The shuttle was a standard single stage to orbit lifting body design, vertical take off and landing capable, mission-modified for inclement weather with an additional set of tail stabilizers and more powerful reentry engines. It streaked down through the atmosphere at Mach 26, its glowing leading edges creating a meteor-like effect across the western skies, its trajectory carrying directly towards the valley where the colony sat.
As it made wide sweeping S-turns to bleed off velocity, Santander’s comm rang in his ear. He reached up to take the call, his metal glove banging off the combat helmet, and he cursed as he remembered the helmet link command.
“Go for Santander,” he said, and the commlink opened, audio only.
“Mister Santander, this is Lamber. Colony is secure, all personnel accounted for,” came a voice.
Santander smiled and clanged his fist off Ran’s shoulder next to him. “Good work, Lamber. Give me a run down of the situation.”
“The neurojammers worked like a charm as promised. Your SAR friends have some high-class tech. Sabra and I were fully shielded, and all their neuretics and powered armor and weapons are disabled. The facility’s staff are all in the housing section, no threats. The board of directors and the operations staff are upstairs in the offices as we had hoped for. The aliens are all in the lab area, which will be our second point of interest. Sabra and I have control of the team in the Ops center, which is where we’ll meet you.”
“And Gabriel?” Santander asked.
“He’s right here,” Lamber replied. “Along with the rest of his team. Sowers, Jimenez, St. Laurent, and that tank Brevik.”
Santander mentally ticked off his fingers. “You’re missing one, Lamber.”
After a pause, Lamber replied, “Damn, that idiot kid Takahashi. He’s sealed in the labs with the doctor. I’ll send Sabra to get him, won’t take but a few minutes.”
“No,” Santander said. Dumbass, he thought. “Wait until we get there. I can’t have you splitting up. If he’s sealed off and the jammers are fully in place, leave him be for now.” He checked his heads-up display. “We’ll be touching down in just over four minutes.”
“Yes sir, we’ll see you then. Sorry about that with Takahashi, it’s just that…”
Santander cut the connection, blowing air through his lips noisily.
“Everything okay, Q?” Ran asked next to him on the comm net, the SSTO shuttle banging back and forth as the atmosphere thickened.
“Fine,” he replied. “Just hard to find good henchmen these days. No offense.”
Ran laughed. “None taken…just don’t call me a henchman.”
Gabriel and his team were seated against one wall of the Operations center, helmets off, with Lamber standing in front of them, now with an assault rifle trained on the group. Sabra was tapping away at one of the workstations, while Vanheel was with Zack at the central table.
“Pim, what happened?” Zack asked Vanheel. “We’ve known each other for years, since New Tokyo, for Christ’s sake.” He had a pleading look in his eye. “Why are you doing this, who are these people?”
“Stop it,” Vanheel said. “I…I can’t talk about it,” he said weakly, looking away from Zack. He still held the gun, but it was no longer trained on the chairman.
Zack looked at his old friend, trying to figure out why he would turn on him, turn on everything they worked for, turn on the native species they had been working so hard to save. His mind ran through everything he knew about him, back to New Tokyo, back to their first trip to Poliahu, back to the wedding…wait.
“Is this about Stasia?” he asked.
Vanheel turned back to Zack. “Leave it be, Zack. You don’t know these people.” He looked away again.
Zack grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him back to face him. “It wasn’t a burglary, was it?” he asked quietly.
Vanheel looked down at the floor. “No. They said…they said, it’s a warning. And if I didn’t play along with this, they’d kill my daughter too.”
“My god,” Zack said, releasing Vanheel’s shoulder. “Where is she, I thought you said she was living with Stasia’s mother in Germany?”
“She is,” Vanheel replied. “But they sent me photos of her at her preschool. They’re watching her, and if I don’t go along with what they say…” his voice dropped to a whisper. “Listen, if anything happens to me and you get out of this, I need you to look out for her.”
“Pim, I’m so sorry,” Zack said. He looked over at his brother sitting against the far wall, a look of barely contained rage on his face, matching the rest of his team. “Stay close, this isn’t over yet.”
“You two, quit the whispering,” Sabra snapped from her workstation.
Lamber’s commlink buzzed at his waist. Taking one hand from the assault rifle, he picked it up. “Lamber.”
“We’re at the main doors, get ‘em open. Goddamned freezing out here,” came the reply.
