Gavin began to panic. There was blood smeared all over his front door, and it all belonged to a dead guy lying two meters from it. He had no idea what was going on, but was thankful to have been inside instead of out when the tragedy happened. He knew without checking that holographic police lines have already sprung up around the area, and automated Salus security drones and mechs have locked down the block. He tried to calm down and convince himself he was safe. Not three minutes passed before he heard sirens, and the characteristic whoosh of police dropships arriving. He ran to the door, got dressed and just as he opened the port, he saw two police officers, an Eris and a Lumba, were approaching in the company of a pair of humanoid Salus mechs. When they got close, Gavin immediately started speaking at them.
“Officers! Good thing you got here as…” – He began, only to be silenced by the two officers unholstering their weapons.
“Mr. Thule, you’re under arrest for the murder of Senator Gartog. Slowly place your hands behind your head and kneel.” – The Eris shouted at him.
“What? Me? No… Thule? Hey! You’ve got this all wrong!” – Gavin complied nonetheless.
The two officers got close, and while one cuffed him, the other went through his pockets.
“Come on, you must’ve heard of me, I’m George Knight, the writer!” – He tried throwing in his name, but the two didn’t much look like the reading type. The Eris officer pulled something out of Gavin’s pocket. It was a small, leatherbound rectangular object which, when opened, housed two small screens that displayed identification and biometric information – the dead Senator’s identification and biometric information.
“Just as the tip said.” – The officer told his partner, before turning to Gavin. “How’d this get to you, then?”
Gavin, in spite of being a skilled author, could only muster an uninspired response.
“I can explain!”
Gavin was fairly convinced chance, fate or whichever deity ended up being the one that actually existed had it out for him. He was sitting in a spartan cell in one of Corymbus’ many thousands of police stations. He wasn’t told anything about why he’s implicated other than having the ID on him. When they arrived he was simply led to the cell – which was hours ago. In that time he had tried to remember everything he knew about being charged with the murder of a Senator, and after this trail of thought depressed him greatly, he instead tried to unravel the situation himself. I write thrillers for a living, damned will I be if I can’t figure this out. The first, and most obvious mystery, was that of the ID. While the average citizen used their VB for identification purposes, the higher class relied on separate, non-networked devices. Theoretically anyone could apply for a separate ID, but the cost was exorbitant, justified by the “increased costs of maintaining systems used to process this alternative method of identity verification”. The little leather-bound booklet lacked any kind of hardware which would enable a connection with another device – it was essentially unhackable remotely. But how did Senator Gartog’s ID get into his pocket? That bastard who bumped into me… But the police gave a different name when arresting him, which isn’t explained by this. Either I was mistaken for whoever did this, or am being framed… The whole thing seemed to be a horrible misunderstanding, or Gavin got mixed up in an ugly game of identity theft coupled with murder. Then it hit him. My new book! This scenario wasn’t merely similar, but exactly like the one he began to draft in his unnamed new story. The murder outside the protagonist’s apartment, followed by him being framed, but under a different identity. But what came next? An attempt is made on his life while in custo… oh shit. Gavin’s story took on another twist when one of the conspirators took on the original identity of the protagonist, and tried killing him while he was being held by the police, essentially leaving him framed for not only the murder of a prominent politician, but himself. But how did they read the draft? Gavin, being the paranoid man he was, secured his VB with far greater care than the average person. He didn’t settle for simple consumer products which allegedly prevented hacking, but had a tech-savvy friend of his secure it custom, and learned a bit of the basics himself. While he was sure he did everything he could have within the bounds of his budget, he had learned enough to know nothing was unhackable – but his VB was secure enough to prevent blanket-hacks. This was targeted. Whoever was behind this specifically wanted to use Gavin for this cover-up. He became more tense than he remembered himself ever being. He had no idea how much time passed – the suppression field in the cell prevented the use of his VB – but it had to be a few hours. At long last, the cell door slid open, and in it stood a human male. He did not recognize the officer, but he noted three things immediately: First, the man eerily resembled him, second, his uniform was hastily put on, and third, he was pointing a decidedly non-standard issue weapon at Gavin.
“Pizarro wanted you to know that he’s a fan of your work, and is honestly sorry about this. It’s nothing personal.” – The man said with a hushed voice, and stepped closer.
“You bastards are framing me!” – Gavin shouted as loud as he could, but it was pointless. The assassin had closed the door already.
Instead of answering, the man simply lifted his arm up so that the pistol was now pointed squarely at Gavin’s face. After a tense second, a gunshot rang in the cell. Gavin staggered backwards, and surprisedly noted that his head was still in one piece. The assassin in front of him doubled over, and a small Cani was behind him holding a pistol of his own.
“Who? Wha…” – Gavin was entirely dumbfounded.
“No time!” – The small being jumped at the corpse of the assassin, and quickly used a small device resembling a hypostim on it. Mere moments after, a sizzling sound filled the air, and the body started to vaporize. The Cani lifted the device close to his eyes, and looked at a small translucent contained embedded in its handle.
