Content note: Strong profanity is used in this piece.
Two b––––y years.
Steve rode the mag-lift up, soft music suffusing from the surrounding walls. It was supposed to be an easy job, enough pay to retire on, forty percent up front, rest on delivery, but tracking down the package took months, with multiple false leads, and ended up being on b––––y Luna, of all places. And the client specifically wanted to avoid a smash and grab, which meant more months of integration: learning the walk, learning the talk, wearing the fashion, showing his face around enough to be known. All the while keeping up at the low-G gym if he ever wanted to go downstalk again.
Then, finally, came the con. Getting hired with his forged background was a piece of cake, but getting access to the target was the difficult part. Finding the right way to get the target’s attention, picking up the right esoteric hobby, spreading the knowledge through the division until he was invited up to the Director’s office. Once there, it was easy. Making fast friends is the only way.
The mag-lift stopped, chimed softly, and the door irised open. The director’s clone attendant greeted him at the doorway, and gave a deep bow.
“Mr. Hardison, welcome. The Director would like to thank you for coming, but unfortunately had to be called away for an emergency. Please, make yourself comfortable. I have prepared for you a cup of yame sencha.”
“Actually, Jirou, I’d like to get to work. Also, I’m craving something a bit different. Could you bring me a cup of genmaicha instead?”
Jirou blinked twice. “Certainly, sir. You can find your way to the workshop?”
“Yes, Jirou, thank you.”
Jirou turned and Steve surreptitiously tapped his glove, following him in.
A timer in his left eye began to tick down.
Apartments on Luna were small as a matter of course, since space and air were at a premium. No one seemed to have mentioned it to the Director, however. The atrium of the apartment was laid out as a tranquil garden, with rivulets of water making their way through the undergrowth, and the soft rhythmic tok sounds of a shishi-odoshi somewhere deeper in the garden. Jirou disappeared softly down one path, and Steve followed another.
Of course, normal apartments also did not have a workshop with direct elevator access to a surface airlock, but the Director had one specially built for their hobby. The workshop was kept immaculately clean, real bamboo flooring despite the gleaming red antique motorcycle, partially disassembled, standing in the center of the room. Tool chests and tires were arranged neatly by the walls, and, at one side, some of the benches seemed pushed up against the walls, allowing access to the airlock door.
On the wall opposite of the airlock, though, were two shelves, one mounted high above the other. The upper one held a pair of daruma dolls and vased flowers, arranged around a circular mirror. Virts floated above the shelves, displaying Japanese text.
On the lower shelf lay a wooden cabinet, open. Set at the center of the cabinet was a construct cube, wired into a holo display within.
The package. Steve checked his glove. Four minutes until the tea was done steeping, and another twenty-eight seconds for the clone to arrive with the tea. He got to work.
Reaching into his bag, he pulled out the decoy and interrupt shunts. A pair of quick snips was all that was required to liberate the cube from the cabinet and to stow it safely in his bag, but splicing the decoy in was a messy job. It might fool a human giving it a cursory glance, but the clone placed fresh offerings every morning and evening, meaning he had at most five hours before the swap was discovered.
Thirty seconds. Footsteps crunching on gravel. Steve dropped onto his back and pushed himself under the motorcycle, assuming a well-practiced pose.
The clone walked in, tea tray in hand. “Your tea is ready sir.”
“Thanks, Jirou. Just put it over there.” He waved towards one of the tool benches. “I think it’s a problem with the carburetor.”
“Mx. Kase thought so as well, but could not find the exact problem.”
“It’s a device to mix oxygen with explosive fumes, so I’m not surprised.”
Steve, in fact, knew exactly what the problem was. The carburetor was a vacuum-mod that he gave to the Director in the first place. It was designed to fail in atmosphere, but last long enough for the Director to have one or two outings. He had a motorcycle shipped up the Beanstalk at exorbitant cost, learned more than he ever wanted to know about ancient vehicles, and joined the Director on joyrides across the lunar regolith.
“Hey, Jirou, come over here and hold this. I need to check the seals…”
Two pots of tea and a repaired carburetor later, Steve rode the mag-lift down, hand in his bag, slowly spinning the construct. It was later than he planned. The diversion he had arranged died off earlier than expected, which meant an hour of socializing with the Director, and Steve had to decline a spin out on the mare. The Director was profusely thankful and apologetic, and promised to return the favor in the future.
Not like Steve was going to stick around to collect.
