Sunday, August 20, 2017

Weasel's Score

            It probably would have been better if I had screamed. The heart pounding, sweat soaked nightmares were nothing new- being on the run will do that to you. The constant company of others, now that was something I hadn’t dealt with since they’d come for my parents. It was posing a rather large problem when it came to following Rule Number One.
            Rule Number One of being a psychic is simple. Never let anyone find out that you’re psychic. I’m pretty sure that Rules Two through Five are variations on the same theme, especially since the panicked riots of 2052 had lead to the near genocide of our people. Maybe back in the day the rules had been different, but I wasn’t about to get bitter about that right this second. Right now I had to deal with the two other members of my crew that had woken, terrified, from my nightmare. I’m a really good projector, my dad would be proud. 
            “Sorry,” I said, trying desperately not to show the rising feeling of dread at being caught out, “I warned you guys that staying together the night before the heist wasn’t the best of ideas. When I’m tense sometimes shout or swear in my sleep.” I had done no such thing, but I lie quite well when it’s necessary, it’s a fantastically useful survival trait. If they thought they’d been incorporating their surroundings into their dreams it would give them a solid reason to have shared the same one- if they ever talked about it.
            Epsilon had a fully loaded educational system, including psychology for normies. It didn't have anything on psychics, or if it did it was restricted. Since I wasn't able to advance my training I spent my time researching the people I was trying to blend in with. I had learned a couple good tricks from the dry textbooks and studies, the first thing being if someone had a logical explanation for an event, they tended to look no further for answers. The second was that in times of stress people don’t remember too well, and will sometimes backfill events based off what they hear from others afterward.
            “Jesus Shepard of Judea,” Alex swore, “Scared me so bad I woke up shouting.“ It was true, I was surprised the racket he had made hadn’t brought Dane in from down the hall.
           I hung my head in mock shame, covering my look of relief as my anxiety drained away, and mumbled an apology. He grunted and laid back down, pulling the covers up around his ears.
Alex was a simple guy, the other grunt in the band of miscreants I’d fallen in with. I stared at his coarse black buzz cut for a moment, all that was visible under the blanket he’d pulled up. At 6’4” and cut like chiseled granite he was scary as all get out- but he wasn‘t hired for his brains. He was the least of my worries. Reluctantly I turned to look at the other member of our crew that I’d woken, feeling my shoulders tense up once more. I got the feeling that Bashirah would be more than happy to hand me to the Feds, she hadn't trusted me from the beginning- which was tragic given that I'd been busy saving her butt.
            It was the middle of the night and if she had been pulling from my emotions then she’d just woken up from fairly hellacious nightmare. Somehow she was still the sexiest thing I’d ever laid eyes on. In the dim light Bashirah’s olive skin took on a dusky tone, and her long dark hair was tousled from tossing and turning. My memory filled in the emerald green of the eyes that were narrowed with suspicion. Full lips were pressed into a thin line, and toned arms were crossed in front of some very interesting curves. 
            I could feel the electric heat of her suspicion sparking along my skin as she tried to find the words to express it, and fought hard to keep my expression calm. Thankfully she couldn’t come up with anything reasonable enough to say out loud, not since Alex had already backed me up, and instead flopped back down onto the mattress in a huff. Her cloud of emotions let me know that she wasn’t sleeping, but I settled myself as though I was anyways, pretending to drop right back off.
It wasn’t easy to fake sleep. my narrow bunk wasn’t anything resembling comfortable, and the nearly empty room where we crashed pre-assignment was cold, but I did my best. My spare surroundings would actually work in my favor, I didn’t dare get cozy enough to actually go back to sleep, for risk of a repeat incident. It was going to be a long night. 
            The morning crawled into being after an eternity of restless thoughts and miserable recollections. At this point the thought of knocking off the shipment coming in from Earth was a relief. It was a ballsy heist, perfectly in line with Dane’s character. I wasn’t the least bit surprised that someone had tapped him for the assignment. 
I won’t say that Dane is the brains of our operation- that title would probably fall to our techno-geek, Kayle. Kayle was all long fingers and pasty skin, two of the sure signs of a code wizard. Dane was much more fit and tanned, in fact he could give Alex a run for his money in the brawn department, the two looked almost like photo negatives of each other.
            But looks can be deceiving, even though he looked like a meat head on the outside, Dane had a savvy for plans, and a knack for organized leadership that hinted at a military background. I found it strangely comforting. 
I hadn’t been born in time to be indoctrinated into the military- as all psychics were at the beginning- but my parents were career, before they had gone underground and fled. Something about the habits and temperament of our fearless leader made me feel comfortable for the first time in years.
