In Control Room 3RC Lee lit a Summer Palace cigarette and leaned back in his chair. The cigarette smoke glowed, lit by the monitors and projection screens. Snapped up by the environmental scrubbers, the smoke’s velocity increased as it floated towards the ceiling, a neon river moving inevitably towards the precipice.
He would need to increase his bribes to the maintenance crew given how many of the Chinese cigarettes he had been smoking lately, but at that moment he didn’t care. With a fatigue and disgust he didn’t feel the need to restrain, he took off the multi-touch glove and threw it down.
Even though he had never met the two agents, cutting off the assets on the ground felt like a professional betrayal. He had located them, brought them in, and now dumped them when he was fairly certain at least one might have managed exfiltration. But with the forgery of the after-action report, that was no longer possible. Without the support their contract was meant to guarantee the two agents were soon-to-be-deceased. If they weren’t already.
“It’s done.” He spoke to Jhel, the man who had ordered all of this.
The salaryman had hovered behind Lee since ordering the report falsified, moving less than standing ō-yoroi armor. “Good.”
“Good?” Lee spun in his chair, exhaling rudely towards Jhel. “You’re kidding me, right? This is a disaster. We just fed two GT agents to Kansas. Anyone looks at the report too closely they’ll know something’s kinked.”
Jhel flicked his eyes down to Lee. In the ambient light of the control room his eyes were hard blue orbs of static. “If they had been good enough, we wouldn’t have had to do that.”
Lee flicked the ash off his cigarette, finding the courage to ask the question that had been on his mind since he had first spotted Kansas in the surveillance footage. “Is that what you’re going to tell yourself when you feed me to the dogs?”
The two men stood in the dim of the room, both knowing the answer. When the door burst open each of them thought they had been betrayed by the other.
They moved in so fast Lee wasn’t sure what they were. Shock troops or military police, wearing either Californian or Mexican-made orbital armor. It was only a second before two of them had put weapons in his face. Short firearms designed to operate in cramped spaces like the control room, they made up for their length with the large bore of their multi-barrels and various attachments. Lee had always wondered if soldiers modded their weapons because it made them more useful or if it just made the guns scarier, unexplained to the uninitiated. It was an odd moment for the question to surface in his brain, wanting to ask in the onset of sudden dissociative panic.
Not that it mattered. Once he was able to focus passed the utter blackness of the weapons’ muzzles, he saw that the two in front of him couldn’t speak. The death masks of the orbital armor were insect bubble eyes tinted green with the promise of enhanced vision, embedded in grey ductile geometry. But neither of them possessed the voice amplifier that would allow them to vocalize beyond the containment of their suits.
Lee saw another pair back Jhel up against the one of the room’s aluminum and plastic walls, leaving him with the disquieting impression they were preparing him for execution. It did not strike Lee entirely as a surprise that this might be how things would end.
A final entrant had a voice amplifier, a metallic grate in his mask where his mouth might be, marking him as an officer or NCO. That didn’t matter, though, because he didn’t speak. Instead of a firearm he carried a bulky object under one arm, a bundle of steel pins and wires in a rough half orb, the flat side of which he crammed over Lee’s skull. Glancing up before the officer slapped it on and put the chin strap in place, Lee saw the interior was a basket of dermatrodes.
Unbidden, a series of images came into Lee’s brain, causing him to swim through nausea until the mirages solidified into warm brownstone under his feet. Blinking the suddenly blinding sunlight out of his eyes, Lee raised his hand to shade them. He was standing on a patio where a constant but pleasant breeze was blowing, carrying the briny smells of the ocean. The borders of the large, square terrace were formed by a waist-high wall that, along with the floor, looked like it had been carved out of one solid piece. Beyond that the ocean and the sky blended together in wonderful shades of turquoise.
Taking his eyes off the impossible blue of the horizon Lee realized a very confused but very restrained Jhel was there as well. Jhel blinked into the sun and tucked his tie back into his buttoned suit jacket, smoothing out his lapels.
If this was a betrayal, then, Jhel had been caught up in it himself. The dread and disorientation of the situation beginning to pass, Lee reasoned out that his initial concern was unfounded. Jhel still needed him.
Scanning the entirety of the serene patio, Lee rubbed the fingertips of his thumb and forefinger together. This wasn’t some simulation, no mere virtual reality, this was direct sensory stimulation. For all intents and purposes, at least by any standard his brain would use to measure it, Lee was here, no longer in Control Room 3RC, but on whatever lovely Mediterranean patio this was. Being at least passingly familiar with most types of corporate tech, Lee didn’t know that this was possible without a sensory deprivation tank and a host of pharmaceuticals. The mercenary officer had only carried a head-net. Who on Earth would have the kind of resources that Lee had seen in the last few seconds? And what did they want with him and Jhel?