Evan is a freelance covert operative, a reckless fool who doesn’t have enough sense to stay out of dangerous places or turn down risky jobs. The shadowy Committee for Imperial Security hires him to retrieve an object of value from the planet Hemica. Only, exactly what the object is doesn’t seem to fall within the scope of his need to know.
Evan is a freelance covert operative, a reckless fool who doesn’t have enough sense to stay out of dangerous places or turn down risky jobs. The shadowy Committee for Imperial Security hires him to retrieve an object of value from the planet Hemica. Only, exactly what the object is doesn’t seem to fall within the scope of his need to know. To further complicate matters, a planet-wide disaster devastated Hemica years ago and caused the place to be evacuated. Only the place isn’t as deserted as the official story claims. Despite these obstacles, Evan locates the object and almost has it in his grasp. Only he has to divert and rescue a fourteen-year-old girl first. And that’s when the job really goes off the rails. Enemies old and new are now hunting Evan and the girl around, under, and through a decaying abandoned urban wilderness.
About the author:
Ray Tabler is a retired engineer and author, originally from Louisville, Kentucky. He chased the north-bound dollar to Michigan because of a tragic addiction to a steady paycheck, where he married a lovely Yankee girl. Several decades later, despite the siren call of warmer climes, Ray might be permanently lodged in the frozen north. Ray’s previous novel, A Grand Imperial War, is available from Ring of Fire Press, and his short fiction can be found in the pages of The Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Baen’s Universe, and Cosmic Crime Stories.
Chapter 1: Insertion
There are times and places for reckless fools like me. There always have been, there always will be. Granted, they are often not pleasant times and places. That’s why people come looking for me, or someone like me, and pay so well. I was in one of those places again.
I almost believed a giant hand grasped my CTI capsule and tried to shake me out through a rock wall. The atmosphere of Hemica held little regard for objects that dared to barge their way in at trans-orbital velocity. I would have much preferred a more civilized method of arrival but it was of no apparent concern to the upper reaches of the planet. I knew the reception wouldn’t improve as the air thickened.
CTI stands for covert trans-orbital insertion, its existence a closely held secret that proved useful in getting me to Hemica.. I would love to be left alone with the sadistic genius who designed it, a modest selection of sharp surgical tools close to hand.
The display on my pressure suit faceplate declared my altitude to be just below 80,000 meters. The air outside began to sing a high-pitched aria in counterpoint to the kettle drum pounding of the capsule as it crashed through random updrafts of denser air. It wouldn’t be long now.
An agent who wants to arrive with little notice might use a false identity and buy a ticket on a starliner. It’s the least expensive and most often used method. Costlier but faster is a cloaked ship to a remote location.
There are situations which render these techniques problematic. Some planets are suspicious of, or even closed to, visitors. Others possess the sophistication to detect even the best-cloaked ships and enough paranoia to scan for them non-stop. The answer is to hide in plain sight. If I can’t sneak in, I arrive in a spectacular manner disguised as something else.
Step one: procure a suitable asteroid, three to four meters long and one to two meters through the middle. Step two: cut it in half, hollow out a cavity for the CTI. Step three: insert the CTI, one suicidal fool enclosed within, seal the asteroid, and send it on its way.
It’s more complicated than that. I had to select an asteroid that was going my way, in case the planetary government bothers to track the asteroids in its system. It had to be one small enough to not be deemed a threat, or some minor bureaucrat is likely to order it destroyed before it gets too close.
At 40,000 meters altitude, the braking rocket fired in random staccato bursts, designed to slow the capsule while disguised as pockets of gasses igniting as layers of the meteorite ablated away. To conform to that image, the course of the rock jumped around, which added to my already considerable discomfort.
I’d reflected on the haste with which I’d accepted the job, between the moment a plasma welder had sealed the asteroid around me and when I felt the first caress of Hemica’s stratosphere. There’s not much else to do in a CTI capsule. Of course, I would’ve reflected even if I’d been delivered to Hemica in a luxury yacht.
As a break from deep thoughts, I composed bad haiku. One of them went:
Dark wandering stone
Hollow but full of secrets
Seek your destiny
It was never intended as anything more than a way to pass the time. Passing the time was a bad habit I’d fallen into.
