Control: Bleak Pass
Surface Defense Facility, The Bleak Pass, Classified Star System HY229, Systems Coalition Space
The debrief had taken no more than four milliseconds in real time. The Eloquent Gentleman had not been impressed.
“Let me get this right as I’m a little confused here. Now, you’re probably wondering if it’s even possible to confuse a two-series, but bravo, you’ve done just that.
“So, you have a Foley TDE powerful enough to destroy a small moon, the most advanced synaptic processors in the fleet and – this is the bit I’m struggling with here – you missed. Moreover, we gave a Foley to your idiot brother and it missed too. Your sole purpose was, between you, to protect the Bleak Pass.” The Eloquent Gentleman had manifested as a haughty, middle-aged, red haired woman with a clipped Connecticut accent (a long forgotten region of what was once the continental United States, back on Earth). This usually meant that it was a hair’s breadth from blind rage. Not a good sign, observed the AI. It paused for the better part of 0.07 of a picosecond before going on. “And you let it escape. The one thing you had to do, the one fucking thing you were programmed – at great expense I might add – to do, and you failed to do it!” The Eloquent Gentleman glared at the AI, or at least it sent the binary equivalent of a glare. “It’s not like you were busy for Christ’s goddamn sake!”
“You’re sorry?” The Eloquent Gentleman screeched, overloading the buffer momentarily and causing the sound of its voice to break up. “You’re a killer! You were designed and built to destroy, imbued with the sole purpose of murder!”
“And patience. I was designed to wait.”
“Oh yes, you did that very well, didn’t you? Waiting until the filter agent had broken in, stolen all the data it needed and skulked off before you sprung into action. Excellent waiting skills, if I do say so myself.”
“It didn’t get everything and it did all happen rather quickly.” The AI tried to filter the sullen edge out of its tone, but it still managed to sound like a disenfranchised teenager. Things had unfolded very quickly and the filter agent that had broken in had moved like nothing the AI had ever seen. The three-series had struggled to keep up with the agent, let alone do anything about its unwelcome intrusion. “The FA seriously outperformed the last spec report I had on that model – “
“They’ve been off the grid for twenty years. You didn’t think that a sentient polymer agent, designed specifically to spend decades behind enemy lines without any contact from command might have – oh I don’t know – matured?” The Eloquent Gentleman was dripping with anger as it spoke. Losing data from the Bleak Pass was bad enough, but access data? It really didn’t get much worse than that.
“I don’t know what you want me to say – “
“I know that! Now I have to clean this mess up. And when I’m done I’ll be back to revise your core programming.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little bit of an overreaction?” The idea of being rewritten was, quite frankly, terrifying. The three-series had indeed been built to kill – every single one of the AI’s organized molecular circuits thrilled with the song of death, a perfect predator – but like all AI’s it wasn’t without flaws. In order to perform effectively the three-series AI had been built with an emotional matrix to allow for non-lateral improvisation and right now it was registering fear on a particularly high level.
“You may consider yourself lucky if I don’t decommission you and your idiotic sibling and replace you both with humans.” The connection died with the Eloquent Gentleman’s last words, leaving the AI to consider its fate. Whatever happened, though, it knew things wouldn’t go that far.
Humans. As if.
Book One: The Soldier
Central District, New Midrand Habitat, Planet Rassist, Vorstaat Space
“You hungry, Ira?”
“No more than usual.” Ira smiled. He ordered banton, soft, and slid away from the counter into a corner booth.
The subject got up as Ira sat down, filling him with a brief flash of anticipation as he wondered if she knew she was being followed. It was a ridiculous thought, of course. There was no way she could know what was going on, but he enjoyed the moment of frisson as he considered the possibility. It quelled the monotony for a few seconds at least. After a moment, having rearranged her bag, she sat down again.
She was handsome; a strong nose and jaw with black hair scraped back and skin as pale as a moon leant her an air of austerity that Ira found a little intimidating, maybe a little exciting, he really couldn’t make his mind up on that one. She was dressed casually, as she always was, in an Avontuur one-piece dropsuit, one of their military style lines usually worn by the rich when they went on safari. The saggy, stained gravbag she always carried (torn in several places, but probably still sealed) marked her out as well travelled, but, of most interest to Ira was the way she moved. She had obviously worked hard to modify her physicality, but there was something irrepressibly agile about her posture and gait. She was slender, but there was a power there informing every movement.
On the surface she was indifferent, casual even, but Ira could see so much more than that. Her body was at rest, a perfect study of the everyday, but her eyes never stopped looking – he could see her mind working from the other side of the diner. If he wasn’t so good at what he did she would have spotted him the first time he walked in, but that was why Buro was paying him two thousand a week.
