A Broken Promise
by John Harper
Durrond anchored his ship in the asteroid's docking tube then powered her down, wondering if he'd survive long enough to sail her again. A familiar weightlessness took hold and he floated from his command chair.
Foreboding clenched his stomach, both the flutter of fear and the beat of adrenaline. Those feelings used to be his friends but he'd been out of the game too long. Now they felt strange, foreign, a malignant mass in his chest. And this wasn't just another job. The Old Man couldn't have been any clearer in his threats to Sarah.
With jittery fingers he shouldered his 'bag of tricks'—tools from the old days—and drifted toward the airlock.
Outside, rows of ships lined the docking tube, an old mining tunnel extending through the centre of the asteroid. Beyond, the stars spun in a gyroscopic blur from the asteroid's centrifugal motion.
The airlock clicked, the final hatch opened, and Durrond kicked forward into a dark rocky cave. A string of light panels hung over the pockmarked floor, light briny stalagmites among a sea of shadowed troughs. It looked barren as a moon, lifeless and isolated. A dead end. Durrond's mouth went dry, felt a flicker in his eye. He wasn't religious, he didn't believe in the Fates, but he'd learned to trust his heart.
Stagnant water permeated the air, as thick as a gauntlet of spider webs. He passed rows of airlocks and stopped by an elevator, two sheets of pressed steel seemingly growing from the rock and stamped with the crest of the Colonial Authority.
He drifted inside. It rocketed out radially and Durrond's feet eased to the ceiling. The doors opened into a cavern that stretched beyond sight. A chorus of voices, languages and the tone of distant air conditioners assaulted his ears. The tang of clammy humidity and sweating people filled the cavern.
Durrond hopped into the flow of people, bobbing awkwardly until he found his rhythm. The centrifugal gravity was nearly a full gee this close to the surface, and clay crunched satisfyingly underfoot. The rock below was almost a rut, worn away by millions of boots. Food stalls squatted either side in clouds of cooking smoke, the conflicting spices making him nauseous.
He squeezed out of the flow and logged onto an info terminal. The Old Man had already given him all the data on the Excalibur artefact but he still needed a location, and quickly. His wife had thirty one hours left to live. Twenty seven hours to sail back home gave him four hours to find Excalibur, lift it, and get off this rock.
All the media were hyping over the alien artefact and he quickly found a reference to the Tale University. Cross referencing academic papers to the University press told him exactly where Excalibur was. He checked his chrono again. Maybe he'd make it back in time after all.
A shiver ran down his back and he looked up, nervous. High above, Three-dee projections of advertisements, sports and news anchors covered the cavern roof, all combining in a rush of white noise. Anywhere behind them could be a tiny camera, his face already running through Interpol databases, raising a red flag.
He allowed himself to get tugged back into the flow of people as if caught in a rip, just another drop of water in the ocean.
He took a lift down to the centre of the asteroid. There the passages turned to tunnels, hand and foot loops of old iron protruding from the brown rock, polished smooth with age. He pulled past boarded-up and caved-in branches. A small ball formed in his gut, a touch of claustrophobia rearing its head, but he willed it away. You don't have time for a panic attack. They would have been old cave-ins anyway and all C.A. asteroids had seismic sensors.
Winding tunnels eventually led him under an LED banner welcoming him to the University of Tale. A gatehouse had been cut from the rock. Four guards stood behind its glass front, following his laborious movements with gazes of cool blue-grey steel. Beyond lay another cavern, signposted tunnels lining the perimeter and a jungle-gym of bright red poles in the centre. Students hung from the poles, eyes closed, waiting for class or for lunch to settle or some other equally important task.
Durrond swam through to the earth science's wing. Past the lecture caverns, cafes and offices he found the labs, a small chamber with four hatches buried into the wall. Two guards with magnetic boots stood on a platform by the central hatch. Their eyes were glazed and their shoulders slumped, but the stunners on their hips looked real enough.
He doubled back to an unlocked office and pushed inside. A micro-gee strap chair and desk filled the far wall, nestled in a fog of B.O. Three-dee projections, not tapestries hid the rock walls. If only there were three-dee projectors for life.
