tagSci-Fi & FantasyOr Die Alone

Or Die Alone



He pushed through the crowd of traders, his scuffed boots kicking up dust from the arid ground as he passed by market stalls selling strange, alien fruits and scrap parts. The colorful tarps that shielded the merchants from the sun surrounded him on both sides of the street, prefab buildings had been erected to form a rudimentary town whose white, industrial structures stood out against the surrounding desert and scrubland. Panhandlers tried to accost him, foisting their strange wares into his gloved hands, but he shouldered past them and continued on his way. He wore a brown duster, his shoulders wrapped in a ragged cape with a hood that obscured his features, all the better to blend in with the colonists. They would not see the UNN issue XMH handgun that he carried on his hip, nor the environment suit that he wore beneath his disguise, its moisture recyclers keeping him cool in the searing heat of this system's star.

Hades was an outlying human colony, a recent effort by corporate conglomerates back on Earth to expand their operations into deep space, populated almost exclusively by miners and outlaws fleeing crimes on their home worlds. The corporations needed able bodies for their colonization efforts most of all, to man their equipment, to mine and extract the resources that funded their ventures. It was common to see law breakers sign up to escape punishment for their crimes, from debtors to murderers, the colony ships would take anyone who showed up and signed the waivers. It was a widely-known secret that these companies were perfectly aware of who they were hiring, but plausible deniability let them dodge fines and sanctions.

Hades was different however the fledgling colony was becoming a haven for hard criminals and organized gangs, mobsters and pirates had been gaining more of a foothold on this remote planet than the Admiralty cared for. The final straw had been a pirate attack against a UNN jump freighter carrying weapons for the planetary defense forces stationed on Hades. Conscripts and weekend warriors for the most part, but necessary in wartime, as it was logistically difficult to send ships out here. The vessel had been hit when it had exited superlight just outside the planet's orbit, the pirates taking advantage of the brief period of disorientation that followed long range jumps to board the freighter with a skiff and overwhelm its skeleton crew. They had had made off with a number of heavy weapons, no doubt to be sold off on the black market and shipped all over Coalition space.

They would have known that they couldn't steal the freighter, it would be impossible to hide or sell off a jump-capable vessel, as monumentally large and expensive to operate as they were. But the sheer audacity of the raid showed that there had been a shift in attitude on Hades, something had changed here, and Agent Boyd had been tasked with finding out what that was.

He had spent a week undercover after posing as a corporate hiree and boarding a colony ship, later making contact with an informant willing to sell information, his price being an official pardon for any crimes committed and a ticket back to Earth. Boyd was authorized to make such deals, and so he had agreed to the man's terms, and was now on his way to meet him at a local tavern.

His contact had claimed to be a gang member who had become disgruntled with life on Hades, refusing to communicate via unencrypted channels and demanding a face-to-face meeting, wishing to ensure that Boyd wasn't some mob honey trap. Boyd was equally wary, this could just as easily be a setup to draw out UNN spies, but he felt confident with the comforting weight of his handgun on his hip as he made his way through the throngs.

There were families here too, he could see women and a few children milling about, clad in long cloaks and robes that would shield them from the dust and heat. They were the real victims, people who had taken advantage of corporate incentives in order to make a go of it out here, to start a new life on the frontier. Rather than finding opportunity here, they had found themselves thrust into the middle of a criminal empire, likely given little choice but to keep their heads down and cooperate. The higher ups that funded these ventures didn't care as long as the resources kept flowing and the colonies turned a profit, and with no way to hold them accountable, the corporate entities and the local criminal organizations formed a kind of symbiotic relationship where it was in the interest of both to ignore the other. Everything ran smoothly, until somebody went too far, and then the UNN had to get involved.

He spied the tavern in the distance, an ugly prefab in shades of grey and white, a series of pillars on its outer walls that drilled into the ground when deployed and secured the building to the surface. There was a neon sign above its entrance that was almost completely encased in dust and filth, it was hard to tell if it was even turned on. He could see solar panel arrays on the flat roof that would presumably power the structure, along with a satellite receiver, its bowl full of sand. What a miserable planet. When humanity had first joined the Coalition, so much new territory had opened up for lease or claim, dozens of fresh worlds to colonize and exploit. But there was a finite number of hospitable planets in range of Earth, and as they ran out of options, their chosen worlds became less and less appealing.

