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Earth—Kazakhstan—150 km from Oskemen Spaceport
45 minutes after I was supposed to be on a flight out of here
My left eye doesn’t lie. The scanning implants and heads-up display can only show me what’s really there, and right now they’re showing me a border guard carrying too many weapons. Standard-issue assault rifle hanging around his neck, but also a machine pistol under his armpit, a revolver strapped to his left ankle, and a high-voltage stunner in a tail holster at the base of his spine.
I saw suspicious bulges under his coat as I rolled up to the checkpoint, and he obviously wasn’t happy to see me, so I activated my eye scanners. Now I can read the factory bar code off each weapon and look up the manufacturer’s specs via satellite link. The stunner surprises me—it was manufactured off-world, somewhere in the asteroid belt, and delivers more energy than is legal anywhere on Earth. And the concealed firearms are Hungarian-made, military issue. Not the kind of thing Kazakh border police pick up at the corner shop.
But it’s not the guns that really put me wise to Fakey Impostorov. I can also see into his body, and simple checkpoint guards don’t have an unmistakable spiderweb of ground-to-orbit comsat antenna surgically implanted in their left shoulder. If this guy’s not a field agent for a national intelligence outfit—a spy like me—I’ll eat my shoe. And shoes taste terrible. Trust me, I know. Long story.
Anyway, what is a Hungarian secret agent doing on the Russia–Kazakhstan border?
While I’m pondering this, an actual border guard waddles up to my rented hovercar and squints at me. He’s the real deal. I can tell by the way he walks and the smell of coffee and whiskey on his breath. Career military, old enough to know better, bored with everything.
Not like my friend the Hungarian over there, standing by the guard house and pretending to smoke a vape-stick. Way too alert, way too serious. Oh yeah, he’s on the job.
I smile at the guard next to me and hand over my legend passport.
“American?” he says. “Why are you here?”
“Visiting family,” I reply. “My cousin just got married in Ridder. Have you been to Ridder? Beautiful place—”
“You wait,” the guard grunts.
Right. I should remember not to talk so much. Whiskey-Breath walks back to the guard house with my forged paperwork. I continue breathing slowly and evenly, both hands on the steering wheel, stealing glances at the fake guard.
There isn’t anything hot between Russia and Kazakhstan right now. I would have gotten that in my briefing, before I dropped in country. A Hungarian might be on the lookout for Chinese activity, but then he’d be on the southern border, not the northern. And the nearest spaceport, Oskemen, only supports suborbital launches, so he’s unlikely to be from Mars. Martians always want to have direct escape routes.
I was actually looking forward to this operation. It’s on Earth for once, where the geopolitics are centuries old and fairly well understood. Not like our colonies and outposts throughout the rest of the Solar System, where everything is always in motion and everyone’s trying to outdo their ancestors in one way or another.
Or they’re trying to pull off something extremely dangerous, illegal, and/or unethical where they hope nobody will notice. The neighbors might object if you start testing antimatter weapons on your home planet, but sneak a small team into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and there’s plenty of space to hide your unsavory deeds.
People try a lot of crazy things in the outback, and when it doesn’t work out, somebody has to go clean it up. These days “somebody” tends to be my agency, because the United States of America is very interested in anything that happens in outer space. Ever since the Independence War, which started with asteroids boiling Earth’s oceans and ended with Mars winning its freedom as a sovereign planet, “off-world events” have been a matter of national security for Uncle Sam.
Now that we all know how bad things can get, nobody wants to attract a new interplanetary conflict—but behind closed doors, everyone is looking for inconspicuous ways to improve their space arsenals. We’re only human. Sooner or later it’s going to come down to who’s got the bigger stick.
So for the last five years, the agency has deployed operatives on a wide variety of glamorous missions, from space junk cleanup to investigating possible signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. No aliens yet, but it’s amazing how paranoid people can get when you pay them to think up worst-case scenarios. Also no faster-than-light travel, though we have scavenged some pretty killer new tech from other people’s failed experiments. In fact, I have a few of those derivative gadgets hidden in the pocket right now, including one very large—
Wait. Is it possible Fakey’s looking for me?
Exfiltration is always the hardest part of the job. Even if nobody suspects anything, you still know you’re guilty, and it only takes one slip at the wrong moment to give yourself away.
Just take it easy, Kangaroo. Don’t wig out until there’s an actual reason.
This is not how the operation was supposed to go. I shouldn’t be flying solo. Reynaldo was the primary. He was the one who spoke Kazakh, the one who knew our contact, the one who would recognize the item we were sent to retrieve. I was just along for the ride.