He checked the time in the eye. He had just over two hours before they would notice the swap, which was more than enough time to get to Kaguya and onboard the Ferry. Worst case scenario, the announcement went out while he was aboard the Ferry, but he had already changed his employment records from the Jinteki database: not enough to raise suspicion, but enough to fool biometric recognition by both computers and people. Steve suspected they might set up a security checkpoint at the other end, but launch timings were finicky, and it was easy to sneak something through a week-long dragnet.
Transferring to the mag-lev station, Steve disappeared into the commuter crowd, the lunar landscape blowing past at speeds unattainable under atmosphere. He kept an eye on the Net as he made the trip, but as they pulled into Lunacent Station, something stirred.
He felt it a split second before the news popped up in the feed. Too many people getting on, each with an air of discontent. He stepped out onto the station, and looked up just as he read the news.
RANSOMWARE ATTACK ON KAGUYA SPACEPORT, ALL FLIGHTS GROUNDED
The arrival and departure times on the holos were all replaced with virtual flowers, slowly blooming in threedee in the dome above. Bystanders gaped, either looking for the next train back or staring at the display.
B––––y G–d d––n.
Of course, now of all times, some script kiddie would choose to take down the spaceport. And there was no saying how long it would be before launches started up again. Purging the entire system would take a day at least. And even if they wiped it immediately, a cold boot would take two hours at the earliest.
He had forty-seven minutes.
The blooming flowers flickered and disappeared, along with all other lights in the dome. The emergency lighting kicked in, bathing the dome in amber light and glowing text.
The mag-levs to Kaguya were still running, and he could try to bribe someone at a private dock to take him aboard, but no amount of credits would convince any pilot to break the no-fly directive, especially with the amount of ordinance built to defend the spaceport from attack. He could hide out, he mused, hope a search order didn’t come down before the lockdown ended… or, if it did, that he had enough to pay them off.
Or he could go to the local experts and get off Luna, no questions asked.
The Docklands sprawl was only half an hour to the north of the passenger terminals, but the lockdown order didn’t extend that far. Doubtful that he could get airborne before they learned the package was missing. But at least the pilots there had fewer corporate sympathies, and were less likely to ask questions.
He made his way back into the mag-lev, tapping with his gloves. He needed to make a call.
In the corner of her eye, Zahya’s display changed from a blue to a dull yellow. Incoming call.
“And by relocating our shipping docks to the outer circumference, we can cut 15% off the landing fees…”
The meeting droned on, and she surreptitiously checked the caller. Alec.
“Excuse me,” she murmured, making the flat palm symbol of receiving a call. The rest of the small business association members barely looked up.
Stepping out of the conference room, she walked further down the hallway before taking the call. Most of her regular clients knew not to call her during working hours, but Alec wasn’t a regular, and last paid for a quarter tonne of mass to be shipped upstalk without even trying to haggle. She raised an eyebrow, and answered.
“I’m here, make it quick. What do you need?”
“A way off this rock.”
“Finally tired of us Loonies? When?”
“Now, Ez, now. I’m on my way to Wyoming Station.”
“Making assumptions, are you—”
“I’ll pay double. And double that if you can get me off the surface in…” There was a short pause. “…forty-two minutes.”
Zahya quickly did the calculations in her head. The prices she quoted to him last time were already inflated from standard rates. “How much mass do you need?”
“Just me, myself, and I. I’ll pay for eighty kilos.”
“Don’t be a tourist, Alec. Live freight needs an extra three hundred in consumables. I hope you’re not going to bleed out on my grandfather’s good carpet. What sort of heat have you drawn? ”
“Apologies, I meant four hundred in consumables.”
She sighed, and checked the time. “Very well. Get off at Kelly-Davis instead, I’ll meet you there.”
She hung up on him, and turned back down the hall. A shame. Alec leaving Luna likely meant no more repeat business. Just as well. The fallout of big scams always turned the heat up for hard working locals.
She poked her head into the conference room. “Sorry, I have to go pick up little Soha. Her brother decided to flake. Again.”
Murmurs of sympathy from around the table, and then she was gone.
Stepping off at the station, Steve immediately spotted Zahya at the entrance, and she paused before stepping outside into the maze of warehouses. Steve hurried to follow.
“I’ve got someone lined up,” she said, as soon as Steve was in earshot. “Standard freight, direct to the Castle. You’ll be in with some medical freight and a bit cold, but it’s only for a day. Leaving as soon as you board.”
“How hot is it?”
