Posted By: vector40<email@example.com>
Date: 6 December 2004, 8:02 AM
Shuffling around the table almost self-consciously, the two mercenaries wordlessly found seats at the long, unfettered conference table. At the head was a single figure in a dark suit, a neat stack of papers at his left hand and a clean, full glass of water at his right. He was astonishingly bland: plainly cut brown hair in no particular style, his suit expensive but not overly so, the same skin tone that virtually every other citizen of Terminus seemed to share, an even blend of dark and light. His build was moderate, his gaze even, and if he weren't quite so ordinary, he might have fit into any board room, office, or cubicle around the galaxy.
It was his exact lack of character that rang their alarm bells, though, and Angus had to resist an urge to freeze at the doorway like a rabbit in headlights. Nobody was so normal, so steady; everybody had quirks, glitches in their appearance and behavior. Robots and blocks of wood could be entirely ordinary--humans never were, at least never unintentionally. All too aware that he had been stripped of his sidearm at the gate, as he slipped into a seat he quietly wrapped his hand around one of the metal styluses that lay on the table, holding it in a loose hammerfist.
The man smiled at them both as he spoke, his voice soft and even.
"Welcome to Terminus, Mr. Reverend, Ms. Richards. I won't insult your intelligence by making small talk, but do you have any questions before we begin?"
They exchanged a glance. Angus's hand twitched on the pen, trying to look casual with all of his warning signals going off as he stared into the face of this man. Beside him, Catherine cleared her throat and answered brusquely, "Money."
A smile. "Of course. We are willing to offer your usual rate, 8.000 credits apiece per day; plus your offworld fee, hazardous duty, and expenses, of course."
With Angus still tight as a drum, Catherine looked over at him and then back. There was a beat, then--"No."
The man blinked and shifted his gaze slightly, his first show of emotion. "No?"
"No. Our fee will be doubled for all services rendered, and we will be paid an additional 40.000CD upon successful completion of our mission goals." Even Angus was nonplussed by that, but years of negotiations, in both of his trades, had tempered his poker face into an iron shroud against showing surprise. "You will not reimburse us for our expenses, either; instead, you will place 150.000 credits in a standalone account to act as a petty cash reserve, which we will draw upon as the need arises.
"Furthermore"--here her voice hardened--"at the first indication that you have withheld information, misrepresented yourself, or otherwise failed to provide us with every piece of relevant and accurate intelligence regarding this matter, we will withdraw the entirety of that fund and abandon the planet, and yourself, to its own problems. We're not fucking around with this; you should keep that in mind when you make your briefing, Mister--"
Unfazed, the man tilted his head and offered blithely, "Baker."
She waited a beat, then sat back into her chair, taut.
Baker, still unblinking, drummed lightly against the stack of papers until he was sure that she had finished. Then he spoke again, in the same unhurried tone. "I appreciate your candor. My power to negotiate here is fairly limited, but I believe that your requests so far are tenable, if only because those concerned feel so strongly about the urgency of this situation."
He was silent then; a cool breath of air and Baker's gaze was on Angus.
He was whispering.
"Do you remember four years ago, Angus? Right after the second Winterfall?"
Angus's eyes widened ever so slightly, like he'd been slapped, but Baker didn't stop.
"The merc division had met up with the main scout, and we were encamped in the fields south of Alterna, just out of sight of the first berms. We had the hammocks up, even the brass, and everyone was relaxing there after the day's march, letting that liquid humidity sit on us like a steam bath. The cooks all swore they were cleaning their pans and pots just by leaving them out for a few minutes, scrubbing them and drying them off.
"We'd all finished prepping our gear, cleaning the rifles and putting that waterproof shit on the ammo and the armor, and the guys were talking a little or writing. The mercs were set up a couple dozen meters from the rest of the camp. They had those birds, the huge ones you never saw, but they'd cry and cry all night, like a thousand assholes cutting wood with jigsaws. After long enough, you didn't really hear them anymore, but you heard the rhythm, and if one of them shut up you'd notice.
Catherine was saying nothing, just watching Angus as his breathing grew heavier and his eyes narrower.
"I was rigged up under a big tree, one of those hard barkless fuckers, off on the perimeter, buddied with David Spaulding--remember? He had that jester's cap, would always put it on at the weirdest times and fucking start singing. I'm pretty sure he was the first one; the sappers got right behind him and tore his throat open with a machete, couple of seconds. Most useful thing he did was to leak air and get me to look up in time to grab my plastic and cut two of them to pieces, woke up the whole camp with the noise, but half of us had already been taken out.
