Book 1: Gearjackers
“Who fed us this lie?”
“One of our own agents, sir: Steorathan Liet.”
“When I catch him, I’ll kill him for this deception!”
“That may not be possible, sir.”
“Because we’re not sure what he looks like, sir.”
Boots thumped down the metal corridor. Hearts raced. Red lights flashed along the prison walls.
As they ran, Commandant Royer demanded an update. The guard explained that prisoner number 2971 was brought in last night. He was captured trying to leave the solar system, defying the order for all mercenaries to report for debriefing.
The Ultraloyalists couldn’t have achieved the coup without hiring bloodthirsty mercenaries. Their faction didn’t have the numbers or skills. Every mercenary who reported for debriefing was incarcerated here in the orbital prison complex.
Both men staggered, stopped and waved their arms wildly. Artificial gravity had momentarily cut out. As soon as they were stable and surefooted, they started running again. Men ran in every direction.
“Specifics! Who is 2971?” Royer said.
“It’s their fleet commander, sir,” the guard said.
Good, Royer thought. With him captured, the details of the Ultraloyalists’ deal with the mercenaries wouldn’t be known. No one would learn that important battles for the capital world had been won by guns-for-hire. If some atrocities needed to be explained, the mercenaries could be blamed as pirates conducting raids during the civil war.
“Where did you put him?”
“We threw him in with the rest of the mercenaries, sir!”
Loud claxons went off to match the flashing red lights. The clanging noise overrode their voices.
Bad, Royer thought. The mercenary commander was with his troops, and he was an expert at recruiting and organizing military men. Royer began to sweat.
They burst into the control center for the prison block that held the mercenaries. The facility normally smelled of stagnant, recycled air. Here, the air was rancid from unwashed men. The door shut behind them and the guard took up position next to it. Royer waved his hand and the claxons in the room stopped. The wall panels were black. He couldn’t see inside the prison block.
Royer pressed a button and spoke. “Prisoners, return to your cells. That is an order.” He was used to his orders being followed to the letter.
A moment later, the cover was removed from a sensor. Royer grimaced at the carnage and chaos. Men ran amok, tearing everything apart.
“Some of our men went in to try to stop this,” one of the guards said.
The mercenaries were hulking men with silver lines under their skin, indicating cybernetic implants. No guards could force them to calm down.
The prison scene abruptly went still and quiet. The mercenaries stopped their rampage and jumped to attention. A figure stepped in front of the sensor. Only his enormous bare chest was visible, the skin mangled, burned and scarred. Royer knew this was prisoner 2971.
His voice was like a concrete block dragged across a metal grate floor. “Some of your men live, but I can direct my men to rip them limb-from-limb. What’s more, I can do this.”
Royer and his guards rose off the floor, then fell.
“I have gained control over the station’s artificial gravity. Soon I will have control over life support.”
The mercenary leader lifted the sensor so they could see his face. If his torso was frightening, his eyes were horrifying. As soldiers aged, parts wore out and were repaired. Sometimes repairs were no longer possible and they were regrown. When that became impossible they were replaced with biological parts. As a last step, they were replaced with artificial parts.
The leader’s eyes were matte black panes with wires leading out of them, wires that seemed to burrow into his face. These were spider eyes. Only old, dangerous mercenaries lived long enough to get spider eyes. The nerve damage to his face could only be repaired to a certain extent, so his facial muscles sometimes flinched, causing the wires to twitch. The spiders crawled in his eye sockets.
The Ultraloyalist officer rose and pressed a button. “What are your demands?”
“Allow me to negotiate for my men, and the conditions under which they are kept, face to face.”
“Acceptable,” Royer replied. He released the button. “Bring him in and keep your guns on him.”
A bit later, the guards entered with the bare-chested prisoner, who towered over them. His hands were laced with black veins. Four steady rifles were pointed at him.
Commandant Royer said, “List your demands so we can return this facility to peaceful order.”
“Peace,” the prisoner grumbled. “You Ultraloyalists didn’t want peace when the government wouldn’t accede to your demands. Now you’re in control and you want peace.”
“I won’t debate with your kind. You had a choice, to come to the right side. Now you’ll be prisoners.”
“You betrayed us. I don’t know about peace but I know about honor and you have none.”
“Betrayal? We follow the Light of Orthos, the only right way of thinking! When it was clear the victory was in our grasp, we presented you the right to follow the Light but you chose to take payment and leave.”
