Hunter stepped out of the airlock and, after hastily embracing Treena, grabbed her shoulders and held her at arms length so he could see her face.
“Did we get it?” Treena looked up at him and just smiled. “How does it look? Come on woman; don’t make me beat it out of you!” Treena’s eyes gleamed.
“We’ll save the beatings for later, but yes. They all look great. We’ve already got a working 4D model of their lab. We mapped routines, habits, interactions, and methods. We even have passwords and filenames. Sam’s still going over it now, but it looks like we hit the mother lode. Mizuki’s a genius! It’s too bad the nano-pollen only gives us a visual feed for eight hours before being absorbed by the host body. Your little mark down there still has the plant on her desk though, so maybe we’ll get lucky and the feeds will regenerate. Even what we do have makes it all worthwhile. I know it’s not exactly like storming an enemy bunker under heavy fire, but you did great. Now let’s get you guys down to Command so we can do an official debriefing.”
“Well there’s good news and bad news.” Sam addressed the entire Eur-It council in the Glitter East conference room. Uggghhh, another Monday, another meeting. His heart sank at what he was about to tell them. “After many hours of work, resources expended, and favors called in, I can say that our latest intelligence is a big shiny pile of diddly squat.” Looks of dismay echoed across the room, filling the vast spaces between the luminescent windows. Even the sea creatures noticed the mood shift in the room. “Look, it’s nothing that we did. Except if you count making assumptions that all the Tag work would be at their main lab. Our team performed beyond expectations. I can tell you that their lead man always has ham and cheddar scrambled eggs with home fries and a side of wheat toast on Tuesdays. He even prefers hot sauce on the eggs and strawberry jam on the toast. But I can’t tell you details on their work. Only file names that lead nowhere. All of the workers only do a tiny amount of work on small sections at one time. It looks like someone designed a system so that no one would see the big picture. The only silver lining is that when we were monitoring feeds, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a tight beam signal towards Enceladus. That’s where we saw the anomaly in the first place. That is where we think their main research goes on. And that’s where we’re going next. Except this time, we won’t be delivering flowers.”
“So all that work was for nothing?” chimed Dr. Hook, “it seemed so promising when it first started coming in.”
“Yes it did.” replied Treena “That’s what we thought too. But after extensive analysis, I agree with Sam. Even the researchers on Titan don’t know exactly what they are working on. Their assignments change by the minute and get saved off-site, so no one knows too much. Our only course of action is to invade the lab on Enceladus.”
“Do you think that’s prudent?” prodded Dr. Hook. “At this point, we still hold all the cards, right? Tag doesn’t suspect that we just conducted an op in their living room. Can’t we just sneak into Enceladus the same way?”
“I believe it has to be the next step, and it has to be forceful. We could bluff our way down onto Titan because they are still fairly open there. It’s an active mine with an economy that has various services to support the workers. But Enceladus is a different story. Officially, nothing exists there. Not on any register we can see, and believe me, we’ve looked at them all. We can’t just show up at their secret base and say, ‘Maid service’ with a funny accent and expect to be let in. No; if we go in, we go in hard.” Everyone could see that there was no moving Treena Colure.
Sam looked up at these words, knowing that he would be on the invasion team. His stomach dropped a fraction of an inch and he took a deep breath. It had been years since he’d done any field work. He knew that he’d be rusty, but it couldn’t be as bad as the first time he was in a firefight.
Back during the Martian war for independence, he worked for the freedom fighters doing much the same job he did now: communications and tech management. Things went well for a while but the Terran forces eventually gained back enough ground to offer substantial resistance. After working far back from the front for a number of years, Sam deployed to storm an advance Terran base camp up in the mountains. He wondered why he’d been chosen since he was not a fighter (in fact, he was terrified of being shot at, or even holding a gun.) Then he did more research on the target and found out through various sources that the base was a major Terran communication hub that controlled troop movements all over that hemisphere. If he could take out their computer system, their enemies would be blind and deaf, stumbling around like his Great Aunt Bess. Or even better, take it over. Sam could create vast amounts of chaos by ordering his enemies to all the wrong places. Maybe he could even convince them to fight each other by setting one brigade in an ambush to wait for another, telling them the other force was actually Martians in stolen uniforms.
