“What is a life? Jumbled memories of people and places best left forgotten. Jumbled fragments of might-have-beens and whiffs of dreams destroyed. It is a maze of dead ends and broken paths where each event, each turning point, is like the murder of an unborn self, until you are finally left with but one path to follow, and have become what you were never meant to be.” –Tony Rothman, The World is Round
Gau Shesharrim studied the defenses around the target he would kill that night. He tapped the holographic map’s corners to zoom in on points of interest, loosing a little sigh as he did so. The alien air cycled comfortably through his lungs. He needed maps for his briefings, but the schematics disappointed him. A flat piece of holo foil could never express all the nuances of the real building with its hidden nooks and sharp, concealing corners. All the parts vital to his work.
“So tell me,” said the other Osk beside him. “Do you think you can kill this woman?”
Gau turned his gaze from the table. Teven, the Osk running the briefing, was a nervous creature displaying the low-level anxiety and nervous tics of an official of middling influence. He’d been hovering by the holotable the whole time, offering useless speculations about the guard and defenses of the building depicted in the incomplete map. Gau had ignored him as he scanned through what intelligence there was.
He let his teeth show in the edge of a smile. “Easily.” Gau’s voice was a dry rustle the other Osk had to lean forward to hear. “Getting to her and then out will be the hard part. Still, the guard seems to be light, and the building itself offers plenty of hiding places for those with a little imagination."
"If I felt it was beneath your capabilities the task would go to another. Don't take this lightly.”
“I never take missions lightly.” Gau’s professional mask never moved, but inside he suppressed a sneer. From his appearance alone it was clear Teven was neither soldier nor seph. He had never fought or killed. The dark mane framing his long snout was cut short in the style of a noncombatant. Under the loose white robes emblazoned with the crest of Za colony, Teven looked underfed, the gray flesh of his torso and spindly arms stretched tight over the bone. He lacked the muscles of a fighter. Gau wondered if the blades hidden in the bony sheaths that grew under the other Osk’s arms had ever seen use. The bone will be sharp but brittle. And yellow, he thought. Yellow like a new hatchling’s.
Gau let his smile creep wider, closing teeth on his contempt. “I am merely assessing the mission aloud for your benefit.”
Teven dipped his snout in acknowledgment. “If you have any misgivings with the assignment, or the intelligence…”
“I don’t,” said Gau. “There won’t be any problems.”
"That's a fine attitude, if your objective is to get killed." A new voice, full and sharp as a hand slapped on sunbaked stone.
The hapless official almost jumped out of his robes. Gau turned from the table to face the new Osk, his face a lid over his own surprise. He’d been caught off guard; that didn’t happen often.
"And who exactly are you, to say that?" Gau asked the newcomer icily.
The Osk leaning next to the door was taller and broader than Gau, with the body of a fighter; Gau could see that even through the dark traveling cloak that draped his chest and lithe abdomen. Beneath the cloak, segmented seph armor sheathed the Osk’s legs and lower body down to his conical tail. A bright red mane spilled in an uncut cascade down his back.
Four armored boots clacked on the ceramic floor as the new Osk stepped closer and inclined his head.
"Mose Attarrish. A registered seph like yourself. And a specialist in remote reconnaissance. I collected the data for the map you’ll be using. I received permission to attend this briefing in case you had any questions about the schematic. Otherwise we've never met before, but I have heard of your... work."
"Ah." Gau's tone thawed by a fraction. "And I have heard of yours." For a moment, the two sephs appraised each other. Gau could read nothing in the dark orbs of Attarish’s eyes, and his scent was a similar blank. Yet he could imagine what the other seph was thinking. He would be trying to see past the physical fact of Gau--- not much taller than a child, rawboned and wiry, soft of voice and stance--- to what everyone knew. Attarish would be trying to see him as Gau Shesharrim, the greatest seph in Za; Gau, who had killed more Terran leaders than any of the rest of them; Gau, who might yet win them the war.
