I couldn’t say when I woke up. I had ditched my alarm clock long ago and I kept my quarters darker than the deep, black depths outside the window. Even when the sun was on the other side of the station, the shining pinpoints of light had a tendency to keep me awake. I needed total darkness to sleep. I had tried swapping quarters, but my sleeping disorder wasn’t uncommon. The few rooms with windows to the outside had been hot commodities in the early days, reserved only for officers. Even then, a lottery system was designed to dole them out. Now, the windows were a constant burden; nightlights without an off switch, a reminder of the world we couldn’t touch, a reminder of our prison.
I dressed quickly, pulling my clothes from the previous day off the floor and onto my body. I had an extensive wardrobe. We all did. After the war ended, it was nice to have access to civilian clothing. We had been in planetary combat uniforms for what felt like our entire lives. A lot of the noncoms had taken to calling them “pukes” on account of their disgusting camouflage pattern and uncomfortable fit. At first, I tried to point out that the acronym would only make sense if the abbreviation was PUC, but my protests fell on deaf ears. Pukes they were, and pukes they would remain. I eventually got over myself and picked up the term, too.
The shops that had been in the commercial district of the station had all stayed in operation when the public port was purchased by United Earth and converted into a “temporary” medical refuge for veterans of the Verge Wars that had fought on New Ceres and Ulaan Khuree. Business had boomed in the first few months, maybe as much as a year. Spirits were high. The war was over, we thought a cure was coming, and – though we couldn’t leave the orbital asteroid-cum-space station – our veterans’ benefits came in regularly. With nowhere to go, we all went on a shopping spree. Millionaires trapped in a mall. After years away from civilization and consumer goods, we stocked up on all the latest timewasters, fashions, and foods. We lived like royalty. I personally ate beluga caviar like it was condensed soup. We began to realize, some of us quicker than others, that we were kings in exile. The rare goods to which we had access began to sour in light of our discovery. We stopped shopping, so the shops closed; the robotic clerks sitting motionless, welcoming grins frozen in place, behind their shop counters. It was creepy. We didn’t go down to the commercial district much.
The social district was still open. We couldn’t avoid eating and most of us couldn’t avoid drinking in the evenings. I’m not sure there was a soldier aboard the station who didn’t get a warning against liver disease from the robot doc when they went in for routine physicals. I walked slowly down E Corridor, admiring the new graffiti that had sprung up on the octagonal tube overnight. Or…yesterday at noon. I had completely lost touch with time. I put out my hand, tracing the beautiful green dragon that snaked its way along the metal wall. It rose up and arced across the top of the tube to come down on the other side. At the end of the walkway, the dragon’s mouth opened, making it appear as though I walked in to the belly of the beast when I emerged into Bay 17 or, as we called it, Jansson’s Folly. Jansson was a lance corporal in the early days of our occupation, back when every day was like shore leave. Jansson’s Norwegian blood had drawn him to a bar called Targa, the walls of which were decorated with hundreds of round, wooden Viking shields. High on heritage and mead, Jansson decided to chat up the most beautiful woman in the bar. Though initially met with rejection, Jansson persisted and started to coax a few smiles out of her. The problem was that this woman, a highly decorated sniper, had recently taken up residence with Master Sergeant Park, easily the biggest, meanest man I’ve ever met. When Park walked into Targa, everyone fell silent. Except for Jansson. He continued with his silly, almost innocent pickup lines right up until Park’s fist smashed into his jaw. To call it a bar fight would be inaccurate; what happened next was brutality, pure and simple. I was sure Park wouldn’t stop until he saw Jansson’s brains on one of the shields. It took seventeen shots from my stunner to knock Park out. Men have been killed at fourteen. Though I stopped Park’s onslaught, Jansson died from internal bleeding a few days later. I hadn’t been back to Targa since.
Lost in my reverie, I almost passed my favorite breakfast spot. I turned quickly and entered Diner 17. I sat down and waited for a bot to roll over for my order, browsing the music selection in the little tabletop jukebox to kill time. For a long time, the song selection had been static. I’d heard Sig Templeton’s Sol Jazz enough times to wish for death when it came on. About eight months ago, the company that owned Diner 17 had sent along new jukeboxes that could be remotely updated with the automated barge that brought the food. Finding some interesting stuff, I passed my ID card under the reader and made my three choices. I had just chosen an ancient Tom Waits song when the old, stained bot rolled up and softly, though clumsily, bumped into my table.