I wasn’t looking for work when Horatio showed up. Far from it. Moneywise, I was quite secure, had a comfortable apartment at the western end of Centralia’s fashionable south continent. I enjoyed the sunset from the roof garden As Imperialis, Centralia’s primary sun, turned the Sea of Sorrows a flaming red, a thousand meters below.
A man sat on the bench next to me, “You’re looking well, Evan. Life on the outside seems to agree with you.” The voice was cultured, calm, and unforgettable. That was Horatio, sleek and elegant, and dangerous, like a sheathed stiletto.
“Yes,” I replied but didn’t look at him, “it does. What brings you up here, Horatio? Coming out yourself?”
“No, my dear boy. As you are quite aware, one doesn’t simply leave the fold, not at my level anyway.”
Not at any level, truth be told. Mine was a special case. I was too much of an embarrassment to keep on active duty and special circumstances prevented me from being quietly disappeared. The solution was to cashier and ignore me. I think the Committee hoped I’d shove a hand beamer in my mouth and take the honorable way out. I had disappointed them yet again.
Most people have never heard of the Committee for Imperial Security. Many in the know wish they never had. I composed a haiku about the Committee:
Sad old men
Long drunk with power
Play the game
“Still mooning over these musty, old things?” Horatio continued to dance around the matter at hand, whatever it was. He turned the small book I held with the ivory handle of his walking stick to see the front cover. “The Explorer’s Lament? Sounds a bit melancholy for someone like you.”
“It’s poetry, from the twentieth century. The poet is so obscure I doubt there’s another copy of this volume in existence, even in digital form.”
“It should be in a museum, somewhere.”
“It was.” I smiled.
“I see you haven’t changed. There’s a gouge in the cover. Tsk. Tsk. You really ought to take better care of your things.” He surveyed the state of his manicured fingernails. “We have a job for you, Evan.”
“What makes you think I’d be interested?”
“Because the Committee always pays handsomely. In fact, we are not in a mood to negotiate. Name your price.”
The problem was, my former employers harbored as little love for me as I did for them. They would view me as a very last resort. This would have to be one dirty, thankless, dangerous job indeed, which of course, is my specialty.
I named a price so high even I blushed.
“Highway robbery! We accept.”
“Plus, expenses.” I added to twist the knife.
“There won’t be expenses. We’ll equip you from our own stores and provide transportation there and back.”
“Fair enough, what’s the job?”
“You are to recover something of value, from Hemica.”
“The planet Hemica.”
I sighed. “That’s what I thought you said.”
Although I knew it was coming, I was surprised when the capsule broke up around me. What had been my claustrophobia-inducing home for the past three days, split into half a dozen pieces around me. The separation wasn’t violent although there was a sharp, crack, audible over the cacophony of reentry. The sections of the capsule floated away, leaving me in free fall 30,000 meters above Hemica.
I don’t enjoy free fall. I enjoy it even less when I know an imminent collision with a planetary surface is next. Thrill seekers do this for kicks. They step out of an aircar and fall for tens of thousands of meters and call it fun. They have an automatic gravbelt to slow their descent. The problem is it emits a detectable signature. Not subtle enough for an agent.
The same bright boy who thought up CTI, hauled out an ancient torture device as a finale, a parachute. I hate them with a burning passion.
As I hurtle towards the ground, a large piece of fabric deploys behind to cup the air and slow me enough to reduce speed, and lessen the probability of serious injury, to an almost acceptable level upon impact. I find any injury unacceptable.
Each time I’ve used a parachute it has worked as it should. The problem is the first malfunction will be the last. During training, instructors went through a ridiculous fiction of how to deal with any of the malfunctions that can occur. The fabric can fail to cup the airin a high-speed malfunction known as a Roman candle. The fibers connecting you to the fabric can foul, a low-speed malfunction known as a Mae West. Low or high speed, you still hit the ground hard enough to make a large, gummy stain.
This type of thing ran through my mind as the last of the capsule spun away, broke into smaller, radar-decoying pieces. The front of my brain was all business. It’s okay to have fears. Hell, you better have fear. I’ve seen a few guys who didn’t. They’re all dead. When you’re on a job, you shove all of that down in a convenient box and lock the lid down tight.
The fabric that would slow my descent and save my life wouldn’t open for several minutes. This minimizes the visual profile until quite close to the ground. With some thousands of meters of sky to fall through, I put it to good use.
