Monday, 22 October 2012

All she wanted was the sax

The bar was dark and unadorned with any sort of decoration. The Vrgrr weren't an ostentatious race and the whole orbital station was stark and functional. It was cleaner and in better condition than many orbitals that I'd set foot on. Imperial stations on the edge of the Empire were old, grimy and lucky if they could maintain an airtight seal. The air in here was thick with smoke, particles twinkling through the beams of the handful of lights. I supposed that, when you fought other people's wars for a living, lung cancer wasn't high on your list of worries.

Although we had docked the day before, I was yet to see a Vrgrr. There were several companies worth of private military forces on reserve rotation and most of them were crowded into the handful of bars. The uniforms were similar shades of green-grey fatigues, differentiated only by the outlandish and mythical creatures on their unit badges.

Acre pushed her way through the crowd, holding a tray high and trying not to spill the drinks. With her free hand she pushed drunken mercenaries out of the way, sneering at a half hearted attempt to put an arm round her waist. I knew that the Bad Girls looked down on mercenaries but, although many of York's missions were on behalf of the Empire, they had effectively operated as a private military unit themselves.

Acre put the tray on the middle of the table and passed a glass to me.
"Vodka and something that passes for orange for the Domina." She actually smiled at me. Most of the crew were subdued, particularly York. Acre was more cheerful than I'd seen her for a long time and Cavendish appeared quietly satisfied. She was sitting next to York, occasionally speaking to him, although he wasn't saying much in reply.

The others took their drinks. Acre raised hers in my direction and nodded. I returned the toast. It shouldn't have taken a murder to raise my spirits but Acre's respect and acceptance took away a huge cloud. I had longed to be accepted by York's crew but she had been the one marine that had never overcome her initial reservations.  The death of the Empress had removed a major impediment to York's mission and anything that supported him was good for her. Not York's mission. Our mission. I was as committed to finding the Clarke as any of the crew.

I thought about something Professor Helms had said.
He glanced my way. I hadn't spoken to him much during our voyage, tiring of his hypocrisy, of the way he judged me for what I had done. I couldn't be bothered to point out that he was the medical officer on a warship, patching up troops who had, between them, killed many more people than I had. Cavendish had carried a thermonuclear device onto the Imperial barge. Over a thousand people died alongside the Emperor.
"Am I human?" Most of the crew had undergone medical scans at some point over the last few months. The ship had a state of the art diagnostic suite attached to the sickbay. I'd been in the scanner several times and Chakrabarty had drawn enough blood to refill my veins if I was ever sucked dry by a giant space leech. Perhaps I needed to slow down on the vodka.
He thought about his answer for a few seconds.
"Mostly?" What sort of answer was that?
I waited. In a few seconds he would go into teaching mode.
"A gene is a code. A collection of four different chemicals in a certain order. By manipulating the order we can create a new code. We can create DNA with any code we choose to create an infinite number of genes, most of which will do absolutely nothing. Therefore I say you are mostly human. Somebody knew what genes were necessary to create your abilities. Your myelin sheathes are much longer than normal, which means nervous impulses travel faster. Your bone structure is completely different to mine making it stronger. You can produce endogenous chemicals at will. The scientists who constructed you did not start from scratch. They took these genes from somewhere. Cosmetically you are human but I would say that up to a quarter of your genome is alien."
"Is that why I was told I could never have children?"
"Almost certainly. Your DNA was selected so that it would not effect the viability of the embryo. Reproduction is an act of chance and there is no telling what would result."
Although the experiments must have gone on for years, I knew that there were only a handful of successful outcomes; Helms had said ten. I dare not think what monsters had been created to get those ten.

