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Asteroid belt—undisclosed location
30 minutes after my totally coincidental rescue
The nurse-bot that took my vital signs and continues to monitor me from its charging slot in the corner of this small room doesn’t have very sophisticated sensors. Even if it is watching me, all it’ll see is a guy with his ear up against the air vent on the far wall. My derelict spacecraft was just towed into this strange asteroid station; of course I want to know more about my surroundings. Natural human curiosity, right?
If only my ears were working better right now.
“—waiting (STATIC) SUPPLY DRONES (STATIC) inner planets (STATIC) TIME—”
My left eye’s heads-up display shows me the agency’s best available map of this station, overlaid with a diagram of where my ears are tuned to right now. Using custom software, I’m able to focus in on sound sources at specific distances from my current location based on amplitude, frequency, and some other technical jargon I didn’t really pay attention to while Oliver, my Equipment officer, was explaining it. I know he’s proud of the gadgets he makes, but I don’t need to know how they work; just tell me what buttons to push, man.
I’m hearing a lot of audio interference, and the volume keeps jumping up and down. I move my eyes and my fingertips in specific patterns to adjust my hearing enhancements. My left eye scanners, which can sense throughout the electromagnetic spectrum, aren’t detecting any active jamming or other technological interference. There must be something wrong with my hardware. Unfortunately, I can’t get to the actual implants in my body without nontrivial surgery; the best I can do right now is compensate by washing the input through software signal processing modules.
It’s nobody’s fault. The bionics that enhance my hearing are pretty sensitive, according to Oliver, and the high acceleration I endured while traveling in a military spacecraft out to this mid-belt asteroid must have compressed something important or pushed some component out of alignment, and now I’m not getting a good connection between the audio pickups in my ear canal and the computer core under my collarbone.
“—astronaut (STATIC) clearly isn’t (STATIC) new boot magnets—”
I think I’ve got the volume under control now. And the static seems to be coming in regular waves; maybe I can filter it out. I wiggle my fingertips to try some standard soft-mods.
Hardware repair in the field was one of the problems my nanobots were supposed to address. Last year, Jessica—my Surgical officer—got approval from our government overseers to start experimenting with new software for the microscopic robots in my blood, so they could do more than just maintain a wireless mesh network for all the other tech inside my body. But for whatever reason, the bots either haven’t identified a problem in my ears or haven’t been able to repair it.
And I admit, there is an outside possibility that this issue is related to my earwax, which Jessica claims is medically termed “intermediate” or “unclassifiable.” In genetic terms, that means I have a rich ancestry bringing together multicultural ethnic groups from all over Planet Earth. In practical terms, it means the consistency of my earwax varies quite a bit between “wet” and “dry” and is difficult for the nanobots to deal with algorithmically. But again, that’s nobody’s fault. You can’t blame me for my heritage.
“—murder! Homicide! Robotic manslaughter? What? That’s totally a thing…”
That’s better. I think? I’m confused for a moment because I can definitely understand some words now, but they’re not making any sense.
After another minute or so of eavesdropping, I realize I’m hearing a group of off-duty personnel playing a guessing game. One of the players is really bad at it. It’s amusing, but it’s not what I’m looking for.
Now that I’ve fixed—or at least mitigated—the input problem, it’s time to actually start searching. I probably don’t have much time before a human comes back to this medical bay to check on me.
Voices fade in and out as I modify the target distance. It’s like I imagine tuning in an old frequency-modulated analog radio signal must have been like—or, at least, how it’s depicted in the old entertainment vids I consumed desperately in my childhood. Benefits of being the orphaned child of twentieth-century media scholars who left behind their entire digital library when they died.
“… oh! Yeah! Harder! Don’t stop! YEAH! YEAH!”
I’m momentarily embarrassed, then oddly fascinated, then a little grossed out by the sounds of this erotic interlude. Moving on.
“… catalog those specimens yet?”
“Doc won’t let us handle them until he’s done with the isolation study,” says a second voice, which sounds much more lethargic than the first.
“And how much longer will that take?” asks the first voice, who I’ve decided to call Grumpy.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” replies Sleepy.
“Shit, man.” I hear clinking noises, like laboratory glassware. “I didn’t volunteer just to sit on this rock with my thumb up my ass.”
“Hey, they’re still paying us, aren’t they?” says Sleepy.
“I can get paid planetside,” says Grumpy. “I came out here to do some actual fucking science.”
I’ve got an approximate distance to the voices, but not a precise location—this software wasn’t designed to trace sounds bouncing through ventilation shafts. I add an overlay to the station map in my eye to show what direction the sounds are coming from.
