Chinasia Corp was born of some of our best and worst qualities as a race: dedication, competitiveness, unity, loyalty, and ruthlessness.
— Erich Quizibian, Foundations of the Congloms of New Earth, c. 5070 PD
5 Novem, 5249 PD
It’s too quiet and this is almost too easy. Brendan tried not to frown. He was waiting for things to come apart. He was certain that had to happen soon.
He had landed during the early part of the late watch, which had in part worked to their advantage. With any luck, they’d make it away from Xiangaou before the graveyard shift went to bed and the morning shift came on. He didn’t want to count on that luck.
Brendan maintained a casual gait, forcing himself to remember the layout of the station he’d lived on for at least six of his formative years. It had been home to the cadre he’d been assigned to back then, and then later to the unit that he’d been assigned to once his training had been complete. There hadn’t been many survivors of his cadre, and most of them had been sent away from Xiangaou—to where, he had no idea. It didn’t mater anymore, anyway. They’d never really been his friends.
There weren’t any friends in that kind of situation, just fellow travelers—fellow survivors.
He went to the quarters he’d been assigned to first. They would expect that. The old patterns came easily—wash up, stretch, then scan the computer for anything relevant. There was no reason to surprise them yet, give them any reason to look closer than necessary.
Settling down at the computer, he kept his first few searches innocent, innocuous, testing the limitations they’d placed on his access. With any luck, they’d think he was just trying to catch up on the current situation within the conglom, just like any other good little returning soldier. He smiled grimly as most of his inquiries were blocked almost at every turn until he switched over to access the public newsnets. Those, at least, he could peruse freely. The vitriol Chinasia was spewing over the Foundation, the colony, and the Guard was harsh, but tamer than he’d expected.
They hate what they don’t understand and can’t control, and there’s no hope of them ever controlling the colony with anything less than deadly force. But they still hope that they can—or simply that they’ll be able to howl, threaten, and browbeat the colony into doing what they want. Otherwise, they’ll just wipe them out.
His lips thinned. It was an unpleasant thought. Our only saving grace is how badly they underestimate our tenacity.
But can we be tenacious enough for them to cut their losses and walk away?
Eventually, he shut down the computer and stretched out on the room’s narrow, hard bunk to bide his time. It wouldn’t take too much longer for them to confirm his identity and loosen the leash. When that finally happened, his real work would begin.
It was only a matter of time.
Then I just have to find America Farragut and get the hell out of here without being caught. Easy, right?
He sighed, not for the first time wondering what the hell he’d been thinking when he agreed to this run. Ez, what did I let you talk me into?
● ● ●
Brendan must have dozed, because he startled fully awake again at the sound of his door call. He blinked blearily at the door before someone pressed the call button again, the whining buzz sending shivers through his skull.
Bloody hell, that’s an awful sound.
“Cho, are you in there?”
He responded automatically. “Yes.” After a moment, he slapped himself, realizing he’d answered in something other than his native tongue—which meant it was a language that his visitor probably couldn’t understand. “Sorry,” he said, now in Chinasia’s corporate tongue, “yes, I’m in here.”
When he opened the door a moment later, he came face-to-face with a trim young woman in a black uniform. She was a head shorter than he was and he felt vaguely uncomfortable thanks to it—most people back on E-557 were taller than he was.
I should be comforted. I probably would be if I didn’t think she could throw me across the room like a rag doll. She had the look of a martial artist, something he’d never quite mastered—but then, pilots weren’t expected to master things like that.
“You were sleeping?” the woman said, eyeing the rumpled covers on his bunk.
He nodded. “And well, for the first time in years. I’m home.”
“You are,” she said, handing him a thin sheet of plastic. “Your new identicard. Welcome home.” She paused, still watching him, dark eyes meeting his. “You are to remain on-station while awaiting further orders. Understood?”
“Yes.” Brendan pocketed the card. “Thank you.”
