Chapter 4 . (Six and a half years later.)
They had been hearing little bits and pieces for a few years, but the previous week they found the proof. Titan was working on a totally new kind of propulsion system. For six years Eur-It had been keeping Titan under constant surveillance, but Sam never caught it. It happened that one of the lab techs noticed the strange flare.
“Whoa. What was that?” exclaimed Jeremy Hardy; a veteran Comms specialist working on deep space emissions and wave theory. With a habit for reading old mystery novels and not doing much else, Jeremy’s scrawny body disappeared under Sam’s muscular frame.
“What was what?” Sam asked.
“That flare of bosons, quarks, and nidans over near quadrant seven. Here, lemme see that.” Jeremy grabbed the controls and side-scooted Sam out of the way; knocking over old coffee cups and a stack of Popular Science issues from the last century. It was only because of Sam’s intense curiosity that Jeremy did not receive a quick ridgehand to the temple for this blatant takeover of his workspace. “It looks like it’s coming from the dark side of Enceladus, another one of Saturn’s small moons. Yeah, see? Right here.”
“So what does that mean?”
“It means that either Enceladus is about to turn into a black hole, or someone is doing some seriously twisted things to the physics of reality over there. Like, seriously dude. Do you see how the light from the stars behind the moon is bending towards blueshift?”
“Well, the only way that we should be seeing that is if we are approaching C.”
“Whadda ya mean sea? Like the ocean? We’re already under an ocean.”
“No, you miserable excuse for a tech geek. C like E=mc². Like the speed of light. Ever heard of it?”
“Oh crap.” said Sam.
“That’s an understatement. We need to get Dr. Hook up here now!”
The following day, Dr. Hook had assembled his team for a briefing with Treena and the rest of Eur-It to discuss future action plans in light of recent events. They were in the main conference room of the hotel in Glitter East. Huge windows encircled the upper two thirds of the walls and massive shapes loomed past among the clouds of luminescent jellies and phytoplankton. It really was a spectacular location. Treena could see why this moon had become the retreat center and tourist destination for the outer colonies. Helium 3 tycoons and hydrocarbon oil men lived it up kilometers below the ice in this kingdom of deep sea magic and resurrected leviathans. She had actually been on a few hunts for them on her down time. It was pretty exciting climbing on to the back of a beast the size of a 747 airbus just after dodging teeth like swords before activating your plasma coil to slit its meters-long throat. After that, the plesiosaurs didn’t bother her again. Now they peeked in the windows and were afraid she’d come back out for them. She was still smiling as Dr. Hook started the meeting.
“OK people, let’s get started. Here’s the situation. Yesterday around 3:00 AM we noticed an unnatural occurrence on the far side of Enceladus. The composition of this plume of particles leads us to believe that the Titans are developing a totally new type of deep space propulsion system. From what we can guess, this will be 85- 97% faster than anything we have now. As it is, we are scrambling for the last few resources this solar system has to offer. But with this, they can leave the Sol system and be anywhere we would want to go, decades or even centuries earlier. I don’t have to tell you what that would mean. So what can we do about it?”
“Steal it.” True to his name, Cutter jumped in without a moment’s hesitation. “I mean, that’s why we’re here right? I didn’t spend the last six plus years here just so I could work on my ping-pong game, which is amazing by the way. I’m so good it makes even me sick. I’m tired of sitting on my hands doing nothing, while we watch Van Dorn grab every available piece of rock he can get his grubby hands on. It’s time we do something about it.”
“Is that even possible?” asked Jeff Tailor incredulously.
“Maybe.” answered Treena. “It depends on the time frame we’re talking about. If you want us to just drop by tomorrow and pick up the secret plans along with some cheese and a gallon of milk, I’d say you’re crazy. Give us six months on the other hand, and we have a reasonable shot.”
“Just reasonable?” sneered Jeff.
“I’ll put it this way, if we don’t deliver in the next six months, we’ll work for the next six years without pay.”This led to a small outburst from the Eur-It side of the room, but Treena silenced them with a steely glare.
“Before we go making promises we can’t fulfill, why don’t we discuss this a little more. Now, what do you have in mind?” asked Dr. Hook.
“It would be a simple map and slap. A spy and fly if you will.” The scientists just looked at Treena like she was babbling in Gaelic. “We would conduct surveillance and once we know where the relevant files are, go and get them.”
“Now why couldn’t you have just said that in the first place?” complained Jeff. “It’s all slang and secret codes with you guys.”
