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The Cronian Incident BOOK EXCERPT by matthew williams

The Cronian Incident

The following is an excerpt of:

Book 1 of the The Formist Series

MATTHEW WILLIAMS

Published by

Copyright © 2017 Matthew Williams

Cover Art by Duncan Halleck

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publishers.

ISBN-13: 978-1-912327-14-0

Part I: Hermians

Given its extremes of temperature, slow rotation, and lack of a viable atmosphere, few settlements have ever existed on Mercury. While a source of ample energy and metals, the endless grey landscape and the impossibility of terraforming largely deterred colonists looking for a new world to conquer. The only exceptions to this were a series of small facilities located in the polar region, where the land is shrouded by perpetual night.

Here, in the craters of Prokofiev, Kandinsky, Tolkien and Trggvadottir, one can find ice miners, ore miners, and solar jockeys – people dedicated to providing the other planets with the basics of life. The work is hard, and the lifestyle dangerous. Luckily, there are no shortages of convict laborers who would rather risk incineration or hypoxia over dying slowly in a cell.

-Nevsky’s Guide to the Solar System (3rd ed.)

Prologue

They stood, two by two, in standard squad formation, moving onto their target area.

Bern and Valeri stood in front, arms held squarely at their sides. Durand could see their hands twitching. Valeri attempted to hide it by crossing her arms and tapping out the rhythm of some unheard melody against her bicep. Bern couldn’t decide what to do with his hands, and kept wiping them against his trouser legs.

Durand and Chayond were fortunate. The equipment bags hung in their hands. Though relatively light, they were burdensome enough to require both hands to carry. They didn’t have to worry about idle hands or telltale signs of nervousness as they waited for the elevator to finish descending.

“Remember, no talking.” Valeri reminded them as the elevator came to a stop. The doors slid open to admit them to the station’s main hub. Bern nodded forward, and the four stepped out onto the platform.

Evening was now upon them, several bright lights shining down from the station’s vaulted ceiling. Through the station’s dome, a thick grey haze of atmosphere was barely visible. The faint traces of light reflected off Saturn’s disc turned what would have been the black night into a deep, murky twilight.

The din of chatter, footsteps, and the sounds of computerized announcements in Anglish, Franz, Deutsch, Chin and Swahili promptly swallowed up the four of them.

The station filled with hundreds of locals milling about, moving from one transit lane to another. Few paid them any attention as they walked through the crowds. Why should they? To onlookers, the group’s blue and orange coveralls designated them as maintenance staff. To all recording devices and sensors in the area, their ID tags also designed them as such.

Still, Chayond felt a tinge of panic every time the bag he carried rattled. None of their party would fare too well if stopped for inspection. Chayond felt himself looking at the few Gendarmes mixed in with the commuters, out of the corner of his eye. If Bern saw him, she would surely backhand him across the face. Of course, she would wait until they were no longer in public before doing so.

It seemed to take a terribly long time to cross the main floor. At the far end, they began to descend a flight of stairs, and Chayond felt a little better. The bag rattled louder, the sound drowned out by the whooshing noise of hypertrains coming and going inside their tubes. The dull, monotone computerized voice continued to announce the arrival and departure of trains, though becoming more difficult to hear. The noise acted like a cushion cloaking their every move.

Valeri motioned to their left as they reached the bottom of the stairs. Commuter traffic continued to pour around them, which made maintaining their tight formation somewhat difficult. Still, they held in their two-by-two stance, moving towards the left track, and to the small door leading to the maintenance tunnel. No one followed them there. All the commuter traffic headed for the tubes and left what appeared to be a maintenance crew alone.

As soon as they stepped through the hatch, the noise stopped. The busy station now sealed behind the pressure door. The only sounds were the gentle hissing of the tunnel’s pressure controls. And of course, Valeri’s commanding voice. Checking her chrono, she made a quick consult of their timetable.

“We’re on schedule, let’s keep it that way. Move out.”

The four collapsed into a single line, moving down the tight tunnel as rapidly as they could. Durand threw the strap of his bag over his shoulder and Chayond did the same. Their steps became fast and heavy, their work boots striking hard against the metal grates lining the floor. Heavy pipes and ducts, controlling the settlement’s flow of fresh water and air, whizzed by their heads. The high pressure and heat combined to make the going very uncomfortable.

Still, they moved. Rigid discipline and a clear purpose drove them onward. Until they reached their destination and set up, they could not relax.

When they at last came to the hatch that would admit them onto the platform they wanted, they had all broken a good sweat. Only Valeri appeared to not be out of breath.

“All right, pay attention because we don’t have time to dither.” Reaching into the pocket of her coveralls, she retrieved a small handheld and held the transparent device up. The device displayed a single frame. A man’s face.

“This is David Lee,” Valeri stated. “He’s the Formist the Chandrasekhar’s sent on ahead to do their dirty work. Our intel says he’ll be travelling alone by the time he gets to the line. So that’s when we take him down.”

She tapped the screen. Lee’s image vanished, to be replaced by a video feed of him standing with a woman. They stood close to each other, a degree of intimacy patently implied by their body language.

“This is our contact. She’s the one who provided us with Lee’s itinerary. According to her, Lee will be here at the time indicated, and he will be alone. However, if we find them together, then something’s gone wrong and we’ll need to take them both down. There can’t be any suspicion on her.”

“Who is she?” Durand asked.

Valeri shrugged. “Didn’t ask. Neither should you. All you need to know is, she’s not our target. If it comes down to it, we take them both down. But we leave her behind for the authorities to collect. Any other stupid questions?”

Durand, sufficiently shamed, shut up. Bern, though, had some thoughts on that score and offered them freely.

“Probably some whore from the Yellow Light District. Point is, she’s a fucking patriot and gave us this information. She’ll understand, I’m sure.”

All heads in the group nodded. A rumble shook the tube, indicating a hypertrain speeding by. It was nothing more than a passing tremor. No sound made it through the sealed pressure doors.

“That’ll be the twenty-one fifteen to Cassini now,” she uttered, smiling. “Our Doctor Lee will be making the next one. Better suit up.”

Durand dropped his equipment bag on the ground, kneeling to open it. Chayond did the same, placing his bag on the floor and separating the tabs on the seal. As Durand began removing their change of clothes, the others began to disrobe. The suits Durand passed out appeared like something reptilian, scaly surfaces the same color as mercury. They were thin, no heavier than a stack of thermal blankets, with hoods at the top and small terminals on the left arms.

Valeri and Bern hurriedly became half-naked, their sweating frames glistening from the tube’s lighting. Swiftly, they pulled the silver skins over their coveralls and began doing up all the clasps, sealing the suits around themselves and firing up the cells powering them.

Durand tossed a suit aside for himself before handing one over to Chayond, who hesitated. His head swimming from all the heat, the run had left him drained and full of endorphins. Still, he remained aware enough to feel damn apprehensive. Accepting the suit seemed like a terrible step, one from which there could be no turning back.

Durand noticed his hesitation. “Hey, you good?” he asked. Chayond glanced fleetingly in Valeri’s direction. She glanced up from her suit to shoot him a look of disapproval and he hastily averted his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m good,” he responded, taking the suit in hand and unzipping his coveralls. Somehow, one look from Valeri silenced any doubts, those eyes enough to scare him into compliance.