As he searched the office he glimpsed a distorted projection. Behind a silently crashing waterfall was a pair of shelves cut from the rock. He pulled out a pair of white coveralls.
"Perfect." He backed up to the wall for purchase and wriggled into the coveralls. Two sizes too small, or designed for micro-gee muscles. He squeezed into the hood and returned to the hatch. The guards and their weapons hadn't moved.
Durrond subconsciously looked up again, but the tunnel had no cameras, just bare, cold rock with a vague smell of mildew. Light panels hung in a jagged line down the tunnel, allowing shadows to pool behind outcroppings.
He kicked forward, a sense of doubt overcoming him. He'd promised Sarah he'd never steal again. With her life in the balance, such promises seemed unimportant, yet it was the foundation of their relationship. They fought daily now about an offspring license, having kids, on selling his 'Thievery' ship, but they'd always had that honesty.
Save her life first, beg forgiveness later.
Up close, the guards looked rougher than standard University security: Stubble, scars, nicotine stained lips. One of them was missing an index and middle finger. They were leasemen for sure. Serious money was protecting Excalibur. Would that make his job easier or harder?
They didn't give Durrond a second look as he stopped his momentum against the hatch. "Busy day?"
"Damn reporters," muttered the leasemen on the right. The one on the left raised an eyebrow. "I don't recognise you. Dr Rose ask for you?"
Durrond's insides curled but he kept his face relaxed. Leading questions were the simplest trap in the book. "Rose? I'm not sure. I wrote the name on my tag." He patted his coverall pockets as he studied the hatch. A card reader, a retina and voice scanner. All standard models, all hastily installed. He could crack them, but not with two heavies watching. He quickened his arms, frantically groping at the pockets. "Fates alive," he spat. "This is the third time this week." He smiled at his new buddy. "I'll be back."
Three and a half hours to go.
He stopped around the corner in a well-lit tunnel and waited for Dr Rose. A cleaner came past, followed by two students, one with a gold watch, one with silvered hair, but no one in white laboratory coveralls. As the minutes ticked past, Durrond worried about a Plan B when she suddenly rushed past, hood still tight over her head.
He waited a moment then followed. He'd developed a combination swimming-hop to traverse the micro-gee, but Rose was clearly a local and he struggled to keep up.
Back at the red jungle gym Rose swam down a side tunnel. Bright lights and voices came from a cavern at the far end. It was spherical, filled with tables and chairs, tethered to the walls with rigid beams. About half the seats were full, people clamped in as if on a VTOL joyrider. Colourful tapestries of various patterns lined the walls, muting the echo of thirty mouths sucking on micro-gee food pouches. The bitter smell of preserved food gel wrinkled his nose.
Rose disappeared behind the three-dimensional rats maze, wedging into a seat on the far side. She removed her goggles and hood and her long auburn hair spread out like a wave of fire. He smiled. Pretty ladies were easier to distract. Then he thought of his wife and flinched from a pang of guilt.
He pulled himself around the wall and once close enough turned to an empty table and pushed off. He made a dramatic attempt to grab the chair, missed and shouldered into it. With a grunt he tumbled toward Dr Rose. She saw him coming and he barrelled into her outstretched arm.
"Easy, easy," she said and gave him a smile with enough wattage to brighten the café. She straightened him up and he climbed into the next seat and strapped in. She wore a platinum Singapore twist necklace that plunged under her coveralls. Her hair smelt of watermelon and apricot, just like his wife's.
"First time in micro-gee?" she asked, again with the smile.
Durrond dropped his head and nodded slightly. He ran his hands over the plastic table, all scuffs and scratches from micro-gee collisions. He placed his datapad next hers on the table's stay-plate. "I don't normally come to asteroids, but I go where the work sends me."
She straightened, turning slightly and pulled away. Her gaze dropped, the smile erased as if it had never existed. "That damn artefact? You're not a reporter are you?"
Durrond threw up his hands in mock surrender and glanced at his PAD. "No no, my boss is an, er, historian. This is a fact finding mission."
She sighed and rubbed her temples. She'd probably had a long day fielding questions from people just like him. "Well, don't get ahead of yourself. We're still running tests, and reports of magical properties are unfounded." She shook her head. "I wish we hadn't found it now."