York said something to Cavendish and she wrapped her knuckles on the table. I wondered if she was able to smash straight through the composite surface. I could probably punch through it if I pumped suitable volumes of combat chemicals although, even with my modified skeletal structure, I risked fracturing bones.
"If I may have your attention." He paused for a moment. "I am aware that divisions have been created between us and not everybody is convinced of the value of the mission that we are undertaking. I will be continuing the course we set and, to that end, the ship will be leaving during the next optimum launch window, which is in nine standard hours. Those of you that do not wish to accompany me, please use that time to collect your belongings. Your share of the profits will be available in the currency of your choice.
"That's a lot of chocolate, Marianne." said Acre. Nansen was well known as the primary raider of the chocolate stores. We carried more than a tonne in the hold. Real chocolate. In some systems it was worth more than its weight in gold as it was far rarer. A small bar, judiciously gifted to the right official, had smoothed our way across several difficult systems. I wondered if they had eaten it or sold it.
York stood, but put a hand on Cavendish's shoulder to stop her following him. So this was why we were here.   Not to hand me over to whatever authorities existed, but to offload any of the crew that didn't want to go any further. He wasn't making a case, he was just giving us a simple choice. A risky strategy and I wondered what was in his mind. As far as I knew, leadership was more than saying 'Follow me.' and 'Follow me, if you want to.' was just bizarre.
In reality, the only one of his crew he actually needed was Dr Chakrabarty. I'd looked at the files on the passengers and there were engineers and a full command crew, but he needed a medic to bring them out of cold sleep safely.
Nobody spoke until York had gone. Everybody stared at their drinks or watched the chaos unfolding around us as the mercenaries loaded more alcohol. There would be a fight soon.
Ash broke the silence.
"How much is a share?"
"Fifteen million credits." replied Pearce.
Hemingray's head snapped up. "Bloody hell, I never realised I was a rich woman. Does that make me more attractive, Marc?"
"Oh yes. So much more." said Dryden, getting a sharp elbows in his ribs in retaliation. "How much is my share?"
It appeared that nobody had worked that out.
"Five." said Cavendish.
"Based on what?" demanded Ash.
"Based on the fact I said five." Cavendish glared at Ash, daring him to object again. He wanted to ask who put her in charge, but didn't dare.
"So I'm wealthy in my own right. Don't need you any more, Grace." He got another elbowing.
I glanced across at Cromwell. She was looking worried. I wondered if she wanted to continue, but was expecting me to jump ship and, having risked her life to get me off the Stobo, didn't want to abandon me here.
In the lull that followed, I weighed up the likely outcomes. Cavendish, Acre and Cartier would go with York and Gregory would go with them. Now that the Empress was dead I couldn't see a reason for a split in the Bad Girls. Although Hemingray and Dryden were worth twenty million credits between them, they were actually no wealthier than yesterday and I knew that she was desperate to find the Clarke and figure out where it had come from. She had been building an algorithm to calculate the Clarke's course between systems based on the trajectory of an intact hull. She had purchased every database she could find that detailed the position of every documented star and their relative shift in position. If Pearce went, Keyes would go with her, bringing us back to two engineers, but we could thaw out another. Ash wanted to take the moment and jump ship, but I suspected that he wouldn't go if he was the only one. I had no idea what the doctor would decide.
I was about to announce my decision when I was distracted by something across the bar. A group had gathered on a slightly raised platform. It was clear from their dress that they weren't troops. As they opened what appeared to be weapons cases I realised that they were actually a band. Their efforts would be wasted tonight on this crowd that was steadily getting more drunk.
Cavendish opened her mouth to speak then stopped. She was focussed on the door to the bar. Her eyes followed somebody who had just arrived.
"Trouble?" asked Nansen, who was sitting near me. We both had our backs to the door and couldn't see what had attracted Cavendish's attention.
We were all carrying weapons. Firearms law varied between systems in the Empire but, on all but the most lawless and newly colonised planets, a bar like this would have required patrons to secure their weapons at the door. Here there was a half hearted request to leave long weapons outside. I had a short bodied submachine-gun strapped to one leg, my combat knife taped to my forearm and my stiletto hidden in the folds of my kilt. We knew a bar full of mercenaries would be dangerous and we were ready.
