Thursday, December 27, 2012

Turning Point 1.3


The sub‑tram is a very fast form of travel.  Within a few minutes of leaving the terminal, the tram is moving at something near three‑hundred klicks a minute.  The trip to Markett and then Sol Plaza gave me enough time to get worked back up, but not enough to get any kind of an idea of what to do about it.

When I came out into the Sol Plaza terminal I was greeted by a large room with a domed ceiling.  On the north wall above the bank of escalators leading into the Plaza proper was a giant tile mosaic of a bright yellow sun.

The sun that Roach orbits, DR 212, is old and red.  Seen through Roach's yellow, sulfur‑rich atmosphere, it looks like a giant blob of bloody gel.  This didn't seem to matter much to the jokers who had made the mosaic though.  So what if Sol was yellow and on Earth the sky looked blue?  None of us had ever been there, and looking at that sort of thing in a vid didn't really give you much of a feel for it.  I gazed at the mosaic in disgust for a moment and moved to the escalators.

Coming up into the Plaza itself was just like I remembered.  The escalators let you off on the center edge of the plaza.  Fourteen‑hundred feet overhead was the Plaza's own treated enviro-dome.  The dome here was treated to look blue, and there was a monstrous faux sun at the dome's apex.  The fake sun was so bright that it actually hurt to look directly at it.  This discouraged people from looking at the dome closely enough to notice that the “clear blue sky” that it was supposed to represent was actually full of darker swirls and inconsistencies.  It's kind of difficult to simulate a clear atmosphere with a polymer dome and holographic projections.

What never failed to impress and secretly please me about Sol Plaza was the plants.  Plants were scattered all throughout the Plaza.  Trees, ferns, bushes and patches of grass were everywhere.  There were even real birds that flew about and nested in them.  The most visceral thing though was the smell.  It was a kind of hot, wet smell.  The smell of live things in a live place, full of rot and promise.

I just stood there for a moment with my eyes closed and soaked it in.  For the first time since the hit, I felt a loosening of my gut and back muscles.  The burning ball of hate cooled by just a few degrees as I felt the life around me.  I was even able to remember the one time that I had actually felt happy, a long time ago.  No, let me change that.  I was able to remember a little boy who was happy there once.  Things had been different then.

I couldn’t remember how long it had been, but I’d been very young.  My mother had brought me down to the Sol Plaza to see the plants and birds.  I remember telling her that the company was going to get that kind of air for the rest of the colony.  The corporation damn near seemed like God to me then.  The company gives, and the company takes away.  It was the one thing that could seem larger and more powerful than your parents.  And the corporation was everywhere.  You couldn't see it directly, but you could feel it.  It wasn't until later that I realized that on Roach there really wasn't much of anything else to believe in.

Sometime during my little reverie, my feet started moving without really asking for permission.  I was daydreaming, reliving my favorite childhood memory;  running down some path in the Plaza shrieking at the birds.  It's one of the few places in the colony that parents relax enough to allow their children that sort of indulgence.  The childhood memories were coming to me with surprising clarity and before I realized it I had walked to India Ocean Point.

About fifteen feet below me, eight or ten acres of simulated ocean boiled and tossed.  It was only seven or eight meters deep, but the sight of that much open water in one place was still staggering.  If you stood still long enough you could feel the slight vibration caused by the wave generators beneath the “ocean.”  When I was a child I would stand in that spot, thinking that it was the weight of the water and the pounding of the waves that were causing the vibrations.  It was just one of the illusions that I would have to give up later.

I stood there watching the water and looking at the beach.  About a kilometer away, the beach, ocean and wall meet in what appeared to be a far-off horizon.  We could thank the holograph projectors for that particular illusion.  I had to wonder just how good the illusion was though.  I had never seen a real ocean before, or even so much as a real lake or pond either.  Behind me, Sol City was abuzz with my fellow vacationers.  The shops, cafes and hotels were always busy.  I thought of the zoo and amusement park that were on the opposite side of Sol City.

“Fun for the whole family,” I muttered to myself.  “Come see a bunch of animals that live in cages.  They're just like you and the neighbors.  Come play on the scary rides and in the VirtCades or the Tri‑Shows.”  I frowned.  “Come forget about the fact that you’re just company property.”

The frown deepened.  What was my deal?  Why was I so pissed at the company?  More and more my anger was directing itself at the system I’d been born into.  Why?

