Airlock On Delivery Vessel, Helmet On
I was standing just inside the hatch, looking down the barrels of two hand disruptors, each held by an identical crewman. But I was in combat armor; no need for a little thing like that to intimidate me.
“Oh, please!” I said through the suit’s speaker. “It’d take you half an hour to burn through my armor, and that’s if I was polite enough to stand still. Why don’t you put those silly things down and let me finish my delivery?”
“Yes, why don’t you, boys?” came a female voice from around the corner — a familiar voice, come to think of it. I was racking my brain, trying to think where I knew it from, when she came into view. Hunh. Now this I did not expect.
“Do forgive them, won’t you?” she said in a cultured accent. “They’re only synthbots, after all; they don’t know any better.” At a further gesture from her, the two bots stood down. It was uncanny; they were so very human, if I didn’t know better… but enough of that; back to the girl.
“I almost didn’t recognize you in that shipsuit — looks good on you. Slimming. Last I saw you, you were wearing my overcoat and cussing up a storm.”
“Yes, it’s a long way here from Eddie’s back exit. Fortunately, the ship was programmed to lock in on the transponder I had hidden in my heels. I had to leave the coat behind, I’m afraid.”
My eyes narrowed. “Quite the coincidence, us running into each other there.”
“Oh, no coincidence at all, not when you think about it. Eddie’s is the only safe path between the two Zones, and therefore a natural headquarters for our little conspiracy.” I’d been right; it was a pretty smile. Dimples, even.
“Little, you say? Half my world just blew up in a string of nuclear blasts! Just how many of you were in on it?”
Her smile deepened; those were very nice dimples indeed. “Two,” she said.
“Just two of you?! I find that hard to believe.”
“Two plus the robots,” came a male voice from behind me. “Theoretically, we could do it with one, but someone has to give the orders. Synthbots follow well enough, but they aren’t great on initiative.”
He was tall and gloriously moustached, a rarity in these days of space travel. I nodded and half-turned so I could watch them both. “And you I know from the brothel, right?” His head inclined slightly, which I took for a yes. “I should have known what was happening right then. You’re sabotaging the planet, softening us up for an assault. I hadn’t known we were at war.”
“Oh, we’re not, I assure you. This little effort has your own government’s stamp of approval on it — a diplomatic maneuver, nothing more. They set things up themselves with a massive tax on the natives, causing riots and civil war; those are the proceeds in that little case, payment for our services. Then, when things were ripe, we made one of our own patented raids, and — Well. You don’t really need the details, now do you? Suffice it to say, we have every right to the case, just as you’ve undeniably earned your payment.” He smiled, hoisting several pounds of moustache wax. I wanted to put my armored fist through those perfect teeth but thought better of it. Instead, I brought out my I.D. reader.
“So, which of you pays for my services?” I asked.
“That would be me,” he said, placing his thumb on the screen. A few lights flashed as I handed over the case, and I was suddenly wealthy. It didn’t feel as good as I’d expected, but then, what does?
“I take it you’ve got a way back to the surface?” the ex-barmaid asked. “Only, I’d hate to leave you stranded. I do owe you… after a fashion.” She was smiling again. Deadly, that smile.
“Yes, we were rather surprised at your lack of a ship. And, while we can’t very well set you back down—“
“No; I’ll be fine,” I interrupted. “My ride isn’t far away.” At least, I hoped it wasn’t.
“Are you quite sure?” she asked; he glared at her, but she pressed on. “It’s not going to be… very pleasant for you on the surface, I’m afraid. Not for anybody.” She wasn’t smiling now, but biting her lower lip. Maybe she figured she owed me, but I guessed instead it was that she didn’t often get to know the people who were scheduled to die from their sabotage. I don’t know about her, but I couldn’t do that sort of thing twice. Now that I think about it, that’s the reason I left the Service myself, long ago.
I shrugged. “It’s my home. I’ll take my chances.”
People give the Confederates a hard time over their use of synthbots. On the one hand, it gives them a huge advantage in warfare; they make perfect expendable fighter pilots and intelligence operatives, never questioning orders, never growing old or retiring. On the other, there’s no denying they’re intelligent, even sentient; the Robots have a whole civilization built around synthetic life, and that makes what the Rebels do a form of slavery — a particularly abhorrent one, since they even control the minds of their pet bots.
Then again, who was I to judge? I’d just gotten rich off one of their schemes — not as rich as they had, but still. My own government — the State I’d sworn my life to protect, long ago — cooperated in the virtual enslavement of millions of natives, engaged in conquest, and now had paid for the privilege of burning down the planet I lived on — and for what? Some political move in a great game of empires, a negotiated point between diplomats and emperors on a galactic chessboard with rules beyond my comprehension.
None of it mattered to me, not really. Here I was, with the whole world spread out beneath me, tracking the destruction by the explosions. Nearly half the garrison must have died by now, and the casualty rates among civilians and the natives would be catastrophic — and all this was just one step, the setup for… for what, exactly? I’d never guess, not if I thought about it for hours.
Speaking of which: The Confederate ship had gone to warp a couple of minutes ago. Time to call for my ride.
CARGO TO OSTRICH; ALL READY, OVER… CARGO TO OSTRICH…
Hunh. No answer.
Well. That wasn’t good. Maybe I’d have some spare time to think things over after all. Damn that Sonny anyway! I hate it when I’m right about people; they always let you down.
CARGO TO OSTRICH; COME IN OSTRICH…
Guess I should have accepted that ride after all.
Talk about your cliffhanger endings! I mean, come on, man! Who writes this stuff, anyway?! I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the next episode, if I were you. Seems like it’d be a long walk home to an uncertain welcome.
Good luck, Operative — wherever you may fare.
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