Didn’t think they grew guys like you anymore.
Yeah? Then you’re dumber than you look.
What, you think after Jacobsen, everybody just settled down and agreed to play nice? One mild-mannered, balding Swedish genentech specialist writes a report for the UN, wags his finger sternly around the room, and suddenly it’s over? All over the world, government agencies and super-funded corporate partners see the error of their ways, cast down their tools and weep? Shit-poor women don’t go on selling the future children spring-loaded into their ovaries so they can feed the actual here-and-now kids they’ve already got? Bright young things at cutting edge gene labs don’t go on buying up the raw material by the kilo? Cash-strapped regional legislatures whose major remaining resource is remote and desolate real estate don’t go on signing deals to host evasively described “research facilities” and no questions asked? Government spokesmen and corporate PR departments don’t lie about it, and shadow enforcement agencies can’t get any work covering it up?
What fucking planet are you from?
Footage of the shuttle was playing in continuous loop on screens all over the station house where they booked me in. Half a hundred repeated angles on the moment of docking – the top of the Wells nanorack, centre-screen, like a vast, gunmetal dandelion sprouting up into low orbital space; the questing snout of the shuttle, angling in across the featureless black; the nuzzling for initial contact, the retrieval arm embrace, the kiss. Inside shots of the cockpit, underemployed human pilots grinning for the camera. Quarantine crews on their way up in the nanorack’s personnel elevator, looking squat and half-melted in their barrier suits. Mingled in, a parade of still-shot images grabbed off the passenger manifest – new meat for the media feast. Qualpro hires starting their three or five year gigs, ultra-tripper sports heroes and screen faces plus accompanying film crews and entourage, maybe the odd indie tourist or three.
Grunt labour on the one-way ride would be there too, but you weren’t going to see their faces bannered across a screen anytime soon. What would be the point of that?
Welcome to Mars, soak.
Ticker-tape text ran constantly across the bottom of the images, English, Spanish and Quechua. It carried other breaking stories, but most of them never made it to actual footage. Even Particle Slam’s rainfall couldn’t jostle the shuttle coverage off-screen for more than a couple of ten-second segments here and there – rain-dampened night-time streets, drizzle in the wind, cheering crowds. Now back to our main story. Shuttle’s In!
“You all still watching this shit?” I asked Naima, as they checked us through to retinal and processing. “Five days down the line?”
She shrugged. “Find a channel it isn’t on, why don’t you.”
Later, in the cell, I tried. There was a scuffed and splintered plastic screen set in the wall across from the bunk. I powered it up and swiped through a dozen or more options before I gave up. Let the incessant cascade of images and commentary run. The only other option was turn it off and stare at the walls, which I was in no mood for currently. Running hot, you’re alive to environmental detail; your mind craves it, seizes on it like a starving man grabbing steak. I’m never very sure if that’s a by-product of the cycles inherent in hibernoid physiology, or a little bonus the designers threw in to fit mission specs. Either way, I’m stuck with it.
I sat and watched TV.
On screen, the usual panning shots from within the shuttle architecture – the long, ranked march of cryocap pods in storage, cranked down to the deck now to allow for decanting and strobed blue with scannerlight; the enigmatic stacked slab structures and blinking lights of the CPU room; crew quarters, messy with personal junk in zero G and the chaos of two days coasting in; conduits and companionways and corridors and there – just for a couple of seconds, the camera glides by an innocuous, firmly closed hatch in the bowels of the ship. It’s not black – mythology to the contrary, they never are – but the decals and flashes over the pristine white surface are unmistakeable. Emergency Systems Executive. Onboard Contingency Response. Warning: Hatch Is Armed and Alarmed – Do Not Tamper. No Crew Access Beyond This Point.
You couldn’t read all that, of course, not in the time it took the camera to pan past, but I didn’t need to. I already knew what it said.
Top and centre of the hatch, a slow-pulsing green bezel like a heartbeat. He was in there.
Or she was. Though that’s a lot less common than the overwrought sex-n-slaughter-in-space thrillers like to paint it. Women do this work, sure, but not many of them, and generally not for anywhere near as long.
I lay back on the cell bunk and closed my eyes. Saw the green pulse of the bezel once more, tracking closer.
How long are you down for, my cold-dreaming brother?
Just the one trip, or do they have you on endless turnaround, the way Isaac reckoned it was tilting now? Fucking treat us like freight these days, he grumbled over tumblers of Mark on Mars at Uchu’s one night. There and back, there and back, there and fucking back. And get this – you don’t sign the zero decant clause these days, you can kiss about half the decent-paying contracts goodbye. I’m telling you, brother, you’re lucky you got out when you did.
That’s one way of looking at it.