Baker stopped for a moment, and to Catherine's surprise Angus filled the silence, his voice low and dark.
"Central had to send a high-altitude bombardment that took out the entire camp. The flames caught on the trees and kept spreading until they made another strike from low orbit and cauterized the entire surrounding area with a wide laser. Everyone within fifty feet of the camp was either burned soon or evaporated later. By the time it was done, there was about twenty of us left alive from the cadre of 200, the bastards smart enough or lucky enough to bug out. Central couldn't push forward the attack and had to withdraw us the next day. The rebels kept the city."
Baker nodded slightly, their eyes still linked tightly. "But the third push by the Covenant glassed the planet a month later anyway. Eight million souls."
The next cold pause was broken before it could begin by both men standing suddenly and leaning forward to embrace, grinning and grimacing, pounding each other on the back.
"What the hell are you up to, you old fucker? How'd you find me?" Angus had a smile curling past his rough whiskers, eyes drifting with memories. Baker was struck with the man's strength, a firm yet soft strength, fleeting, as if it were afraid to commit.
"Shit, all of us knew you, you asshole. You and your sword. How many of the other officers assigned themselves to the front lines? How many were ex ro-yal-tee?" He grinned as he let an Alterna twang surface momentarily. "Big boys here are pissing all over themselves to deal with this before it deals with them, and I just couldn't seem to forget that brooding motherfucker in the 21st Mercs."
"Did you go through the Guild?"
"Sort of. I'm a big boy now with a name that doesn't change and a salary that ain't all in cash, but I still have some of my old contacts, and every damned filer at Guild HQ knows you by reputation, if not by dossier. I didn't have to search the database." Catherine nosed in between them and gently pried the heavy metal stylus out of Angus's now loosened hand. Baker glanced down at it briefly and smiled.
"You're gonna die. But not today."
At last he leaned back and picked up the stack of papers, still smirking a little. "All right, let's see if we can get through this. I'll give you the official bureashit, then my take on it, then you can throw questions my way and I'll avoid them. I'll get you guys your money, no problem; these guys are sheep and they're scared. Might even bug out with you when you finish this up, if you've got some room to give a poor old hired gun a lift. There's some appeal in not being shot at, but I can tell you, it sure gets boring as fuck sometimes. There anything you want me to start with?"
Angus, finally relaxed, rolled his shoulders a bit and loosened his sleeves. He sat back and looked at Catherine.
"Force dispositions and terrain," she said.
He nodded, shuffled papers, and began.
The hum of the ionic coolers gave a subtle backdrop to the dim light of the hotel room, the air gentle and slightly "smooth" with the effects of the processor; Angus had tinted the windows and lowered the lights to provide a soft twilight ambience. Neither of them felt up to facing the daylight, so they had relaxed in the room for several hours, packing and planning, until Terminus had set and the warm, lusty sky was smoldering and dark.
Angus was padding softly around their room, wearing his fatigue casuals, moving back and forth between the three large, dinged oblong metal cases propped in the corner, clamshelled open to reveal their day gear. All weapons were required to be cleared against the planet's SecCustoms routines, a process which had taken nearly eight hours and needed to be conducted on the opr; Baker had sent a grim-faced customs official and two attendants to bring them their equipment once it had survived the rigmarole. Angus shuffled between the cases, pulling pieces of gear and apparel from straps and pads and bringing them back to the room's desk, where he was laying it out in stacks, then slipping it into their tacbags, bandoliers, or holsters.
Catherine was lying back on the bed, portable computer in her lap and jacked into the citywide network using the data passes they had been given: a small black box beside her repeatedly demanded her thumbprint before zapping a burst of compressed encryption keys for a range of three feet, just far enough to be received by her terminal. Neither of them had any idea how it worked; she remarked that the Terminus government was so paranoid it was a wonder they ever let anybody on-planet except their own blood relatives.
She was surfing through the nav and tac data Baker had squirted them in the meeting, making use of the more detailed maps and background files available on the milnet. She had a stack of printouts beside her, thick packets of probable target data and weather patterns, but the first step of their mission was pure intelligence work: Find them. She was scanning now through number-heavy diplomatic white papers and promotional material from the Interplanetary Department of Transportation, trying to get a feel for the people they would be working with.
"Look at this," she said. "While 90% of the Terminus surface population falls into the highest tier of unhi's technology classification ranking, more than half of them are working in agriculture. These are farmers with computers."
Angus looked up from a small reactor handgun through which he had been cycling ammunition. His eyes went glassy in thought for a moment, then he replied, "The core of the economy here is centered around support for the opr and its fleet activities. This is a major industrial center for unsc."
