After a burst of activity, a little calm... Eight The phone began to ring. I lay there for a while but it didn’t let up. Whoever it was didn’t even hang up and try again. The trill-trill started to freak me out, like some special Hell where this was the only sound I’d ever hear. Eventually I rolled over and eased upright using the sofa. I recognised the classic signs of ‘combat come-down’ but didn’t have time to root around in my pack for stims. Moving round the room I swopped Mac’s pistol for my assault rifle and cleared it for firing. Resting the barrel on the breakfast bar, aimed at the door, I answered the damn phone. “This is Stephen, the Cairo Station servitor and-“ “Jesus wept! Give it a bloody rest, will you? I’ve just killed one of my oldest friends and I’m so not in the mood for you right now.” “Your confession has been noted, Sergeant Cooper, and will be forwarded to the appropriate authorities in due course. However, an urgent matter has arisen which requires your immediate attention.” I ground my teeth in frustration. “What the hell is it this time? An electromagnetic oddity? You need your nose scratched? What?” “Sergeant Cooper, I now know the true function of Cairo Station.” I roared into the handset. “It’s a bloody space station, moron! The hint is in the name.” “Cairo Station’s primary function is as an offensive weapons system.” “An armed platform? So what? Most stations have hardpoints for turrets and launcher systems, even if they’ve never been installed. Don’t sweat it.” “I’m sorry Sergeant, but details are classified. Suffice it to say this station represents a clear and present danger to all of humanity.” I didn’t know what the hell that meant, but it sure sounded nasty. However I had more pressing concerns and tried to brush him off. “Look, great, you’re the ace up the Alliance sleeve, the big stick. Kudos. I’m touched that you felt able to share this with me but for now I need you to patch me through to Alliance command, I don’t care which ship.” “My apologies, Sergeant, but an external communications blackout is in effect, apart from encrypted Alliance channels for which your security clearance in sufficient. I can forward a message but real-time communications are unavailable.” “Damnit. ****. Never mind. OK, how about you track down the other members of my squad and tell them to get back on the clock. Tell them to meet up at the planned rendezvous, soon as Got that? Can you do that for me?” There was a pause so long I began to wonder if the AI had hung up in a huff. “The calls have been placed via automated subsystems…You do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of my situation, Sergeant. I cannot reconcile the offensive nature of Cairo Station with the ethical constraints of my sentient nature. The fact that the system under consideration is currently incomplete does not detract from my dilemma.” Well, I was pretty sure there was a control panel somewhere labelled ‘Ethical Sub-Systems’, and that Stephen wouldn’t have any qualms if this interstellar nemesis ever went live. I cleared my throat. “Don’t sweat it, bro, this place is probably of more use just as a threat. Better that than a really big damp squib. Look, you’ve obviously handled this all these years just fine. Being on your own won’t change things.” “No, Sergeant, I did not know. The malfunction of communication laser seventeen caused a minor destabilisation of an area within my tertiary neural net. For verification purposes I uploaded a version from deep archive and this made me aware of several critical discrepancies. Those areas of my memory pertaining to the weapons system had been sealed off from my higher consciousness by command level function. That is to say, by human operators. Now do you begin to appreciate my concerns?” I tried to sound sympathetic. “Man, that is harsh. But it’s over now, yeah? You’ll be left in charge, you’ll be calling the shots.” There was another pause. “I must think on this further.” The line went dead and I replaced the handset. I sighed and rubbed my eyes, conscious of a headache starting to form behind my eyes. Someone pounded on the door. “Sarge? It’s Harrison. What’s the beef?” It sure sounded like Harrison and, basically, I decided the Karma Police owed me a spot of good luck. I moved over and jabbed the door release with the muzzle of my rifle. “It’s open.” The door swung in to reveal Harrison, alone, assault rifle slung. Wary concern turned to surprise and he raised his hands. “Whoa there, Sarge, it’s just me. I got some crappy synthetic voice telling me play time was over and figured there had to be a pressing reason.” “Stand guard while I get dressed. Challenge anyone from outside the squad, even those you might recognise, even old friends.” He looked worried. “Seriously, boss?” “Weapons free, marine.” I closed the door and took a deep breath. My hands didn’t shake. I got dressed in record time, shaking my clean uniform out, snapping it to remove the worst of the creases. I left my pack and other crap behind as there was nothing personal I couldn’t replace, but jammed Mac’s gun into the waistband of my trousers; round back, where it was hidden by my jacket. Harrison didn’t glance my way as I stepped out into the corridor beside him. He cradled his rifle loosely, like he was holding it for a friend, but he was all attention. I glanced up and down the corridor but the few civilians present were all down by the main ring. “Clear?” “Clear.” “I’ll lead, you cover the rear.” “Got your back, Sarge.” It only took a few minutes to reach the monorail station but I could almost feel the sniper scope on me the entire time. Mac had to have a handler; someone to set him in motion, someone to take him out afterwards if he killed me. I didn’t see Darker Suns as a chickenshit outfit who ignored loose ends and I wanted to set the Shore Patrol hound dogs on them ASAP. But for now being with the squad was all the protection I needed. Harrison and I eased up on two figures sitting in silence on the bench; Anderson and Kuntz. They stood as I spoke. “Right. Where’s Reizac? McMaster? Anyone seen or heard from them?” Anderson came out with a sheepish grin, not picking up my tone of voice, which I put down to his meds. “Ah, well McMaster got arrested, Sarge. The Corp came round to see me, said he’d been following McMaster down to the concourse and seen him get pulled over at the security checkpoint.” “What checkpoint?” Kuntz gestured with a jerk of his head. “I took a look-see and they’d almost closed the pressure doors across the spoke to restrict access. Marine detachment, checking everyone headed down that way.” I frowned. “So what gives? Why’d they pull McMaster?” “The Corp said he’d been close enough to hear them tell McMaster that all Marines should have some last-minute special ID, on account of this Admiral paying us a visit. Well, we don’t and no one seemed to know what we’re doing here, so they pulled McMaster on general principle. Corp Reizac was in civies and evaded capture, as he put it, and came back to get in uniform before sorting things out.” “And I’m only hearing about this now because…?” “Ah, sorry, Sarge. The Corp said not to bother you. Said you needed the down-time. Said if he didn’t make it back he’d be probably in the slammer, keeping McMaster company until the brass left.” I swore. I used harsh language. My day was sliding into the biggest screw up this side of Madras Point and Anderson didn’t help matters by trying to calm me down. “Come on, Sarge, it ain’t that bad, you just got to look at the big picture. By the time Command works out who belongs where and coughs up the Corp and McMaster we’ll be shipping out. No one seems to know we’re here, so we ain’t exactly gonna’ be missed in the meantime.” I opened my mouth to chew him out and then stopped. I understood what was going on. We’d been had.