Cutter glanced up surreptitiously and squirted a quick message through his Mesh towards Hunter, who was on his way down the boarding ramp of the freighter. “Good luck buddy. I’ll be here when you get back.”
“I hope not.” replied Hunter. If anyone else was listening in, this exchange might seem callous. In fact, it radiated a deep respect and adherence to the warrior code that they both ascribed to. Their little inside joke started over forty years ago on another planet. Hunter was leaving for a patrol on the outskirts of the Argyre Planitia crater. Cutter wished him luck and said he would be there when Hunter got back. As soon as he made himself comfortable and was just about to pull out an old Mujuryoko–jutsu manual for a little self study, he noticed movement at the far end of the crater wall. From behind a rock outcropping, he watched as an entire platoon of Terran shock troops funneled into the area… his area.
Cutter took it upon himself to hold the entire quadrant until Hunter returned. At first, he tried to be sneaky and pick them off from a distance but it quickly devolved into a firefight. Cutter found himself pinned down and had to shed his outer suit to act as his decoy. He had programmed its exoskeleton to hold position and keep firing while he snuck off in a different direction with the only weapon he had left, the one that didn’t run out of ammo; his trusty vibe-knife. Its wickedly curved edges gleamed dully through the dark outer coating. The blade was perfectly balanced but contained so many vents, channels, and edges that it looked like it had already been fractally expanded inside some unfortunate victim’s torso. He flicked on the power cell and felt it whine to life. Micro-vibrations jittered down the length of the blade as it sought flesh to bite into.
With a ragged yell of, “Penetrate! Dominate! Destroy!” Cutter jumped over that last piece of cover right into the middle of the remaining force. They were so stunned that someone would actually see this maneuver as a viable option that Cutter took down ten men before they realized that they were in serious trouble. They stowed their plasma rifles so they wouldn’t injure their own men in such a close group, and drew their equivalent of a last resort weapon. Cutter chuckled as he saw what they were using. The titanium/ carbon alloy would do no more than scratch his power suit’s outer shell. That was when he remembered he had left it 200 meters behind him. With a renewed determination, he adjusted his stance and parried an incoming thrust with a kotegaeshi wrist lock and throw, bringing his knife down and across the neck of the hapless soldier who clearly had less of an education in Aikido than his opponent. The massive arterial spurt masked the soldier’s look of surprise that this was where he was going to die; out here in the Martian desert, covered in his own blood.
Another Terran threw himself in towards Cutter furiously, but also succumbed to the hungry vibe-knife: The victim of over-balance and a nasty gash that ran along his spine from mid shoulder to coccyx, splitting his body in two like a fish recently filleted. The next guy came in with his knife raised like an angry housewife whose husband has just come in drunk with lipstick on his collar. Cutter couldn’t believe his luck! Whoever taught these sorry excuses for soldiers how to knife fight must have just watched old sims of Beta Squad Seven. A quick upper block into a wrist grab with a twist and tug brought the man’s face right into Cutter outstretched hand. Except it wasn’t just his hand. The vibe-knife chewed through the man’s face and exited the back of his skull with a sickeningly wet, crunching sound. Stopping to shake the sticky bits of gore and brain matter from his hand, he felt a sharp pain at the back of his knee. One of the little cowards had come up and sliced him from behind! He looked around for the culprit and immediately saw the dripping knife in the hands of a smirking lieutenant. That was it! No more playing nice. Only eleven left, he could take them with only one leg. Heck, he could do it with one arm tied behind his back too; or hacked off as the case may be. That was when they all rushed him at once.
Hunter returned to find the spot littered with bodies. He searched through three or four piles before he finally found Cutter underneath the largest one; barely breathing, covered in lacerations, and lying in a massive pool of dark red blood. It effortlessly advanced in streams and rivulets to stain the surface of Mars a deeper hue of crimson, spreading over the arid landscape and running away through mini-crevices in the hard packed dirt. Hunter sent out an immediate med-evac signal, but he knew that the closest team was already over the horizon.