A moment later, all four members of the team were suited up in their new vestments. Everything from their necks down was now covered in specialized material. Valeri pulled the last piece into place, pulling the hood up and covering her hair.

“Remember,” she admonished. “Make sure your sticks are charged right. Too much, and his implants might rupture. And that’s the last thing we want.”

All heads nodded again. Chayond interpreted the mention of the sticks as an order to distribute them. Reaching down into the bag, he began pulling them out, one by one. Four slender truncheons, a small console on one side, each containing a power indicator, an electrical port, and a few controls. He handed the first to Valeri, passed out the second and third, kept the fourth for himself.

Each team member inspected the sticks to ensure they were set at precisely the right power level, before sliding them neatly into the waistband of their outfits. Each stick connected with the suit’s internal power supply.

“All right, let’s power them up,” ordered Valeri. “Let’s see if these things were worth the price.”

“Doubt that,” Bern uttered sarcastically. “But they still better work.”

As one, Bern, Durand and Chayond pulled the hoods up over their heads and engaged the suits’ power supplies. Three low-frequency squeals sounded out in the tube, and where three men with silver skins stood, suddenly there were just three faces. The rest of their heads, like their bodies, were now cloaked in advanced stealth fields.

Valeri smiled. “Not bad.” She pulled her mask into place over her mouth and eyes and put her finger to the terminal on her arm. Taking less than a second, she completely disappeared from view.

“How do I look?” she asked, her voice filtered and modulated by the mask.

“Like nothing at all,” replied Durand.

“Good.” She suddenly reappeared, removing the mask and hood. “Then be ready. If the target escapes, we may not get another chance. So, make this one count.”

#

3G read the sign on the far side of the station. The stop that would take him to his rendezvous. To her, and all the sensual pleasures she promised. Lee drew in a slow, deep breath and tried not to feel too excited.

This, however, was a fight he did not want to win. No matter how many times he had enjoyed her company, the thought of her never ceased to excite him. Perhaps he enjoyed the clandestine nature of it. Perhaps the fact it could only be done far from home and the prying eyes of the Survey. The digital second skin connecting and monitoring all the Inner Worlds could be a blessing and a curse, and he never knew how liberating it could feel to escape it until he met her. And then, of course, there was her very unrestrained nature. It seemed only appropriate she asked to meet him in the Yellow Light District, where so much sleaze and depravity went down already.

What did it matter? He would be back in her arms soon.

Calling up an overlay, he consulted the time yet again and accessed the train schedules’ live updates. The train was running on time. No reason to fret over the train’s schedule. And yet, what else could he do? Aside from thinking about her, and making himself more excited, all he could do was lament the train wasn’t getting to him fast enough.

Jay, my little bird. Oh, the things I will do to you.

He drew in another deep breath and ignored the messages coming from his biomonitors. They were asking for permission to regulate his heart rate and epinephrine levels. Why would he want to control himself now, when that very abandonment of control drove him on?

Jay, if only they knew. Would they even care? Why does anyone care about fidelity anymore?

A small click caught his attention. He spun around, his eyes searching for the source. It sounded much like a footstep, an approaching one.

A quick glance behind him confirmed he was alone on the platform. Not even the faintest hint of a human presence. Looking up at the rafters above, he noted the mounted camera keeping vigil on this section of the platform. Though something of a bother, its presence didn’t disturb him the way the thought of another person might.

Easy now, he thought. It seemed odd to get worked up by a simple noise. But he knew that, besides the risk of being seen and identified, he had to consider the odds of being assaulted. Abductions were common in the Outer Worlds, and such actions usually targeted people like himself: affluent, enhanced, and from the Interior. All the things the radicals hated.

His biomonitors began to scream at him again, and this time he obliged them. With a simple mental command, his system began to flood with endorphins and norepinephrine, his heart rate easing down through the careful blocking of nerve impulses.

He breathed a sigh of relief, right before the searing pain exploded in his side.

He cried out. His voice echoed sharply off the walls before the ground rushed up to meet him. The last thing he remembered clearly was the sight of the girders crossing overhead and the faint smell of ozone, followed by a surreal feeling of weightlessness.

The next few minutes were fragments. Lee’s mind passed in and out of consciousness. His overlay kept trying to signal him, but he couldn’t stay awake long enough to issue any commands. He couldn’t even be sure how much time had passed, possibly minutes or perhaps hours.

In due course, his eyes opened long enough for him to realize he wasn’t on the platform anymore. He could hear a voice whispering to him from close by.

“You’re alive, Doctor Lee.” Feminine but firm. “Sorry to interrupt your plans. But we have plans of our own for you.”

One

A sea of stars. Tiny pinpricks in the firmament bled light through a wall of shadow. Among the black, a few shone brighter than the rest. In the eastern sky, the particularly big specks were the result of Venus and Mars hung at conjunction.

Taking a deep breath, Ward allowed himself a moment of nostalgia, calling to mind the last time he had seen either up close. It had been some time ago; however, the memories were like shoeprints in soft earth, running deep and leaving a solid imprint. Ward remembered the Drift, the feeling of riding it down towards the vast red dunes of Mars. Then there were the glittering lights of Pavonopolis, and how it appeared from above.

A risky business, to be sure, allowing himself to slip into memories that reminded him of where they were now. At times, life on Mercury – known to locals as “the Rock” – couldn’t be endured otherwise. A man had to cling to whatever memories of normalcy he had simply to get by.

“Boss?” buzzed the bud in his ear. Ward didn’t immediately answer, either unwilling or unable to tear himself away from the memory. The voice on the other end refused to be denied. “Bossman? Jer? Are you there?”

Sighing, Ward tapped his earlobe to activate the reply function. “Yes, Guernsey, what now?”

“Just letting you know,” he said warily, “terminator is starting to creep up on us, sir.”

Ward glanced down and adjusted the navsat map on his display. In the center of the field, amidst grid lines and a pockmarked representation of the local terrain, a small speck of bright grey sat on a dark grey background. Around that speck, bright blue lines and a set of alphanumerics designated the Sapper, the large transport vehicle he currently occupied. Ward frowned, zooming out until he could see the long, mottled line indicating the approach of daybreak. Grumbling, he tapped his earlobe again.

“Guernsey, you idiot, we’re still a good three days away from the terminator! Why are you calling me with this?”

“Yes, boss, but regulations state all mining crews need to remain a full seventy-two hours ahead of daybreak at any given time. We’re getting close, sir, and our prelim scan says we still got a shitload of ore deposits we haven’t tapped yet. I don’t want to burn alive in my suit, sir!”

Ward scoffed. “I have eyes and a clock, Guernsey. I would never let you die in a spacesuit, you bloody psycho.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t want my ass in a sling when we get back, either.”

Ward didn’t reply right away, merely taking another deep breath. He knew it wasn’t strictly Guernsey’s fault. Ever since the arrival of the new Administrator, Elisa Sandoval – AKA the Iron Widow - everyone had been walking around on egg shells. Hermian administrators were known for being ballbusters, usually on account of how pissed they were to be stuck on the hellish place universally called the Rock. But the Iron Widow had a bit of a reputation preceding her.

Allegedly, she had personally supervised mining operations on half a dozen small Belt objects and had been stationed on Ceres before her transfer. Gossip alleged she had busted up several syndicates on these rocks before her transfer. Several syndicate members ending up dead hence her Iron Widow title. One had to wonder who she had pissed off to have been sent to deal with them.

