I awoke to a nightmare symphony. The cacophony of unintelligible voices flooded my mind. Shrieks and whispers pierced my eardrums. I knew what they meant. My eyes greeted a white room, no other feature except for the coffin from which I awoke. The hum of the voices continued as I gripped the cold steel plate of the stasis pod. The preservation liquid smelled of blood as it overflowed onto the floor. I sat up and absorbed the complete sterile stillness of the room. I detected some urgency among a few of the voices, and I knew something was disturbing their Grand Plan. I bowed my head and closed my eyes. A vision of the Milky Way appeared before me, the galactic core flashing as intense as lightning. A large spherical object materialized… no, more like shifted into the foreground. Finally, the voices converged on the object. It resonated in a blur of images.
I saw more pictures, of men and women poring over galactic maps, of tesseracts exploding and imploding in sequence. Lines of fire connected each of the galactic clusters. Again, my vision changed. A joint Republic/Kenzenken fleet appeared to be converging on an unstable tesseract, drawing its energies into a ship that appeared to be made of shadow. The vision stopped. A new directive appeared to me. I felt, rather than heard it. Go to where you are needed, you will know what to do there. An image of the Naval Intelligence headquarters appeared in my mind.
I stood up, feeling the still stiff muscles from the waking process. Stepping out, the floor was not as cold as my coffin. My eyes searched the room for an exit. A tingle of irritation crept up my spine, which I dismissed as unimportant. Strange, I felt an emptiness in me, something that had been of vital importance had once been there. The void weaved around me, like the wind through the trees. Try as I might, I could not grasp it. Around it, I could sense the presence of the once chattering voices. And others. No matter, I thought. They created me for a singular purpose. I need not consider anything else. A chime sounded in the room and I felt the prickle of decontamination water touch my skin. When it stopped, sonic scrubbers removed any residual materials on me. Behind me, I heard the wall slide open.
A familiar setting greeted me when I stepped out. My quarters on Silesias, the capital of the Earth Republic. It looked exactly as I left it before, clean and spotless, as if no one had ever lived there. The internal temperature control shifted to a setting more conducive to my comfort. I allowed myself some pleasure at the welcome heat. Someone had spread clothes on the bed, a gray uniform and trousers, similar to the dress of Enkidu security officers. That would be my cover, then. Not bad, it had been a while since I was able to engage in violence.
I looked down at myself. The latest in Republic cloning technology had built this host body. It was not attractive, but then again, that was not its purpose. The feminine form appeared to merge with the shadows, although the skin was pale. My hands caressed the bristles of my low-cut hair and the smoothness of my long nose. I checked the rest of the body with the in-built scanner. All the organs appeared functional. I slipped my clothes on and checked their fit. Serviceable. I finished dressing up and prepared myself for the task ahead.
Down at the lobby, the doorman beckoned me to follow him. We stepped out onto a terrace facing a bright velvet haze, a product of Silesias’s unique atmosphere. Currently more Earth-like than Earth, it provided home to more than 50 billion humans. I gazed at the gleaming skyscrapers, some stretching straight into the stratosphere. We were in the great megatropolis that spanned the single giant continent on the planet. My quarters were far above ground level, which I could not even see. I doubt most of the inhabitants of this city had even seen it in their entire lifetimes. An armored aircar waited for me, its driver in a similar uniform to mine. He nodded and opened a side door. The doorman walked back as I slipped into the aircar’s roomy interior. The driver glanced at me and quickly looked back forward, ascending the vehicle into city traffic. I detected the slightest trait of shuddering and the controlled intake of breath. Fear. This task must be urgent. Normally, I worked with professionals that could tame their emotions, but they must have recruited him on short notice. He in all likelihood suspected some terrible things about our employers. The presences within stirred as I completed that last thought.