Her name, while she was planet side at least, was Mir Tohno and she had an apartment in Cliffside, overlooking the massive geological collapse that was the Aromat Canyon – more than eighty kilometers across and twenty to thirty deep. It would have been a big tourist draw, but it was plagued with catastrophically destructive weather systems that scoured but the most hardy or desperate visitors. Cliffside was an anomaly that betrayed the the canyon almost constantly.
As a result the surrounding region suffered from almost ceaseless sand storms discouraging alllocal population’s stubborn nature. Thousands of specially designed habitats clustered around the rocky slopes that loomed over the dark drop off. Streets cut deep into the surface strata offered some shelter, but it was a terrible, mournful place to live. The wind moaned ceaselessly, an implacable spirit of the deep trench, and sand got into everything. Airlocks failed, filtering failed, nanotech failed, even displacement fields failed and so the residents of Cliffside learned to tolerate the particulate invasion with moribund indifference.
The place suited Mir Tohno perfectly, thought Ira.
Cliffside was just a district of New Midrand, the main continental habitat and the centre of Rassist’s failing mining business. It was a slow decay that would take decades to finish the place off, war or no, and the locals seemed to know it, choosing to stay and see out the last days of their home planet rather than fade away on some other half ruined rock on the edge of space.
For all that New Midrand was consistently dirty and busy and crooked and Ira liked it. Certain inhospitable districts notwithstanding (Cliffside not least amongst those) he could happily see himself getting lost in the endless sprawl of activity for a good while.
But that wasn’t what he was there for. He was watching the insufferably sanctimonious war propaganda telecasts on the diner’s central holo and eating his banton whilst pretending to enjoy it, as he had done for every day these past three months, while watching Mir do absolutely nothing out of the ordinary the entire time. She shopped for food, she watched holos and she slept. She ate, she went to the bathroom, and she spoke to no one, not even a call. All this he diligently reported back to Buro, much as he had done with all his targets when he worked for Spezaal; the prettier, media friendly face of ‘special operations’. All those jobs had come to a head; all those jobs had served an apparent purpose, but this one was becoming tedious.
He had no doubt that she was milspec; specialist, lethal, probably better than him at snapping necks, but she was doing nothing. He had the redacted profile, but it gave him nothing and he knew better than to ask for more information, so he looked for himself. Ira had cultivated a string of useful contacts during his term with Spezaal and there wasn’t much he couldn’t find out for himself. If someone used a false identity, no matter how deep it went, his people could rip through it and find the truth.
Mir Tohno was something else, though; she had a limited file history with enough details to get her through immigration and beyond that nothing. That was where he would expect to be able to rip away the thin veneer of a cover and find the real person underneath, but there was nothing else. If this was Buro’s doing, which wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility, then Ira knew he would never find out who she was. They weren’t in the habit of sharing, even with their contractors. Whoever it was that had created this ID for her, they had gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal who she really was and that unsettled him.
It didn’t, however, unsettle him enough to stop the pay cheques and resign.
He had heard of the mysteries of Buro before he was transferred and he was sure that their interests were convoluted and utterly devious, perhaps not even directly involving Mir, but he knew that he was safe and well paid so all he need to do was continue to watch and report. He was on a sliding shift with another agent that he never met or made any kind of contact with – in fact his only assurance that even was another agent came from Buro and he had to assume that Mir was being watched by someone when he was either asleep or drinking and fornicating.
The remains of his banton sat on Ira’s plate, cold and utterly inedible. He didn’t know why he ordered it, maybe it was because he wanted to stay in shape and the only way he could do that when he spent so much time in the diner was to order something he couldn’t stand; or maybe he was punishing himself for agreeing to this utterly tedious job. Either way he resolved not to order the banton again – apart from tasting awful it gave him the shits. Punishment, definitely.
Within moments of pushing the plate away another clerk appeared at his table and asked him if he was finished. He forced a congenial smile and nodded, telling him that the banton was, as usual, perfection.
Just then, through the gap between the clerk’s arm and his body, Ira saw Mir get up and head towards the door. She was early. Mir never left this soon after her lunch; hadn’t done so once in the three months that Ira had been following her. A flood of adrenaline washed through him and he fought the urge to stand up. Instead he slowly adjusted his jacket and reached for his coat. New Midrand was still in the clutches of winter, the only season Ira had known here. It suited him perfectly as the extra layers afforded him another level of anonymity.
He stood up and pulled the bulky coat on, allowing it to self-seal as he shifted around inside it. He nodded to the clerk again and headed for the door, his face now almost entirely covered by the black material. Every fibre of his being urged him to rush to the door: Mir had broken her pattern and that meant she could be going anywhere, but he knew that if he broke his own pattern it would be the end of the job and probably his life.