I do my best not to think about how the agency got this map. The last agent we sent out here, code name WOMBAT, had many of the same scanning implants I do, and was able to transmit a few recorded data bursts. But there’s a big blank space in the bottom half of the asteroid map—the places Wombat wasn’t able to scan before someone here got suspicious and made W disappear. Hopefully into a shielded holding cell and not out into space.
There is an awful lot of shielding in this station. I noticed that as soon as I came aboard and turned on my eye. Even for an off-the-books science facility. What are they hiding? It makes sense to experiment with biotech out here in the asteroid belt, where there’s no risk of spreading contagion—hard vacuum will kill most biological specimens before they can reach another inhabited location—but why would you need to hide the rooms inside the station from each other?
An alert flashes in my eye. I muted the ear I don’t have pressed up against the air vent, but left a separate software process running to monitor its signal input, and the alert is now telling me that it hears footsteps approaching. I push myself away from the wall, sit back on the med bay’s exam table, and reset my ears to normal hearing, bypassing the implants.
The door opens and a new person enters. It’s not the astronaut who pulled me out of my “derelict” spacecraft after picking up my distress signal, or the technician who met me at the airlock and then brought me to this room—which has a door that locks from the outside, I was interested to discover. Why would you need to lock people inside your medical bay?
“So,” the man says, looking over the computer tablet in his hands, “Mr.—Bafford?”
“Bafford,” I correct, putting the emphasis on the second syllable. If I need to use an alias, I might as well have some fun with it.
“Bafford,” the man repeats. “I’m Dr. Imley—”
“You a medical doctor?” I ask. I hope my fake working-class Belter accent isn’t too broad.
He looks at me like I’m an idiot. “Yes. What other kind of doctor would I be?”
“I dunno, some of the guys I met on the way in were saying there’s scientists here, doing science stuff.”
Imley continues staring at me. “How many ‘guys’ did you talk to, exactly?”
I shrug. “Who’s counting? How many persons you got on this rock, anyway?”
“I was under the impression that you only met one technician on the way here.”
“Well, you know,” I say, waving one hand, “there was the other guy outside.”
The agency couldn’t send me in with the same cover that Wombat used, that of a government inspector who mistakenly landed on the wrong asteroid, so I pretended to be a freelancer whose spacecraft malfunctioned near this rock. Nobody in the belt can legally ignore a distress call, and there was enough waste heat coming off this asteroid for a civilian pilot to plausibly detect. It had taken me nearly half an hour of transmitting, with my main radio dish aimed directly at the station, before they responded.
Imley nods. “I’m just going to give you a quick physical exam, Mr. Bafford. To make sure you didn’t suffer any adverse effects from drifting in space for so long.”
“I feel fine,” I say. “Just glad that you guys had a station so close, you know? Who knows how long I might have been stuck out there otherwise. Which company did you say owned this rock?”
Imley turns his back on me and opens a drawer, rummaging for something. “Do you have any preexisting medical conditions, Mr. Bafford? Any allergies that I should be aware of before I begin treatment?”
“Hey, whoa, whaddya mean treatment? And in fact, my religious beliefs prohibit me from using certain substances—”
He whirls back around, holding something in one hand and moving it toward me. I can’t tell what the thing is. I grab his wrist and push it away, then catch his other arm and twist it down to cause maximum pain.
Imley screeches as I lever myself off the exam table, plant my feet on the ground—this is trickier than it sounds in the low gravity of this asteroid—and pin him against the wall.
Then I get a good look at what he’s holding. It’s a teardrop-shaped ampule, with a flat honeycomb of capillaries on the underside. An injector slug, and I can guess what’s inside: something to put me to sleep.
Not gonna happen, Doc.
“Please, Mr. Bafford,” Imley says, his voice remarkably calm, “you’re suffering from hypoxia. This is a simple reoxygenation infusion—”
“Sorry, Doc,” I say in my normal voice, plucking the slug out of his fingers. “I’m not informed, and I do not consent.”
I press the slug against his neck until it hisses and empties its payload into his arteries. He’s unconscious within a second.
I lower him onto the exam table and try the door handle. Still locked. Dammit. I blink my eye into EM scanning mode and examine the lock. Good news: it looks like it’s purely mechanical, and not wired into any type of alarm system. But I will need a tool to break it.
I press my ear against the door and tune my audio sensors to detect breathing, just in case there’s a guard standing outside. After a few seconds with nothing tripping the sensor thresholds, I turn to face an empty spot in the room and open the pocket.