“Hot? Hotter than a sunside sauna, but they’ve got no warrants here, and we have an agreement with those on the other end. As long as they get their packages and the Helium-3, they’re not going to open our other containers. And you’ll be inside one.”
She tapped a pass against a card reader and a warehouse door slid open. She stepped inside, and some warehouse workers glanced at her in surprise, but quickly went back to their tasks. Steve followed gingerly behind.
“This medtech is worth a lot more than you are. The whole container is lovingly cushioned and protected. Relax. Though we could sit on the concourse for a few hours and discuss other options….”
They reached the end of the warehouse, where a large door was open. Forklifts moved in and out, loading the last of the containers onto the freight vehicle. One container stood open to reveal a very narrow room, wide enough for a single person, squeezed to the side of the unlabelled black crates. A single acceleration harness was strapped to one wall, along with a full hardsuit and what appeared to be a plasma torch.
“Fully insulated, full atmosphere.” Zahya patted the side of the container. “Had to dig this out of storage, we kept from the last time we had to smuggle out a runaway clone. You should be safe, but in case you aren’t, you should be able to cut yourself out with enough delta-V to maintain orbit. And yes, the transponder has enough power to call for rescue. Whether they decide to show up is up to them.”
“Thanks for the reassurance,” Steve replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Last call for the washroom.” Steve shook his head. “Come on then, get in.”
Steve strapped himself to the harness, and arranged his bag to make sure it was secure. Zahya presented him with a PAD.
He checked the time. Eight minutes. He thumbed the PAD, watching the last of his advance drain from the account. More than he wanted to spend for the job, but the reward, though not enough to retire on, would put him nearly there.
Zahya smiled. “Ma’a as salama.” she said, and slammed the door, locking it shut with the sound of metal on metal.
The room was pitch black, illuminated only by the glow of his heads-up display and gloves. He tracked the diversions of craft away from Kaguya, slight adjustments to satellite orbits. Departures from the Docklands were nominal. Not a whisper from the Jinteki network. He felt the container shift as it was lifted up and placed into the ship’s hold. More sounds of doors closing and fans spinning up, slowly fading to nothing. The freighter was cleared for launch.
Acceleration was gentle at first; compressed gas was the only propellant allowed this close to the domes. But as he watched the freighter clear the safe zone, he could feel the fusion drive spin up. He braced himself for acceleration.
The force pushed Steve into the wall, but it was lighter than he expected, not worse than a strenuous regime at the gym. But before he could register more, a sudden jerk pulled him upwards, harness cutting into his shoulders.
His head hit the back wall. The world swam, but as hazy darkness enveloped his mind, a spark of consciousness still registered the flight control readout in his eye. The solitary neuron watched as the freighter made its way away from the Docklands, and noted, right before winking out, that the freighter’s altitude was beginning to fall.
Zahya turned around at the flash of light. Upon pulling up flight control, three thoughts crossed her mind. First, she wondered who the hell would engage orbital defenses this close to the habitats—the dust would cause problems for months to come. Third, she recognized that Alec was unfortunately dead. That container was never rated for impact.
The second thought was more important. When a job like this went south, she might get some side-eye from her customers, but technically, she was only the middleman. It wasn’t her responsibility to ensure the goods made it to the other end. Some, of course, thought differently. Zahya wasn’t terribly worried. The rest of the operators would back her on this—she did business with all of them.
Though, she mused to herself, she should probably invest in extra security for the next quarter.
But more pressingly, now there was a hundred tonnes of Helium-3, illegal weaponry, narcotics, medtech, smashed fruit, and whatever else people wanted to smuggle downstalk scattered across nearly a hundred thousand square kilometers of lunar surface, all of which technically had no owner. If you found something out on the mare, even with all the satellites, it was easy to forge the paperwork. Get it into a tunnel and no one would ever know it was you.
She had to make some calls. Tonight was going to be a busy night.
[[Welcome to the Heinlein Concurrence Internal Chat. Please be aware that all content is confidential, and any unauthorized copying or sharing will result in termination and legal action.]]
[[yamazakis created a private room: #lunaincident]]
[[yamazakis added bandoy, grahamc, horim, velezq]]
[[grahamc is marked as away. Messages will be delivered when they next come online.]]
[18:54] yamazakis: Alright, which of you numbskulls authorized that strike?
[18:54] velezq: oh shit
[18:54] velezq: That was us?
[18:55] yamazakis: According to the defense network access logs, yes.