            Dane appeared at the door briefly, knocking sharply as he opened it, before leaving without a word. We scrambled from our beds, dressing quickly and strapping on our gear. I did my best to keep my eyes on my own bits and pieces while we did so, and experienced moderate success. What can I say? For all my charming good looks and sharp intellect, I’m only human. 
            We had gone over the plan every day for the past week, Dane was nothing if not thorough. If we failed, it would not be due to a lack of preparation. I wasn’t really supposed to know much about the job besides my part in its execution, me being the new kid and all, but I had an unsavory tendency to eavesdrop. Being able to sense people approaching kept me from ever being caught and so I’d never kicked the habit. 
            Apparently some Earthies had done a whole museum, and were selling off collections to those rich and funds and poor in morality. Epsilon had plenty of that type, this was the perfect escape for those with enough money, the upper class was bailing  on the cesspool of war and politics that Earth had become. The only problem in selling to them was getting the cargo from hither to yon. Our man (I had taken to calling him Weasel, since no one would give me a name) had devised a brilliant solution. He’d “buy” some “fuel cells” and hire a mini-bulker to smuggle them up, with the goods inside. 
            I tried hard to stamp out the little spark of admiration I felt every time I thought of his plan. I’d found out it wasn’t just a simple smuggle and sell. He’d “bought” the cargo with dirty money, when it got stolen make he’d make an insurance claim from another buddy of his. He’d launder the money from his last score while selling his new one. It was a twisty sort of brilliant.
            I fell in at the tail end of our little group, moving mechanically as I thought. Kayle was off somewhere doing something wizardy to the security cameras in the access tunnel. He would get spotted if he poked around in cyberspace too long so we would be cutting it as close as possible, minutes before the shipment moved.
Dane was at base - wherever that was - monitoring the whole operation.  That left Alex, Bashirah and I to execute. Alex and I were the muscle, Bashirah was the brains, if anything went wrong she was in charge. That made me a little nervous given the state of her former partner (dead) when we’d first met. I opened the hatch to the access tunnels and floridly gestured her in. 
            “Oh no,” Bashirah said softly her green eyes narrowing slightly, “After you.”
We didn’t have time for games, so I swung down onto the ladder. Apparently they were going to keep me where I couldn’t run. Probably a good idea, the more I thought about our little stunt the stronger my urge to bail. There were about six wagon loads of dummy fuel cells being unloaded as we climbed, and we were supposed to knock off the whole bloody shipment, so Weasel could make his claim. The three of us. 
            I hauled open another access panel, dropping into the tunnel below. The light was poor but I hit the ground without incident- no mean feat when dropping six feet onto a set of railroad tracks. Alex landed beside me with far more grace than someone his size had any right to, and reached up to catch Bashirah. 
            The tunnel smelled of exhaust and rust, there was a smattering of fallen cargo on either side. The whole process of unloading and shipping was automated, and sometimes the loads of raw material shifted. I spotted an eye in the sky and prayed fervently to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in that Kayle had done his job. My receiver squealed, causing irreparable damage to my inner ear.
            “We’re in,” Bashirah said, touching her ear as she spoke. I reached out and pulled her hand away and she glared at me. It really was a rookie habit, the whole point an earwig was that no one would know its there. My earpiece squealed again and I swore viciously in several languages. I wondered briefly if they were hazing me.
            “Good. Get the tracks switched and fall in behind when it comes through. You’ve only got about two minutes.” My heart began to pound, and I was suddenly glad that Bashirah was in charge, it was all I could do not to freak out and flee, rational thought abandoned me for a minute.
            While I was busy having some personal time, Bashirah was moving gracefully down the tunnel, pausing at the mouth of its Y intersection. Alex pulled free a flashlight and panned it slowly down the metal wall until it lit a tin box. Bashirah pulled out a set of dentist’s tools and got to work on the lock. Time passed at an alarming rate.
            “Sixty seconds,” Dane announced, adding to the long term loss of my hearing. I felt a wave of heat break over me, followed be a cool wash as pinpricks of sweat sprang into being over every inch of my skin.
            “Fifty,” Dane said.
            “Forty. Bashirah what are you doing down there?” Dane was starting to sound a little nervous which was enough to send me into a full blown panic.
            “The damn thing is rusted,” she spat out, wiggling the tools frantically.
            “Thirty.” 
            “Airy Fic, Dane!” barked Bashirah, punching the box. I could feel the tracks rumbling under my feet as the wagons approached and made an executive decision.
            “Move, Bashirah!” I shouted, absently taking a petty pleasure at the thought of deafening my companions, maybe we could all learn sign language together. Bashirah turned to glare at me, clearing a line of fire and I shot the damn box, praying that the bullet wouldn’t ricochet into something vital. The gunshot was nearly drowned out by the roar of the approaching freight, but my aim was true and the box popped open, revealing a series of metal levers.
            “Ten!” shouted Dane, “What’s going on down there?!” 
