Fireteam Freelance – Episode 3: Underground Orbit

This is Episode 3 of Fireteam Freelance! The episode is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.

A reminder that all episodes of Fireteam Freelance are posted in pre-Alpha, pure draft state. As such there may be minor errors, typos, etc as a result of being pre-edit. But you’re getting it for free, so that’s the trade-off.


Underground Orbit

“I hate naked ops,” Ursa said, scowling as the train car swept through another tunnel. Around them the light flickered, sunlight outside the windows snapping to black and then light again as they sped onward toward their destination.

“So you’ve said,” Owl replied, still reading her datapad.

“At least twice,” Adah added, giving the larger woman a pointed glance. “This being the third time. You know that scramblers aren’t foolproof, right?”

The device in question was situated in the middle of the table, using pinpoint directional audio and white noise generation to “scramble” any and all listening devices that were in use on the public transit. Illegal without a license, their current client had provided the one they were using, along with their identities and clearance to carry out their operation.

But no piece of tech is fool-proof. Not for long, anyway. By law, a properly licensed scrambler shouldn’t be a problem. But laws tend to be flexible where the big dogs are concerned, Adah noted as Ursa let out a sigh. They have to keep up the big ones between themselves, but when it comes to the small stuff …

Still, the chances were low that someone would choose to question their license at any given moment and attempt to listen in despite the scrambler. And they’d passed through the standard UN security checkpoints without any trouble thus far. And if we hadn’t, a faked scrambler license would be low on the list of things to worry about.

Assuming it was faked, even. Who knew with the amount of intel their client had provided for the job. It could be a real one.

Ursa sighed again, turning her head to look out the window. Adah had already asked her why she hadn’t simply brought something to keep her occupied, but Ursa had just waved a hand and mentioned that her current reading material wasn’t exactly worth bringing.

Which in Ursa’s case meant something from her stockpile of contraband entertainment, books and movies banned by either the UN, the megacorps, or both. Some of which, as she understood it, would be far more illegal to have in their possession than body-mods, an illegal scrambler, concealed weapons, and fake identities.

We live in a weird world. Then again, she’d needed special allowances to have a copy of the Tanakh once she’d left her homeland, and had been duly informed that talking about it in some countries she might visit would be considered grand treason against the state.

She let her eyes slip to her own datapad, but before they could even focus on the words in front of her they’d moved right back to the rest of her team. At least, half of it. Anvil was making her own way into Norway, one that was a little more risky, but needed for the current operation. She’d been the only member of the team that hadn’t needed to be modded.

Her cheek itched, and she resisted the urge to scratch at it. Damn mods. The temporary flesh-sculptings were gruesome, but effective, tiny bits of flesh that could be grafted on atop the skin and fed by tiny nanite patches, looking just like real flesh and a perfect foil for any sort of facial recognition system if the sculpting were done properly.

Like having a flesh slug stuck to your face, sucking at your blood to stay alive. Gruesome, but effective. None of them looked like themselves at the moment, but the fake people they’d been given IDs for.

Ursa’s skin, for example, no longer held its dark, crisp mocha coloration, instead carefully lightened by a very expensive set of dermal nanites that made her far paler than she normally was. Her face had been reshaped as well, her thick features broadened by several layers of flesh-sculptings, making her look like a much thicker, fatter woman than she really was, with jowls and a double-chin instead of her usual cut, augmented form. The wig of long hair in a carefully braided “double-twist” style was actually a wig compared to the rest of the more organic augmentations, but no one took issues with a man or woman wearing a wig these days, even with the large array of completely organic nanite hair-stylings.

That the hair was a shocking shade of pale, reflective blue currently popular with the business elite just made the woman look all the more unfamiliar. Adah could see shades of who she’d been in her face and shoulders … but only if she looked quite hard. The only thing they couldn’t hide was Ursa’s height, but she was at least attempting to slouch as much as necessary.

I wonder if I look as oddly familiar to her and Owl as they do to me, Adah thought, briefly glancing at the window and catching site of her own reflection. Her skin had been altered in the same way Ursa’s had, so dark it was almost like polished onyx. Her eyes had been subject to another nanite patch, changing not only their color but their very shape, now a slit more reminiscent of a jungle cat than anything human. The “lioness” look, according to the settings on the sculpting bot they’d used. Very popular in Africa and the Middle-East. Flesh-sculptings across her face changing the shape of her cheekbones, jaw, and nose made her almost unrecognizable. I don’t even think mother or father would recognize me if they saw me now. Even with a good look.

Her cheekbone itched once more, and she reached up with one finger, brushing at it and feeling the gesture as if the patch were her own flesh. She pulled her gloved hand away, giving it a flippant wave as if she’d just wiped away a speck of dust or an eyelash.

Amazing what science can do, she thought, pulling her eyes away from her reflection, briefly glancing at Owl before returning to her datapad. Of the three of them, Owl had changed her appearance the least, rolling her hair up beneath a shorter, more brightly colored bob wig, and with only a few changes to her facial appearance. And this isn’t even with some sort of invasive surgery or genetic therapy.

Anyone can look like anyone, she thought as she stared down at her datapad. Either temporarily, or permanently.

Granted, there were still limits. Flesh-sculptings were not cheap. Additionally, they were heavily monitored, required multiple licenses, and the growths carried decidedly non-human gene-markers that would flag them as such when tested, meaning that a flesh-sculpting wouldn’t bear up to long-term scrutiny. Plus, they couldn’t hide the kind of tells modern AI security systems looked for. Though there was a form of cybernetic nerve-hacking that was working on that, part of the ever-infinite arms race of information warfare.

But it didn’t change the fact that anyone could, with enough money, look like anyone else. And yet somehow that’s drawn lines further over our society than ever before. Like the marker on her fake ID that declared her a “Natural Born Hausa.” As opposed to the quite real “Fake Hausa” given to those that had sculpted or even gene-tweaked themselves to match.

We finally reach a point where you’d think none of that matters, and we find new ways to make it matter.

Ursa let out another sigh and looked in her direction, clearly thinking of asking her something. A moment later Adah’s hunch proved correct as the woman spoke. “What’re you reading?”

Her accent was still present. That they couldn’t change so easily. But even her voice was little different, modified by yet more nanites interfering with her vocal cords. Small but significant changes that added up.

“Nothing really,” Adah said. “Just feeds. Nothing interesting.”

“I disagree,” Owl said without looking up from her own datapad. “I find the abundance of speculation concerning what’s really going on at Pisces quite interesting.”

Adah shrugged. “It’s speculation. Curated. And still outlandish.”

“Or outlandish by curated design?” Owl gave them each a pointed look. “Fuel to feed the public’s paranoia and thereby keep their gaze elsewhere?”

“Or keep them paying attention,” Ursa said. “That was a big part of the growth of news media in the twentieth century. It’s not enough to report the news. You had to make it scary somehow, or alarming, so people would keep listening to find out if things were going to get better.”

“Let me guess,” Adah said, unable to keep a dry, sarcastic tone from her voice. “Things never did.”

“Nope.” Ursa shook her head and then turned to Owl. “So you think that it’s engineered paranoia?”

“Perhaps,” Owl said. “Take, for example, the claims of alien activity and attack. Or the even more absurd claim that the planet itself was some sort of artificial world. There’s no possibility a rebellion capable enough to wrest control of a planet from UNSEC would be simultaneously foolish enough to actually make such a claim. It’s ludicrous.”

“So you don’t think they did?”

Owl gave her head a tiny shake. “Of course not. In truth if they actually had I’d be more worried than if not. Anyone foolish enough to make such a claim while still capable enough to take a world from UNSEC would be terrifyingly competent while also utterly idiotic.”

“So maybe they were telling the truth,” Ursa suggested.

“Now that is idiotic,” Owl countered, rolling her eyes.

“No, listen,” Ursa said, leaning forward slightly. “If they’re competent enough to fool UNSEC and then mount a successful rebellion—one with defecting UNSEC security forces involved—then they’d be smart enough to know how ridiculous their claim is, right?”

“In theory,” Owl said, her tone dripping with sarcasm.

“Then why would they make the claim unless it was true?”

“Because they never made it in the first place,” Owl said with a roll of her eyes. “It’s a media feed created by UNSEC to keep people worried and speculating while they figure out how to take the planet back. We’re the only sapient life in the galaxy. Scientific fact. There is no alien life. The idea that people could live on Pisces for fifty years and never notice that it’s some sort of alien artifact is ludicrous. The perfect fuel for datanet speculation and conspiracy theory, something to keep people occupied while the UN figures out what they’re really going to do.”

“Mark my words,” she continued. “In a month or two Pisces will be back under UNSEC control, and the whole thing will be forgotten. No aliens, no artifacts somehow missed by decades of research and probes. Just rumor to keep everyone thinking.”

“So you think it’s just a rebellion, then? No aliens?”

“No,” Owl replied, shooting Ursa a skeptical glance. “Really? Aliens? It’s a rebellion that actually took, probably because they bribed a lot of people who were supposed to be loyal to UNSEC. Think about all those small places we do jobs whenever there’s a coup and what happens there. That? That’s Pisces right now, guaranteed. Chaos.”

“Maybe,” Ursa said, sinking back slightly.

Owl’s eye’s flicked to Adah. “How about you?” she asked. “Surely you don’t think there’s any actual weight to these rumors.”

