So, a while ago I complained about my hard drive failing. Well, I was looking over that story again (I still really like it) and I decided to share one of the scenes I liked the most.
Manu breathed out. Even and slow, like every breath. It wasn’t a sigh, because people like him didn’t sigh. Not where anyone could hear.
The shuttle rocked from side to side as it hit the pad. The shudder sent his teeth rattling.
“And that’s landing.” The captain said over the intercom. “Pack out, folks!”
There were shouts from various parts of the cargo bay, where the crew was strapped in.
Once, just once in his so far quite busy career, they’d sent him on a passenger liner. He was glad it had only been once. He’d gotten so many looks he was worried his skin was going to crawl off. He’d nearly volunteered to be deep frozen and moved to the holding bay.
But cargo workers were used to the likes of him.
He reconnected to wifi. Like slipping back into the water, gentle pressure on every side.
-Landed.- Manu sent a text to his watcher.
“Roger, Manny.” Amitabh said, into his ears. “Conditions are as briefed, no changes. Your Primary is in place and we expect contact from the target organization in a few days.”
Manu didn’t bother to signal that he’d received the message. Amitabh was almost certainly using his ears right now. Besides, he was still talking. Manu pressed the release button and eased the straps away from his shoulders. They had been pulled out to their full extension. Hardly anything was designed for people his size.
Manu rolled his shoulders to pop them back into place.
“Please report to ground control pronto. The temperature is a balmy fifty two, and the weather is, of course, rainy.”
The huge metal door on the cargo bay swung open as the chief loader punched in the final safety code. The ship moaned, and the door rolled upward. For a moment, Manu thought the motor was malfunctioning.
The roar was rain.
The concrete outside was a deep, yellow-grey, soaked with water. Drops broke and scattered on its surface, turning the first six inches of ground into a wet haze. Above that wasn’t much better, rain like long silver chains waving in the wind.
“And don’t fret, Manny. I know you like rain. So I booked it for the next six weeks at least.”
Which was a comment that needed a response. That was clear from the way he said it.
-Sir.- Manu tried. He wasn’t sure what the point was. Amitabh didn’t seem to be mean spirited, generally speaking. Was it supposed to be a joke? He’d never had a handler that tried to tell him jokes before. They’d only been working together for a few months, and Manu was having trouble getting a read on him.
The cargo bunnies where clustered around the opening, looking out at the rain. Manu accessed the manifest of the ship and marked himself as delivered. Then he strode out into the rain.
“Don’t drown, big guy!” One of the men shouted. They were nervous around him, mouths dry, eyes flickering from place. He’d tried to stay out of the way.
He raised an arm in polite acknowledgment. Moments after he stepped out of the cargo bay, he was soaked. The water ignored the thin, kinetic resistant layer, the warm, padded layer, the silk, with equal ease. And it slipped around the plates like they weren’t even there.
“Oh, you might wanna grab a taxi or something.” Amitabh said. “You’re supposed to meet her at the Residences at seven.” The map in the back of Manu’s mind lit up, as Amitabh pinged the Residences and his current location. “They’re about, you know, halfway across town.”
Manu had looked it up on the trip over. He’d also looked up the train route. Manu knew how to drive, and he hated trusting other people to do it for him.
-Sir.- He said. Amitabh would probably go away after a few hours. It was almost three in the morning where he was. But it was the beginning of the mission, he would be nervious. He’d go in an hour or two, when things had settled down.
Amitabh gave him a list of local taxi companies.
But, right now, it was bloody annoying.
-I was planning on taking the subway to mask my destination. Is that acceptable, sir?-
Manu could almost hear the wince through the line. “Yup. Sounds good to me. I’ll get off your back.”
That kind of comment. What was he supposed to make of that? The first time, at the beginning of their second mission together, Manu had thought it was sarcasm. He’d fully expected at least a censure, if not a full out decommissioning.
But it hadn’t come.
Manu breathed out, slow and even, like every breath.
-Sir.- He sent. It was the only think he could think to say.
The subterranean entrance for the train was less then a mile North. Ship-yard quickly turned into streets. They were mostly empty, more cars than people. Manu strode, letting his long legs stretch to their full length. It wasn’t as good as a warm up for getting the kinks out, but it would have to do.
Rain obscured his vision, his hearing, and his sense of the air around him. He accessed the cameras. There were hundreds in the area, hanging on the street lights, watching from buildings. The ship-yards were a moderate security area.
The extra view points helped, but Manu still felt trapped.
The subway station was marked with an orb, glowing blue and hovering over the stairs. The nearby rain turned blue. The grey stone underneath should have glown blue under its thin sheet of water. The stairs were gently textured, presumably to help with traction.
Manu checked the cameras inside the station. There were only a few people, slumped shoulders and dirty faces suggesting that they were coming off an early morning shift. Sunken cheeks coated with black dust, showing up like peach fuzz on dark brown faces. Oil smeared across a forehead.
They were waiting for the train.
Manu’s boot hit the steps, theory about texture confirmed. He got access to the cameras in the train that was coming. Also pretty empty, only ten or fifteen people, spread across three cars.
