At LaGrange Point Three, space station Musashi spun with is siblings like cogs in an invisible machine. Sunlight filtered into the enormous cylinder, providing partial power for the station’s five hundred thousand inhabitants. Inside, the green haze in the air darkened in a simulation of a sunset timed with Greenwich Mean Time. Skyscrapers, streets, parks, lakes, and rivers lined the inside of the rotating station. It was a city-state in space.
Like a city-state, the inhabitants segregated themselves by complex social constructs. The more well-off clustered around the center, closer to the generators powering the station. The giant intrastellar corporations also set their regional offices here; executives, office workers, and tourists mixed together into a middle-class amalgam. Outwards, individual workers, service staff, and the less legal unaffiliated lived in a colder and more neglected part of the living space. Strangely enough, the outer edges of the station lighted up with cheap algae restaurants, garish brothels, and indiscreet fighting tournaments. In contrast, the inner city was more subdued and quiet. From time to time, the inner inhabitants ventured into the outer areas for entertainment, seclusion, or more illicit pursuits.
Istvan was one of those people. He slipped his Kenzo-Vashti ID card into a pocket of his diamond-lined coat as he took it off and placed it over a chair. He sat down and looked over the menu for the restaurant. This one served both the inner and more-well off outer residents of the station. It was at the top of a skyscraper that stood at the demarcation line between the two sections. Istvan did not usually wander this far out, but his present business required some distance from both Earth and Musashi authorities. He scanned the special. It was vat-grown elk meat. He accessed the heads-up display from his brain implant and checked the time. 21:00. They were late.
He glanced around. Dim orange light illuminated the dining area. Crystal and silver lined the tables and booths. Few people were around at this hour, most having gone to the entertainment districts to finish their evening. Drone waiters hovered in the air around the kitchen and restaurant entrance, almost nervous in their movements. He got the attention of one and ordered a cognac. He did not know what a cognac was, and was too preoccupied to look it up. He had seen a senior executive order one during his interview for the vice-president position of Strategic Outcomes at K-V.
A murmur spread throughout the dining room. There appeared to be a small commotion at the entrance. A young woman had started arguing with one of the drone waiters about her companion, a tall man surrounded by the other drones. Sighing, Istvan accessed his implant and sent an override signal to the restaurant staff. The swarm around the tall man dispersed. The executive raised a finger and the single drone led the two to him. When they reached his table, he gave them his best, most charismatic smile.
“Didn’t your parents tell you that bringing weapons into public establishments was rude?” he asked.
The woman smoothed her green skirt as she sat across from him. “Shut up, corp,” she sneered. Istvan resisted the urge to release the robots on her. He took the measure of her face. Her dark hair swept over a forehead and cheek tattooed with dark circles. Golden irises watched from behind long eyelashes. A diamond loop pierced her long nose. Her leather jacket rustled.
“Anya, you’re as polite in person as you were over the vid-link.” He wondered if rudeness in social interactions correlated with criminality.
The tall man still stood. His dark skin seemed to absorb the orange light. He had no eyes. At least, not organic ones. Pale, solid white orbs had replaced them. Istvan could see faint wires at their sides, probably connected to the man’s brain implant. He wore a long overcoat. Under it, the armored suit gleamed. Various types of weapons adorned the suit. A shredder pistol, two knives, a belt of grenades and throwing stars, an exotic bladed implement resembling a katana, and a long rifle all fit under that coat. It was a wonder that the man could even stand. They stared at each other.
“Denton, it’s okay,” Anya said.
The armored man grunted and sat down next to her. Surprisingly, he did not crush the chair. Perhaps the armor was lighter than he thought.
“Pleased to meet you. Anya told me that you were very good at your job.”
Denton didn’t reply.
“Not very talkative, is he?” said Istvan.
“I speak for us both,” Anya replied.
“Fair enough,” he began. He started going over the salient points of his proposal.
“First, our pay,” she interrupted. “Then we go over the crazy and dangerous thing you want us to do.”
“Really? Compensation talk usually comes after I describe the job.”
