Episode 212: Opportunity

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Gravity in the docking towers of the Gatehouse was oriented perpendicular to the axis of the structure itself. This was a decision made purely on utilitarian grounds, and was perfectly easy to do on an artificial world like the Gatehouse, but it meant that Simon’s view out the windows was disconcerting to say the least. Instead of seeing the ground down below his feet, it formed a grey, checkerboard wall to his right, rising and falling out of view and stretching ahead to the foreshortened horizon. He’d never seen anything like it, and it made his stomach want to dance and reorient itself into a whole new plane, a movement that was not good for lunch.

Everything else about the lunch, however, was excellent. Decked out in the latest fashions—but conservative ones, nothing too flashy—Simon had been released from Infinite Justice to do a little reconnoitering, the only stipulation being an unobtrusive escort—now sitting four tables away, apparently not watching Simon at all—and the certainty that Yakazuma’s life was forfeit if he chose not to return. He wondered if that would have been Amathea’s choice, if their positions had been reversed. But of course, she would never have been allowed to roam anywhere on her own, escort or no.

Lunch was in the plush enfolding comforts of the Highlight, a four-star restaurant in the Pole Tower, which was the tallest of the Gatehouse’s docking ports. Lavish faux-wood tables were burnished to the highest sheen, decked out with fine china—from Earth!—and highest-quality linens. The food was a match, obviously flash frozen to nearly absolute zero, then reanimated once it passed the kitchen doors; that was the only way that fish as fresh as the tuna-salmon hybrid Simon was eating could possibly have come to a place that noticeably lacked lakes or other bodies of water.

Across the table, Lars Ugundu was enjoying vat-grown steak of the highest caliber, tender and juicy and cooked just long enough to brown the outside, leaving the cool, purple center to be enjoyed as nature intended: in the raw. Ugundu was a big man, one of the biggest Simon had ever seen, and he’d finished half of the quarter-kilo steak already, and was tucking into the rest with gusto. His face was turning noticeably red, an achievement for someone with as much pure African stock as Ugundu possessed. The man was here with Simon to give him information, but so far he was only running up a tremendous bill.

“You talked to Maccabee?” pressed Simon. Excellent as the food was, he was under a time constraint. The Commodore had been very specific about that: twenty-four hours to find out everything that there was to know. At the same time, Simon was trying to work out his escape plan, which had so far progressed nowhere at all.

“No,” Ugundu answered between bites. “Talked to his XO, pretty girl named Sam, or something like it.”

Simon nodded. “Samara.”

“Yeah, that was the one.” Ugundu smiled, showing off perfectly white teeth, slightly filed into points, so that you didn’t notice it at first and then it hit you that there was something predatory in that mouth. “Pretty girl.”

“What did she want?” Simon asked.

“Hatch covers. High-grade ceramasteel. Tools.” Ugundu shrugged. “Sounded to me like they were doing repairs.”

“Anything else you remember?”

Ugundu grinned again, putting down his knife and fork and leaning forwards across the table. Simon fought back the urge to lean away from that smile. “They got in some trouble when they were here, your friends did,” he said. “I’d suggest talking to Security, if they’ll have you.” He glanced around them. “They might like lunch.”

Ten minutes later, Simon took his borrowed credit chip back from the waiter and stood, not sure of how to proceed. This was the third meeting he’d had in eight hours, and though everyone had mentioned some sort of trouble related to Hornet, none had been willing to go into further detail. Simon toyed with the idea of going to the Security office, with his tail in tow, and spilling the beans, but Infinite Justice might well escape, essentially sealing Amathea’s death.

Half-way down the long corridor that connected the restaurant to the hectic starport around it, Simon stepped over to wall, letting another couple pass him. A moment later, Crewman Craig was beside him, immaculately dressed in a blousy shirt and knee-length skirt, the kind that flipped and whirled about as she walked. If she hadn’t been the enemy, Simon would have relished watching Craig walk towards him. She was even smiling. Good lunch, presumably.

“Whereto next?” she asked him, as though they were traipsing through an amusement park. He knew that this was part of her act, that she was a deadly, highly-trained combatant, but her manner grated on his nerves.

