contrasted with the musty, oily smell that dominated the rest of the orbital. This wasn’t due to any fastidiousness on the part of the marines, since there hadn’t been a marine contingent onboard in over a century. And nonuse went a long way toward preservation.
The orbital was designed for a staff of two hundred and fifty, but at the moment, the population was seven.
Paul jogged through the barracks, each step echoing, and found the door at the far end half open. Peering through the gap, he saw why: the door frame had been disassembled and its motor removed.
Cannibalized for a repair elsewhere, Paul thought. This orbital had been in continuous operation for over two hundred years, and they had long since run out of spare parts. Of the dozens of OPTO-class orbitals built during the First War, this one, the Ess, was the last with a commission, surpassing the runner-up by more than seventy years. The Ess, along with the remains of three other space stations, orbited Tangent, the outermost planet in the system.
Remains, Paul thought, slipping past the immobilized door, would be a good way to describe this one as well.
He continued down a wider hallway, one that followed the curve of the orbital’s hull, then stepped into a vertical tube and slid down the runners of a ladder, dropping to C-deck just outside the landing bay. He had just reached the airlock when Musc called to him from down the hall.
“Hold that door,” Musc said, making no effort to hurry.
Paul had inherited Musc as a first mate from the previous base commander, who, leaving on the very ship Paul had arrived on, barely took the time to introduce them.
At first impression, Musc seemed lazy and irresponsible, but Paul had since found the man took a minimalist approach to his duties. When a task was unavoidable, he did it without hesitation, ably and efficiently. Normally a late sleeper, Musc never once failed to be at his post to oversee the arrival of an early-morning supply ship.
Musc stood a half foot higher than Paul, was muscular and fit, and wore his dark hair short, emphasizing a forehead that bulged as if a couple of large rocks were hidden inside. His crumpled jacket was unbuttoned, revealing a stained white T-shirt.
At least he’s wearing a jacket, Paul thought.
“I brought the pouch,” Musc said, holding up a heavy canvas bag. He looked up at Paul and stopped in his tracks. “What happened to your face?” he asked.
“Why?” Musc asked. Then, “How?”
“With a razor,” Paul said, grabbing Musc’s lapel and dragging him into the airlock. It was a small, round chamber, designed to hold four people, but claustrophobic even with two. He closed the door and worked the controls to lower the air pressure. The landing bay lost its entire atmosphere every time the exterior door opened, so they usually put only enough air inside so that people didn’t have to wear oxygen masks.
“That must have been some razor,” Musc said, but Paul wasn’t listening. He was peeking through the window into the landing bay, which was smaller than the name implied, about the size of a modest garage.
A small ship, pilotless and windowless, was settling on the deck. It was hexagonal in section, with a long, pointed nose that made it resemble a stubbly pencil. The forward hull was two yards thick with solid iron, pitted and scarred from the impact of the thousands of tiny meteors that had wandered into its path through the years.
There were actually two supply ships, offset from each other as they made their continuous, four-month tour of the bases and outposts scattered around the outer rim of the solar system, meaning anything outside the belt of iron dust that ran between the sixth and seventh planets. The ships sometimes carried actual supplies—drugs and medicines or a replacement part for the orbital that they couldn’t manufacture themselves—but normally the only thing inside was the diplomatic pouch from the Republic headquarters on Matron, which the commissar would exchange with her own.
“Let me have it,” Paul said, taking the pouch from Musc and frowning at the magnetic seal. “It’s open.”
“So?” Musc asked. “It’s empty.”
“It’s always empty,” Paul said, “but it’s supposed to be sealed.”
“You mean they send a ship out here every two months to exchange an empty bag with us?”
“To exchange it with the commissar,” Paul corrected. “And empty or not, it still has to be exchanged. An absent diplomatic pouch might have been stolen, an open one tampered with.”
“Um,” Musc said absently. Then he added, “Yeah.” Then he turned to the airlock’s control panel and fiddled with the buttons. “Remember when we could watch videos on this thing?”
“It only takes two minutes to repressurize,” Paul said.
“There’s a lot you can do with two minutes of privacy,” Musc replied.
“Like helping me get this thing closed?” Paul asked, pulling on the pouch’s seal, which ran across the top like a zipper.
“You don’t have the key?”
Paul shook his head. “The pouch is government, not military. Only the commissar has the key.”
“Then it seems like the commissar’s problem.”
“It’s best for everyone that the exchange go as smoothly as possible.”
“Yeah,” Musc said. “Give me that end.”
Musc took the edge of the bag while Paul held the seal, and the two of them pulled in opposite directions.
“Uncle fucker,” Musc said, straining. Then something cracked and the magnetic seal slid across the bag and locked closed. Paul lost his grip just as the airlock door opened, stumbling backward into the landing bay. He managed three steps before tripping on a cleat and falling on his ass beside the incoming ship.
Musc followed him in, laughing, as the ship’s hatch opened. A woman stood in the doorway wearing full navy dress.
“Who the crap are you?” Musc asked, stepping back in surprise.
The woman pulled her lips tight, in what could be either a frown or a smile.
“I’m Vice Admiral Heathe,” she said. “Your new station commander.”
|The adventure continues...|
text © 2016 Brett James