My code name is KANGAROO. That’s the only name I have within the agency. Not because my face resembles a large marsupial mammal, or because I used to be an Olympic hurdling champion—though I have, oddly enough, used both of those ploys in bars to get through some sticky social situations. Well, I tried, anyway. They are both apparently too ridiculous for anyone to believe.
I’m Kangaroo because I have a universe-sized secret pouch. I call it “the pocket” because I named it when I was ten years old; Science Division calls it a “hyperspace shunt” because they don’t know any better than I do how it works or why I have this ability. They’ve been testing me for more than a decade, and we’re still no closer to any real answers.
All we know is that I can open a portal into this empty, apparently infinite, parallel universe. I can’t go inside, but I can hide just about anything else in there—as long as the item can fit through the circular portal and survive being in deep space for as long as it takes me to travel to wherever the agency wants the item to end up. And when I go into the field on a mission, Oliver packs as many things into the pocket as he thinks I might have an outside chance of needing to use.
Most of the time, it’s a huge waste of time to put all those items into the pocket, one at a time, and then have to take out everything I didn’t use afterward. The largest load-in we’ve ever done took nearly ten hours. And that doesn’t include the prep time for Oliver to pack all the delicate machinery inside therm-packs to keep it from freezing too quickly.
Other times, though, I’m really glad he makes me bring more toys than we actually think I’ll need.
The portal into the pocket appears in front of me: a flat, glowing, white disk suspended in midair, level with my chest. I extend my arm and push my hand, wrist, forearm through the center of the disk. That’s the barrier—a “pressure curtain” made of the same exotic energy that rings the outside of the portal. I can open the pocket without the barrier, but then the air in this room would rush through to the empty universe on the other side. The barrier prevents air from escaping into the pocket but is permeable enough for me to push my arm through it.
I visualized a red teapot when I opened the pocket, which placed the portal at a particular location in the other universe. Picturing reference objects in my mind’s eye is the only reliable way we’ve found of targeting the portal to specific places inside the pocket. And every image needs to be unique, to ensure I don’t accidentally open the pocket to the wrong location.
I can’t see through the barrier, but I can feel when my fingers close around the therm-pack. I grab the insulated bag, pull it back through the portal, and close the pocket. I open the therm-pack and pull out a small but very powerful plasma torch.
It’s a bit more than I need for this particular task—a lockpick gun would be faster and less destructive—but I’m not allowed to have a lockpick gun anymore. I blame Oliver. It’s really his fault for not securing his experimental robots better. And not labeling his storage lockers clearly. But apparently he’s still the “responsible one” and I’m the “loose cannon,” so I don’t get a lockpick gun.
The plasma torch makes short work of the lock. I kick the melted handle away, push open the door, and emerge into a long, narrow corridor. According to Wombat’s scans, this passage meets two different corridors in T-intersections at either end. I do a quick jog from one end to the other to verify. Then I blink my eye into range-finding mode to measure the length of the space.
Finally, I think of a white basketball with red lines and open the pocket again, this time a good three meters away from myself. A tethered line of armed spacemen falls out of the portal and into the hallway in front of me.
The pocket always has to face my body, and once I open it, it’s locked to that position in space relative to me. I can place it off-center from myself, but never more than the radius of the portal itself—we just figured this out in the last year, and it’s saved my bacon more than once since then. Oliver keeps wanting to backsolve the math for how the pocket works, but I don’t really care that much. It’s all instinct for me. I don’t have a dial in my head to set the portal size when I open it, or an on-off switch for whether I use the barrier; it’s just a thing I can do—like closing my hand into a fist. I like to focus on results. I couldn’t tell you how all the muscles in my body actually work, but you’re going to feel it when I punch you in the nose.
Another trick I can do is pocket rotation—which Science Division still has on the books as “Project Backdoor,” I suspect mostly to spite me, since I insisted on that name when I was a teenager, not allowed to do fieldwork, and scientists were experimenting on me relentlessly. You take whatever rebellion you can get when you’re fifteen years old and under the thumb of an above-top-secret intelligence agency.
“Backdoor” means I can rotate the portal around an item I previously put inside the pocket—but I can only rotate it exactly 180 degrees. It’s handy for getting things in and out of the pocket quickly: throw it in the “front door,” then rotate the pocket when I open it again, and the same item flies out the “back door.” Conservation of momentum or something like that.
The fourteen spacemen, all wearing armored spacesuits and tied together with a safety tether, land on their feet with remarkable agility. They’ve had a lot more low-gravity and zero-gee movement training than I have, that’s for sure.