Alas, Ward was sure she would understand, once she got a look at their total yield for this outing. Hardass or not, no administrator could argue with results.

“Don’t worry about it.” Ward put on his best placating tone. “If we get in trouble, I’ll be the one to take the hit. You make sure the crews keep going. I want that pit scoured before we push off.”

“Don’t forget, boss,” reminded Guernsey before signing off.

Ward grumbled and returned his attention to the screen. Zooming in on the Sapper team he had deployed, he dragged the image around to get a better look at the mining site itself. With the assistance of the miner’s own proximity sensors and the impressive sensor suite the Pipe had built into its frame, he got a comprehensive view of the area being dug out. Computer-generated graphics added a few bells and whistles too, simulating small flashes from the beam emitters slashing away at ore, prior to the Pipe sucking the ore up.

Ward rapidly became bored with watching and went back to looking out the Sapper’s side window. But with his mind awash with the bullshit concerns of ore mining and administrative rigmarole, he discovered he could no longer focus enough to discern the beautiful hazes of Venus and Mars anymore. In fact, the natural light of the star field seemed oddly piercing and abrasive now.

Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the thought of far-off places, and not the particularly nice ones. The memory of doing a job in the Belt years ago, back when he was still an investigator for Interpol, came to him. A double homicide on Piazzi Station had left all the miners shaken, which had confused him somewhat at the time. Working the Belt came with all manner of risks, not the least of which was death by explosive decompression or radiation exposure. Then there were the cabals to worry about, people who ran protection rackets and smuggling rings on all the stations.

The stats on that kind of work were clear enough, with at least one hundred miners dying every standard sidereal year. Why anyone would be so concerned over two more deaths was beyond him. Of course, murder was another issue, especially when these involved workers losing their minds and turning on their fellows. Murder remained the one thing the local drillers could not tolerate.

Then there were the darker places on the Drift and its companion, the Thread. High above the skies of Terra and Mars, where so many people and so much freight came and went daily – and the Survey’s coverage could sometimes be spotty – bad people did bad things. Ward had seen enough of them that they had all come to look the same.

Even now, though, such places only reminded him of better times. A life of service and of dignity, of respect and honor. When faced with an indefinite future on the Rock, every moment of the past – even the grimiest and shittiest of them – seemed pleasant by comparison.

Reaching into his pocket, Ward removed the pill dispenser he had stashed there. Still a few hours shy of his regular dose, but he doubted anyone back at Prokofiev would care. If he had an empty dispenser upon his return, and none of the pills showed up during the next routine body scan, surely, he could get away with a little self-medication. Depressing the tab over the compartment marked with a seven, his reward was a small yellow nanopill he hurriedly downed.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, knowing within a few minutes his neurotransmitters would achieve a state of normalcy. Another day of being mentally balanced, or at least as close to that as powerful pharmaceutical intervention would allow.

#

“Bossman, you there?”

Ward’s eyes snapped open. The dark, ashen-colored surface flooded into his eyes. A dead landscape, currently frozen, but which would be set ablaze again in due course.

“Bossman,” Guernsey called again. “Are you with us here?”

Ward blinked a few times to get his eyes used to the suit’s heads-up display. The bright lines, fields of color, and active matrix-displays were a little distracting when first seen. Nothing like the mediated displays he had once known, fondly. And they helped his mind to reconnect to the present.

Being inside had grown very tiresome, and reminiscing had become difficult. So he had slipped on a pressure suit and decided to join the crew, hoping to distract himself with some menial labor. An unfortunate coincidence he had chosen to narcotise himself beforehand. The effects of his daily meds weren’t making things easy for him.

“I’m here,” he responded. “Just a little tired.”

“Uh-huh. Well, we’re nearing the end of the vein.”

Ward edged slightly forward, peering over the edge into the pit. The maw, now a good fifty meters across, descended into total blackness save for the lights dotting the Pipe. Too deep now to see the beam-cutters doing their work, but he could sense the Pipe digging. The vibrations in the ground, and the fact he had ordered the crews to keep going, were indication enough.

He felt a hand descend on his arm and his head snapped angrily to his left. Through the clear faceplate of his helmet, he caught sight of Muscovy’s angry face staring at him, and some expletives blaring over the shared comm frequency.

“Chto yebat' vy delayete, vy dura?!” Muscovy barked, sounding out a long string of Slavic-toned syllables. Ward couldn’t understand or translate a word, given his limitations. Guernsey cut through the chatter to ask the obvious question.

“Sir, is everything all right?”

“I’m fine!” Ward yelled back angrily, neglecting to mention the drugs were taking their effect on him, or that he had chosen to commit to a surface walk while under their influence. “A little tired, is all. Only trying to see into the hole, maybe get a sense of how we’re doing.”

A flimsy excuse. Guernsey had been getting real-time updates on the tablet he held in his arm. Consulting the tablet, he cursorily nodded to confirm the latest.

“Well, looks like we’ve tapped the vein, sir. Should be the last of the ore coming out now.”

“Good,” responded Ward. The Pipe continued to emit a low rumble through the ground as it sucked up the remaining bits of unprocessed ore. They were close now, and could at long last begin to contemplate bringing this little outing to an end. Until that time, however, they could do nothing but stand around and watch.

Ward looked around at them, the half-dozen suited figures standing over the pit with small spots of light hovering above their heads, denoting ID numbers in his display field. Ward recognized them all. With ease, he could mentally recite the names and the criminal offenses.

Muscovy – Trafficking/Terrorism/Multiple Homicide

Guernsey – Possession/Assault/Resisting Arrest

Wesley – Arson/Sexual Assault/Homicide

Anouk – Grand Theft

Burton – Assault/Theft/Possession

Jordan – Volunteer

Now, he wondered who he considered to be the worst of them. The murderers, rapists, and thieves, or the one guy who had chosen to be here? For such people, the desire for adventure and the chance to perform the toughest, grittiest and most dangerous labor in the known universe provided a rush. Was such a person less dangerous than a man who would kill, given half a chance?

Then again, he knew he had left himself out of the mix. If he were really to task himself with figuring out who the least trustworthy person on his crew was, he knew he had to include the Foreman.

Ward – Negligent Homicide

Yes, he had to admit, of all the people standing within the circle, he stood out as the only one he wouldn’t trust his life with. He knew the others did, and were doing so right now. But they didn’t know him as well. Were it not for the drug-laced nanoparticles gradually percolating through his system and balancing out his neurochemicals, he would surely find his thoughts depressing to the point of despair.

The hum completely subsided as the Pipe seemed to go idle. Through the soles of his feet, Ward could feel the vibrations, at least the ones indicating the Pipe continued pulling up ore, had stopped. To his right, Guernsey checked his tablet again and confirmed his earlier appraisal.

“That’s the last of the ore, sir. Looks like we made one hell of a haul.”

“All right, crew,” Ward said tiredly. “Bring the Pipe on up. We’re done for this trip.”

Guernsey pressed his suited finger to the tablet and commanded the Pipe to retract. All along the Pipe’s spiny reach, embedded mechanisms activated and began to collapse the Pipe, starting at the tip and leisurely retracting upwards. The crew stood around and waited wearily as the Pipe gradually made its way to the surface, at which point they would begin to drag it back to the Sapper.

