The terminal's screen fails to wake up to my touch. Not having any pockets on my ruined clothing, I lie back and secure it to my own wrist at which point it wakes with a soft beep. The screen announces that it is detecting a new user and I should apply thumb and voice prints to affirm identity, so I do.
“Commander, eh?” The screen welcomes me but disappoints me by only addressing me with a title, still its more than I had. It goes on announce that the system is on full lockdown, limiting communications options to 'none', information access is denied and there is one stored message.
“Helpful, we still have no idea where we are.” Jimmy says, despite not being at the correct angle to see the screen.
“I still outrank you, Jimmy.” I fumble with the interface and bring up the message, two unhelpful words.
Good luck – Y.
An attachment looks more promising, a map of somewhere I don't recognise and two intersecting lines. An icon suggests this is a video so I play it. Two dots travel and meet each other while a timer runs. In trying to stop it I accidentally rotate the image. One dot flies from one location to another whilst the second dives on it from great height. An interception from orbit.
“Someone was in a hurry to make a meeting,” Jimmy comments.
The bird is stable, screaming through the atmosphere in level flight after its plunge from orbit. There is an acknowledgement from Jimmy as our drone escort take up positions ahead of us. Launched from an allied algae factory ship mid-Atlantic they have been repainted in bright colours to mark the nature of our mission.
There is a knock at the cabin door, I press the release and the most important of our passengers enters the cramped flight deck.
“Well boys, how does it feel to be flying the last mission of the war?” Nicole Ayrault, the woman who has come to represent the corporate side of these negotiations is to meet with representative of the remaining governments and the United Nations for the ceremonial signing of an agreement designed to end conflicts and realign the world's power.
“Its a relief,” I reply. “I look forwards to being able to retire and let the computers fly these things without someone trying to fry them.”
“Well, no matter what you choose to do next, you can rest assured that you made the world a better place.” Being an supersonic bus driver, I have met her before, a hard bargainer, with a reputation for listening before speaking.
“We made the world a different place, that's true.” Last time we met she told me she valued truth, it seems with a hold full of the corporate elite she is towing the company line.
“Well, we have completely repainted the political map, but feel proud you fought in the first global war when the civilian population was not directly targeted. This agreement gives us the power to move forwards and build the world of the future.” She sounds like she is quoting straight from her speech. Jimmy gives me a warning look, but it is too late, I have already launched.
“I used to have a sister until she was 'not directly targeted'. There are millions out there going hungry because of the global recession, but they can be thankful the war hasn't touched their lives. I just drive your taxi, but I hope you build your world of the future quickly, because someone has made a big mess of the world of today.”
“Well...” She starts, but Jimmy jumps in quickly.
“You are going to have to excuse my colleague, Ma'am, he hasn't seen his wife in a while, so is a little on edge and I am going to need his concentration to help me land this plane. I am sure he is as thrilled as I am that all this has finally come to an end. Now, if you wouldn't mind taking your seat, we are approaching crowded airspace at several times the speed of civilian traffic and we may need to apply the brakes sharply.” He gives her his big, everything-is-fine grin and she exits the cabin. Turning to me, he gives a sterner expression. “You are going to tell me what was in that message before you single handedly restart global hostilities.”
“Any idea where this is a map of?” I ask Jimmy as he shows no sign of going away. I look closer, estimating distances from the re-entry glide path this is a map of continents I have never seen before.
“Not a clue, somewhere I've never been before.” There is a sudden lurch and I slip on the deck. The craft has gained a slight tilt it was missing before.
“I don't think I'm safe here.” I tell Jimmy.
“No, looks like its time to get moving.” I feel a faint tug at the point where my body abruptly ends and see the nightmare rope attaching me to Peterson's corpse detach. No longer the conjoined twin of a cadaver I take a look around to try and determine which way to go, I pick a direction which seems to have fewer obstacles and start to drag my carcass along what was once a ceiling.
“You, know, Jimmy, this would be a lot easier with legs.”
“Feel free to crash your next flight a little gentler.”
“Are you okay, I saw it on the news and it looked awful!” Her face shows real concern.
“The video makes it looks much worse than it was.” Towing a tail of flame I had put the shuttle down on a commercial runway, there certainly had been a lot of fire.
“The commentary made it sound like you were going to crash, if I had known it was you I would probably have passed out.” She has been my wife for five months, we have spent very little of that time together, she looks more ravishing every time I phone her.
“We just caught a bad bit of luck, computer error put us off course and we were mistaken for a military bird, by the time they realised their error they had put a hole in our backside.” We had attempted a covert drop using a converted civilian shuttle, they had seen right through it, but didn't have anything fast enough to finish us off after the initial missile hit.
“So does that mean you're going to be in town for my concert tomorrow night?”
“I'd fall burning from orbit any day just to be with you.”