“What can I get you today, sir?” it asked in its synthetic voice.
“Corned beef hash, eggs over easy, sourdough toast with extra butter, and black coffee, please,” I said. I couldn’t wait for the delicious taste of the roasted beans. Our coffee used to be pre-ground and freeze dried, but one of the few changes we had lobbied for and gotten passed – a small victory, like the jukeboxes – was that our coffee be sent up whole. A few different soldiers had spent time reading up on roasting, grinding, and brewing methods. In my opinion, Gunny Xu was the best master roaster on the station, and Diner 17 was the only place to get his beans in Jansson’s Folly. I could have headed over to Tower Park where Gunny Xu’s café was, but I was a slave to Diner 17’s hash.
I was staring down at nothing in particular, enjoying the old earth music when two figures slid into the booth across the coffee-stained table from me.
“Morning, Laird,” said the hulking figure on the left. The significantly shorter woman to his right only nodded in my direction.
“Morning, guys. Any word on the referendum?” Branch, the thin woman, winced at my question, and I guessed the word wasn’t good. Formerly a one-star general, Branch had been one of the first on the station to push first the military, then the United Earth congress to expand our rights. As one of her most trusted battlefield strategists and intelligence operatives during the Verge Wars, I was her first choice when she needed help planning her political moves and intuiting the possible motivations of other politicians. It had been a tough slog and, noting the premature grey sprouting at her temples and streaking along her hair into her bun, it taken more of a toll on her than the actual fighting. Most recently, we had been pushing for a colony in an unsettled meteor crater on Ulaan Khuree. Though one of the major belligerents during the Verge War, Ulaan Khuree sought representation in the United Earth congress and not independence. As the Treaty of Cydonia had granted congressional seats to Verge planets who wanted them Ulaan Khuree was now an ally. Khagan Temujin, leader of the Ulaanic forces during the War, had even been the one who had come up with crater settlement. According to him, it was the least he could do for being partially to blame for our plight; it was one of his biological warfare facilities that had created the Birk virus.
“The bastards in congress sloughed it off to Intersystemic Health Agency for approval. You know that means it’s going to be buried for years,” she seemed on the verge of tears. I had never, never seen Branch display any emotion other than satisfaction or anger. This outburst – outburst may have been an overstatement for wet eyes in anyone else, but for Branch it wasn’t – made me feel awkward. I wanted to look away, to stand at attention facing the wall and wait for an order, but Branch wasn’t technically my superior officer anymore. When the war ended and we were placed in the station, we were all decommissioned. Just citizens. Most of us shed our titles. No one called me Colonel anymore; I was just Laird. Even Gunny Xu, who had been a Gunnery Sergeant during the War, retained his title only as an homage to the gunny sacks the coffee beans were shipped in. Some of us held on to the military life for a while. After so long, it was all we knew. Once we all realized that United Earth had turned their backs on us, though, we dropped it. We wanted to cut all ties with the dishonest politicians and sheltered military brass. We felt more akin to the Ulaanis who we fought for so long.
Branch continued, her lower lip beginning to tremble, “We might all be dead before the referendum gets back to congress.”
The bot brought my food just then. I was thankful for the interruption; it would give me time to let the news sink in. Branch and Lizarraga, the giant of a man who acted as her bodyguard – both during the War and now – ordered coffee of their own. Lizarraga also ordered a half stack of pancakes and a mushroom omelet. The table fell into silence again as the bot left to put in the order. I noticed that Branch’s eyes had dried, though her lip still trembled. A charge of fear shot through my core.
“Branch…”, was all I could manage to say. The question, or observation, or whatever the hell it was stuck in my throat, choking me. She looked at me, a hard stare. I wouldn’t have known what it meant had Lizarraga not nodded his head slightly and then cast his gaze to the jukebox.
“How long?” I asked.
“I noticed it yesterday, but I could feel something, the itching electricity like the others said, the day earlier.”
