Authors: Curtis C. Chen
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For D, who is both my toughest critic and my most ardent supporter.
LOVE YOU WIFE
EarthâKazakhstanâ150 km from Oskemen Spaceport
45 minutes after I was supposed to be on a flight out of here
My left eye doesn't lie. The scanning implants and heads-up display can only show me what's really there, and right now they're showing me a border guard carrying too many weapons. Standard-issue assault rifle hanging around his neck, but also a machine pistol under his armpit, a revolver strapped to his left ankle, and a high-voltage stunner in a tail holster at the base of his spine.
I saw suspicious bulges under his coat as I rolled up to the checkpoint, and he obviously wasn't happy to see me, so I activated my eye scanners. Now I can read the factory bar code off each weapon and look up the manufacturer's specs via satellite link. The stunner surprises meâit was manufactured off-world, somewhere in the asteroid belt, and delivers more energy than is legal anywhere on Earth. And the concealed firearms are Hungarian-made, military issue. Not the kind of thing Kazakh border police pick up at the corner shop.
But it's not the guns that really put me wise to Fakey Impostorov. I can also see into his body, and simple checkpoint guards don't have an unmistakable spiderweb of ground-to-orbit comsat antenna surgically implanted in their left shoulder. If this guy's not a field agent for a national intelligence outfitâa spy like meâI'll eat my shoe. And shoes taste terrible. Trust me, I know. Long story.
Anyway, what is a Hungarian secret agent doing on the RussiaâKazakhstan border?
While I'm pondering this, an actual border guard waddles up to my rented hovercar and squints at me. He's the real deal. I can tell by the way he walks and the smell of coffee and whiskey on his breath. Career military, old enough to know better, bored with everything.
Not like my friend the Hungarian over there, standing by the guard house and pretending to smoke a vape-stick. Way too alert, way too serious. Oh yeah, he's on the job.
I smile at the guard next to me and hand over my legend passport.
“American?” he says. “Why are you here?”
“Visiting family,” I reply. “My cousin just got married in Ridder. Have you been to Ridder? Beautiful placeâ”
“You wait,” the guard grunts.
Right. I should remember not to talk so much. Whiskey-Breath walks back to the guard house with my forged paperwork. I continue breathing slowly and evenly, both hands on the steering wheel, stealing glances at the fake guard.
There isn't anything hot between Russia and Kazakhstan right now. I would have gotten that in my briefing, before I dropped in country. A Hungarian might be on the lookout for Chinese activity, but then he'd be on the southern border, not the northern. And the nearest spaceport, Oskemen, only supports suborbital launches, so he's unlikely to be from Mars. Martians always want to have direct escape routes.
I was actually looking forward to this operation. It's on Earth for once, where the geopolitics are centuries old and fairly well understood. Not like our colonies and outposts throughout the rest of the Solar System, where everything is always in motion and everyone's trying to outdo their ancestors in one way or another.
Or they're trying to pull off something extremely dangerous, illegal, and/or unethical where they hope nobody will notice. The neighbors might object if you start testing antimatter weapons on your home planet, but sneak a small team into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and there's plenty of space to hide your unsavory deeds.
People try a lot of crazy things in the outback, and when it doesn't work out, somebody has to go clean it up. These days “somebody” tends to be my agency, because the United States of America is very interested in anything that happens in outer space. Ever since the Independence War, which started with asteroids boiling Earth's oceans and ended with Mars winning its freedom as a sovereign planet, “off-world events” have been a matter of national security for Uncle Sam.
Now that we all know how bad things can get, nobody wants to attract a new interplanetary conflictâbut behind closed doors, everyone is looking for inconspicuous ways to improve their space arsenals. We're only human. Sooner or later it's going to come down to who's got the bigger stick.
So for the last five years, the agency has deployed operatives on a wide variety of glamorous missions, from space junk cleanup to investigating possible signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. No aliens yet, but it's amazing how paranoid people can get when you pay them to think up worst-case scenarios. Also no faster-than-light travel, though we have scavenged some pretty killer new tech from other people's failed experiments. In fact, I have a few of those derivative gadgets hidden in the pocket right now, including one very largeâ
Wait. Is it possible Fakey's looking for me?
Exfiltration is always the hardest part of the job. Even if nobody suspects anything, you still know you're guilty, and it only takes one slip at the wrong moment to give yourself away.