To top it all off, Hades was skirting the border of Coalition space, beyond which the risk of attack by hostile alien races rose exponentially. These people must have been desperate to come here, and desperate people were the most dangerous of all.

He arrived at the entrance to the tavern, and the automatic door opened to allow him through, stepping into the dingy interior as it closed behind him with a crunch as sand became trapped in its mechanism. Boyd dropped his hood, exposing his face, still obscured by his goggles and a respirator. His dark hair was matted with sweat, and he wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his duster, finding that the gesture only served to glue more sand to his damp skin.

There weren't many people in the tavern, it was cramped and poorly lit, clouds of tobacco smoke floated in the air to further obscure its occupants. There were only a dozen tables scattered about, and the bartender watched him from behind a counter as the few patrons turned to stare at him. They were dressed much as he was, cloaks, hoods and masks. Anything to protect themselves from the blowing sand and the relentless sunlight that beat down on the planet.

Boyd took a few steps forward, his contact could be any one of these people, even the barman couldn't be ruled out. How would he know which one it was?

He made his way over to the bar and sat down on one of the stools, banging his gloved fist on the faux-wood counter top.

"Barkeep," he rasped through his respirator, "got liqueur?"

"Got scrip?"

"Aye," he replied, pulling a handful of plastic coins from his pocket and dropping them on the counter. They didn't use UNN currency out here, the employees were paid in vouchers, small plastic tokens that could be redeemed for goods and services. Wage slavery of a sort, yet another grey area of the law that was exploited out in these remote colonies where the long arm of the law did not reach.

The bartender picked up one of the coins in his fingers, holding the plastic disk to the light and letting it shine through the transparent center, its intricate and hard to reproduce markings intended to prevent forgery. Satisfied, though still wary, the barkeeper scooped the coins off the counter and turned to open a liqueur cabinet behind him.

"I have rum, tequila, vodka, gin..."

"Gin," Boyd crackled, his respirator serving both as a protective rebreather, and to mask his voice with a hidden modulator. The man poured a glass of the colorless liquid, then slid it across the countertop, Boyd catching it in his hand and extending a built-in straw from his mask to take a draw. He felt vulnerable here, with his back to the room, but he had to keep up appearances until the informant revealed himself. There were always new workers being shipped in and so it would not be unusual to see unfamiliar faces, he should be safe for the time being, even in a hole in the wall such as this.

Damn it, didn't they have a jukebox? Some music would ease this tension, and mask the noise of the incessant coughing and the hissing of respirators. The bartender was not chatty, ignoring Boyd as he washed glasses with a filthy rag, leaving him to sip at his gin. His goggles were tinted to protect him from the harsh sunlight, and so he was able to turn his head and observe the patrons without being too obvious, scanning his eyes over the hunched figures as they drank or played card games at their tables. None seemed too interested in him, that was a good sign, the shifts in the mines were over and these people were likely exhausted after a hard day's work. He wondered briefly how many of them were criminals, who had outstanding debts and who was fleeing alimony payments, who might have murdered their spouse or fled from the scene of a hit and run. Every person you met in these colonies was under suspicion, the man working the stall beside yours could be a rapist who had posted bail and then boarded a colony ship under a false name, there was no way to know.

That wasn't his job however, his job was to find out who had stolen those weapons, and what had happened to make them think that they could get away with it.

A man sat heavily on the stool to his left, portly and wearing a stained tank top, his lack of protective gear indicating either that he had been here for a while or that he worked in the tavern. He was fidgeting, nervous, shifting his weight as he drummed his fingers on the bar. This was his man.

"Are you here to meet someone," the man asked, trying to sound casual and failing. He must not be completely sure that it was Boyd who he had been waiting for.

"I believe we spoke on the phone," Boyd replied. "As you requested, I have come to buy the...item in person."

Relieved, the portly man exhaled, relaxing somewhat as he leaned on the counter.

"Yeah, I have it in the back, do you want to inspect it?"

"I'll follow you."