Both of them were now looking at her. The one in the middle. However, neither would be too put off if she agreed or disagreed with them. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Pisces claims certainly seem outrageous, but—“

“You too?” Owl sat back, rolling her eyes once more. “Come on, it’s a misdirection! Both the megacorps and the UN benefit from it. Alien life, sapient and aware, does not exist. We’re a scientific anomaly. Science fact.”

“Right up until it isn’t,” Ursa countered. “People used to say faster-than-light travel was impossible, or that gravity couldn’t be manipulated.”

“Okay, but after living on it for over fifty years?” Owl countered. “Really?”

“Okay then,” Adah said, smiling as an idea occurred to her. “But couldn’t it have been a ploy from the people on Pisces for the exact same reasons you think it could be a ploy by the UN? Couldn’t sending this kind of rumor out to get debate like this going be part of their plan?”

Owl frowned. “Maybe … But it’s strange enough and seems beneficial enough to UNSEC that I’d question it.”

The train flashed through another tunnel, the world outside the windows going dark for several moments before flashing back into bright clarity, revealing steep, green-clad mountains like the one they’d just passed through.

“So,” Ursa asked. “Anything in there about Mexico?”

“Only that the UN is still making the case that the event proves the elevator should be in UNSEC’s hands,” Adah said, glancing briefly down at her pad. “And Mexico in turn is still asking for the UN to take action against their attackers.”

Against us, in other words. It had taken less than a day for Mexico International to successfully determine the identity of the attackers who had completely cut the orbital elevator’s physical datanet access, and they were furious despite the company’s mercenary licenses, instantly disavowing any approval the fireteam had to operate legally in Mexico and futilely protesting against the UN to do the same and revoke their license. They hadn’t, nor was there the slightest chance they would. Mexico International’s grief was, by law, with the employer, not the team itself.

“Anybody figure out what that whole thing was about?” Ursa asked.

And there was the other half of the problem. Their team had destroyed the physical datanet access, cutting the whole city off of the grid for more than an hour, while the jammer secured aboard a cargo container at the orbital station—one still completely unidentified in all ways from shipper to intended recipient—had managed to jam the entire city for a period of twenty-two minutes before being thoroughly slagged by station security forces. Which had left twenty-two minutes when the entire station was, for all intents and purpose, completely off the grid. Official orders had eventually been relayed from orbitals to the upper part of the station, but those methods had introduced delay, and during that delay …

Well, that was the question. No one knew. Not for certain. “No,” Owl said. “Still nothing. Some opionionals speculating that data-theft might have been the goal, but …” She waved one palm. “No proof.”

“Well there wouldn’t be if you did it right,” Ursa said.

Owl shrugged. “But others pointed out that if that was the goal, whoever would have carried it out would have needed a very high-level AI, but having that could have covered their tracks so well that short of actually seeing the attack, you’d never know it happened.”

“Hence taking down the network in the first place.”

“Right. So there’s no way to tell. For all anyone knows, that payday was for a very expensive prank.”

“I’d feel a bit put out if that’s all it was.”

Adah shrugged. “A job’s a job. You get paid, you move on, right? If that was the case with Mexico, it wouldn’t be too bad for the people in question.”

“Or it could have been to cover a massive theft,” Owl noted.

“Either way, we’ll probably never know,” Adah said as the train shot through a tunnel once more, this time emerging in a much more populated region. A tone sounded somewhere from above, a prerecorded voice announcing the train’s next stop, first in English and then in what Adah assumed was Norwegian.

After all, this is Norway. Outside the windows the train began to slow at last, shedding its speed with only the faintest hint of change in momentum that she could feel. Probably because they were in the business class compartments, reserved for those with a little extra cash to spend or private connections. The “coach” class likely felt the full brunt of every stop and start.

“We’re close, aren’t we?” Ursa asked as the train slowed to a stop, station coming into view outside the glass. Hard light signs beamed down at the public, displaying advertisements or UN-approved news broadcasts. And every person in the crowd was being analyzed, catalogued, and observed in response, the slightest reaction to a news story or a naked advertisement recorded, identified, and summarized.

As the train doors open the displays switched, new arrivals prompting new advertisements and news stories tailored to the largest percentages of the crowd. Always pushing, always prying, Adah thought as people hurried across the platform, unaware of her eyes watching from up above. The more they can get inside your head, the more control they might have.

To buy. To eat. To wear. To believe. Whatever it was. Some of the projections were hazy, distorted. Targeted visuals aimed at specific people in the crowd, likely for their content. There was the faint silhouette of a figure still identifiable past the distortion. One very slender and, unless she was mistaken, with a tail.

Prosthetic? Last I checked actual gene-modding of that level was illegal.

Then again, laws and legality tended to evaporate where someone important was concerned. Maybe a UN rep had decided he wanted things with a bit more spice. Or maybe things had just changed again. Laws concerning the sort of thing that advertisement was probably selling were pretty flexible.

“Well?”

It took her a moment to realize that Ursa’s earlier question hadn’t been rhetorical, but then Owl beat her to it.

“This is the last stop before our own,” she confirmed, not looking up from her datapad. “Where our transport will be waiting for us, and thanks to our rank and station, we will have mostly private passage through the station. We will still, however, be required to pass through three security stations.”

“At a minimum,” Adah added. “So don’t open your luggage.”

The luggage in question was stored beneath their feet. Three simple hard-body shoulder bags, the kind currently popular with officials and business leaders. Each was matched to the business wear the three of them were clad in, and all emblazoned with a single symbol at some point or another: A golden image of Earth surrounded by olive branches. The symbol of the United Nations.

Three more checkpoints, plus the final checkpoint, Adah thought as the train began moving again. And if we’re outed at any of them, we’re probably not going to make it out of Norway alive.

Then again, the risk of that, according to their client, was fairly low. The checkpoints there were passing were low-tier, standard citizen checkpoints. Their false identities low-ranking bureaucrats inside the UN hierarchy, only a few steps above interns. Nothing that need or require any sort of significant oversight from something that would think to check their identities further than normal, like a true AI.

Probably helps that even our target is fairly innocuous, Adah thought as the train swept out of the station, a friendly reminder pinging over the intercom to notify that they were several minutes from the next stop. If we were walking into someplace really secure, I’d be a lot more alarmed. And, presumably, their contact wouldn’t have hired them for the job. Naked infiltration work was not something the team specialized in.

But they wanted us, she thought as the train moved out of the town and into the countryside once more. And we’ve done some work like this before.

So just relax, stay calm, and carry through with things. The mission plan skipped through her mind, jumping from one point to another as she reviewed each step. Insert in the northern United Kingdom. That bit had been Commander Castillo’s job, sneaking the Stalker through the various detection systems around the islands. Assume our identities there, but not use them. Use a rented vehicle under a blind agent to travel south to Cambridge. From there, board a train to Norway. That established a “trail” of authenticity for their falsified documents and stated objective.

And when we reach our destination … Their client would have, in theory, a falsified but otherwise legitimate request for them to acquire what the client wanted. Datacore K793-OL.

Why does every mission we do lately seem to involve datacores? Either way, once they had it, they would walk out, get back into their rented vehicles, and head for the coast, where the commander and Anvil would pick them up.

Easy. Which is why I’m ready for things to go very, very bad. Each of them was wearing their skinsuit under their business wear. Lacking the armor paneling it wouldn’t provide as much protection, but it was better than none, and still gave them the benefit of enhancing their already potent augmentations.

Still basically naked, though. The skinsuits would provide protection, but not nearly as much as the plates of composite armor would.

Then again, security around their target wasn’t supposed to be that tight anyway. Not a single member of the slim security force was even augmented, and while they were armed with automatic weaponry and shotguns, their effective stance was that of a deterrent.

Of course, that UN garrison has so many troops it wouldn’t matter. Commander Castillo had gone over the math several times. The garrison was far enough away that even scrambling troops into a VTOL would give the fireteam at least ten minutes to make their way out of the complex. Once those troops arrived, however …

Game. Over. She shut her datapad down, not really paying attention to the news feeds that had been scrolling past anyway, and they were nearing their stop, at least by her mental clock. A hack attack from another party would scramble the nearby camera network if an alarm went out, dropping the whole out-of-date system into a reboot loop that would hopefully keep it cycling until after the team had made it to their escape vehicles, rendering them untrackable without direct visual until someone put the scattered pieces together.

But if the UN lands any sort of ground response, we’ll be heavily outnumbered and outgunned, and they’ll have air support.

Nothing like a high-risk mission to keep you on your toes. For five million euromarks. She wasn’t sure who was flinging money at them like cheap protein bricks lately, but none of them would be wanting for cash anytime soon.

Overhead the familiar tones of the intercom came back, alerting them that they were one minute from the train’s next stop. Adah pulled her bag up from beneath the seat and slid her datapad into a side pocket.

“All right, you two,” she said as the train swept into their destination station, slowing. “This is it. Flekkefjord.” She was probably mangling the name, but with the scrambler active it wasn’t as if anyone cared. They were moving through a small city now, the train winding past an inlet bay of some kind. Or maybe it was a lake. The detail hadn’t really been pertinent to their mission.

The place looked nice enough, though, it a little mixed between old and modern. And very green.

“All right team,” she said as the train began to slow. She reached for the scrambler. “Remember, we’re UN attaches for Cambridge. Be curt, secretive, and don’t forget your names.” She waited until both Ursa and Owl—Niryssa and Ha-yoon—had nodded in the affirmative, and then switched off the scrambler. The faint hum that had faded into the background of her consciousness stopped, along with the tiny points of light set around the scrambler’s surface. Lasers for blinding cameras.