I glowered at the people bobbing in the waves and lolling on the beach.  I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the happy shrieks of running children.  I took in a deep breath to smell the air.  In addition to the rich smell of the plants and birds, salt mist was added to the air at the beach. The aliveness of it was almost frightening.  Head‑shrinkers claim that Terra resides in the genetic memory of every human, no matter where they are born.  That every human remembers and secretly longs for the embrace of their ancestral planet, with it's natural cycles.  I could never decide whether or not I would want to live there, but I would definitely like to go into a forest and just smell  it.

Two hours later I was drinking rice wine in a bar called the Little Tokyo.  The decor is supposed to resemble that which is traditionally used in the capitol of Old Japan.  They have a lot of paper walls and gongs and that sort of thing.  The balcony that I was occupying overlooked Golden Gate Park.  I was watching a young mother playing some sort of game with her son on her mini-comp.  Once again I began to slip into memories I had thought long buried.

My mother's name was Chalise Vonner, and she had been a level 5 driver.  I had never known my father.  He had been some big deal in the corporation.  They’d had a fling and I was the result.  He accused her of trying to trap him in a marriage contract when all that had really happened was the one percentile – the contraceptives hadn't worked.  He didn't want the responsibility of raising a child himself, so he bought me a full sponsorship.  Legally he didn't have to worry about me after that point.  He’d paid for my needs until I reached the legal age of maturity.  I would have above-average schooling and full medical insurance.  A stipend would be allotted for other needs as well.  Like I said, he’d been some sort of big shot.  He could afford it.

Mom hated him for what she’d seen as him running out on us, but she did her best not to show it around me.  In spite of her intense feelings toward my father, I've always remembered her best as a tired looking woman with a sadly loving smile.  In all honesty, I think that my childhood went pretty well up to the point that she died.

The school shrink came and pulled me out of class that day.  He started talking to me about how low the accident rates really were on the colony, and about how the Corporation was going to be taking care of me now.  I sat there staring at him just swallowing it up.  I had no idea at that point that my mother was dead, just that this guy was repeating some of the stuff that they told us in school every other damn day.  I didn’t start to feel confused and anxious until he started repeating himself.

By the time the idiot finally got around to telling me that my mother had been killed in an accident, I was edgy as all hell.  He must have spent twenty minutes trying not to tell me, probably hoping that I'd just get the hint.

I got it that night when instead of getting to go home I had to go to the orphan’s dormitory.

After a few weeks of therapy and observation, the doctors finally sent me back to school.  But I’d changed.  Mom’s death had torn my world apart and I was determined to take it out on everyone around me.  I started hanging out with other “bad” kids and getting into fights.  I paid the discipline and therapy lip-service and marked my time in school with no thought for what I might do after.  By the time that I had turned thirteen I had been transferred to the Security Academy.  A lot of us “bad” kids were.  And I finally found something that felt “normal” again.

By the time that I came out of my jaunt down memory lane, the young woman and her son had left the park.  I sighed.  Thinking about my mother and my childhood made me want to get very, very drunk.  I decided that I should sample other forms of alcohol, and stalked off to try another bar.

I had completed a full circuit of the drinking establishments in the Sol Plaza by the time that I finally managed to stagger back to my suite.  I'd left the Little Tokyo for the sweet temptations of Indonesian wine, Egyptian date beer, and Kentucky bourbon.  After the first few drinks it didn't even bother me that I'd never see the places that the beverages had been named for or that I’d never know whether or not the drinks I was buying were anything like the Earth originals.  My goal was the false Nirvana that fermentation taunts you with just before the ethanol poisoning makes you purge.  Needless to say, all I got that night was taunted.  Nirvana remained just out of reach.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Turning Point 1.2


It's weird when you realize that you hate everything.  I'm not talking in the abstract, I mean it literally.  You hate everything.  You want to smash and destroy every single damned thing that you can think of and would just as soon puke as to have to deal with any of it again, ever.  I hated it all – the job, the apartment, the team, the company and even the planet itself.  I just wanted to strike out at something, someone.  Everything and everyone.  Just attack and destroy and kill until the violence forced everything to be sane again.

But of course, I couldn't do that.  So I went on vacation.

Since the leave had come unexpectedly, Marce didn't have the chance to arrange any down‑time for herself.  I spent the first two days just kicking around the apartment with that ball of hate spinning around inside of me.  Marce would come home to me doing push‑ups or practicing my hand‑to‑hand routines.  She pretty much had the bed to herself those nights, because I couldn't sleep either.  I would sit there in the dark, staring at the walls or the cracked paint on the ceiling.  Hating.