He must have caught my expression just before I looked down into my drink. That’s not what I meant, Veil. Sure, Blond Vaisutis shafted you, I know that. They shafted a lot of people. But seriously? Would you really want to buy back in, even if you could? Start climbing into the Big Cold all over again, wondering if the next time you get decanted, you’ll have a terminal case of Ganymede Freezerburn.
That’s ancient history, Zac. When’s the last time you heard of Ganny Rash killing anyone?
Doesn’t mean it’s not happening. You think they’d tell us?
I think the technology’s moved on, brother. And frankly, I can think of a whole lot of other shit about the job that’d bother me more.
Yeah? Getting a little bleary and belligerent with the drink now. Like what?
The green bezel pulsed behind my eyes, like hangover, like old regret.
How do you fucking live with yourself, Overrider?
Carla Wachowski, at bay in the corridor to the coms nest, droplets of Arko’s blood in her close cropped hair and hate in her shadowed eyes.
It’s not a problem, I tell her, grinning. Mostly, I’m asleep.
That’s the mission time talking, of course. Running hot – I’m barely five hours awake, the cockpit fight’s a scant ten minutes gone. Got what feels like copper cable spiking through my veins, and that crazy adrenalin smirk trying to split my face apart. We hang in zero G, Carla and I, faced off against each other, and she’s better than seven metres away. I have the mission-standard Heckler & Koch deck broom, she has a fifty centimetre torque wrench and her hate. This is only going to end one way.
You fucking corporate cunt!! she screams.
Hurls herself at me, torque wrench raised.
I snapped my eyes open, sat up on the bunk. Enough of that shit.
But I went on wondering about Isaac’s zero decant clause, just the same. How far various of the agencies and corporations under the COLIN umbrella might push it, given half a chance. And that’s without taking into account the habitual abuses of the Beijing bloc.
Yeah, yeah, I know – old paranoia in big new boots. But the thing is, it’s a big, old solar system, with a lot of places to hide things in. Plenty of room for the odd cryocap facility on standby, rooted to some catalogued and forgotten asteroid or minor moon, or just falling in endless, cobwebbed silence along an orbit somewhere out past the belt. Cold and distant and lonely, but hey, you’re asleep and getting paid for it, so what’s not to like?
Didn’t think they grew guys like you anymore.
They probably don’t – got so many of us ‘capped and stashed away in dark places, they don’t need to.
You can get the wrong impression from a term like soft holding.
The cell they’d given me ran about four metres by five, including the wet niche with shower and latrine. No window or ornament anywhere, just the impact-plastic screen in the wall and a radiant tile ceiling. The bunk was a single piece of moulded polymer welded to the wall and floor, topped off with an immovable memory-foam layer all of three fingers deep. A vented pipe at one end dispensed insulene mesh every evening ten minutes before lights-out – you got a couple of seconds of warning whine from the generator, then the stuff came slathering up out of the vents like grey-green cotton candy. You’re supposed to gather it up, wrap yourself in it for perfectly adjusted sleep, then flush it each morning after use. That’s the theory. High-end insulenes will actually crawl about on your body looking for temperature differential, fibres swelling or thinning down as appropriate, working to keep your whole body at the same level of warmth. But this stuff wasn’t high end and what it mostly did was cling stickily to your skin. By morning, it would already be starting to degrade.
I wasn’t going to be doing any sleeping, but I knew the cell’s ambient temperature would drop a few degrees once the lights went out, so I shawled the mesh around my shoulders and settled cross-legged on the bunk to wait. It’s a common misconception – one that Nikki Chakana seemed to have bought into, anyway – that guys like me can’t stand inactivity at the wake-up end of the cycle, that confinement like this would be a kind of low-grade psy-ops torture for an overrider.
Waiting in confined spaces?
Try nineteen hours cramped into an EVA module disguised as a coms blister, waiting for one of the myriad glimmerings in the shingle of stars under you to finally resolve into what it was – a belt marauder come looking for its missile-smacked and immobilised prey.
Try a solid week barricaded into the cockpit of a short-hop shuttle while it falls to destination and its mutinous crew work out there’s no way round the booby-traps you’ve built into the navigation system and the drives.
Try days of sneak combat alone in the tight corridors and companionways of a processing barge, hiding and pouncing and hiding again, until you’ve whittled your opposition down to a remnant frayed and frightened enough to cave in and do what they’re told.
Confined spaces is part of what we do – what I used to do, anyway – and any overrider that can’t summon patience while confined isn’t going to last very long.
On the cell’s screen, a change of pattern caught my eye. A sudden reshuffle in the endless cycle of passenger images. A new privileging of six or eight from the pack. Plush hotel interiors, paparazzo grab-shots during check-in. In the upper left corner of the screen, a new panel pulsed the promise Breaking News, Breaking News….