The tremors were almost always the first sign of Birk-Verge Syndrome, the reason why we were all on this damn station to begin with. Birk-Verge was a degenerative neurological disease that was an unintended side effect of the Birk virus. Unlike other neurological diseases, Birk-Verge moved fast. At the most, Branch had two weeks to live. At the least…she could be gone in three days.
The Birk virus was designed to be a noncontagious biological weapon that could be used to demoralize the United Earth Ground Army on the Khaganate worlds of New Ceres and Ulaan Khuree. The virus caused almost immediate hemorrhaging and swift death. As a way to die, it probably wasn’t as painful as a laser blast to the gut or as prolonged as a projectile or edged weapon severing an artery. It did, however, leave an absolutely horrific sight for the medics and soldiers who came as rescue and reinforcements. The Ulaanis who created the virus were noble warriors; it killed quickly and was intended to leave no lasting damage once the war was over. In the final days of fighting, as we were marching through Uud, several members of an artillery squad who had been on Ulaan Khuree in the earliest days of fighting began convulsing, showing signs of intense mental decline, and dying from organ failure. The medics shipped the bodies back to earth for testing and, on the same day as the signing of the Treaty of Cydonia, the Intersystemic Health Agency released a document outlining the effects of Birk-Verge Syndrome and how the original Birk virus had mutated and infected those who hadn’t come into direct contact. The current theory is that the Birk virus merged with a planetary pathogen native to Ulaan Khuree. This would explain why no cases of Birk-Verge have been reported in native Ulaanis. The Intersystemic Health Agency recommended that all personnel who had served on either of the Khaganate worlds be quarantined until a cure could be developed.
The bot arrived with Branch and Lizzaraga’s order. A sip of her steaming black coffee seemed to spur Branch away from her inner world where she was no doubt wondering when her mind would begin to go. “Listen, Laird, Lizzaraga and some of the others have been talking. I know his group is less,” she paused, clenching jaws together, “diplomatic than you and I have been, but I think you need to hear what they’ve come up with.”
I sighed and shoveled a large bite of hash into my mouth. I talked around the delicious salty meat, wishing they would have never showed up so I could have enjoyed my breakfast. I looked at Lizzaraga. “Look, Lizard, I don’t care how mad you are – I don’t care how mad I am about losing my freedom, but we don’t have the manpower or the weapons to launch an attack on United Earth. We couldn’t even take a goddamn refueling station! We have fucking pea shooters –“
Lizzaraga held a hand up to stop me. I moodily shoved some toast in my mouth and looked at him, raising my eyebrows in a nonverbal cue for him to talk.
“Laird, I still want to blast those fuckers for abandoning us here. I’d give a lot to see one of those suits from congress have his face melted with a lazrifle, but you’re right; we can’t. And it won’t get us anywhere, either. They’d just blow this rock out of orbit. Hear me out, though.
“The army assembled to battle the Khaganate worlds was the largest in human history. Almost as large as the United Earth forces on all other Verge planets combined.” He paused for dramatic effect and I rolled my eyes, “What if we didn’t win?”
I nodded and motioned for the bot to refill my mug.
“That’s nuts, Lizard,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand to deflect any bits of potato that might fly out. “We obliterated Uud and Sukh-khan. The Bataar Army stood no chance against us. It was horribly one-sided. That’s why they had to turn to biowarfare in the first place.”
Lizarraga contorted his face into an ugly, humorless grin. I could tell he wanted to slap me. It probably didn’t help that I was using the nickname his drill sergeant gave him in basic training on the deep space transport.
“We won, Laird. But what if United Earth didn’t win? What if all the other planets went in favor of the Verge? They knew they would have to go up against us next and, even if they managed to snuff out our fire, they would take huge, irreplaceable losses. We might have even taken a few planets with us when we realized we were losing.”
Maybe Lizarraga had a point. Our combat group did have several World Destroyer nukes assigned to it. He could see I was listening fully now, and continued.
“What if the Treaty of Cydonia was in full favor of the Verge? The Verge worlds, now in control, could order us to be imprisoned on this station. Birk-Verge might not even be from the original Birk virus. You know as well as I do that our medics can’t find the markers the Intersystemic Health Agency claims are there. Birk-Verge might be something new they shot at us when they knew they had won. They might even be dosing us with every goods shipment that comes up.”
