Where Lace differed from many of his peers at iCom Special Academy on Luna was in his relative lack of ambition. Certainly he wished to be successful in his career, but advancement to the upper echelons of iCom, the corporation to which his family had owed its allegiance for three generations, had never held much interest for him. Power brought unnecessary complications, and as soon as he graduated from the Academy, Lace was determined to leave the political game to those who cared for it. When it came to his future plans, he would be perfectly content to work as a mid-level transport pilot, earning sufficient wages to support a small family.
Thus, when iCom administration approached him with an offer to join the crew of the fabled Atlantis, the ship commanded by Horatio Hicks during the Battle of Phobos, he declined. Serving aboard a battleship, even despite the safety afforded by Hicks’ sound leadership, entailed a wartime risk that exceeded the value of the corporate benefits it would provide to Lace and his future family. Anyway, he had his reasons. Did that make his refusal an act of insubordination?
He chose not to think so.
He was spending a Friday night in a seedy bar in the lower entertainment district of Seleucus Plex, one of Luna’s domed supercities, built into the vast opening of the Seleucus crater, which had long ceased to be visible beneath the towering spires that made up the plex. He was sharing a drink with a few of his college friends, when he felt a voice and lost his grip on his tonic, the half-full glass clattering to the floor. The clumsy act elicited a laugh from those around, including his roommate Paul, but Lace was too diverted to care.
It was a chilling voice, one devoid of conscience. For the past few months, Lace had experienced the ability to feel the inner voices of other people. Some spoke more resonantly than others, but all gave him a clear sense of what the person wanted or was feeling at the time. This particular voice had a frighteningly malicious nature, and it spoke so loudly and so clearly that Lace was certain the malice was aimed at him. He turned around and scanned the faces in the bar, sure that whomever the voice belonged to would be staring right back with evil intent. He saw no one, but was too nervous to trust his eyes, and decided to trust his instincts instead. He left, and Paul took care of his tab.
Stepping out of the bar and into the night, Lace squinted. “Night” was a funny thing on Luna, as the sense of daytime and nighttime depended on the phases of the moon. Tonight it was blindingly bright outside, and though he was in the lower stratum of the city, the skyscrapers offered only limited shade. Lace caught a glimpse of someone in an alley across the way. He looked to the left, surveying his escape route. Looking back, the figure was gone.
He ran. It didn’t matter where; his legs carried him as fast as they could through the crowded Seleucus streets, dirty and reeking of the scent of all manner of illicit drugs. He hoped desperately that the voice would disappear behind him, until finally it did. At this point Lace could run no further. He stopped to catch his breath, his throat dry in the heat, his arm bracing his exhausted body against the wall of a gambling parlor.
* * *
Jylan Rathe caught the bleep on his wrist-mounted comm unit, and immediately recessed into a vacant hallway for a moment of privacy to review the message he had received. Regarding the small message screen on the surface of the gadget, Rathe read the name of the agent who had sent the message: Grem Holden.
Holden was one of the few agents privileged to transmit information directly to Rathe. Other CISyn agents would have their data scrutinized and filtered through a complex network of agents before eventually reaching the department heads to whom the information was relevant, but Rathe made sure any knowledge collected by his top men and women would always reach him first. Even among this inner circle, Holden was special. He was kizen.
When the Mumon Rift first appeared in the space between the asteroid belt and Jupiter, it released a deluge of quantum particles that spilled forth into every part of the solar system, and even now the flood continued. Kizen were people who had been affected by these particles at the sub-molecular level, and they acquired traits that allowed them to perform physical, mental, and even “spiritual” feats that lie far beyond normal human capabilities.
Spiritual. Rathe scoffed at the word. What science could not yet understand, others would rush to explain as an act of divine influence. However one chose to describe it, though, Rathe owned that there was certainly something extraordinary about kizen. In the case of Grem Holden, he received visions: glimpses of distant places, of events that had not yet come to pass (but always did, and did so exactly as Holden described them). With Rathe’s careful guidance, Holden had also developed a keen awareness of the kizen energy that flowed within him, and he used this awareness to sense that energy in others. This latter trait was invaluable to Rathe, who was resolved to bring as many kizen as he could into the CISyn fold – under his direct command, of course. The game had changed drastically in the few months’ time since the opening of the Rift, and Rathe could clearly see that the most valuable pieces on this new game-board were those who could manifest kizen abilities.