Durrond raised both eyebrows. "Surely it's the discovery of a lifetime?"
"Have you looked out a viewport at the growing fleets? The Hegemony and the Alliance both think the powers are real, and they'll go to war to get it."
He didn't say anything. He'd passed the fleets on his way in. Standing off, hostile positioning, and growing by the hour.
He became aware of voices below him discussing Excalibur's legends, that it made its wielder invincible, that it brought your dreams to life. Durrond scoffed. If that were true, where were Excalibur's invincible creators? Was it the invincibility or a dream the Old Man craved?
"They're bluffing," Durrond said, more to his conscience than Rose. "Politicians hold the navy's leash. They won't go to war. Not for a fairy tale."
"Won't they? Haven't you ever believed in something with all your heart, with every fibre of your soul, that you would do anything, break any promise, burn any bridge to keep it?"
Durrond looked away, fingering his wedding ring. He had been fighting Sarah for his past; she had been fighting him for their future. "I have to go." He grabbed his PAD, unlatched and kicked off for the wall.
Back near the asteroid perimeter he found a seat at an eatery and checked his PAD. He'd downloaded Dr Rose's whole PAD and quickly found her research data and photos. The lab was a small cavern, maybe twenty metres in diameter, with machines, scanners, manipulator arms and lights filling every surface. And right in the centre hung Excalibur itself, a long grey shaft with a cross at one end, enclosed in an untethered security bubble. Durrond recognised the type: Touch sensitive, electrified, and completely out of reach. "Well shit," he said, lowering the PAD to the table, a small black hole forming in his chest.
This wasn't something he could just do off the cuff. He'd need serious equipment, time to plan, days to study the researcher's movements, but he couldn't even think with the clatter of utensils and echo of conversations around him.
He rubbed his face and groaned. He hadn't slept since before the kidnapping. His brain was fried and he was out of time.
A waitress brought him his coffee and the roasted aroma stirred his brain soup to life.
Two weeks and some rather specialised equipment to pull it off, risk free. What he had was his bag of tricks, two hands and three hours. He closed his eyes and raised his arms, visualising how he'd manipulate the security bubble. Cracking a bubble was like open heart surgery; one false move and the gig was up. He would need some quality, portable gravity. Available at every corner drugstore. He chuckled despite himself. Damn, he must have been tired.
His eyes flicked open to find a waitress before him, one eye narrowed, her lips pursed slightly in a you-look-crazy-but-I'm-still-happy-to-accept-your-tip look. "You ok?" she asked.
Durrond's cheeks warmed. He lowered his arms slowly, as if in treacle, like a sudden move might scare her off. She was young, eighteen or so, but it was her cheeks which caught his attention. She looked like a young version of Sarah, but with his chin.
He inhaled sharply, something inside twisting into sudden focus, as he realised that this could have been what their child looked like. Beautiful, smart, innocent. "Sorry, what?" he mumbled, still staring at her.
The waitress patted her uniform then raised an eyebrow at him. "What?"
Durrond looked at the table, cheeks almost sunburnt with embarrassment. "Sorry, you just reminded me of someone."
"Yuck. That line won't work on me, gramps."
"No, no, I didn't mean—"
"I get it." She waved her hand, disinterest rather than disgust on her face. "We'll all be dead in a few days. You want one last ride."
"The Alliance fleet keeps growing. They'll invade any day now."
"The Hegemony will protect you," he said, feeling the falseness of the promise even as he spoke it. This was an independent asteroid with private protection. War was coming, and regardless of who won, the asteroid would lose. And how many more would die if the victor found Excalibur missing?
He had to steal the sword or Sarah would die, but could he be the husband and father she wanted with a million deaths over his head? His hands clenched and shook and he had to fight some deep urge to crawl into a ball and will the world away. He thought of Sarah's cheeks, how they caved in around her smile, how she hadn't thrown him out when he revealed his illicit trade but made him swear to stop. He thought of their future, their children that looked like this waitress. He thought of a galaxy that wasn't worth living in without them.
He slammed a fist into the table and stood. The Old Man may have had his wife but he didn't have his soul. He had to stop acting like a victim and go on the offensive.
"I'll make sure you're safe," he said in what he hoped was a fatherly tone. "Thanks, for everything."