The prisoner said, “That was the deal when the Ultraloyalists hired us. You conveniently forgot about it. That doesn’t matter right now though. My kind can’t be caged. You’re fooling yourself.”
“We won’t allow you mercenaries to escape.”
“In one way, you’re right. Debate is futile. It always is.”
Everyone in the room lifted off the floor, fell, rose and fell. In the commotion the prisoner snatched a rifle and shot the guards as they tried to get up.
Royer jumped up and grabbed for his pistol. The mercenary moved with uncanny speed, punched him in the face and knocked the pistol away. Gravity totally cut out at that moment. They both rose. The mercenary released his rifle, grabbed Royer and pulled him close. He covered Royer’s mouth with his grizzled, black-veined hand. The Commandant wasn’t nearly strong enough to tear the iron fingers away.
“Let me explain your death to you,” the mercenary said.
“I don’t need a rifle. I hit you in the nose. But without gravity, the blood can’t flow out. It will pool in your nasal cavity until you can’t breathe.”
“Now, with no option left, you will breathe in.”
His mouth covered and running out of air, Royer breathed in through his nose.
“Now you will drown in your own blood,” the mercenary said.
Royer choked, flailed and gurgled. The mercenary maintained his iron grip. He could have snapped Royer’s neck just as easily.
As Royer’s resistance dwindled, the mercenary said, “A fitting death for you. Now I will release my men and you Ultraloyalists can all drown in your own blood.”
Royer was as lifeless as the guards. The mercenary let his body go and pressed a button, signaling to restore gravity. Another button unleashed the men who had served with him. Betrayal had outraged them. They tore through the prison like animals.
As the mercenary with the spider eyes walked through the prison, another said, “Sir! Are you going to stay and kill these faithless weaklings?”
He continued walking and said, “No. This has delayed me too long. I have somewhere better to be.”
Star System Entry
A sudden flicker in space heralded a starship’s arrival as it materialized from faster-than-light travel. Its sleek blue and platinum flanks glittered in the light of the white sun.
Darkness faded to light inside the starship’s long, elliptical cabin. The walls increased in brightness by luminators built within them. Down the middle of the ship ran a row of seats, in pairs. None of the seats had bases or were even connected to the floor. They were suspended in the air by graviton technology, the manipulation of gravity which allowed everything from interstellar flight to chairs that floated. People tilted their seats up and stretched.
Around them, the walls changed from neutral white to a view of space. Stars twinkled in all directions, including above them. To their right was a massive planet, clouds floating over green continents and blue oceans. The planet was close, filling their entire right view. It was as if the passengers were on a carpeted deck in orbit with no walls around them.
“Welcome to the Navo system,” said a gender-neutral voice. “On your right is the planet Bul Sahn. We will arrive at its satellite NBS 2 in about an hour. You may listen at your leisure to descriptions of the system, its planets and their satellites with your complimentary ear nodes. Thank you.”
People who used the ear nodes heard that the Navo system was protected by a skilled and well-armed military. Bandits and parasites were quickly detected and driven away. It had plenty of resources and space to live in, and wasn’t threatened by its nearest neighbors. Since that wasn’t unusual in this area of the galaxy, this was less like information and more like advertising.
Most of the passengers were human but a few were non-human species. An ezwegian in colorful clothes and elaborate headdress sat in the front. His drooping, elongated features were amusing to a bunch of croymid youths who sat in the middle. They had snickered and pointed when the ezwegian had boarded. People don’t snicker and point at croymids. Their faces looked smashed and their gray-green skin was thick. Even though they wore school uniforms, their long, pointy ears were notched, and none of them had straight teeth.
Steo hadn’t tilted his seat back or gone to sleep during the trip. It had only been seven hours and he was anxious about what awaited him on NBS 2. He felt tense about what was behind him too, though he was sure he’d covered his tracks well.
The last man who had entered the starship before they left had looked right at Steo before taking his seat. There was nothing specifically threatening about him, but Steo felt if someone was following him, it would look like that man: brown leather suit with a high collar and silver wires clearly visible under his skin. He was loaded with cybernetics. If Steo was captured and taken back, he didn’t know what to expect – maybe torture or death.