Hemica has almost no axial tilt. The part that rushed up to meet me was the tropical zone, rich, heavy green . Spread out below was the city of Xanadu and the River Aleph snaked its way through the center and wandered off to the distant bay. From twenty-five thousand meters, it appeared to be a pleasant metropolis of public buildings, spacious parks, and broad boulevards. Appearances often deceive.
It became evident Xanadu had been long since abandoned. Vegetation choked the boulevards. The parks were island wildernesses. The stately palaces shone white in the night, exposed bones in a decaying corpse.
It was safe to open the parachute at a thousand meters. The canopy was made of the same material as the operations suit I wore, both set to mimic the night sky. I was visually, as well as electromagnetically, as undetectable as the resources of the Committee could make me, which is hardly there at all.
Still, I held off. Logically, if the parachute had failed to deploy properly there was nothing I could do but flap my arms and think nice thoughts. Logic didn’t help. My imagination predicted my pointless and messy demise. My imagination may be proven correct, but not this night.
At three hundred meters, I triggered the parachute and felt the gossamer film extrude from the back and shoulders of the stealth suit. When it reached full deployment, myriad tiny vents in the canopy began to close from the center out. I would much rather it deploy, ready to cup the air and slow my descent at once but it would make too much noise. Over the next five seconds, I transformed from a plummeting projectile to a soaring night creature.
I grasped the control lines and turned the parachute wing in a lazy, clockwise circle, searching for a thermal. The infra red display portion of my visor showed a veritable geyser of warm air rising from a large white, stone sculpture. Vegetation obscured a good portion of the thing. Its bulk, one hundred meters across, trapped enough of the day’s heat to form a decent thermal.
The wing spiraled up a couple of hundred meters as I took a closer look at my workplace. Ruined buildings formed islands in a greenish black sea. There was an eclectic blend of architectural styles. Late Republican revival vied with Vegan traditional as Imperial baroque struggled to make a brave showing around the fringes. Regardless of structural school, most of the buildings were massive and extravagant. This had once been the most affluent city in the Empire.
A cathedral-sized edifice of coral pink, in such bad taste even I was offended, rotated into view from the northwest. It sported a lofty tower with a platform. Perfect.
I banked and dove for the tower, flaring the wing at the last moment in a maneuver that allowed me to land on the three-meter diameter platform as if I had walked on to it from the thin air. Just because I dreaded an activity and hated it with a burning passion, did not mean I could not master it. It just meant I wouldn’t enjoy it.
Upon landing, the parachute spilled air and retracted into the pouch in the back of my suit. I shivered relief at the feel of solid ground under my feet.
The seal of the suit opened at the neck and retracted my head covering. My nose was full with the smell of the night. The wind was hot, laden with the stink of a jungle untamed. Insects buzzed. Night birds called out. Insertion was complete.
Chapter 2: Orientation
The sensor visor and the ear button were in their usual pouch, but I hesitated . Eyes and ears don’t see as well, but sometimes they see more.
There had been several dozen jungle worlds on which I’d plied my trade with similarities among them. Yet, there was subtle difference in color and smell. The hot wind towards the bay rocked me as I crouched on the tower. I eased into the environment of the city once called Xanadu, inch by inch.
All was darkness, but shades of gray spread before and below me. The jungle showed a mysterious hue, more black than green. The river reflected the wan light, a ribbon of starlight draped across the landscape. At intervals milky pearls shimmered and roared, the twelve waterfalls of Xanadu. The river dropped four hundred meters from one side of the city to the other.
This dramatic landscape was the primary reason for Xanadu’s existence. It had provided breathtaking vistas for the palaces of the Empire’s elite . I had a sweeping view of the vast amphitheater in which Xanadu sprawled.
I fitted the visor and ear button in place and transformed the scene below. The suite of available modes displayed the remains of the city in ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum – infrared, amplified visible, ultraviolet and so on. Each painted the valley in a different light.
The periphery of the visor offered helpful information such as direction, ranges , elevation, and atmospheric conditions. Nano sensors woven into the surface of the suit tasted the wind and revealed the fragrant blend of rotting vegetation, rust, and dust as nature reclaimed the city.
Gods above, it felt good to wear an ops suit again!