The trip proceeded in silence. I decided to pay no heed to the frightened man. It would be a waste of effort to communicate with one so disposable. I noticed luxury apartments on a nearby building. Well-manicured lawns filled each of the terraces. Robots with delicate prostheses tended brightly colored trees and bushes. Some children played on gravity platforms, their safety guaranteed by the grav shields, fierce disturbances in space-time at the subatomic level. Couples splashed in a pool on the rooftop level, the overflowed water spilling back into each apartment’s self-contained water treatment system.
I looked at the scenes below. Streams of controlled traffic weaved around the gigantic skyscrapers. I pictured the advanced fabricators at each street corner, providing all basic necessities and more for the planet’s population. Micromachines cleaned the city’s minuscule amount of air pollution. Thousands of bars and nightclubs provided nonpoisonous alcoholic drinks and anti-hangover injections. DNA salons changed hairstyles, facestyles, armstyles, legstyles, and more in an instant. So many luxuries. You’d never notice that they had recently been in a war that had raged for nearly thirty years.
We arrived at a building much like all the rest, except for a slight but perceptible magnetic field surrounding it. Normal sensors would not detect it, but I had divined its presence in my many visits here. Most of the activities inside did not merit such extensive protection, but my presence would. The aircar landed at a nondescript back entrance, covered by a quaint glass revolving door. Stepping out of the car, I engaged internal omni sensors. No other presence but authorized personnel were nearby. Casting one look at Silesias’s darkening sky, I entered through the glass door. Inside, I stretched my neck to the side and then approached the lone security desk in the dimly lit lobby.
The mustached guard glanced up at me. “Identification, ma’am?”
I gave him my ID chip and he scanned it on his console. His face fell. I stayed impassive as he activated his comm badge to speak to his unseen superiors. I observed a drop of sweat slide down his forehead. An unwelcome feeling of satisfaction came to me. I promptly suppressed it. No, we mustn’t let ourselves get distracted. There is only the one purpose.
The guard spoke quickly into his comm. “Yes, yes of course. Full access.” He got up, not daring to look in my eyes. I followed him down a corridor that ended at a large bulkhead door. I noticed him averting his gaze from me. He pressed his face against the eye scanner.
“Access granted,” replied a slightly cheery female voice. I raised my eyebrow. They had replaced the colder male voice. It clashed with the aesthetics of the place. The first set of doors slowly slid open and red light illuminated our position. We both stepped forward as they closed again. The bolts on the second set opened with a metallic click. The guard stepped back and half-ran down the hallway. Awaiting me was a smiling grey-haired man in a black and green suit. The Advisor.
“Well, well. Look who’s here. I hope you had a good nap, because you’re about to become a lot more busy.”
For the first time since I woke up from that sterile stasis pod, I spoke, “You did not need to make my presence so conspicuous. My driver and the guard outside will remember me. That may complicate the mission.”
“No need to be so serious. Have fun in your life sometimes. Besides, scaring the locals allows us access to more things than normal.” He chuckled and brushed his hair back. His demeanor puzzled me. Such a lax attitude could give us away. If our true purpose was known to the outside world, even to the other people in the building, then our mission could face serious jeopardy.
The doors behind me closed. We walked through a narrow corridor, lighted in a dull blood red. Reinforced doors marked each side of the corridor, labeled with numbers and letters. I smelled chlorine emanating from some of them. Our steps echoed through the silence. We navigated a maze of similar-looking hallways, heading deeper into the complex. The Advisor walked with his characteristic swagger. I knew little else about him. He kept himself immaculate, with a neat beard and finely combed hair. He easily gained the trust of the government officials and Navy officers he surrounded himself with. An effective persuader. He was also the handler for many others like me. I knew little about them, and that ensured our secrecy.
We stopped at one of the nondescript doors. The Advisor spoke up. “By the way, please refer to me as Vargas. Don’t want to make our friends think we’re too formal, do we?” He paused, seeming to reflect on something. “Oh, and refrain from making a mess.” I nodded.