            Bashirah flipped the first and third levers, and ran for the left wing of the Y. I was a step behind her, and didn’t think to watch the tracks as they shifted from one route to the other. I went down, my head hitting metal, my vision blurring into a technicolor storm that would have been gorgeous were it less inconvenient. I felt a hand grab the yoke of my shirt, as well as a good helping of the scruff of my neck, and I was hauled unceremoniously into the safety of the tunnel. 
            As things started to focus, and the shaken bits floating inside my skull settled down, I made out Alex’s concerned face. I blame the head wound for what came next, I’m usually a little more calm cool and collected.
            “You saved me!” I exclaimed, the rational part of my brain registered that I sounded like a breathless school girl, but my mouth adlepatedly forged ahead. “Oh my God that was close. I felt the wind. Wow, you’re strong! Just grabbed me and kept running! I wish I could have seen it, I bet it was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon cool. I totally owe you, man!” 
            “It was what?” Alex sounded baffled.
            I don’t know how much longer I would have kept babbling if Bashirah hadn’t intervened. Pulling open one of the pouches at her side she freed up a length of gauze and something that looked suspiciously like witch hazel. It hurt. A lot. Regretfully I canned a whole set of “nurse” fantasies that I’d come up with and stood, swaying slightly.
            “I said report!!” Dane’s voice carried to me from the insides of both my companion’s ears and I winced in sympathy. My viciously malfunctioning device must have died a deserving death on the train tracks. Hopefully it wasn’t too expensive, I was sure it was coming out of my cut. 
            “Zee almost bit it, but I hauled him out. Bashirah flipped the tracks,” Alex summarized concisely. I snorted rudely as he gave her credit, and she shot me a withering look. I was making fantastic progress in winning her affections. 
            “Ok, we’re not even close to finished, you guys aren’t breathing nearly hard enough to be running after the wagons like you’re supposed to be! Move out!” Dane commanded, settling any doubts I might have had about a previous military career. We took off at a run. It seemed like only a second or two passed and our destination appeared quite suddenly before me. I winced a bit, worrying after the loss of time. It was a good mile between the split in the tracks and the outer docking bay, and I’d lost all of it. Briefly I cursed the loneliness and boredom that had landed me with this batch of miscreants. I was out an ear, some scalp, and an enormous helping of brain cells, and it was only my first day.
            The door popped open, our very own hacker working the mechanism from somewhere far away and far safer. I uncharitably wondered if it would really have been all that hard for him to switch the tracks as well, but he had been quite insistent that the security programs surrounding the cargo transport were much to high tech for him to monkey with.
I ran through the enormous doors without breaking stride, following the tracks to where the set of six square wagons had come to rest. The hangar bay looked like it had been built after the set of Star Wars- Episode IV, and who knew? Maybe the engineer who designed this section of Epsilon was as much of an old movie buff as I was. I was sure that no room actually needed that many panels on the wall. 
            Station security would be on their way already, and as a precaution we pulled on black Kevlar masks. In additional to (hopefully) helping us survive a head shot, they would protect our identities. I only wished I’d been wearing mine earlier, it would have come in handy in the tunnel. You live you learn. 
            My thoughts had carried me to the foot of the third wagon, my two companions taking the preceding ones in the chain. I grabbed the top and hauled myself up, landing gracelessly on the shifting stack of fuel cells. 
            “Remember, we want the green ones!” Bashira called from her wagon. She was waist deep, sifting through the things as fast as she could. The thought that this was not the slickest of plans was beginning to stir. I felt the pulses of alert energy that heralded station security approaching just seconds before the hiss of pressurized air signaled that Kayle had closed and locked the bay doors. The police had shown up a whole heck of a lot earlier than anticipated. Our main route was cut off, that fast, and we were officially on Plan B. 
            I suppose I should have felt more warmth towards Plan B, given that it was my shining moment of participation in our planning session. My parents had made me memorize the schematic for the entire bloody station after we’d fled here- which, let me tell you, is just buckets of fun. The long and the short of it was, no matter where I was, I knew at least three ways out.
This particular docking bay had a maintenance panel recessed high onto a wall in the far corner, and a set of vents that remained sealed for the majority of the time along the ceiling. I knew the lock codes to open the panel, and it seemed like that was now our escape route. The marked cells weren’t in my cargo container, and I leaped lithely to the ground, running for unit five. Weasel had promised that the cargo was sorted so the dummy cells would all be in one wagon. All we had to do was find which one, load it’s cargo onto our hoversled and get out. You know, before we got shot.
            Alex, let out a wordless shout from unit four- which I took to mean victory- and Bashira and I scrambled for the hoversled, maneuvering it around under the mechanical chute that Alex was unfolding from the side of the wagon. I eyed the hoversled uneasily as hundreds of fuel cells clattered into its storage space. I turned to check the maintenance hatch. It looked awfully small from here. Praying it was perspective to blame I ran to the wall and peered up.