My kit wasn’t a military issue scout model. Those are stealthy enough, but the man inside is, after all, a soldier. Camouflage is but one of a list of competing priorities. At some point he will be required to engage an enemy, coordinate supporting heavy weapons fire, probe targets with active sensors.
A Committee stealth suit, in contrast, is more shadow than substance and doesn’t officially exist. There is an AI to manage the systems, but it’s dumbed down to the point of imbecility to guard against tell-tale emissions characteristic of higher order electronic brains. Wearing a Committee stealth suit is much like becoming a ghost, silent, unseen and unsuspected.
Hemica’s pale blue rings twinkled with reflected sunlight. Hemica’s rings were quite unstable and were slowly condensing, rendering Hemica and Xanadu almost uninhabited.
There were some people in Xanadu. I could pick out the faint smudges of campfires in the sweep of the city below. For the most part, the fires clustered along the twisting river, but a few scattered throughout the flats. The high ground remained dark as the grave.
So, here they were. Being briefed about Hemica’s current residents was one thing. Seeing their campfires was something else. The people had chosen to step back several millennia. They’d run away from the first rescue ships and hid during the subsequent evacuations. No one knew why, and, as far as I could tell, no one cared.
I raised the special locator device and swept it around in wide arcs.
“This will guide you to the item.” Horatio had explained.
“What is this item?”
“You simply don’t need to know yet, old boy. Don’t worry, a resourceful chap like you should have no trouble bringing it to the pick-up point.”
The locator chirped and, pointed to the item. I ran the sweep again with the same result. The item lay in the middle of the largest clump of campfires.
“It would,” I stowed the locator away. “It just would.”
Fate seems to enjoy games with me. Fine. I learned through long and unpleasant experience when Fate plays with you, it’s best to play along.
The cluster of fires was hard upon one of the waterfalls, five kilometers distant. Five kilometers over flat ground takes a couple of hours , at a leisurely pace. Five kilometers through the resurgent jungle that choked Xanadu’s streets could take much longer.
There was no reason to reach the objective before local dawn. Still, I could imagine that bitter, old bitch Fate cackle and reach for the dice. I resolved to allow her as few rolls as possible.
It was a hard slog. The stars wheeled above and Xanadu’s sun had just appeared over the bay when the campfires registered at close range.
I heard a faint sound, a ghost of laughter on the wind. The suit’s audio receptors didn’t detect it again. Instead, the cacophony of a jungle dawn filled my ears. A check of sensors revealed no threats nearby.
Had I heard it? Perhaps, it was a guilty memory come back to haunt me and not the high pitched human giggle of a predator native to a planet halfway round the galaxy. I crouched, sifted the wind for the sound.
“You’re getting old and jumpy, Evan. Nobody would be stupid enough to bring one of those here.” I mumbled and moved on.
A village squatted on the bank of the river at the top of the falls. There were a few dozen huts, wall panels from abandoned mansions lashed together with vines. The fact the villagers had bothered to drag the panels here, instead of simply occupying one, or more, of the mansions spoke volumes, written in a language I didn’t yet understand.
The village clustered around the foot of a bridge to an island in the middle of the river. The rocky downstream end jutted into mid-air from the midst of the falls. In earlier days, the overlook had been the centerpiece of the park, surrounding the highest waterfall in the city. One could stand on the precipice and look straight down almost a hundred meters to the swirling mist at the foot of the falls. The thunder of the impact of the river after the free fall supplied a constant rumble I could feel through the ground.
The village stirred to life with the rising sun. I had arrived too late to find and recover the item before people awoke. No matter, time was one thing I had to spare. I circled, just inside the jungle, looking for a likely place to pass the day in concealment. A towering tree with thick foliage promised an excellent vantage point. I climbed thirty meters. A man-thick bough with a gap in the leaves offered a bird’s eye view of the village.
If I leaned against the trunk, the crude structures and smoking cook fires of the village disappeared from view and I could pretend the park was as I remembered it, all of those years and lives ago. The bridge still shone silver gray in the morning light.
The last time I crossed it I had a young woman on my arm. Celeste floated next to me in a diaphanous gown. True love made her shine brighter in my eyes than the stars above. We strolled through the blossom-scented evening from a ball where the children of the galaxy’s wealthiest citizens danced with a languid grace, knowing the universe awaited. The river rushed past, over the edge, and thundered at our feet.