He bounded out of the Eatery and back out to the concourse. The throng was thinner now, fewer people moving, conversations hushed. Even the news anchors overhead seemed reserved, as if a heavy blanket now covered the asteroid.
Each second pulsed in his heart, a countdown to his wife's death. Above, a news anchor argued with a statistician about survival rates and fleet capabilities. Durrond's steps shortened, became heavier, as if the weight of so many lives had returned him to a full gee. How could he protect this whole asteroid and save his wife when he could barely look after himself?
Then he stopped.
Excalibur stood in the shop window directly ahead, resting against an ivory stand. Durrond rushed forward, hands on the glass, soaking in its every detail.
It was a fake.
The shop of historical knickknacks was trying to cash in, but it gave Durrond an idea. He bounded inside, past rows of swords, armour, maces and endless paper books to the counter. The shop keeper had a pony tail and a bushy beard flecked with grey. Retro to the core. Above him hung a deep blue jacket studded with rivets.
Durrond paused. Rivets meant steel. Steel meant magnetism. Magnetism meant gravity.
"You have an eye for quality," said the 'keep, his lips curled in retail victory. "Hand-made brigadine, the way they used to do it."
"Hold the steel plates in."
"I'll take it. And the Excalibur."
Two and a half hours to go.
Durrond froze. Voices drifted up through the crack he'd crawled through. He uncurled his fingers from the seismic charge and slowly craned his neck around a stalactite and looked down. Shadows appeared in the passage below, weaving and dancing as their owners swam through the tunnel. Durrond waited, breathing slowly, muscles cramping in the crack's confines.
The shadows stretched and then two students appeared, grizzling about some exam or another as if their life's problems had peaked this semester. They were still children, innocent and filled with dreams, dreams that would get crushed by an Alliance invasion force.
Once their voices were gone, Durrond counted to ten before returning to the seismic charge. He screwed it into the rock and activated it. A red light lit up the charge. He nodded to himself, squeezed back down into the passage and returned to the university.
The hairs rose on his back as he approached the science wing's foyer. A sensation he'd felt before, a sensation he'd learnt to trust, a sensation that meant something was wrong. Student posters still lined the right wall, advertisements still lined the left. The cable car still hunkered in its dock; the jungle gym still gleamed under the light panels. Everything calm and normal and in its correct place, yet somehow also different.
He shook his head. Just nerves. He swam the perimeter to a rack of cargo buoys and opened the one he'd repossessed earlier. Everything was still inside. He strapped it around his shoulders and swam down the tunnel to the lab.
The two leasemen hadn't moved, but their eyes were sharp, focused, their postures straight. The air itself felt colder, fresher and the sensation returned, a distant shiver running across his neck, the stroke of a ghostly finger.
It was too quiet.
Here, and in the foyer. No students, no lecturers, even the light panels felt dimmer.
Durrond paused, heart pounding. Changes meant traps, and on any other job he would have left to re-think and re-evaluate. But today, all he could think of was his wife, her cute little smile, her touch, her breath against his neck, their pointless arguments, and their future with an offspring license.
He backed up to a small dark branch passage and pulled the remote from his pocket. It was a simple switch and transmitter. Cheap, untraceable components and good through half a klick of rock.
Durrond flicked the switch.
Nothing happened at first. Then he felt a distant buzz, a pressure on his skull which grew into a rumbling shake. It rolled up the passage, ripping him from the wall. Durrond stabilised his drift and waited, listening. Asteroid communities were fragile creatures. Many things could go wrong. Oxygen generators could fail, carbon dioxide scrubbers could fail, the 'roid's structural integrity could fail. Or, a small seismic charge could cause a cave in.
The alarm sounded a second after he felt the shake. A standard evacuation siren, broadcast throughout the area. Blast doors would close in one minute, isolating this section. But to aid evacuation all the doors would open first, even those that were locked.
As the shaking subsided the light panels dimmed to a pasty red glow. The sirens sounded louder, the walls felt closer and Durrond's whole body sweated. He closed his eyes and fought the urge to flee.
Heavy breathing and ringing foot loops echoed down the passage. Durrond inched forward. The leasemen had taken longer than they should have to get moving. Had the hatch not opened automatically?