I hopped off the bunk and swiped up the volume.
…finally confirmed rumours that they are in fact here to conduct an in-depth audit for COLIN’s Oversight Committee back on Earth. Valley governor Boyd Mulholland made the announcement a short time ago in an open public address-
And there he was – Boyd Mulholland, down-home man of the people, good-humoured father surrogate for the frontier masses. Silver hair razored down a centimetre shy of military severity, features just that right blend of weathered and handsome. Mulholland had dressed down for the broadcast, he wore a loose, dark work-shirt with sleeves rolled up, had taken off his headgear the better to look earnestly into the camera. Here was a man without the airs and graces of government or big business, a man who’d sit and take a beer with you come end of shift, whoever the hell you were; who’d wipe the sweat off his brow and curse good-naturedly at the itch of the unshielded Martian sun on your skin and his, because, hell, these were the burdens of the frontier citizenship you both shared, regardless of station and salary.
Here was a man just like you. Here was a man you could trust.
…and in fact we welcome this audit, because it gives us the chance to show the folks back on Earth just how much we’ve achieved. Lean in to camera. My fellow pioneers, we have nothing to hide and everything to gain from a fresh outside assessment of our colony’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s what audits are for, it’s why we have them. So I want to first of all reassure everybody that there’s nothing wrong here, nothing to worry about at all. It’s Business as Usual on Mars, and Mars is Open for Business. I want to welcome these Oversight officers here, and I want you to welcome them too. Let them see how we get things done out here on the frontier, let them share that special feeling of ours, of being right at the living edge of human expansion, because in the end……
I grinned, I couldn’t help it.
Look, you don’t send a crash audit team across two hundred million kilometres of interplanetary space because you think someone needs a few tips on colonial management. This was a major crackdown in the making, and the knowledge was all over Mulholland’s face. He looked like a man being forced to choke down spoiled oysters.
No wonder Nikki Chakana was clocking heavy overtime and no sleep. No wonder she didn’t have the attention span for basic things like arresting murder suspects and bringing them in.
In the crawler, I’d assumed the policy review she mentioned was a standard internal job and given it no more thought. But here we apparently were, with Earth Oversight banging on the door like the goons from Indenture Compliance rousting some basecamp brothel at dawn. Mulholland was up out of bed and panicking, and Pachamama herself knew he had enough cause. Someone had to fix this, and fast, someone had to clean house. And my best guess was that our esteemed governor was going to get pretty short shrift from Sakarian if he went there looking for help. You don’t make commissioner in this town without being prepared to wink at a few irregularities, but Peter Sakarian was fundamentally straight. That had been his appeal, the reason he got parachuted into the post in the first place. Here was a safe pair of hands so Mulholland wouldn’t have to watch his back every hour of the day and night.
It was a tactic that had blown back spectacularly in the governor’s face. Since promotion, the new commissioner had made no secret of his disdain for Mulholland’s methods, and if my in-department sources were on the money, the two men had clashed more than once behind closed doors. Faced with this shit, Sakarian was going to take one huge step back, fold his arms and watch as Earth Oversight hung Mulholland out to dry.
That left Nikki.
Scurrying around like an ant-chassis ferrite bug in a mountain of rust, chewing up the governor’s corroded mockery of colonial law enforcement particle by tarnished particle, turning it miraculously into the pure ore of correct procedure and blameless fresh air. Plugging leaks, disappearing inconvenient evidence and witnesses, getting stories straight. Terraforming local conditions, in other words, into some shiny simulacrum of what the good people back on Earth apparently expected things to be like out here.
Good luck with that, Lieutenant.
If my shin hadn’t still been throbbing with stubborn pain, I might even have felt sorry for the bitch.
The screen went off without warning, the radiant tiles in the ceiling started to dim down. Bed-time in holding. I grimaced – all out of distractions now, just the long dark hours and my own skittering thoughts. Time to bring some of that old overrider discipline on-stream, soak. Let’s try that, shall we. And let’s hope-
Soft clunk from the door.
Under the sticky wrap of the insulene shawl, I tightened up, just a little. I didn’t really think anything was likely to happen to me in monitored custody, especially not with this storm boiling up around the audit. But the department had a long history of rendition to private law enforcement firms like MG4, where the Articles gave convenient way to the rights of corporate bodies as citizens. You could fall a long way into the grey area that shit opened up, and hurt yourself badly hitting the ground.
Pale light filtered in around the edges of the hatch. The ceiling tiles blazed back up into sudden life, the door grumbled away into its recess, sticking a bit. A uniformed cop I didn’t know peered into the cell.
“You, Veil. Get your ass out here. You got a visitor.”