“Hey! You watch your tone or you’ll watch your tongue writhing on the floor in a pool of blood!” Always the diplomat, Cutter’s eyes gleamed as he stared at Jeff while Jeff suddenly found a spot on the floor a much more interesting subject for his gaze. He looked as if he might chum all over his new favorite spot.
“Cutter, that’s enough. Control yourself. We have enough enemies to deal with without including our support team on that list. I’m sorry for my teammate’s actions but I think he had the right idea. We need to do something. We can’t just sit here anymore letting the fight come to us. You all need to be ready so that when we give you those files, you can whip up some new ships before they can. My team and I will worry about getting them. As far as that goes, I think we have a few tricks up our sleeves.”
* * *
Merrick Van Dorn gazed down imperiously from his office above the mines’ main installation. Sumptuously appointed in polished wood furniture with supple leather and rich crimson fabrics, the room exuded luxury from ages past. Ancient dead-media, paper books lined formidable shelves encircling two walls. The third wall was plain, with no art to adorn its perfect surface. This held the gigantic screen that Merrick used to keep an eye on everything. He calmly wiped the Plasma Coils’ sleek handle on his grimy suit. “Too bad.” he thought, “This suit cost me a lot of money.” Watching as drones cleaned up the several pieces of his former Head of Propulsion Research from the floor, he thought about how his morning could have gotten off to such a bad start. He had his usual coffee analog at Gino’s before strolling through his mining town. People cringed away, backing into alleys at his approach but he had become used to this. Then, after his visit to Madame Meh’s, he headed down to the R&D wing to meet his number two, and see how his latest pet project was coming.
“Oh, uh, hello sir. How are you sir? I wasn’t expecting you so early this morning.” Klein was a small man who looked like he may have been a rat in his former life. His yellow eyes darted furtively around as he tried to avoid his boss’ gaze.
“Yes well, there was a new girl down at Meh’s, but she wasn’t up to snuff. They tell me she’ll come out of it in a few days. Ha! Anyway, I’m here now, so what have you got for me?”
“We experienced a small containment leak at the new facility but we have it locked down now.”
“How small is small, Mr. Klein?”
“Only two grams of material escaped through our extensive shielding. There were a few people injured, but no one died.”
“Well there’s still time for that. Is there any sign that someone noticed?
“No sir. We think that the Rings shielded most of the blast out towards the direction of Neptune.”
“Yes sir.” Klein said, cowering away from Merrick.
“Have Dr. Hoff see me in my office immediately. And then send in his number two. What’s his name…Mendoza? And make sure Hoff backs up all of his work before he sees me. That will be all.”
“Yes Mr. Van Dorn.”
Merrick’s main mining settlement perched on the edge of a vast plateau overlooking a great lake of ethane, methane, and dissolved nitrogen. The mines’ main function wasn’t so much drilling, as pumping the valuable hydrocarbons from the lake. In fact, most of the workers here were constantly occupied with keeping the equipment working in the freezing cold atmosphere. Around the equator, it was a consistent -290 ˚F, which was nice for the Xanadu base, but most of the methane lakes were closer to the North Pole where the majority of the population was located. Leave it to Van Dorn to pick economic viability over creature comforts like living.
After “voicing” his discontent to Dr. Hoff, he was sure that there would be no more slips once word got around. And it always did. If Klein didn’t spread the news, sometimes Van Dorn would do it himself. An anonymous tip to the colony’s news network Titan Times, or seeding conversation on the transport tubes. He enjoyed watching the ripples of fear spread through the populace after each of his little management sessions became known. With Klein in the corner looking like he always did after something like this, Merrick decided to give him a subtle hint.
“It’s good for people to know what happens if you displease Merrick Van Dorn. Right, Klein? I’m not running some luxury outfit like that Council of Scientific pansies over on Europa. Who do they think they are? With their fancy hotels and tourism supporting “valuable research” for the “good of humanity.” Please; just wait until they see what kind of research my pet brainiacs are coming up with. And besides that, Old Dr. Hook will get a surprise when another one of Tag’s projects comes online. They can say goodbye to their precious oceans when they get a face full of what I’ve got cooking on the back burner. Oh yes. They will be in for quite a shock. Ha! Shock, get it?”
Klein looked up at Merrick with a face that said, “I’m still ready to blow chunks and you are making jokes? I’d better get outta here before I end up like another anatomy lesson gone wrong, spread out all over the carpet. ” It was at that moment that Klein made an important decision: He must get rid of Merrick Van Dorn. Merrick’s yelling distracted Klein from planning his demise.
“Never mind. You wouldn’t laugh even if you knew what I was talking about. Now go get me the figures from yesterday. I want to see how rich I am.”