My ear buzzes with an incoming radio transmission. The radio implant is separate from the hearing enhancements, so this audio is unaffected by my earlier malfunction. “All clear, Captain?” asks a female voice.
“Affirmative, all clear, Sergeant,” I say.
The spaceman at the front of the line—my agency escort for this mission, Leonard “Lenny” Carrozza—removes his helmet and sniffs the air, flaring his nostrils. “Smells like feet.”
“Nice to see you, too,” I say, then add, “Corporal.”
It’s tough remembering all these ranks, but Lenny and I need to maintain cover in front of the X-4s. The Outer Space Service’s Expeditionary Forces are well known as the toughest bastards in the Solar System, and they probably wouldn’t respect Lenny and me quite as much—or feel compelled to follow our orders—if we didn’t outrank them in the same chain of command.
Lenny clips his helmet to his life support backpack while I give a quick situation report. None of the other spacemen remove their helmets; they simply undo the tether connecting them all and proceed to check their other equipment. The tether was necessary when I put them in the pocket. Each pocket location only “locks” to one item at a time—“item” defined as a single solid object, either a continuous shape or connected by something. Oliver and Jessica call it a “memory labyrinth thread,” and they explain it a lot better than I can.
I finish my report to the squad leader, Sergeant Radcliff, who is identifiable by the triple chevrons and two crossed comet tails etched into her spacesuit’s shoulder pads. She gives me a hand signal in acknowledgment, then calls out orders to the other spacemen, who have separated themselves into groups of four.
“Fireteam Red!” Radcliff says. “You will accompany Captain Bafford—”
“Bafford,” I correct. It’s important to be consistent with your legend.
Radcliff glares at me. “Accompany Captain Bafford and Corporal Carrozza to the top of the station and sweep downward. Do not fire unless fired upon. Use of deadly force is authorized.”
Lenny offers me an assault rifle. I wave the weapon away. If we run into anyone in here, I’m going to be better at running my mouth than shooting a gun.
“Fireteam Blue, go to the bottom of the rock and clear upward,” Radcliff continues. “Fireteam Green, hold position in this med bay until you’ve secured all automated systems, then meet us at the central hangar. Any questions?”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “can I just add one thing?”
Radcliff turns to look at me. “Yes, Captain?”
“Just wanted to remind everyone that we are also looking to extract a prisoner. One of our field agents. And retrieve any scientific specimens we can—intel says they’re live animals, probably reptiles.” Wombat’s last message wasn’t very clear. “Sorry, that’s actually two things. Prisoner and specimens. All the info should be in your mission computers. Don’t shoot those things. Okay?”
“Copy that,” Radcliff says. She turns back to her spacemen, who are tapping at the wrist-mounted control bands in their spacesuits. I see information displays lighting up their helmet visors. “You heard the captain! Neutralize resistance, extract the prisoner, seize any specimens. In that order. Your priority is taking control of this station, using all necessary force.” She pauses, I suppose to let that last bit sink in. “Good to go, X?”
“Oo-rah!” the spacemen respond in unison.
“Let’s do it!”
Radcliff hustles down the corridor. Blue team follows her and sweeps around the corner, heading for the nearest stairwell. Green team ducks into the medical bay and closes the door. Red team forms up around Lenny and me.
“Your show, Captain,” says the corporal leading Red team, a woman named Stribling. “Lead the way.”
I turn to Lenny. “Ready?”
He cocks the assault rifle. “Right behind you, Cap.”
“Just watch where you aim that thing,” I say. Then, in a Russian accent: “Most things in here don’t react well to bullets.”
Lenny frowns at me. “Why are you talking like that?”
“Come on,” I say. “We watched the vid on the way out here. The one with the Soviet stealth submarine?” I’m always trying to educate my colleagues about twentieth-century entertainment, mostly so they’ll get my jokes.
“What’s a Soviet?”
“Never mind.” I give up. “Just don’t shoot any windows.”
* * *
Intel estimated there could be anywhere from thirty to fifty people in this asteroid. So far, based on the X-4s’ radio reports, we’ve only found about a dozen, and the corridors feel eerily abandoned. Where are the rest of the station personnel hiding?
“Green Leader, this is Ajax,” Radcliff says over the radio, using her call sign. “Where’s my internal sensor tap?”
“Working on it, boss,” Green Leader replies. I don’t remember his name. Huffman, maybe? “So far all we’ve got is visible-spectrum in the hallways, and nobody’s walking around but us.”
“Nothing in the rooms?”
“Found the data streams, but they’re encrypted.” That seems pretty paranoid. Huffton? What is his name? It’s going to bug me until I figure it out. I pull up our mission roster in my left eye.