He reached the intersection. To the right was an empty passage. To the left, four leasemen swam into the distance.
Durrond turned right.
He swam forward through blaring sirens and strobing light panels. He passed the last corner but it was too dark to see the hatch.
The cargo buoy pulled at his shoulders. He pushed his tiring arms faster. If the hatch was closed, he wouldn't have time to turn around and reach the blast doors.
He thought he saw lights beyond the hatch, the faint glow of laboratory instruments, but it wasn't until his hand reached through the open hatch that he let himself breathe.
One hour and seventeen minutes to go.
He pulled inside, opened the cargo buoy and removed his bag of tricks, a timer and three of his ship's electromagnets.
The leasemen would soon realise they'd been had and come back looking for answers. Durrond set the timer for twenty minutes and studied the room. Four dim light panels and various control screens gave enough light to work by. A monotonous ticking came from a machine on the left. Behind him the hatch gaped open, strobing light pouring through. Above, Excalibur was still in place, secure and out of reach.
But not for long.
He pulled a fuzzer from his bag of tricks and clipped it to the hatch controls. Its light faded and the hatch closed.
Magnets in hand, he climbed over scanners and equipment and clamped each magnet to the wall so they were equally spaced around the cavern. They were designed for manipulating fuel rods but Durrond figured he weighed about the same in micro-gee. He'd rigged up battery packs and a remote control and as he held it aloft he closed his eyes, prayed, and pressed the button.
There wasn't a noise, more a high frequency drone behind his ears. He velcroed his bag to his chest, took a deep breath and leapt upward.
It wouldn't win him an Olympic medal, but it was enough. He drifted toward the centre of the room, but air drag slowed him. He flapped and wobbled, his arms jerking desperately, sure he'd got it wrong, that he'd be stuck out of reach until the leasemen came back.
An unseen force tugged him upward and then two more took hold. His chest, wrapped in the brigadine, spun and locked into place under an invisible grip of iron.
He tested his movement. His arms and legs dangled free but he couldn't twist his chest an inch.
Excalibur lay tantalisingly close, less than an arms breadth away. The blade was cylindrical and blunt, but its sheen was so brilliant he swore the light emanated from its insides. The crossguard was yellow and opaque, the handle a twisted curve incompatible with human hands.
The security bubble itself didn't look anything special. He thought he recognised the model. Normally he'd make sure, but instead he'd have to guess and pray. He rubbed his two-day old stubble, felt the roughness on his hands, felt the bubbling of lava in his chest and nodded. He removed the Resistance Master from his bag of tricks and kissed its iron core, a good luck ritual. Carefully, he set its four rubber bungs across the bubble.
Nothing happened. No alarms, no colour changes, no sudden death by electrocution. Emboldened, he reached out to cut a hole with his vib-knife. The resistance master hummed, adjusting its ohms as he cut.
Sweat beaded against his forehead. All his movement was through his arms, his fingers while his chest maintained an unnatural straightness in its magnetic vice. He was using his shoulders instead of his back and they were tiring. Like working under a groundcar, back to the asphalt, arms extended.
Slowly he reached in, inch by careful inch until he finally grasped Excalibur.
Eight minutes on the timer.
The leasemen would be trying to lift the lock-down by now. He grit his teeth and with slow, careful movements, lifted Excalibur up. Sweat wicked into his eyes. He squinted and bit back the tears. A deep calming breath, then he turned the handle as he moved it out through the hole in the bubble. Small corrections, small movements, pausing each excruciating second. He'd come this far, he couldn't blow it on the home straightaway. One end of the crossguard came free just as the timer wailed, its display reading 0:00.
A shiver ran through his core, a stream of liquid hydrogen that left a trail of frozen blood and shattered cells in its wake. He glanced at the hatch, heart catching in his throat and felt the fingertips of panic gripping him.
He closed his eyes, pushed everything from his mind: His wife, the asteroid, the leasemen, and concentrated on his hands, his fingers, their orientation to his wrist, using the sword's slight vibration from proximity to the bubble as a guide.
Old school. The only way. When the vibration died completely he opened his eyes.
He held Excalibur in his hand, free from the bubble, now invincible and his dreams a reality.
The hatch beeped and rushed open.