He glanced at the door and immediately a beep sounded, indicating the authorization of our presence. I grabbed a handle, feeling its rough surface, pulling the door open with screech. Inside, we found a dungeon-like room with a small light emanating from the ceiling. In the center was a thin half-naked man with green fatigue trousers strapped to a metal chair. Tattoos of various designs covered his chest and arms. I noticed, and smelled, a small pool of yellow liquid on a patch of floor next to him. Surrounding him were two men in their gray Navy Intelligence uniforms, a bald man pacing around the prisoner and another at a raised console with bundles of cables connected to the chair. The man at the console pressed a button. The chair shook as its occupant convulsed and screamed. It was a crude torture device, its only function to simulate pain and train the brain in fear. The bald man turned and regarded us with an expression that could best be described as a mix of disgust and hatred.
He clasped his hands behind him and sniffed. “This is highly irregular. I’m aware that our collaboration allows you unprecedented access to our facilities, Vargas, but you are interrupting a matter vital to state security.”
The Adviser…Vargas… bowed and his voice took on a lilting tone. “My apologies, Colonel, I couldn’t help but hear about your predicament. It occurred to me that Enkidu Security could greatly assist you in your efforts. Therefore, I brought in one of our best experts. I assure you, she is quite good at what she does. The Republic can only expect the finest from its most patriotic citizens.”
The bald man frowned. “Spare me the pleasantries, Vargas. You and I both know that you’re only interested in money. Now tell me why I shouldn’t throw you and your friend into a punishment sphere right this instant.”
The Adviser smiled and put his hand upon the Colonel’s shoulder. The man stiffened. He looked like he would punch Vargas right then and there. An unimpressive specimen. Not enough self-control. “Hostility is so counterproductive. Come now, don’t let your pettiness ruin our relationship. We both have the same goals here.” The Advisor placed his hand into a suit pocket. “If we’re going to talk about mutual intelligence, you’ll know that my presence here was requested by the highest levels in the government. So I’m afraid that if this continues, we won’t be the ones ending up in a punishment sphere.”
The Colonel’s head glistened with sweat. He glanced at his subordinate, then back to Vargas. A long second passed. He swallowed. “Very well, do what you have to do. Then be gone.”
“We’ll also need some privacy,” the Adviser added.
Giving us a glare, the Colonel nodded at the man attending the console. They both left the room. Engaging my sensors, I checked for any hidden listening devices in the room. There was one under a bolt in the chair. I crushed it with my hands.
I watched the Adviser tapping his chin with his finger. “Now that’s been dealt with, you’re probably curious about why this man is so important.” I looked at the man in the chair, still moaning. I noted the phrased tattoos scribed onto his skin. It was in the language of the ancient Earth nation of China, depicted in calligraphy that flowed like water. Scars crisscrossed his arm. “One week ago, a patrol in the Atenkheman system caught him trying to sneak across the Neutral Zone. They would have gone through the whole rigamarole of warning him about the treaty and things of that nature. Except they noticed a curious thing about his ship. It appeared to blink in and out of existence on their sensors. They wouldn’t have found him if not for his ship going full burn towards Republic territory.”
My ears perked up. “Stealth tech?”
He nodded. “The Kenzenkens have not been idle, it seems.” He took a step towards the chair. “When the patrol signaled their headquarters for orders, they were immediately told to capture him. Intelligence picked him and the ship up once they returned. There was another thing. In his personal effects, they found a data capsule, locked with an unusually strong data encryption method. The Kenzenkens had keyed it so that only one person could open it. A certain Senator Sacra.”
I knew of Sarah Sacra. For the past decade, she was the defacto leader of the peace faction in the Senate. She wrote and lobbied hard for the armistice treaty. It was a close vote, but she had prevailed. There would be much uproar from the warhawks if they found out she had been collaborating in matters with the Kenzenkens.
I approached the man. He did not appear to be conscious during our entire exchange. I smelled his dry tear ducts. A bruise covered his right eye. He appeared to have shrunken, perhaps from lack of food.