“Evan.” Celeste breathed into my chest, something strange in her voice “Evan, I don’t know how to say this.”
She stepped away, placed her hands on the railing that ringed the overlook. I stepped as near as I dared. The railing chilled my palm in the muggy night air.
“Say what?” The words felt like lead.
“It’s not going to work out, Evan.”
“What do you mean?”
She closed her eyes, sighed. “We’ve had fun. That’s all it was. I know you want more. I’m not the one to give you that.” Celeste turned and her faced hardened. “It’s time to stop pretending I am.”
She left me on the island, her footsteps hollow on the bridge.
A villager broke the spell when he crossed the bridge to the island, a bundle of brush over his shoulder. He was followed by another and another. I watched as half a dozen villagers erected a stake on the island and piled brush around it.
It didn’t bode well for someone.
I wondered if that someone was me, but they would have tried to capture me before showing they intended to burn me at the stake. No one had glanced in my direction. Some other unfortunate was to be the guest of honor.
A sweep of the locator device over the village showed the item was in a rather large hut near the bank end of the bridge. I leaned back against the bole of the tree to wait and contemplated more memories.
Chapter 3: Acquisition
My suit’s proximity sensors roused me from a light doze. A squirrel, devouring a nut, perched on the branch about a meter in front of me. I contemplated the creature in visual and infrared wavelengths. A small movement of my right leg startled the squirrel andit bounded off through the forest. The abandoned nut ricocheted off tree limbs as it fell.
The rim of Hemica’s sun sank behind the western mountains. The rings, pale streaks by day, became arches across the sky to the south. My suit’s AI, good for something after all, marked a moving star with a blinking carat on my faceplate. Vector and velocity indicated a spacecraft, which meant it was an Imperial Navy picket ship, there to guard against people like me.
Casting about for more squirrels, I leaned forward to peer into the gloom . The residents gathered at the foot of the bridge to the island. Most carried torches. Four people waited on the island, next to the empty stake.
The situation had potential benefits for me. It appeared most, if not all, of the villagers would soon be preoccupied with the island. It was likely to be the best chance I’d get to slip into the hut, acquire the item and get out undetected.
With high hopes and visions of an early end of the job dancing in my head, I picked my way down the tree and slunk into the village.
The evening provided a wealth of shadows. Although, with the suit on full stealth, I could have walked down what passed for the main drag without much notice. Old habits die hard, more so when they’re good habits to have. I ghosted from one pool of darkness to another.
The large hut was less than ten meter away. Two burley guards, armed with spears, flanked the doorway. I lay on the ground, peeped around the curve of a hut, and considered my options.
There were only two guards. Their spears were cobbled out of lengths of pipe with pieces of hammered scrap metal for spearheads. A stunner blast would render them both unconscious easy enough. The item would be mine for the taking.
I was in no hurry. It was likely the pair of guards would drift over towards the island once the festivities began. They were already looked in that direction. The elegance of this possibility beckoned. Slipping by them unsuspected appealed to my sense of aesthetics.
Indecision paid a handsome dividend. Two more guards pulled a struggling child from the hut. A pole was strapped to the child’s shoulders, so her arms were held straight out to her sides. Odd wickerwork spheres enclosed her hands.
The guest of honor had arrived.
Last to emerge was a tall villager who wore an elaborate mask of painted wood. The shaman took the lead and stalked towards the bridge. All four guards followed, the child between them.
I remained in the shadows until they crossed to the island, and then crept to the hut.
The villagers chanted, a low-pitched rhythm barely audible over the rumble of the falls. The guards secured the child to the stake.
“Evil!” The shaman’s baritone silenced the crowd. “Evil and the spawn of evil!”
“Evil!” The villagers answered.
The infrared display showed the hut was empty. The nearest villager was more than one hundred meters away and engrossed by the ceremony.
“As this world was made pure, we shall cleanse ourselves with fire!” The shaman intoned.
“Fire!” The villagers shouted. “The cleansing fire!” The chants began anew.
I stood in the doorway. All I needed do was sweep the locator over the interior,, find the item, and run. I could be picked up before morning. A man would have to be a fool to pass up an opportunity like that.