They were back on the grid, now. The scrambler went into her bag as the team stood, leaving behind the small cubby and table they’d spent the last several hours occupying. A wave of a hand at the holographic controls opened the door, and they stepped out into the central hallway of the train right as the station slipped into view.

They only saw one other individual as they made their way out of the car, who gave them a wide berth as soon as he noticed the UN insignias on their lapels. The station was a little more crowded, but Flekkefjord wasn’t a very large city, so it wasn’t by too much. It helped that they were being funneled toward two different exits, theirs the “business” exits for those who could afford them, while everyone else had to make do with a more public setting.

“New from Iocore—“

“—tastes like real butter—“

“—the continued harboring of the unfettered AI is a threat to mankind—“

Doesn’t save us from the advertising, though, Adah thought as the security checkpoint neared. Whatever “past” their client had invented for the trio they now were, apparently the system really wanted them to buy cosmetics and fake butter.

One of the guards at the checkpoint looked up and smiled at their approach. He was wearing a simple jumpsuit, a personal defense stunner clipped to his belt and a thick, bulky datapad in his hands. Some people assumed it was the datapad that did the scanning, but that wasn’t true. It was the sensors behind the walls around them. You were being scanned well before you arrived at the marked lines on the carpet.

“Hello,” the man said in thickly-accented English, giving them a nod as they passed by and peering down at his scanner. Adah didn’t even give him a glance.

Eyes ahead. Posture the same. It’s just another routine checkpoint.

It helped that it was one of only a number of checkpoints they’d passed that day. If they were going to set off any alarms, it was likely that they would have a lot earlier.

No alarms sounded as she stepped past the markings that identified the end of the security zone. No automated voices telling them to halt or put their hands on their head.

Plenty of news-feed voices and advertising clips as they stepped out of the security zone, however, shouting about the virtues of a new eyeshadow, running clips from a new entertainment drama, or debating the UN’s response to Pisces.

Definitely a far cry from the kind of stuff I tend to see when I go out, Adah thought as they headed for the exits. And I wouldn’t buy that brand, she thought as an ad played a particularly choppy cut for a boxed meal. Their flavors suck.

Their transport was already waiting for them as they stepped outside, parked up against the curb and flashing its lights as it picked up their presence to catch their attention. The windows were security-tinted, not that the detail meant much anymore, but it was a nice bit of imagined privacy nonetheless. Besides, they could deploy the scrambler once they were inside to deal with any bugs, not that they expected many past the standard for a rental vehicle.

The doors popped open as they came within a few feet, and one by one they stepped inside, only Ursa showing much difficulty thanks to her height. There were only four seats, all facing one another, and Ursa claimed one of the forward ones while Owl had taken the rear. Adah dropped into the last forward seat, then reached out and triggered the door.

Her datapad chimed, and she slipped it out to see a notification from the vehicle. DESTINATION? It took her a moment to key it into the pad, but then the car let out a faint pleasant beep and began to roll forward, away from the station and toward traffic.

“I guess we weren’t important enough to warrant a human driver,” Owl noted as they merged into traffic, the car humming as it moved through the city. Adah gave her head a slight shake and pulled the scrambler from her bag.

“There,” she said as the scrambler came to life. “Now we can talk.”

“And we couldn’t do that with a human driver,” Ursa noted.

Owl shrugged. “I honestly don’t care. But the woman I’m supposed to be? She would.”

“Nice.” Ursa leaned forward in her seat, swaying slightly as their transport carried them around a tight corner. “Keeping the cover. Good thinking.”

Owl gave Ursa a flat look. Something like that would be second nature to her, Adah thought. Given she grew up on the streets.

She pulled her bag off of her back and set it at her feet. “Well, not having a driver has one other advantage. I think they’d say something when we started checking our weapons.”

“Not yet,” Owl noted. “We’re still in the city.”

“We know the window,” Ursa said, shaking her head. “We had the same briefing. You don’t have to tell us.” She paused. “Sorry. I just hate doing naked ops.”

“I think anyone who knows what ‘naked op’ means in our profession doesn’t like it,” Adah added. “But that’s in our profession.”

Ursa smirked. “Can you imagine if we said that where someone else was listening? What kind of naked op would a bunch of UN attaches get up to?”

“At a university?” Adah chuckled. “I don’t think that’s allowed.”

“Everyone’s old there, right?” Owl asked with a grimace. “I don’t think I want to think about that.”

“I think that’s an actionable stereotype,” Ursa replied. “But no, I don’t want to think about that either.”

“Maybe it’s like a casual day,” Adah suggested. “You know, like a lot of the megacorps do.”

“Ah yes, the ‘wear a different branded tie’ day,” Owl said with another roll of her eyes. “Very casual.

“Hey, you know the megacorps. What better way to prove your loyalty to the company than by wearing the same thing on the day they tell you there’s a choice not to? No unspoken message or pressure there. Not at all.”

“Hey. You can’t fight it. It’s ‘always been that way.’ That’s how we know it’s the best way.”

Adah frowned. “In all honesty you two, as much shit as we give the UN and the megacorps—and don’t get me wrong, it’s rightfully earned, they’re all horrible … Maybe Pisces did the right thing.”

“Never said they didn’t,” Owl said. “I just disagree with the whole ‘alien’ farce. But if they can stay free, more power to them.”

“I’m all for it,” Ursa said quickly. “Hell, maybe I could get my family there somehow. Mars ain’t bad, but … It’s still megacorps and UN.”

“There’s no proof that Pisces will turn out any better,” Adah noted. “History is full of nations that revolted and then turned out every bit as bad or worse than their predecessors.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ursa said. “But I think it’d be nice to have the chance to try, at least.”

Adah nodded. Better to have the choice and some control over your destiny. Something neither the UN or the megacorps approve of.

The city was already thinning out, their vehicle making good time as it followed a main road around the edges of the bay. Once we’ve climbed into the mountains and are out of the city, we can do our final checks. Until then …

“So,” Owl said. “In and out?”

We talk about it. “In and out,” Adah said with a nod. “Preferably without shooting at anyone. Bluff.”

“Still a weird mission,” Ursa said. “Anyone else wondering what’s on this core that we’re grabbing?”

“It can’t be very secret,” Owl noted. “Or we wouldn’t be able to simply walk in as a bunch of attaches.”

“Right. If they’re letting us take it, it can’t be that big a deal.” Ursa shifted her seat, glancing at the highway in front of them before turning back. “So then why bother with us at all, then? There have to be other ways of doing this that don’t involve this much risk.”

“True,” Adah said. I’ve noted the same thing myself. “But they would take longer. Maybe whatever we’re stealing has a time component of some kind.”

“Wouldn’t that make it more valuable.”

“Maybe our client is the only one that knows,” Owl pointed out. “Like in that one old thriller you showed us. The one where only the gang leader knows what the macguffin is? The something falcon?”

Ursa shook her head. “That isn’t it. They just don’t know the falcon is fake in that one. But I see what you mean.”

“I bow to your superior knowledge of ancient cinema,” Owl said, giving Ursa a half-smile.

“Good. Everyone should.”

The road was climbing now, moving into the mountains as signs of the city faded behind them. But there were still a few more places to pass that could—and likely did—have cameras pointed at the road they’d need to worry about.

“We walk in, we get the datacore, we walk back out.”

“Take the car to the coast and make our pickup,” Adah finished.

“In so few words it sounds so simple,” Ursa said.

“Most things do,” Owl added. “But there’s a lot of room for this to get complicated.”

“Agreed.” There was nothing on either side of the car now but green forests, preserved to the degree that stepping off the road anywhere but in prescribed “contact” locations could see a fine that would cripple most people. “But when is that new?”

Adah opened her bag at last, pressing past the mostly fake filler—the food was real—to grab the small, compact laptop at the bottom of the bag. At least, it looked like a laptop, one of the thick, heavy ones used by graduate students and field workers. What it actually was—

There was a sharp snap as she pressed the catch on one side, the compact SMG unfolding with lightning speed and ready to fire, save that it wasn’t loaded. Each of them was carrying the same model, and two more snaps echoed through the compartment as Owl and Ursa each got their own out. Vertix-7 Concealable.

The design wasn’t new. In fact, it was older than most people seemed to think. But as it was a concealable weapon … I suppose most people being unaware of how common it truly has been for so long is a point in its favor.

The next few minutes were filled with the faint sounds of each of them checking and double-checking their weapons, making sure that each SMG was cycling smoothly and didn’t show any signs of odd blockage or hanging up anywhere. Adah braced the weapon against her shoulder for a moment, checking that the thin, narrow stock had properly locked. Satisfied that it was indeed ready to go, she reached into her bag, pulling out what appeared to be a makeup case. Snapping it open revealed a host of loaded magazines, and she slid one into the waiting SMG, leaving it uncocked but otherwise ready to fire. Deploying it with the spring-mechanism would chamber a round anyway.

It was a shame that the rest of the magazines would need to stay inside their shielded case. They’d be a lot better off in my pockets.

Then again, I’ll only need to use this if things go wrong. The thought didn’t take away the temptation to have a few magazines at the ready, though.

She slipped the SMG back into her bag, the weapon looking once again like a thick, tough laptop. Which was entirely for show, truthfully. Though it could project a small display and pretend to be one, it wasn’t nearly as adept as some of the newer models which could function as both a weapon and a fully-capable bit of electronics. Why past cursory subterfuge she wasn’t certain, but someone had made it regardless.