I turned slightly and immediately could see what was troubling Cavendish. There were ten of them and, although they were dressed in an assortment of ragged clothes, none of which were standard military, they were clearly a unit. Two formed a rearguard as the eight others formed a wedge to force their way through the crowd. The leader was near the rear of the main group where he could see what was happening and command the squad. Cavendish did something similar; they were professionals, like the Bad Girls. I glanced around my group. The crew were wearing tunics and rank stripes on their sleeves but the troops were not in uniform. Cavendish and Livingston were both in grey fatigues, the others in a variety of casual clothes. Gregory was even wearing a dress, although it clashed with the combat boots and the weapons belt.
"They look like you." I commented.
"Yes they do." replied Cavendish. "They look like us, but they are not us. And that's a good thing and a bad thing."
I knew what she meant. The Bad Girls were disciplined. They'd come in to the bar in twos and threes, quietly and without fuss. The new group had entered in force and arrogantly pushed their way across the the serving area despite the fact it was crowded with battle hardened soldiers. As well as sidearms they carried automatic weapons slung across their backs. They were expecting trouble or they were here to cause it.
"Echo, if it kicks off, you lead the crew out. Cromwell, Hall, rearguard. Acre."
"Red head."
"Squad leader."
The Bad Girls were selecting their targets. If fighting broke out they would each deal with one, rather than having a free for all and potentially missing somebody, leaving them free to fight back. I blinked each of them into my implant so that, if I was looking at them over the sights of my weapon, the targeting programme would confirm I had selected the right face.
"Who do you think they are?" I asked. "Imperial Guards?"
Cavendish thought about it for a moment and looked at Acre, who shrugged.
"No. Not Guards." said Dryden
"Do tell."
"They don't walk like you. Your movements are smooth. You're..."
"Machines?" offered Acre.
"I was going to say controlled but, yes, your chassis..."
"Internal architecture, please."
"Gods in a row, Acre, let me finish. You're machines. You move like machines. They move like men."
Cavendish looked at me.
"Could they be constructs?"
"I was told there were ten viable constructs. I have no idea if that was the truth. The woman that created us was on the Stobo. I never had a chance to ask her for more details. Why are we looking at such unlikely answers? I can see that this lot are in a different class to the pissheads crowding the bar, but they could be some sort of Imperial special forces."
"We were the Imperial special forces. Have you heard of another unit?"
Actually I hadn't. If it existed, it was likely that I would have been aware of it. The Commission was the embodiment of the Emperor's will and could call on any and all available resources. Special forces would be included in that. The Empire had a large and powerful navy, but its ground forces were minimal. Very rarely did the Emperor need to intervene in the routine business of the constituent worlds. A destroyer in high orbit sent a very clear indication of the Emperor's displeasure and most planetary governments got the hint very quickly. Occasionally the Imperial Guard was involved in small scale, offensive, operations; surgical strikes aimed at removing troublesome individuals but, far more often, that unpleasant task was left to members of the Silent Order. If the Empire required large scale ground forces, it contracted with private military companies to do its dirty work.
"No." I admitted.
"I want those shoes." said Gregory, apropos nothing.
"What?" demanded Cavendish.
Gregory gestured across the bar. "Shoes."
The band were back on the low stage, warming up their instruments. One was stood at the front, a black dress and bright red shoes with bows and the highest heels that I had ever seen. I'd had a pair of dancing shoes and their heels were only three centimetres high. I wouldn't be able to walk in her shoes, let alone run or fight.
I looked at the combat boots she was wearing. "Really?"
She rolled her eyes. "No. Of course not." Everybody laughed.
At a signal from one of the others, the girl on the stage picked up a microphone.
"Good evening everybody, my name is Woz and we are Saxophobia." I wondered what sort of life it was, jumping from system to system to play in complete dives like this one, full of drunk soldiers who didn't really give a damn.
"I don't understand her accent. What are they called?" asked Gregory.
"Saxophobia." answered Cavendish.
"What's that?"
"Fear of sax."
"How can anybody be frightened of sax? I love sax." Everybody groaned.
The woman on stage continued her introduction.
"We're going to play a few tunes for you tonight. I hope you enjoy it."
I knew what Gregory meant. Her accent was quite strong and I guessed she was born out towards the forward edge of the Sleeper Empire, one of the industrial systems where the massive orbital shipyards had built the previous generation of naval destroyers. There was a good chance that York's old destroyer, the Nemesis, had been constructed there. Nowadays the Imperial battle fleets were built closer to the core worlds where they were less vulnerable to cross border incursions.