[18:55] yamazakis: which Blue Sun has helpfully provided us
[18:55] yamazakis: because that was their shipment that we shot down
[18:56] velezq: oh shit
[18:56] bandoy: im here.
[18:56] bandoy: shouldnt they have safeguards against that sort of thing?
[18:56] yamazakis: They DO.
[18:57] yamazakis: which were apparently bypassed
[18:57] yamazakis: because that’s apparently the sort of day we’re having.
[18:57] yamazakis: The Orbital Defense Network is a resource NOT to be used shooting down civilian craft.
[18:58] velezq: Wasn’t me.
[18:58] yamazakis: Because I’m on the line here trying to convince them not to share the access logs with Tranquility News, who, lets face it, are probably on the other line trying to get out a statement before they publish their segment on why Jinteki has declared war on civilian shipping.
[18:59] velezq: No intrusions logged on this end. An inside job, maybe?
[19:00] bandoy: any way to spin this?
[19:00] velezq: Misfire. Rogue hacker. Unhappy employee.
[19:00] horim: Sorry, I’m here.
[19:00] velezq: Smuggling. Attempted terrorist bombing.
[19:00] horim: Yeah, it was me.
[19:00] velezq: Wasn’t there a strike earlier today? We can weave that in.
[19:00] bandoy: wat
[19:01] horim: But I had authorization.
[19:01] velezq: What?
[19:01] horim: straight from the Chairman’s office. *The* Chairman.
[19:01] yamazakis: WHAT THE HELL HORI. WHO GAVE YOU ATHORIZATION.
[19:01] horim: Yeah, sorry boss, there wasn’t enough time to give you a heads up.
[19:02] horim: The Forecast came up.
[19:02] bandoy: of course.
[19:02] velezq: Of course.
[19:02] horim: let me rope them in.
[19:02] [[horim added tangk to #lunaincident]]
[19:02] yamazakis: Damn Hyoubu busy bodies.
[19:02] horim: You there KT?
[19:03] tangk: Yes, I’m here.
[19:06] tangk: Standing orders
[19:06] tangk: from the Chairman
[19:06] tangk: treat all 3/3 unanimous predictions
[19:06] tangk: as true
[19:06] tangk: He will take responsibility.
[19:06] yamazakis: Good to know. I’ll run it up the chain to Kase and Hiro. I’ll CC you.
[19:06] yamazakis: What was the prediction?
[19:07] tangk: Unclear.
[19:07] tangk: But that freighter
[19:07] tangk: could not be allowed
[19:07] tangk: to leave Luna
[19:08] yamazakis: Thanks, Tang. I’ll be in touch.
[19:08] [[yamazakis kicked tangk from #lunaincident]]
[19:08] yamazakis: Thanks for nothing.
[19:08] yamazakis: Man, this experimental shit messes with my head. That’s why I came up here.
[19:08] yamazakis: Quince, your division can work on the story? I need something to give the newsroom in ten.
[19:09] velezq: Yeah, on it. I’ll be going with the terrorist story
[19:09] velezq: Throw in the strike.
[19:09] velezq: Who knows, might pull in the Kaguya shutdown as well.
[19:09] bandoy: just give them extra for a nice spin.
[19:09] bandoy: theyll do a better job.
[19:09] bandoy: if hiros paying.
[19:10] yamazakis: I’ll take that under advisement.
Darkness. Cold. Steve wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep.
He forced open his eyes. The container was on its side, but just as dark as it was before. Light from his heads-up display reflected off the transplas helmet. Helmet. His slimline envirosuit must have triggered from the low atmosphere while he was out.
There was a ringing in his head, but if he focused, he could hear the faint sound of atmosphere escaping. He shucked the harness and settled down to the wall, now floor, trying not to rest on the bruising across his entire body. There was no room to stand. Reaching into his bag, he touched the cube. Still intact. Good.
Thankfully, the hardsuit and plasma torch were still securely fastened to the wall. Floor. Whatever. He spent a minute working the hardsuit free from the wall with numb fingers, pulled it over his slimline suit in the cramped space. The slimlines were designed for brief exposures—to buy you time to find shelter after a dome breach, not to support long surface excursions. Recalling his Luna orientation training, he emptied his lungs, closed his eyes, and retracted the helmet. The vac slapped his face, the freeze/boil locking his lashes shut, but he brought the second helmet up and snapped it into place. Atmosphere flooded back in, and the suit began to hum as the servos kicked in.