Steo had paid for two seats, not unusual on a luxury liner like this. He looked at the bag of gadgets in the seat next to him. It was becoming a nervous habit to check his gear frequently, so he resisted popping one open to see if he had a long-distance connection to NBS 2 yet. Regardless of the width of the channel, the lag would be long since they were thousands of miles away. Ships with graviton drives could go faster than the speed of light, but waves couldn’t. Signals couldn’t be accelerated. The slowest thing in the galaxy was the truth.
After a minute of orbiting the planet, the ceiling and left wall returned to white, leaving Bul Sahn showing on the right wall. This wasn’t Steo’s first FTL trip so he remained patient and breathed slowly. The man in the brown leather suit didn’t look back at him. However the man in the seat in front of Steo rose and looked out at Bul Sahn.
“Ach, can you imagine that thing?” he said aloud in wonder. “It’s as big as I’d heard. Continents bigger than most planets.”
The man wore a maroon coverall and brown boots. Probably work clothes, Steo guessed.
Steo wore a dark blue suit with a black shirt. It was a style unlikely to draw attention. Nothing about Steo stood out, in fact. He was clean-shaven and his sandy brown hair was in a layered cut.
“Headed down there?” Steo asked.
The man replied, “Yes sir, I sure am. This whole system is amazing. There are actually four planets with water in this solar system’s habitable zone. Bul Sahn is just so huge.”
The woman behind Steo had her ear nodes in and watched the planet glide by. The young teenager next to her leaned around and watched the conversation between Steo and the worker.
“Who paid for you to take this flight?” the boy asked. Intersystem flights aboard luxury liners weren’t cheap, and most of the passengers wore suits.
“Huh?” said the man. “Oh I’m here to work for Starfarms. Just got the job. I’m so excited, I want to get to work. My wife is worried about the danger but this is a cutting edge company!”
“What’s so dangerous about this place,” the boy asked. “I mean, Bul Sahn is blue and green isn’t it?”
The man gestured at Bul Sahn. “It’s as deadly as any blistering rock close to its sun! Bul Sahn is seventeen times your average habitable planet, with an atmosphere four times as deep. If the gravity didn’t crush you, the atmospheric pressure would.”
The boy raised his eyebrows and looked at the planet. “Whoa,” he said. “How can plants live there? What about animals?”
“There’s animals there, just like anywhere with water and air. The animals and plants grew there for millions of years, so they adapted I guess. Bul Sahn is a perfect garden, but no intelligent life ever evolved there.”
“What are you going to do there?” the teen asked.
“Biomining,” the man said. “The living facilities are enclosed tunnels to protect us, and we take giant vehicles out to work. That’s what I’m going to be doing, driving a Zatz-193 biominer. We go out and scoop up vegetation in our path. It gets processed back at base and shipped in huge quantities to other worlds with little biomass. They use it for planetary engineering, to make them habitable.”
“Oh, I saw vids on this,” the boy said. “You’re going to deforest this planet!”
The man turned from the planet. “No, no, no,” he said defensively. He explained how the company only took what the planet could replenish, less than 1% a year. “Greenhouses for the Galaxy, that’s our company motto,” he said.
The boy looked eager for an argument, a loud one. Steo interrupted. He rotated his chair to face the view of the planet.
“There are responsible companies across the Tarium spiral arm that do biomining,” he said.
The Navo system was in the Tarium spiral arm – the long strings of stars that spiral away from the center of the galaxy. Because it was the smallest of the arms and had fewer habitable planets, it was more sparsely settled. Solar systems were distant from one another and well defended, so wars were few here. Closer to the galactic core was the Crux arm. It was densely populated, a seething hotbed of political intrigue and empires rising and falling. Further out was the Percaic arm. It was sparsely settled but had piracy, barbarism and chaos.
“Right!” exclaimed the worker. “Have you seen the vid on the planet Gormin? In only 18 years it went from red to purple. The atmosphere is changing already. It’s almost breathable. All because of biomining by companies like Starfarms. In fact – ”
“We are approaching NBS 2. Please prepare,” said the announcer’s voice.
“Probably best to sit down and get ready for the landing,” Steo said to the man.
“Oh, yeah,” he replied and sat down.
Steo planned on ignoring the kid until they docked.
The boy said quietly, “I can’t believe someone like you would agree with him.”
Steo remained casual, still looking at the planet. “What do you mean?” Steo loved space. He truly enjoyed travel and adventure, but now more than ever, he had a lot on his mind.
The boy chewed his lip while he looked at Steo. “That’s just another big corporation tearing up land for profits. I thought you stood against stuff like that.”