Good idea, there would be less chance of them being overheard. Boyd finished his drink, and got up from his stool to follow the man towards a door at the back of the building. Not the restrooms, surely? No, the informant opened a door into a store room, closing it behind Boyd as he stepped inside. There were crates stacked against the walls, and shelves with bottles and produce, the man checking the room hurriedly as Boyd waited for him to calm down.

"Ok, I think we're alone, I'm pretty sure." The informant wiped his brow with his hand and took a seat on a nearby crate, the container sagging a little under his weight. "You never know who could be listening, the syndicate controls this colony, they have eyes and ears everywhere. Not here though, not here, I made sure of it."

"You said that you had information to sell," Boyd said, getting straight to the point.

"Yes, yes, but first I need you to prove that you are who you say you are. I need to know that this isn't some kind of setup to draw out rats before I tell you anything."

"Very well," Boyd replied, unbuttoning his duster and reaching beneath it. The man flinched away, scared for a moment that Boyd was drawing on him, but he withdrew a leather wallet and held it up to the informant. The man leaned closer, squinting.

"There's nothing there, no badge, nothing."

Boyd removed one of his gloves and pressed his finger against a hidden print scanner in the back of the wallet, and a holographic badge flared to life, the insignia of the United Nations Naval Intelligence clearly visible along with his name and rank. His contact stared at it, awestruck for a moment, then tried to collect himself.

"Ok, ok, fuck me. You're UNNI? I didn't realize things were that bad, you'll keep your word though, right? You'll protect me if I talk?"

"Yes, I am authorized to make deals, now it's your turn. Tell me what you know about the stolen weapons."

"Ok, yeah, yeah." He was pacing now, agitated, his eyes darting about the room. "Fifteen MANPADS, SAMs, surface to air missiles with EMP warheads designed to take down low-flying spacecraft. They were en route to the PDF, those fucking useless conscripts, but the syndicate hit the transport freighter. Never seen anything like it before, nobody has ever hit a UNN jump freighter, nobody has ever had the balls. The syndicate does though."

"What is this 'syndicate' you keep talking about?"

"You'll protect me, right? You'll vouch for me? I want it on record that I had no choice. I'm not the bad guy here, they control everything, and if you don't fall in line they'll put one in the back of your head and dump your body in a septic tank."

The man was rambling, obviously terrified, Boyd needed to calm him down and get him back on track.

"This is all being recorded, the UNN is bound by any agreements I make with you, just tell me what you know and everything will be fine. I can transfer UNN credits into your account and get you off planet within the week if you provide me with useful information, you have my word."

"Alright, yeah," he said, wiping his mouth with the back his hairy hand. "The syndicate, they're everyone. The pirates, the smugglers, the gangs. There are separatists and mobsters and criminals, they all united under the same banner out here, call themselves 'the syndicate'. It's easier that way, they're not competing against eachother, and the UNN is so far away that they won't draw any attention. At least that's what they thought...Naval Intelligence, Jesus Christ. They brought the Ninnies down on our heads."

Boyd ignored the derogatory nickname, pushing the man for more information.

"Please focus. So this 'syndicate' stole the weapons? Why? Do they intend to fence them?"

"No, no that isn't the half of it. They want control over the colony, completely, they want to drive the pencil pushers out and claim Hades as sovereign territory. Billions of credits worth of resources get extracted from colonies like this one every year, and the syndicate wants control over that wealth, if they control the cash flow then they'll be more than criminals. They would have the resources to stake their claim, and then defend it, from corporate security and even from the UNN if need be."

"Why would they try to take over the planet? It was my understanding that the criminal organizations had unspoken truces with the corporations funding the colonization efforts. Is that no longer the case?"

"Like I said, they want the resources, and this is the first time a colony has been remote enough and poorly defended enough for them to try it. Not everyone here is a criminal though, plenty of families here too, people coming to Hades for work. The syndicate is telling them that the UNN can't protect them here, and that they're the only ones who can. They proved it in a way, the UNN couldn't defend their own freighter and the syndicate was able to rob them blind, that was a statement that the people here can't trust the authorities. They're banking on you not responding, they're gambling that you guys won't divert ships from the war effort to handle an insurrection on some shitty colony nobody gives a fuck about."