However, it did not turn out well. During the attack, Sam freaked out from all the incoming fire and just sort-of lost it. He ran as fast as he could and actually infiltrated the enemy line before he was taken down in a big sticky pile of foam. Apparently, even the enemy recognized that he wasn’t a fighter and decided to take him out with a non-lethal defense weapon. Soon, they realized just how lucky they were to capture such an important asset and moved him to a military prison deep behind the lines. Sam had never known true hardship until he sat alone in a cell for twenty two hours a day. Every week, the Terran interrogators paid him a visit. They used nearly everything at their disposal to probe his mind for secrets they could use to fight the rebellious Martian colonists. The only reason they didn’t totally destroy his mind was that they found that Sam possessed duel citizenship. If word ever got out that they had tortured a Terran, even if he was working for the other side, it would be a PR disaster. So he endured the weekly questioning with a stoicism that surprised even himself. He supposed it stemmed from all those times he was left alone on the Orbital as a child. To pass the time, he made mental lists of all his favorite animals, categorizing by family, genus, and species. The birds were always his favorite. They could move about on the ground, but they weren’t trapped there. Whenever they fancied, they could take to the wing and fly far away from whatever situation they were in. Sometimes for thousands of miles.
After three months, Sam questioned his ability to hang on. Hang on to hope, sanity, belief in an existence outside of his tiny four walls. Everything. Then she came.
He remembered waking up from a fitful slumber and wondering what woke him. The ever-present cold was nothing new. He’d become accustomed to its bite in the months following his capture. Then he noticed the sounds. Were people shouting? Gunshots? His heart suddenly lifted at the hope that he might finally be rescued from this fortress of lonely imprisonment. Then he brought himself back down to the gritty real world. Why would anyone rescue him? He wasn’t even a soldier. Only a comms tech. It was the same story his whole life. Surrounded by important people, but never one himself, Sam was used to being overlooked. It would probably happen here too. Some big-shot was being broken out while he stayed here to rot. Dejected, he slumped back down onto the concrete slab that paraded as his bed, hands on his chin and elbows on his knees.
The sounds were getting closer now, from the courtyard to his wing. Whoever staged this attempt must have balls of steel. Not only was this a prison, it was a fully functional military compound with a full compliment of troops just itching for something to shoot at. Shots were fired at the end of his own hallway. Sam started to stand up, just so he would be ready to go when whoever it was opened his door, but then sat back down again. No one wanted him. But…the steps were coming closer now. Suddenly his door blew open with concussive force, knocking him on his back. When he propped himself back up, he saw an angel standing there in his cell. The most beautiful woman Sam had ever seen could not come close to how perfect she was at that moment. Sunlight shown in behind her, outlining her frame in a halo of radiance. Her black hair, highlighted with dark blue was cropped at an angle up from her chin, back. She had a slim nose and grey eyes that broadcast her exuberance for…what… Life? Danger? Excitement? Bloodlust? He didn’t know yet, but he promised himself that he would find out what lit that fire. Then he would become whatever that was. She surprised him by speaking his name.
“Sam? Sam Auerbach?” Still standing in the doorway, she leaned outwards, half her attention still focused down the hall. His name. She said his name. Momentarily stunned, both by her beauty, and by the fact that he’d been blown back on his rear when she blasted his door down, he just nodded. “My name’s Treena. Are you all right?” Sam nodded again. “Good. Now get up and get moving. We have orders to egress ASAP to the LZ as soon as we acquire the target.” Sam got up as if he just realized he’d been sitting on a nest of red ants, brushing the dust off while trying to maintain eye contact with this amazing woman.
“How long until you acquire this target?” Sam asked, still not familiar with her military speak. Treena stared at him with a “You’ve got to be kidding.” look on her face.
“You’re the target. We came to get you.” she said. “Now come on, we’ve got to get out of here before the whole base deploys against us.” He just could not believe it. They were here for him. She was here for him. Someone back at command must have a high estimation of his worth to spend these kind resources on only one man. Treena handed Sam a small Aquanos model h277 hydro phaser and sprinted back down the hall. Sam followed her as best he could, but three months of non-activity affected his performance. He cursed himself for allowing his body to fall into such a miserable state. They took the stairs and made it down two flights before they met resistance. Watching her work was both terrifying and enthralling, like watching a seasoned woodcarver create a masterpiece. Except that instead of carving wood, she was carving bodies. Her chisel, a mil-spec plasma coil set on maximum. And thus started Sam’s often unhealthy, studiously ignored infatuation with Treena Colure.