Nothing more to do here, Ward thought. Looking north, he spotted their vehicle slouched there against the dark surface. The Sapper’s status lights and windows were barely visible amidst the deep night. Of course, his display ensured it placed a rather bright icon overtop of the vehicle. The last thing his suit’s navigation system wanted was for him to get lost.

Keying the comm, he called back to the Sapper to get Labra, the vehicle’s driver, on the horn. Her voice came to him through a thick haze of disorientation, sounding especially jubilant and saccharine.

“What’s the word, bossman?”

“Sandy,” he said. “We’re all done here. Crew’s coming in from the cold. Set navsat for Prokofiev. We move out the moment we’re back inside.”

“You got it, boss. Looking forward to getting back.”

“Yeah,” he grunted, ending the transmission.

The Pipe had now returned to the surface, retracting backwards towards its resting point on the surface. As one, the crew came to four predesignated spots along the length of the Pipe and each grabbed a handhold, walking unhurriedly back towards the Sapper. Ward joined them, grabbing the nearest handhold between Jordan and Anouk. Foreman or not, he remained willing to bear his share of the weight, even though he knew there wasn’t much to speak of, and his suit’s powered mechanisms would be doing most of the work for him.

A voice sounded in his ear, startling him a little.

“So, what do we want to do when we get back?”

Ward calmed down as he realized the comm was still open among the crew, and he was not, mercifully, suffering from a psychotic break. Responses began to come in.

“I’m looking forward to hot shower and some real food. Think they’ll have anything worth choking down?’

Jordan said this, as always the most positive of anyone working the Rock. Somehow the poor lad always suspected a change of pace – in essence, showers that weren’t frigid, food that didn’t suck, and conditions that weren’t appalling – waited around the corner.

And of course, Anouk was there to set him straight.

“Doubt it. From what I hear, it’s going to be protein cubes and veggie gum until they get another fucking shipment of meat and hydro-grown stuff from the Core. And we all know how long that takes.”

Ignoring Anouk’s pessimism, Jordan promptly asked someone else. “How about you, Sal?” he asked, looking to Guernsey. The man’s cockney drawl responded a second later.

“I’m looking forward to some cards, man. I’ve been spending my time researching everyone’s tell.”

“That better not include me,” rumbled Anouk. Some traces of laughter followed.

As the laughter died away, Jordan thought to ask the one man he was usually too afraid to speak to.

“Zory, how about you? What do you want to do when we get back to Prokofiev?”

Surprisingly, the hardened Slav had an answer that wasn’t a threat or string of expletives.

“I’m thinking of a hot meal. Watching de launch is next. And then about kill zee boss here in his sleep.”

Ward noted the hesitation on the line before Guernsey piped up.

“Uh, Z, I think he can hear us.”

“I know,” Muscovy stated indifferently. Ward would have turned around far enough to give Muscovy a threatening look or a reprimand, but was too tired and doped up to bother. Smiling to himself, he let Big Z continue with his little threat. “Sweat dreams, boss.”

Two

The Sapper tentatively negotiated its way through the winding route leading them back into Prokofiev. From the cabin, everything outside appeared a uniform black canvas. No contrasts or indications whatsoever to indicate spatial differences or surface features, with virtually no natural light to guide them. The moment they entered the artificial canyon, the Sapper had become a tiny beacon in an endless sea of black.

The crew considered it a blessing the vehicle’s controls were fully automated at this point. Were it to be left up to a driver to get them through the last leg of their return journey, they surely would have hit something and become stranded by now.

If it were within his ability to do so, Ward would have pulled down an overlay a long time ago. With nothing but a thick layer of glass that could never be called smart to stare through, the feeling of intense boredom was almost palpable. Obviously, everyone else on the control deck felt the same. If not for the kindly medication coursing through his blood, Ward might even have felt the slightest bit anxious about the journey.

Luckily, the display before him provided a modicum of stimulation. From the navsat’s point of view, they were now three quarters of the way through the Scythian Passage, an artificial basin cut into the rock several kilometers behind them which led straight into the Prokofiev Crater.

While tedious as all hell, the passage nevertheless came as a blessing for the miners. In decades past, crews were forced to drive their Sappers right over the lip of the crater, mounting a series of steep switchbacks to enter, before descending another series to get home. Accidents were rare, but even with an automated approach system, things could still go wrong.

Only after enough Sappers and crews had been lost had someone in the Solar Assembly decided the expense of blasting a hole in the crater’s wall and digging a road to its outer edge became justifiable.

“Anybody got a game?” enquired Labra, sitting idly at the helm.

“I do,” cried Burton. “I spy. I’ll go first. A fucking field of black.”

Mild snickers emanated from the crew. Labra wouldn’t be deterred. “How about fuck, marry, kill?”

Just about everyone laughed. Jordan was the first to explain why her suggestion was a dumb idea.

“Have you seen the workforce, Sandy? Not exactly a lot of options for us dudes here.”

“I don’t know, Mick,” countered Guernsey, leering in his direction. “Under the right circumstances, you might start looking good. A little rouge, a little wig on top, maybe tuck ya’ sack back. Make a lovely girlfriend, you would.”

That elicited a lot of painful grunts from around the deck. Jordan also began to look the slightest bit nervous. Naturally, Ward surreptitiously glanced around, making sure to check the door. At times like this, he was thankful for the absence of guys like Muscovy and Wesley. Through sheer bad luck alone, he had managed to pull that pair as crew this time. On the plus side, they seemed content to stick to their bunks.

An absolute blessing. Violent offenders like them didn’t do well with sex-themed games.

“What about where I’d most like to be right now?”

“I’ll go first again. Anywhere but here,” Guernsey quickly said, getting him some noises of assent. A few more strained and anxious seconds passed as the Sapper adjusted its heading, only apparent by the minor lurch they all felt.

Ward broke the silence. “I got one. Kind of a variation on Sandy’s suggestion. Best place in the System you’ve ever been?”

He watched as everyone on the deck paused to consider his question. Within a few moments, he had multiple answers.

“Syria Planum Speedway,” Guernsey enthused. “Great stretch of road, beautiful lights strobing overhead. The closest thing to freedom I ever felt.”

“Not bad,” conceded Labra. “But my favorite place in the System has to be Ares. So much color, people, and energy. All the benefits of being on Gaia, but without all the pretense.”

Ward laughed. He knew what she meant, glad to know someone else thought as he did. Gaia lay at the hub of Terra’s off-world commerce and shipping; those who lived in Gaia had been known to put on certain airs. Whenever his old job had taken him there, he had rubbed up against the pretended airs and graces, always coming away chafed.

“How about you, boss?” asked Guernsey. Ward wasn’t expecting to be quizzed, and didn’t like the prospect of thinking about an answer too much. Thinking of the nicer places he had been seemed like an effective way of reminding himself where he resided now.

Ward mentally berated himself. After all, he had suggested the game, he couldn’t think of a good reason to back out now.

“I don’t know,” he mused. “Recent memory? I guess Ri-La.”

Labra hummed thoughtfully. “Haven’t heard of that one.”

“Ri-La’s a LEO Hab,” he said, as if by stating that Ri-La was a Low-Earth Orbit Habitat explained everything. “I went there as part of a case back in ’73. The whole place had been built by some old Terran magnate named Xian. Some Chin gentleman born in the previous century, who made his fortune running bio, shipping and software. Before he died, he had a Hab commissioned in orbit for his wife and kids, then invited his entire extended family to move in with them so they could have their own orbital estate all to themselves.”