“You corps do that.” She pronounced it corpse. “This is street business. Talk too much bullshit, the street kills you. I need to know first what you offer.”
Istvan spread his hands. “You don’t need to use such dehumanizing language. We’re all people here.”
She smiled, a thin shark’s grin. “Corps are corps, drone. You don’t earn respect with pretty words like you do in your luxury shitters. Now, the pay?”
He steepled his hands together. “You’re lucky you have such a good reputation, Anya. Fine.” He took a storage disc from his coat and slid it to her. She picked it up and weighed it with her hand. “Two million in that disc. Ten million after the job’s finished. You also get a 75% discount through a private account with our cyberization division. Finally, we’ll clear your criminal history from Musashi Hub.” Musashi Hub was the resident AI running the basic functions of the station.
If she was impressed, she didn’t show it. He could sense her accessing the drive through electrodes implanted in her fingernails. He waited as she checked for any viruses or countermeasures. The black man, Denton, stared straight ahead. Anya placed the disc into her coat pocket and nodded.
“All right, we’ll do it.”
Istvan allowed himself a smirk. “Very good.” He snapped his fingers. The drone waiters whirred into action. They began to usher the other patrons out. Anya looked side to side with a frantic look that Istvan caught for a second. She did not expect this. Good, that was the effect he was going for. The black man sat silent.
“I thought we were meeting in a neutral location,” she hissed.
“In a way, it is. Kenzo-Vashti only has a 3% controlling stake in this franchise. I had to pull a few strings to set this up,” he answered, watching her scowl. “Don’t give me that look, what I’m about to tell you requires the utmost discretion.”
She looked about ready to jump out of her chair. A glance and touch from Denton seemed to calm her down. Istvan took note of that. She slouched back, a childish pout on her lips. “You got any other surprises?” she asked.
He nodded. A command from his implant dimmed the lights of the restaurant and tinted the windows dark brown. The table with the untouched cognac on it floated away from them into the kitchen. A flat grey slab slid in to replace it. Lights emerged from holo-emitters embedded on its surface. The lights began to converge and formed an image of the space station’s interior. A pyramid at the far edge of the outer section glowed with a blue light. The holo image zoomed in on it and they saw the enlarged building in greater detail.
“Gravchurch.os,” Anya whispered. The .os stood for outer space.
“Yes,” Istvan said, “Our target. What do you know of them?”
She brushed her hair back. “I did my homework after we talked. They’re an offshoot of the Chinese Universal Church. Pretty aggressive form of proselytizing. Obviously very rich.” She indicated the building in front of them. “Word is that they’re a front for Earthgov, or are at least in bed with them. They’re cover for secret shit. Blackops stuff.”
He nodded. “That information is correct. For the past decade, Gravchurch.os has worked with the Earth government on some sort of device on this station. Our spies have only gotten the barest details. Clandestine meetings with Earth higher-ups. Tell-tale transmission to some unknown location. Electric fields associated with the death of surrounding plant life. Recently, their actions have increased in intensity and frequency. We believe that they will do something soon, something that will shift the equilibrium of the market.”
“You consider them your competitors? Why do you care?”
“A church is just a corporation dressed with prettier words. Bullshit, as you’ve mentioned before. We are both seeking the same thing in this universe, power.” He leaned forward. “We must know what they have, and we must have it. You know the political situation here. Our connection with Earth is tenuous at best. Agitation at L3 grows by the hour. Earthgov is attempting to sink its claws in even further. If they use some weapon, with Gravchurch by their side…”
“Tyrants and bullies. Earthgov for our bodies. Gravchurch for our hearts and minds. I didn’t know K-V was so patriotic.”
“We want to ensure a free market. It helps you too. A free market enables a free government.”
She rolled her eyes. “Stuff it with your econ theory. It’s self-serving drivel.” She tapped the table. “But we do agree. Earthgov can go fuck itself. If the Gravchurchers are helping them, they can go fuck themselves do.”
