Enjoy the first chapter of Under a Winter Sun - For FREE!
Every morning you wake up a day closer to your own death.
The cops on the ground should have stayed in bed.
They were shot in the back at close range from the looks of it. The Front laid an ambush for them, and they walked right into it. Wankers. Send local talent to do a grown-up's job, and this is what you get.
Ignoring the glassy-eyed stares of the corpses, I step over them and continue down the dimly lit tunnel. The big boys will be here any minute, and I need to be in position by then.
The gear I'm hauling slows me down, but you can never carry too much hardware, as Wagner used to say. Especially on a job like this. With the assault rifle in my hands, the pistol on my hip and the huge Lensfield sniper rifle on my back, I should have all eventualities covered.
Famous last words. It's a good thing I have a knife for contingencies.
I spit on the dusty floor and trudge on.
You have to go deeper, Perez.
Aeryn's voice in my ear is a reassuring presence. Three levels down is the auditorium. According to Winger's source, that's where she is.
Everyone knows Aeryn Winger's sources are the best.
Yesterday morning, the Terrans agreed to the demands of the Revolutionary Utopian Front. That's as good as a death sentence for all involved. Everyone knows the government doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Not even when threatened with local nuclear holocaust.
This is the third incident featuring weapons of mass destruction in the last couple of months, and every time, the authorities have dealt with the situation in their own heavy-handed way. Terran special ops are competent but famously trigger-happy. They love to go in shooting, and more often than not, they get people killed. Including the hostage.
"Got it," I subvocalise. The bone induction microphone hurt like a bitch to instal, but Winger insisted. In hindsight, I've got to admit it was an excellent idea. This way I can communicate with Aeryn with no one able to eavesdrop. Knowing a hi-tech lowlife like Winger is not a disadvantage. Not that anyone's around to listen to our conversation, anyway. This place is quieter than a library on a Saturday night.I move three levels down into the old Utopian mine without incident.
It wasn't hard to figure out when the black ops team from Earth would strike. A fistful of credits in a traffic controller's pocket got me the time and place an unlisted shuttle docked at the Utopian beanstalk. Another fistful told me the ship had no registered point of origin. A sure sign of black ops. They're here, and they're on their way in. I plan to do my thing while the terrorists are busy fighting the strike team and then slip away unseen in the chaos. It's a simple plan, and that's the way I like it. Simple plans have a sporting chance to play out as intended.
I freeze. So much for playing out as intended.
A door opens up ahead, and a man backs into the tunnel.
He's thin. Early twenties, maybe. Twitchy. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. He could be anybody anywhere. He carries an ancient hunting rifle that looks like it would explode in his hands if he should ever have to fire it. The extremists here on Utopia have an endless supply of frustrated young men from the miners' ranks. Their supply of firearms, it would seem, is not so endless.
The man grabs the door to steady himself.
"Hey, Ramirez," he calls to someone back in the room. "Save me some of that cerveza, will you?"
He's had a few already.
"Fuck you, Diaz. I can't promise anything," comes the reply.
Doorway on your left. Aeryn has direct access to the feed from my retinas. That's another tactical neural implant that hurt like hell. It took a while to adapt to, but now I don't even think about that whatever I see, Aeryn sees. Which has resulted in some awkward moments, usually related to bodily functions.
Diaz has still got his back to me, laughing at something Ramirez is doing. I slip into the recessed doorway and keep my fingers crossed Diaz won't come my way. Carefully, I release the Aitchenkai to let it dangle on its strap and pull my knife. I open the short, hyper-sharp blade and the familiar buzz as the knife grinds a few atoms off the monomolecular edge sends shivers of anticipation up my arm.
Mission parameters specify no unnecessary death. Play with yourself later if you need to reduce your adrenaline levels.
"I won't kill him unless I have to. And I'll play with myself whenever I damn well please."
Don't make me watch this time.
"You could have switched off the feed. Now hush."
