Authors: Rhett C. Bruno
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Hydra Ebook Original
Copyright Â© 2016 by Rhett C. Bruno
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Hydra, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover design and illustration: David G. Stevenson, based on images Â© Shutterstock
Somewhere outside New London, Earth, a tall, lanky Ringer named Nash stood within the cargo hold of an unmarked transport shuttle. He was human, but three centuries of his people living on Titan had stretched their bodies and bleached their flesh. He wore a white armored suit with an orange circle painted on the chest. His helmet was off, revealing a soaring forehead, a long, tapered jaw, and a sanitary mask pulled tight over his mouth.
Across from him stood a Ringer many years his senior. He was equally tall, but unlike Nash he was dressed in nothing but an unmarked boiler suit, and his sanitary mask was covered in grime. Bloodshot eyes were made redder by his ashen skin, but they were resolute.
“When our ancestors fled Earth with Trass before the Meteorite struck, I bet they never thought any of us would return,” Nash said.
“Or be enslaved by the very people they left behind,” the older Ringer replied.
“Perhaps they should have gone farther.”
The older Ringer shook his head. “It wouldn't have helped. There isn't a star these Earthers won't try to reach one day.”
“Let them. Soon the Ring will be free.”
“If they don't wipe us all out first.”
Nash pursed his lips in anger, but before he could say anything else the older Ringer stepped forward.
“Enough,” he said. “We have to stay focused.”
Nash groaned and as he did someone else stepped into the cargo hold from the shuttle's cockpit. This one wore a matching suit of white armor, only it had no orange circle and the helmet was on, complete with a tinted visor that blocked the face. He or she was shorter than the others by at least a third of a meter and was holding a small metal cylinder with blue light emanating from slits on the sides.
“Is it finally ready, Doctor?” the older Ringer asked. “I'm running out of time.”
“Yes,” the Doctor said through a vocal distortion device. “Are you?”
“As I'll ever be.”
The Doctor handed him the tube, and he inspected it. He ran his fingers along the sides, but when he reached the flat top the Doctor stopped him.
“Careful,” the Doctor warned. “Don't worry. My employers assure me that it'll pass New London scanners.”
“It better,” the older Ringer said with a snarl. “We're putting a lot of faith in you.” He shifted the device into his left hand.
“It will. You remember where to use it? We don't want casualties.”
The older Ringer was hardly paying attention to her. “I'll do my best.”
“Good. You get that right where we planned, and they'll never see your men coming.”
The older Ringer stared into the Doctor's black visor for a few seconds, and then the two exchanged a nod. The Doctor immediately turned around and marched back into the cockpit.
“Our people won't forget this,” Nash said after the Doctor was completely out of sight.
“They will,” the older Ringer countered. “Nobody will ever speak my name, because what I do mustn't be remembered. What comes after will be.”
Nash's lips started to tremble. Tears welled in the corners of his eyes. “I won't forget,” he said. Nash spread his arms and rushed forward to hug the older Ringer, but he bowed out of the way.
“You shouldn't risk it,” he said.
Nash froze for a moment, and then grunted before he decided to embrace his older comrade anyway. They touched their foreheads together and held each other there until both of their cheeks were wet with tears.
“From ice to ashes, my friend,” Nash whispered.
“From ice to ashes,” the older Ringer repeated. He backed up and stared down at the glowing device in his left hand. There was a glimmer in his sickly eyes. He was ready.
The day was
August 29, 2334, three hundred years after the Meteorite crippled Earth. In a little over two months' time, I, Malcolm Graves, would help spark a revolution. I didn't know it at the time. I didn't even consider it a possibility as I crept through the dark, cavernous hallways of a mining facility on an asteroid named 92-Undina. I was focused entirely on the job at hand.