“Died?” asked Burton, a frown creasing his forehead. “This guy, an Extro? And he died? Like, for real?”

“No, no,” Ward countered, waving his hand dismissively. “Though he did forego the whole facsimile thing. The old man uploaded himself like anybody else before he got too old and suffered brain death. His children, nieces and nephews had the run of the place and could summon him whenever they wanted.”

“Descendants calling up their great ancestor,” declared Guernsey. “Fucking vain, if you ask me. Makes sense if you’re one of them types though, all rich and shit.”

“Well, he was the traditional sort. Not a lot of people back home like him anymore. Most people take the idea of post-mortality too literally.” Ward’s mind went back to the station itself, Ri-La’s lavish décor, the very reason why he had chosen the Hab for the sake of their little game. “Every bulkhead made from white jade and gold. Intricate lattice work, bamboo fences, little waterfalls running everywhere. You barely knew you were in a Hab at all. Beautiful place.”

A moment of silence ensued, at which point Labra thought to ask the obvious.

“So, what was an old dick like you doing there?”

“Same thing as always,” stated Ward. “Someone killed someone else. Interpol sent us in to find the culprit.”

“Oh my God,” shuddered Jordan. “One of the kids killed one of their own relatives?”

Ward waved a hand dismissively. “Nah, nothing bad. Turns out some of the Xian clan weren’t as traditional as their forebear. Some of them went about creating facsimiles of themselves, even woke them up before they died. I don’t know, all that time in orbit, they must have feared they’d die out unless they started cloning themselves.”

“It didn’t occur to them to get some new blood in the place? Or even someone’s DNA?” Jordan asked with a half-raised eyebrow.

Ward shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they couldn’t find anyone they thought worthy. Point is, having more than one version of yourself around can get ugly, especially when there’s inheritance on the line. But in this case, one kid killed another version of himself.”

“Wow,” Jordan whispered.

Ward continued with his story. “Forensics took all of five minutes. The trickier part was trying to deduce if the victim had been the original or not. After all the penalty for a facsimile killing their original is way higher than the reverse.”

The small gathering nodded and smiled. Ward had been wrong. Reminiscing hadn’t made him feel bad. Quite the reverse, really. He was sorely tempted to keep the stories going.

“But if we’re talking all-time best place. . .” He groped into the distant past, hoping to find something fitting the bill. “I don’t know. Earthside, I guess. Shores of Zanzibar, along the coast of the African Union. Real –”

The proximity detector began to beep, warning them they were approaching an obstruction. Everyone in the cabin seemed to jump in place, eyes darting out the window into total darkness.

“What is that?” yelled Jordan over the din.

At her station, Labra was the first to see the problem on her monitor.

“Boss, we got an obstruction on the Scythian. Autonav is asking permission to disengage.”

“I don’t see any – oh, there it is!” Ward watched as the bulky object resolved itself on the display. The autonav had to be cycled through a few filters to enhance the ambient light and sharpness. Sure as shit, there before them stood a large rock, measuring at least four hundred meters square, right where the right tread would be in less than a minute.

“Disengage,” he ordered. “Then bring us to a complete stop. Everybody strap in!”

The crew braced themselves as the Sapper powered down, the massive vehicle coming to a slow, rolling halt. When at last they stopped, everyone lurched forward, held in place by their seats’ restraints. The view outside the window seemed even darker now. The sudden absence of any engine noise gave the deck a certain stillness he found quite uncomfortable.

Into that quiet came a battery of questions all at once.

“What the fuck is going on?” demanded Burton.

“Enormous chunk of debris is sitting in our path,” explained Labra, busily punching buttons on her console, returning full control of the Sapper to her.

“Where the hell did that rock come from?”

“Not sure,” Labra answered, irately making the last of the necessary keystrokes before grabbing the driver’s wand. “Could be what’s left of a meteor that landed while we were out. Could be a piece of the crater wall. Point is, we don’t have enough clearance to get around the rock.”

“We’ll have to blow it,” Ward declared, agreeing with her assessment. Even the mottled representation on his display was enough to let him know the obstruction, wherever the rock had come from, could not be circumvented. The Passage was just too small and the Sapper far too cumbersome.

“What the fuck is going on?!”

Ward turned to see the door to the deck open, two agitated convicts standing directly inside the threshold.

“Zory. Amos. Hope we didn’t disturb your sleep.”

“What the fuck?” Muscovy repeated. “We’re sitting in our bunks and you decide to throw this whole fucking crate sideways! You trying to kill us?”

“No, but your next job might. I need you two to get into pressure suits, grab some Class-4 munitions, and plant them on a rock sitting exactly fifty meters in front of us. Think you can do that?”

Muscovy and Wesley shared a look. Their animosity diminished somewhat, making room for the incredulity creeping into their expressions.

“Why us?” demanded Wesley.

“Because the two of you are the only members of this crew, last I checked, had any experience in blowing shit up. I figured this would be a treat for you,” answered Ward.

Muscovy and Wesley glanced at each other, this time with looks suggesting they were about to say something obscene. Ward pre-empted them. “And if that’s not cutting it for you, how about the fact I’m in charge and I fucking told you to?”

“!” swore Muscovy, spitting.

The door slid shut behind the unhappy pair a second later. Ward spun back around to see the dubious-looking expressions aimed at him.

“You think that’s wise, boss?” asked Labra.

“Ah, they’ll get over it,” he said dismissively. “Bastards could use the exercise too.”

“I think she means trusting those goons with explosives. Suppose they don’t place them quite right and blow us all to shit?” Guernsey asked, a worried expression on his face.

Ward chuckled. “You know they can’t try without getting hit by a neural spike that’ll leave them as capable as a puppet with the strings cut, or if we’re lucky, dead. Besides, I know those guys’ rap sheets well enough to know they know where a bomb has to go to cause maximum damage.”

Ward may have mouthed the words, but he wasn’t supremely confident in them. Death by incompetence wasn’t something the Spike had been known to prevent. However, he certainly wasn’t going to let any other members of the crew risk their lives on such a hazardous task.

Alas, his crew weren’t finished with their objections.

“Suppose,” Labra started, swinging her chair around to face him. “They don’t kill all of us, just themselves.”

Ward opened his mouth, about to ask how that could possibly be a bad thing, then it struck him. Two dead miners, killed in an accident on his watch during the commission of a controlled demolition outside of standard procedure.

Yes, that would be a very bad thing indeed! Labra recognized the pained realization on his face and shot him a look suggesting mutual understanding. Ward nodded uncomfortably to let her know he was right there with her.

“Well, one can only hope they remember their training. And their penchant for blowing shit up works in their, and our, favor.”

Labra spun back around, the look of worry disappearing as the back of her head turned to face him. Ward glanced around at the other crew members and offered a confident smile, a smile evaporating as he made eye contact with Guernsey. To him, Ward allowed the sudden feeling of anxiety to bleed through.

A few very tense minutes passed before Muscovy and Wesley made contact.

“Fifty meters to obstruction,” called Wesley through the comlink. “Can’t see shit.”

Ward was a bit relieved to hear the man’s voice. Pressing a key on his chair, he responded in kind. “Trust in your automap, it’ll point you straight.”

Several more minutes passed before Wesley signaled again.

“Approaching the obstruction.” Another long pause. “Obstruction reached.”

Fuck, this is dragging out, Ward thought, keying the comm. “You be careful placing that explosive.”