            There was no way the sled would fit. A sick feeling settled into the pit of my stomach, and when I heard the creak of the doors being pried open I almost lost the meager contents of my stomach. Dummy batteries stopped pouring into the hoversled and Alex clambered back into the wagon to push the remaining piles down the chute. The doors shuddered again, moving to an arms width apart. I saw a gun poke through, then retreat, bare hands replacing it as they tried to pry the doors open further.
            I sprinted to the control room, popping open the door and seizing the control panel. My fingers flying so fast they left trails in the air, I began initiating the sequence to open the outer hatch to the docking bay. Immediately the safety seals sprang from the walls, dropping a sheet of metal in front of the doors. The lights in the room flickered to yellow.
There was a two minute delay to allow any personnel in the main bay to reach the safety of the control room, then the docking bay hatch would open, and anything not bolted to the floor would be sucked out into the black. Alex was yelling something at me that I couldn’t quite make out through the thick plexiform windows, but the fact that his face had gone from chocolate to onyx helped me fill in the blanks.
            “What in God’s name are you doing you freaking idiot?!?!” I didn’t need to hear the words to agree with them. I may have saved us from arrest, but just the thought of the greedy void lurking outside the outer walls made me long for a courtroom and a lawyer. I had only seconds to act, but I generously gave myself three to hope fervently that I knew what I was doing before springing into action. I ran to the hoversled, idly noting I’d forgotten to close the door to the control room behind me. Ice cold spears of fear were emanating from my two companions. I could hardly blame them. 
            “Get on!” I yelled, doing my best to remain cool and confident. If I panicked I'd start projecting like mad, then they’d panic and this whole thing would get very messy. The hoversled rose at an agonizingly slow pace until I was level with the seals on either side of the vent. Wordlessly I gestured for Bashirah to take one and I grabbed the other, twisting it to the open position. I heard the hiss of pressurized air being released, and saw half of the panels slide up and slip over to the open position. I stood and threw my weight against the vent’s cover, willing it to slide over. It didn’t move. 
            “This wasn’t the plan!” Bashirah yelled, eying the flickering yellow lights with mounting terror.
            “Look at the maintenance hatch!” I grunted back, tossing my weight against the vent cover again, “We’d never fit!”
            Shooting me a look that was far too smug, given our current situation, Alex stood and braced his feet on the ground, pushing against the cover. The stupid thing slid over like its tracks had just been oiled. I had definitely loosened it up for him. Bashira had us rising before the vent was fully open and I barked at her to stop. We hovered for a moment, about a foot above the cover as I looked over the side and shivered. It was a good thirty feet to the ground if I fell. I heard the inner doors begin to slide open, the outer hatch would pop as soon as they were clear. 
            “Grab my ankles,” I told Alex. I leaned forward over the side of the hoversled causing it to bob as it adjusted to the shift in its load.  Alex’s hands gripped my ankles firmly, and I tried to will myself to be optimistic about our odds. I failed. I was one hundred percent sure I was about to die. 
            The vent slid closed much more easily than it opened, which was amazing given my complete lack of leverage. Turning the seals while upside down was no treat, but it gone done as well. I don’t know the inner doors opened, once the vent was shut I couldn’t hear anything. I dangled upside down, picturing the void sucking away all evidence of our heist. I don’t want to know how close I cut it. I was pretty sure that everything I did know about today was going to bless me with a handful of gray hair already, I didn’t need to add to it.
            Alex hauled me back aboard and Bashirah took off like a shot. 
            “You might want to slow down,” I told her, my voice tight with worry.
            “Why? Crap!!!” Bashirah slammed on the breaks, flying forward over the controls. I caught her legs before she went over the side of the sled. Instead she banged her head off the railing. Man, I was smooth. A rain of dummy fuel cells tumbled to the ground below and Bashirah said something unintelligible, but doubtless quite rude.
            I gave her a minute to collect herself while I assessed the situation. The vent leading to the docking bays were huge, they were there to clear out the air from cargo gone wrong, and you tended to need that done in a hurry. Once they connected to the main ventilation system, they narrowed significantly. We’d be crawling from here, which was unfortunate given that we had cargo.
            “Report, report, report!!” Dane’s voice buzzed from the ears of my companions.
            “We’ve got a bit of a problem here, Dane.” Bashirah said, with a remarkable level of calm, “We went out through the vent but the hoversled won’t make it further than the main branch away from the cargo bay.
            “Are you horizontal or vertical?” Dane asked her.
            “Horizontal,” she replied, managing to haul herself to her feet. 