One of the mining chiefs on Undina had decided that his wages didn't match his labor, and he was becoming a problem for my employers at Pervenio Corporation, who happened to own the entire mine. I have no problem with a man asking for more credits if he thinks he deserves them. Hell, I can't even count how many times I've done the same. But this rabble-rouser, Yev Tavar, had inspired the entirety of Undina Mining Sector D to stop working, overthrow the security team stationed there, and shut down all hangar access. With food and water stores in their sector able to last around six months, waiting out their less-than-peaceful strike was not a viable option.
Undina was an M-type asteroid that was unbelievably rich in valuable metals. It also had been pulled into a close orbit around Earth. Pervenio Corporation drew it there a few years back when they were selected to build an Ark for the coming Departure, though not without complications. Three centuries ago a tiny moon-sized Meteorite had nearly wiped all life off Earth, so people remained skeptical about keeping asteroids nearby no matter how lucrative they were.
Seemed foolish to me not to bring it closer to a spaceport or land it on Luna. Undina wasn't going to miraculously change its orbit unless someone with a lot of credits wanted it to. But the United Sol FederationâUSFâstill made the rules when it came to protecting Earth, even if the corporations that really ran Sol didn't care for them. A few handshakes under the table with the assembly later, however, and Pervenio Corp bent the rules as always. At the expense of every Earther's sense of safety, Undina was closer to Earth than any asteroid mine before it. No more than two days outside Luna by modern ion-drives.
For those reasons, and I'm sure a few more, my employers were eager to get Undina back to running at optimal conditions. That was where I came in. As a collector working for Pervenio, my duties consisted of cleanly settling their issues before they ever grew into something worse. The bounty on Yev Tavar was ten thousand creditsâdead or alive. A nice haul for what appeared to be a routine “eliminate the instigator of a workers' strike” contract. I'd dealt with plenty in my time. Offworlders never seemed to be satisfied with their lot in life, especially those dwelling in the hollows of asteroids.
I crept up to an emergency hatch within the cramped tunnel that bridged together mining sectors C and D. The passage was so squat that my hair scraped across the craggy ceiling, and the musty aroma of air recyclers in need of repairs filled my nostrils. They clicked and whined like beasts in the darkness. I reached out and knocked on the glass portion of the hatch. As I did, I slid my right hand down to my hip and drew my long-barreled, collector-issued F-3000 pulse-pistol from its holster. My baby.
“This is Viktor Duvell, minin' chief of sector C,” I lied into the two-way intercom built into the airtight seal. I put on my best underprivileged, offworlder twang.
“You can't enter,” a raspy voice responded.
“We're standin' with you, didn't you hear?” I continued. “We got the security officers pinned down and need help gettin' rid of 'em. They still got their guns.”
Another lie. A Pervenio security team and I had already locked down sector C and ensured that the strike didn't spread there. I'd been careful, however, to leak news that riots were occurring throughout Undina as miners chose to stand alongside Yev Tavar. There was no better way to appeal to the sense of narcissism inherent in anyone willing to start a near-futile rebellion, no matter how small it was.
“Wait here,” the man on the other side said. A few minutes went by in silence before the hatch rose a few inches. The dissidents had destroyed the control console on my side so only they could operate it. A pale hand poked through the narrow opening by my feet. “Show us your ID.”
I pulled open the flaps of my faded brown duster and withdrew the ID card of the sector C mining chief, Viktor Duvell. It hadn't taken much convincing to get him to agree to help turn in his comradesâjust a few extra credits and a promise to end all the discord that threatened his livelihood. I placed the card in the rebel's open palm and he immediately reeled it in.
Another few minutes passed, and then the hatch flew up into the ceiling. Two miners with pulse-rifles awaited me on the other side, but my gun was also raised. As soon as the opening was clear, I planted a bullet in the arm of one of them, causing him to drop his weapon. The other panicked and squeezed his weapon's trigger too long and too hard. The recoil from the rifle had him shooting at the ceiling, and I'd already bolted forward to arrive safely beside him. I smacked him in the side of the head with the butt of my pistol and watched him crumble to the rocky floor. Then I quickly turned and kicked the other miner in the head so that they were both unconscious.