“Yes Sir.” said Klein. After he completed his duty, he thought about all the ways he could kill Van Dorn…and all the ways Van Dorn would kill him, if he got so much as a whiff that he planned to assassinate him. Who could he trust? Should he trust anyone? Klein would have to be extremely careful about who he talked to about this little venture. He had an idea of where he could start.
Over the decades, Merrick had worked his way up from a ships’ lieutenant on a Martian freighter, making no friends with all the dirty tricks he used on his rise to the top as head of the mining colonies on Titan. Klein had met Merrick on the same freighter and been with him ever since. From the moment he met Merrick, Klein sensed that if he just stuck with him, he would gain power and position as Merrick did all the hard work. But he didn’t realize what he’d have to give up along the way, and what he’d have to do. First it was just little things, like lying to the Captain, or cooking the books for him when he went through his gambling phase. Then the jobs started getting more serious. And Merrick asked Klein to cover up all sorts of his misdeeds. That’s when Klein realized that he was in too deep, but he’d made too many enemies to step away. He knew that as soon as he was out from under the protection of Merrick, he was a dead man; unless he could take control. So he kept lying, and cheating, and covering up. At least he hadn’t had to kill anyone… yet. Merrick had other people for that job. The same people that would kill Klein if they found out what he was planning.
Klein knew that if he only searched hard enough, he would find someone not only willing, but desperate enough to risk it all for a chance to kill Van Dorn. And he knew just the place to start. Klein hit the books.
* * *
“So is everybody set with their role? Let’s go around the table one more time just to be sure we could do it in our sleep.” Treena and the rest of the tactical side of Eur-It were gathered in the middle of the large spherical room in their living quarters having dinner. This is when living under a luxury hotel definitely had its benefits. Almost every meal was cooked to perfection; and everyone got whatever they desired. Treena was enjoying a heaping bowl of Gai Pad Prig Pow, the coconut milk and basil offset the roasted chili peppers nicely while the rice kept the yellowy-orange sauce at bay. To her left, Sam scarfed down a plate of Chicken Makhani. Every few bites, he reached for his glass of water to counteract the cayenne pepper that saturated the butter and tomato sauce. His forehead beaded with sweat and he had a runny nose, but that’s how he liked it. Mizuki was finishing her bowl of eda mame beans before moving on to her Nabeyaki Udon. Steam still rose from the noodles and broth where shrimp tempura floated with veggies and a lonely egg on top of everything. Sam watched as she wielded her chopsticks as deftly as the gene-splicer in her lab, picking up individual pieces of slippery noodle that no one else could ever seem to get. Next to her, Cutter was slicing up his Lamb Chawarma. The spicy meat gave off a pungent odor that vied for dominance with the Thai and Indian spices already wafting above the table. A plate of dolmades lay to his left, half eaten; the stuffed grape leaves forgotten as he turned his attention to his main dish. Completing the circle, Hunter tucked into a big square of lasagna. Its only defining characteristic was a miniature Italian flag sticking out of the middle on a wooden skewer. His relatively “normal” dish drew glances from his teammates and he responded like he always did, “What…I like Italian.” he said. “I can’t have all those spices all the time. It’s not healthy for my…undercarriage.” he finished lamely, his voice trailing off. Cutter and Sam both burst out laughing, imagining Hunter furiously swabbing cold water on his “undercarriage” as he perched over the head with a burning rectum. The spices attacking his delicate flesh as harshly on the way out, as on the way in. Hunter glared at both of them for a few tense second but then relented, and finally chuckled as well. The women just looked at each other and shared a “These are supposed to be grown men?” look.
Someone thought it was funny to program the walls of the great room to show scenes from desolate battlefields of the past. If you looked North, you saw some beach in France littered with the bodies of dead soldiers. Iron beams stuck up among beached landing craft as thousands of soldiers floated amidst the red-tinged shallows. West was a window out into a jungle that was still burning from napalm. The South wall showed the last defense by the Terran forces on Olympus Mons. Every once in a while, a laser beam streaked across the frozen red rocks of the massive volcano. A field of heather covered the Eastern wall with a bridge that spanned out across a brackish river. Bodies weighed down in metal armor clogged the waterway and got snagged against the abutment. There were bloody swords and pikes sticking up from the field along with banners showing Lions Rampant on some, and scraps of tartan on others. Cutter decided privately that he liked this one best. The swords were what clinched it for him. He didn’t know why, but he always preferred blades to bullets. There was something visceral about feeling the life exit your opponent’s body, rather than looking through a scope and just pressing a button. It was in that moment that you were truly a soldier. And now here he was, stuck in tin can, sneaking around and listening at doors like a child trying to figure out if Mommy and Daddy really are going to get a divorce. At the sound of his name, he turned his attention back to the meeting.