“The Navo system is stable and responsible. Dō, the capital planet, is an open society with a democratically elected socialist government. I think they sold Starfarms the biomining rights. Starfarms is a legitimate company that’s closely monitored. I don’t know what you mean by ‘someone like me’. I’m an efficiency analyst.” My cover identity better at least fool a boy, he thought.
The boy twisted his vid-player in his hand. He lowered his voice. “I think you’re Steorathan Liet, the infosurgent. The guy who gearjacked the Petid Republic.”
Infosurgent: combination of information and insurgent. Someone who lived on the edge of the law, traveling often to avoid detection. An infosurgent used questionable methods to get information in order to disrupt large organizations: governments, militaries, corporations and cults. Sometimes they got paid, usually they worked on their own.
Gearjacking was a specialty within the infosurgent underworld. These were specialists who stole plans, blueprints or formulas of technological gear and sold them. Often the gearjacker had to locate a prototype and reverse engineer it on the spot, leaving it in place so no one knew the idea had been lifted.
Fame is bad for infosurgents. Steo knew from personal experience. His kind moved quietly to stay alive. He didn’t need anyone knowing his last location was on the edge of the Petid Republic.
“Sorry, I don’t know who you think I look like. My name is Gev Colson. I work for a management consulting firm, hired by the Dō government,” he said, looking at the boy while keeping a straight face. He wondered if the man in the brown leather suit was trying to listen in on the conversation.
“What’s this?” the woman next to the teenager said as she removed her ear nodes.
The boy looked unsure.
Steo was a celebrity to some people. His escapades as a gearjacker had earned him a reputation approaching reverence among young technology fans. It was difficult to find out what he looked like. He’d made sure vids of him were hard to come by, and never certified.
The boy said, “Oh, we were talking about where we came from, mom.” To Steo he said, “We lived in the Caranna system. It isn’t far from the Petid Republic and the news is all over the Amber Light underground news relay. The Petid networks are in a tangle and outlying solar systems are breaking away.”
“I told you not to link to that network!” the boy’s mother said. “Besides the adult garbage, I don’t think any of the news is really news, it’s just rumors.”
Vessels with grav drives could travel faster than light, but waves couldn’t be accelerated. The only way information could travel between star systems was inside ships with grav drives. Light traveling from one world to another within the same solar system takes minutes to arrive. Then it would have to be stored and the ship had to fly to another system, where it could transmit the information. Even dedicated ships traveling between nearby systems took hours to complete the trip. These were called news relays.
“What’s wrong near the Petid Republic?” Steo said, playing innocent.
The woman said, “Terrible business. You probably know the Petid way of doing things. Caranna is far enough and our space forces strong enough to resist them. I always thought they deserved what they got. They’re bullies and a magnet for trouble, but the official news is the Loytz broken into their military systems. They were always in the shadow of the Petid Republic. Now the Loytz have the awful truth of the Petid machine.”
“The Amber Light relay says the Loytz got Ecker bombs,” the boy added.
“Nonsense!” his mother replied. “You really shouldn’t rely on gossip like that, as if it’s truth.”
“Ecker bombs? That sounds bad,” Steo said. “The formula for Ecker bombs is used to produce the most powerful non-nuclear explosive in the galaxy. Not technically banned by treaty, but a serious weapon.” That might have been too much, he thought.
“The Petids use their stockpile to threaten neighboring systems! There’s all kinds of stuff they’re guilty of. Here I’ll show you a vid,” the boy said, looking at his vid-player.
“Stop,” his mother ordered. “Put it away.” He did.
She said to Steo, “My husband Vijay is here on Bul Sahn. We decided it best to move closer together, and to get a little distance from the Petid Republic in case it goes nova.”
“That sounds like a good decision. I’m sure it will be safe here,” Steo replied.
A section of the right wall changed from the view of Bul Sahn and became a plain surface. It slid aside and a robot floated out.
Its small graviton drive, buried deep within the round ivory shell of its body, allowed it to hover. Its flexible arms moved slowly and gently as it moved about the cabin, politely asking people if they needed anything.
“It looks like we’ll be docking soon.” Steo rotated his seat forward.
He wondered if the new suit and haircut had been enough to avoid recognition by the fan sitting behind him – and possibly the agent sitting ahead of him.
— End of sample chapters for The Eye of Orion, Book 1: Gearjackers.