My leave started on a Tuesday, and by the time Marce left for work Thursday morning, I was twitching like a junkie.  What was happening to me?  Admittedly, my job was  violent, but I couldn't remember ever wanting the violence so much.  I mean, yeah, I was an adrenaline junkie and usually got a kick out of pulling a sweet op, but I’d never felt this dark roil of emotion.  I felt like an angry, wounded animal wanting nothing more than to lash out and share my pain.  And I hated that too.

By 09:30 I just couldn't stick around any more.  I wanted to let Marce know what was up, but I didn't bother calling on her personal line.  Her current project had her swapping out the big magnets on the rail launchers at the space port.  Because of that, she didn’t have her mini‑comp with her.  The magnets would have wrecked it.  Even if that hadn’t been the case, the noise level at that work site would’ve kept her from hearing it anyway.

The vid‑com in the on‑site office was a little grainy, and Marce's supervisor already looked like the bad end of a hard road.

God , I thought, they must be breaking their backs out there.

It took a while to get Marce on the line and I caught myself tapping my knuckles against my leg and made myself stop.  Keep it cool, bud, I thought to myself.  This doesn’t do you any good.  Keep it cool.  When Marce did finally get to the on-site office and on the line, she looked worse than her boss.  For a moment or two all I could do was stare at her on the screen.

“Marce,” I finally said, “I'm buggin' out for a couple of days.  I've been a little restless lately, and I thought I'd get out for a bit.  Spend a few days at the Plaza, get my mind right.”

She didn't look surprised.  She didn’t look much of anything.  “Sure, Alec.  Thanks for filling me in.”

There was an uncomfortable pause after that.  I hadn’t calmed down and wanted off the line so that I could go.  But I felt like I needed to say something else.  Something more.  Maybe I thought that I had to justify my trip to her.  “Look, Marce, I just think...”

“Are you coming back?”

Her question stunned me.  I stared at her stupidly for a few seconds and said the most intelligent thing that came to mind.


“Alec,” she started, looking even more tired than before.  “Look, I know that we've never had much of a, well, you know.  But I would like to know now whether or not you're coming back.”

“Well,” I started, trying to pick my jaw back up.  It hadn't even occurred to me that I might be running out on her.  “I just, well...”

“You're a good guy, Alec, but I think you're getting strung out.  Lately you're acting like you're about to flip out or something.”  She glanced at something off‑screen, looking like she might feel guilty.  I started getting that feeling again.  The one where I felt like I'd been caught doing something dirty.

“Marce,” I sighed.  “I just thought I'd go out to the Sol Plaza and lay on the beach for a while.”  I hadn't put much thought into just what I’d be doing, but it sounded like a good idea.

Marce gave me a thoughtful look.  “Okay, Alec.  Yeah, I guess that'd be good for you.  Get out of the apartment for awhile.  Get some space.”

“Thanks, Marce.”  I stared her in the eye, trying to figure out what was bouncing around in her head.  Then there was another one of those silences.



“Alec, I ...”  She glanced off screen again.  “I...uh, I gotta go.”  Then she killed the link.  I had the odd thought that she had been about to cry.  Weird.  Marce was like me, she didn't do the vulnerable emotions much.  At least not out where you could see them.

I grabbed my long coat and started to head out.  I stopped myself two steps from the door.  Normally I didn't worry about grabbing a weapon.  From the moment I woke up until the moment I crashed, Thumper was never far from my side.  Like the cops, I was licensed to carry a gun.  Every Contract Specialist above level 7 was.  Sometimes the Demos got their mitts on personnel rosters.  When that happened, they tended to go after us “corporate stormtroopers.”  Hence my license.

It wasn’t Thumper I was thinking about as I stood there, two steps from my con-apt door.  I was thinking of contraband runners.  Of the few times that Demos had gotten ahold of body armor.  Of Su-Finites.  Of the fact that in spite of Syrch feeding everyone bullshit about how peaceful a place Roach is, the security reports told a different story.  That in spite of being “a shining example of yet another peaceful and law‑abiding Corporate colony,” Roach turned up a lot of clubbed, stabbed and mashed bodies.

I was going out into the open for a few days and would be out of touch of Ahni and the team.  Feeling closed in, angry and oh so hateful, I turned to my stash closet to grab some more toys.

Because it was only about three hours into the day‑shift, the streets were almost empty.  The folks who worked on the night‑shift were all asleep, the kids were all in school and there were very few people who made enough money to be able to support their significant others.

I kicked off towards the sub‑tram with my head all wrapped up in itself.  What the hell was wrong with me?  I couldn't remember a single time in my adult life that I had felt this intensely about anything.  The problem was, I couldn't really pin down what it was that I was feeling so intensely about.