Teven bobbed into Gau’s field of vision. “If you have no further concerns, I suggest you begin preparations for the flight.” He rubbed his hands together. “It is long, and since you must arrive at night…”
“Yes.” Gau cut him off. Actually, he was grateful for the nervous official’s interjection. Now Gau wouldn’t have to find out if Attarish was one of those admiring types who grew disappointed at the fact of him. And he was impatient to be off, doing what he did best. Gau stalked past Attarish to the vertex of the seedpod-shaped chamber. Its white walls peeled away, a doorway blossoming onto the corridor beyond.
“Tell the hangar to prep Carnivore. I’ll be ready to leave in a sixty.”
Blasted rock stretched to the horizon as Gau piloted the Carnivore above the dead lands that separated Za colony from Nheris. Altitude washed out most of the details, but if he squinted, Gau could make out whorls and tortured escarpments of volcanic rock swooping toward the glimmer of ocean behind him and stretching interminably ahead. The sky above was a black dome even in daylight; his ship scraped the upper layers of the planet’s atmosphere, almost in orbit.
Gau’s craft shared the skies with around five thousand ships at any given time, scattered around the upper atmosphere and orbit of Olios 3. Less than half of them were Osk, though the Fleet was busily growing itself larger whenever it received a new influx of material from Oskaran, which wasn’t often. The rest of the orbital presence, halfway around the planet’s rim, belonged to the Terran Expansion.
Despite harassment from Osk ships, the Terran fleet was growing every day. Terran nanoassemblies could construct ships in a matter of hours; the Fleet had to wait weeks for its ships to gestate and fuse their biomechanical parts—and get blown apart by Terran guns while they waited. A few sephs had been sent on missions to sabotage the nanoassemblies, with minimal success. Gau’s kind were not spacers—they were planet dwellers with spacefaring technology. The difference shaped Osk strategy: if Za were to win Olios 3, it would win it on the surface, using people like Gau.
Night had fallen by the time Gau landed on the outskirts of Nheris. The Terran capitol clung to a tiny strip of arable land between the planet’s massive ocean and the moonscape of cooled lava that spilled across its single continent. The terrain around Za was much the same. Terraforming Olios 3 was a dream, lurking beyond the unknowable horizon of peace; neither colony could devote resources to such plans in the middle of a war.
Carnivore settled silently into a wooded strip at the edge of Terran territory and switched off its sensor-jamming systems. The hull of the flattened ellipsoid had camouflaged for the journey, turning the ship into a blotch of shadow. A door petaled open in its side.
From the doorway Gau scanned his surroundings, flicking his gaze from side to side. A meager parkland of stunted trees stretched to the horizon. Gau caught sight of an outpost on the horizon’s edge but he could see no movement there.
He stepped from the safety of his craft and began to check each piece of his articulated black armor, tugging on the fastenings of his chest plate, flexible gorget, greaves, and vambraces. All secure. He lifted up the angular helmet with its segmented neck plates, brushed his black mane out from beneath it, settled the headpiece again. Pulled on his armored gloves, checking to make sure the openings to the bony sheaths on his arms weren’t blocked by gauntlet or greave. Gau turned back toward Carnivore and sent a command through the circuits in his armor. The lines of the craft blurred into a collage of black and white, darkened to gray, then leapt back into focus in the image of a large boulder. The camouflage program was one of several modifications Gau had made to the craft, a gift from Za’s government when he had first arrived on Olios 3 to aid the war. Any Osk leaders worth serving provided a personal craft to the sephs they employed, to give them the mobility for their missions of protection, sabotage, and legal murder.
Gau slipped into the cover of the trees and started toward the city center, moving like the shadow he'd been trained to be.
The military building’s security system was controlled by a simple keyboard code. Gau hacked through the firewall and stepped soundlessly into a vast dark lobby, senses alert for threats.