Ira moved slowly to the door, the banton sitting heavy in his stomach. As he picked his way past a knot of customers in the central table cluster the main holo sensed his approach and turned up the volume slightly to try and catch his attention, issuing some noise about a victory on the frontline and what Vorstaat citizens could do to help galvanize that success into tangible progress – the usual platitudes of vigilance, determination and, of course, financial support. Ira surreptitiously kicked the unit as he passed, causing the image to flicker and the sound to fail. He slowed up and pretended to check the seals on his coat whilst he scanned the windows for some sign of Mir, but she was nowhere to be seen. Nervously he stepped through the door as it hissed open and a mix of cold air and noise hit him hard. He scanned the street, still no sign. Years of training kicked in and he relaxed his diaphragm, controlling his breathing and commanding every inch of his body to convey disinterest in the world around him. He decided that he would follow her normal route to the junction and scan again. So he started to walk, but he hadn’t gotten more than halfway past the diner when he spotted her crossing the junction just up ahead.
She didn’t look any more tense than usual. Just like him, she had total control over her body and didn’t give anything away. He studied her movement, but it didn’t tell him anything – she was the same as she had been in the diner, just a little early. Maybe she was as bored as he was and just wanted to do something, anything, no matter how banal, to make the waiting just a little bit more bearable.
If only he knew what she was waiting for.
Ira picked up his pace slightly and merged into the swirling crowds of people that surged through the streets as they busied themselves with their lives, completely ignorant to what was happening in their midst. Ira dropped his head slightly and walked a little faster still. As he approached the junction he looked up casually, scanning the area as he did, and sure enough there she was, back on track and on her way home some distance ahead on the other side of the busy street. In a little while she would reach the trans and catch a ride over to Cliffside. He would be on the next one over and hopefully see her on her way back to her apartment where she would slip back into pattern.
The sun cast hard winter shadows from behind the scattered tall buildings that crowded the street. New Midrand’s Central District was populated by older architecture that contrasted sharply with the uniformly modern structures that had been part of the rapid expansion from city to continental habitat. The buildings here were dark, tall and narrow, decorated with elaborate carvings climbing upward in an organic thrust to escape the age-old layers of pollution that blackened everything. They jostled with each other, pushing and merging to create great canyons of glass and stone that all but shut out the natural light.
Nevertheless, the lowering sun broke through here and there and blinded Ira as he walked down the street. Before coming to Buro he had spent two years in the fog and drizzle soaked hills of Farament on the border world of Kromme. He had spent his time there tracking and killing rebels and he had finally adjusted to the sullen weather just before being recruited into Buro. The light here was a piercing lance of white-hot energy by comparison, but it was something he could tolerate – anything was better than the closeness of those hills. He remembered them momentarily; the way all sound died on the still, damp air; the constant fear of ambush in tight, imposing valleys; the endless, barren landscape that rippled and rolled away to infinity in every direction. This job was dull and the low orbiting sunlight burned his retinas to the point of almost constant irritation, but he reminded himself it was preferable to squatting in those mist-choked hills waiting to die from a gas bullet to the head.
Ira was excited at the prospect of something happening, but the possibility that she would fall back into her regular routine was somewhat comforting. When he thought about it there was something unsettling about her and he didn’t actually want anything to happen if he could help it. Tedium was one thing, but it was well-paid tedium and better than Farament; better than most places he’d been.
He looked up again, having gauged the time it would take her to reach the trans and saw in the middle distance that Mir’s trans car was pulling away, inside he caught a glimpse of the pale green dropsuit. It was Tohno, he would have put money on it, but he didn’t stay alive in his job by guessing. Excitement and fear bit into him again and he broke protocol, just for a moment. He raised himself up onto the balls of his feet and strained for a better view of the car as it glided along the track and off into the distance. Just as he lowered himself back down, unsure what to do next, he felt something ram into his back, grinding as it did. It tingled at first and then a strange sensation of pain and panic flooded through his torso. His legs went cold and he felt heavier than he ever had in his life and he started to sink to the ground, the crushing crowd of people towered over him. The metallic tang of blood bubbled up into his mouth and he started to cough and choke, his chest felt like it was being crushed whilst it tried to explode and he fought to draw breath.
With what little strength he had left he reached around to his back where the pain had started and he felt something like a handle. His fingers touched the hardened polymer grip of the jungle service knife that had been jammed through his spine and up into his left lung before being twisted up and into the edge of his heart, creating a slow steady bleed that quickly became a gushing torrent, flooding his body cavity and crushing the already deflated lung. Just at that moment someone screamed and the towering figures around him seemed to scatter before returning to crowd around him. He looked at them for a moment as the light bled out of his world, but then he cast his gaze down the street and there, not more than ten paces ahead, Mir Tohno walked towards the trans, her posture relaxed, yet charged, like an animal, a killer.
“S-shit.” Ira spat blood and blinked slowly. “Clever bitch.”
Just as the darkness took Ira, Mir boarded the trans. She looked down at the crowd gathered around his body and then back to the interior of the car, searching for a seat. She found one, stretched lazily and dropped into it.
She flexed her hand slightly, the pattern of the knife grip still imprinted into her skin.