In the time that it took me to reach the entrance to the sub‑tram I had managed to get myself worked up even worse than I'd been when I called Marce.  Damnit!  I just had to get out of this place.  The problem was, there was no where I could think of that I really wanted to be.  Even though I could take the sub‑tram to any part of the colony, there was no place I could go to hide from myself.

I walked up to the bank of toll‑machines in the terminal, my footsteps echoing in the nearly deserted tunnels along with the whooshing of the trams passing through.  After pulling up the left sleeve on my  jacket, I put my hand on the scan‑plate. The computer compared the pattern of blood vessels in my hand to those on file with my identity.  Whoever had booked passage before me had been holding onto something sticky and ripe.  The scanner of course read right through the residue.

“Good morning, Mr. Vonner.”  The machine said in its pleasantly modulated, and utterly soulless tones.  “How may I assist you?”

“I'm going to Sol Plaza. One way trip.”

“Very well, Mr. Vonner.  You will need to take sub‑tram Twelve‑Alpha to Marketts Run, and then sub‑tram One‑Eleven to Sol Plaza.  Have a nice day.”

I started to stomp away when the machine called my name, and politely (oh, so politely) reminded me that I had forgotten to pay for my passage.  Damn, Marce was right.  If I wasn't capable of remembering to pay for the Tram, I must really have been close to the edge.  I fed the machine my credit authorization and started to walk off when the damned thing called to me again.

“Mr. Vonner?” the machine said, its pleasantly modulated tones digging into my ears like jagged flint.


“I apologize for the inconvenience, Mr. Vonner, but I've noticed that you do not have a hotel reservation at Sol Plaza.  Will you be needing one?”

Damn.  I hadn't thought that far ahead.  “Yes,” I said, irritated that the machine had had to remind me.  “Thanks.  How much?”

The machine computed for a nano-second.  “That would be one hundred and twenty credits per night.”

I computed for about six seconds.  “Have the hotel put five nights on my account.”  What the hell, I thought.  I probably won't live long enough to see retirement anyway.  Fuck it.  “Make it a suite.”

There was another micro-pause while the gratingly polite machine made the arrangements.  “Very well, Mr. Vonner,” it said almost immediately.  “Your reservations have been made.  And Mr. Vonner, thank you for using Syrch Systems to make your life better.”

All the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up while my peripheral vision shut off.  “What did you just say?”  I growled.

The machine repeated it's last statement for me.  “Very well, Mr. Vonner.  Your reservations have been made.  And Mr. Vonner, thank you for using Syrch Systems to make your life better.”

I started seeing red.  “Just who the fuck's system did you think I was going to use?”

There was a moment or two of silence before it answered me.  “I'm sorry, Mr. Vonner.  I don't understand.  Could you rephrase the question please?”

A surge of angry joy pulsed through my head.  “Yeah, I'd be fuckin’ glad to!”  My voice sounded like grinding gears as I plunged on.  “Tell me something, fucker,” I shouted, my stiffened finger stabbing through the air at the machine.  “Tell me where the nearest non‑Syrch terminal is!  Ya see, I don't think that Syrch is making my life better.  I think that Syrch sucks!  I think that the best fucking thing that could happen to this planet, would be for it to be hit by a mile‑wide asteroid!”  I was in full mindless bellow by this point.  “Yeah, fuck Syrch, and fuck you!  You tell them that I quit!  You tell those ass‑sucking bastards that I'm gonna go work for...”

And at that moment I realized that I couldn't consciously recall the name of a single other corporation.  I started to stammer, “I’m going to work for...”  I thought furiously and finally gave in, kicking the front of the machine as hard as I could.  “You tell those bastards that I'm going into business for my own goddamned self!”

And as quickly as it had hit, the fit passed.  I guess I had just needed to let out some of the aggression I’d had building up in my gut.  To be honest, lashing out had felt good.  I was a little calmer and as far as I could tell the machine was none the worse from having been kicked and screamed at.  It may have decided to alert customer service, but by the time a face would have appeared on the tiny vid‑screen, I was off looking for sub‑tram Twelve‑Alpha.

Fuck it.  I was on vacation.

Turning Point 1.1


It was the day that I realized there really was no one to blame.  Not only that there was no one to blame, but that even if there was, that it really wouldn't matter anyway.  That's the first day that I could remember really freaking out.

What had really gotten me, was the fact that on the whole damned planet there wasn't anybody who had decided it should be like this.  We were just a corporate planet.  Damned near everybody there worked for the Syrch Corporation.  That's the way it was supposed  to be.  We  hadn't made the planet corporate.  Being born there made us corporate.

