It has been a bad day today. Between an astounding headache and fatigue, I had no desire to do anything good for myself, which reinforced the misery I was already in. I decided to finish the “Long Price” series by Daniel Abraham that is amazingly good but the headache diminished the enjoyment. When I am feeling better, I hope to write a review.
Anyway, so today is not a total lose, I have decided to post what I have so far on the last story to be written for my short story collection. I have been holding back on doing so because I have done little in the past months other than tweak what was already there. I had hoped to add at least some more before posting. Oh well, here it is, the title may change yet:
Air! The wheezing of his constricted throat sounded like some broken bag pipe being attack by a graznak. His suit should be providing enough oxygen but it just wasn’t. Emergency alarms buzzed in his ears along with a synthetic voice trying to calm him down, which coupled with his panic, made things worse. He tried clawing at his helmet release with his hand but the thick suit gloves and his anxiety caused the task to become impossible.
Air … open, free breathing had to happen now! Gurgling frantically, Jack desperately tried again to collect his thoughts to operate the release on his helmet. His hands fumbled uselessly. Blazing anger and sickening fear slammed like waves on the shores of his mind, clouding all rationality. His heart pounding in unhinged rage, he began to hammer his head on the rocky ground. The first few hits almost jarred him enough to stop, unfortunately, the terror drove him on. He started again, harder and harder until a jagged crack formed in his faceplate then with one more powerful blow the glass shattered. Carson immediately breathed deeply only to chock as a strong dose of sulfur dioxide entered his mouth. Retching horribly he fell to the ground, finally out of strength, his eyes bulging and throat closing from the abuse. His motions became nothing more than tremors as he began to lose consciousness. On the edge of death a voice entered his mind, somehow familiar.
Two Weeks Earlier
Jack Carson passed Tom Watson’s office heading for the company locker room after a long day of babysitting a rich politician making campaign rounds. Jack worked for Terra Novae Security Inc., which was a polite way of saying mercenary force – soldiers for hire. Almost past the door, Tom called him into the office. Jack’s ever present voice of doubt and fear whispered from the deep pool of his damned up personality; his stomach gave him a jolt of acid.
Tom Watson was a bear of a man. Six foot four out of fatigue boots with shoulders as wide as a normal man’s leg length and not an ounce of fat on his body. Of course, the build made him look silly in his business suite. His hair was a close cut dirty blonde just starting to grey at the temples. As Jack came in Watson leaned back in his chair, putting his hands behind his head.
“How was the Haverson gig,” asked his boss?
“Boring,” Jack replied quickly. “The man is so low on the food chain no one cares enough to even remember his name. Why he feels he needs a body guard is beyond me but as long as he’s paying the bills I got no problem. At least the food is good.”
“Yeah, Haverson is a real paranoid. My guess is he has some skeleton in his attic with some muscle still on it. Well he was pleased with your work anyway.”
“Wow, I never expected him to mention me,” Jack replied, genuinely surprised.
“He did and that is why I am going to offer you a lucrative long term assignment,” Watson said as he motioned Jack to sit.
Jack sat in the hard wooden chair that was the only seat available other than Tom’s comfortable but well-worn desk chair. Tom’s desk was neat and well maintained but like his chair old and traveled. Jack had herd from some of the original members that the desk was a relic of Tom’s military career with the Antioch Marine Corps of Galina colony. Tom had a falling out with a political backer there and chose not to reenlist when his tour was over. Shortly thereafter he founded Terra Novae Security, Inc. with several of his command staff.
“Okay, what’s the gig?”
“I have a long time client putting together an off-world expedition who has lost a security expert on short notice and asked me if I could fill the void by tomorrow. They are paying top dollar and a completion bonus of ten percent” Tom said.
Jack hesitated for a minute as the whispers in the pool turned into wails. In his two years with the company he had never been asked to do off-world work, which was to his liking since he was more of a homebody. However, the money sounded good with his debt being heavy from finally buying a house that was maybe a little more than he ought to have purchased.
“What’s the pay?”
“3500 credits a day plus food and board for the duration of the expedition plus the 10% per day bonus upon completion of the project. Let me tell Jack, this is a sweet deal. Have you ever been on an expedition before?”
“No, I have been content with planetary security,” Jack replied, sweat trickling down his neck under his shirt.