I am a fool.
There are situations that require stealth and there are situations that demand bold, decisive action. I sprinted for the bridge.
The noise, the chants. and the focus of the crowd, allowed me to make it to the foot of the bridge before anyone noticed. The metal shuddered under my pounding boots. Two of the guards stood on the span, several meters apart. The first, I shoved over the railing. A momentary flailing and then he was gone, over the falls.
The second guard turned in time to catch a stiff-armed blow to his windpipe. He crumpled, coughed and gasped. I vaulted his body and was on the island.
A third guard lunged his crude spear aimed at me. I sidestepped and grasped the shaft, just behind the blade. Pivoting on one foot, I used the guard’s momentum to swing him into the river. The current took him.
The last guard might have held his ground and become a problem. However, the shaman chose to speak.
“Smite the demon! Smite him!”
“Having received confirmation I was indeed a demon, the guard lost his nerve and fled over the bridge. Rather, he made an attempt. Half of the village had the same idea. The result was a tangle of humanity that would have made me laugh, had I the time to glance their way.
The shaman snarled and spit something unintelligible at me. I swung the butt end of the spear I still held in an arc and connected with the side of his head. His mask spun into the river and he dropped to the ground. I stood, frozen for an instant. His face looked…familiar.
No time for reminisces, I scrambled to the top of the brush pile around the stake. The spear blade proved useful to cut through the vines. I grabbed her hand and tried to decide what to do next.
The villagers were about to sort themselves out and pour onto the island from the bridge in none too pleasant a mood. The bridge to the other bank was long gone, swept away in a storm or demolished by the villagers to make their homes more defensible. The current was strong and the island was on the falls. Any attempt to swim for the far bank would result in following the unlucky guards. There appeared to be only one option.
I gathered the child in my arms and hopped down from the brush pile before someone took it into his head to toss a torch into it. My feet slid on the paving stones as I headed for the overlook rail in a staggering run. There was still a stone bench by the railing. I set a boot on it and let momentum carry us up. The other boot went onto the railing, I pushed, launching the two of us into the air ninety meters above the foot of the falls.
It wasn’t a sane option, just the only option.
The girl struggled in panic but I held tight. The mob on the island gasped, despite their fear of me, the demon.
Ten meters below the top of the falls the imbecilic AI in my suit realized what I’d done. The integral parachute extruded from its pockets. The AI concluded every bit of deceleration would be needed to save my fool neck, so all of the valves in the chute fabric remained closed. The gossamer fabric caught the rushing air and snapped out to the limit of the microns-thick suspension lines with a sharp crack.
The shock almost made me drop the child. She screamed as I pulled her to my chest. I told her that everything would be all right, but I don’t think she believed me. I didn’t believe it either.
The mob recovered from the shock of my supposed suicide. Several arrows and a spear shot past us but another pierced the canopy and severed suspension lines. The wind sighed through the growing tear .
My suit did what it could and opened vents at strategic points to moderate stress. This conflicted slowing the fall. The AI must have run a number of simulations, chosen the least disastrous option and implemented it.
The canopy ripped in two with a sharp sound. The child screamed. The villagers at the top of the falls roared.
We dropped the last ten meters, sank deep into the pool at the foot of the falls. The water felt icy cold and it felt like a long time before I came back to the surface. Alone.
The current was spun me around. It was dark and hard for me to know what was going on or where the girl was. I engaged the IR capability on visor. It showed villagers on the right bank, the same side of the river as the village.
The girl surfaced with a splash a few meters away. I managed to get an arm around her and made for the far bank. My ruined parachute hadn’t retracted and the drag slowed me down As the fabric and lines trailed behind.
We reached the shallows and staggered onto the bank. I sat on a fallen tree and tried to get my breathing under control. My legs were rubbery.
The girl backed against a large rock and watched me. She was ready to bolt.
“Ahem.” I ventured. “We haven’t been properly introduced. I’m-”
“I know who you are.”
“You do? Who am I, then?”
“You’re the shadow man and you’ve come just like he said you would.”
“There they are!” One of the villagers shouted from across the river. An arrow flew over my head.
“This way.” The girl dashed into the jungle.
It seemed more than reasonable under the circumstances, so I instructed my suit to jettison the lines attached to the now useless parachute and followed her.