Okay, it goes like this.  Once upon a time a bit over a hundred years ago, a Syrch scout ship found a plant that was inhospitable as all hell, but very rich with natural resources.  This information gets reported back on Earth, and some bigwig makes an official proposal.  After that a bunch of people in a board-room somewhere take a vote, and boom, all of a sudden some dead rock two-hundred light‑years from Earth has it's destiny changed.  Now it had a name, RCH1 or "Roach", and a grim fate.  A three-hundred year “resource retrieval” program.  That meant that in a little more than two‑hundred years, all of the lead, gold, diamond and anything else that's valuable will be gone, powering and enriching some other planet.  A planet, no doubt, that Syrch gives a shit about.

Anyway, my point is there was no one to blame.  No one on-planet by any rate.  By the time that I had my realization, all those bastards in that long-ago board room were either dead, senile or spending more time in a cryo‑tank than out living whatever was left of their lives.  The three‑million or so of us on Roach were just company stiffs.  Oh sure, there were always one or two off‑world big-wigs floating around, but what would they do?  When it came right down to it, there wasn't a piss lot they could do about the fact that, for the majority of its citizens, Roach was a shit‑hole.  Not that they’d care enough to notice in the first place.  It’s just the way things were.

That's why I didn't get these “Demos”.  The so-called “Democratics”, with their talk about equal representation, elected officials and “freedom from the corporate masters.”  It was a load of shit.  All of it.  You grew up on Roach singing the corporate anthem, sweating through your placement exams and then earning a wage.  That’s what earned you credits and a con-apt.  What did not was dreaming up ways to shove archaic political systems down the Chairman’s throat.  That sort of lunacy got your contract terminated.  Everyone knew that.

I couldn't figure out who the Demos thought they were going to shank, shoot or blow up that would make a difference anyway.  Seriously, if you killed every Syrch executive on the planet they'd just all get replaced with the next tier of up-and-comers.  That or off‑worlders.  No one would be helped.  Nothing would be improved.  Not one damned rule or regulation would get changed.  With two exceptions.  A lot of contracts would be terminated and you’d get a metric ass-load of heightened security standards.  After all, those fresh, new executives would be very eager to make sure that they didn’t suffer the same fate as their predecessors.  Bet your ass on it.

And the “masses” that the Demos were trying to free with their secret meetings, murders and terrorism?  They wouldn't rise up if you used a five‑ton load-lifter on ‘em.  Ninety‑nine percent of the people on the planet had been born in Syrch owned hospitals.  They grew up being educated by Syrch, singing the aforementioned anthem.  After that they worked for Syrch and would move into Syrch owned retirement facilities when they turned 85.  Their lives were laid out before them based on genetic aptitude assays and placement exams.  By the system they were born into and lived their lives by.  People like that just don't “rise up.”  Hell, most of them even seemed to like working for Syrch.  Yeah, all that being a Democratic did was get you on a Contract Termination list.  That's where I came in.

My job title read, “Vonner, Alec;  Community Contract Specialist Level 9;  Personnel Maintenance.”  This meant that if you went and did something stupid, I and some other level 9's would come shoot you. Things like hanging out with known Democratics, shanking shift managers and trying to blow up buildings all qualify as stupid.  The ops are called "contract terminations" and more contracts get terminated than you might think.  That, insanity or being able to buy yourself out are the only ways off the company payroll on Roach.

Marce used to bitch at me to be careful who I shot.  Which was something else that I never got.  Why did she care?  Why did she worry about it?  I mean, what the hell?  Say there's an ordinary employee and two Demos in a room, and I plug all three so that the Demos don't put a bomb in an office tower. Who the hell is going to care that the third stiff didn't know what he was into?  That he was guilty of negligent stupidity?  Besides, there is a big difference between accidentally killing a level 2 janitor in a good cause and intentionally murdering hundreds of secretaries for a bad one.

And every time she bitched like that it would devolve into one of those hair-raising arguments.  The kind that inevitably involved raised voices and broken glassware.  The bitching made Marce feel like she was doing a community service, so to her that made the fights worthwhile.  The post-fight sex was always mind-blowing, so to me that made it worthwhile.

I adjusted my helmet-mic and looked up the wall across the little alley that I was waiting in.  I swore under my breath and checked for the tenth time, making sure the straps were secure on my jumper and that my helmet hadn't magically come loose.  Leaning back against the wall behind me, I looked up to see if I could catch a glimpse of the darkened eco-dome overhead.  I knew better, but I tried it every night.  That night my target was an apartment window on the third floor of the south side of the building that I faced.  The legs on the jumper I was wearing would give me enough boost (barely) to reach the window, but I was always leery about how well its grippers would work.