Going is slow, picking my way around anything too sharp to drag my carcass across. There appears to be some sort of access corridor to the aft of the cockpit, or at least in the direction I have taken as aft.
“So what happened after the war, Jimmy?” I haven't left him behind with Peterson, so I figure I might as well, use him as an information source. “I remember working with someone called Liefman, but she wasn't part of our squadron, so that must be later.”
“Its all in there, probably, remember it for yourself.” I have had enough of this.
“Screw you, Jimmy, what happens when you get into that corridor and I need something you don't want to tell me really quickly?”
“Your winning attitude and willingness to crash any vehicle placed under your control made certain that you were drummed out of active flight duty as soon as possible. You lost your leg proving them right and went into contracting, which you hated.”
“We had fifteen kids and lived happily until the giant crab monsters invaded.”
“Will, I know this isn't what you want to hear, not right now when it looks like the war might finally be over and we can settle down.” Her voice cracks and my heart stops.
The message is audio only, with everything going on we are supposed to be in a media lockdown, but being a pilot I can smuggle all sorts of things back into orbit and that brings favours.
“Believe me, that's what I want so much.” My heart restarts timidly.
“I slipped and injured my wrist a week back, so no piano playing. I went to get it checked out and when at the doctors they ask me when I last had a full check-up, which was probably never. So I let them go the whole hog on me.” I picture her playing with the strand of hair that always escapes her attempts to tame it.
“They even checked out my...” Embarrassed pause, she is the only person I know who still blushes when genitalia is mentioned. “...Lady bits. They're doing further test, but it looks like I can't have children.” I want to gather her in my arms and tell her its okay, tell her that she is all I need, tell her only a fool would bring children into a crazy world like this. But she is on Earth and I am in orbit, and any attempt to get a message out will have me thrown in the brig.
“Will, I'm sorry.” The sound of a sob, hers or mine I can't tell.
“William. That's my name.” I tell Jimmy, redundantly.
“Fireball Billy, you build it, I burn it.” My companion agrees with glee. “Come see my fabulous display of wrecks. Take a flight with me, if you dare!”
“Fuck off! I seem to remember you weren't exactly scared to fly with me.” I put my hand on something sharp, wince and hold my it up to my face to see the damage.
“When something did go wrong you always had a habit of making it home.” There is a small drop of blood, but as I watch it shrinks and disappears back inside the wound. Its hardly the weirdest hacen'sthing that has happened to me recently.
“And I thought you were just still chasing my arse.”
“I hate to break it to you, but your gorgeous rear is currently on the missing persons list.”
“Bill, we need to disappear completely.” Liefman's voice through the suit communicator is almost conversational in tone, as though we were not drifting untethered, it is a long time since we have managed to have an unmonitored chat. Four suits only connected by a flimsy rope slowly orbiting the Earth.
“I know a bunch of people on the west coast of the USA who will help us out there.” Below us dawn marches across the face of Africa, I almost feel it is a shame that we both have spent too long in orbit to find it novel or breathtaking.
“That's if Alhacen's contacts at Palmic Inc. are on the level and don't just want their own piece of us.” Behind us a transport pod is fired from the space station in a brief flash of light on its way to Palmic Inc.'s orbital manufacture platform.
“Everyone wants a piece of us, if we hadn't become minor celebrities they would have dissected us already. With Davis and Hseng running the shop it is only a matter of time until they do.” Slow drifting is excruciating for a species evolved for propelling itself, but if we move any faster we risk someone taking a closer look.
“Yeah, but your enmity with Davis and the affair with Peterson certainly hasn't helped us in the slightest.” Automated systems have queried our suits and are satisfied we are human, the iris scanner in the HUD giving our identities, but a sneaky hack in the system by a friend of Liefman prevents them being flagged up as suspicious.
“Peterson was gone, there was nothing of him left, we did him the only favour we could. Davis is a fucking prick and no mistake.” As expected, it is only matter of time before our disappearing act is discovered, a quartet of drones power out from the station to intercept the suits. We use the manoeuvring jets to gain what speed we can, but it is a forgone conclusion.
When they drag the suits in the airlock they discover the gristly truth. They are empty, controlled remotely by servos, the iris scanners foiled by a removed eyeball, the conversation relayed by radio. Foiled, they go through their records and find irregularities in the weight of the transport pod dispatched shortly after our faked escape. The recovery of the pod and exposure of the conspiracy causes friction with Palmic Inc., but the four bodies expected to be found within are missing.
A string of malfunctions, oversights and hacks mean that when the shuttle launched from the station an hour earlier is hijacked by a gang of war veterans and landed on a camouflaged runway in the Ural mountains, the miscreants and four stowaways escape without capture. Newscasts notice the increased tension, but fail to realise it as the first step in a new war.