It was deserted. Carpeting muffled any echoes that might have betrayed approaching footsteps. Gau scented the air and picked up the telltale tang of Terran musk, like citrus cut with sweat… but it was hours old and fading, barely there over the sickening miasma of Olios 3’s oxygen-dense atmosphere. Even after two years in Za, the scent of the air still made Gau’s lungs prickle with its unnaturalness. He still had to remind himself there was no danger: the organic implants inside his lungs manufactured all the end-stage gases he needed, making the differences in the planet’s gas composition trivial. Without implants, he wouldn’t be standing here at all, breathing this alien atmosphere.
Empty thoughts, and distracting too. He banished them and walked past the desk fronting the lobby to the T-intersection beyond, footsteps muffled by his acoustic-absorbing boots.
Gau paused to double-check his suit map for the fastest route. He’d started to turn left when a warning light flashed, casting an unpleasantly bright glare inside his helmet: a guard patrol was approaching from the left hallway. His path chosen by default, Gau raced silently down the right corridor.
Five hours later, Gau checked his in-suit clock and swore silently. He’d found no trace of Shanazkowitz’s apartment. The general’s quarters must have already moved.
Every military complex in Nheris was a mix of both administrative and residential spaces, a security tactic designed to avoid creating obvious clusters of targets. For an extra layer of security, VIPs and other military assets rotated from building to building on a frequently changing schedule. Deciphering Terran communiqués and tracking these schedule changes were ongoing tasks within Za intelligence. Gau had trusted Mose Attarish’s expertise; his tracking skills had netted Za’s sephs many kills.
But this time Attarish’s intelligence was wrong.
Gau whipped around the next corner and almost bumped into a guard standing watch before a plain metal door. His frustration dissolved into alarm as the man whirled to face him, clawing the radio unit from his belt. In one automatic motion, Gau's blades slid from their sheaths, two sharp bone shafts as long as a tall Terran’s arm. Gau lunged at the guard and slashed once---expertly.
There was a gout of crimson blood. The guard's right hand thudded to the floor in the center of a spreading pool, gripping the radio unit in dying fingers. The cords of his neck tightened to scream, but Gau was on him, cutting off the cry in a second red spray. The Terran dropped bonelessly to the floor, gurgled once, and was still.
Gau wiped his blades on the man's shirt, taking a moment to savor the velvety feel and rich smell of the blood. Then he held their white lengths up for inspection and smiled. Their perfectly honed edges were clean and ready once more.
He stepped over the body to the metal door. Speed was of the essence. There was a good chance the guard's radio silence would arouse security’s suspicion soon. Gau had to decide if he would stay to investigate this room. If he left this building, he’d have to abort the mission; return to Za with Shanazkowitz alive. Gau had to be out of Nheris by dawn, and he’d spent half the dark period wandering around the wrong building. He would not be able to find the general’s new quarters, infiltrate it and complete the kill in time.
Gau knew what his nervous superior would recommend… but suns if he was going to fly back to Za empty-handed! Maybe Shanazkowitz wasn’t behind this door, but to his eye it was promising in other ways. At first glance, the door looked like all the others--a windowless sheet of metal with a hand scanner next to the doorknob. But there had been a guard, something no other individual door merited.
His curiosity up, Gau tried the knob. Locked. A smile touched Gau’s snout as he extended just the tip of his right blade and inserted it in the seam between the door and its frame. He jiggled the blade in tiny movements, just enough to jog the primitive lock open. A tiny vibration traveled from the lock up his blade, and Gau allowed himself an inward chuckle.
A wave of nauseating agony swept the length of his body. Gau felt his insides clench until he had to throw up, his brownish vomit splattering the door and carpet. His muscles were in the grip of a demonic puppeteer, arching his back and limbs into a bow of pain till he was gasping for breath. It took all he had to wrench his righthand blade out of the crack between door and frame.
His legs collapsed under him. Gau fell face first to the soiled carpet, muscles still twitching, smelling and tasting his own bile.
But the pain lessened to a dull ache. Gau lay and breathed for a few moments before struggling to his knees. He retracted his right blade with a wince. The muscles in his right arm felt on fire from the energy that had pulsed through them.
The lock was electrified.
