Building on Prologue posted last – book is done at 200k words. A big fat book.
Art checked the time again. It was 09:27, Sunday, Oct 3, 2083. He was finally past the three day hold he’d been ordered to endure and to able take his mission active. He was tired of wandering the boring corridors or eating in the cafeteria watching these irritating people, unable to say anything to them about their antisocial acts. Patience wasn’t something that came easily to him.
He’d suspected two of the other passengers in his shuttle as likely fellow agents, but no one had contacted him and he’s seen neither of them these three days.
He stepped out of the elevator with careful little steps, taking the measure of the acceleration on this deck. The clumsiness he experienced changing weight every time he stepped out on a new level was starting to wear him down because it seemed beyond him to acclimate to it. It was doubly irritating because he’d done so well in zero G.
The attitude of people was wearing him down too. At home he was used to civilians being afraid of him in uniform, especially when they saw the gray shoulder patch that said he was on interservice loan to Homeland Security.
This corridor was at a nominal half G, the lowest used for habitation, and he picked up speed warily as he turned with spin and headed for the elevator down to the next deck which would be about 70% G.
He’d circled all around his target’s apartment, making sure he had a clear mental picture of what surrounded it in three dimensions not trusting the blueprints he’d studied to be current. The Singh kid wasn’t home. He’d made sure he was starting breakfast at the cafeteria when he’d quickly ended his own breakfast and left. The boy had stayed away from the apartment returning late every day so far.
If only the father had taken his son when he went off station, it would have made his mission much easier. The boy was sixteen, still a minor, so it was illegal abuse under USNA law to leave him at home alone, but Singh hadn’t boarded him out or hired a sitter while he was gone. As far as he could tell reading the directory there wasn’t any care facility for teens on the habitat, and no commercial sitting services. They seemed to just ignore quite a few laws that were taken for granted below. It had shocked him at first and he didn’t understand why his briefing hadn’t spelled out how different it was on the hab. It was like a different country.
The schedule for the nanoelectronics conference the father was attending at ISSII said he’d be gone over a week and Art’s superiors somehow knew the man would be staying on after it ended too. A number of sentences started but not finished and significant looks between his superiors convinced him there were a lot of details they hadn’t felt it necessary to share with him.
The father’s workplace was definitely off limits. He had stretched his orders yesterday and done a light surveillance of the Lucent Lab where Singh worked as part of his ‘acclimation’. Their security was as tight as the rest of the station was lax. Not only electronic, but armed guards at a single choke point entry. There was no way was he getting in there without a court order to open up in his hand.
Art was going as fast as he felt safe to shuffle along touching the wall tentatively and was slowing down to turn the corner when he heard a colophony of shrill voices and the rapid scuff of little feet overtaking him. He stopped short of the corner his back to the wall and waited to see what was passing him.
Four local children went by with a floating gait, graceful as antelope in slow motion. Chattering over each other in a strange slang so fast and loud that he couldn’t figure out what any one of them was saying. They all looked to be eight to ten years old and dressed bizarrely. Not a one of them would have made it through a security gate at a school or mall in North America looking like that without being turned away or held and their parents called. Not that they were technically illegal, but Neighborhood Defenders considered community standards too, not just the letter of the law, and eccentric appearance was disruptive. That they might have their own community standards was something beyond Art’s rigid world view.
All of them were shamelessly bare legged in shorts with sticky footies. They all had expensive spex on even though they were little kids. Letting kids wear expensive stuff in public was just begging for them to be robbed or worse. At least it was down below. Only one of them had gloves on while they were out touching every grubby call button and take hold in the public areas as if they were safe in their own homes, and there was not a mask, knee pad, elbow pad or head protection of any sort to be seen on any of them while they were out running wild in the public corridor.
Not only were they completely unescorted by an adult and half naked for any perv or terrorist out prowling around to snatch but the one in the lead didn’t have any sort of shirt on at all. The reason for that was obviously to show off the colorful dragon drawn curled across his belly, under his left arm, up the back and looped over the shoulder with its snarling head staring at him with boggled eyes and open jaws.