For those of you who have never worked as a Contract Specialist, a jumper is a partial exoskeleton that covers you from the pectorals to the feet.  The exoskeleton sheathes a layer of incredibly powerful synthetic muscle fibers between two layers of flexible armor.  The feet are covered by a pair of “jump boots.”  It’s not the boots that help you jump though.  Like I said, that’s the legs.  The “jump boots” are an emergency measure, there in case you fall off of something really tall.  The grippers who's performance I was so concerned about are, in my opinion, the most important part of the suit.  Grippers consist of thousands of little teeth that line the front of a jumper suit.  The theory goes like this;  if there are enough of these little teeth lining the front of your jumper, and you hit something hard enough, then enough of the teeth will stick into that something to hold you in place.  In practice, I always kept one hand free for grabbing on to things.  During my first year on the team I saw a guy fall when his grippers failed.  True to the paperwork, the jump boots had fired when he was about halfway to the ground.  While this did break his fall, it also broke both of his legs, his hips and half his ribs.  Sometimes “survival” isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Anyway, the whole job was making me twitchy.  First there was this alley.  We were on the “bad” side of the dome, and the place was filthy.  Then when we went through our tertiary com‑check, half the receivers  went on the fritz.  Mostly I was twitchy because of the Su‑Finite.  Su‑Fin is a large, dense planet with nearly twice Earth's gravity.  After a few generations in this environment, Su‑Finites had come to be built like bricks.  Before this I'd only met one Su‑Finite.  That son‑of‑a‑bitch put a shot through my shoulder after I'd let him have it right through the chest.  Something about guys who burn off six rounds after their heart has been replaced by a twelve‑millimeter slug gives me the willies.

I had been waiting in that filthy alley for five minutes since the last com‑check.  Suddenly my ear‑jack crackled and came back to life.  “There you go kids.”  Mhik's friendly voice rang in my ear.  I let out a sigh of relief and allowed just the tiniest bit of tension to crawl out of my shoulders.  Field work is dangerous enough, but without commo it’s suicidal.  Mhik's voice came back over the jack.  “What do you know, when you actually turn these things on they tend to work.”  We all knew that the problem hadn't been that simple, but Mhik tended to make light of things.  It was easy for him.  He watched these little adventures on public camera-linked vid screens in a cruiser down the block.  But even Mhik knew when to get serious.  “Okay everyone, this is Alpha.  Give me a head count.”

Hari and Shohna whispered in their replies.  Hari was positioned inside the apartment building that we were about to hit, pulling close security.  Shohna's job was to do the initial Listening Post/Observation Post until the tertiary com‑check was complete.  Then she started roving guard.

“Delta in position.”  Ahni radioed from the darkness above me.  I tilted my face towards the target window and squatted, locking the jump suit into position.

“Echo ready.”  I whispered into my mike.  The shooter always reported last.

Mhik clucked approvingly.  “Delta, are the marks still in position?”

“Roger.”  she replied.  “Our Primary's by the south door.  The Secondaries are sitting on the sofa by the west wall.”

Mihk made his clucking noise again.  “Okay Echo, we're on your mark.”

“Roger that.”  I replied, feeling the icy rock forming in my gut.  I wasn't very fond of that rock, but it came to visit me every time I was about to pull a hit.  “Bravo and Charlie,”  I called to Hari and Shohna, “we're about to go live.  Delta, give me a sonic on the window.  I'll start when I hear it give.”

I trusted Ahni completely.  As soon as I gave the word, she would have the sonic on the window.  The sonic was a resonance‑frequency thingy that would take out the window.  If we had lived on an oxygen rich planet, the sonic would have been redundant.  Since Roach had an atmosphere full of sulfur, we lived under an eco-dome.

On the off chance that something might happen to compromise the integrity of the dome, every window in every building was made of some super‑strong polymer that could withstand the potential atmospheric leak.  They could also deflect small‑arms fire.  The sonic attached to Ahni’s sniper rifle solved that problem.  Ahni had explained it to me once as a beam of sound that matches the resonance frequency of whatever it hits.  A hundredth of a second later, the target is reduced to a lot of little pieces.  A half‑second after the widow shattered, the fiery red‑head would have the sonic off.   That would give me plenty of time to make my jump without having to worry about my head (or any other easily ruptured part of me) crossing the beam.  While the sonic wouldn’t actually rupture someone, it could and would fuck you up in other ways.  So I always put a good amount of effort into avoiding it.