She nodded curtly, the heels of her boots clicking smartly together before she pivoted on her heel and marched away. Brendan leaned in the doorway, watching her turn the corner and disappear. He took a few deep breaths before he exhaled and stepped back into his quarters, letting the door slide shut again.
Well, I guess I’m officially back now. Time to get to work. First I have to figure out where she is, though. His stomach grumbled. Clues to that could lie in the mess. If they don’t, at least I won’t be doing this on an empty stomach.
He straightened the bed out of habit and headed out for the mess.
The chow lines were much as he remembered, and so was the food—over-processed meat product with rice and a dark, salty sauce that the cooks might have tried to pass off as soy sauce if anyone cared to ask. No one thinks to, I imagine. Still, it was hot and he was hungry. He found a seat at the end of one of the long tables and hunkered down, fingers remembering how to use the twin metal sticks to eat with less difficulty than he had imagined.
Halfway through the meal, two men dressed in pilot’s jumpsuits settled down a few seats down from him, each with their own bowls of over-processed meat and rice. One glanced at him questioningly, then looked to his companion.
“Cho Kaito, I think,” the second man said. “Back from the never-never after all these years.”
Metal chopsticks clattered against the table. “Foundation territory? You’re making that up.”
“Not at all. Linlei told me when I saw her between cycles. You’d know these things if you were sleeping with someone in Control instead of one of Zaki’s freaks.”
The first man’s tone promised a fight if the second persisted. “Hey. It was an honor to be recruited to take one of them to mate. Besides, I can do anything to her I want except for killing her.”
“I’ll take someone normal over a psychic any day of the week, Midan, whether I have to wait for superior approval to mate her or not. I don’t care if you think it’s an honor. What do you think will happen when you start spawning with her, huh? What’s going to happen then?”
Brendan watched the first man shrug out of the corner of his eye. “I don’t know. I have to hope it doesn’t breed true.”
They’re talking about psychics like they’re animals. Brendan forced himself to chew and swallow. Intellectually, he knew how the congloms treated psychics, but it was an entirely different experience to experience it firsthand.
“Something tells me that’s not the point of the program. They’re all Zaki’s little pets. How do you know he’s not banging them while you’re out flying patrols?”
“Because he’s got his hands full with the Guard bitch and has a hard-on for her besides. It’s her or no one for him, I think.”
America Farragut? It could be. Brendan smothered his frown, hoping that the men had lost interest in him. But where are they keeping her? Come on, tell me where they’re keeping her.
“Please. He doesn’t spend enough time down on twelve for that. He’s got no interest in doing that with her. Getting secrets out of her, maybe, but that? No way.”
Level twelve, then? Brendan swallowed another bite of his dinner. It tasted like ash, which was an improvement.
“Ask him yourself.”
“You’re kidding me, right? He’d go crazy and put a scalpel through my eye.” The man shook his head. “No. I don’t have a death wish. You keep your little psychic pet and I’ll stick with my traffic controller. At least I know what I’ll get out of that pairing.”
“Exceedingly short children?”
“With high aptitude scores.”
Brendan stopped listening, staring into the remains of his dinner. He wasn’t full, but he didn’t feel like he could stomach another bite.
What are they doing to psychics here now? He suppressed another frown and stood up slowly. He fed his bowl and utensils into the cleaning bin and walked out of the mess, thoughts storming.
He was halfway to his quarters before he decided that it was time to get to work. Level twelve. It’s a start, anyway. Better than what I had to go on before. Briefly, he considered going back to his quarters to do some digging.
I can’t do that. It’s too dangerous. What if they start to wonder why I’m looking into it? What if they show up to stop me, then interrogate me? I’m not sure I’d hold together. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. No. It’s not an option. I have to go with what I’ve got and pray that she’s there.
Level twelve. Those were briefing rooms and quarters back then. What have you people made them into now?
Brendan didn’t know, but he was about to find out.