There was no reason to kill any more workers than I had to. Those were the express orders of Director Sodervall at Pervenio. Laborers were cheap, but transporting new ones wasn't. That was why we didn't switch off their life support in the first place and end things in a hurry. That, plus the fact that we had no idea where the security team Yev Tavar had displaced was being heldâ¦if they were still alive.
“Sorry, boys,” I whispered as I knelt down and deconstructed both of their pulse-rifles.
When I was done, I pulled my spotter goggles down over my eyes and set them to thermal imaging. The confined, rocky tunnels in the bowels of Undina were dark, especially since I'd cut the main power to the sector beyond the emergency access I came through. All they had beyond that were a few small generators, which they would need to sustain their food supply. Breathing was all I'd allow them to do until this was over.
I delved in farther. Indistinct voices echoed down every branch in the cramped service corridors I passed by. I ignored them. My spotters picked up the heat signature of a miner walking toward me, carrying a light-torch. It didn't illuminate much beyond the few meters in front of his face so I couldn't tell if he was armed or not. I didn't intend to give him a chance to show me. I tucked myself in a small nook in the wall and ducked down so that my duster covered most of me. It matched the color of rock.
Once he was passing I sprang out, wrapped my arm around his neck, and pulled him to the ground. I squeezed just hard enough that he couldn't cry out, but not so hard as to kill him. This unfortunately had me close enough to get a whiff of his stench. It was foul, as if he hadn't showered in over a week. Somehow this Yev character had convinced all the miners in sector D to settle in for the long haul and do everything they could to conserve water.
After thirty years as a collector it was my experience that most self-appointed leaders never attained that kind of clout. I never cared to ask how much Pervenio was paying them to spend their lives in the mines, but what Yev was demanding must've been quite appealing if his followers were standing so adamantly against the most powerful corporation in Sol.
“When I let go I'm going to ask you a question,” I whispered. With my other hand I raised the barrel of my pistol until it was pressed snugly against his temple. “If you try to call out, I'll splatter your brains all over this rock and not a soul will ever know. Clear?” He was gagging, but I felt him attempt to nod.
I loosened my grip a bit and allowed him to gasp for air. Once he had his fill I grabbed his jaw and spun his head around to face me. The young man's whole body was quaking. “Now,” I began. “Where is Yev Tavar?”
The miner tried to speak but nothing came out except for a few incoherent words. He was petrified. I'd seen the expression on his face on countless others before. It happened when simple, hardworking men were stirred into a cause they never had any intention of fighting for.
“Only one of you needs to be removed,” I explained. “Take me to Yev, and I'll make sure you get his old position.”
That got his attention. His eyes went wide and his lips started to slow in their trembling. Yev was the mining chief of sector D, as high a position as you could get on an asteroid mine like Undina without wearing a Pervenio badge on your chest.
“He'sâ¦he's holed up in the refectory,” he stammered. “They're counting supplies. Pâ¦please don't hurt me. He forced us to do this! We never had a choice!”
That excuse was another on a long list of things I'd dealt with too many times in my life. “There's always a choice,” I growled.
I yanked him up by the collar of his dusty boiler suit and shoved his light-torch back into his hands. “Now take me,” I ordered. I pushed him far enough ahead that I wouldn't have to smell him but could keep my gun aimed squarely at the center of his back. He glanced back nervously over his shoulder a few times to see it glinting from the shine of his light-torch.
We wound our way through the labyrinthine tunnels of the sector D service passages until we reached a tall ladder leading to the living quarters. I sent him up first and followed only once I was sure nobody was waiting with a gun. At the top, the ceiling was taller, and when we emerged I could feel my body grow heavier. The artificial spin Pervenio Corp had provided the asteroid gave it simulated g conditions barely a fifth of Earth's. It was still enough to have my old legs feeling sore from climbing.