“Remember what I said. Keep it clean.” Despite my irritation, I knew the Advisor was right. This would be a delicate process and we could easily lose any useful information. I kneeled beside the chair and cupped the Kenzenken’s chin in my left hand. His skin felt rough and course. He stirred. He had been conscious and had listened in on us. The eyes opened to reveal a small sliver of an iris. I noted its dark brown color under those eyelids. Eyes could be so expressive, but also could hide so much. He opened his mouth, trying to speak, but only a hoarse croak came out.
Without knowing why, I whispered to him. “Shh. Everything will be alright. I’m here to help you. Keep still and this will be over in a second.” I raised my right hand and pointed my index finger at a position in the center of his forehead. The skin under the fingernail started to glow and burn with an inner fire. I felt no pain. I placed my finger on the spot. His eyes grew wide and he started to scream. My left hand wrapped around his neck and I crushed his larynx. A wheezing noise came from his mouth. I moved my hand to his face and held it into a vice-like grip as I opened a hole in spacetime at that spot and guided my finger into the synaptic connections between his mind and his consciousness.
I became him. Visions appeared before me. Through his eyes, I saw his hand extend toward the cupped hands of a little girl with brown ponytails. They were in a moonlit meadow with golden fireflies spreading incandescent light. I will never leave you, he whispered. In the next instant, an impact rifle fired a muffled gunshot and out came streaks of light flying over a barren moon. He ran, or rather bounced, towards a pock-marked hill, flanked by twenty soldiers in hardened space suits. A light hit a woman beside him. He imagined her silent scream as her body floated up into the atmosphere. The hill exploded in a flash of orange. Now he was in a mess hall, as a hundred soldiers watched in silence the signing of the armistice treaty on a holovid screen. No celebration occurred. The PA system came on, the commander announcing that they would not be following the orders of a traitorous Prime Minister. Now came the cheers. “For theCoalition!” they chanted.
The next scene was a ship’s command center. The commader was showing him on the holo display the strategic movement of their fleet towards a location in the Ramanujan Expanse. With the help of their collaborators, he explained in excited tones, they would find refuge in a location that no one else could reach. There, they would find a weapon of unimagined power and with it, they could strike unopposed. They could liberate the Kenzenken people from the Takawans and truly end the war with the Republic. It was not over. The Inari incident proved it. All they needed was to get a package into Republic space. The admiral handed him a data capsule.
The scene shifted to the interior of a small space craft. He thought he heard the garbled voices of a man and a woman, but it was just the noise of a device placed over the engine. The stealth field. Suddenly, a loud bang echoed from the back. Klaxons flaired. Feelings of dread overwhelmed him. A Coalition outpost had detected him and patrol craft were rapidly approaching. He engaged full burn. The visions ended.
I returned to the blood red lights of the interrogation cum torture room. The man gave one final shudder. As the synaptic connections burned off, the man’s eyes rolled to the back of his head. His body slumped forward. He was dead. I withdrew my finger and wiped the organic matter off it. The smell of burnt flesh wafted from the spacetime hole I had made. I stood up. The Adviser watched me with a look of standoffish expectation. He kept his amused expression as I relayed the information I learned to him.
After I finished, he sighed. “What are these people playing at? A secret weapon? Wherever could they get that idea? With this and the Inari situation, we’ll have to move the timetable.” He tapped the dead man’s head. “Good job. Looks like you’ll be paying a visit to the good Senator.” He paced around the room. “And we’ll need to do something about the Ramanujan Expanse.” The Advisor rubbed his beard as he stared at the body. “Shouldn’t forget this gentleman either. I don’t think the Colonel will be too happy about this.” He shrugged. “Well, his opinion doesn’t matter, but unfortunately, it would arouse too much attention if we got rid of him. We’ll have to tolerate his whining for a bit longer.”
I traced my finger along one of the Chinese character tattoos on the man’s arm. “It will be difficult to find the Senator. She would have been tipped off about his capture by now,” I said.
The Adviser chuckled. “That never stopped you before.”
I thought of the little girl illuminated by the fireflies. There would be many more like her. “No. It never has,” I said.