“I said I’d be here when you got back, didn’t I?” Cutter gurgled up at Hunter from lips that were as pale as the clouds that now hung in the Martian sky above them.
Hunter choked back tears to see the devotion in the tattered remains of his friend that he held close to him. “Yeah you did, you stubborn old bastard. Now try and relax, the medics will be here soon.” He stayed with his fallen comrade until he had brought him safely to a field hospital bed, back at their advance base camp. It took two weeks of extensive micro-surgery before he was out, regaling them with the tale of his solo mission, reenacting the various techniques he had used to lay waste to hundreds of enemy soldiers. Each time he repeated his story, the numbers grew larger and more ridiculous, but it was Cutter, so what could they do?
All this passed between them in an instant of reminiscence, as Hunter left the freighter and prepared to start the next phase of operations.
Hunter shuffled down the hallway, pushing the control box. He had to consciously try to mask his stature and poise. Any fighting man can recognize when another has been trained to perfection. His balance and the way he’s always centered gives him away. So he slouched and stumbled every third step to remind himself. He also opened and closed his mouth a few times, unconsciously massaging his cheeks with his tongue as the temporary facial reconstruction still felt tight. Mizuki was good, but she could be a bit gentler. Hunter checked that everything was in place and was about to throw the switch when a shout came from down the hall.
“Hey, you! What are you doing?”
“Aw crap.” He whispered as he silently readied himself to engage, adjusting his stance should he need to throw a strike or five. The man in coveralls came closer.
“Johnson, isn’t it? What are you doing, man? You left all of your cleaning drones still charging back at the depot. What are you gonna do? Get down on your knees and scrub with your own hands? Pffah ha ha.” Hunter let his muscles relax and back slouch, in mock defeat. “Oh come on then, I’ll show ya.” His co-worker led him back down the hall past the R&D wing hall.
Twenty minutes later, he was back in the same hallway. Now he was ready. He flipped the switch and watched as a wave of silver bugs spread out from the base of his machine. Everywhere they passed over instantly sprang to a shine. Spots disappeared and tarnish vanished. Before they got out of range, he flicked another switch and they began to return. Ah, the glamorous life of a custodial technician. He timed his shifts so that he could be in the hall when the lab techs get out for lunch. Before everyone crowded out into the hall, he made sure to do some pushups and leave his coveralls half unfastened so his massive sweaty chest could be seen heaving up and down with each breath. As he predicted, the doors opened and a group of scientists started coming down the hall towards him. He spied a group of five women clustered together, speaking intently about something. Suddenly, one of them caught sight of him and he saw their mood change. What started as a professional discussion about quarks and boson interaction quickly morphed into a group of eighth graders gossiping about the newest hunk on the football team. He smiled politely as they passed close by him and he could swear he heard one of them giggle. A few more days of this and he would have the job in the bag.
The next day proved similar to the first; but on the third day, one of the women from the group approached him. She walked purposefully up to him as she returned from lunch. A little too thin for his taste, but at least she was brunette, so that was something. She introduced herself as Katie and cordially invited him to come out with them later that evening. He said he would be glad to. And that was that. They had no idea. After changing into something form-fitting but not tight, he ambled into the bar and glanced around. It was stuffed with a clash of off-duty miners and office workers, both tired from a week of drudgery. Thumping music blared from all corners of the room while people clustered around a bar that floated in the middle of the cramped space, trying to get the attention of the harried bartenders to place drink orders. Cheap beer advertisements glared from all over the kitsch-covered walls, a jumble of photoluminescence, and a confusing nostalgia for the past. As Hunter made his way around the pub, the smell of stale beer and unwashed bodies assaulted his nostrils.