            “Park it and leave it, we’ll figure out how to get it out later. There are only about two dozen books on the shipment, the rest was just camouflage. Sort out the actual cargo and proceed on foot. Just don’t miss any.” 
            “Ahhh…Dane?” Alex asked him, glancing around the hoversled, “You pack any bags on this thing?”
            “Get creative, Alex,” Dane replied, his voice firm, “You’ve all got shirts and pants.”
            I tried to stop the smile as it crept across my face, but it was hopeless. Bashirah caught my look and snorted.
            “In your dreams,” she told me, tossing her half-undone braid over her shoulder and putting her hands on her hips. “I’ve got seniority.”
            My smile evaporated as I evaluated the temperature in the vents. Mentally I calculated a route back to base- it was a little over a mile. I eyed Bashirah.
            “Paper, scissors, rock?” I asked hopefully. 
            “Nuh uh,” she said, granting me the first genuine smile I’d seen from her. “Lose ’em, new kid.”
            Alex popped open a fuel cell and pulled loose a wrapped paper package. He held it out to me, expectantly. Reluctantly I grabbed the yoke of my shirt and pulled it over my head. It was going to be a cold walk home. The rush finally hit me, and I smiled. First day on the job, and I had survived.


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Epsilon 2078

Epsilon 2078


I was on E deck of building 5 when I first met Bashira. I don’t have a photographic memory, but I can still remember every detail of my surroundings in the few seconds before my life went a little crazy (again).
I was leaning against the railing, staring through the thick plexiform walls at the Night Wings of our space station- everyone used the solar panels for a clock since they were the only part of the station that didn’t spin, instead rotating to follow the sun. Judging by their angle it was about 11 hours into the day. Scientist had found that depriving people of a natural rhythm of sunrise and sunset (in addition to making them a little batty) drops them onto a 27 hour waking and sleep cycle.
Nobody knows why. As a result all of Epsilon 2078’s computer driven cycles- from the buildings that ran mock sunrise and sunset programs to the jet propulsion systems that kept us from getting sucked into Earth’s atmosphere and regulated our speed of orbit- were set to a 27 hour day. There was no a.m. or p.m. as my father remembered it.
Memories of my parents were a painful subject. It had been only 3 years since they passed, and while pop psychology told me that the pain would fade to almost nothing with time it seemed like 3 years was nowhere near long enough. Besides, pop psychology was written for normies- and I didn’t dare access any files on the psychology of psychics. It had been over a decade since the witch hunts of the late 60s, but we were still a persecuted bunch. Tagged and monitored, or so everyone liked to believe, our branches in every military disbanded.
It was necessary to keep people at an arms length, or that’s what my parents had drilled into me. It was easy for them to say, they’d had each other, and me. Now I had no one, not another psychic to share a mind with, not even a normie. I stared out into the emptiness beyond the plexiform windows and struggled not to think of the old Earth philosopher my father was so fond of. What did he say? Something about staring too long into the abyss…
I tore my mind away, moving on quickly. Glancing around at the people wandering past, contented looks on the majority of their faces, I wondered what it was like to be a normie. To not have the constant buzz of almost-thought in your head. It was a soothing hum most of the time, your average person thinks half in feelings and half in poorly formed imagery. They don’t project very far out, just brushing gently against you as their owners walk by.

“SHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHITSHIT!!!!”

Except that one. My head jerked up and I scanned the hallway, unsure where it was coming from. I had never had the benefit of full military training. My parents had drilled me mercilessly, well aware of how dangerous our ‘talent’ had become, but that was nothing compared to the programs that had previously been available to every nation’s psi-troops. As a result I had to scan the crowd for several seconds before locating her. She was doing a good job keeping her face neutral, and her pace even, but her head twitched slightly as she fought the urge to look over her shoulder.
Three members of Station Security were walking brusquely down the hall, ignoring the vid screens that lined the walls and ceiling advertising everything from shaving cream to body sculpting. Their eyes scanned the crowds, their mouths set in firm lines, and their thoughts ran a checklist every time they examined a new civilian on the promenade.
Chocolate brown hair, right…” the SS moved to where he could see a face and frowned “Blue eyes, wrong.” They were definitely looking for her, and unfortunately she was exotic enough to be easily found.
Her dark brown hair was wavy and caught the light as it poured down over her shoulders and grazed the top of some very interesting curves. Nice. Everything kicked into overdrive as I continued examining her, not even the stray thoughts around me registered anymore. Her eyes were tilted slightly, and though it was hard to see the color from here, the SS was searching for green- a person favorite of mine. Full lips were pursed slightly in fear. Her walk swayed a bit, despite her brisk pace. She was definitely hot- something that would work against her if she was trying to escape notice.