Stupefied, Gau stared at the door. A red blinking light had come on beside the hand scanner. His brain was still numb with shock, thoughts as heavy as lead weights, he knew he’d triggered an alarm. He grabbed the dead guard’s hand and slapped it against the scanner. The light turned green and Gau exhaled slowly. He hauled himself to all four feet and began to examine his injuries.
The exposed flesh around his right wrist had been seared from a healthy gray to charcoal black, and the part of his mane not covered by the neck plate had frizzed to ash. As Gau unbuckled his chest plate and peeled it back from his skin, he saw that the underlying flesh was only darkened a little. Yet the plates of the suit itself were brittle and cracking from the electricity. He looked between his chestplate and the door, then gingerly fastened the plates back in place.
Gau grinned weakly as he realized that here was finally something worth investigating.
Gau hung in a ventilation shaft five meters above the room’s carpeted floor, harnessed to the vent’s ceiling by a flexible metal cable. He’d disposed of the guard’s body with the assistance of a well-placed garbage chute. By the time his disappearance was noted, the Terran would be nothing but a pile of ashes in the basement incinerator.
A fan spanned the opening of the vent: he stared into the chamber through a blur of rotating blades that blasted a stream of cool air past him. Behind the fan’s whirring blades, a black box the size of Gau's clenched fist had been mounted on the wall, topped with a blinking red light. A belt ran from a cylinder underneath the box to the fan’s motor. Thick cables wired the cylinder to the black box itself.
After a moment, Gau grasped the strange setup: the fan’s motor rotated the belt, which in turn rotated the cylinder monitored by the black box. If something stopped the fan, the box would send an alarm to the nearest guard station.
The wire was the weak spot, but it was blocked by the fan blades, and at this speed those edges looked sharp enough to strip flesh from bone. Gau covered his eyes briefly in exasperation, then began reeling in his harness. He had a control panel to find.
Gau found the panel in the third cross vent he checked, a patch of lighter gray at the far end of the shaft. The vacant vent revealed a crisscrossing web of yellow security lasers in the spray from his wrist-mounted aerosol. Gau felt the heat coming off them and grimaced: they were second generation, the kind that burned anyone unlucky enough to trip the alarm.
Gau wondered if he might have been better off trying to find a way past the electrified door. But since that memory still brought him out in a cold sweat, he decided against it. He didn't ever want to feel that kind of pain again if he could help it. The bite of a laser was less than nothing compared to having five thousand volts shoot through one's body.
Besides, he had something for this contingency. Gau felt for the appropriate compartment at his waist, and extracted a long silver tube edged with hundreds of jointed appendages. The robot uncoiled onto the vent floor and undulated under the lasers toward the control panel at the far end.
Gau smiled; he loved technology.
Back in the vertical vent, the fan blades moved at a comfortable working speed. Gau lowered his cable a fraction and activated his handheld plasma cutter: he felt the subtle vibration as it went live, the metal cutting shaft glowing green.
A fan blade obscured the wire for a moment, then it lay exposed, a vein waiting to be sliced asunder. Gau slashed the cutter down and cleaved the wire in two, its cut ends smoking from the heat. Gau ripped the black box from the vent's wall before it could send its alarm signal, flipping open a door in its underside and tearing out its electronic viscera with a gloved hand. He affixed a small sphere of metal to the fan head. This quickly expanded into a silver net which draped and enmeshed each fan blade to immobilize it. Gau could see the fan straining to continue its rotation; he would have to move quickly.
Lowering his cable through a space between two blades, Gau descended until he hung in the center of the room. His brief visual scan yielded both relief and disappointment: the room was empty of guards; Gau had no sense that he was discreetly watched from camera or telepresence 'bot. On the other hand, there didn't seem to be much of anything else in the room either: no high-tech experimental weaponry, no vats full of deadly germ cultures, no anything that had crossed his mind as the reason for such high security.
Gau scanned the room a second time, thought about it, made himself really see it… and this time his eye caught something he’d dismissed. The room was largely empty—except for an oak desk on the office's left side. Paper files lay stacked on one corner of the desk, next to the console panel.