“OK,” I said, taking a long drink from my coffee mug. “Ok. Say that’s true. My earlier point still stands; we can’t wage a war. We have bodies but no weapons. We have a few thousand police-issue stunners, fewer projectile pistols, and even fewer shotguns. If we could somehow break through planetary defenses in some hotwired goods barges, all we would be met with is a blood bath. If your goal is to die in battle before succumbing to Birk-Verge…,” I stopped myself before going any further, aware that my words must have fallen on Branch like body blows.
Her face impassive, Branch continued from where I had interrupted Lizaragga. “If we’re being duped, Khagan Temujin is being duped, as well. During one of our talks, he mentioned that United Earth seems to be treating him more harshly than other Verge planets because he hasn’t received a single shipment of good or personnel for reconstruction yet. We’ve used the station’s observation relays to confirm that. If the Verge planets hatched this plan and are left the Khaganate out of it, you and I both know how Temujin will respond.”
“Reforming the Bataar Army and marching on his traitors.”
“If we can uncover proof of a plot like that, we won’t need to worry about being unarmed.”
“Because Temujin will supply us with anything we need,” I finished.
Branch leaned forward and put her hand over mine. “What do you say, Laird? Are you in on this op?” That touch said more than Branch would ever let escape her mouth; that she needed my help, that she was scared, that she was lonely and afraid of death. That she needed to feel like she had done one last good thing for the men and women she had commanded and then served as their political voice. In the early days of life on the station, Branch and I had shared a bed a few times. Even so, this simple touch, her palm on my knuckles, felt more intimate than all our sexual encounters combined.
I placed my free hand on hers, sandwiching it. “Yes,” I said. She held my gaze for almost a full minute before she withdrew her hand.
“Give it to him, Lizarraga,” Branch said, stony-faced again. Lizarraga flipped a pin at me like it was a coin. An eagle behind a shield. The last time I had seen my Colonel’s insignia, the shield had been emblazoned with the United Earth crest. That had been buffed out. Now, etched into the metal, was a stylized medieval lion. Branch noted my confusion at the symbol and explained, “It’s the Caledonian – Scottish – crest. During the Roman conquest on Earth, Caledonia was the only part of Britain to remain free. The Ninth Roman legion also went missing in that region and some historians think they disbanded after a crushing defeat and took up new lives with the locals, possibly even fighting against their former countrymen at times. It seemed too poetic to pass up.”
I pinned the eagle to my lapel, then stood. The message was clear; I was with them, but I wanted to think over the intrigue alone, put some pieces together. I had a paucity of intelligence channels at my disposal now that my military privileges had been revoked, but I would consult all the remaining ones for more evidence that United Earth or Earth under control of the Verge governments was plotting against us. I saluted Branch and scanned my ID on the edge of the table to pay for my meal. “Nice to have you back, General,” I said.
“Just a temporary duty assignment, Colonel,” she smiled thinly. “Let’s meet to discuss tactics tomorrow night at Targa.”
Targa hadn’t changed since the Jansson incident. As I walked through the corridor and along the bar, I knew exactly where I had stood when I took down Park, could feel the cold steel of the stunner in my palm. It could have happened last week.
Branch’s group was at a large table in the back, near a panoramic viewport of the Mongol system. Ulaan Khuree hung in the inky blackness like a drop of blood floating in a glass of fernet. Looking out the window, so much bigger than that damned hole in my quarters made my imprisonment hang on me like a burden of lead. It was probably another reason why I avoided Targa.
“Colonel Laird. I was beginning to think you weren’t coming,” Branch called from the head of the table. Her lip quivered more than ever, but she made no effort to hide it. She wore it like a service medal, a reminder to all of us what United Earth and the Verge wars had cost us.
“Morning calisthenics took longer than I remembered,” I said, taking a seat at the wooden table and grabbing a pitcher of beer to fill the upturned glass in front of me.