“I’m not sure,” he answered. No reason not to be truthful. He had a few hours yet.

“Well I need to piss,” she said, sounding suddenly a lot more like a sailor. “Come on.”

She grabbed his arm and pulled him into the restrooms. A man was on the way out, and he gave Simon a curt nod, ignoring Craig. She scowled at the man’s back, a look that probably would have sent him into a run if he’d seen it. Then, she led Simon into one of the wide stalls, pushed him into the corner, and hiked up her skirt. He looked right at her as she pulled down her underwear and rested her quite shapely ass against the angled seat, but she only smiled at his interest. Reaching a hand into her bag, she pulled out a small com unit—apparently the Commodore didn’t have the money or the interest to put com units inside her people’s heads.

“Command, this is Craig, come in,” said the Crewman, while the soft tinkle of her urine echoed in the glass-walled stall. Simon didn’t hear the reply, but Craig had the speaker neatly tucked into one ear, where he’d spotted it when they’d first met. It looked like the earbud for a simple mobile, but apparently had a few other functions. “Situation is good. We’re leaving the third meeting.” Craig nodded in response to something the other end was telling her. “Yep. I’ll check in then. OK, Craig out.” Check in when, exactly, wondered Simon. How much time did he have?

She slipped the com unit back into her bag, then stood up, let the sonic unit clean her behind, and bent over to reach her underwear, giving Simon a long look at everything he wanted to see. When she straightened and let her skirt fall again, her grin was positively devilish. “Enjoy that, did you?” she asked him.

“Not particularly,” he answered, failing miserably at nonchalance.

Still grinning in that unsettling way, Craig stalked over to him, pressed him against the wall of the stall with one hand, and grabbed his crotch with the other, locking a painful hand on Simon’s erect penis. He grimaced. “That’s as close as you’re going to get, sailor,” she whispered in his ear. “From now on, keep your fucking eyes where they belong, or you’re going to be missing something important.” She gave his dick another hard pinch for emphasis, then released him and left the stall.

Simon swallowed, trying to think about anything but his aching groin, but specifically about the moment at hand. Don’t blow it. He stepped out of the stall and said, “I don’t think the Commodore would appreciate it if you ripped my balls off before I’d done my job.” Coarse, but to the point. “Plus, you didn’t have to take me into the stall.”

“So you’d run as soon as I closed the door?” Craig asked, sticking her hands into the sanitizer. The machine buzzed once, and was done. Simon followed suit. “Besides, I have enough time . . . before you’re back on board, I don’t want you staring at me all the time.”

Interesting. Enough time for what? Obviously not the lame ending she’d tacked on. Bad slip, little girl, Simon thought to himself. He schooled his face into something like chagrin. “Sorry. Damn. A woman strips in front of me, I look at her. Consider me corrected on that score.”

“Come on,” Craig said, leading him back out of the restrooms.

They stepped through the restaurant’s outer doors and into the Grand Concourse, the giant hallway that ran from the base of the Pole Tower to its tip. Thousands of people milled through here, from tourists to spacers, some moving with purpose to one dock or another, others killing time waiting for their ship to come in. The center of the floor was high-density ceramaplast, and under the milling feet, the cargo transport tube that took up the center of the tower was exposed to view. There was little activity now, but the zero-gee space was used to ferry cargo from the vast holds inside the Gatehouse to waiting ships, and vice-versa. When a large freighter was in town, watching the containers moving in the tube was spectacular.

Simon didn’t spare the view a moment’s thought. His heart was racing. There was no way to know how long he had, but he had to move now! There was no time to sit and think about it. Infinite Justice was docked half-way around the globe of the Gatehouse from here; just getting there would take almost an hour. And he had several stops to make.

“Here,” he said, suddenly turning aside into a café along the Concourse. “In here.”

“What?” asked Craig, following him by reflex. “What the hell’s in here? And shouldn’t I hang back?”

“Relax,” he said, though he was sure there’d be some way for her to hear his beating heart over the hum of the Concourse. “I just want some coffee.”