Lamber motioned to Sowers. “Open it,” he said, indicating a nearby workstation.
Sowers slowly stood up, glared at Lamber, and walked over to the workstation. The combat armor was still stiff in most places, and almost unbearably heavy without power. He tapped a few keys, and turned back around. “Open, lieutenant,” he said sarcastically, walking back to his original position and sitting down.
“Now what?” ground out Gabriel in a low voice.
“Now we meet the new boss,” said Lamber. “Nice guy, I’m sure you’ll all love him.”
Brevik spat on the floor. “Can’t wait,” he growled.
Gabriel’s Mindseye lit up unexpectedly, images of comm systems flickering into view, and he struggled to keep his face impassive to not alert the others. He quickly sent in a few scout programs to see if they could broaden the path. Very limited pipe, he saw, no two way comm, no data link. If he could…there, he grabbed a screenshot of his vision, created an image packet, and fired it off to the only person not currently under the gun. As the packet was sent, the pipe crashed and the link disappeared. He only hoped the image made it out.
“You okay?” the disembodied voice came.
Takahashi struggled to consciousness, his vision going from black to gray to a blurry white. A light flashed from one eye to the other.
“Wha???” he stammered. His neuretics were completely down, his arms and legs felt as if they were in wrapped in heavy chains, and he had a nasty taste of vomit in his mouth. He felt some kind of sticky substance on the back of his head, which was throbbing like the morning after his first real Mexican tequila night.
He shook his head, the pain feedback telling him that was a mistake, and blinked his eyes. Doctor Gilchrist stood over him; apparently he was sitting on the floor. His last memory was, what was it? They were moving the cabinet in front of the door as a secondary barricade, then there was this terrible pain in his…
He sat bolt upright. “Kuso, neurojammer!” he said, cursing in Japanese, trying to get to his feet.
“Whoa, whoa,” Gilchrist said, pushing at his shoulders. “You fell flat backwards, hit your head on the edge of the table there, and have a grade two concussion. You shouldn’t even be awake right now.”
“Awake?” Takahashi said in alarm. “How long have I been out?”
Gilchrist checked his watch. “About eight minutes.”
“Dammit!” he barked, pushing the doctor’s hands away as forcefully as he could with the disabled armor. He struggled to his feet, knocking several instruments off a nearby tray onto the floor.
“Relax, it was an accident,” the doctor said. “Sit down, I’ll get you some water.”
“No, Doc, it’s not an accident,” Takahashi replied. “We’re under attack. That was a neurojammer, someone tried to fry our systems.” He did some neuretics checking, to no avail. “And did a damned good job.” He checked a few more pathways. “No comm, no weapons, and armor is compromised.”
Gilchrist looked alarmed. “I thought you said they’d be coming in through…”
“I know,” Takahashi interrupted. “We all did. Neurojammers aren’t even supposed to exist. Experimental only.” He took one armored gauntlet off, dabbing at the back of his head with his freed hand. Looking at the smeared blood on his fingers, he grimaced. “Seems like they work just fine,” he said. “We’ve got to get to the rest of the team.”
“But your commander said to stay here,” the doctor said.
Takahashi was about to reply when a burst came in through his disabled neuretics. Shouldn’t be able to receive anything, he thought. Must have been a discrete channel, high power.
The file opened in his Mindseye, barely, showing a blurry image of the Operations center, the edges flickering in his weakened systems. On the left of the image he saw Jimenez and Sowers, both seated on the floor, hands crossed on their knees, and Brevik sitting on his knees next to them. Several workstations were further back in the image, Sabra sitting at one of them, a small pistol in her hand. The chairman and his assistant were at the central platform table at the far end. Everything appeared relatively normal, except for the fact that Lamber stood dead center of the frame, holding an assault rifle pointed directly at the sender of the image.
“Oh no,” he said slowly.
“What is it?” Gilchrist asked.
“We’ve got a problem,” he replied. “Something’s happened. Two of my team have the others at gunpoint.” He gritted his teeth. “We’ve got a mole, and bad guys on the way.” He looked around the lab. “Doc, do you have a back exit?”
Gilchrist shook his head. “No, not really. Front way is the only way in, except for the Polis’ way.”
“Polis’ way?” he repeated.