This time, Muscovy’s voice came over the line. More muffled expletives, followed by an angry chastisement.

“We know what we are fucking doing!” A few more expletives followed, fetching a few laughs from around the deck. Ward decided to leave them alone for the time being. Micromanaging at this point would only hurt their chances of pulling this off. Instead, he curled his hands into fists and took several deep breaths, counting down the seconds.

“Okay, charges set,” Wesley announced at last. Everyone on the deck exhaled a collective sigh of relief. Ward did his best to appear unsurprised.

“Are we receiving?” he asked Labra.

“Remote signal’s up, reading the signal loud and clear.”

“Good job,” Ward signaled. “Now get back in here on the double!”

Laughter reached him over the link. Letting Muscovy and Wesley know he cared about their safety, even if selfishly motivated, undoubtedly amused them. They would be certain to drag out their return for as long as possible to piss him off. But with the likelihood of them blowing themselves up, and his liability now at zero, the few minutes Muscovy and Wesley took to get back to Sapper seemed to fly by.

“Got ‘em coming in the lower airlock,” stated Anouk. “Cycling through now.”

“All right,” Ward said, extending a hand to pat Labra gently on the arm. “Sandy, if you would be so kind as to get that rock out of our way.”

Labra favored him with a blinding smile before happily depressing a key on her console. Through the window, a bright flash erupted, banishing the darkness outside for the briefest of instants. The windows automatically responded, adjusting their polarity to filter out most of the intense light.

What made it through, in that briefest of instants, was seared into their memories. An explosion permanently removed an impediment in their path. There was something strange about that.

Burton put his feelings into words. “That felt good!”

“Yeah, who knew blowing shit up could make you feel awesome?” enthused Guernsey.

Ward smiled. Another unintended bonus to taking the matter into their own hands and clearing the path back to Prokofiev: for one instant, his crew felt they were in control. He wished that had been his intent, because control was the nicest gift he could give them right now.

Three

The main access ramp took its time getting open. Though as soon as the ramp opened, Ward and his crew felt the onrush of recycled base air. So much less stuffy and stifled than the Sappers recycled air. Mixed in with the smell of metal and grease were some hints of fresh ozone and water vapor. Much nicer than the bottled air they’d been breathing for days.

As the access ramp began to angle forward, Ward and the other crew members caught sight of a squad of security officers waiting in the bay. Six men of varying height, all wearing the same cobalt blue uniforms, a sash running from waist to shoulder, epaulets indicating their slight differences in rank. Hands uniformly placed behind their backs, accentuating their sidearms and batons.

Ward recognized most of them by sight, despite their best efforts to be indistinguishable from each other. The desire to all look the same remained unquestionably something called for when it came to Hermian officers’ uniforms. Nevertheless, he knew the shortest of them to be Chief Banks, the facility’s head of security. The fact Banks showed up in person, accompanied by five escorts to boot, could only be a bad sign.

For the next few seconds, the ramp completed its descent excruciatingly slowly. Every second charged with nervous energy as the crew glared at the people who were surely here to haul their asses away. Only Ward appeared outwardly calm during all of this, mostly due to the drugs still permeating his system.

At length, the ramp reached the ground with a loud thud. Several more seconds passed as both the guards and the crew stood there motionless, like some sort of standoff, each side waiting for the other to speak first.

“Prisoner Ward, number 136-709?” asked Banks.

Ward stepped forward from the others. “That’s me, sir. What is the problem?”

“The Administrator requests your presence, prisoner Ward. Please come with us.”

Ward felt a slight prickle on the back of his neck. Banks framed his request politely, yet urgently. Ward wasn’t sure if the invitation was a good thing or a bad thing. In all likelihood, he was going to hear about his breach of protocol. However, it remained to be seen if that was a formality or not – depending on how the Iron Widow felt about him bringing in a bigger haul than normal. He imagined their minor delay on the way home might also be a cause for concern.

In either case, he knew he had no choice but to comply.

“What about my crew, officer?” Ward asked, feigning ignorance.

“Banks, prisoner,” he informed Ward irately, plainly not buying the feigned ignorance. “And they are free to go, for the time being.”

Ward heard a snicker from behind him. “Free? Ain’t that a fucking joke?” Muscovy couldn’t keep his mouth shut, even when faced by a security squad.

If Banks heard Muscovy, he chose to ignore the remark and continue. “They may be questioned later, as per the Administrator’s decision to proceed with an investigation into your conduct.”

Shit, Ward thought. So it was that bad. He should have known the new administrator would be quick to clamp down on any trace of independent thought or judgment. He could only hope he managed to show sufficient deference once he stood in front of her so she would let his crew off the hook.

“Lead the way,” he said, stepping onto the ramp and advancing towards them.

“Not so fast!” called Banks, raising his hand, motioning to one of the taller security guards at his side. The man stepped forward and produced a pair of cuffs. “You know the procedure, prisoner. Place your hands in front of you.”

Ward did his best not to roll his eyes or appear defiant. Given all the security measures in place, including the one residing inside his skull, the mere suggestion he needed to be restrained was ridiculous. But the officer was right, standard procedure did apply. Obligingly, he placed his hands in front of him and showed no resistance as the tall one moved towards him and placed the cuffs on his wrists.

“Please follow us,” Banks said cordially, but unconvincingly. Another officer joined the tall one, on Ward’s other side. The trio set off in lockstep, following Chief Banks out of the bay. Ward cast one look behind him at his crew, who were unhurriedly making their way out of the Sapper. Predictably, Muscovy and Wesley didn’t look the slightest bit concerned. The others, he saw, were taking their time and making a point of watching him. Knowing they were with him, at least in spirit, remained a comfort.

The walk was long and uncomfortable. The cuffs chafed, causing his wrists to ache and added injury to insult. Harsh and piercing cold blue lights illuminated the corridor. Even at the brisk pace the officers were keeping, the walk felt interminably long. Of course, that was the point. Before anyone was brought into the Administrator’s office, they had to be sufficiently intimidated.

Ward knew the procedure well enough, having subjected others to something very similar in the past. Now, somehow, knowing that simple fact didn’t help much. In the end, uncertainty was always the killer – the fact you didn’t know how bad you were going to get it once the runaround was complete.

A few bends later, they arrived at a nondescript door in the middle of a long corridor. Banks stood before a panel set to one side and waited for the panel’s sensor to pick up on his presence. The panel instantly processed the security chief’s ID and biometric information, beamed to the panel from his cortical implant, and turned green. He then issued an appeal into the small speaker mounted at the top.

“Administrator Sandoval?”

“Who is it?” The reply sounded like grinding metal, only partially due to the quality of the speaker.

“Chief Banks, ma’am,” he replied. “We have prisoner Ward, as ordered.”

“Enter,” came the casual response. The door slid open, and Ward was escorted inside.

The décor changed once again, as did the smell of the air. Ward caught the smell of evergreens, soft perfumes, and sandalwood. He also noted several interesting features not present when the last Administrator had occupied the room. In the corner nearest the door, a sofa with the appearance of actual leather; a bunch of seats and tables that had nothing to do with her desk; rugs on the floor; and some artwork, depicting various places in the Solar System, hung on the walls.

The most impressive thing in the room was the aquarium in the far corner. At his current distance, Ward couldn’t be sure, but the dancing form inhabiting the aquamarine environment appeared distinctively Europan. The dancing form’s movements were immensely graceful and hypnotic, to the point Ward was startled when the Administrator – seated at her desk – began to speak.