Craig just shook her head and let him walk up to the counter. The girl there took his order, not blinking an eye when he asked for the coffee to be extra hot. He slipped his credit chip into the slot and paid, willing his hands not to shake, then turned to go. Stopping suddenly, he turned, nearly running into Craig.

“I still need to pee,” he said to her. She scowled. “Damn it, Craig, I didn’t exactly get a chance back there, did I?” The scowl faded somewhat. “Come on,” he begged.

“Fine. Go.” She pointed to the restrooms.

He went ahead of her—of course—and opened the door, walking right on in, knowing that she wouldn’t let him behind her. She was watchful. Something seemed off to her trained instincts. Placing his coffee cup next to the sanitizer, Simon ducked into a stall, letting her glance inside first. Just for good measure, he left the door open and let her watch too. He could feel her glare tickling the space between his shoulder blades. Thanking God that he actually did have to piss, he urinated into the slot on the wall, letting the little sparks of the containment field intercepting stray droplets sooth him for a moment.

Then he was done. He tucked himself back in and turned, then almost blinked in surprise. Craig was holding his coffee in her hand, offering it back to him. Perfect. Definitely too perfect. He shook his head. “Gotta sanitize,” he said. Stepping around her, Simon stuck his hands in the machine, watched the blue light come on for two seconds, then stepped back, turned, and suddenly he was moving faster, faster than Craig had ever expected him to move, his hand palming hers, slamming the coffee up and into her face, where the lid popped off the little cup and scalding liquid burst out all over her skin, in her eyes, down her chin, into her dress.

The first hint of a shriek was all she managed before Simon clapped his hand down on her mouth, slammed his knee into her groin, and levered her into the stall with brute force. Her head snapped sideways with a sickening crunch, and her body suddenly sagged in his arms. There was no time to think, just to act, and he dropped her like a sack, stepped to the wall, and ripped the cover plate off the urinal with a practiced motion. Years had passed since he’d worked maintenance on a station like this, but the urinal design hadn’t changed since. There was still a space behind the cover plate, just big enough for a small person.

His body still pumping with adrenaline, Simon picked Craig’s body up off the floor, folded her in half, and shoved her into the crawlspace. Then he spent a moment retrieving her bag and her earbud, both luckily out of the spray of coffee. He jammed the cover plate back in place, and the containment field zapped his hand with a small charge before he yanked it clear. Stepping back, he examined his handiwork. It wouldn’t hold up for long, but he didn’t have much time anyway. By the time someone discovered Craig’s body, the game would be over, one way or another.

He was out of the restroom before twenty seconds had elapsed since the beginning of his attack, moving quickly into the crowd in the café, then out the broad entrance and into the Concourse, heading down-tower, towards where the transit trains whisked passengers from tower to tower. There was nothing more here at the Pole for him except possible apprehension. He moved quickly, but kept his demeanor professional, like the travelers around him, so that he appeared to be just one more of them, not someone running from a terrible crime. Only once did he pause, just long enough to search through Craig’s bag for anything of interest before disposing of it in a compactor: but the com unit was the only thing worth taking. He stuffed the earbud into his ear and kept moving.

The credit chip was still good for a little while, so he bought a ticket for the transit train, waited the ninety seconds for the next one to arrive, and piled in with other travelers headed his way. In this case, that meant along the Alpha Meridian, which ran from pole to pole. It would intersect at each transverse line, which followed the parallels along the globe. The docking towers were aligned along the parallels, and the meridians, so that no tower was ever more than two trains away. At North Ring 1, Simon debarked from the Meridian line and boarded another train, heading east along the parallel. The speed of the trains and the relatively small size of the Gatehouse meant he was only underway for ten minutes from the Pole tower to his destination, tower N1-D.

Like any world, be it one in miniature or on the scale of a planet, there were good places and bad on the Gatehouse, though in this case the distinction was a fine one. There were no really dangerous areas here, and the security was tight, enough so that criminals operated in deep secrecy, or through outright bribery. The Commodore obviously moved through the waters here by the dint of money, influence, and sheer power, but there were other organizations, the kind that Simon had a knack for finding. They weren’t exactly . . . nice people, but they served a purpose. Even here, there were people to be killed, stores to be robbed, and protection money to be paid.