They say a monomolecular knife is sharp enough to nick a man's soul, and if we had one, I think it would. The edge is so sharp that weird quantum effects occur there. People say strange things happen when you use one of these. Like the time I used this blade to kill Oddgrim Morgenstern and became the saviour of humanity.
What is not so strange is that Diaz comes my way. That's just my usual bad luck playing up.
"Shit, I need to piss," the man informs the darkness. Why do some have to advertise their every intention when they're drunk?
I glance behind me and notice the symbol on the door. Oh, fuck. I'm standing in the door to the toilet.
"Brilliant plan, Aeryn. Thanks," I whisper and grip the knife harder.
There was no way for me to know he needed to urinate.
"Couldn't you tell from his walking pattern or something?"
I'm not that good.
"Remind me why you're on board at all?"
You need Winger's intel on this place. I can provide that for you.
I sigh. Sarcasm and rhetorical questions are not something a construct handles well.
Embedding a brain image in your head is dangerous, not to mention highly illegal. Despite the risk of overpopulation in my head, a scan and implant were the only ways to give me instant access to the intel in Winger's head. The six-minute time delay between Elysium and Utopia renders real-time communication impossible, even disregarding the shitty reception down here under kilometres of rock. Besides, I enjoy having Aeryn around. Now that Finn is gone, it's nice to have someone to talk to, and Aeryn reminds me of him. They are at about the same level when it comes to social interaction.
Diaz stumbles and supports himself on the wall to keep from falling over. The guy is pretty far gone, and I raise the knife in preparation. He mutters something about beer and small bladders as he lurches closer. He's younger than I thought. No more than sixteen, with his whole sorry life ahead of him. Fuck.
Maybe I can still avoid bloodshed.
"You owe me one, Aeryn."
I crack the door behind me and inch inside. As he comes up, I push the door wide and stumble into him.
He swears. "Hey, man. Watch where you're going."
Judging by the bleary eyes and pinprick pupils, beer is not the only thing he's ingested tonight. And here I was, thinking religious extremists were against all earthly pleasures. Perhaps endorsing intoxicants is the unique selling point of the RUF.
"Asshole," he mutters.
"Sorry." I push past him into the corridor with my head down.
For once, the universe has my back. As I exit, the crude lights bolted to the rock ceiling waver and go out. The newsfeeds assure us the authorities are looking into the recent power failures, but it would surprise me if they were. The electrical systems in Subburbia are ancient. It was only a question of time before they started acting up. Too bad they had to act up now when I'm here. The lights flicker back on with an unhealthy electrical buzz.
"No bloody manners these days," the man says as the restroom door swings shut behind him. "And the fucking lights."
"Yeah, the fucking lights," I agree to the closed door and breathe a sigh of relief.
That was close, Perez. Stay frosty.
Frosty? Who even talks that way? "Mm-hm."
I fold the knife closed and pick up the Aitchenkai again. "Never mind. Let's go."
It's good to hear someone still gives a damn about manners here on Utopia because this place is a shithole. It's the planet closest to our twin suns, and it's tidally locked to them. The planet's dayside is a radiation-blasted nightmare that will melt the flesh from your bones in a minute, while the nightside is one of the coldest places in the system. Right on the terminator between night and day is the only area even remotely habitable.
Except for the cloud cities, that is. Suspended on enormous cables from asteroids in orbit, those aerial metropolises are supposed to be impenetrable. I bet Lady Shadow thought she was safe up there with her minions and WMDs, but boy, was she wrong. She's held her city in the clouds in a well-manicured iron fist for over five decades, but somehow, she got herself taken hostage by these tossers. The Front either have well-informed friends or they got lucky, and in my experience, luck has nothing to do with success in this line of business. Someone must have tipped them off on her whereabouts. Someone who doesn't care about his skin. Lady Shadow is infamous for the creative ways she hurts people. Someone who sold her out like this is likely to become a mythical example of pain. Along with his extended family, friends, and distant acquaintances. If the Shady Lady survives, that is.