Gau lowered himself bit by bit until all four feet touched the floor, then pushed the button to detach the cable. He left it hanging from the vent. Walking over to the desk, he noticed the shiny finish on the oak—a very expensive wood to transport to Olios 3, especially through supply lines that could be ambushed by Osk ships at any time. Most Terran officials made use of Olios 3's own trees for wood, though it was somewhat porous and didn't take nearly as well to varnish. Only high-ranking officers could afford imported wood. Was this, then, General Shanazkowitz's office?
The console on the desk answered that question. Most of the files inside were petty affairs: pending bills needing approval and letters whining about the way Nheris was being run. The Terran city was a nominal democracy, but it was still a war colony; the military still had broad powers of martial law, up to and including powers of legislation, and Shanazkowitz was military liaison to Nheris colony.
Gau turned his attention to the paper hard files. Most seemed innocuous enough: policy in the process of being drafted, confidential letters. He snapped pictures of them just to be thorough. After moving these to one side, Gau saw a set of folders underneath marked with the Expansion military’s official seal of confidentiality: a blazon of invisible adhesive designed to show up only under a black light. The seal was a neon beacon in the wavelengths Gau saw. A document as thick as one of his fingers filled the folder, marked with "CLASSIFIED" on the cover in red Terran script.
Gau placed one hand on the seal, letting the circuits inside the glove analyze its chemical composition. The fingertips of the glove glowed red with heat, and the adhesive seal peeled off in a single piece. Gau put it to one side and opened up the folder.
At first the file read like gibberish. Gau flipped through whole sections of the document without finding anything he understood, even though his English was fluent and he’d read Terran military documents before. His guts clenched with an echo of pain as he wondered if he'd been wasting his time here.
Gau turned the next page on a detailed sketch of the inside of an Osk's lungs. Looking closer, he saw with mounting horror that it wasn't a sketch but a photograph. The lungs had been completely removed from the body and dissected on a steel table, all four chambers separated into two halves like bloody flower petals.
The ravaged tissues were a dark teal, whitened by the skein of artificial alveoli blanketing each wedge of tissue. He'd taken it for a sketch at first due to the writing and marks superimposed over the image: arrows pointed to different sections of the alveoli net; many of the nodes spaced about each lung were circled or starred.
Gau felt a hot anger boil up inside him; a feeling he had not experienced in full for a long time. For a moment he didn’t know why this picture should make him so angry. It wasn't as though he cared about the fate of the butchered Osk, not really. The victim had probably been captured on a mission, and any seph who could botch a mission that badly was not worthy of the title. Whoever the lungs belonged to had deserved to die, that was sure.
What angered him was that the Terrans had the gall to do this; that they would have done it to any Osk they’d captured, even him, as unlikely as that was. Gau had made his name feared throughout Nheris colony: in the three years Gau had fought for Za, he had killed twelve Terran officials of prominence, some with military records, and countless foot soldiers. He had bombed, sniped, and slashed his way to infamy, and, he’d thought, to a kind of immortality. He thought he’d carved himself a place in the world.
Yet even with everything he’d become to the Terran side, if Gau were captured his end would be as ignominious as the idiot whose vital organs were spread out on that table. Slaughtered like an animal and cut up for spare parts. Gau’s name, his deeds, simply wouldn’t matter.
Gau's gaze fell upon the page opposite the once-living diagram. He started scanning it automatically. Froze. His breath coming faster through his open mouth, Gau carefully reread the page.
And the next.
And the next.
With a slightly shaking hand, Gau closed the file and sealed it again. He stared into space for a few minutes, rocking back on his heels and thinking.
He was about to climb back into the vent when he heard a horrible shearing sound above him. Gau’s head snapped up in time to see the fan blades break their bindings and hurl them to one side of the vent. Its pent-up energy released, the fan motor sped the blades into a blur of edged metal. The silver web landed heavily on one side, tilting the fan directly into its own supports. Its blades sliced through the metal stanchions in a hail of sparks, scattering shrapnel from the vent’s mouth in a deadly rain. With a shriek of twisting metal, the fan plummeted like a miniature helicopter out of fuel.