My pulse sped up as I detached myself from the railing and fell into step when she reached my section of the hall. Her thoughts were a jumble of images and expletives. She’d been pulling some sort of shady job and gotten nailed. Blue lights circling indicated some sort of security breach, and every time she remembered them she got another rush of adrenaline. She knew she was being followed and had just enough self control not to panic and run.
By this point we were almost at a maintenance access hallway and I still hadn’t skimmed enough off of her to figure out whether or not to help. In a couple minutes it would be too late, the SS weren’t far behind and the next several blocks of corridor were just that, hallways with no real hiding places. This was the only place that was nearby where we could lose them. I’d been drifting towards her, herding her to the far wall as we approached. The sane part of me argued that this was ridiculous and I should walk away.
Pop psychology says that we cannot survive without human contact- real relationships- that we go crazy. It looks like three years and one good looking girl had done it for me. I casually put my hand onto her elbow and steered her down the short hall to the metal door at it’s end. A fine sheen of sweat broke out over my entire body. If SS had been looking in our direction when we slid away at least one of them would follow. I had thrown in with a girl I knew nothing about, and we were on the run.
Gritting my teeth I blocked out the suddenly fearful whirlwind of her thoughts as she struggled to adjust to this new change in direction, my own emotions were hard enough to push aside, I didn’t need hers crowding on top of them. I punched in the access code and shoved the door open as quickly as possible, pulling her through and shutting it quietly.
You idiot- I thought to myself even as I pictured a schematic of the maintenance hallways, selecting our escape route, never ceasing to move- If you wanted a girl that bad you should be at Madame Cheri’s. My mother would have fits if she knew where parts of my inheritance had gone. With a slight shake of my head I pushed the guilty feelings from my mind, trying to focus on the present.
My father would have fits if he knew I was risking attention from SS this way. Parents- they were impossible to please. What good was all the random crap they’d trained me for if I never used it? Memorizing the blueprints for an entire space station hadn’t been fun, and I’d never found a purpose for them before today.
We had just rounded the first corner when she tore her arm free from my grasp.
“Who are you, where are we going?” Her mind was a mixture of fear and anger, an image popped into her head- a body on the floor. Someone close to her had dropped the ball on their job, and paid the price. She was off balance and it was making her fear worse. I had to keep her moving, but right now asking for trust was going to be completely futile. She’d just had someone she cared about fail her in the worst possible way.
I kept walking, and breathed a silent sigh of relief when she instinctualy followed. We had to get to C deck and into another building- fast. I blessed my parent’s paranoid habits as we reached the first set of stairs, fitness was a major priority. Despite three years without them I had kept myself in good enough shape to take the stairs at a light run and still talk.
“You can call me Zee.” I told her. Giving out my real name never even crossed my mind. Nobody knew it anyways, I was on my third ident card since we’d gotten to the station. Anyone I dealt with on a regular basis just called me Zee.
“We’re headed to C Deck, we can cut across two buildings on that level and lay low.” The exit to C Deck maintenance corridors grew closer even as I spoke and I opened it, turning right down the access halls.
“How do you know I’m in trouble, and why are you helping?” Her thoughts were calmer. Now that the immediate danger was gone she was settling remarkably fast, despite the image of the body that kept cropping up in her thoughts. I glanced back at her, assessing. Whatever shit she was into, she was a pro. Quick on her feet, sexy- I jerked my eyes forward. There was no doubt in my mind why I was helping, not that I would tell her that. She was hot, what guy wouldn’t step up for that?
“Your head kept twitching towards those three SS guys behind you.” I told her, hoping she wouldn’t notice that I had skipped the second question. We went through another door and merged with the crowd walking across the bridge to Building 4, slowing our pace to blend. The bridge was beautiful, made of solid plexiform. As we crossed we were surrounded by stars, only partially blocked by the walls of Buildings 4 and 5. The Earth lay below us, but was quickly shifting position as the station rotated.
Building 4 was much more commercial, and we were quickly bombarded by the sights and smells of a mini mall. My only warning was a quick burst of thoughts, it took me a moment to sort through them, and by the time I realized she had broken away from me she was cloaked by the mass of shoppers. For a moment I considered following her, she would have gone into a shop with multiple floors it was the only way to lose me. With a shrug I left well enough alone.
She’d been thinking about meeting back up with her team, thinking they’d need to recruit another Muscle- probably at the Games. In under two seconds she’d run through all the things she needed to do to get out and figured out an escape route- then acted on it. She was quick.
I followed my original course to building 3 and got some Lo Mein from a Chi-Merican restaurant on D Deck. Chin’s served up good food, it tasted like home to me. As I worked my way quickly through the pint and my orange ElectroBalance I thought of all the reasons that I should go right back to my normal life and forget all about this girl. They were compelling arguments, which didn’t sway me in the least. I knew that two days would find me at the Games, blowing the carefully tailored low profile life I had led for several years now.