“All right. Keep me posted,” Radcliff says.
Huffley! That’s it. Now I’ll be able to sleep tonight. “Green Leader, Bafford,” I say. “Did you search the unconscious guy in the med bay? The doctor?”
“Negative. We put him in restraints and moved him out of the way,” Huffley replies. “What are we looking for?”
“Check his pockets for a tablet. Maybe a notebook. Something he might have saved his access codes in.”
There’s a pause. “You think this guy wrote down his password?”
“He’s a doctor,” I say, “not a security specialist. People hate remembering passwords. Look in his wallet, I don’t know.”
“Hey, Cap,” Lenny says. “Is this the place?”
I stop and look where he’s pointing: a door marked LABORATORY J-47. I switch my left eye back to the overlay map I’d marked while eavesdropping through the air vents. This is where I heard the two lab techs talking about specimens. I didn’t share this map with the X-4s; I still don’t quite trust them not to shoot first and ask questions later. I do trust Lenny to know his job.
“Looks like it.” I adjust my eye sensors to check if I can see through the door. No dice. “Shielded. A little help here, Stribling?”
The X-4s take position around the door as Lenny and I step back. Stribling directs one of her team—the name tag floating next to the helmet in my eye’s battlefield overlay says “Yu”—to step forward with a more powerful scanner than the one I have implanted in my skull.
After a moment, Yu shakes his head and gives a thumbs-down sign. Stribling waves him back, then flashes a series of cryptic hand gestures at the other three X-4s. I should probably learn those at some point, maybe. Lenny seems to understand what’s going on. I figure just staying out of the way will be good enough.
My left eye tells me that the two X-4s setting up in front of the door are Graham and Tullis. Stribling and Yu take up positions behind them. After they all check their weapons, Tullis attaches a device to the electronic lockpad by the door. The lights on the device flash red for a few seconds, then go solid green, and the door slides open.
A lot of stomping and shouting follows. The X-4s make sure Grumpy and Sleepy are unarmed and then herd them into a corner. Lenny and I step inside after it quiets down, and I start looking around for anything specimen-like.
When Wombat stopped reporting in last week, agency analysts back on Earth took a harder look at the intel that had led us to investigate this part of the asteroid belt. The agency has been watching the belt for unusual activity since last summer—when our director of intelligence committed high treason and then disappeared into the belt—and there were some discrepancies in the documented location of one of Rubinaxe LLC’s asteroid bases and the navigation data that actually appeared on FDA audit logs from the facility.
It turned out that Rubinaxe was maintaining two rock bases in close proximity, one on the books and one not, and that’s more than a little suspicious. It got even more suspicious when the agency sent Wombat to look into it, and W disappeared. Trained operatives don’t just disappear. Something happens to them—usually something bad.
My handler—who also happens to be the agency’s director of operations—decided not to pull any punches with his follow-up. He called up a full squad of X-4s, hid them in my pocket, and sent me to retrieve Wombat and take control of the asteroid. You don’t mess with Paul Tarkington or his people. There’s a reason D.Ops’s code name is LASHER.
My eye’s biochem scanning mode isn’t showing anything unusual. I cycle through some other sensor modes and see a patch of color pop up in infrared, at the back corner of the room. I point at the heat signature there. “What’s that?”
“Checking,” Lenny says, walking up to the corner. “How about that. There’s an access hatch here.”
“That’s just a service tunnel,” says Grumpy. “Wiring, plumbing, other boring stuff.”
Definitely not trained in security. “Well, then you won’t mind if we take a look inside.” I kneel down and feel around the hatch, but I can’t quite get a grip on it. “A little help here?”
“I am helping,” Lenny says. “I’m ready to shoot any bad guys who jump out of there.”
I pry the hatch open. Nothing jumps out at us.
I peer inside what appears to be a service crawlspace. It goes straight back for about two meters, then makes a right-angle turn to the left. Boring as advertised. There’s a fading trail of body-heat blobs leading down that way, but I can’t see through the sides of the crawlspace, either—whatever this asteroid is composed of, it naturally interferes with scanners. I report all of this to Lenny.
“Does that tunnel get any smaller inside?” he asks.
I put a three-dimensional wireframe in my eye, then lower the brightness of the overlay so I can see how it matches up with the surface of the wall. “Looks like it stays the same. About a meter across the diagonal.”
“So we’ll fit inside.”
“I will. You won’t, not in that spacesuit.”
Lenny stares at the wall for a moment. “Fuck it. Let’s go.” He unlatches his chestplate and starts taking off his armor.