And it was an energy weapon, which came with its own drawbacks. Give me good old fashioned bullets any day.

A quick glance at the vehicle’s hud said that they had another ten minutes until they arrived at their destination. Ten minutes to kill.

Probably not the most positive term to use. If killing happens at all on this op, things have gone wrong.

“So why is this place all the way out here, anyway?” Owl asked.

“You don’t know?” Ursa gave Owl an odd look. “You always know.”

Owl shrugged. “Didn’t seem vital. But we’ve got time to kill. Do either of you know?”

Adah nodded. “It was an open pit titanium mine back in the day. Hit its boom during the early days of the space age, got mostly mined out during the push for Mars but then couldn’t compete with the surplus of orbital mining that took over after that. Closed down a few decades ago, and then someone in the UN realized it was a good site for a data archive. Bought it up, dig some excavating, laid a massive amount of concrete, and well … boom. One of six global UN data depositories and storage vaults.”

“This place is huge though,” Ursa said. “What kind of data are they storing?”

“Everything that’s not top secret I guess,” Adah said with a shrug. “Apparently every scrap or metric of data they think might be useful goes in there. Personnel files probably. Budget information. Maybe even news archives?”

“Bet there’s a whole floor dedicated to meeting notes,” Owl said with a shake of her head. “But it’s a backup, right? So no live data feeds.”

“No,” Adah confirmed. “The datacores are assembled elsewhere and brought here for storage.”

“I wonder how old or new the one we’re looking for will be?”

Adah shrugged. “Who knows. We’ve got the call number to punch in. Then all we need to do is grab the core.”

“Too bad they couldn’t give us more. It’d be a lot easier just to grab the data they want and leave the core.”

This time it was Ursa that shrugged. “At that point, they might be able to do the job themselves. At least this way we’re getting paid.”

Their ride turned, moving past a frankly beautiful looking lake as it continued to climb up the mountains. Ahead of them the spinning blades of a wind farm appeared—an old one from the design, but still functioning.

“You know, this place is kind of pretty,” Adah said as they came around a bend, passing another lake. “All the green and mountains. Sure looks a lot different from where I grew up, but it’s nice.”

“It is,” Ursa agreed. “Let’s hope we don’t spoil it with gunfire.”

“Oh, so that’s why we left Anvil on the VTOL,” Owl cut in.

Adah rolled her eyes, but … “You’ve got a point there. First thing she’d ask is how many MMRs it’d take to blow through one of those trees.”

“Or maybe how hard she’d have to punch one to knock it over.”

“Woman’s crazy.”

“The good kind.”

“Glad she’s on our side.” Ahead of them the forest gave way, opening up to a large field home to a good dozen or more wind turbines. And just past them, up the road, was a security gate built into a chain link fence with a small hut near it. Their first obstacle.

“Yeah, I see now why the commander didn’t want to land by the turbines,” Owl said as the gate neared. “Way too close and exposed.”

“Faces on, people,” Adah said, glancing at each of them as she picked up the scrambler. “It’s go time.” The scrambler shut off with a faint click. The car began to slow as the gate loomed, then came to a stop.

A guard stepped out of the hut, though a fairly unimpressive one. The gut protruding from her midsection said she was either overdue at a hospital for a birth somewhere or that her job was pretty cushy. The only real difference between her and the security they’d seen at the train station was the color of the jumpsuit and the weapon at her hip. It was a pistol rather than a PDS. Even the datapad looked almost the same.

“Window down,” the guard said, her words only audible because Ursa had already begun doing just that. The guard glanced down at her datapad and then at Ursa. “Alouette Niryssa? From Cambridge?” She bent down slightly, peering further into the vehicle. “Party of three?”

“Yes,” Ursa said, pulling out her phone and tapping at the display. “Our papers.”

“Perfect,” the guard said, standing upright once more. “That’s exactly what I needed. All right, let me just ping you a temporary clearance for your vehicle …” The hud beeped in acknowledgement. “And they’ll give your pads your clearance at the door. Thanks!” She followed it with something in Norwegian, probably similar to “have a good day” from the wave she gave them, and then the gate began to roll to one side.

“Well, that was easy,” Ursa said as their car moved forward.

“After our trip, I’m all right with that,” Adah said, keeping in character. “Let’s hurry up and park. I want to stretch my legs.” That bit wasn’t a lie. It’ll feel nice to walk for a little bit.

“Oh wow,” Owl said as the archive building came into view. “When you said that they filled in the pit, I kind of thought you meant all of it.

“Apparently not,” Adah answered as she peered out at it. The pit was long and deep, carved between two mountain peaks like a steep, artificial valley. But the back half of it had been filled, taken up by an enormous structure that stretched down … Well, she couldn’t see the bottom yet. Not from their angle. But as large as it was, filling one half of the pit, it probably went all the way.

“I’ll say this,” Owl said as they came to a stop. “It’s not as big as a megascraper, but it’s certainly got a bit of flare to it.”

“I agree. Though …” Adah took a quick look at the lot, and then at the distant structure and the long bridge across the old mine to the archive. “Are we supposed to walk across that? That’s like a klick.”

“You did say you wanted to stretch your legs,” Owl said, popping her door open.

“You won’t have to,” Ursa said, pointing. “It’s a tramway.”

“Someone definitely wanted to impress when they designed this thing,” Adah said, catching sight of the small automated station Ursa was pointing at. A tram sat at the station, one of what she guessed by the width of the track was two.

“Is it working?”

“Sure,” Adah said as they began walking across the parking lot. “I’m already thinking someone spent way too much money.

As they neared the station it became clearer how much more that was. Deep as it was, the bottom half of the old mine had been filled with water, making it into an artificial lake. The levels leading down to it had been seeded, giving the edges of the pit a terraced garden look, if a little wild. A series of waterfalls cascading down one side completed the fairly peaceful look.

Let’s hope it’s that peaceful when we get back. And if we’re riding a tram, how do the actual datacores arrive?

Then again, the back of the facility is right up against the edge, and that’s an access road right there … So there’s probably a back entrance. We’re just going in the front door the proper way for once.

The tram was quick and silent, whizzing them across the artificial lake toward the archive at high speed. There were seats offered but none of them sat, instead standing and watching the water fly by far below them.

“What do you think,” Adah asked. “Two-hundred foot drop?”

“Closer to three-hundred maybe,” Owl said.

“Think anyone’s done a high-dive?” Ursa asked.

“I’m sure someone has,” Owl replied. “Unless they stocked this lake with barracuda or something.”

The tram began to slow as it neared the end of the bridge, massive door folding back like—

Like a flower. Not a spider. Adah shook her head as it swallowed the tram. It helped that the inside of the building was well-lit. Almost bright. Other than entering via a tram, it could have been a lobby anywhere. Right down to the guards like the one at the front gate lounging in the corners.

“Hello.” Someone in a standard UN business suit said as they stepped out of the tram. “You’re here from Cambridge, correct?” They were a smaller man, but smiling in a jovial sort of way. “To pick up a datacore?”

“That’s us,” Adah said, pulling her phone from her pocket and giving the rest of the lobby a brief glance. A few conspicuous cameras … And a very obvious security scanner, complete with marked footprints on the lobby floor with multi-language instructions to stand there.

“Good good,” the man said, each of their phones letting out a faint ring as he waved his own at them, exchanging credentials. “I’m Director Ozai, the manager for this archive facility. I must admit, we don’t get too many visitors out here, so your arrival is a welcome one.”

“Bit of a surprise, given the look of this place from the outside,” Ursa said as the man motioned them over toward the security station. “You look like you could be treating foreign dignitaries.”

Ozai smiled. “Yes, it is a bit peculiar isn’t it? It’s from the UN’s ‘growth period’ where every building needed to be an edifice of human achievement or some such notion. If you would stand here please.” He motioned Ursa toward the two marks in the carpet. “Security protocol.”

“Isn’t that the one that lasted only a few years because it was found to be grossly inefficient?” Owl asked.

“That’s the one,” Ozai said, stepping away as the security scanners began plying colored light over Ursa, starting with her head and working their way down. It was purely theater—the true scanning wasn’t at all being done in a visible spectrum, but it did have the advantage of giving a visual indicator of how far along the process was. “You have a mind for history Miss Ha-yoon?”

“Just a curious one in general,” Owl replied as the security lights reached Ursa’s feet and began working their way back up. Nothing alarming had happened yet.

“Well, Cambridge would be a good place for that, I’d imagine,” Ozai said as the lights flickered off. “You’re clear.” Ursa stepped forward, and the director motioned for  Owl to step forward. “Apologies,” he said as the station began to scan her. “But it’s policy.”

“We understand,” Adah said, giving the man a slight smile. More than you know.

“Well, what can I say,” the man replied with a shrug. “That’s the UN for you. Everything is policy, has to be done by the book. Take your arrival, for instance. You logged your request for the datacore three days ago. But the core you’re here for didn’t even arrive until yesterday. Personally, it would have saved everyone a great deal of time to simply send the core to Cambrige. But policy must be respected, and the core must be in our hands before transferring to yours.” He shook his head as the scanner finished with Owl. “I understand, but it does create some odd occurrences such as this.”

You have no idea, Adah thought as he motioned for her to step forward, taking Owl’s place atop the marks. The bright lights of the scanner made her squint as they played over her head.

“But I must admit I’m curious,” Ozai said. There was a strange lilt to his words, like all of them were leaning to one side as he said them. “What do you want with that particular core anyway?”

