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.