“Recommend against that, Corporal, Captain,” Stribling says. “We can’t follow you in there.”
“We’ll be fine,” Lenny says. “You just keep an eye on those two.”
“It’s dangerous in there!” says Grumpy.
I stare at him. “How so?”
He stares back at me. “There are snakes in there.”
I blink. Sleepy looks horrified, which signals to me that Grumpy isn’t lying. “Snakes.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Venomous snakes. Like, super poisonous.” He might be exaggerating. He really doesn’t want us to go in there. Which means we definitely should.
“Thanks for the warning,” Lenny says. “We’ll take our chances.”
* * *
My radio buzzes as I’m getting into the service tunnel behind Lenny. Sergeant Radcliff’s voice comes through. “Bafford, Ajax, please respond.”
“Copy that, Ajax, Bafford here,” I answer. “The corporal and I are clearing a crawlspace in section J-47. What’s your status?”
“Blue team has recovered Wombat,” she says.
“Is Wombat injured?” I ask.
“Unconscious but stable.”
“What happened?” Lenny asks. He doesn’t have a comms implant, so he’s not hearing any radio chatter now that he’s doffed his spacesuit. The only equipment he’s carrying is his assault rifle. I opted for a stunner, myself. If I have to shoot something, I’d rather not kill it immediately.
“Blues got Wombat,” I say with the radio muted.
Lenny nods. “Oorah.”
“Sure.” I unmute myself. “Ajax, Bafford. Red team has detained two lab techs in this section, and Carrozza and I are running down a possible third.”
“Copy that. Be advised, Blue team also reports they caught some station personnel releasing lab animals into a service tunnel.”
“Were they snakes?”
“Unknown,” Radcliff says, not missing a beat. “Blue team found empty crates next to an open access hatch. Station personnel are not cooperating.”
“Yeah, I’m shocked,” I say. “Let us know if Wombat wakes up. We’ll tell you what we find in here as soon as we find it.”
“Wilco. Ajax out.” I return my attention to crawling.
The service tunnel looks like it was carved out of the solid rock of the asteroid, and the walls are still rough and sometimes jagged where they didn’t need to be smoothed or grooved in order to run conduits or attach equipment. Lenny points out jutting edges or sharp points as he passes them, which I’m grateful for, since I’m still scanning for targets. If Lenny is irritated by the high-pitched tone I’m generating with my shoulder-phone to get a sonar picture of the area, he doesn’t show it.
We approach the turn leading to the left, and my sonar starts pulsing. I turn up the audio reception in my ears to verify what I’m hearing, then tug on Lenny’s boot to stop his forward motion before he turns the corner.
He stops and turns to give me an annoyed look. I tap my chest quietly with one hand and mouth the word “heartbeat.”
Lenny stares at me, then nods. He makes a series of hand gestures I don’t understand. I shrug in response. He rolls his eyes, points at me, points at the floor, and mouths the word “stay.”
I grip my stunner in both hands and watch as Lenny turns back to face the corner, coils his body, then launches himself forward in a tight roll, coming back up with his back flat against the far wall and his assault rifle pointed down the tunnel past the curve. He stares in that direction for a moment, at something I can’t see.
“Do not move!” he calls down the tunnel. Then, still aiming his rifle there, he raises one hand and waves me forward.
I move to where Lenny is with considerably less style, shuffling on my knees and elbows, struggling to keep my stunner pointed and steady.
I round the corner and see a portly man with thinning brown hair, wearing a white jumpsuit. He’s slumped against the side of the tunnel, about a meter and a half away from Lenny. In the man’s lap is a clear rectangular box containing a writhing mass of—tentacles?
No. It’s snakes.
The man’s holding a whole box of goddamn snakes. Grumpy wasn’t lying. One of the snakes pokes its head up, studies me with beady black eyes, and extends a forked tongue.
I don’t like snakes. But at least they’re contained.
I lower my stunner. The man doesn’t present much of a physical threat. And Lenny’s got a good bead on him with that assault rifle. Then I think again and raise my stunner again. It might not be the best thing for Lenny to shoot to kill if this guy makes any sudden moves.
“I got this, Corporal,” I say to Lenny. “You can stand down.”
Lenny frowns without looking at me. “I prefer the redundancy.”
“Then switch to nonlethals,” I say through clenched teeth. “Our friend is likely to be more cooperative if he doesn’t think we want to kill him.”
“Don’t you?” the man in the lab outfit says. “You’re only interested in the animals, aren’t you?”
“Our assignment is to secure this station,” I say. “We’d like to keep as many people—and animals—alive as we can.”