“It's right up here,” the man said. He was getting calmer, but I could still sense an edge in his voice. I hoped it wouldn't cause him to try something stupid. I took no pleasure in killing those who didn't deserve it, but I'd been around for far too long to let remorse get in the way of catching my targets. His life rested securely in his own hands.
“Grant, is that you?” someone hollered from up ahead, through the dim outline of a tall entranceway.
I lunged forward and grabbed the arm of the man I now assumed was Grant. I leaned in close to his ear, making sure to push the end of my pistol hard against the center of his back. “Stay calm and respond that it's you,” I whispered.
He swallowed so hard that I could hear it. “It's me!” he shouted.
We were close enough to the entrance into the refectory then for me to recognize where the heat signatures of those inside were coming from. A few held light-torches, likely all pried off the hoods of their mining crawlers. The two by the entrance were positioned in a way that told me they were carrying more of the guns they'd no doubt stolen from the ousted Pervenio security team.
Grant took a step forward, but I stopped him and ripped the light out of his hand. “Thank you, Grant,” I said softly. “You've been smart today.” He went to reply but as soon as he did I knocked him in the back of the head. He folded over onto my open hand, and I gently lowered him to the ground before pressing onward.
“Took you long enough,” the same voice from earlier groused. “Still no word from sector C?”
I remained quiet. I was busy planning my route of attack as I got closer. When I reached the point right before their lights would reveal me, I fired a disarming shot at each of the shoulders of the two miners standing guard.
Screams filled the room. Voices in every direction shouted things like, “It's one of them!” or “Shoot him!”
Anybody in the refectory with a gun unloaded blindly toward the dark tunnel I'd emerged from, but not before I was able to sprint out and duck down behind a loose table. They were making it too easy. I waited until they had to reload and was careful to remember which of the handful of heat signatures were shaking from firing pulse-rifles. They were incapacitated in short order when I leapt out of cover and flanked them.
I felt young again. Not many missions called for taking on a group of armed combatants these days. When I first started out as a collector little rebellions broke out all the time, on all the many colonies popping up around the solar system. Credits rolled in faster than I could count, but the more the corporations sank their talons into the solar system, the less wild it got. Presently, most of my assignments consisted of hits on poor saps who thought they could steal from Pervenio and get away with it. It got tedious.
“Look, boys! We ask to negotiate and they send in one of their killers!” a new speaker bellowed. It was the only one who didn't sound the least bit terrified, which I deduced meant it was their brash leader, Yev Tavar.
The headlights of a mining crawler facing me flashed on, flooding me in a radiance so bright that I had to yank up my spotters. The vehicle consisted of an oblong operating cockpit sitting atop six spindly legs, like those of a spider. With those it could easily clamber around the walls of the hollows blown open for mining, where there was essentially no gravity, and use the blades set along its front to carve out minerals into the storage basin attached to its bottom. The vehicle's engine roared to life, and it charged forward at me.
I stood my ground, bullets fired from the rifles of the other miners pinging off tables or whizzing by my ears. I aimed my gun at the crawler's cockpit as long as I could, until I could see the face of the man within it. I squeezed the trigger right before I dove out of the way. The vehicle promptly slammed into the wall behind me, its legs still thrashing.
Now that I was back in darkness, I was able to escape the sights of the remaining miners with guns. I hit one in the kneecap and two others in their collarbones. When the last one fell, the only sound that remained was the moaning of the injured. The others either had fled or were hiding in the shadows, waiting for the fight to come to a conclusion.
I hurried over to the crawler and climbed over the back. The control console in the cockpit was flickering as its legs began to die out. There was a circular gash in the center of the glass, and Yev Tavar lay in the seat behind it. Blood leaked out of a wound in the center of his chest. I popped open the glass lid using the external controls and ripped him out. He squealed in pain as he tumbled over the side of the vehicle.