“Research,”Ursa said before Adah could formulate a response. “Other than that, I really can’t give specifics.”

“Odd,” Ozai said, frowning, and for a brief moment Adah felt her pulse spike. “But I suppose some research must be kept quiet.”

“I don’t think it’s quite that vital,” Owl said. “But we’re just attaches.”

“I see,” Ozai replied. Adah squinted once more as the lights passed her head, and then they vanished. “Very well, all three of you are good to proceed into the facility. I’ll escort you there myself,” he said, stepping toward the back end of the lobby and stopping by a large but otherwise ordinary door. There was a small, plastic square next to it on the wall, and he held his phone up against it, the device letting out a little beep that echoed through the lobby. A heavy thump echoed from the door as it unlocked, and Ozai opened it with a wave of his free hand. “This way, if you would please.”

So far so good, Adah thought as he led them through the doors and down a long hallway. This is the way we pulled from the diagrams. We didn’t expect him to come with us, but …

“Will we be getting temporary security clearance?” Ursa asked as they neared another heavy door. So far, not unexpected. They were still in the “office complex” part of the building.

Ozai seemed surprised by the question. “Well, if you’d like it, I suppose. We don’t actually see much activity here, so I was assuming you lovely ladies wouldn’t mind if I took you to the recall myself.” He reached out and keyed the next door, his expression oblivious to the subtle shift that had just run through their group.

Conincidence, Adah thought, giving Ursa and Owl both a placid look as they glanced at her. If we’d flagged something, I doubt a place like this would have any sort of covert acknowledgement. A high-security vault, maybe, but there’s nothing like that here.

Ursa and Owl both blinked twice in rapid succession, showing that they’d understood as the heavier security door in front of them rolled open. “If that’s not all right with you ladies …” Ozai began, but Ursa shook her head.

“It’s fine. We simply weren’t expecting special treatment. That’s all.”

Ozai’s blush didn’t escape Adah’s notice. “Well,” he said, leading them forward into a much plainer room. Ahead of them was a row of small electric carts, sized to carry several people comfortably. “We don’t see visitors that often, actually. Much of what people need they can pull remotely. And when they do want a core, we just ship it. You three coming to pick it up isn’t common. It’s happened before, but it’s not common.” He climbed aboard one of the carts, and they followed his example, climbing aboard.

“All right,” Ozai said, tapping a large display at the front of the cart. The small vehicle rolled forward with an electric hum, smooth concrete whizzing past beneath them as it headed down a long, empty hall. “Let me just put in the number of the core you’re here for …”

“Why a cart?” Owl asked. “Why not just build a system to bring the core to us?”

Ozai shrugged. “Don’t know. You’re not the first to ask that, but I really don’t have an answer for you. Best theory I’ve heard it to keep this whole place from being too automated, you know? Make some jobs for us mannys.”

Adah nodded. In a way it made sense.

“Anyway,” he continued. “This thing’ll get us to the primary recall station. Once we’re there, we put in the code, and the system will move us down to the right floor and grab the core.”

“How many floors are there in this place?” Ursa asked.

“About two-hundred,” Ozai replied. “We haven’t even filled half of them yet.”

“What’ll happen then?” Owl asked, leaning forward.

“I guess we’ll figure out what to throw out?” Ozai shrugged. “Maybe they’ll build another archive the archives. Who—“ His phone let out a sharp tone, cutting him off, and he held it up with a frown. “That’s odd.”

Adah didn’t miss the way Ursa’s weight shifted ever so slightly. “What?”

“I just got an alert,” Ozai said, oblivious to the way the team had shifted, ever so slightly, to more aggressive posture. “Apparently there’s a delivery that just showed up.”

“Wait,” Ursa said, blinking. “A core delivery?”

“Yes, unscheduled,” Ozai said with a frown. “The paperwork’s just coming in now, but … This is very irregular.” He reached out and tapped the screen on the cart, the vehicle slowing to a stop. “I should go take care of this. Here, let me give you each the proper clearance …” Again he held up his phone, and each of theirs beeped, giving them temporary, two hour clearance to most of the facility. “I’m very sorry about this.”

“No worries,” Ursa said. “Do we need to take you back?”

“I can call a cart,” Ozai said, glancing down at his phone once more. “This is highly irregular. And I think I recall getting the cores listed in this shipment last week. I’d best go meet them at the dock.” He stepped out of the cart. “Maybe I’ll see you before you go?”

“Maybe if that truck doesn’t hold you up too long?” Ursa replied. Then she reached down and tapped the screen, the cart rolling forward with a faint electric hum, leaving the director behind.

“Was that you being nice, or you being mean?” Owl asked as they shot down the long concrete hallway, passing an intersection without slowing.

“Nice,” Ursa said, glancing back. “I’m not interested, but it was cute.”

“When was the last time you had a boyfriend?”

Ursa let out a snort as another intersection neared, the cart slowing and turning left. “A real relationship? Or just a quick ‘Hi, oh you’re really big, nevermind?’”

“You can’t convince me there aren’t a lot of men out there interesting in someone taller than them,” Adah said. “I’ve met a few.”

“Well either way it’s been a while.”

“You need to stop hitting bars with our other friend,” Owl said. “She gets the fights going before you can get anywhere.”

“Look,” Ursa said as the cart turned right again, accelerating. “I’m not interested. How about we drop it.”

“Dropped,” Owl said.

The cart rolled onward, heading deeper into the archive, moving along at a speed that any of them could have easily outrun even in full armor. Which would look suspicious, Adah thought.

Part of her was still wondering about Ozai’s abrupt departure. A delivery. Right as we’re heading to get the core. Irregular. But … he hadn’t shown any sign that he was alarmed at their presence. Even if we’d been picked up by the scan, we’d be arrested, but our license would shield us somewhat.

But something about Ozai’s departure left a faint twitch in the back of her mind, a faint thought she couldn’t pin down. “Does this thing go any faster?”

“No point,” Ursa said as they turned left again. “We’re there.” The cart began to slow, the hallway they’d turned onto terminating in a large open room. The center was dominated with a large console that had to be one of the machines that managed and recalled datacores from the archive, while below them.

Well, I’m glad I’m not afraid of heights, Adah thought as the cart rolled to a stop. The floor beneath them was no longer concrete, but thick glass, probably the same substance used in starship windows given the lack of scratches or marks. And through it … That’s a long way down.

The open space beneath them looked almost endless, though it illusion was aided by the colored lights on each of the giant columns containing what had to be thousands of datacores. Each one was only a few feet across, but hundreds of feet high and bristling with data cores.

“That’s a lot of cores,” Ursa remarked, stepping out and turning her head in all directions. “A lot of cores.”

“Be glad we don’t have to search them ourselves,” Owl said, stepping up to the console. It came to life as she neared, screen lighting up and plainly requesting the serial number of the core they wanted. “What’s—?”

“K793-OL,” Adah said, stepping up behind her. Owl punched the numbers into the console one by one. On an actual physical keyboard, no less, with clicking keys. Interesting choice. There was a sharp clack as Owl hit the return key, and then they waited, the system playing a small looping animation as it searched.

If this was a trap or a wild chase, Adah thought as the animation continued to play. This would likely be the point where we found—

With a pleasant ping the words “DATACORE LOCATED” appeared on the display, swept away a moment later by a simple map of the facility. Or at least, the section of it managed by the console they were at. Some distance from their location on the map one of the circles signifying a column lit up. A faint hum echoed from beneath their feet as the message “RETRIEVING” appeared on the screen.

“You know, I kind of assumed they’d be on shelves or something,” Ursa said as beneath their feet a mechanical arm shot past, following a rail on the underside of the glass to the edge of the room and out of sight.

Owl shook her head. “No. They’re all actually plugged in. That’s why the room is so cool. They’re usually in an unpowered state, but if someone requests the data, they can be accessed. Not quickly, but they can. And with the proper paperwork.”

“I suppose that makes sense. But actually having the core is a lot faster.”

“Yes it is,” Owl said as on the display, the blinking dot changed colors and then began to move back toward their position.

The itch in the back of Adah’s mind was back. A hunch, a gut instinct, something … She couldn’t say what. But whatever it was …

Something isn’t right. She ran her mind over everything that had happened since they’d arrived at the archive. Gate, guard, parking lot, tram, lobby. Ozai? If they’d tripped any flags, he certainly hadn’t shown it, and there wasn’t reason to suspect that the director of an archival building would have training otherwise.

He even gave us security clearance before he left to meet with … the truck. That was the other odd occurrence of the day, their arrival technically being the first. And what did he say about?

He said that he thought those cores had been delivered last week. The robotic device that had departed to claim the core swept back into view, darting under the console. Which, if that were true, would mean—Shit!

Her mind caught up with the itch at last even as the top of the console opened up, the datacore emerging and sliding into the light. “Grab the core,” she said, both Ursa and Owl snapping to alertness at the tone in her voice. “We need to—“

The floor beneath their feet shook, and a shrill tone filled the air, followed by bright, flashing lights deploying from the walls.

Alerts. But not for us.

The display flashed, new words filling the screen. “LOCKDOWN IN EFFECT.” A moment later the datacore began to retract back into the console.

Ursa reacted instantly, even before Adah could shout, wrapping her hands around the top of the datacore and wrenching it to one side before the base could drop out of sight. With a chorus of cracks the mechanicals holding it in place snapped, and she ripped it free.