Rathe had another clairvoyant like Holden in his possession, a man named Jossel Swin. The only problem with that agent was his judgment. Rathe recalled once having told Swin he wasn’t crazy in an effort to gain his trust, but these days Rathe kept wondering if it might be time for him to reassess that claim. Swin had become a very different person in the wake of the Rift. If he had been teetering on the edge of sanity before, the rush of quantum particles – and the visions they brought upon him – had pushed him over the edge. Nevertheless, his visions were every bit as accurate as Holden’s, and as long as Rathe could get him to stay lucid long enough to divulge their contents, every bit as useful in controlling how their events unfolded.
Rathe produced a small datapad from his side pocket, and drew a connection cord from his wrist comm, inserting it into the device and pulling the switch to activate it. The screen flickered to life, revealing the contents of Agent Holden’s transmission, which consisted of a scrambled photograph and an encrypted message. Rathe ran the decryption codes for each, unscrambling the photo and its attached message. The photo was of a young man, eighteen or nineteen years old, in the midst of leaving a grungy-looking establishment. Despite the lack of a light source, the photographer had done an excellent job of capturing the youth’s facial appearance, which would make locating him an easy venture for CISyn’s operatives. The young man was perfectly shaven and bore soft features, and this made him look very much out of place in the coarse environment. The message explained:
The guy in the photo is kizen. I couldn’t get him without drawing attention, but the shot was taken an hour ago outside of Rutger’s, a pub in Seleucus Plex, by far the crappiest pub on Luna. Also, the Reds are gonna pull a massive raid on the Bekker’s Trench facility on Ganymede. It’s hard to tell with visions, but I’d say this attack could occur at any time. Be ready.
Rathe pondered this for a moment, running a hand through his graying hair, beads of cold sweat collecting on his palm. The mining complex on Ganymede to which Holden was referring belonged to the Central Governance Corporation, and was a valuable asset to the war effort, but so were the armies that formed the frontline in the offensive against the Shi and Quay, forces that were already spread thin across the Outer Rim and elsewhere. Could Earth afford to lose such an important holding to the Martian cretins who called themselves Gongen, in order to fend off the extrasolar invaders?
The photo was sent to Rathe’s gurus for analysis and identification. Rathe then placed a call to his chief secretary to arrange flight accommodations to Luna. By the time he arrived – a mere two-hour journey from Earth at this time of day – he was confident that CISyn eyes on the ground would have the youth in custody.
He was right. Grem Holden was there to make a positive ID, though of the agents present, only Rathe knew why one was necessary. The captive was Lace Asher, an astronautics student at iCom Academy.
“I’ll take it from here, gentlemen.” The other agents dispersed, save Holden, leaving the two alone with Lace.
“What do you want?! I didn’t do anything!” The young man struggled to break free, but the metallic binders they had locked onto his arms held them firmly to his back, tighter than a straitjacket.
“It’s not what you did, Mr. Asher, but you what you do, that interests us. Thought-reading, clairvoyance, mind control: You’re not the only one who can sense things others can’t. Agent Holden here has a few tricks of his own; in fact, that’s how we found you.”
Rathe watched the kizen as he fumbled helplessly with the binders, before ultimately giving up, letting his body flop down onto the pavement. “I’m offering you a full partnership, Mr. Asher. You won’t have to worry about your contract with iCom; my people will take care of all that, but your gift, what you can do…you can help people, Lace.”
Rathe turned away from the limp body. Lowering his voice, he said to Holden, “I will leave the reconditioning to you.” Reconditioning was a messy business that Rathe preferred to allow his agents to conduct outside his presence. It used a combination of hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis, and psychological trauma to turn an otherwise unwilling subject into a loyal agent of CISyn. The goal was to erase any memories that might conflict with performing the duties demanded of agents, and this usually resulted in temporary amnesia for the new inductee.
Holden frowned. “You know, I’ve never reconditioned a telepath before. What if it doesn’t work on him?”