I grabbed a concussion grenade out of my belt with my left hand and flexed my right.  I took a deep breath and let it out slow, counting down the seconds.  “All right Delta,” I whispered, “let 'er rip.”

Sitting in a room opposite from and one floor above my destination, it probably took Ahni about a second to get the sonic beam on the window.  It only takes the window about a hundredth of a second to shatter after that.  To me it always seemed to take a year and-a-half.

When the window gave way to Ahni, I jumped.  The jumper's internal sensors detected the bioelectrical impulses as they traveled to my legs and ordered the synthetic muscles to work with me.  The actual science is a lot more complicated than that, but I'm not a Tech.  Much harder and faster than my legs could have on their own, the jumper's muscles bunched and pushed.  For one very dizzy second I hurtled through the air with my arms pin-wheeling.  Then I hit the wall hard enough to make me see stars, which was just fine with me.  The harder you hit, the better the grippers work.  I was just thankful for my helmet and the jumpers' armor sheath.

As I hit the wall and lost coherent thought for a moment, my training and experience took over.  My right hand grabbed the window ledge as my left thumbed the timer on the grenade and lobbed it into the room.  I'd landed a touch too low and hard to bother trying to pinpoint my target, but I didn't think it would matter much.  My concussion grenade was a far cry from the gentle flash‑bangs the cops use to break up the occasional food riot.  Our targets weren't supposed to live.

Less than three seconds after the window's shattering gave the Demo's their first clue of trouble, they were hit with enough concussive force to rupture their internal organs and to blow the con-apt’s doors off their hinges.  Even where I was tucked on the safe side of the wall, the blast was bone jarring.  I gripped the window ledge tighter in my armor-gloved hand and prayed that the grippers would hold.  I'd already had the drum in one ear and the bones from one shin replaced.  Even with the knowledge that my contract guarantied that any replacements would be organics, I did not want to go through that again.

I waited several seconds for the nighttime sounds of Roach to return.  Off in the distance I heard a police siren start up.  It would take them a long time to show.  We Contract Specialists were part of the Security Division.  Contract terminations were part of the cops’ briefing data.

"Can you see anything, Delta?"  I hissed into the com.

Her reply was instant.  “Negative.  Your toy took out the lights and made a mess out of the place.  There's a ton of crap in the air.”

I continued to hang beneath the window frame and stroked Thumper.  Thumper was my baby.  She fired twelve‑millimeter slugs and could hold eight in the clip.  I was very fond of her.  Suddenly the ear jack came back to life.

“We've got trouble,” Hari called.  “There’s a couple of citizens in the hall heading towards the target.  It looks like they're going to try to do something helpful for their neighbors.”

“Stop `em, Bravo.”  Mhik's voice cut through.  “Try talking to 'em first, but if  you have to, tranq 'em.”  Having innocent bystanders wander into our little fire‑fights was a constant danger.  They usually figured that our target's cooker or vid unit had blown up, or some equally stupid shit.  I mean, would a vid unit having a catastrophic short‑circuit really knock doors off their hinges?  Sometimes I just couldn't believe how simple‑minded some of our fellow citizens were.

“Echo,”  Ahni chirped in.  “I can see the Secondaries.  They're still on the sofa and they've been neutralized.”

“Good.” I replied a little sharply.  “Where's the damned Primary?”  There was a momentary pause.

“Sorry.  The blast might have knocked the Primary into a corner somewhere, I can't spot him.  The center of the room's still hard to see.”

That pissed me off.  I hated dealing with Su‑Fins.  “Alright,” I growled.  “I’ll take a look.”

I reached up to the side of my helmet and tapped the button that engaged the low-light enhancement feature on the helmet’s visor.  Then I drew Thumper.  Twelve‑millimeters are slower and heaver than most pistols and can’t hold as many rounds in the magazine, it’s true.  But they also put your target on his ass without the worry that he’ll get back up.  Ever.  When Thumper kicked you, you stayed kicked.

Why was I using an archaic piece of tech like a slug thrower?  Because Roach was a Corporate planet.  Corporations are hell on little red rockets when it comes to making money.  This is especially true in regards to a corporation’s focal activity and Syrch’s focus was natural resource retrieval.  Not security.

In Syrch, as in most corporations, security was a non-revenue-generating department.  This generally means that your budget is going to be tighter than an undersized condom.  Which is why Roach’s Community Contract Specialists didn’t have nifty toys like all-environment powered armor or coherent energy weapons.  No, we got jumper suits and slug-throwers.  Compared to a mil-spec assault laser, Thumper’s machined parts and chemical reactions were cheap-ass.