“Thank you,” she said, a slight huskiness in her voice conveying more than simple gratitude. Then she got right to business, addressing her troops. I wondered to myself if we could be called troops anymore; were we insurgents now? Branch went over the facts that she had outlined for me in Diner 17 and concluded with the statement that both she, as acting military commander, and the Khagan needed hard information before banding together and declaring war on United Earth. The best way to get that intel was to send one person, one quick-witted operative trained in espionage and intelligence analysis. I saw what she was getting at. Saw who she was getting at. Most of our intelligence officers had been killed in the opening months of fighting on the Khaganate front while trying to find weak points in the Bataar Army’s defenses or had been reassigned to other warzones. Of the few that remained and were transplanted to the station, some had succumbed to Birk-Verge while others took a bullet or stunner blast to the temple in a final effort to escape our prison.
I was the only one left.
It was an asshole’s move to ask me if I would volunteer to undertake the mission in front of the assembled soldiers, but I saw why she deemed it necessary. She thought my will had finally broken. She thought my routine of breakfast at Diner 17, a pick-up game of some sport at the rec complex near B Corridor, and enjoying the various illicit substances and company available in the Neon Hangar was indicative of my acceptance of our new way of life. It was not. I craved open skies, horizons, and the ability to stare, unbroken, for more than a thousand feet. The winding, tubular corridors and large, dark hangars made me feel like a drone in a colony of wayward ants. I hadn’t given up, I just hadn’t found a way to put myself to use.
Branch had finished speaking and glanced my direction. I noticed others locking eyes with me, too. Expectant, hopeful looks. I felt like telling them all to go fuck themselves.
Maybe I had given up.
I took a slow sip of my beer, trying to center myself, to calm myself. Trying to draw up the courage to answer. There is a face every person has that few others ever see. It never slips out in casual conversation. I have seen it revealed in dying soldiers while I held their hands and comforted them, I’ve seen it from soldiers grieving for the dead. I’ve seen it in the instant after the height of sexual intercourse. It’s the true face, the one even the owner doesn’t know they have. It’s the face of the real human living beneath all the shit society shovels on top of us. I had seen Branch’s human face before; once during the war when I shared her bunk and once on the station. Looking at her while I sipped my beer, I saw it again. She truly needed me, needed to make this plan work. She was dying, probably closer to death than life, and she needed to make one final act for her charges. I was the force that would either allow her to do that or crush her soul before her body gave out.
I set down my beer and shrugged, “Of course I’ll go.”
The table erupted in cheers. I was handed countless mugs, goblets, steins, and tumblers. I had little idea what each held, but I drank it in hopes it would dull the fear buzzing through my body like electricity. At the end of the night, I stumbled to Branch’s quarters; she had left many hours before. She answered her door in a nightgown that was just sheer enough to see the outline of her naked form beneath. She pulled me in, knowing why I had come.
We woke late the next morning and ate together in Branch’s bed, languidly enjoying the delivered dehydrated fruits and granola from a health food bar near Branch’s quarters. It wasn’t the greasy heartiness that I was used to, but it was a nice change. Branch’s bright bedroom, cool white sheets, and windowless walls were also a nice change from my dingy hole. Around noon, we dressed and walked together to Victory Port, the only hangar on the entire station that hadn’t been converted to communal quarters. This hangar was the entry port for the automated barges that delivered all the station’s consumables. Its metal surfaces gleamed, banners of United Earth hung on the three walls that weren’t egress points, murals depicting iconic battles of the Verge War flanked the banners. The United Earth gave us a hero’s welcome when our dropships and troop barges first reached the station, and we bought it. In the first few months, maybe even the first year, Victory Port was the primo place to drink and feel like you were constantly on parade for your heroism. A one hundred foot tall holographic display replayed thousands of thank you messages from the citizens of United Earth in a loop. Once the shiny balm United Earth slathered us with started to wash away in the downpour of captivity, no one had set foot in Victory Port. It looked just like it had when I stepped off the last dropship from Ulaan Khuree.