When they passed the one in front with the dragon spun around in mid leap to take a look back at him, and his face was very Oriental with strong epicanthal folds on the eyelids. The motion threw out long braided pigtails startling him. A bare breasted boy was bad enough, but surely they wouldn’t let a little girl go out in public with no top on! Unless they allowed long braided hair on a boy…He couldn’t decide which would be worse. The thought was so shocking he gasped at the audacity of it, either was indecent, and the tattoo! That was beyond the pall.
He certainly hoped that was a fake. He couldn’t imagine a child having a real tattoo. At least he hoped it was just body markers and would fade out in a week or so. Earthside you might let your boys swim topless if you had your own very private pool, and some folks would mind their own business if they found out. But if you tried that in public, even if they were escorted, Family Services would have them in custody in a heartbeat for endangerment, and you’d be on trial for neglect. Lately, public sentiment was such that even short sleeved shirts were frowned on in really conservative areas. Some restaurants would refuse you service in shorts or short sleeves, adult or child.
The middle children ignored him in passing, but the last child in line seeing the front runner look back kicked off the deck like a ballerina en Pointe and made a lazy turn in the half G examining Art with the tactless stare children use. It was hard to tell, but this one also appeared to be a girl although the hair was shorter and she was strikingly Caucasian with corn silk blond hair and bright blue eyes.
She threw her arms out to slow her spin enough to look Art over better and on her forehead the shiny cabochon of a Public Eye lens on a headband looked him over too. That was not-something-he-wanted, to be on a video archive somewhere. Maybe her folks made her wear it for her protection even if they were crazy enough to let her out of the house alone. In that case, he could hope the vid would scroll off private storage in a few days.
She pulled her arms in to spin faster and landed just in time to join hands with her friends to the front as the lead kid grabbed a take hold bar and swung the whole line of his friends around the corner. The arched line of them swung around the corner in a crack the whip maneuver that Art would not have believed possible if he hadn’t seen it. The end girl curled up and hung on against the snap double handed by stretching back out to ease it. So comfortable with the gymnastics that she took time to look over her shoulder at him like he was the strange one here. Somewhere on the other side of the corner she must have found a take hold and the line disappeared from his view in a reverse maneuver.
By the time he eased around the intersection they were gone from sight and just their voices echoed down the empty corridor. They looked like a bunch of savages, he thought. Even the kids in the Arabic Protectorate weren’t as bold when he’d done patrol there. These kids looked at you without a trace of fear on their faces. He found that really offensive.
Down a level on the elevator and along the corridor at a new rhythm brought him to his target’s door. Not only was there not a visible camera on the residence hallways, there was no real security system on the door either, just a taste and code lock. It never occurred to him that cameras were deliberately visible only for the intimidation factor.
Naval Intelligence had used a government inserted back door to get him the entry codes off the habitat’s computers. He could have cracked such an easy entry himself, but he had learned early to not display too many skills or his instructors asked where he had acquired them. His small hobby of burglary as a teenager had never been discovered or he’d have never been accepted into the service for anything but scut duty.
The same caution had kept him from asking the experienced fellows about the prospects of liberating souvenirs on missions. All he needed was one self righteous straight arrow blabbing to ruin the game he had planned.
Art pulled his pad off his belt and ran it around the hatch edges checking for hidden security systems with his military plug-ins. If he somehow alerted the station security he had a set of get out of jail free documents in his pouch. That wouldn’t be the way to impress his superiors on his first solo though, to need bailed out. His briefing had emphasized – if you can’t achieve your objectives, withdraw without making our activities known. In other words – don’t screw up. If they wanted to draw public attention to the investigation they’d just walk in with warrants, not send in an operative.
He pushed the call button just to be sure there was nobody inside. If it was linked to somebody’s phone he’d ask for the wrong name. After a pause he punched the stolen numerical code in and the door opened without a hitch. He stepped through into the dark, closing the door, and pulled a small light out. There didn’t seem to be any manual light switch near the door so he took another chance and said aloud, “Lights up.” They came on full without any alarm even at a strange voice, so he was encouraged. Even in a walled and gated community Earthside this place would have never lasted a week without being robbed by somebody, maybe a grade school kid. It was hard to believe that anything of value could be in such an insecure place.