A shell-shocked Gau twisted out of the way as it crashed to the floor. The fan spun in crazy circles, ripping carpet and stirring up papers in angry gusts, as if seeking vengeance for its temporary imprisonment. For a moment it caught on the corner of the desk---and in that instant Gau heard what he'd been dreading.
"What the hell was that?"
"Sounded like something coming loose." Then came the clunk of boots running down the hallway. Cursing under his breath, Gau searched for an escape route. Unless they were blind and had no sense of smell, the guards were sure to see the vomit splattered across the door. They would shut down the whole building and search it until they’d uncovered every hiding place. If he chose the vent again, he'd just be trapping himself. Gau spotted the window behind the desk. It was time to leave.
Gau climbed onto the rocking desk and cued Carnivore with the radar bracelet around one wrist. He grinned as the homing beacon began to blink. His smile disappeared as the boots stopped outside the door.
Gau heard Terran voices conferring lowly. “Is that…”
“Get your gun out.”
The key turned in the lock, and the two guards opened the door on a very strange scene.
The fan spun halfheartedly in the center of the room, as though wondering if it was worth it to take its revenge any further. Concentric rings of torn carpet rippled out from the fan to the scarred desk at the back wall. A shadow stood atop the desk, a darker patch of night the size of a tall boy or small man.
Gau watched the two Terrans’ eyes adjust, their puny round pupils dilating in the gloom. He saw them stiffen in the familiar fright response. But would they fly, or fight?
“Oh, Jesus,” the shorter one whispered, fumbling for his sidearm. “It’s one of them.” He pulled a snub-nosed projectile weapon from his belt. “Freeze! Don’t move!”
“I believe those two expressions mean the same thing in your language.” Gau gave them what he hoped was a disarming smile, keeping his eyes on the gun as he edged backward.
“Keep your eyes on it,” said the other guard. “Don’t let it get too close.” He fished out his own pistol and drew a bead on Gau. Eyes fixed on him as though he could somehow repel Gau with his gaze. He slapped his hand down to his radio unit and brought it close to his face. “This is Unit 1-9, repeat 1-9 requesting back up. Send an armed team to---”
So they choose fight after all. Pity. Gau took a final step backward and let himself drop.
The guards yelled and raced to the glass wall behind the desk--- a wall which had two of its large panes removed. Gau had let himself fall backward into empty space.
A hot breeze filled the room, and the empty air outside the window shimmered into the shape of Gau's stealth ship Carnivore. He’d landed in a crouch atop of his craft, just below the office window. Now it manifested the pearly white hull and bold black running stripes of its default design. His four feet wide apart, Gau balanced on the craft’s hull and whipped a handheld laser pistol from its compartment along his side.
Before the Terrans could move, Gau fired into the room. The recoilless weapon sent a shaft of molten orange light into the office's ceiling, inscribing an arc of blackened ceiling tiles as Gau swung the weapon in a wide circle. Rebar twisted and cracked as the ceiling fell in on the guards. Their screams rose above the rubble, but not for long.
It was a long flight back to Za across Olios 3’s continent-devouring wasteland. But Gau was grateful for the time. Old memories had stirred in him this night: for the first time in the three years since he’d come to Olios 3, Gau found himself thinking of Aival in the present tense. Though unnamed, the presence of that powerful Terran world had lurked around every page of the secret document in Shanazkowitz’s office.
Gau had a lot of planning to do; a lot of questions to answer. And he would have to move fast---the most pressing matter seemed to have too many answers already.
“Fate’s Shears”? He turned the name over again, and a shudder reached to the bottom of his chest. Disgust at his fear rose in him; then he remembered the Osk’s lungs laid on that steel table, its vital parts mapped out like a city for the taking.
He pushed the Carnivore faster.