“I believe you already know the answer to that, Agent.”
The next morning, Earth
As the sun rose on New York Plex, casting prismatic beams across the glassy spires of Earth’s capital, Ivan McCarr reviewed the operation in his head. Breaking into the Central Governance Corporation headquarters would normally be no easy task; if it were, the Gongen would always remain one step ahead of the enemy by availing themselves of the Earth oppressors’ tactical plans and cutting edge tech.
In this case, however, the circumstances were in Ivan’s favor. The previous night, a CGC officer wishing to defect to the Gongen, with whom Ivan had been in clandestine contact for several months, had sent him detailed schematics of the headquarter complex, as well as the access codes that would grant him access. Most importantly, Ivan now had intimate knowledge of the guard bots’ programmed routes and how to safely avoid them. He had spent the last few hours studying all the intel carefully, and was now prepared to infiltrate the facility before its doors opened to employees.
The primary challenge Ivan had faced in reading the schematic data was in determining exactly where he could collect the most information. Nearly a city in its own right, the CGC HQ was composed of dozens of towering skyscrapers clustered together. It appeared that the safest bet was a tech room located on the bottom level of the northmost building. It contained a hub computer that would likely contain all the information Ivan was looking for. He entered through a staff entrance, using the codes provided to him, and proceeded along a corridor that led directly to the chamber housing the console.
It was gigantic. Standing twenty feet high and shaped like a hexagonal prism, the machine was surely powerful enough to house all of Earth’s knowledge and more. Ivan spent the next several minutes at one of the dozens of terminals surrounding the main system, gathering various files and copying them into his datapad. There was neither enough space nor time to store everything he wanted into the tiny device, nor had he the time to view the contents to make sure what he grabbed was especially useful.
The exit was uneventful, much to Ivan’s relief and satisfaction. He spent the rest of the day perusing the files. There were a lot of military protocols that would be of use to Gongen’s commanders and NōBots, as well as technical intel about many of the Earthers’ commonly used ships and weapons, which could aid Gongen technicians like Ivan himself in identifying any weaknesses they might possess.
Most crucially important, though, was what Ivan discovered in the strategic records. Somehow, the CGC had obtained knowledge that Gongen forces were massing for an attack on their Ganymede mining complex, and had issued orders for their decorated war hero, Colonel James Howler, to move his battalion to Ganymede.
Ivan would not be able to bring this troubling news to Gongen in time to abort the attack, as it was planned to occur in just ten days. His only hope in saving his brothers and sisters lie in getting aboard the Reliant, the transport ship the CGC was sending to pick up Howler and his forces. He hoped the flight credentials he had prepared in case of such an event would allow him passage.
One week later, Asteroid Belt
“Your superiors on Earth have already been advised of the situation. It is my suggestion – their command – that you assemble your forces and relocate them to Ganymede immediately.”
Colonel James Howler could not believe what he was hearing. He had been called to the briefing room of his asteroid base, where he found a lone CISyn agent and his aide. Howler recognized the agent from past acquaintance as Jylan Rathe, but the aide he did not recognize. Rathe proceeded to inform Howler of an impending attack on Ganymede. His forces’ presence in the Belt was of critical importance, and Howler knew falling back as far as the Jovian moon would likely cost Earth any control they still had of the fallout of the Shi and Quay situation. Instead of debating these all-too-obvious implications, however, the commander simply asked, “How reliable is this information?”
“The source of my intel is classified as always, Colonel, but I can assure you of its utmost reliability.” A customary response from a damned CISyn bureaucrat. Frustrated, Howler shook his head in dismay and made to leave the room, but Rathe beckoned him to wait. “One more thing, Colonel.”
Howler turned his head, and Rathe gestured to his aide, who stepped forward and stood at attention before the commander, attaché case in hand. “Agent Lace Asher, sir. CISyn has sent me to join your squadron as a junior guru.”
“Junior” indeed, Howler thought; Asher could not have been older than nineteen. “At ease, Agent. Sorry, but I can’t afford to take kids on my squadron. And I’ve got enough gurus already. I may have more of you guys than soldiers at the moment.”