The south-bound train, going the other direction, was packed. There were no microphones, but every mouth was moving and the people were crammed together. The image of a fish catch rose unasked. Net lifting from the water, fish dropping into it was the water fell away, gasping, chocking, the flopping cut off by another fish landing on top.
Manu breathed out, slow and even. None of the fish would ever try and kill him.
Of course, maybe that was because they were too busy dying.
The station was made of grey stone. It was half an oval, cut by two track lines just off of the middle points. High bridges lifted over the tracks to connect the two platforms.
It was lit in blue, and blue lines seemed to crawl through the stone. Manu came down the steps in total silence, shifting his rhythm so the pack wouldn’t creak.
Amitabh’s silence changed. He was trying to decide if he should say something or not.
Manu didn’t understand. What, was he worried he would be distracting?
One of the commuters, unarmed, only a thin rain-jacket for a coat, wearing thick pants and boots crusted with char, looked up. It was a casual look, but he got stuck. His eyes widened, then flashed behind Manu, looking for the Leader. Then back to Manu– then down. Firmly down.
Manu fully expected to elicit that reaction from every civilian he met today. When people stared for longer then about ten seconds, they were usually up to something.
“Dude.” Amitabh said. “What’s up with that guy on the left?”
Manu checked the camera feed that Amitabh was looking at. A red circle appeared around a young man with spiked blue hair and a shoulder bag. He had bags under his eyes, a plastic cup of steaming coffee, and a dazed, empty look.
Student. Manu thought. Bet my ration.
But he didn’t say that. He took a picture of the face and passed it through records instead.
There was a deep moan from the earth. It traveled down the tunnels, growing louder. Steady and low. The air began to move, pushed in front of the train in a great wave.
The records came back. Alberto Roscarie. Citizen, unclassed, one juvenile ticket for public drunkenness, two weeks ago. Full time student at Leofwine Tech, studying train engineering. Impressive marks, which is why he was still being looked at hopefully for the field despite his conviction.
-Sir?- Manu asked, as the noise level reached its peak and the south-bound train pulled into the far set of tracks. It was round and blue. Dark blue on the bottom, light blue on top.
He was going to get really sick of the color blue, wasn’t he?
Manu had looked up the contact information for the Warriors that watched the Residences. He pulled them up.
“I haven’t seen hair like that in years!”
Manu breathed out, slow and even. Amitabh nervous was even more unfocused then Amitabh normally.
And having an unfocused handler was sort of like not having a handler at all.
Only more annoying. Because if he hadn’t had handler at all, he could just get on with things.
The south-bound train doors opened and people swam out. Thrashing. Or maybe swarming. Most of them poured towards the stairway on the other side. Twenty or so came over the bridges, some to take the stairway, some to wait. Three people pulled out devices. Probably looking at maps.
Manu didn’t check.
Ulla was the senior in charge at the Residences. Manu sent her a short message with his credentials attached.
Reporting to receive custody of the safety of Leader Pallavi Patil.-
A few people straggled into the south-bound train.
After a moments thought, Manu added his name and serial number, for extra formality. Manu had never met her, or any of the Warriors she worked with. Better safe then sorry. He sent the message.
While he waited, he counted glances and reviewed the path he was taking, checking it with cameras and through police reports. It was habit, nothing more. But habits had to be maintained. He stood back from center in the platform, in a bubble of space that no one would enter. And he watched as people skirted around him, inspecting him with the corner of their eyes.
The south-bound train pulled away.
A message came from Ulla.
Credentials received. Leader Pallavi Patil will review when you arrive.
In faith, here are the plans for the housing she has decided to relocate too.
Attached was a map and several blueprints, one of the apartment complex, one of the apartment, and one of the government buildings (with security notes) where Leader Pallavi worked.
-Thank you, Madame Warrior.-
-It is my pleasure to help you serve.-
The formality dripped off of every word. That was good. She’d gotten the message. She’d pass it on to her colleges, and everyone would know he was being watched.
“Train’s coming.” Amitabh said.
The howl started, deep in the bowels of the earth. Light seeped from around the corner, growing more intense. The train roared in, pulling to a halt. Manu was already walking forward. People had to decide where they wanted to sit or stand, and if they even wanted to get on the train, and they couldn’t do that until he’d settled. But Manu made sure to stand two paces back and a pace to the side from the door, so that people would still leave the train.
There were only a few getting off here. Only one of them noticed him. She nearly dropped the tool box she was carrying, recovered, and scuttled off.
Manu stepped in. Fortunately, the train was more then solid enough to support him, and didn’t even shift under his weight. He moved to the far side and put his back to the compartment separating wall. The train was a long oval, round walls, round ceiling. His helmet was just a breath away from scraping the ceiling near the middle, so Manu crouched. Bad design. He was normal sized, for a Warrior. Manu looked up, as people cautiously piled into the train after him, and searched the ceiling for scratch marks.
Sure enough, he found one, near the back on the side. It looked like a helmet mark, too. Manu took a picture of it, to show to Voitto and Kaisa when they were back online.
“Is that from a helmet?” Amitabh asked.