Just take it easy, Kangaroo. Don't wig out until there's an actual reason.
This is not how the operation was supposed to go. I shouldn't be flying solo. Reynaldo was the primary. He was the one who spoke Kazakh, the one who knew our contact, the one who would recognize the item we were sent to retrieve. I was just along for the ride.
But you know what they say: the best laid plans of mice and kangaroos often go awry.
Rey and I met our contact, Medet, at a hotel where he was attending some distant relative's wedding. Medet slipped us a hand-drawn treasure map, then insisted his old friend Rey and I stay for the reception. Rey was reluctant at first, but I talked him into it. And for the record, it didn't take much talking: after two hours of rough overland travel from Oskemen, where our flight landed, we were both ready for some free-flowing alcohol, drunken bridesmaids, and Balearic dance tunes.
How was I supposed to know the local Bratva were calling in a hit on the best man? We didn't get briefed on organized crime activity in this area. It's not my fault. If it's anybody's fault, it's on Intel for not providing the data and Lasher for not prepping us to handle this contingency. I'm not supposed to improvise. Lasher has chewed me out more than once for going off-script. Rey was in charge. He told me to lead the way out of the hotel. He said he was right behind me. He said he wasn't going to try anything heroic.
And now he's dead, and I'm alone. Story of my life.
The border guards are still talking inside their checkpoint shack. I could switch on my long-distance microphone implant and eavesdrop, but I wouldn't understand what they're saying anyway. They seem to be discussing my travel documents at length. I see gesturing. The Hungarian spy is outside, so it's not him making trouble. Something else is going on.
What did I do wrong this time?
Maybe a listening post logged my distress call. Maybe a friendly neighbor saw me digging in the woods. Maybe the rental company just wants its hovercar back. I won't know how I screwed up until days, maybe weeks later, after some agency analyst has gone over my after-action reports with a fine-toothed comb. I know this because that used to be my job.
Sometimes I miss working a desk. Sometimes I wish I didn't have the pocket. But then I wouldn't get to enjoy any of these wonderful sightseeing opportunities, from the darkest corners of Earth to the deepest canyons of Uranus.
I spent most of last night sitting in this hovercar, crawling through the pitch-black mountains on low power, navigating by night vision. Couldn't risk anyone seeing headlights. I had to stop and backtrack at least a dozen times, trying to match reality to Medet's poorly labeled, not-to-scale road charts.
I could have aborted when the rendezvous went sideways. That is, as Lasher keeps reminding me, always a legitimate option. But the agency wasn't going to get another chance at recovering this item. And I didn't want Rey to have died for nothing.
After I found the cabin, I broke in and spent hours excavating the mildewed, insect-infested, probably carcinogenic ferroconcrete basement until I found the item. It was bigger than we thought, but still fit into the pocket just fine. That wasn't a problem.
the problem now. Half the population of Ridder witnessed me fleeing the scene of a massacre, which is why I'm motoring through the Altai Mountains instead of flying first class over them.
Whiskey-Breath comes back to the car, returns my passport, and asks some pointed questions about my itinerary. Fakey watches as I apologize for not having all my papers in order. I pretend to search my jacket for some missing documents and come up with three two-hundred-
bills, which I slip into Whiskey-Breath's palm.
“If anything else is missing,” I say, “I may have left it in the glovebox.”
He smiles, pockets the cash, and walks around the front of the hovercar. I stay very still as he leans in through the open passenger-side window, pops open the glovebox, and pulls out two small bars of dark chocolate. Small, because I don't want him to think there might be more of it stashed in my luggage. I really don't want these guys opening my suitcase and finding it full of nothing but bedsheets and towels.
The guard's smile broadens, and he slips the chocolate inside his sleeve. Doesn't want his friends in the shack to see that particular payoff. Good. I'd scanned a wedding band underneath his left glove, saw the metal worn and pitted with age, and guessed that he could use something of a bribe himself, for when he goes home to the wife and kids.
He shouts something. The checkpoint gate opens and he waves me through. I wave back, smile, and lift my foot off the brake. The hovercar glides forward slowly, out of Kazakhstan, toward home and a hot shower.
I risk a glance back at the Hungarian spy. He's not pretending to smoke anymore. He's looking right at me, with a gaze almost as intent as one of the bridesmaids at the wedding. But I would prefer not to dance with this gentleman.