“All right. Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s get down to business.” He zoomed in on the pyramid. Red indicator lights appeared throughout its structure. “This is the Gravchurch compound where we believe they are developing the device. We believe this because its network is not connected to Musashi Hub. Power comes from other sources, probably an internal generator.” He changed the holo to a more detailed schematic of the building. “One of our spies lucked out and was able to obtain a blueprint for the current configuration of the interior.”
“Are you sure it’s current? They could have redone the entire thing.”
“Not without a lot of attention and not without a lot of bureaucratic red tape. Believe me, we’d notice. Unfortunately, we could not penetrate further before the spy had to bug out.” He glanced at both Anya and Denton. “That’s where you come in. Your improvisation ability is legendary. We want you to go in and gather as much information on the device as you can. Disable it, too, if possible.”
Anya nodded. “I can see why you’re paying so much. We would have to go in physically and jack into their servers. Not impossible.” Istvan could almost hear the cogs in her mind turning. She pointed at a red dot. “Security?”
“Yes, the spy was able to get some basic info on their defenses. Standard defense drones with both lethal and less-lethal weaponry. Regular patrol patterns. Each patrol accompanied by a flesh-and-blood operator.”
“Denton can handle them, if need be.”
The black man inclined his head.
“We would like to avoid as much bloodshed as possible.”
Anya waved her hand. “Of course. The big guy’s a professional, not some crazed psycho.” She grinned at her companion. He stayed impassive.
“We’ll send you in on a stealth skimmer for infiltration and extraction.”
She whistled. “You guys really are serious about this.”
“This is a high-priority mission.” Istvan paused. “That’s it for what we currently know. What do you think?”
Anya stared at the holo for a few seconds. “See a couple of obstacles here. One, entering the facility. Two, dealing with security. Three, getting out once their network detects intrusion.” She furrowed her brow. “Skip the skimmer.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
“I have my own ideas on getting in. Getting out would be risky. Even with stealth tech, the volume of fire from anti-air would shred us.” Istvan didn’t argue the point. Over the next hour, they both went over the plan.
“One more thing, I’ll be jacked in with you,” Istvan said after they completed the details.”
She pursed her lips. “No way in hell, corp. I, I mean we, work alone.” She looked at Denton.
“I need to make sure the mission proceeds smoothly. Besides, I can be of help.”
She shook her head. “Don’t think so. I work best without someone else looking over my shoulder.
“Let him do it.” Denton’s booming voice made both of them jump. Istvan looked at him with curiosity. The white globes turned to him and seemed to penetrate into his soul. He looked away.
“But—“ Anya began.
“Safer that way,” Denton said. Istvan was still too shocked to say anything.
“Fine,” she held up her hands. “Whatever you say, big guy.”
Istvan resisted the urge to make a sarcastic comment about talking statues. “Well I think that solves that dilemma. Anything else?” Anya shook her head and Denton continued to stare at him. He felt a bead of sweat roll down his neck. “Then that concludes our business. We begin in a week.” He stood up and held his hand out. Both of them stood too and shook his hand. He was surprised at Denton’s gentle grip. It didn’t fit his image of the man.
“Talk to you later,” Anya said as they both headed out the entrance.
Nine minutes later, Istvan stood on the darkened street, waiting for his chauffeur to arrive. He stared at the sky, a simulated background projected by Musashi Hub. There were stars, whether they were in their actual constellations or made up, he didn’t know.
A black car arrived from a corner and screeched to a stop in front of him. It was not his car. He froze. The front window slid down and he found himself staring at a blank, white face. Except it wan’t a face. There were no eyes, nose, mouth, or ears. He tried to will himself to move, but could not.
The click of a pistol prepared him for the inevitable. He closed his eyes. Two shots rang out, booming in his ears. He opened his eyes and found his suit covered in blood and gore. In the car, the headless forms of the driver and the would-be assassin slumped in their seats.
Istvan fell to the ground, dry heaving, glad that he had not eaten anything from the restaurant. Heavy footsteps approached him. Sirens screamed in the distance. Musashi Hub must have been alerted. The footsteps finally stopped in front of him. He saw the long, black barrel of a rifle.
“Careful out there,” Denton said.