Tower N1-D was a place where the shadowy nether regions of the Gatehouse bubbled closer to the surface. Each tower was generally owned and operated by an independent shipping company, or by the Gatehouse Operations Directorate itself. N1-D, known locally as the Mulberry Branch, was owned by Earth-Mars Shipping GmbH, a company that had been around for a thousand years, and had been on the verge of bankruptcy for virtually all of that time. Actually, to say “the verge” was to be kind, because EMS entered bankruptcy courts every fifty years or so, yet each time emerged under some new banking structure, or revamped board of directors, or public ownership, and so somehow staggered on to the next disaster. Just before the transit train flashed into the station, Simon caught a glimpse of a single, outmoded freighter docked at the tower, with no visible signs of activity around her.

Leaving the train, Simon headed immediately up-tower, towards the top of the multi-kilometer structure. Unlike the Pole Tower, N1-D was sparsely populated, and the people here seemed to be locals. Simon was sure he’d be marked for pick-pocketing or something similar, but no one bothered him. Perhaps he had the air of a man better left alone. He hopped a moving walkway, and jogged down its length, covering a kilometer in less than two minutes, then debarked at the next break point—the walkway was out of commission up ahead anyway—and ducked into a shop along the concourse, an unmarked place with no visible wares on display and a heavy, steel shutter only half open.

“Who the fuck are you?” asked a voice. It took Simon a moment to pick out the woman belonging to that unfriendly tone. She sat behind a plain display counter that had nothing to display, her feet propped up on top of it, the tall chair she sat in leaning precariously backwards. She was tall, thin, almost gaunt, with yellow-black, unhealthy-looking skin, but bright eyes and a mouth that seemed perpetually smiling. One of her hands was visible on her knee, the other tucked somewhere under the counter.

“Are you Tam Zula?” Simon asked, keeping both of his hands in plain view.

“I asked first,” she said. She raised one thin eyebrow.

“Name’s Simon Tamil,” he said. “I have good credit, and lots of it. Now, are you?”

“I am,” she said. It wasn’t actually her name, of course, but a sort of password. If you wanted a certain product here, you asked for Tam Zula. If the shopkeeper decided you were clean, then you got to make a purchase. Maybe. Simon could only hope that this time he’d manage to close the deal.

“I need the heaviest product you have that I can conceal in what I’m wearing,” Simon ordered. There were no menus here, nothing written down or displayed. You asked, and they had it or they didn’t. “Preferably non-energy,” he added. Energy weapons were always harder to conceal.

“I have something like that,” the shopkeeper hedged. “Let’s check your credit, see if your good for it.”

Simon nodded and walked forward to the counter, still keeping his hands in view. The tall woman stood and pulled a credit chip reader from behind the counter, then motioned for him to get out the chip. He did so slowly, slotted it into the reader, and waited. Looking down at the readout, the woman nodded and motioned for him to put away the chip.

“I’ll get the product,” she said.

Simon nodded. No one every mentioned the word “gun” or “weapon” in a deal like this. It was always the “product.” Whatever. If these people thought euphemisms like that would shield them from prosecution, they were obviously wrong. He tapped his finger nervously on the top of the plastic display counter, trying not to think about the valuable time he was losing. About thirty minutes gone, and he knew they’d never let Craig go more than an hour without a checkup. So, assuming they didn’t kill Yakazuma outright at the first sign of trouble, he had about forty minutes to reach Infinite Justice. Once the killing started, all bets were off.

The shopkeeper returned, something wrapped in a brown cloth under her arm. It looked awfully big to Simon. She laid the parcel on the counter and unwrapped it, looking over Simon’s shoulder the whole time. “This is it. Comes with three reloads. It’ll take about half your funds.”

Simon nodded, as though he knew how much was on the credit chip. He had no idea, actually. As long as it was enough, he didn’t care. It was quite a lot, if only half was necessary for this: he was looking down at a Archelon Visiondriver, a snub-nosed, pistol-style shotgun with a ten-round, side-mounted magazine, fully-automatic fire setting, burst shot, and self-correcting fire control built in. The name was a ridiculous mouthful, but the gun was a thing of beauty.