“Then you have been missing out. The egg heads that you will be riding herd over are spoiled teachers and scientists with all the pretentiousness of movie stars. They get catered meals to keep them happy and productive for the corporations funding the research and the company behind this mission spares no expense on their people.”
“So what happened with their other expert?”
“I think they said some kind of personal business came up, lucky for you though. Think about it; spend a week or two on some exotic planet getting catered meals three times a day just to watch the backs of some brainy scientists. Oh, hey, did I mention that the planet has no known predators, just plants as far as the eye can see.”
Jack was leery of this deal but he was desperate for a big paycheck. Also, considering he passed up off world work for so long, he was afraid to turn down a gig the boss was recommending him for; his future employment might be at stake.
“Can I think it over,” Jack stalled for time.
“Unfortunately, this space needs filled today because the expedition leaves in a week. Are you in or out Jack? If not, I got to see who else wants this sweet deal.”
Butterflies started dancing the rumba in his stomach as his cheeks became flushed. Tom’s words made it sound like no sweat off his back if Jack said no, but his tone said he had better step up or find himself with much less work in the future. Damn! He was comfortable doing what he did. The money wasn’t great but the responsibility level was just what he could handle. Jack wondered how he could have let himself get so in debt. His long silence weighed heavy. The creak of Tom’s chair as he leaned forward ate away at Jack’s nerves like a chainsaw on a tree. His boss’s smile was fading as he began to reach for his intercom.
“Sure, I’ll take it,” Jack blurted out.
Instantly he regretted it but Tom’s hand was already coming to rest on his desk and the smile returned to his face. Jack squirmed in the hard chair until Tom got up and extended his hand. Rising quickly, he reached out and shook his boss’s beefy hand, understanding that the visit was over.
“Stop by the dispatcher’s window to get all the specifics of the job. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks with a big grin on your face from the paycheck you’ll be celebrating.”
The intercom buzzed. Tom turned toward the receiver already forgetting that Jack was even there. Jack walked out, heading once again to the locker room only slower than before. What had he gotten himself into? As he thought about the job, his stomach soured more. He continued down the long ship-gray corridor until he reached the double doorway to the locker room where he could hear the hum of chatter and the clank of weights before he entered.
The room was huge and circular with individual stalls against the wall for each merc. The floor was covered in low pile blue carpeting that never seemed to dry out from the steam and sweat in the room. The stale, moldy smell was the first impression you got, a churn of after shaves, body odors, talc, and old gym. Rooms lead off the cardinal points. One was the showers. To the right, another room contained all the fitness equipment a merc could need to stay in peak fighting condition. The last room was for on-site treatment of chronic injuries garnered in the line of duty; Tom took care of his people.
Being one of the newest members, Jack’s stall was closest to the showers, which meant that anything he left there was sure to gain a permanent locker room odor. He had learned long ago to bring plastic bags for his worn clothes. Jack notice several of the veterans watching him as he crossed the room, but nothing was said, so he stripped and headed for the shower
At just under six feet, Jack was not as muscular as his boss but he wasn’t small either. He had a wiry athletic build that made many a man underestimate him, giving him the element of surprise in tough situations. He was sure he could handle himself when it came to hand-to-hand fighting even with the more seasoned vets, but dealing with non-human risks like alien wildlife and diseases were outside his experience. If he couldn’t wrap his hands around it, he had no idea what to do. The hot water; however, helped take his mind off the problem for now. When he came out of the shower, he found Levon standing by his stall.
“You take that expedition gig Tom was pushing,” he asked in his deep, gravelly voice?
“Just a word of advice, get yourself a top rated hazardous environment suit. Don’t listen to what the specs. call for .”
With that Levon walked across the room and exited. Nobody else said anything as Jack dressed, struggling to dry off from the sweat now pouring off his skin. On his way out, he picked up the data cube with the mission information from dispatch then headed toward the street where he hailed an autocab to take him home.
Terra Novae’s compound was on the north eastern side of the city among the urban sprawl. Jack’s cab took him past bustling shopping plazas, apartment complexes, and hotels as it drove into the denser city where skyscrapers began to compete for sunlight like the trees they had replaced. Nature became relegated to trees in pots near entrances. The beautiful golden sky was lost in the gloom at the bottom of the well, but Jack never noticed.
He spent the entire ride through the city into the sprawl south of the center focused on the crystal he fiddled between his fingers.