"But why agriculture?"
"Infrastructure. The size of the civilian population and the relative remoteness of Terminus makes it a logistical nightmare to support externally, so they made it self-sufficient... I don't know when, must have been years ago. Fleet production is the main thing, but then you've got to support the workers, and that means housing, business, food, utilities. sc can subsidize most of it with spillover from production, but you have to feed people, no way around that. Half of the population here probably works on the ring, and most of the other half is agricultural production that either sells to the government or directly to the market." Distant again, he crooked his head and let the tip of the pistol drop to rest on the cloudy faux-wood of the table. "Say, can you pull up a population density map on there?
Catherine nodded absently, and several minutes later said, "Here's one. I'll print it."
She tapped a few keys, then began scrolling through her visual display. "Okay, this planet is basically a garden. Hardly seems like a surprise that they're losing patrols; there's massive tracts of completely virginal land here without a soul inhabiting it--probably thousands of miles of space to hide an ambush.
"Surveillance?" Angus asked.
"Pretty minimal in the unmanned regions. Farmers here and there. Nowhere near enough orbital coverage to keep a constant patrol; they can look at specific spots, but they've got to know where. You could probably hide an armada for days out there."
Frowning slightly, Angus looked down, then raised the weapon again and click-clicked the last of the smooth, matte cartridges out of the ejector port. He was several moments before he responded with a slight roll of his head and a glance up to her. "All right. I guess that's the job, then."
He began picking up the shells and clipping them back into the circular magazine, as the sky outside turned to liquid night.
Terminus City was a brash amalgam of laser-edge technological industry and prosperous, effective, yet millenia-old street markets. Walking down city's the central road, which radiated off the government plaza like a long spike through the oblong stretch of the urban sprawl, they passed one after another of the small, utilitarian stalls and shops, some with brazen vendors hawking their wares, others with quiet attendants almost hidden as they worked with one thing or another in the shadowy rear, but all with bins or shelves of food prominently displayed--mostly raw goods like wheat and corn, but some finished products like "maranas," the local specialty, made from a mixture of barley, corn, and local cheese, cooked in citrus. "The Terminus environment," LaGrange had told them with blithe frankness, "is so ideal for cultivation that we can feed ourselves, support the opr, and still end up exporting hundreds of tons of excess production every day. Between the wildly different climates and terrain available on the three continents, almost anything from an Earth-normal habitat can be grown here."
"It's like a citywide bargain sale," Catherine remarked. It become quickly apparent that very few centralized markets existed in the city; nearly all commerce took place in public offerings such as those they experienced as they passed through the main boulevard. Angus called it "astonishingly medieval," and when Catherine objected, said bluntly, "I'm not condemning it. I'm amazed. The unique circumstances of this planet have conspired to create an economic and practical reality that's friendly to a form of fiscal interaction which has not existed on this scale for hundreds of years. It's unusual."
They turned off onto a smaller side street, no particular aim in mind, as he glanced over at her and met her eyes briefly. "Unusual is rarely incidental. I doubt if it's a coincidence that we're here."
Wandering farther, they found before long that the city had very little in the way of geographic distinction--it was essentially homogenous, becoming only less dense as they approached the outskirts. Belying the haggling that occured on the streets in a manner thousands of years old, sharp, towering buildings stabbed into the sky on every crisp rectangular block, and long sections of the city were walled off to protect the advanced production facilities that turned out supplies for the opr's day-to-day functions. The city was an exercise in dichotomy, and the two of them spent hours just walking, following whatever road appeared beneath their feet, acclimatizing themselves to the environment and its citizens.
As the night turned from dim to black--Terminus boasted a wide diameter and excruciatingly slow rotation, resulting in a nearly 36-hour day, as well as a deep night that was lit only by the distant stars--the two mercenaries found themselves passing through rapidly emptying streets as shopkeepers closed down their booths. Tall, startlingly bright street lamps were kindled one by one: large, dull crystals whose solid cores turned a furious blue-white under harsh kinetic currents. Tired and needing to recharge edges dulled in the long Slipspace flight, they found a terminal, and Catherine accessed the public datanet to find the nearest rec center; it was less than four blocks away, an unexpectedly long stretch given the unusually lengthy city streets, but still barely five minutes at a brisk walk. They reached the stunted, modern building, round and glassine, and quickly took shelter inside from the rapidly dropping temperature.