“I’ll take it,” he said, passing over the credit chip. The shopkeeper nodded, slid the package towards him, and ran his credit. If anyone on Infinite Justice was watching, this purchase was going to raise an alarm, but Simon was hoping that their trust in Craig and her watchful oversight would lead to some laxness on the part of the Commodore’s crew. He’d given no indication to them of his ability for sudden violence, as evidenced by the ease with which he’d overcome someone like Craig. It seemed passing unlikely that they would suspect him of buying a gun. The money was intended to buy information, at any cost.

Loading a magazine of slugs into the Visiondriver, Simon pocketed the other two reloads—one was more slugs, the other incendiaries, amazingly enough—and set the gun to standby mode, letting the articulated magazine slide safely into the gun, where it wouldn’t create an unsightly bulge. Then, he tucked the whole thing into his pants, under his shirt. Luckily, the clothes were baggy enough to allow this, since the thing was hardly small.

The shopkeeper was holding out his chip when he looked back up. “You know the Laws?” she asked him, meaning nothing to do with the actual law on the Gatehouse, but rather the criminal code of this place. It was a code that Simon would be violating soon enough.

“I do,” he said. He’d checked here and there, before leaving Infinite Justice. After all, she hadn’t asked him if he intended to obey the Laws.

As there was no way—in theory—to get a gun on board the Gatehouse, there was no need for checkpoints at the transit stations, though the occasional screening would take place at unannounced times and intervals. Often, the Mulberry Branch was a target for this sort of enforcement, but no one gave Simon a second look as he boarded the train heading west. And the credit chip still worked. Everything seemed to be playing out as well as it possibly could.

Halfway to the next station—and from there, it was only another short hop to the tower where Infinite Justice was docked—the earbud came to life.

“Craig, this is command, please come in,” said a man’s voice, stern and obviously impatient. “You’re five minutes late.”

There was nothing Simon could gain by responding. For the moment, he had confusion and the unknown on his side, but if he replied with Craig’s com, no excuse he could come up with would save Yakazuma’s life. Silence was the only answer.

“Damn it, Craig, respond!” barked the man on board ship as Simon left the train and ran full-tilt across the platform to catch the outbound train he wanted, just before its doors slid shut. Only another two minutes, maybe three, then another ten to the slip where Infinite Justice waited.

“Craig, this is the last call,” said the man, and now he sounded tense. He knew something was very wrong. “If you do not reply, we are declaring an emergency.”

“You already have an emergency,” Simon muttered under his breath.

“Right,” said the voice on the command line from Infinite Justice. “All units, this is an emergency activation. Switch to emergency protocol Alpha, now.” And just like that, the com went dead.

The transit train slid to a halt, and Simon ran out the door, pushing aside two people. He ripped the earbud from his ear and tossed it away, followed by the com unit. The emergency protocols no doubt included tracking of all active com systems. Dodging through heavy foot traffic and around the occasional tram unit, he reached the first moving walkway and leapt onto it, nearly stumbling but keeping his footing and now running at twice the speed he’d managed before. The stores and boutiques and hotels along the concourse blurred as he put on all the speed he could muster. Right now, confusion reigned on board Infinite Justice, but that would last for only the shortest of times. And he had one last gamble to make.

Finally, he saw the station end of the docking tube that connected the tower to the Commodore’s ship, and he slowed his pace, trying not to pant for breath too obviously. Checking the gun once, carefully, with one hand, Simon activated his personal com. The techs working for the Commodore—working for Matsukata and his bitch, more accurately—had disabled the internal com, or thought they had. It was too deeply integrated into Simon’s brain to fully disable, however, and its short range, emergency function remained, just waiting to be tapped. Neither Yakazuma nor Simon had succumbed to the temptation to do so, since the signals would certainly be intercepted inside Infinite Justice. Now, the time for subtlety had passed. Simon needed Yakazuma.

He spoke just one word: “Go.” Then he walked up to the boarding ramp, pulled the Visiondriver from its concealment, and started shooting.