Boredom is a bitch, it was going to get me killed.
#
              It wasn’t my first time at the Games, they were popular with just about everyone on Epsilon 2078. The station’s rotation added (quite literally) a special twist that no athlete could resist testing themselves against, and as a result we wound up with some fairly famous Earthies competing with the local favorites. They inevitably lost. No amount of training could prepare you for the fact that, on a space station, when you dropped something straight down it fell in a curve.
              This was, however, my first time competing. The Jerk had given me a truly skeptical look when I brought him my ident card to modify, asking for a semi-pro sports background. His bright red hair bounced slightly as he shook his head in disbelief. It didn’t stop his long spidery fingers from snatching up the cash chits and shoving the ident card into his Portable. His fingers danced across the touch screen, almost too fast to track as he muttered to himself. I’d never seen him work with a real console, although I had a theory that his Portable must be connected to one in some way. There was no way that little thing could work all the techno-magic I’d seen it pull on its own.              
Shaking the ident card free The Jerk handed it back and stood, towering above everyone at McCarthy’s. He drained his pint of Guinness and shoved in his chair, pausing for just a minute before he left.
              “Be careful about the girl, okay?” Without waiting for an answer he walked away, his long legs carrying him quickly from the Pub. I wasn’t surprised that he’d pegged me right, every stupid move in history had been over a girl. Men are a predictable species, mom used to say- sometimes fondly, sometimes in exasperation.
              The Oreo Sports Center consisted of three floors, the main arena was on the ground level where most of the action took place- football or basketball, or every once in a while hockey. The hockey players did better than most since the puck stayed on the ground. The second floor house the courts for one on one athletics, racquetball or tennis, fencing, wrestling- the works. It also housed the equestrian center. There had been talk of adding a golf course, but I doubted they’d be able to cram it in there, although the craziness that the station’s spin would work on a golf ball would make it a popular draw.
              I rounded the platform for the second floor entrance and continued to the third, unofficially known as ‘The Battleground’. I showed my ident card at the door, I had enough sports in my background to make a good player and they let me in with a minimum of questioning. I’d showed up early to assure myself a spot in the upcoming game. The Battleground was open every three days for a game of Red vs. Blue- some sort of old video game reference. It was fairly simple, two teams started on opposite sides of the immense indoor landscape. Whichever team lost all of its members first was out. The other team won. The two team captains were already in place and were reviewing our profiles as the players entered. They’d come up with a basic plan of attack or defense which would hold for about the first half of the game. After that things tended to descend into anarchy.
              I jogged a circuit around the arena to get the lay of the land. The designers had gone with rolling hills crisscrossed with small creeks. Scraggly trees provided some cover, and a few looked tall enough to climb- if you were bold enough to pin yourself down like that. On my second jog around  I saw her again, selecting a seat near the plexiform windows. There were two men with her, older. One had the look of ex-military, dark brush cut, square jaw, ramrod straight posture. The other was possibly a programmer. Something about the constant movement of his fingers reminded me of The Jerk. He was shorter than The Jerk by a lot, but had the same pasty complexion that implied very little time spent exercising or exploring SunDecks. His hair a mess of unruly blond curls.
              I hadn’t slowed and was past them quickly. I debated whether to work my way over to this section of the arena during play and decided to be safe. They’d be able to see my performance on the vid screens, no need to get close enough to be recognized. The girl might react with suspicion if she saw me again so soon after I’d randomly popped into her life, I’d rather wait until after they approached me with their offer for us to be reintroduced.
              I checked one of the screens as I continued jogging and noted that I’d been picked up by the Reds. The giant time clock in the lower left hand corner sent me flying to the Red’s weapons locker. My team leader, a tough looking little blonde, nodded at me briefly, her fingers flying as she made her final selections at the monitor on the wall. The little cul de sac was only slightly fortified, a few stray boxes giving us cover. There were only four of us there, and so I waited patiently until our remaining six teammates arrived, grabbing a Tag stick and helmet from the wall of our base.
              Within two minutes the last stragglers came in and equipped themselves as well. The blonde surveyed our group, frowning slightly and then sharply gestured us in.
              “I’ve played against the Blue’s captain before, and he’s an aggressive s.o.b.” She told us seriously, “We’re going to play mostly defense, it will leave us in a corner, but it’ll allow us to dig in. I want to snipers on some high ground covering our base, any volunteers?” I paused a moment, deciding whether that would play to my best advantage, then dismissed the idea. They would be looking for a Muscle, so I would do best showing how I handled myself in a tight situation.  Muscle only came into play when things went wrong, they were handiest at covering an escape. By the time I finished my train of thought two of the men had raised there hands. She nodded at them briefly and they picked up their Tag sticks and headed out to find some cover.