“With respect, sir, my credentials more than qualify me for this mission.” Asher opened his case and withdrew a manila folder. “These are for your records. Please grant me permission to assist you.”
Howler sighed, and granted Agent Asher permission to join him, knowing full well refusal had not been an option. CISyn never made a decision without being able to enforce that decision with legal muscle if their will faced any resistance. Regaining his composure, Howler saluted, and left the room.
Rathe watched after Howler as the door hissed shut, his eyes grim. Finally he exhaled, and took in a deep breath. Quietly he said, partly to Asher, partly to himself, “It’s vital these CGC fools continue to trust us. Our every move must be well timed.”
* * *
Ivan McCarr had succeeded in boarding the Reliant, the corporate vessel carrying Howler’s vehicles and troops to Jovian space, and was registered as a shipboard technician, giving him access to the capital ship’s guts. The Reliant was scheduled to reach its destination in a little less than eighteen hours. The flurry he had been in back on Earth while seeking passage aboard the ship had left little room for thought about what exactly he would do once aboard, but in the time it had taken him to get this far, Ivan had resolved to sabotage the ship and prevent the CGC from mounting a defense on Ganymede. The act would save millions of pilgrim lives, at the cost of his own. An easy trade-off, if only he could find the strength within him to carry out the task. The real shame was that all the data he had collected would be lost with him, but the cost was well worth it in his opinion.
As his hands hovered frantically over the controls to the GRAV cooling system, he heard footsteps approaching from behind.
“Having doubts?” He turned suddenly to face the young CISyn guru, Agent Asher, who had joined up at the asteroid belt along with Howler’s battalion, and Jylan Rathe. He bore a smug grin, and a Colt-Burton aimed at Ivan’s chest. He hesitated in pulling the trigger, perhaps concerned about the damage he might cause to the cooling system by doing so.
“It seems you’re having some doubts yourself,” Ivan taunted, but his fun was short-lived when a second CISyn agent appeared from around the corner: Jylan Rathe.
“Hello, Mr. McCarr. I trust you know me? In any case, I have an offer to make.” Rathe stepped forward, and Ivan used the opportunity to quickly dash right, forcing Rathe between Asher and himself in the narrow corridor. As if sensing his thoughts, Asher leaped to the side at precisely the same moment and fired a plasma bolt that caught Ivan between the third and fourth rib, taking the wind out of him. He slumped to the floor, defeated, and Rathe moved over to offer him a hand in getting up.
“As I was saying, Mr. McCarr, I can get you out of this mess you’re in. All you have to do is trust that I can.”
“What’s going to happen if he doesn’t comply?” Asher inquired, and Rathe smiled without turning his cold, green eyes away from Ivan.
“I believe you already know the answer to that, Agent.”
The secret Jylan Rathe managed to keep throughout the entirety of the Ganymede campaign was that Ivan McCarr had never been a wild card. Rathe had known of the technician’s duplicity all along, had been tracking him for months. What he was waiting for was an opportunity to exploit this knowledge in favor of fostering trust between CISyn and the CGC. When information regarding the latter’s anticipation of Gongen hostilities had fallen mysteriously into McCarr’s hands, Rathe knew the moment for intervention had come. Howler commended Lace Asher for his quick thinking and intuition during the voyage, and later he took it upon himself to send a handwritten letter of recognition to the CGC on Asher’s behalf.
In the end, the Gongen never discovered how the CGC had known about their attack, though they had their suspicions. Betrayal carried a harsh penalty in Gongen society, a lesson that kept Ivan McCarr awake at night. He had sold his allegience and was now acting as a triple-agent for CISyn, keeping the intelligence firm constantly apprised of new developments taking place on the red rock.
Rathe continued to gather as many kizen as his remote coordinators could find, and put each of them through the same reconditioning program, to remove any possibility of divided loyalties. His people would serve him, and him alone. If his actions ever attracted CISyn’s notice, he would be fired and imprisoned at the Gula Mons Correctional Facility, if not worse. If, however, he could save Earth through his actions, he felt the risk was well worth it. The CGC could not win this war in its current state. It required outside parties – like Rathe himself – to guide it in the desired direction.
Paul never got his money back for covering Lace’s tab.