The band were good. Although only six of them, they made a sound like a much bigger band. I ran the music through a database on the implant and it told me I was listening to a style of jazz known as swing. I wasn't really bothered about its name and I found myself tapping my foot.
By the third or fourth tune, the space in front of the stage had attracted some dancers. There weren't many women amongst the mercenary companies but several of them had found partners. I could see a blond, probably in her mid forties and wearing sergeant's stripes. I caught Cavendish's eye and nodded in the direction of the dancer. She smiled and mouthed a reply. "If things had turned out slightly differently..." One day I would try and get her story from her although, so far, I'd failed to learn even her given name.

"I know this one." said Acre. I knew it too. It was from a vid I'd seen years ago, when I was still a novice. A scene set in a bar, which was clearly intended by the band. It was probably going to be the last piece before they took a break.
"I like the part where the old man chops the guy's arm off with that laser sword." said Nansen. We'd pored scorn on the weapon for both the scientific impossibility and the complete impracticality.
"The smuggler's more my thing. I love the way he takes the alien out by firing under the table." said Acre.
We were on the verge of the entire crew picking their favourite scene from the film when Cavendish clicked her fingers and, immediately, the Bad Girls were poised for action. She touched her ear with three fingers. My comm set was taped to my forearm next to my knife, under the sleeve of my shirt and I activated it with a tap of my ring finger. It linked through the ring to my implant and I selected channel three.
A scan of the faces in the crowd showed that most of the target team had drifted across to the far end of the room, but two were heading for the exit.
"It's going to kick off as soon as those two are out of the door." said Cavendish, over the comms. "Find your target and prepare to engage." She didn't have to explain. When an armed group lined up, it meant they were taking a position where they couldn't accidentally fire on each other. The other two were either going to stop anybody entering, or stop everybody from fleeing.
I released the retaining strap that secured my gun. In a crowded area an automatic weapon could reap havoc, but my bolt thrower would have been just as dangerous. There was another issue.
"Go ahead." She was on her feet, drifting to where she could see her chosen target. The other Bad Girls were also taking positions. I dripped adrenalin and a small volume of Quicktime into my bloodstream.
"If we open fire, everybody in the bar is going to start shooting at us."
"What do you suggest?"
My cartouche was in my pocket. "If..."
"Too late!"
The new arrivals were bringing their weapons to bear. The Quicktime made it appear a relaxed and casual act, but then the one that I was watching was punched backwards, head snapping back and arms flailing as Cavendish fired twice and then twice again.
"Armour." reported Livingston. I'd also noticed that the first three rounds hadn't penetrated but, with the fourth, a spray of blood had coloured the wall.
After a brief pause, made longer by the Quicktime that was circulating round my cerebral arteries, the rest of the Bad Girls opened fire. I turned away; my task was to get the crew out of here, rather than getting involved in the firefight. The crew had all taken cover in the booth. Ash had a pistol up, looking for a target, Hemingray and Pearce were crawling towards the exit, pushed on by Caro Hall. The engineers were with Cromwell, waiting for a clear run for the door. "Chakrabarty, with me!" Where the hell was Dryden? "Ash, don't be an idiot, let's go! Where's Dryden?" Hemingray wouldn't be happy with me if I didn't get her man out.
"The Bad Girls are standing up."
"The Bad Girls are wearing bloody body armour." I took the pistol from his hand and propelled him towards the exit. Just in time as a couple of rounds came our way. By now almost everybody was on the floor and quite a few were bringing weapons up.
The crew were on their way now. Cromwell had taken a covering position, walking backwards. Hall was over to my left, firing a couple of rounds to keep heads down. I could see Dryden now, taking the lead and head butting a mercenary who didn't get out of the way in time.
I trod on a few people in my hurry to get to the door before the others. There were two more gunmen outside, probably waiting in the corridor for the first mercenaries, those with the strongest sense of self preservation, to flee. I pushed a medium dose of QT, along with skeletal stim and some adrenaline, then slid the submachinegun gun out of the harness, pulling the door open with my other hand and rolling through the gap.
I came up, leading foot planted firmly and my weight resting on one knee, weapon up and safety off. They were fast. Already they were adjusting their aim to compensate for me being half a metre lower than expected. The first one took a dozen rounds in the chest, his weapon discharging into the roof panels as he fell backwards. The second one hesitated, glancing at the doorway.
"Drop it!" commanded Dryden, taking a couple of steps to clear the way for Hemingray who was just behind him. Before the second gunman could decide which target to focus on I fired again, pulling a bullet into his lower leg. He howled as he went down, letting go of his assault rifle, although it was held close to him by the sling.
I could hear automatic weapons fire as I jumped up and, carefully keeping out of Dryden's field of fire ran to the fallen men. The first got a single round to the head, in case my bullets had only impacted on armour. The second I slammed into unconsciousness with the sole of my boot.