They rented a speedball court for twenty credits, showing the attendant the temporary identification badges Baker had supplied them before they left the Department of Social Engineering. Every unsc citizen living legally on Terminus was logged as a de facto reservist in the planetary database. Though they had never been mobilized in quantity, or indeed activated at all, they were still required by law to carry official identification at all times. What was more, and somewhat unnervingly, the squat badges held a tiny alert beeper and a radio receiver that could pick up a broadcast signal from any of the large space or landbound antennae centered on Terminus's major population centers, summoning what amounted to the entire planet to report to predesignated rally points. Distrusting the embedded antenna, which could send just as easily as receive, Angus had disabled both badges with a hammer and metal punch.
Warming up and stretching quickly, they unlocked the broad, smooth-floored court and flooded it with light. Angus had never played a competitive sport seriously before he met Catherine, but she was slowly teaching him the subtleties of the game, drawing on the twenty years she had spent as an Olympic speedball prospective.
But now, they needed only the catharsis of sweat, and both played hard and mercilessly. An hour later, the windows outside as black as if they had been painted, Catherine was leading the game by 80 points, and with a lithe feint, slammed the whistling puck onto a whirling, rolling course that lanced through the air past Angus into the scoring loop. A blue light blinked to announce the point and a snap-kinetic field flashed on ephemerally to deaden the puck's velocity, which could reach and did reach upwards of 130 kilometers an hour.
Angus settled his feet evenly beneath him, feeling the high-tension friction shoes freeze to the polished floor as though they'd been nailed. He elevated his chin and smiled across the circular arena to Catherine.
"Let's get out of here."
Unsure of the existence or reliability of a public transportation system in Terminus City, and not wanting to impose on overworked un staff to act as a glorified taxi service, they zipped up their densely lined amorphous-cell coats and began the walk back to their room, a private but government-subsidized hostel near the center of the city, halfway filled at any given time with Navy crews on furlough. The streets were wholly abandoned.
"Quite a night life," Catherine whispered to Angus, who shook his head uneasily, nerves set on edge by the ghost-town atmosphere in what had hours earlier been a bustling thoroughfare.
The tall, harsh street lamps, though stunningly bright, betrayed an attempt to compensate for inefficient lighting with brute force: only several blazing poles adorned each block, resulting in razor-sharp, discretely-gradiated fields of near-day and gloomily dark shadow. Seemingly alone on the streets but made wary by the alien feel of the city, they stayed in the lighted center of the road until they rounded the turn that led them to their hotel, and that was when they were caught.
Angling toward the side of the street at the intersection, they were passing a hooded shopfront when the hidden figure materialized without warning from the shadows, less than a meter away.
He was already reaching out toward Angus when Catherine glimpsed the flash of steel in her peripheral vision; there was a mental stutter as long-honed reflexes clicked on, like well-used gears falling into place, and then she felt herself caught by the subliminal surge of instinct. Riding it without thought, she fell on her left foot into a thunderous dropstep, wheeling her right elbow blindly overhead in a diagonal strike. It connected solidly just before her foot landed, driving her weight behind the blow, and she stepped inward again, this time offline, bringing one hand up to cover while she shot the other to her waistband where a slender dagger was sheathed.
By the time it was drawn and she had looked up, Angus had a handful of the man's face and was hurtling him into the pavement, the attacker's foot already nailed to the ground by one of his own. She darted forward and met the man on the ground with a savage, swinging kick that intercepted his right hand and batted out its contents: a silvery, glinting blade, catching the dim light like a glistening minnow. It spun off into the darkness.
She glanced at Angus, ready to take a knee and finish the job with her dagger, but his pistol was in his hand, and she looked away instead, covering her ears just in time to deaden the crump, crump of the .357.
In a moment, it was gloomily silent again, and her heart hammering in her ears was the only evidence of the altercation. She lowered her knife, then carefully resheathed it before her hands began to shake.
Angus cleared his weapon, then knelt beside the now-motionless figure, ignoring the spreading pool of red-black blood. A mass of shattered bone, matted hair, and barely-visible brain matter, all glossy with blood, was all that remained of the back of his head. Wordless, face blank, Angus began to methodically check the clothing, patting through the fabric and emptying the pockets. Catherine stepped away, turning her head so she wouldn't have to watch the blood soak into Angus's pants and boots. Pulling her transcom, she hit the emergency button and scrambled the duty officer at the base. Within moments he was promising that a detachment was on its way.
The base was not far, and the responder team screamed through the streets with unnecessary lights and sirens, but before it arrived, both of them still had time, trembling with adrenaline, to heave out their guts onto the pavement.