              “The rest of us are going to buddy up. Each of you should spread out about thirty feet from the team behind you and position yourself at an angle so you’re watching each other’s blind sides. If it gets hairy, fall back and the team behind you will provide cover fire. Try not to give ground to easily, we don’t want to get boxed into Base.” Anything else she might have said was cut off by a loud buzzer signaling the beginning of the Game. She grabbed my arm and headed forward, hauling me along quickly, trusting in the others to follow her orders.
              We moved forward and to the left about sixty feet, leaving room for a team behind us and one to the side. No sooner had we found decent cover- a small circle of trees behind a smaller hillock- than I felt a buzz of excited thought. I hit the deck with a warning to my partner just ahead of the pulse from my enemy’s Tag stick. I swore softly scooting behind a tree and popping my head out. I yanked it back in quickly feeling the patter of shredded bark- apparently our opponents were working in teams as well.
              Two women were heading towards our position around either side of the hillock in front of us.  Blonde leaned out from cover and took a shot at the brunette on my side of the hill. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that a shot from a Tag only disabled my shields and did likewise for her opponent. We both scored a hit and the cradle of our Tag lit as a ball rolled out of the handle and dropped into the net. I stepped forward and flicked my wrist, hitting the brunette closing on my partner with the energy ball. Blonde missed and I suddenly found myself up close and personal with a tall redhead.
              I dove to my right, hearing the sizzle of a bolt whiz by my head, and flipped to my feet. Instead of attempting to retreat further while my Tag recharged, I closed, dropping my stick to grab hers and flipping her onto her back. She fought me for control, continuously discharging bolts, but I refused to be distracted. I felt the buzz of two more minds approaching just as another ball began to roll down into the cradle of my stick. I didn’t have time to get to it, so I simply rolled onto my back, forcing my enemy between myself and Blonde.
              “Get down!” I screamed as the burst of light faded, but my warning was a second too late. Her shield failed as it was hit with a bolt from the next pair of Blues. A bearded man grinned fiercely at her and lobbed a ball just as my energy bolt hit his shields. She swore fiercely and dove away, falling back towards base. His smile dropped into a grim line as his own shield dissolved, and turned to a look of shock as his partner‘s shield followed. It was good to know our snipers were doing something.
              I lobbed the ball at the bearded man, covering for my partner, before turning my attention to the tiny pixie of a girl he had paired with. In the second it had taken me to dispatch him she’d fired off a bolt and disabled my shield. She grinned fiercely, the glow of the ball lighting her features in a decidedly eerie way. Instead of diving or running I took a deep breath and focused, waiting for the moment before she took her shot, when her thoughts would tell me to dodge.
              She was quick, the time between her taking aim and actually swinging the stick was so small that she would have gotten me if it weren‘t for her aim- clearly an Earthie. She didn’t hesitate at all after she missed- she turned tail and ran. I pursued, grinning fiercely, casting out in front of us for the thoughts of any Blue members. It was rare I got a chance to exercise my gifts and I reveled in the freedom that the Game gave me. My scoop was glowing with another energy ball as she led me into range of one of their snipers, and I got off my shot before he did. I retreated quickly, circling around to his position.
              This guy really knew what he was doing- at least I assumed it was a guy. He was buried so deep in leaves and dirt that I could barely make out that he was a person at all. Great cover for sniping, terrible for dodging. I took down his defenses and tagged him with a ball before he could regain his feet. The buzzer sounded again, letting me know that the match was over, and I jogged to the sidelines, more specifically to Sideline Café, to re-hydrate and check my stats.
              I grinned fiercely as I pass the status board. In addition to my Kills and Assists, I'd scored the highest for Defense, they gave me a Save and a Cover- no one else had either. I would be exactly what they were looking for.
              As I had anticipated, She was there, along with her two male friends. One of them nodded to me, gesturing towards the stats, and she turned to look. I felt the spike of nervous anxiety in her as she recognized me, and she turned back to her friends shaking her head vigorously. I grabbed an ElectroBalance and sat, keeping my talent focused on them as they fought while letting my body innocently study the screen. Apparently the older ex-military thought that the fact I had already helped out my girl was a plus, not something to be afraid of. I felt the moment he decided to ignore her and caught my breath at the overwhelming sense of relief.
              They might be criminals, I thought as they began walking towards my table, but really where else was I going to fit in? All I knew was that there would be no more days staring out into the vast emptiness of space, wondering had gone insane from isolation- or if not then when I finally would. The old Earth philosopher that my father had a fondness for cropped into my head, and his quote echoed in my mind as they stopped and regarded me.
              “If you gaze too long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back.” I shivered slightly, although not so much that they noticed. Ex-Military assessed me slowly before seating himself at my table. As the other two joined him, he began.

              “I have a proposition for you…”