Steve flexed his fingers, feeling the blood flow back in, then picked up the plasma torch. He tested the autoigniter, flame briefly blinding him before the light compensators kicked in. Crawling his way to the ceiling-wall, he cut a small hole through the skin of the container, through the plasteel and insulation, and watched the flame flicker as the atmosphere was pulled out into the vacuum. He waited for the pressure to equalize, then went back to cutting his way out, grateful that, for once, something was working today.
Battered and bruised, Steve stumbled his way onto the lunar mare, bag slung across his back, Earth shining brightly overhead.
He had no idea where he was. Somewhere west of Heinlein, but how far he could only guess. His was the only container in sight, and there was no trace of any wreckage. Probably dislodged at some point, and rolled across the lunar landscape.
He could switch on the transponder and access the Net from here, if he was willing to alert everyone on Luna to his precise location. Or he could keep it off and jet off in what he assumed was the direction of Heinlein, and hope to reach it before he died of thirst.
G–d d––n it. He was not going to die on the surface. He flipped the transponder on.
Immediately, emergency services cut in. “Thank goodness you’re alive. Are you alright? You’re the pilot, right?”
“Yes,” Steve replied, confidently. “I feel mostly fine, just all bruised up. Must have been thrown out of the freighter during impact. Do you have any idea what happened?”
He pulled up the Luna surface map on his display, and checked his position. Nearly three hundred kilometers west of the domes, and the display refreshed before his eyes, showing the latest satellite imagery. The impact site was a hundred kilometers to the northeast, cargo containers flung outwards by the impact, carving deep scars across the lunar surface where they landed.
“Not at the moment, but help is on the way. Please stay put and keep your transponder on. A bioroid rescue team is en route. They should arrive within the hour.”
“Thanks.” Just what he needed. A timeline. He placed a call.
“Alec?” Zahya’s voice was full of worry. “I thought you were dead. How’s the pilot?”
“Hey Ez, nice to hear from you too. I still need to get off this rock, but I’ll settle for not being picked up by the authorities. No news on your pilot—haven’t seen them anywhere.”
“Where are… there you are. You got flung out pretty far. How long until the emergency crews get to you?”
“They said within the hour.”
“Not enough time to get to you then. You’ll have to find a place to hide. That side of Tranquility isn’t my wheelhouse, but… can you make your way there?”
A red star appeared on the map, ten kilometers to the south.
“It’s an abandoned mining outpost. The authorities can track you by satellite, of course, but my sources say that there should be some contraband tunnels underneath the foundation. There should be emergency air, food and water, and you should be safe until I can send someone to collect you.”
A yellow light blinked in the corner of the suit. Another incoming call.
“Thanks. I’d say I owe you one, but getting shot out of the sky makes us even.”
“We’ll work out the details later. Don’t forget to turn off your transponder.”
“I’m not an idiot.” Steve ended the call.
He watched the incoming line. B––––y h––l, might as well.
“Tranquility News correspondent Franco Finch here, a reporter crew is on their way to your location. Care to answer a few questions?”
“We are also looking to purchase the rights to your life story for fifteen thousand cred—”
Steve switched off the transponder. He turned to get his bearings, tested his altitude thrusters, and carefully began jetting towards the horizon.
He made it to the outpost ten minutes later, settling down carefully at the airlock door. Despite the thick layer of dust and micrometeorite weathering, the door responded to the emergency override, cycling him into the abandoned structure.
Not that it mattered. Years of neglect had left the outpost with no atmosphere and only emergency power, but Steve grabbed a tank of oxygen, emergency rations, and a tarp from the emergency cupboard and headed down. It took him half an hour to find the entrance to the tunnels, hidden underneath a pair of steel floor panels. Picking a dead-end tunnel close to the entrance, he sealed the entrance with the tarp, and wrenched open the valve on the tank.
The gas escaped with a hiss, and Steve removed his helmet, watching the oxygen readout carefully before shutting off the valve. He took off the hardsuit, and slumped against the rough stone wall. Who knew how long it’d be before someone would come to pick him up?
His bag slipped and hit the ground.
Pulling his bag over, he reached inside and pulled out the cube, no worse for wear. He set it down, pulled a number of interrupt shunts, and carefully jammed them into the severed cables. Splaying his fingers, he touched the ends of the shunts.
A virt bloomed from his gloves. The face of a young Chinese woman appeared. She looked around, confused.
“Alright,” Steve growled. “Obviously somebody is going through extreme measures to keep you on Luna. So then, tell me: Who the fuck are you?”