Katie waved him over to the corner, where she was gathered with the rest of her female colleagues. He noticed that they had increased from five to seven. Nice! More chance for him. As they exchanged pleasantries, he carefully sized up the competition and arrayed them in descending order of attractiveness. He was not one to be this shallow, but he was on a mission, and it made tactical sense to make his most concerted effort towards the one who was 4th prettiest. It made her feel like she had something special that her prettier friends didn’t possess. She’d also be more likely to give up secrets, having won out over her rivals in the man-catching department. So Margaret it was. He spent the rest of the evening trying to get closer to her and ignoring Katie and the other top three. This way, they would be jealous the next day and would only fuel Margaret’s desire to continue her good fortune and see Hunter again.
The next night, he took Margaret out to the most expensive restaurant on the base, though that wasn’t saying much. He listened to her small talk about the office and ordered good wine. Hunter went on to enthrall her by describing Mars and his life as a terraformer there. She was thoroughly caught up by this mystery man and was ecstatic when he kissed her goodnight at the door of her apartment. He didn’t even ask to come in. What a gentleman. He sent the flowers to the lab the following morning.
Katie and the others were livid to see the elaborate bouquet perched on Margaret’s desk like a neon sign, advertising that she was their superior. They couldn’t figure out what he saw in her that they didn’t have. She had nice hips, they had shapelier hips. She had a sweet smile, they had devastatingly beautiful smiles. She even had a small chest. What was the deal with that? What man doesn’t want a woman with big boobs? Apparently him, they thought. Even though they were teeming inside, they each admired her flowers and took a nice big sniff of the saccharine blooms, their pistils dripping with sexy flower juice. The pollen on the stamens looked shinier than usual, but they assumed that it was the lights in the labs. With each sniff, a new visual feed popped online in front of Mizuki. At lunchtime, the group, now more disjointed and rivalrous than before, walked through their usual ritual of passing close by the hunky building services tech in the hall. Margaret stayed behind the group to talk with Hunter as they returned from lunch.
“Thanks for the beautiful flowers!” Margaret inquired. “Where did you get them?”
“I brought the designs with me and had them special made in one of the fabricators overnight. I had to pull a few strings but I don’t think anyone will notice.” he winked. This was only partly true. He made them as soon as he got to his room the first day and the nano-pollen had been maturing ever since; past the watchful sensors of the customs agents. There had been one close call. Just that morning, one of his co-workers barged into his room to invite him out with the rest of the guys after they got off shift. They had seen him at one of the bars a few nights ago surrounded by ladies and Ron wanted to ask him some questions. Like: How? The unfortunate tech immediately noticed the flowers in the corner of the room and was about to ask Hunter what the deal was, and (being a manly miner) if he was gay, and maybe that’s why all the women felt comfortable around him, and if he was, that was fine with him, but stay away fro…and that was when Hunter pulled a quick cross-body shuto to his carotid artery, rendering him instantly unconscious. Hunter stashed him on his bed and made sure to lock the door. Before he exited the room, he left a flower sitting on Ron’s chest, partly to confuse him, and partly so they could keep track of him when he did finally wake up. If Ron woke up, found a flower on his chest, and couldn’t remember exactly what happened, he would never tell anyone what he saw. Thinking about the flowers brought him back to the conversation. Margaret was standing there with one hand on her hip and the other hand twirling her hair. “So we should do something tonight. What do you think?”
“I have something in mind.” She said, a mischievous smile playing at the edges of her plum-tinted lips. She actually was fairly attractive. Too bad he’d be leaving the moon as soon as she walked around the corner and out of sight.
Hunter looked directly into her eyes as he said, “Well, this is coming along very nicely. I’ll see you tonight.” She beamed a smile at him and turned away, never realizing that he wasn’t really talking to her. Roughly 500 million miles away, Treena looked up from the monitor and smiled. She would see him tonight, and she guessed that she had the same thing in mind as Margaret.
Hunter breathed a sigh of relief only after they cleared the gravity well of Titan. He had done his part, now it was up to Mizuki and Sam to sort the intelligence he had risked so much to get.