But you know what they say: the best laid plans of mice and kangaroos often go awry.
Rey and I met our contact, Medet, at a hotel where he was attending some distant relative’s wedding. Medet slipped us a hand-drawn treasure map, then insisted his old friend Rey and I stay for the reception. Rey was reluctant at first, but I talked him into it. And for the record, it didn’t take much talking: after two hours of rough overland travel from Oskemen, where our flight landed, we were both ready for some free-flowing alcohol, drunken bridesmaids, and Balearic dance tunes.
How was I supposed to know the local Bratva were calling in a hit on the best man? We didn’t get briefed on organized crime activity in this area. It’s not my fault. If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s on Intel for not providing the data and Lasher for not prepping us to handle this contingency. I’m not supposed to improvise. Lasher has chewed me out more than once for going off-script. Rey was in charge. He told me to lead the way out of the hotel. He said he was right behind me. He said he wasn’t going to try anything heroic.
And now he’s dead, and I’m alone. Story of my life.
The border guards are still talking inside their checkpoint shack. I could switch on my long-distance microphone implant and eavesdrop, but I wouldn’t understand what they’re saying anyway. They seem to be discussing my travel documents at length. I see gesturing. The Hungarian spy is outside, so it’s not him making trouble. Something else is going on.
What did I do wrong this time?
Maybe a listening post logged my distress call. Maybe a friendly neighbor saw me digging in the woods. Maybe the rental company just wants its hovercar back. I won’t know how I screwed up until days, maybe weeks later, after some agency analyst has gone over my after-action reports with a fine-toothed comb. I know this because that used to be my job.
Sometimes I miss working a desk. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have the pocket. But then I wouldn’t get to enjoy any of these wonderful sightseeing opportunities, from the darkest corners of Earth to the deepest canyons of Uranus.
I spent most of last night sitting in this hovercar, crawling through the pitch-black mountains on low power, navigating by night vision. Couldn’t risk anyone seeing headlights. I had to stop and backtrack at least a dozen times, trying to match reality to Medet’s poorly labeled, not-to-scale road charts.
I could have aborted when the rendezvous went sideways. That is, as Lasher keeps reminding me, always a legitimate option. But the agency wasn’t going to get another chance at recovering this item. And I didn’t want Rey to have died for nothing.
After I found the cabin, I broke in and spent hours excavating the mildewed, insect-infested, probably carcinogenic ferroconcrete basement until I found the item. It was bigger than we thought, but still fit into the pocket just fine. That wasn’t a problem. I’m the problem now. Half the population of Ridder witnessed me fleeing the scene of a massacre, which is why I’m motoring through the Altai Mountains instead of flying first class over them.
Whiskey-Breath comes back to the car, returns my passport, and asks some pointed questions about my itinerary. Fakey watches as I apologize for not having all my papers in order. I pretend to search my jacket for some missing documents and come up with three two-hundred-tenge bills, which I slip into Whiskey-Breath’s palm.
“If anything else is missing,” I say, “I may have left it in the glovebox.”
He smiles, pockets the cash, and walks around the front of the hovercar. I stay very still as he leans in through the open passenger-side window, pops open the glovebox, and pulls out two small bars of dark chocolate. Small, because I don’t want him to think there might be more of it stashed in my luggage. I really don’t want these guys opening my suitcase and finding it full of nothing but bedsheets and towels.
The guard’s smile broadens, and he slips the chocolate inside his sleeve. Doesn’t want his friends in the shack to see that particular payoff. Good. I’d scanned a wedding band underneath his left glove, saw the metal worn and pitted with age, and guessed that he could use something of a bribe himself, for when he goes home to the wife and kids.
He shouts something. The checkpoint gate opens and he waves me through. I wave back, smile, and lift my foot off the brake. The hovercar glides forward slowly, out of Kazakhstan, toward home and a hot shower.
I risk a glance back at the Hungarian spy. He’s not pretending to smoke anymore. He’s looking right at me, with a gaze almost as intent as one of the bridesmaids at the wedding. But I would prefer not to dance with this gentleman.
I give Fakey a polite smile and a polite nod. His expression doesn’t change. I turn back to face the road, but I feel my cheek muscles relaxing a split second too soon.
Note to self: work on timing. Practice in front of mirror or something.
Maybe Fakey didn’t notice. Maybe I can still make it out of here. I lower my foot onto the accelerator, not too hard, pushing the hovercar forward faster but not fast enough to arouse further suspicion. I hope.
I get about half a kilometer down the road before I hear yelling. I don’t look back. I just slam the throttle down and head for the hills.