“Prisoner 136-709?”

Ward looked at her and answered in the affirmative. “Yes, ma’am.”

Cold, unemotional eyes began looking him over, surveying him as if she were trying to get a better sense of what she kind of take control of she was dealing with. Ward did the same, noting she seemed different than the last time he had seen her, when she first arrived several months ago. At the time, she had taken over control of the facility, and gone through the process of making a formal introduction of herself to the inmates and workers. He could tell she hadn’t enjoyed the proceedings.

Now, she looked different somehow. More focused, more intense, and more relaxed. The exact opposite of what he would have expected to see.

“Chief Banks, you and your men can go now.”

Banks attempted to protest. “Ma’am”

“You can remove the cuffs as well, Banks. I don’t imagine he will be able to do much.”

Banks gave Ward a look of anxious indecision. The thought of leaving an inmate unrestrained in the presence of the Administrator was evidently more than he could handle. Then again, so was disobedience. Ultimately, he opted for the least dangerous path, the one of compliance, and released the cuffs.

“My officers and I will be right outside if you need us,” he said, more for Ward’s benefit than the Administrator’s. She shooed them away as they departed the room, halting outside the door to assume the position of attention as the door closed in front of them.

Ward stared back to the Iron Widow. For her part, she ignored him as she perused the single Folio that lay before her. His earlier impression had been correct. He expected her to look like her brief time here had taken a toll. In truth, she appeared far more comfortable than when she had first shown up. Something about that didn’t sit right with him. Anyone who became progressively more at ease during their time on the Rock had to be more dangerous than all the criminal population combined.

For several long moments, she continued reading from the Folio. Several times, she swiped at the Folio to change the page being displayed, scrolling down every so often to see more. Ward scoffed inwardly as he realized she was probably looking over some of the same materials repeatedly. No way she would have let him into her office before preparing to tear him down.

Why are you doing this? he wondered. I know the routine, I’ve done the routine!

Ward knew the feigned disregard for his presence was necessary, at least to her. All part of a prolonged act to make him sweat, to make his anxiety build and to drive home the all-important fact he was not in control of the situation here. All he could do was wait and be prepared for the inevitable lecture about rules, safety regs, and the like.

The act all seemed a little excessive for that, though.

Eventually, she took a deep breath and launched into an unmistakably pre-prepared speech.

“I have some interesting news for you, Mr. Ward,” she said. Ward noted she now used his name, a dubious development if there ever was one. “The facility has been contacted by a representative of a powerful Martian Faction. They are sending an envoy to meet you, and I am informed they will be here shortly.”

Ward already felt a little lightheaded, his breathing a bit shallow – common side-effects of the medication they were all required to take. Now, he felt like someone let the air out of the room.

“Are you saying, I am being released?”

“That would seem to be the case.” The Iron Widow smiled as she said this, but her eyes were like two fine, jagged pieces of ice. Evidently, he was being released as soon as this representative arrived, and she wasn’t too happy about his impending freedom.

Which naturally begged the question.

“Who is this representative? Who’s coming?”

“They didn’t say,” she replied. “All I know for sure is there’s been a development in the Outer Worlds. Apparently, one of their colleagues went missing on Titan, and that has something to do with you.”

Ward frowned. He couldn’t quite trace the logic. So someone from back home lost an associate of theirs, and for this reason, they were coming to free him. Ward struggled to see the connection. However, right now that seemed inconsequential.

He was going to be free!

“How long before this, envoy arrives?”

The Iron Widow checked the Folio before relaying the estimated date of their arrival.

“Seven days,” she said, doing the math. “Doesn’t leave much time.”

“Time for what?”

She intentionally placed the Folio down where Ward could see the open page, his eyes drawn to a single media box on the page’s center. The box appeared to be a grid with some icons on it. A sense of dread filled him as he recognized the icons as being from the autonav, the icons representing the Sapper and his team. Looking back at her face, he noticed a loss of all traces of false cheerfulness. All business. The Iron Widow returned.

“I’ve been looking over the records of your last run, prisoner. I noted some . . . discrepancies, some rather telling.”

“I see. . .” Ward replied, mirroring her pause. “Could you be more specific?”

She took a deep breath, her expression becoming sharper. “Where to begin? Your order to a crew member to disregard safety protocols? Your own disregard for proper procedure when you ordered members of your crew to demolish an obstruction? You showed a marked disregard for the safety of your people, prisoner. Do you have any thoughts on that?”

Ward hesitated. He had the feeling she was holding something back, though he couldn’t imagine what. She covered all the little deficiencies in his mission, what more could there be? His unkempt appearance? His behavior towards her and her officers?

Regardless, she had asked for his thoughts on the issue, and he had several to share.

“I do,” he said, finally. “For one, we stayed out longer than is commonly advised, but we were never in any danger. We still had days before the terminator would have been upon us. Second, the extra time allowed us to haul in a significant amount of ore, which as I understand the rules, is the purpose of the worker-incentive program.”

He took a breath before getting to the third point, trusting his confidence would confound her little show of force here more than anything. His confident attitude had always worked for him in the past, even though he would never have admitted it at the time.

“Last, the obstruction blocking our path – the rock wasn’t listed on the autonav, so I could only assume we were the first to spot the obstruction. My crew and I were facing a delay. I knew we could clear the rock much quicker than a team dispatched from Prokofiev could. Since we were already overdue, I figured time was of the essence. So, I made a decision, ma’am. I regret I may have inadvertently broken some regulations.”

Sandoval fixed him with a steely look, the seconds passing in abject silence as if she were processing what he said. Or perhaps she was waiting to see if he had anything more to offer. Once again, Ward had the feeling there was something he was missing.

“Shall I enter that as your official explanation for your actions?”

“Is this an official inquiry?”

She shrugged. “It has the potential to be.”

“Then yes, that is my explanation,” Ward said firmly.

Sandoval returned her attention to the Folio lying on her desk and made a few quick gestures over the device, calling up the autonav data of their mission again. From where Ward stood, he could see what appeared to be footage from when his mining team was deployed.

“Prisoner, it is my opinion your judgement was impaired on this particular mission. I have it on good authority you’ve been abusing your meds, and this may have been responsible for your actions.”

Ward’s hands curled involuntarily into fists.

“Wha – what are you –”

“Furthermore,” Sandoval cut off his stuttered denial. “From what I’ve seen from the autonav feed, you nearly wandered into an open pit shortly after ordering your crew to defy standard safety regulations. A quick check on the comm chatter indeed seemed to reveal as much.”

“I–”

Sandoval pressed her finger to the Folio. Over speakers which seemed to be embedded in the walls, familiar voices began to play.

“Bossman, you there?” A slight pause, followed by Guernsey repeating himself. “Bossman, are you with us here?”

“I’m here. Just a little tired.”

“Uh-huh. Well, we’re nearing the end of the vein.”

Another pause, this one much longer. Then the sound of Muscovy’s incensed words.

“Chto yebat' vy delayete, vy dura?!”

“Sir, is everything all right?”

“I’m fine! A little tired, is all. Only trying to see into the hole, maybe get a sense of how we’re doing.”

Sandoval waved her hand over the Folio, terminating the recording. Leaning back in her chair, she folded her arms, a look of sardonic contentment on her face.