“We need to move,” Adah said, kicking off the low heels she’d been wearing all day and bolting past the cart. “Now!” She drew her SMG from her bag as she ran, Owl and Ursa racing after her.

“What’d we trip?” Owl called, drawing her own weapon.

“We didn’t!” Adah shouted back as they rounded the first corner. “Tell me, if you were going to do a smash-and-grab for something here, how?”

“Tram’s out, though you’d want to cover it,” Owl said as they ran. “Best access for a smash-and-grab would be the dock they use to deliver … Oh.”

“Right!” Adah said as they rounded the next corner. She could feel the fabric of her suit giving way as she exposed it to far more motion and activity than it was designed for. Useless garment anyway. She tore the jacket free with one hand, leaving one sleeve in place around her arm and only the white undershirt atop her skinsuit. The gloves she’d worn would take both hands to remove, given that they were fake leather and couldn’t simply be torn away easily. “That shake? Probably a breaching charge or a bomb. Which means—“

“Fifteen minutes until UN forces show up to shoot and arrest everyone?”

“Right!”

“So why—?” Ursa began as they turned again, putting them back in the first hall they’d entered. “Nevermind. It’s the core we just grabbed, isn’t it?”

“It’d be a real coincidence if it wasn’t,” Adah replied as she pumped her legs, picking up speed. A tearing sound from behind announced the death of the structural integrity of her pants, and she slowed, reaching down and ripping the seams completely, tossing the useless garment aside, Ursa and Owl both passing her.

Guess I should have gone for the skirt, she thought as she shot forward once more, her pace easily passing that of the cart that had carried them there. They passed by the first intersection, the end of the hall coming into view.

“Hey—”

Adah spun, dropping to one knee, her SMG raised and ready to fire down the intersection even before the next part of the phrase had sounded out.

“Sto—“ Ozai held up his hands, snapping his jaw shut in his own instructions as he saw her weapon. The cart he was on continued to trundle forward, oblivious to Adah’s silent demands, at least until its sensors picked her up, and it slowed to a halt.

“Ozai,” Adah said. “What hap—?”

“Is that a gun?” Ozai asked, looking down at her with wide eyes. “And what happened to your pants?” His eyes moved to Owl and then Ursa, growing wider still. “That’s the core. Are you—?”

His jaw dropped. “UN secret agents?”

I … “Sure,” Adah said, rising but keeping her SMG at the ready. Can’t hurt, I guess. She put a little steel in her voice. “What happened?”

“I …” Her question seemed to snap the man’s focus back. “The truck—It was fake! Full of soldiers, people in armor—“

“What kind of armor?” Owl asked. “Neural?”

“I—I don’t—“ He shook his head. “I saw it on the cameras. They blew the doors open, so I sent out the alert and started the lockdown, but if you’re here—“

Adah nodded at Ursa. “Grab him.” Ozai let out a startled yelp as Ursa threw him over her shoulder. “We run faster than the cart—“

Shouts echoed from down the hall, and Adah motioned, Owl and Ursa both turning and running. She stayed in the intersection a moment longer, crouched behind the cart and squinting down the long hallway. Wish I had my helmet. The constant strobe of the emergency lights made it all the more difficult to see if Ozai had been followed.

But she couldn’t spot any movement, and after a moment more she broke cover, sprinting to catch up with Ursa and Owl. Both of them were already almost at the cart park, Olai bouncing on Ursa’s shoulder.

They reached the heavy archive door a moment before she did, Ursa sliding to a stop on the smooth concrete and tapping her phone against the door’s security plate. It didn’t react.

“Lockdown,”  Ozai said from her shoulder. “Only my phone—“

“Do it,” Ursa ordered. Ozai complied, holding out his phone, and the door began to slide open. Adah dropped to one knee as she passed the first of the carts, sliding and spinning round as she brought her SMG up to cover their retreat.

The only motion behind her was from the cart Ozai had taken, still making its way back toward them.

“Wha—“

“Shush,” Owl said, cutting Ozai off. “I hear something.”

Adah did as well. Footsteps. Heavy ones. And a chorus, rising over the faint whine of the security door. She lifted one hand, motioning for the team to move back through the door. Ursa complied, herding Ozai along, Owl slipping through right after her. Adah backed through last, her weapon trained on the hall even as the door began to close once more. Not until it had sealed did she relax her grip.

The office didn’t seem to be reacting much to the alert or the flashing lights along the hall. “Where is everyone?” she asked, looking at Ozai.

“Probably in their offices,” he answered quickly. “Standard procedure for a lockdown alert.”

“Is the tram running?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Everything’s in lockdown. Like with the door, you’d need my phone to—“

“Give it,” she said, holding out her hand.

“But—“

“Now,” she said, putting steel into her voice once more. Maybe a little too much, from the way he paled. But her did quickly hand over the phone. And … I don’t have any pockets. Those came with the plating, not with a skinsuit. She still had her bag, however, and she slipped it into one of the outside mesh holders.

“We’ll take the tram,” she said, turning to look at Ursa and Owl. Owl opened her mouth, but Ozai cut her off.

“Can’t you stay? I sent the alert. UN forces will be here soon.”

I’m well aware. And I don’t want to be here when they arrive. “We can’t take that risk,” she said, nodding in the direction of the datacore. “If they’re after this, we might be able to pull them away. We hunker here, and things could get bad.”

There was a thud from the door to the archives, and Ozai jumped. Another thud sounded a second later.

It’s a decent door, but it won’t hold long if someone tries to get through. She looked at Ozai. “Get to your office, hunker down. We’ll draw them off.” Ozai nodded, his face pale, but it was a nod.

There wasn’t another sound from the door, but that didn’t mean much. Then again, if they are looking for the core we have, there’s no way for whoever it is to know that we have it. She turned, moving toward the other end of the hall. Until they try to call—Wait.

She caught Ozai just as he was about to enter his office. “How did you know that they were soldiers?” If they’d seen him, they would have caught him.

“Cameras,” Ozai said. “The dock has them. I was suspicious, so I was watching on my phone.”

“Show me. With your computer,” she added as he motioned for her pack. “U—“ She caught herself before she spoke Ursa’s name, motioning instead. “Watch the door. And you,” she said, turning back to Ozai. “Can you send it to your phone? I want to know what we’re up against.”

“Yes. I can do that.”

“Good. Do. Keep the door shut. With luck, they won’t bother you.” She turned, pulling the phone from the pack and glancing at it to check for a lock. There was none.

“Let’s go,” she said, glancing down at the end of the hall. The door was still solid.

“No movement. Or sound,” Ursa said, one hand training her own SMG on the door, the other still holding the datacore.

The moved into the lobby. Like the office hall, it had been abandoned completely. “Door’s locked,” Owl said as she checked the tram entryway. It was still the same one that had brought them to the archive.

“We’ve got the key,” Adah said, holding up the phone and pausing as Owl began to remove her suit jacket. “Don’t.”

“What?”

“Like you said, overwatch the bridge.”

Owl nodded. “Make them think we’re archivists.”

“Or whatever,” Adah said, swiping the phone past the display flashing LOCKED next to the tram door. The text flashed, replaced with OVERRIDE, and the doors opened. “But let’s keep the datacore under the seat.

“So you think they’re here for it?” Ursa asked, entering the tram and stuffing the core under one the of bench seats.

“Pretty lousy timing if they aren’t,” Adah said, giving the lobby a final sweep before stepping into the tram and hitting the switch to close the doors and start the departure. The phone let out a beep, screen flashing, and she peered down at it to see security footage of a number of soldiers in a tanned green uniform at a recall console. The angle was good enough to see the demand they were punching into the system despite the override. “There it is.”

“What?” Owl asked.

Adah held out the phone as the tram began to move. “K793-OL. They’re after the same thing we are. Just … less subtle.”

Ahead of the tram the doors began to unfold. “Too bad the quality’s low. I’d like to know who we might be shooting.”

I’d like to know what’s on this core that’s so important,” Ursa said  as rays of sunlight spilled over the tram. It picked up speed, moving out over the bridge, and Adah motioned for them to sit. “Or at least if they’re naked or not.”

“Good news,” Owl said, sitting and folding her SMG back up. Adah followed suit. “They’re naked. No armor that I can see. Bad news? There are probably more we can’t see, and they’re still dressed to dance.”

They were at full speed now, the tram humming along across the artificial lake. Adah glanced at the shoreline.

Movement. That’s not good.

Owl had noticed it as well, though she was very clearly keeping her head forward as if she hadn’t.

“They’re on this side too,” Ursa said, also keeping her head forward. “Moving up.”

“Get ready to fight as soon as the tram stops,” Adah instructed, mentally reviewing the layout of the tram station at the other end. Lots of glass. Wide steps. Benches and garbage cans. Parking lot.

“What’s the plan?” Owl asked.

“Running fight. If we’re pinned for long we’re going to get nailed. Smoke grenades to cover, then break for the car. Blitz for the coast as fast as we can, and hope that these guys didn’t bring air support.”

“Or drones?”

“Or heavy weapons?”

“Well, it’s that or surrender and let them have the core,” she added.

“Not a chance,” Ursa said, reaching into her bag and pulling out several of what looked like soda cans. “Gonna pop a smoke right before we dock.”

“Got it. I’ll follow and take the core. You’ll want both hands free for fighting.” They were still too far distant to get a count on how many people were moving for the tram station, but it was a decent number. “Everyone keep your bag, make ‘em guess which one of us has the—“

“Incoming!”