Lizaraga and a handful of other soldiers from Targa were assembled in the Bar de Terre-Unis passing around a bottle of sweet vermouth. The plan was simple; we would stall a supply barge from returning for a few minutes by having it enter a system diagnostic. Lizaraga and his team would unload the return garbage and recycling from the cargo hold while Branch helped me into a hazardous environment suit, which would keep me heated and supplied with oxygen while in the empty hull of the supply barge. Since I would be stuck in the hold for about two weeks, Branch and Lizaraga had packed plenty of food, water, and leisure materials for me. There was also a zero gravity bungee pack inside so I could work out in a simulated full gravity and lose no muscle mass or bone density. Once the barge reached the Lunar refueling station, I would shed the evo suit and try to gain access to a planetary shuttle. It was an easy mission. More than anything, I was worried about the sheer boredom of the trip in the supply barge. I had to wonder if my assessment of my own feelings was accurate, however; I could feel the jittery tension of fear creeping through my left hand. While we made our preparations in Victory Port, I kept my hand jammed in pocket as much as possible to save face.
The barge was loaded and I was ready to embark on my journey with ten minutes left on the barge’s diagnostic. Branch ordered everyone out of the hangar. We didn’t say much, knowing it would be the last moment we would share together. Branch would be dead before my barge reached the Moon and we couldn’t risk equipping me with any sort of communication device lest the United Earth government detect an anomaly in the continuous telemetry signals of the barge. We held hands until the barge’s large hull door began to slowly close, then stood rigidly staring at one another until I was trapped in the absolute pitch blackness. I sat cross-legged on the floor and attempted some breathing exercises to calm my nerves. My fear was still manifesting itself as a nervous tremor in my left hand. I couldn’t believe how weak-willed I had become in the years on the station. I had walked, unarmored, across battlefields at a saunter during the Verge Wars; fourteen days in a tube shouldn’t have put me on edge as much as it had.
The next morning, the nervous twitch had intensified. In fact, it woke me up. When I realized what it meant, my heart sank. Would I make it to United Earth before I succumbed to Birk-Verge Syndrome?
To compensate for the weakening nerves in my left hand and forearm, I took full advantage of the bungee exercise system. By the time I emerged from the cargo hold on the Moon, I had regained the warrior stature that had steadily been atrophying since the end of hostilities on Ulaan Khuree. As the large cargo hold door opened, I could see that the barge had come to rest in a large hangar in a neat row of other supply barges. A refueling crew was working a few barges away. An automated loader was scanning the ID code of each barge, removing the trash and recycling if there was any, and rolling back on its industrial casters with a load of fresh supplies. I waited in the hold – using my free time to get rid of the evo suit, which would be recycled by the loader – until the loader blocked the refueling crew’s view of my barge and then walked swiftly away, carrying only my stunner and the audio player Lizaraga’s crew had packed for me.
I moved unhindered through the crews of the Lunar refueling station. I received a few curious glances on account of my civilian clothes being too trendy for the usual Lunar resident. The reproachful glares I got when meeting the eyes of those studying my wardrobe told me that they suspected I was a denizen of United Earth come to the Moon to observe the productivity of the working classes. The clothes may cause the opposite reaction on United Earth, as they were probably a few seasons behind the current trend. I didn’t care as long as it didn’t lead to undue scrutiny, and it shouldn’t; fashion crimes weren’t yet punishable by law on United Earth.
Getting planetside was as simple as colliding with a member of the upper management on the Lunar station who looked at least passably like me, stealing his wallet, and purchasing the ticket. Once on United Earth, I threw the entire stolen wallet into a panhandler’s can and used some of the cash I had pulled out to check into a moderately priced motel. The constant trembling in my hand was annoying, but what felt most uncomfortable to me was the gravity of United Earth. Our station back home rotated at a speed to match the 1.22 Gs of Ulaan Khuree. Even though I was born on United Earth, every step I took felt like I was about to float away into the atmosphere. Somehow I thought going “home” would awaken a kindred feeling in me, something I never felt for the station. Instead, it drove an even greater wedge between me and United Earth. The citizenry didn’t help; every one of them had flawlessly smooth skin, perfectly colored and cut hair, and slim bodies with a minor amount of muscle that was probably only obtained for aesthetic reasons. I wondered if even that small amount of musculature was something real these citizens worked for or just achieved through cosmetic implants. I thought of Branch, her greying temples, and the fine scars of battle on her strong but feminine jaw. Within two hours of landing, I knew I belonged on the ruddy dust-covered lands of Ulaan Khuree, among people who met the hardships of life head-on without help from automata.