“I would say this, more than anything, is a sign of impairment.”

Ward felt sweat percolating in his clenched hands. The small of his back felt sweaty too, and some beads were forming on his forehead. Worse yet was the feeling of pricking cold on his face. Between having his judgement questioned and narcotics being blamed, this was beginning to feel entirely too familiar.

“I . . . I don’t know what to tell you,” he managed to say finally. “The last time I checked, being tired was not a crime. We were several days into a mission and –”

“Your bio-readings indicated you slept plenty,” she said. “And they also registered a sudden change in your brainwaves shortly before you chose to step out and join the mining team. I imagine a more thorough check of your bioreadings will provide evidence this was caused by you dosing before you went out.” Her arms were still crossed. She was unflappable in her conclusions.

So, she had called up their comm traffic and his bioreadings, had she? He had to admire her proficiency. Still, he knew she had only revealed the circumstantial evidence so far, even if said evidence remained rather compelling.

You’ve got nothing!

That was what the suspects had always said to him whenever he reached this point in an interrogation. They always assumed the probing and insinuations were part of some elaborate bluff to get them to confess. Of course, Ward knew better. Even if Sandoval didn’t know things definitively, it would be easy enough for her to find out. Challenging her conclusions would only embolden her.

“Is there to be an investigation, then?” Ward asked.

Her expression remained firm, but her eyes were telling once again. This time around, they seemed gleeful, which instantly made Ward afraid.

“There already has, prisoner. We’ve searched your quarters and found additional packages of your prescribed medicine. Security has spoken with the facility’s pharmacist. Doctor Doyle confirmed you approached him multiple times in the past to request additional medication, a request which he mistakenly obliged. However, he kept a log of your transactions. One might say he simply didn’t trust you.”

That son of a bitch! Ward thought. And here he’d believed they had an understanding. All the while, keeping a record to cover his own ass.

His anger didn’t stop at Doyle. Patently, the Iron Widow hadn’t taken to the news of his imminent departure well, so she had gone looking for a reason to screw with him while she was still able. In the process, she found a wealth of infractions to punish him for.

“What is to happen to me?” Ward said, resigning himself to his fate. “Am I to be confined to my cell until the Martian gets here?”

Sandoval keyed the intercom on her desk and ordered Chief Banks to come back in. The office door slid open, and the staunch officer, accompanied by two of his men, rapidly moved to Ward’s sides to secure him. Roughly grabbing his hands, they replaced the shackles around them, one man grabbing him by each arm.

“No, prisoner,” said the Iron Widow. “I have a feeling you’ll require something a little more. . . private while you’re still under our care. We don’t want you overdosing before our guest arrives.”

Ward’s heart felt like it had suddenly dropped into the pit of his stomach. He knew exactly where she was going with this. He was going somewhere altogether horrible.

“Solitary block, Chief Banks. Make sure he gets one of our best cells.”

###

If you liked this excerpt you can grab the full book here: The Cronian Incident

Glossary

"Chto yebat' vy delayete, vy duractive"

(Russian) "What the fuck are you doing, fool?"

Cronian

Adjective, pertaining to the planet Saturn and its system of moons.

“Das ni wakati ein anruf aux armes!”

(German-Swahili-French hybrid) “Now is the time to answer the call to arms!”

Dumb Matter

Any form of matter that is not composed of synthetic, self-adjusting and/or self-modifying molecules (aka. “normal” matter).

Dysonists

The Solar faction known for their advocacy of creating megastructures around the Sun. Named in honor of 20th century mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson.

Extro

Short form for Extropian (i.e. a person dedicated to the improvement of the human condition through technological integration and intervention.) Applies to the vast majority of human beings living in the inner Solar System – on Venus, Earth, Luna and Mars.

Foglet

Term used to refer to a small “utility fog” – i.e. a cloud of nanomachines that are self-replicating, self-adjusting and modify themselves to accommodate many functions.

Folio

Paper-thin display device, developed in the early 22nd century, made obsolete by implantable electronics and neural looms (see below). Uncommon amongst Extro worlds, but still used by inhabitants of the outer Solar System and other unaugmented humans.

Formists

The Solar faction known for its advocacy of terraforming Mars.

Gearhead

Pejorative for Extropian, referring to the presence of neural implants.

Great Acceleration, the

Term used to describe the technological revolution that took place in the mid-21st century. Characterized by large and concurrent developments in machine intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology, leading to an age of post-scarcity, human augmentation, and vastly accelerated technological change.

Great Migration, the

Term used to refer to the mass-migrations from Earth that took place between the late 21st century and the 23rd century. During this period, settlements were created on the Moon (Luna), Mars and Venus before expanding into the outer Solar System.

Gryaznyye svin'i

(Russian) Dirty pigs!

Gyros

The Solar Faction known for establishing massive O’Neil Cylinders throughout the Solar System. Name refers to the fact that the cylinders rotate in order to provide artificial gravity.

Hab

Short form for space habitat, referring to facilities that orbit a planet, moon, or at a Lagrange Point.

Jovian

Adjective, pertaining to the planet Jupiter and its system of moons.

Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (LGCD) environment

An environment in which objects and processes are simulated based on recreated and recombined fundamental particles. Similar to holograms, except that simulations are physically real.

LEO

Low Earth Orbit, referring to an orbit that is between the Earth's surface and 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) above it.

Loom (Neural)

Colloquial term for the most common neural augmentation among Extros. Consists of microscopic filaments that reinforce neural connections and implants that allow for wireless interfacing, communications and virtual/augmented reality displays.

Medimachines

Specialized nanorobots designed to reside within the human body and provide constant medical care.

Narkozavisimost

(Russian) Drug-addict.

Polymorphic

Referring to materials that are composed of self-adjusting and self-modifying molecules (i.e. “smart matter”). These materials generally maintain rigidity, but can change their shape, properties or texture as required.

Retro

Pejorative for an inhabitant of the outer Solar System or anyone who eschews enhancement and augmentation. Short for “retrogressive”.

Singularity, the

See Great Acceleration, the

Suka

(Russian) Bitch.

Survey, the

The wireless quantum network connecting Venus, Earth and Mars. Contains the sum total of all recorded information and services. All registered humans, devices, and geolocations are connected and monitored by the Survey.

Svin'yoy

(Russian) Pig.

Tovarishchi

(Russian) Comrades.

Uasi

(Swahili) Rebellion.

Uranian

Adjective, pertaining to the planet Uranus and its system of moons.

“Ya sobirayus' ubit' tebya Tvoya mat' chertovski –”

(Russian) “I'm going to kill you, your mother fucking – ”

Zdravstvuyte

(Russian) Hello.

About the Author

Growing up in the 80s and 90s Matthew Williams was born in to science fiction. He enjoyed many of the infamous SF franchises of the time and read many of science fiction's most influential works. As an adult, Matt marveled at those SF novels which stood the test of time, while making valuable observations of the human condition, and he decided to create his own novels.

As a professional writer for Universe Today, Matt is well-versed in many nerdy topics ranging from: spaceflight to terraforming, Earth sciences to physics, and the future of human space exploration. He has interviewed many of today’s top scientific minds and NASA personnel, and been a featured speaker at astronomy societies. His articles have appeared in such publications as Business Insider, Science Alert, Phys.org, HeroX, Pionic, Gizmodo, Futurism and IO9. The Cronian Incident is his first published novel.

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