Adah dove for the floor even before Owl’s warning had sounded, eyes briefly tracking a puff of smoke from the edge of the pit. Heavy weapon? Missile? RPG? There was just enough time to wonder if hitting the deck in half a suit was going to be the last thing she ever did before a titanic force picked up the tram and threw it forward, most of the windows shattering into thousands of tiny glass cubes that cascaded over her

Great, she thought as the sound of the impact settled into a steady ringing. And now I just get to be deaf for a little while. And unlike Ursa or Anvil, her augments only made her resistant to the damage, rather than healing it as well.

The tram lurching to a halt a moment later, sending glass shards skittering forward across the floor, was a sign that things were only going to get worse. The ringing in her ears was still the only thing she could hear as she pushed herself up to a crouch, though when she spoke she could make out her voice, if a little muffled.

“Report!”

“Okay, but unhappy.” Ursa’s voice sounded strange, but it was definitely her. “Tram’s stopped.”

“I’m aware.” And with a good fifty feet to go before we reach the station, too. Guess they don’t want us getting there first.

Owl’s response was muffled by her hearing loss enough that she couldn’t make it out, but was accompanied by an angry if effective thumbs up. She slid forward through the glass, peered up over the edge of one of the windows—and dropped to the ground, one hand signaling to hit the dirt. Adah dropped, covering her ears, and a moment later a second blast blew out what few remaining windows were left in the tram. Scattering glass back the other way, since it had come from in front of them.

The meaning was clear. Stay put. Or else.

Until they’re ready to walk us out a gunpoint. Her head was throbbing now, after two concussive blasts. I am never doing another naked op again in my life! I don’t care about the pa—

The entire tram dropped away beneath her, jerking downward almost half a foot and making her and everything else inside the tram bounce.

“Uh … team?” She still wasn’t sure who could hear her, but that didn’t seem important. “That wasn’t a safety, was it?” She glanced at Owl, but she looked just as alarmed.

The tram lurched again, enough that Adah put her feet under her, rising to see the view of the bridge ahead.

“Oh foxtrot.

Muffled or not, it summed up everything perfectly. The bridge ahead of them was buckling, the gaping hole blown in it by whatever explosive their attackers had used. As she watched a long, slender bit of metal cable snapped, whipping into the air and back against the tram track.

The tram dropped again, twisting to one side. The datacore rolled out from beneath the seats, slamming into her arm. Behind them the track was buckling even worse, whole pieces coming apart as whatever force the bridge had been held together by gave way. The tram shifted again, tilting to one side …

Charlie foxtrot.

With a gut-wrenching lurch, the bridge gave way, the tram car plummeting down with it and leaving her in free-fall. But only for a moment. Abruptly the tram car twisted once more, changing directions, and Adah slammed into the floor,  bouncing off of it before one hand managed to grab hold of an armrest, hanging onto it for dear life.

With a lurch that slammed her into the floor—now vertical, like a wall—the tram came to a jerking stop, leaving her dangling by one arm.

Foxtrot. She twisted, trying to get a good look at what had happened. The Tram was almost vertical now. The rear part of the bridge had broken completely, while the front part had twisted and warped, but held. Like a hinge. Which meant behind them—which was now below …

A look down confirmed her suspicions. The broken end of the bridge had slammed into one of the lower terraces around the lake, cutting through brush and flora before slamming to a stop against soil, leaving a long gash in its wake.

Another glance confirmed that Ursa and Owl were all right, the former clinging to one of the benches, the latter in a situation much like Adah. And the core?

There! It was lying amid scattered cubes of glass at the back of the tram. We’re lucky it didn’t fall out the back. A few more inches one way or another and it likely would have.

Now what? We could climb up the remains of the bridge, but that’d leave us exposed. Drop down? A fight up the terraced garden of plant-life would be rough. But we’d have a lot more cover. Plus it might surprise our attackers.

She caught Ursa’s attention and gestured downward, pointing at the distant ground with the barrel of her SMG. Ursa nodded and let go, dropping almost the whole length of the tram before catching hold of another seat, temporarily arresting her fall. Adah turned to Owl, but the woman had already noticed Ursa’s motion and dropped to the back of the tram.

We’re a sight right now, Adah thought as she let go, dropping and landing next to Owl. Ursa’s wig had come loose, skewing to one side of her skull, and one of the flesh patches on Owl’s face had been torn free, leaving a bloody smear. And mine can’t look much better.

Owl said something, but it didn’t make it past the ringing in her ears. She shook her head and tapped her ears. “No protection.”

Owl nodded, then pointed at the ground and the terraced lakeside. Adah nodded and picked up the datacore. Its weight against her shoulders as she threw it in her bag was noticeable, but hopefully wouldn’t slow her down.

Much.

She turned to Ursa, about to motion for her to pop smoke, but Ursa was ahead of her, one of fake “drink cans” held in her hand. As soon as she saw Adah’s gaze, she twisted the top, cracking the thin fake shell around the grenade and dropping it out of the back of the tram. It fell, hissing grey smoke as it did so.

Ursa followed it less than a second later, dropping out of the back of the tram and half-falling, half-sliding the thirty or so feet to the ground. She kicked off of the remains of the bridge before she hit, landing in the churned scar and fading into the thick smoke.

Adah dropped next, jumping so that she would slide against a smoother portion of the bridge than the tram track. She dropped only for a second, free hand and a heel scraping to slow her fall, and then she pushed as well, landing inside the smoke and sinking deep into the freshly churned Earth.

Orient. The ringing in her ears had faded a little, but not enough that the world had any sort of clarity. Back was to the hill. Turn and move. She broke left, moving as quickly as she could through the dense smoke.

Sharp pops became audible through the ringing in her head. Muffled, but unmistakably gunfire. Someone was shooting, but who or at what she couldn’t say so deep inside the smoke.

She changed course, eyeing the ground by her feet to make sure she didn’t end up running back toward the bridge. Keep moving. Don’t stop.

There was a faint warning in the back of her head, the part of her mind she’d grown to know as survival instinct, that was voicing an opinion on their situation. It wasn’t a good opinion.

Like I don’t know that. The smoke was thinning as she ran through the brush, the world around her coming into view. A nearby bush shook as a bullet whipped through it, and she ducked lower while still moving forward. Once the smoke is clear enough … Now!

She let out a quick burst of fire in the direction of the upper terrace, feeling a faint sense of satisfaction as some of the attackers ducked out of sight. The rest were more experienced though, tracking the muzzle flash of her SMG and firing back, forcing her to duck low below the brush as she moved forward.

Foxtrot! She was out of the smoke now, and thankfully there was another cloud of it billowing over the ground on the next terrace. The fire died off she broke the line of sight, almost on all fours as she scrambled up the hill to the next terrace.

One more past that, and I’m at the lot.  Her eyes kept flicking to the corners of her vision, where her hud normally would be reporting Ursa and Owl’s positions. But I’m still blind. And mostly deaf.

Never again, she thought, scrambling over the lip of the terrace and diving into the swirling smoke left by another of Ursa’s grenades. No more naked missions. Ever.

Smoke curled as something small and angry passed through it inches from her face. Blind fire? Or backstop? There was no way to tell. She pressed on, clutching her SMG and praying a bullet didn’t find its path in her unprotected face.

The smoke began to thin ahead of her, the next slope—the final one—appearing. Keep moving. At least that was easy with her augments. She powered up the slope, not even stopping when a flash of movement in the corner of her vision turned out to be someone in tan combat gear firing. Who at she couldn’t say, but she fired back and was rewarded with a spray of red from the leg. The figure dropped.

Smoke was curling over the edge of the parking lot. The last of Ursa’s grenades. Adah dove into it, rushing forward and—

A dark, low shape appeared out of the smoke as she rushed forward. One of the benches around the lake’s edge. She hopped over it, pausing to crouch behind it and try to remember where their car had parked.

The survival instinct, the same one that was continually noting that their situation was less than ideal, made a new announcement. You rely too much on your suit to do that sort of thing.

Shut up. We walked to the left to get to it so … we’re on the wrong side. It’s to my left now.

The smoke was already starting to fade, the same wind that powered the nearby wind farm doing its job and clearing out her cover.  Already she could make out the nearest cars through the haze. As well as a familiar figure, Ursa, taking cover behind one of them. Several of their armored assailants were lying on the ground beside her. From the look of things they’d entered the smoke when they’d seen her, probably thinking her an easy target.

Their mistake. Unfortunately with the smoke fading she was about to be a lot more exposed on her flanks. Cover. She lifted her SMG, searching for targets who had noticed what she had, and her stomach gave a sharp twist.

They must have had more than one truck. There were easily several dozen assailants against them. All in what looked like mostly-standard military gear. No skinsuits, but aside from that …

We’re badly outmatched, even assuming none of those people aren’t coming with augments of their own. We’re in skinsuits, and they’ve got full body armor. If it were a dozen of them it’d be a better match, but …

Her SMG jerked as she fired anyway, forcing a clump of them to dive into cover and giving her enough of an opening to rush to a point near Ursa.

“This is bad!” Ursa shouted at her as she ducked behind another of the cars, making sure she was behind a tire where the motors would give her the most protection.

“I agree!” she shouted back. Their opponents were forming up, covering one another. She glanced down at one of the limp forms Ursa had taken down, checking for insignia. There wasn’t any.

A bullet pinged off the nearby ground, and she sighted and fired back before ducking back behind the car. Owl. Gotta locate Owl.