All the crew were in the corridor now. Hall was at the back of the group, her weapon pointing down the corridor, covering our backs. Cromwell was stood in the doorway to the bar, presumably covering the retreat of the other troops. I could hear a lot of shouting but, for the moment, no gunshots. I changed the magazine on my gun for one of my two spares.
"Where were you keeping that?" demanded Dryden.
"You don't need to know." said Hemingray, who'd seen me slide it out of a garter round my left thigh. My kilt only had a small pocket and, to carry a lot of weaponry, I had to be inventive. I presumed Cavendish had done something similar when she produced a pistol from nowhere when we were trying to flee the Stobo.
"Cavendish, the crew is safely out."
"Understood. I need you back in here."
"On my way. Pearce, run a frequency scan. Find out if security is on its way."
I touched Cromwell on the arm and she shifted position to let me through. I did a count. Eight Bad Girls standing. That was good. Everybody else that I could see the was on the floor. There was blood spattered on the wall in several places and several of the bodies covering the floor were dead. The Bad Girls were circulating slowly, weapons raised and shifting left and right, their fingers on triggers.
"Keep calm, keep your hands away from your weapons." The mantra was being repeated by several on the Girls. They were heavily outnumbered, but had the advantage and were trying to diffuse the situation.
"Have you got your badge?"
"Cartouche, yes." I held it up and let it radiate. I could see that many of the mercenaries wore iron citizen's rings and they would be firing off signals in the presence of the Emperor's symbol. The Bad Girls didn't have rings; Cromwell had told me that, on joining the Imperial Guard, they renounced their citizenship and entered servitude to the Imperial Court. I'd asked what happened when they retired and she'd said that they weren't expected to retire. That tallied with what Professor Helms had said. Once we were back on the ship I would raise the issue with them. Clearly I had made a subconscious decision that I was going back to the ship.
"I am Mistress Echo, Imperial Commissioner." I almost demanded that they recognise my authority but, although most of the people in the room would be Sleepers, we were a long way over the border. I had run a number of searches on the ship's information systems but was still unclear on the status of the occupied systems and whether I actually had any authority here. "Listen to my troops and we will not have any more trouble."
"Who put you in charge?" came a voice. "We're not in the Empire now."
"No, we're not. But if we hadn't have been here, many more of you would have been dead. And if you don't listen to me now, more of you might be very soon."
I stepped over a couple of bodies, my boots crunching on broken glass.
"Cavendish, what's the score?"
"Eight targets down and six collateral deaths. Handful of wounded." She gestured to where a couple of groups were gathered, performing some sort of first aid. I'd heard her tell the squad medics to show themselves as I came in.
"It could have been worse. What do you need me for?"
She led me over to the far wall where a body was sprawled awkwardly, assault rifle hanging loosely from his fingers. The implant flashed the target symbol as I looked at his face. Red head, Acre's target. From the number of ragged holes in his jacket, she had used most of her magazine on him. I put my finger to one of the holes and could feel the sharp edge of a corresponding hole in the ceramic plate underneath. In the darkness it was impossible to make out any detail on the wall behind him but I would bet it had bullet holes in it. Armour piercing rounds inside an orbital. Luckily we weren't near the hull. looked up at Cavendish.
"I know." she said. "I'll deal with her. Look at this." She leant down and took hold of the shirt pocket. Something was pinned through the material of the flap. She flicked it over. On the underside was a small enamel badge. I thought I knew what it meant, but ran the symbol through the implant anyway for confirmation.
"Interesting. Have you checked for ID?"
"A couple, but they've nothing. No ring, no cards, no tags. This one broke a rule."
The gunmen had tried to cover their identity. On an Imperial station I could have found their entry and started to back track their passages, but not here. This wasn't our business.
"Take the tag and let's get out of here." I raised my voice. "Your attackers are dead. Form up on your squad leaders and report to your companies."
The Bad Girls were carefully pulling back towards the door, still covering the crowd in case some drunken fool decided to have a go at us. I wondered how many of the collateral were due to somebody threatening the Girls rather than from the gunmen.
The soldiers on the floor started to stir. The Bad Girls slowly pulled back, still keeping their weapons up in case of trouble. There was a commotion from the stage.
"I think one of the band was hit." commented Acre. "Shame. They were good."
"I can.." started Livingston, our medic.
"No. We're leaving." commanded Cavendish.
The band were gathered round the girl who had done the introductions, pulling her up to a sitting position. Her eyes were open and she was still alive.
"I'm alright, I'm alright." she said. But she but looked pale and shocked, probably massive blood loss. Her saxophone was clutched tightly and I could see where a bullet had ripped through the rods and levers. The band pulled her to her feet and she started laughing. Strange behaviour so I stopped. She tipped the instrument and something rolled out of the bell into her hand. Clearly the attackers had been using soft nosed ammunition; a much more sensible choice in the circumstances.
"Lucky bugger!" said Acre

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