He took a deep breath happy to find he still got that deep thrill of being in a forbidden place he’d had as a teenager, even if he did have government sanction now. The place was ridiculously small for the home of a well paid and important worker. Everything he’d heard on Earth was these people were all rich, and here this nano-electronic engineer was living in an apartment the size of his parents garage. He was starting to doubt he’d find anything worth boosting for himself while he was here.
A quick walk through was in order. The house com console was an unlikely place to keep anything really sensitive. Most of its memory resided in the network and it could never be made sufficiently secure. Of the two tiny bedrooms the first obviously belonged to the teenage son with very casual clothing and a mess of study papers and printouts on the desk. The kid was a pack-rat with boxes of junk and electronic parts piled in the corner and bottom of the closet. Some sports equipment was piled on the unmade bed and a mound of visibly dirty footies and grimy socks was piled by the desk.
The father’s room looked like the jackpot with an actual stand alone computer. He cut all data feeds in and out and sealed the ventilation as he’d been trained. There was still no alarm, so the environmental controls depended on positive reporting, not fail safes. The shoe box size computer unit was optical fibered to the wall screen instead of wireless, and had no network connection at all. That was damn suspicious for a computer able to do some complex modeling. Who monitored his usage if it was off line?
His briefing had not told him explicitly what he was seeking. He was to bring any and all technical materials and computer memory out with him and let somebody else evaluate it. The computer looked like the target, but first he did a general toss of the room. He took his general purpose tool out and used the pliers to get a grip on the carpet in the corner and systematically pulled it all up. He pad-scanned the mattress and pillows but used his knife and slit them open just to be sure. There were some old fashioned hard print codex books and he riffled them and all he got was a few personal photos and old receipts that might have simply been bookmarks. They were all commercially published so nothing he’d want even if technical.
There was little clothing but he pulled each piece off the hangers and the few with pockets he either searched or simply squeezed the pocket to feel for anything. There was a hard copy file with some legal papers and some currency with writing in a language he didn’t know. It was all non-target material but in the bottom there were three small gold coins, and this was just the sort of personal bonus he had hoped would be common when he applied for training. He carefully sealed them in a pocket, somewhat satisfied.
He wanted to be able to exit immediately once he dealt with the computer so he took a moment to relieve himself. He used the toilet and returned to the bedroom and made a simple line drawing of a laughing seal with a globe of the world balanced on its nose, and the barest simple outline of the Americas on the sphere. No point in having this much fun and not intimating who tossed their place. It was always good to sow a little fear.
It didn’t directly violate his orders he reasoned – since they had to infer that the seal was meant to be a SEAL. He wasn’t going to draw any anchors around the globe or anything blatant. He drew it right on the big thin screen on the wall, ruining the plastic surface with the vacuum marker, ignoring the little voice in his head that said this was a bad idea.
He was finally ready to do the computer and get out of here. A quick check with the pad showed no outgassing from any explosives and there was no signal being sent over the power cord. It shouldn’t have an alarm or booby trap. He took the multi-tool and snipped the optic fiber. If disconnecting the power raised some sort of alarm he would immediately trot out the door with the whole box under his arm. It was a normal push and twist plug at the wall, but no connector at the case, so he unplugged it and then immediately cut the cord almost flush with the case. Still no alarms, so he relaxed another small increment and pulled a chair up to crack the box open for the memory.
The case was a little taller than wide and he used his multi-tool to take the fasteners out of the two top corners. Then he tipped it on its side to raise the bottom corner where it was easy to get at. There was a sort of boiling sound he could feel through the case and he immediately felt heat on his face. He jumped up in a panic, so hard he left the deck in the low G, knocking the chair over behind him, and whipped the box back upright, but it was too late.