Whatever the context of her abduction, the Front now has her launch codes.
We're close. Make a left here.
I turn a corner and pass an open door. Inside is a large storage room with crates of varying sizes filling the space from floor to ceiling. They all bear the unmistakable markings of Terran military hardware. I've seen those with a lot of extremist groups recently. It's like they're stockpiling for Armageddon or something. Not my business. Just saying it's odd, that's all. I'll leave it to the cops to wipe up after this mess is over.
A few twists and turns later, I arrive at the auditorium. The staff access at the back is my designated point of entry, and I make haste down the corridor. I risk a glance through the open double doors as I pass, and there she is. Lady Shadow stands chained on a circular dais, centre stage in the vast, spherical chamber. In her sheer, crimson gown she looks like a dragon sacrifice. How apt. Ascending rows of seats circle the deep-set stage, like an ancient amphitheatre.
The Lady stands amid a group of bearded arseholes who look like they won the lottery. They think they are about to receive a king's ransom in a matter of minutes, and there's at least one snake-grass pipe doing the rounds. Amateurs. The weed makes them slow, and when you're slow, you're dead.
Lady Shadow is short a hand. The stump has been crudely bandaged, and there's a mess of blood on her gown. To her credit, the pain is almost indiscernible on her smooth, aristocratic features. Having a hand cut off hurts. I know.
She had the codes implanted in her palm," the construct notifies me.
"Thanks, but I figured that out myself, Aeryn."
I'm only here to help.
There's an oven-sized cryogenic container on the stage, next to the hostage. Something resembling a tan glove floats in the slush inside. I hope they were careful when they froze it, or they will have destroyed the codes. No matter. They will not get the chance to use them.
There's a hint of a sneer on Lady Shadow's thin lips. She knows she's getting rescued. The Utopian Front does not understand who their hostage is. Stealing the launch codes to an orbital nuclear arms platform might sound like a large-scale operation to them, but it's not. Not compared to what's going on behind the curtains right now.
There are twelve of them. Small arms only. No heavy gear.
I don't plan to take them on myself, but the absence of heavy weapons means less risk of me taking a stray bullet. My body may be immortal, but a high velocity round through the spine will still incapacitate me. That would put a major dent in my self-esteem and bring awkward questions from the paramedics when they try to zip me into a body bag later.
The back entrance is right where Aeryn told me it would be. It's locked, but the access code the construct whispers in my ear opens the door on the first try. Remind me to buy Winger a good bottle of whisky when I return to Masada.
Inside is a storage area behind the top row of seats, filled with stacks of crates and miscellaneous stage equipment.
I slip inside and take up position behind the crates. There's a perfect view of the auditorium from here.
It's a literary reference.
I drop the Aitchenkai on its sling and get the Lensfield off my back. It's solid and perfectly balanced, the way well-designed hardware should be. "I read, Aeryn." The rifle smells of gun oil.
You read horoscopes and beer bottle labels, Perez.
"So what?" I start to assemble the enormous weapon. "The labels are way more accurate in foretelling the future."
They foretell you will spend another night sleeping it off in a back alley?
"Always reliable, those labels. None of that 'Today could be your lucky day, and if you play, you might win' wank."
Why do you read the horoscopes?
I unfold the rifle's stand and set it on top of a crate. The stage is only fifty metres away. I peer through the scope. Ducks in a pond.
"To pretend there's a grand plan to the universe. And that my life isn't a sequence of chance events on the one-way road to the dirt."
The Lensfield's high-end optics tag a couple of notable terrorists among the prats surrounding the Lady. This will be a nice catch for the Terrans.
"Thanks. Now shut up and let me concentrate." I pull the bolt and load a bullet into the breach. "I have work to do."
You can't save the world. The best you can hope for is a chance to waste a bad guy or two, to give the universe a breather before another arsehole steps in to fill their shoes.
That works for me.
Now we wait for the clowns to show up to get this party started.