“Cutter and I will make the insertion through regular civilian channels. My cover will be a spot on the maintenance services team that cleans the labs. I will ascertain the most likely female researcher and begin to seduce her. This will allow me to send her flowers.” Hunter glanced up from the memo he was reading from with a puzzled look on his face. “Can’t we just send some flowers into the lab without making contact?”
“No.” answered Mizuki. “The plant needs enough time to be able to manufacture the nano-pollen once it’s in place. It has to be dormant because of the entry scans. If they got flowers out of nowhere, they would just throw them out; or even worse, analyze them and be alerted to our presence. There needs to be a context and an excuse to keep them at some lucky lady’s desk for more than a day. Hunter here will be the talk of the office for at least two or three days, and that will be enough time for the nano-pollen to implant themselves in the eyes of the lab staff. Then we just sit back and watch. I’ve programmed the pollen to hack into the subjects’ visual stream and transmit everything they see, right to us. We will get an accurate picture of the lab, its defenses, even the habits of the staff, so we can decide on the best method to extract the information we need. We’ll be able to see what they have for breakfast and where they sleep at night.”
“I love you, Mizuki.” gasped Sam.
“Oh cut it out Sam.” Mizuki rebuffed. Even though she tried to put on a stern face, everyone noticed the slight blush that crept into her porcelain cheeks.
“Treena, as Captain of this ship, can you can marry us right now?” Sam pleaded with a jaunty grin and a twinkle in his eye.
“Sam, I am not a captain; and we are not on a ship. I know how talking about technology gets you all hot and bothered, which is why I specifically refrain from mentioning any when we have our weekly check-ins. Now can we get our minds back on the job and focus for just a few minutes? Cutter, what are you going to be doing?”
“Uh, what?” He was struggling to rid his mind of the image of Mizuki, surrounded by thick, luxuriant covers and nothing else. “Oh, uh yeah, I will accompany Hunter to Titan by working on the crew of the star freighter he will be arriving on. I will then perform surveillance and provide support from orbit… Which is a crock of monkey crap, ‘cause we all know I’m better down on the ground, right up in their face.”
“And…that’s why you’re in orbit for this one. We need to be silent, not violent. That comes later, only if we need it. Which I’m hoping we won’t. I heard Merrick recruited Greyson’s old squad to Tag a few years ago. I don’t need to remind all of you what happened in the canyons of Valles Marineris seventy years ago, especially you, Cutter. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty and leave it at that.” A defeated look crossed Treena’s face before she continued. “Mizuki, you will be available back here to upload the data, right?”
Mizuki glared at Sam before answering. “Yes, but I will be at least two workstations away from this gaijin here. We don’t need drool shorting out all our previous work.”
“Oh come on, I was kidding.” Sam smiled with his hands in the air, palms up; but Treena could tell he was worried at the thought of hurting Mizuki’s feelings. Good, it would get him off her back for a few days.
Sam looked up from his seat at the table and kicked himself mentally. Why did he have to be so stupid… and surrounded by women who couldn’t take a joke. He wondered why he felt compelled to taunt a coworker so he could get the attention of another. Mizuki was pretty enough in her own way; if you liked chiseled, ice-cold beauty. But Sam had always preferred women who were more like Treena. Aww who was he kidding, he preferred Treena period, full stop. Ever since she had rescued him back on Mars, he had been infatuated with her. Just like the Celtic Warrior-Queen Boadicea, with fire in her eyes and blood on her hands; she busted down his cell door and stormed his heart. From that moment on, he was stricken. The only reason he started training in those martial arts she loved so much was so that he could get close to her. To have her hands on him. He reflected that it was too bad those moments took place in two tenths of a second in the form of a tiger’s palm to the chest, but he took what he could get. The nights they studied grappling were always the best. He always volunteered to be the uke so she could throw him to the ground and force him into submission while she straddled his waist. He was surprised she hadn’t caught on by now; it had been over fifty years. Unfortunately for Sam, Treena had spent most of those years in the arms of another man. Sam could only wait for his time to come. His opportunity to swoop in and comfort her, should she choose to end it with Hunter. Although that didn’t seem likely anytime soon. He sighed again and looked back at Treena. She gave everyone a good look around the table to make sure they were all done eating before ending the meeting.
“Alright, let’s gear up and go to it.” She said. And they did.