* * *
“What’s your status?” Merrick’s image came in splotchy over the screen. “I told you I want progress updates on the hour. I’m not paying you to slack off and watch golf all day.”
“Chill out, Van Dorn. We were just programming the approach vector. My men are all checking their gear as we speak. I don’t see how we’ll ever be able to use all the munitions you packed. I mean, we’re just working security for a tiny base right? How much action are you expecting here, a full out assault?” Neil Greyson hunched over the comm station aboard the official mining transport “Infinity to Nowhere.” The snub-nosed ship pushed its way through space like a tug boat, packed with power but lacking real performance where it counted, as far as Greyson was concerned. He detested its boxy appearance and utilitarian crew quarters. He remembered his rides on Merrick’s shuttle, now that was a ship! Streamlined, and racer-red shiny. Merrick had even paid big bucks to get it custom fitted so all the exterior weapons systems were stowed away under hidden hatches and panels. It had a full bar, a hot tub big enough for a lot of women, an even a mini casino. The last time he was aboard, he was on duty. But the time before that. Oh man, what a ride! Greyson’s team had shipped out from Titan that morning on Merrick’s orders. He had given them virtually no warning of the move, and no voice to object. Like nearly everyone else on Titan, they were in the pocket of Van Dorn. Greyson had heard about how bad he was. All the people he could just make disappear without a second thought. How he ran his settlements. His security on top of security. But, despite all of this, Greyson refused to cower for Merrick.
He paid him his respect, sure. But Neil remained his own man. As a mercenary after the Martian conflict, he saw varied success in the hired gun business. He had even done a small bit of piracy around the Asteroid belt before an offer came over the nets from Titan. The pay seemed reasonable and he didn’t expect too much action so he accepted. The job had been a pigeon shoot so far. He and his men had grown a little soft because it had been so easy. Just last week, there had been a brawl among the miners as the night shift came off duty and went about the serious business of drinking themselves stupid. Two guys became so hammered as the morning wore on, they had steadily lost articles of clothing until they were both stark naked. This upset the other patrons and they made their feelings known with their fists. Greyson’s men had been called in to quell the little tiff and one of his star sheriffs had been punched in the face. This upset Neil badly. Not because his man had gotten hurt, that wasn’t it. No. It was that he had been hit at all. He expected his men to have such a high degree of training, that simple unarmed combat should be no problem. The fact that some drunk yahoo actually got past someone’s guard and popped him in the face spoke very badly for his troops training regimen. He made a mental note to work them extra hard when they got to their new assignment down on Enceladus. They would lock that place down tighter than the rear seal on his orbital entry suit. Not even Merrick’s lap dogs would move without his team knowing about it. After recording a few notes to himself on that subject, he switched the PGA Tour back on. Screw Merrick, he had golf to watch.
He loved golf. It was so brutal. He never knew if his favorite pro would last the game, let alone the season. Many players only survived one tournament before either retiring with vast riches or “retiring,” their corpses possessing fewer limbs than they started with. Greyson had heard about some namby-pamby version people played a few hundred years ago but they didn’t use proximity balls; or xeno-mutant monsters! Proximity golf was action-packed sports at its best. All four players teed off at the same time using special balls that contained a force field generator. This field keyed in to a personalized receptor on their suit and kept the various monsters that roamed the golf course at bay. The trick was, the player had to use the fewest balls possible to make their way across the course to capture the flag on the green, sometimes engaging in hand to hand combat with the surviving players to get it. Most of the pros favored little to no armor so they could run faster and evade the massive jaws of whatever beastie patrolled that particular hole. They also used the chain strategy, linking their balls across the course. Their thinking was that yeah, they used five balls, but they still had their arms. Even the best players would scream like little girls when they were running for the safety of the balls’ proximity field, mutants snapping at their heels. Greyson always loved watching newbies. They hit the ball farthest, harking back to some prehistoric tradition of manliness: HIT BALL HARD. As soon as it was in the air, they would start running, keeping their eyes on the ball so they would be encircled by the ten meter safe zone when it landed. Predictably, keeping their eyes on the ball and not on the seven ravenous xeno-mutants slavering after their tender flesh was a bad move. The next hole provided just such an example. Greyson laughed as the blood started to fly. Golf was awesome!