A spasm from my left hand acted as the physical representation of an exclamation point. I would never see that planet again.
I had landed in Puget City, a gleaming megalith conglomerated from the pre-United Earth cities of Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, and several surrounding suburbs. Before I had left the station, Branch and I began planning my moves. An extensive search on the U-net didn’t turn up any information that indicated a Verge takeover of United Earth. That meant the Verge worlds were acting with more subterfuge than we thought they would. That meant it would be harder to find proof for my troops back on the station and the Khagan. It also meant the upcoming battle against the Verge worlds involved in the plot would be easier; we might get aid from United Earth once the plot was exposed. Hidden somewhere among the large estates across the Sound from Puget City proper, on Bainbridge Island, was the residence of Puget City’s representative to United Earth Congress, Paul Gorixi, the man Branch and I agreed to be the most likely Verge political operative planted in Congress. The name, Gorixi, tipped us off. It was a corruption of the Polish name Gorecki that was common to Veles, the most prosperous of the Verge worlds and one which chose independence instead of a seat on the United Earth Congress at the signing of the Treaty of Cydonia. Tensions still ran high between Velesians and citizens of United Earth, so it was rare to see one planetside at all, much less acting in a governmental role.
We weren’t able to find the exact location of Congressman Gorixi’s house, but Branch and I were able to narrow it down to a street. I bought some fashionable running attire and retired to my motel for the night. Finally in a space that didn’t inspire slight claustrophobia, lying in comfortable bed made even more plush by the weak gravity, and able to fully seal the room’s one window against intrusive light, I thought I’d get some much needed sleep. It was the worst night of my life. Once I finally escaped the hours of lying flat on my back trying to ignore the incessant and increasingly violent tremors in my left arm, I entered a fever dream state somewhere between sleeping and wakefulness. I could hear Branch calling my name, her gruff though still feminine voice echoing off metal walls. I ran down E Corridor along the dragon graffiti, the writhing image of the beast’s midsection was interrupted by a single clawed foot, then another, then another. Twelve feet in all before I reached Jansson’s Folly. Once there, Branch’s calls had started coming from behind me. I turned to find the dragon’s face moving, lifting away from the walls. Branch’s voice was definitely coming from inside the dragon. I rushed back toward the corridor-cum-fang lined maw to rescue her, but I wasn’t fast enough. The dragon’s jaws clamped down on me.
The pain of my dream death startled me awake, but the sensation didn’t subside. It felt like a full-body cramp. I couldn’t move voluntarily, but my body quaked as muscles fought and strained against one another. I was having a seizure. I had entered the second stage of Birk-Verge. For the rest of the night, once the seizure had passed, I alternated between light sleep and tiredly running mental calculations about how long I could expect to live.
I rose from my bed and showered with sun, feeling entirely unrested. I changed into my running gear and threw my stunner and a few flasks of water into a small shoulder pack. I fit in perfectly with the early risers of Puget City; most were dressed for fashionable light cardio followed by brunch before starting their half work days. I returned the myriad smiles, nods, and waves I received on my walk to the vintage ferry that connected the Market district and Bainbridge Island. Once on the island, I had another short walk to King Street where I began my run. The conditioning routine I had forced myself into while traveling in the supply barge made it no work at all to jog at a moderate pace down the seven mile stretch of pavement on which Gorixi lived. Several houses – if the sprawling residences could be called anything but mini-mansions – were staffed with private security. Almost all were dressed in suits with tell-tale weapon bulges near the hip or under the arm, though the degree of stoicism varied greatly. Some peered at me with all the suspicion of a Martian convenience store owner, while other calmly smiled, waved, and returned their attention to their tablet crossword game. On mile 5 I was beginning to worry that I would have to prod the security of each house in some way and identify Gorixi’s place by the security response. Then I passed an unassuming – for this street – light blue Alpine half-timbered structure. Here, the perimeter guards wore black, full-body combat suits. The suits didn’t look quite as heavy as those I wore during the Verge war, but they were still formidable. This was the house. I studied the guard positions out of my peripheral vision as I ran past. At the end of the street, I took a breather and drank most of my water. I also formulated my plan of attack for the assault on Gorixi’s residence.