I pulled myself up as far as the right arm would take me without having to release the grippers.  The only parts of me that were higher than the window ledge were from the collar bones up.  My eyes swept the room with thumper's laser‑sight leading the way.  At first I couldn't make much out.  Ahni had been right, the concussion grenade had made a real mess.  The walls in a con-apt are cheap and easy to damage.  Just punching one too hard would result in a new hole and a small dust cloud.  Our concussion grenades always made very large dust clouds.  My dust cloud was playing hell with my light‑amp.  What good does it do to have the ambient light amplified a thousand‑or‑so times, when the air looks like white soup?

I heard and automatically filed away two distant sounding thumps in the hallway.  Hari must've had to tranq our helpful neighbors.  I could make out a dim shape on the right side of the room that had to be the sofa.  Nobody keeps anything else that big in their living room.  I caught sight of one of our Secondaries right after that.  The blast had lifted the poor bastard up and tossed him aside like an old doll.  Well, now he was an old, broke doll.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw something move.  As I jerked Thumper towards whatever it was, I heard the roar of a handgun.  The Su‑Fin!  He had been hiding in the center of the dust cloud the whole time!  The two shots impacted as I tried to get Thumper in line with our Primary.  The first round buried itself in the window frame, showering my helmet and visor with particulate debris.  The second burned into my helmet and ricocheted away, making me want to shit for miles.  Combined with my awkward position on the outer wall, my dear, big and heavy Thumper was suddenly a mortal liability.  The heavier your gun is, the harder it is to get a good sight-picture.  The Su‑Fin burned off two more rounds before I could get Thumper on target.

I pumped two shots at the now huge disturbance in the dust cloud.  I heard one hit the far wall as the Su‑Fin let out an explosive grunt of pain, and then began howling.  Then the crazy son‑of‑a‑bitch charged at me!  He was ten feet away, and blazed his pistol across them all.  I squeezed off one wild shot and ducked beneath the ledge.  “Delta!”  I screamed.

Ahni lived up to my faith in her again.  Just as the raging off‑worlder was about to end my days of company employment, Ahni put one into his chest.  Frighteningly enough, it didn't quite kill him.  There was still a light in the Su‑Finite's eyes and he staggered towards me.  He spun in a half‑circle as I burned a round into him, and then he jumped.  He didn't just jump though.  He dove at me through the window.  He did this with two 12 millimeter slugs in his hide and a hole the size of my fist in his upper‑right pectoral.  I had never been so terrified in my life.  I ducked, pushing myself as low as I could without dis-engaging the grippers and the Su-Fin missed.

The thing that flew out of that window and into the dark was still bellowing, but didn't look human anymore.  His face was bloated and purple with rage and pain while he streamed blood from the wounds we’d given him.  As he sped to the ground below, he looked more like a demon escaping from someone's mythology than some short, thick guy from a high‑G planet.

He finally hit the alley floor with a wet, crunching thud.

I hung there, stuck to the wall and shook.  I almost wanted to cry.  Shit!!  That was as close as it had ever really come.  My bowels felt loose and watery, and I even forgot to worry if the grippers would keep holding me to the wall.

Then the rage hit me.  Here I was hanging three stories above the ground, having just missed being hit by a half‑dozen bullets, looking at the corpse of a guy who was eight or nine‑trillion miles from home.  And there was no good fucking reason for it.  There was no one he could have killed that would have been important enough to have really been missed.  That meant that there was no point for his being here to get killed either.  It didn't matter.  His being here didn't matter, whoever he could have killed didn't matter, and killing him didn't matter.  There was no fucking point to any of it and because of that there was no one to blame.

A sick sensation crawled up from my gut.  Oddly, it was the sort of feeling that you get when you're caught doing something that you secretly knew was wrong, but didn't bother to worry about because you knew that no one would ever know.

That's when I freaked out.  I heard myself start cussing at the Su‑Finite, then I started screaming at him.  Screaming at him to get the fuck off my planet, and just jabbering like an idiot.  Then I started shooting him.  I was slapping clips into Thumper as fast as I could empty them.  At that point in my life nothing made sense, and it was all this dead guy's fault.  For a bit there I totally lost it.

The first thing to get through my haze was Ahni’s voice on the com‑link.  She was saying something about “him” being out of ammo and starting to calm down.  I slowly came to the realization that she was talking about me.  I looked down at the mess in the alley.  The addition of twenty‑nine more slugs from Thumper had made what was left of our Primary look even worse than when he had jumped.

“I'm all right,”  I sighed into the helmet-mic.  “I just got a little twitchy, that's all.”

The company gave me two weeks paid vacation.