She found her, pinned at the edge of the drop-off to the lake by more fire. Ursa tapped Adah’s shoulder, pointing in the direction of the wind farm, and a roar filled the air.

The Stalker shot over the fence around the facility, its guns blazing and chewing up the pavement. Soldiers scattered or were torn to pieces as the heavy guns ripped through them. Micro-missile fire spewed from the side of the Stalker, Anvil leaping out in her exosuit and dropping, firing as she fell. Her impact cratered the pavement but didn’t slow her firing at all.

The Stalker continued forward, shooting out over the lake, spewing chaff and spinning up on one side as a missile shot past it. Adah spun, firing in conjunction with Owl to take out the shooter. Again the Stalker’s guns opened up, this time backed by a missile barrage, shredding entire sections of the lakeside in a full barrage of fire and wiping half that attacking soldiers out in one clean sweep.

Then it dropped, narrowly avoiding another missile from elsewhere across the lot. Ursa fired, hopefully taking the launcher down. Anvil meanwhile was smashing cars out of her way, charging across the lot and firing at anyone she saw.

“Evac!” Adah called, grabbing Ursa’s shoulder and gesturing toward the drop-off near Owl. “Now!”

They ran, sprinting for the lakeside. She’d almost made it when something hot and angry slammed into her thigh, her leg spasming and sending her pitching forward. Ursa caught her arm, hauling her back to her feet and throwing her over the edge. She rolled, her SMG slamming her in the gut as she tumbled over it. “Thanks,” she said as Ursa dropped down next to her.

The VTOL dropped like a rock, engines flaring at the last second as it came down on the terrace below them, side hatch still open. Limping against Ursa, Adah half-fell, half-limped down the rest of the slope, squinting as the Stalker’s engines kicked hot dirt into the air.

Then she was in, the wound in her thigh screaming at her as she fell back on the Stalker’s deck. Owl and Ursa climbed in beside her, one of them grabbing her shoulder and pulling her deeper back into the VTOL while the other took up a covering position by the door.

“Hot evac!”

Adah dropped her SMG, using both hands and her good leg to shove herself to the side and leaving a slick of blood behind. The VTOL rose into the air, clearing the upper edge of the lake just as Anvil reached it. She leaped, spinning in the air and emptying her clip before landing inside the Stalker, metal screeching as she slid into the far wall of the cabin.

The door slammed shut as the aircraft went vertical, shooting into the sky and then just as quickly flipping and looping back down toward the forest, shooting at high speed over the treetops and spraying chaff.

“Sorry for the late pickup,” Anvil said, lowering her smoking weapon. “We were en route when the alert went out and we realized something had gone wrong.

“Injuries?” The command came over the intercome, just as the warning of Anvil’s arrival had.

The commander, Adah thought as she looked down at her leg. Good.

“Adah and I are both hit,” Ursa said, and for the first time Adah noticed that the woman was favoring one arm. “Owl—“

“Is fine,” Owl said, ripping one of the emergency medical kits from the wall and moving toward Adah. “Adah’s is the worst; I’m tending to it now. Both of us also have hearing damage, so get the medical suite at base prepped.”

“I hate the autodoc,” Adah said as Owl crouched beside her, already pulling out medical patches. “Damn thing has no bedside manner.”

“We’ve got UN forces scrambling to redirect,” Castillo said. “But we’ve got a good lead. Hang tight, Freelance.” Adah winced as Owl slapped a coagulator down on her wound.

The VTOL soared northward toward home.

*             *             *

“First things first,” Valerie said as soon as all four members of the team had taken their seats around the table. Each of them now back to looking like theirselves, rather than the fakes they’d become. And minus a few medical patches here and there where they’d been injured. Thankfully nothing truly threatening, though Adah had new souvenir the autodoc had pulled out of her thigh. “I’m glad you all made it back safe from today’s foxtrot.”

She waited, watching each member of the team react. They looked … not angry. Just tired. Well, I’m angry enough for all of them. “I’ve spoken with our client, and she claims to have had no idea that anyone else was after that datacore.”

“But someone was, on it?” Anvil said, leaning forward. She was definitely angry. “They almost—“

“I know,” she said, keeping her voice steady. Anvil snapped her jaw shut. “I know. And I found out who. Who they were, that is. Not who hired them?”

“Mercs?” Ursa asked.

“Yes,” she answered with a nod. Capacians.”

“They’re not incompetent,” Adah said, nodding slowly. “We were lucky.”

“We were,” she agreed. “The only consolation that I found when our client swore to me that she was telling the truth was that the Capacians were as shocked to find you there as we were them.”

“But we were all after the core,” Owl noted. “Why?”

“Our client swears she doesn’t know.”

“Bullshit,” Anvil said, rising. “And all the other kinds. What was so—?”

“Anvil.” Valerie fixed her gaze on the woman. For a moment Anvil held it, but then she nodded.

“Sorry, commander.”

“Again, our client swears she doesn’t know. She’s an old client. I ran a comparison with her response. It’s completely in line with any prior time she’s been surprised.”

“That can be faked.”

“I’m aware, but … She’s one of our oldest clients.” Even if things have been a little strange lately. “I don’t believe she would have let us walk blindly into this without warning.”

“But she wanted it,” Ursa pointed out. “Couldn’t it have been for the same reason?”

Valerie nodded. “I asked. Do you know what’s on datacore K793-OL? Orbital traffic records.”

“What?” The question came from three voices at once.

“That’s it,” she said, nodding again. “Five years’ worth of orbital traffic records in Earth orbit. That’s what the ‘OL’ stood for. Orbital lanes. The most recent record, as of one day before the delivery date.”

“Orbital …” Adah shook her head. Even Owl seemed confused. “Why?”

“That she wouldn’t tell me,” Valerie answered, feeling a slight twinge of annoyance. After all the jobs we’ve done for her … “But she swore there was nothing else on the core.”

“Then why did someone else want it?” Ursa asked.

“Why does anyone want it?” Anvil countered. “Of all the stupid …” Her glare returned, and she rose. “Adah and Ursa got wounded over this!”

“Ania.” Anvil stiffened slightly at the use of her real name. “I am well aware. Do you have any idea how I felt when I realized what was happening?”

“I …” A flash of guilt shot across Anvil’s face. “No. I mean yes! I mean … Sorry, commander.”

“You care about the team. Well so do I. We won’t be taking an armorless operation anytime soon. Maybe ever again. As for the Charlie Foxtrot that took place out there, all of you handled it well. Our client did agree to pay fifty percent more for the trouble.” That did get a few nods of appreciation from the team. And … They deserve to know.

“I’ve told our client that any jobs they send our way from now on will need to be more up front.”

“When was the last time we did a job for them, anyway?” Ursa asked.

Her answer was quick and curt. “Kamchatka. And before you ask,” she said quickly. “I don’t know what either of these two ops have to do with one another. Tomorrow is a rest day, no ops for at least two. I want you all to take a break. You’ve earned it. Enjoy your pay, talk with your families, start a bar fight—” The last comment got a faint smile from Anvil. “Whatever. I’ll do a fuller debrief tomorrow. Dismissed.”

One by one the members of the team rose and left. Each under their own power. Owl was the last to rise, waiting until the rest of the team had slipped out the door before coming over and placing a hand atop hers on the tabletop.

“Are you all right?”

She nodded. “I am, Li.” She looked up and smiled. “It’s not the first time there’s been a close call.”

“No,” Li agreed, pulling her hand away. “It isn’t. Thanks for the quick pickup.”

“Always. Now get some sleep, you. It’s late.”

Li smiled as she backed away. “I might.”

“I can still ground you, you know.”

“You won’t.” Li ducked out of the room, leaving her alone.

The old rapport made her feel a little better. Still … Today was too close, she thought as she gathered her pad and left the briefing room, heading for her quarters. Far too close.

Halfway to her quarters, her pad vibrated, the screen flashing. An official call.

And I’ll look at that later, she thought, silencing the notification.

A second later her pad vibrated again, and she frowned. Two jobs?

No … It was the same address for both the incoming alerts. A third one appeared as she watched. Someone desperately wanted to talk to her.

She detoured, heading for her “office.” Really it was more of a command and control center for their operations, but …

A light was flashing on one of her comm units as she entered the room. With a wave of her hand the display lit up. It was a very specific type of contact—text only, bounced across who knew how many anonymizers across the datanet. Someone wanted to use it to chat with her directly.

The hairs on the back of her neck prickled as the connection attempted to establish itself again. Who would …? She shook her head. You can always disconnect and shut the pathway down for a few days.

After you speak with them. She hit the proper key, accepting the link. The display went blank, and then, after a moment, two words appeared.

I SEE.

She frowned. Usually a bid that came in through such an anonymous channel was, well, a bid. Or an offer. She typed back a reply.

EXPLAIN?

For a few moments the screen did nothing. Then a new line appeared, followed by another.

I SHOULD NOT HAVE HIRED THE CAPACIANS. I SHOULD HAVE HIRED YOU.

A chill ran down her back, and she typed out her reply.

WHO IS THIS?

The reply came almost instantly.

YOU PERFORMED A JOB FOR ME IN MEXICO FOUR DAYS AGO.

I WOULD LIKE TO HIRE YOU AGAIN.


 

Thank you for reading Fireteam Freelance! If you’ve comments or concerns, please leave them below! Thank you for reading, and be sure to check out my books for more!

 

Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Fireteam Freelance – Episode 3: Underground Orbit

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