-Sir.- Manu said. -Looks like it, sir.-
Amitabh laughed. “What kind of backwater planet doesn’t build their trains large enough for Warriors?”
The train doors closed. All the other passengers were clustered near the back. They sat in silence. There was a man with a small child clinging to his arm. The man was looking resolutely out the window, but the child was staring at him. Little brown eyes stretched round, mouth hanging open. He was tugging on his father’s hand.
“Papa! Papa!” The child was whispering, but Manu could hear him fine, even over the roar of the train. “Is that a ghost, papa? It’s a ghost!”
The man didn’t look, but he did pick up the child and put him on his hip. “No dear.” He said, almost quietly enough that Manu had trouble picking out the words.
“Then why is he all white? He’s whiter then even grandma was when we saw her at the church!”
“He was born that way, dear. He’s a Warrior. You remember seeing the parade on the TV?”
Manu used the cameras to check the tracks, the stations they passed, and kept open the cameras that watched the station he was disembarking on. He also looked over the blueprints for the residence his Leader would be living in.
It was a little far away from backup for him to be comfortable. Fifty seventh floor was nice for a view, but bad for rapid evacuation. He’d have to get a small vehicle to park on the roof. Huge windows, probably not any kind of ballistic resistant material.
The building was supposed to have security.
Manu found the building’s web-cluster and asked for permission to the cameras. It was denied. Well, that was something.
Manu hesitated. But hell, why not? What was the worst that could happen?
-Sir, would you test the electronic defenses for me?-
“Sure thing!” Amitabh seemed quite pleased he’d asked. Manu didn’t shake his head.
A few moments later, Manu had access to the inside of the building and the whole security network as ‘User Uldrico’.
“Well, they aren’t the worst I’ve seen.” Amitabh said. “Probably hold up a decent programmer for ten minutes?”
-Sir. Thank you, sir.-
Good to know. He’d have to modify some things. He logged out and then requested access to the building again. This time, when he was denied, he got the name of the network administrator and sent them a message.
There was a form for this.
He used it.
-Dear sir or madam.
A Leader is moving into your secured zone. The Warrior in charge of their security requests access to your information and resources. Please give your full cooperation in this endeavor.-
And sent his credentials with it. He sent copies to the head of security and the head of the building as well.
The train pulled to a shuddering stop at the next station.
Since Amitabh had given him a user name and password, Manu spent some time looking over the apartment and the complex with the security cameras and familiarizing himself with the situation. None of the civilians were likely to get back to him before he got to the building himself. They were probably sleeping or something.
After another stop Manu had gathered all of the information he could.
Rocking gently with the movement of the train, brain idly planning how to make the place secure. He hadn’t background checked the staff.
He’d better do that.
It occurred to him that he was anxious. The first meeting with a new Leader was always bad. But it had been so long, he’d forgotten how sick it made him feel. His stomach was actually hurting.
Manu took a breath, slow and even, and let it out, slow and even. Same as always.
He background checked the staff. That was three hundred people. A thorough check would take too long to be useful at this time, but he ran their faces through the records database and checked their records at the apartment. He did the same for the other tenants, mostly rich and working for corporations.
The train stopped and started, rattling and rocking. People got on and off, glancing once and then putting their eyes down.
Manu worked on his plan. It wasn’t a bad little apartment, and making the changes he needed to make would be enjoyable. By the time the train finally pulled into his station (the light, female voice sang out ‘Waterdown Lane’ and commuters poured out, in a river so thick it nearly brushed his sides) he was feeling kind of excited.
It had been a while since he’d gotten to design and implement a simple residence security plan. The last thing he’d been doing had been kind of similar, but the fact that there was an assassination at the end of it always took away the pleasure.
People. Manu took a steady breath. Taking in the smell of a thousand people crammed together in a small place. Burnt coffee, from the booth to the right. Garish colors, red and orange, against the blue wall. Manu almost smiled to see it. A little bit of defiance, maybe. Either way, it was loads better then more dull blue.
Someone was cooking something too. Salty and sweet. Clams, perhaps?
When was the last time he’d had clams?
Manu strode out, last, before the tide changed. The clock was coming up on six fifty. Not a lot of time. He increased his pace, and put the focus in his shoulders. People could tell, and the space he carried around him got larger as people moved out of the way.
It was easy, after long practice, to keep the quick, ground-eating walk from turning into a run. It was important not to run, never to run. Not unless you wanted people to panic. He moved up the steps three at a time. They were slick, and glowing from the lamp light. The rain ran into drains on either side of the stairwell, and then gurgled down into a waterway that ran below the subway.
That would be an efficient way of distributing poison gas. There were drain outlets at every station.
Manu reached the rain, and a few steps later he was at ground level. The sky had gotten a little lighter, as the sun had risen higher. People were walking everywhere. Umbrellas in all colors, and a wide verity of kinds and shapes. A few people even had hover shields following them, so they had nothing to carry.
Hover-car turbines stirred up the water in the road, turning it into a frothing river. The sidewalks were raised above it, and sloped so that the water ran off. The street served as a large drainage channel.
A little bit more rain, and people would be using boats.