"We do care, that's why I'm here," Boyd replied. "It's a full-blown insurrection then? This is worse than we thought, much worse, if that's all you can tell me then I need to get this information off-planet as quickly as possible."

"Yeah, yeah, absolutely. You have a ship in orbit or anything like that? Anyone backing you up out here? I'm not a big player, I can't call in any favors to get a message out."

"No, I came in on a colony ship..." Boyd found himself reaching reflexively towards his hip. "But why do you need to know that?"

The informant's demeanor changed abruptly. Gone was the anxious, pacing man, now his stare was stone cold. Boyd recognized that expression, he had seen it before, those were the eyes of a killer.

"Thank you, Agent Boyd, that was all we needed to know."

Boyd made to draw his handgun, but too late he heard the sound of the door opening behind him, his world going dark as a rifle butt hit the back of his head.

Boyd awoke to darkness, his vision obscured and his face covered by rough fabric. He wasn't dead then, at least not yet, that was good. He tasted blood in his mouth, and he had a cracking headache, but if he could still feel then he could still fight. The burlap bag was unceremoniously torn from his head, exposing him to sudden brightness, and he squinted against the light as dark shapes moved around him. When his eyes adjusted he found himself in a spacious room with a high ceiling, some kind of warehouse maybe, shelves all around him stacked floor to ceiling with nondescript boxes and containers. There were five men surrounding him, three wore full-faced helmets and wielded XMR rifles, their uniform that of the local PDF. One man he didn't recognize, and one he did, his would-be informant. The man began to circle around his chair as the rest looked on, playing with a butterfly knife, Boyd turning his head to follow him as he walked.

"You know boss, I gotta be honest. When you said you wanted to bait a Ninny to Hades and take him alive, I thought you were going a bit queer in your old age, but here we are. We have one Ninny and fifteen SAMs, enough to take down an entire landing force of UNN dropships. They park a jump carrier in orbit, and they won't be able to get a single one of their shuttles down to the surface."

"You kept me alive," Boyd groaned. "Why? What do you need with a UNNI agent?"

"I don't want to steal your thunder, boss."

The would-be informant gestured towards the stranger with his knife, an older man dressed in a fine grey suit, expensive loafers on his feet and a glint of gold on his cuff-links. This must be the boss he had referenced, his demeanor was certainly casual and his aire commanding enough to qualify. He stood with his hands in his pockets as he examined Boyd with cold, blue eyes, alert and sharp behind his wrinkled face. The man in the suit cleared his throat, then started to speak, his voice gruff and baritone.

"As my colleague has alluded to, Mister Boyd, I brought you here for a purpose. Be of use to me, and no further harm shall befall you. Everything that you have been told is true, I represent the syndicate, and we aim to take control of Hades."

"You can't steal an entire planet," Boyd spat back, "that's impossible. You'd have to be insane to think that you could pull that off."

"Insane? No, ambitious." He walked a little closer to the chair and stood before Boyd, taking his hand out of his pocket to reveal an e-cigar, lighting it with a button press and exhaling a cloud of smoke in his direction. "You don't get to where I am today by being risk-averse, Mister Boyd, but I would not have tried this if I wasn't sure that it could work."

"If you really do this, if you try to capture Hades and cut if off from the rest of human space, you'll have a lot more than one carrier breathing down your neck."

"I'm not sure that anyone will. How's the war effort going, things aren't too good on the front I hear? It's taking everything the UNN has to keep the Betelgeusians at bay, am I not correct?"

Boyd didn't answer, watching the 'boss' as he started to pace, taking occasional draws from his e-cigar as he spoke.

"I don't think you can spare a fleet, you want to know what I think? I think that if you pull even one jump carrier out of the contested systems to send it here in order to deal with our little insurrection, that will open up a hole in your lines that the enemy would immediately exploit. How many carriers are there exactly? A dozen? Not enough for all of them to be wherever they're most needed at all times, I presume. Ask yourself, what is a higher priority for the Admiralty? Keeping control over backwaters like Hades, with a population of under a million inhabitants, or fighting over those contested planets on the Coalition border in order to deny the bugs their foothold?"

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