“But we will defend ourselves if necessary,” Lenny says. He still hasn’t put away the firearm, but I don’t want to tell him again. It’s not good to disagree with your partner in front of hostile forces.
The man with the snakes shakes his head. “I will cooperate. I never wanted to come out here in the first place.”
My initial relief—he’s cooperating!—almost immediately turns into suspicion. Why is he volunteering so much information? Nobody whose workplace gets stormed by commandos wants to cooperate that much. I didn’t trust Grumpy, and I don’t trust this guy.
But if he wants to talk, I’m going to let him talk. He can’t lie with his mouth and his body at the same time—that’s one of the first things the agency taught me, when they finally agreed to give me field training. People betray themselves all the time, if you know how to read the signs.
I lower my stunner ever so slightly. “What do you mean by that, Mr.—?”
“My name is Klaus.”
“So is that your first name, or…?”
“Dr. Stefan Klaus,” he says. “They promised me a facility of my own. They never said it would be on an asteroid. But I could not argue with their reasoning.”
“Which was what, exactly?”
Klaus looks at me for the first time, and I study him with my left eye’s medical scanners. He doesn’t seem all that agitated, which is a bit odd. Pupils slightly dilated, which might indicate he’s on some kind of drugs. I can’t test for that, but if he’s not thinking straight—
Of course he’s not thinking straight, Kangaroo. He brought a fucking box of snakes into a small, enclosed space.
“Isolation,” Klaus says. “Privacy. Absolute security. Limited risk of escape or contagion.”
“Contagion?” Lenny says, shrinking backward. “What’s wrong with the snakes?”
Klaus chuckles hoarsely, his head bobbling from side to side. Okay, I’m pretty sure he’s on drugs at this point. “One could argue they are not snakes anymore. Not really, you know. Not genetically.”
Great. They’re doing unregulated gene editing out here. Probably trying to get even deadlier neurotoxins out of these animals, attempting to twist Mother Nature’s design to suit human purposes. That never goes well.
“A new species,” Klaus continues. “I should name them. Yes, that needs to go on my to-do list.” He reaches into one of his jumpsuit pockets.
“Put it down!” Lenny shouts, raising his assault rifle and bracing it against his shoulder. “Open your hand and drop what you’re holding!”
Klaus opens his hand. Then the box of snakes sails toward us. We were so focused on the hand reaching for the pocket, we didn’t notice that his other hand had braced the back of the transparent cage, preparing to launch it at us.
I open the pocket at the same instant I have the thought: Lenny’s going to shoot.
The portal pops into being on the other side of the snakes, without the barrier, a black hole sucking air—and, hopefully, bullets—into an alternate universe. At least two deafening thunderclaps fill the tiny crawlspace. The sound reverberates horribly, so I’m not sure exactly how many times Lenny fired.
I don’t know if I was fast enough. I close the portal before the snakes get sucked in.
The cage tumbles to the ground, falling over Klaus’s feet. One hand rests in his lap, clutching some kind of handheld computer. The snakes hiss and slither madly inside their clear plastic box. There are two bright red spots on Klaus’s chest.
I wasn’t fast enough.
I don’t have curses strong enough to express how unhappy I am right now. “Jesus fucking Christ, Lenny!”
Lenny ignores me and dives forward, snatching the device out of Klaus’s dead hand and examining it. “Shit. We need to get out of here.”
I suppress my desire to strangle Lenny and ask, “Why?”
He shoves the device in my face. “Because we’ve got three minutes before every airlock on this station blows out.”
I grab the device—it’s a remote control tablet, tied in to the station’s environmental controls—and look at the display. Lenny’s right. The three-minute countdown is a safety feature, the only one that Klaus wasn’t able to override from this tablet. He turned off the audio announcements and alarm lights. If we hadn’t found him in this tunnel, we might not have had any warning before the whole station was opened to space and we all got blown out into vacuum going every which way, and good luck to the X-4 transport pilot for having to decide who to try to recover first before we spun out of radar range.
“Go!” Lenny has the snake cage under one arm and is pushing me back down the tunnel with his other shoulder. “Go! Go!”
“Ajax, Bafford!” I call over the radio while scrambling backward. “Abort mission, say again, abort mission!”
I hear a series of rapid, high-pitched tones: the abort signal. “Every X, this is Ajax: abort, abort, abort!” Radcliff calls. The radio clicks as she switches from the broadcast channel to her private link with me. “What happened, Captain?”
“Countermeasures activated! All airlocks blowing in three minutes!”
“Can we stop it?” Radcliff asks.
“Let’s assume not!”