There was a plum size ball of white hot molten steel already melted through the side of the case before he could tip it back. It was far too hot to look at so he had purple flash blobbies floating before his eyes before he could look away. Art had heard of thermite before in training, but never seen what it really looked like first hand. The composite counter top was holding up better than the metal computer case had but it was sizzling, melting a crater, and giving off lots of smoke.
The horrible plastic fumes were already making his flash shocked eyes water. There was a plastic waste basket under the desk and he grabbed it running for the shower in the tiny bathroom, desperately muttering, “Shit, shit, shit,” all the way. The flow was good and he had an almost full waste basket in seconds.
Rushing back in the ball was visibly lower in the counter top and he tried not to look directly at the glare of it. It was not through yet, the low G was helping him there, and he sloshed a big splash of water across it. The steam that flashed back rolled up the wall to join the layer of gray smoke fanning out across the overhead, burning his hand holding the rim of the basket badly enough to make him jump back.
There was a drawer underneath the shelf the molten metal was eating through and he yanked it open and hastily dumped the rest of the water in it on top of the pencils and pens and things, and slammed it shut. The steam that had flashed up condensed on the cool bulkhead immediately, where it ran back down cutting clean streaks through the soot, and pooling like ink on top of the counter. He ran back to the shower coughing at the burnt plastic smell and filled his improvised bucket again. Behind him he heard the sudden hiss as the white hot mass fell in the drawer with a layer of water in the bottom. By the time he ran back in it had melted through the pens and such then the bottom of the drawer before he could get the waste basket under it. The water in the drawer poured out slowly in the low G right on top of the diminished but still molten ball. That was a lucky accident he hadn’t foreseen, but it helped a lot that all the water was directed right where he needed it. He slowly poured the new pail of water on it too, forcing himself not to pull back when the steam billowed up even though it made him gasp and cough. At last it eased off until it was simply making a sizzling boiling sound instead of the breathy sound of steam flashing.
When he’d dribbled the last of the water out he stepped back and tossed the empty waste basket on the bed. He hands were shaking from the realization he had barely stopped it before it melted through the deck into the next apartment. As it was the metal decking slumped around the dull lump so it was a close thing. He poked it with his toe, but it was welded tight to the metal deck. It was still hot enough it boiled off an expanding dry circle around itself as he watched, water fizzing on the expanding circle between wet and dry.
He glanced up at the seal and globe he’d drawn. Maybe that hadn’t been the very best idea, but it was too late now. He certainly wasn’t going to try to roll up the big thing and take it with him. He stumbled back to the bath again, pulling the bedroom door shut behind him to close off as much of the stink as he could. He turned the shower on dead cold, and very low flow, adjusting it to a fine mist. He stripped his glove and held his burnt hand in that cold spray as long as he dare. At least no skin had come off with the glove. He stepped back and stripped as quickly as he could, the burnt hand slowing him. The shower mist in the small room cleared the stink from the air pretty well. He soaped up his sooty face left handed, checking it in the mirror set at face level in the stall. He tried to ease on a little warmth in the spray, but as soon as it hit his burnt right hand he gasped and turned it back cold. It was a bright pink, but he decided it wouldn’t blister or peel right away. Once he looked presentable he eased the blow dry on and stood shivering as the stall flushed with warm air, holding his right hand above his head out of the direct flow.
He was recovering enough to be angry now. If he had some bobby trap of his own he’d gladly leave it but his superiors had debated at length before allowing him just a pistol and frangible rounds. He was sure they had come close to sending him unarmed. Right now he was so hot he would have cheerfully left a nuke for these damn people if he had one. Somehow, he had to get back and get a piece of these people another time – to even up the score.
It was awkward to dress one handed. His shirt was so sooty he decided it would be less obvious inside-out than filthy. But the air in the tiny living area was not too bad when he went out. It didn’t make his eyes water and burn as they had in the bedroom. He punched for the door to open, called lights down, stepped through, and locked the door from outside with the number code again.
He was just happy not to meet Fire and Rescue responding in the corridor. Back at the Holiday Inn, he’d get some ointment from his kit on the burnt hand and some fresh gloves. Well, he thought. How in the hell am I going to write this up to sound like it wasn’t a total screw up?