The good news is, this is no longer a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse, which I am demonstrably terrible at. Now it’s a flat-out chase, and I should have the advantage.
Equipment gave me instructions for goosing the hovercar’s main drive, and the chemical booster I poured into the fuel tank earlier will give me fifty percent more power. But there’s only so much you can squeeze out of an old exotherm engine.
I check the rearview mirror and see a shiny blue atomic shield logo on the front of the vehicle chasing me. Great. They’re driving a low-altitude skimmer: electrodynamic vectored thrust. I can’t outrun them in this rented rustbucket. I have to disable their vehicle—without killing anyone. Nobody likes spies, but soldiers will hunt down assassins.
We’re moving pretty quickly up and down winding mountain roads. Unlike me, the Kazakhs don’t have any reservations about opening fire. The bullets whizzing past and ricocheting off the back of the hovercar make it difficult to concentrate, but I sprayed poly compound over the windows and chassis earlier to bulletproof them. All I have to worry about is driving.
I turn east toward my rendezvous coordinates. My pursuers follow. They know they’re blowing through two national borders, but why should they care? Nobody in this part of Mongolia is going to complain about a Kazakh incursion into the Gobi Desert. The Mongolians are more worried about China. I’m not going to get any help until I reach my rendezvous, and that’s three days out in the middle of sandy nowhere.
The battery light starts blinking on my dashboard. Not a problem. The booster I mixed into the fuel will cause electrical fluctuations. Equipment warned me about that.
But it does give me an idea for how to evade my pursuers.
This is a bad idea, I think to myself, even as I’m figuring out the tactical details. This low-rent hovercar doesn’t have a self-drive system, so I’ll have to keep one hand on the wheel while opening the pocket. That’ll be tricky. It usually takes a good push to get my arm through the barrier, but I can’t lean too far over and still maintain control of the car.
I wait until I hit a relatively straight stretch of road, then think of my reference object—a blackbird—and open the pocket. The circular portal pops open and travels with me, hanging in midair above the passenger seat.
I never thought about the physics of the pocket when I was younger, but Equipment insists that I learn the higher math to describe these phenomena—frame of reference, conservation of momentum, blah blah blah. I keep telling him it doesn’t really help me in the field. He doesn’t listen.
I push one hand through the glowing white force field covering the portal. It’s hard vacuum inside the pocket, which means it’s near-absolute-zero cold. My freezing fingers fumble against the insulated bag I’m trying to retrieve from its zero-gravity vault, sending it spinning. I can’t see through the barrier, so I have to proceed by touch. I feel the bag strap touch my thumb, and I grip it tight, then wriggle my hand over the frigid material until I’m holding one end of the cylindrical soft-case.
I have to pull it lengthwise through the portal—solid matter obstructs the event horizon, so I can’t open the pocket wide enough inside the hovercar to just yank out the whole case willy-nilly. My steering goes wonky. The passenger-side mirror scrapes the side of the mountain and shatters, but I manage to get the case into my lap and close the pocket, then straighten out again.
That was the easy part.
I’ve never actually used an electromagnetic lance in the field. Still driving one-handed, I unzip the case, pop the lid off the storage tube, and pull out the launcher. It looks like a harpoon gun, but instead of firing a flesh-rending metal hook at an endangered species, an EM lance is designed to penetrate most types of modern vehicle armor and deliver a massive electromagnetic pulse to disable any electronic systems inside. In the case of the guard skimmer, that should include the main thrusters.
I will have to file a whole stack of paperwork when I get back, since this is last-resort equipment. Setting off EMPs in populated areas tends to kill power grids and get you noticed. Spies and their bosses don’t like to be noticed. But out here in the mountains, there shouldn’t be too many household appliances to disrupt.
Of course, there is still the matter of a piece of high-tech weaponry that will be buried in the engine block of a foreign vehicle, which the Hungarian spy will likely have full access to examine. He won’t get any forensic evidence from it, but an EM lance is clearly something from a well-funded government armory. Mercenaries don’t stock many nonlethal arms, and certainly not specialized hardware-killers like this.
But there will be reasonable doubt, right? They won’t know exactly where it came from or who I’m working for. And the most important thing right now is getting me out of here safely and securely.
We’ve already lost one agent on this op. I can still make it home with the item. Losing that, plus all the equipment in my body and the information in my head, would be even worse.
And the pocket. Can’t forget the pocket, and all the stuff I have hidden in there.
The EM lance is my best option right now. A bad idea is still better than no idea, that’s what I always say.
The saying has yet to catch on with any of my peers within the agency.