By the time Lenny and I get back into the lab, Red team have already put Grumpy and Sleepy into wraparound torso restraints and are marching them down the hallway. I can’t get Klaus’s tablet to respond to any of my commands.
“We’ll meet you on the hangar deck!” Stribling calls. “Station personnel are evacuating in escape pods. Our transport will recover us after the blowout.”
I point at the prisoners. “Do you need a rescue bubble for those two?”
“This corridor’s not wide enough to inflate a bubble,” Stribling says. “We’ll do it on the hangar deck.” She follows her team around the corner. On the radio, Radcliff is telling all the X-4s to assemble on the hangar deck to prepare for our surprise spacewalk.
“Okay, I guess we need to carry these—what the hell are you doing?” I ask Lenny. He’s put down the snakes and is pushing the lower portion of his spacesuit into my hands.
“Suit up,” he says.
“We can do this on the hangar deck—”
“Won’t make it in time.” Lenny grabs one of my feet and shoves it into the spacesuit. “Can’t run while carrying all this gear. There’s an airlock at the end of the corridor, we’ll get blown straight out, just need to get you in a suit.”
“We both need to—”
“No time! I’m expendable. You’re not.”
I hate it when people remind me of that, but I can’t argue. Being the only person in the known universe with a superpower does come with some limitations.
“Fine.” I let Lenny help me into the suit. I look at the control tablet before putting it down. One minute and twenty-eight seconds and counting. I blink a timer into my left eye.
It usually takes a good five to ten minutes to get into a spacesuit by the checklist, making sure all the seals are airtight and verifying that the life support system is nominal. I’ll be okay if I’m leaking a little air or still waiting for the life support computer to wake up when the airlocks blow, but I need to have my helmet on.
“At least let me pull a breather mask for you,” I say to Lenny. I always have emergency supplies in the pocket.
“Secure the animals first,” Lenny says, fitting a glove over my left hand.
“Cage got clipped.” He elbows the side of the enclosure, and I see a hairline crack radiating out from a bullet hole splinter even more. The structure clearly won’t survive being carried while we run anywhere, much less being bounced down a hallway by explosive decompression.
“Please do not break the snake cage!” I say. “Fine. I can put them in the pocket. Also? We need to talk about fire discipline in the field.”
“Save it for the debrief,” Lenny grumbles. “And negative on the pocket. Snakes won’t survive in hard vacuum.”
“Don’t reptiles go into hibernation?”
“Hard vacuum,” Lenny repeats, fastening my second glove. “They need air. I’m going to put them in your suit.”
He turns his back before my brain can process this information. “What?”
Lenny turns back to me, holding the cage in both hands. He’s removed the cover, and some of the snakes are already slithering toward the top, anticipating freedom. “It’s only until we get back to the transport.”
“No no no no NO!” I take a step back. “Those are snakes! Poisonous snakes! You are NOT dumping a whole BOX of SNAKES into my goddamn spacesuit!”
Lenny glances down at the control tablet. “You’ve got fifty-two seconds to think of a better idea.”
We stare at each other.
There are a lot of fucking snakes in that box.
But any number of spacesuit-snakes is still better than explaining to Paul why I wasn’t willing to do what was needed to complete my mission.
I look around the lab and grab the first bag-like container I see that seems sturdy enough to stop a snake bite. “Snakes in the bag. Bag in the suit.”
Lenny nods. “Hold it open.”
“Worst idea ever,” I mutter as I watch what must be two dozen snakes cascading into a very thin plastic bag. I grab the spacesuit helmet and walk out into the corridor, looking for the airlock and then standing to face it. If I’m going to be blown out into space, I want to see where I’m going.
Lenny drops the cage in the lab and joins me in the hallway with the bag full of snakes. “Thirty seconds.”
“Fuck you.” I open the pocket, pull a breather mask, and hold it out. “Don’t die.”
Lenny holds up the bag. “Same to you.”
I close my eyes and try to ignore the squirming as he raises the bag to my face and guides it into the open collar of my spacesuit, down my torso, between the suit lining and my equipment vest. Lenny snaps my helmet on, then uses some kind of a strap or hose and attaches himself to my waist. Finally, he puts on the breather mask.
The bag is still squirming. I hope it doesn’t slide down past my waist. Or, if it does, I hope they kill me. I really don’t want to have to explain to Surgical why I came home with two dozen snake bites on my crotch.
“Ten,” Lenny says, “nine—”
“Stop with the countdown.”
Lenny shrugs. “Also, for the record, I hate snakes.”
“I hate you.”
Copyright © 2017 by Curtis C. Chen