“Well, it’s not really an exit,” he replied. “More of a way to easily get them in and out of the cold when they need to be. So that we don’t have to run them through the entire complex. But it goes outside, and I’m not really familiar with the surface, and quite honestly I don’t see the point. There’s nowhere to go.”
Takahashi tried to pull up the colony schematics in his neuretics, but they were non-responsive. “Do you have a layout of the buildings, something I can look at?” he asked.
Gilchrist tapped his chin. “Maybe…yes, hang on,” he said, and walked over to a table covered in paper notes. He rummaged through the pile, and pulled out a crumpled sheet of yellowing paper. “Here, something one of the Polis made.”
He took it from him and looked at it. It was a crude outline drawing of the colony, but even the rough uneven lines looked fairly accurate from what he remembered from the briefings. He pored over the paper, looking for some type of guidance.
“What’s this?” he asked Gilchrist, pointing at what appeared to be railroad tracks on the side of the main building.
Gilchrist looked down at it and frowned. “No idea,” he said. “But maybe Isaiah knows.”
“Isaiah?” he asked, looking at him curiously.
Gilchrist pointed at the scrawled name in the corner. “Yes, Isaiah. He’s one of the Poli’s leaders, very bright. Isaiah’s brother was the one killed outside by your sniper,” he said, a hint of sadness in his voice. Holding the paper up towards Takahashi, he said, ”He drew this. He’s in the back room now with some of the other leaders, trying to keep their people calm.”
Takahashi was taken aback. “I don’t understand. You said they were semi-sentient, very limited. Are you saying they can read and write?”
“Oh yes, absolutely. Isaiah’s probably on a third or fourth grade level, and we’ve only been working with some of them for a year or so,” he replied, pride replacing the momentary sadness.
“And here I thought by semi-sentient you meant they can crack a clam with a stick,” Takahashi said, shaking his head, the fog of his concussion slowly lifting. “In any case, I’m going to seal this door. Go find Isaiah, we need to talk to him.”
Santander strode into the Operations Center, his team clanking in behind him, still brushing snow from their armor.
“Lamber, Sabra,” Santander said, his helmet already clipped to his belt. “Nice job. And you kept my operations center intact, I appreciate that.” He looked down at Gabriel and his team. “Hello, Commander. Looks like your reputation may not be so deserved.”
Gabriel looked up at him with a dead stare. “Do I know you?”
Santander laughed. “Sort of, but we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, I believe my comrades here slipped up and forgot about someone?” He turned back to Lamber with a raised eyebrow.
“Sorry again about that, won’t be an issue. Now that you’re here, I’ll go…”
Santander cut him off. “No, you’ll stay here and do nothing. I’ll send someone I trust. Understand?”
Lamber swallowed. “Right, of course.”
“Matter of fact,” Santander continued, taking off his armored gloves. “I’ve got something planned for you anyway. Ran,” he said, calling over his lieutenant. “Help Lamber keep an eye on the prisoners, I don’t want him losing count again.”
He turned back to his team, who had spread through the operations center, inspecting the workstations and facilities. “Gregorio,” he called. “Take one other, head upstairs and bring the board of directors down here. I want everyone in one place when we finalize the, ah, changeover in management.”
“You got it,” Gregorio replied. He walked over to Sabra, who had been relieved of guard duty, and grabbed her by the arm. “You, with me,” he said.
Sabra pulled her shoulder away from Gregorio’s touch sharply. “Watch it, boy. We’re on the same team…for now,” she said with a growl.
Gregorio raised his hands in mock surrender. “Yes ma’am,” he said with an edge of sarcasm.
“Pistols only, I want armor-mounted weapons powered down,” warned Santander. “No sense in making a mess.”
The two headed for the door to the stairwell, Sabra glancing over her shoulder at Lamber. Santander caught the look and mentally filed away a note to watch his two new team members. “Isham, Sheakely,” he continued. “Once the board is here, go to the lab and take care of the missing ones.”
Rheaves had walked over to where Brevik was seated on the floor, and stood over him.
“Hello, old friend,” Rheaves said.
Brevik looked up with tired eyes, shaking his head slowly. “Always knew you’d turn up sometime, somewhere.”
“Well, what have we here?” Santander said, walking over to the prisoners sitting against the wall, bumping Lamber out of the way. “You two know each other?”
“Boss, meet Harris Brevik, my former academy roommate,” said Rheaves with a smirk.