I wait until we descend out of the mountains—I’ll say one thing for my pursuers, they are persistent—and start driving through the sand. I want to make it as difficult as possible for them to repair their vehicle. I find a flat stretch of desert and let them pull up right behind me.
Even with the heads-up display in my left eye showing me precise angles—calculated off the side mirror reflection, no less—it’s very difficult to aim a projectile weapon over my shoulder while driving in a straight line across ground that disappears as soon as the hover effect touches it. It’s like piloting a boat through gravel. It doesn’t help that the Kazakhs are shooting at me again. How much ammunition did they bring?
I spend precious seconds testing the best place to balance the EM lance, finally settling on the crook of my left arm, which is holding the steering wheel. I put my right index finger on the trigger and tilt the lance up, watching my HUD overlay to see when the projected trajectory lines up with the guard skimmer in the mirror. This is not easy.
A spray of bullets takes out my driver’s-side mirror, and now I can’t see behind me.
“Fuck it,” I mutter, and whip my head around. They’re not trying to kill me. They just want my car to stop moving. I hope.
My HUD blinks, red crosshairs paint the hood of the skimmer, and I pull the trigger.
The launcher kicks back against my palm. The lance flies in a parabola and hits the other vehicle with a loud crack. I don’t wait to watch what happens next. I won’t be able to see the EMP anyway. Or the expressions on the guards’ faces, as much as I might want to.
I turn back, toss the launcher onto the floor, grab the steering wheel with both hands, and stomp the accelerator.
Something rattles behind me, and then I hear a pop, a crunch, and lots of shouting. What I don’t hear anymore is the rumble of the skimmer’s main thrusters. Holy shit, that actually worked!
I brace myself for the shooting to start again, but I get all the way up the next sand dune without incident. When the hovercar thumps over the top, I can’t resist sticking my head out the window to look back.
The skimmer’s half buried in the sand, nose first, and four guards are kneeling on the ground around a fifth who’s lying on his back. One of the kneeling guards is struggling to open a red satchel with a white cross on it.
I have enough time, before my hovercar starts sliding down the far slope of the dune, to blink my eye into telescope mode and get a better look at the injured guard. It’s Whiskey-Breath, the one I bribed with cash and chocolate. What happened? I don’t see any blood …
It’s not important. I should just go. GTFO, Kangaroo.
Never let it be said I’m not an equal opportunity insubordinate: I ignore my own advice just as often as I ignore anyone else’s.
I turn the hovercar’s steering wheel, still moving but staying on top of the dune to keep the downed skimmer in view. The guard with the medkit rips it open and yanks out a bright orange box. He lifts the lid and extends two spiraling wires leading to round white pads. I recognize the device from my first aid training. It’s an automated external defibrillator, used to shock a human heart back to its normal rhythm. But why would they need—
Oh, you gotta be kidding me.
I switch my left eye display over to playback and rewind the live mission recording back to my border crossing. I pause on my body scan of Whiskey-Breath. This time, instead of studying his hand, I look at his torso. And there it is. I thought that glowing outline in his chest was a shoulder-phone, but a phone wouldn’t have wires going directly into his heart.
Whiskey-Breath has an artificial cardiac pacemaker. And I just fried it with an EMP.
Also fried? The AED his friends are trying to use now to revive him.
This is an accident. But nobody’s going to care about that. The headlines won’t read “Elderly Alcoholic Succumbs to Heart Disease”; they’ll say “Ugly American Criminal Murders Husband and Father.” Not to mention all the blowback at home will be on me and me alone.
Goddammit. One minute. One minute, then I’m gone.
I picture a grizzly bear in a white lab coat and open the pocket again. I pull out my own emergency AED and dangle it out the window, then turn the hovercar around and steer it back down the dune, toward the skimmer.
The shooting resumes before I get within fifty meters. In hindsight, yelling at the guards to announce my approach probably wasn’t the best idea, since I don’t speak Kazakh and the insulated therm-pack holding my AED looks an awful lot like an ammo pouch.
I retract my arm inside the hovercar and continue driving closer until a burst of gunfire cracks my windshield. Okay, apparently that’s the operational limit of this spray-on poly shield. I pull the steering wheel over hard and toss the AED out the window toward the guards. Two of them dive for cover behind the skimmer.
“It’s not a bomb!” I shout over my shoulder while driving away. “Help your friend! Aide! Medico! Medicina! Dottore!” I’m pretty sure those are all real words.
Well, these guys speak the international language of firefight, and they have plenty to say, if not an extensive vocabulary. It’s only another minute before I scale the sand dune again and drop out of range, but it’s a very unpleasant and stressful sixty seconds.
Copyright © 2016 by Curtis C. Chen