Santander, looked from one to the other with pursed lips. “How the hell did you two fit in one dorm room?”
“He didn’t last long,” said Brevik, spitting on the floor. “Couldn’t follow directions.”
Santander laughed heartily , throwing his head back. “Damn right he can’t,” he said. “Glad to see I’m not the only one who noticed.”
Rheaves smiled and nodded. “I’m good when the money’s right, boss. No worries.” He waved a handgun towards the seated Brevik. “If you don’t mind, I’d love the pleasure of reuniting later.”
Santander made a dismissive motion with his hand. “Whatever, not my concern. My concern is,” he paused and looked towards the center of the room. “My concern is that we have an orderly, only moderately hostile takeover.” He walked towards the two men standing at the table. “Vanheel, is this the chairman?”
Vanheel gulped, gripping his pistol tighter. “Yes, Mister Santander. This is the chairman, Zachary Gabriel.”
Santander stopped in his tracks. “Wait…” he asked, turning back to face the prisoners.
“Yes sir, it’s Commander Gabriel’s brother,” Vanheel said behind him.
Santander stared at the seated Gabriel. After a few seconds he said, “Son of a bitch. Small world, eh Commander?” With that he turned back to the center and made his way to the platform.
“Mister Zachary Gabriel, brother of the infamous Evan Gabriel,” Santander said, extending one hand. “A real pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Zack stared at the mercenary, his nostrils flaring. “Go to hell,” he said in a low voice.
Santander dropped his hand. “I’ve been on Mars for two years, it’s a little late for that,” he said. “Lamber!” he called over his shoulder.
Lamber trotted up to the three men. “Sir?”
Santander never took his eyes off Zack. “I need you to understand we mean business, and that your control of this facility is over,” he said. “Effective immediately, we are taking over this operation. You and your board will be relieved of operational command, and you personally will be signing over the colony charter to me. We will be keeping your workers in place and continuing the work you’re doing here. Our bosses back home will be sending replacements within the month. At that point, if all goes well, you and your people will be shipped back to Earth.”
He paused, looking at Vanheel, who was quivering. “If all doesn’t go well,” he said. “Again, we need you to understand the situation here.” He took two steps back and tapped Lamber on the shoulder. “Kill him,” he said, pointing to Vanheel.
“With pleasure,” Lamber said, bringing his assault rifle up.
“No, wait!” yelled Zack, stepping forward.
Lamber’s rifle spat twice with no more noise than a muffled cough, the supersonic 6 mm caseless rounds impacting Vanheel squarely in the chest. Vanheel staggered backwards, the pistol clattering from his hand. Blood spurted from the two wounds and he grabbed his chest, choking up blood and spittle before collapsing to the floor.
Zack quickly stepped over to his friend, who lay on his side, wheezing. “Pim!”
Vanheel’s breath was ragged, the blood now pooling on the floor. “Zack,” he gasped. “My daughter…” his voice trailed off.
“Don’t worry, she’ll be fine,” Zack said, grasping Vanheel’s shoulder. “Hang on.”
Vanheel’s eyes lost focus and he rolled backwards to lie facing the ceiling. Zack stood up and wheeled to face Santander, taking one menacing step before Lamber’s rifle stopped him.
“You’ll pay for this,” Zack said in a low voice.
Santander chuckled. “No, someone is paying me for this.” He stepped forward, easing Lamber’s rifle out of the way. Coming to within a few inches of Zack’s face, he said, “We mean business.” Santander’s fist slammed into Zack’s stomach, knocking him back a couple of feet, and his other hand smacked into Zack’s jaw, spinning him to the decking, unconscious.
Gabriel’s voice roared from the far side of the room. “Bastard!” He started to rise, and Ran bashed the side of his head with the butt of his rifle, staggering Gabriel back against the wall, blood leaking from a cut just under his hairline.
“You’re mine, whoever the hell you are,” Gabriel gasped, glaring at Santander.
“Whoever the hell I am?” Santander replied with a laugh. “I’m the new chief here, didn’t you get the memo?” He turned back to Lamber. “Stick the body in the corner, then get back on prisoner duty. I want the board to see we’re not screwing around, but I don’t need a mess lying around all day.”
Zack watched with tears in his eyes as Lamber dragged his friend away, a smear of blood trailing behind.