“Good, grabbed it just in time”. – He muttered, then turned to Gavin.
“You! Why still standing around? Come on!” – He said to the shocked writer.
Alarms were ringing in the police station ever since the shot was fired. The small being, dressed in light combat armor, opened the door and strolled out with the confidence of someone who isn’t walking into a corridor that had surely filled with armed police by now. In lieu of any shouting or shooting, Gavin opted to follow. Outside, he saw two security bulkheads had been lowered on either side of the corridor, a panel was removed from the wall, the security cameras were smoking and a trio of snoring police were sprawled on the floor.
“What is going on? Who are you?” – He shouted after the Cani.
“Why do the people I rescue always stop to ask these obvious questions when the threat has yet to pass? Is this the part where I calm you and use the phrase “20 questions” while implying that I’ll explain everything later?” – His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“For a thriller writer you’re not quite familiar with how these stints are stereotypically expected to go.”
“I… right. Lead on.”
The Cani jumped into the shaft behind the removed panel and beckoned Gavin to follow. The author did so, but replaced the panel from the inside before beginning to crawl.
“Ah, so you did learn something from writing all those books!” – The Cani said jokingly. Where the smaller creature could comfortably hurry through the maintenance shaft, Gavin had to crawl on all fours. The Cani took turns without hesitation, indicating that he’s either memorised the layout of the shafts, or has a retinal implant showing him a map.
“Can’t they track us?” – Gavin asked the being.
“Naturally I disabled their security grid. The alarms only went off in the enclosed section, nowhere else in the station is there any sign that something is amiss. Please, I’m no amateur.” – The creature rebuked. The pair had arrived at a grate, which the Cani carefully, but swiftly, removed. They exited the tunnels behind a large cargo container, offering cover. While Gavin replaced the grate, his mysterious companion took a peek out from behind the container. “Blast.” – He spat.
“Do I want to know?” – Gavin asked back, barely masking the worry in his voice.
“They’re on high alert. Someone tipped them off.”
“But there are no alarms…”
“Of course there are no alarms, I said I disabled them. We’re in the secondary dock from where Riot control is dispatched when needed. It should be empty save for equipment and two gunships.”
“So you’re saying you didn’t plan on a dozen guys with guns?”
“Astute. We need to get to one of the ships and take off without them seeing. I had authorization codes lined up, but if they know we’re the ones flying the damn thing, much good those will do.”
“Why didn’t we just crawl out of the police station and into the commons? Don’t you people know how to get lost in the crowd or something?”
“I could have sneaked out yes, but you’re most wanted, every camera would have zeroed in on you within seconds.” – The Cani furrowed his brow. The small, vaguely fox-like humanoid seemed somewhat humorous in body armor, but his demeanor implied experience and skill.
“So what now?” – The writer inquired, increasingly distressed.
“Oh, it’s nothing I can’t handle. But, just in case…” – The being produced a small compact firearm and handed it to Gavin. The pistol unfolded in his hand.
“Do you know how to use one of those?”
“I’ve fired one before, yes, but…”
“That’s all I need to hear.” – With that, the Cani activated a personal cloaking system and disappeared in a fizz of electrical smoke. Gavin got even more worried now that he was stuck behind the crate, alone. He didn’t see much of the room from behind the crate, and didn’t dare to peek out. Minutes passed, until suddenly he heard an alarm go off in a different part of the precinct. He heard shouting, and one of the officers said “they’re on the administration level”, before the room seemingly emptied in a flurry of heavy footsteps. When he heard the characteristic whoosh of the door closing, he relaxed and dropped his arms next to his sides – something he immediately regretted. The butt of the pistol clanged on the metal of the crate loudly, and he heard footsteps again. Blast, they left someone to guard the ships. True enough, an armored police officer appeared around the craft, rifle aimed at Gavin.
“I, uh, was just packing this equip…” – Before Gavin could finish, he heard a buzzing of a cloaking device disengaging, and the officer looked up for a moment. Without giving himself time to doubt, Gavin quickly thrust his fist into the air where the guard’s chin was in the strongest uppercut he could muster. Luckily, he struck true, and the additional strength of his mechanical arm knocked the office a good few feet into the air. The armor prevented his neck from breaking, but he was out cold – and before he notified his mates.
“Impressive.” – The Cani said with a genuine smile. “We’ll make something of you yet. Come now.” – The duo ran towards one of the gunships. The cockpit had two seats, with a few more in the rear to deploy officers. The Cani agent hopped into one of the cockpit seats and beckoned Gavin to join him. By the time the writer strapped in, the small creature had already adjusted his seat and taken off. Mid-flight, he quickly tapped in a set of codes on the holo-console on his armrest.
“We set off a false riot alarm in a different section of the arm, there we’ll ditch the gunship for a skycar and I can take you to the Ranch.” – The being said without looking at Gavin.
“You can do that? What Ranch?”
“Well, this is as good a time as any.” – The Cani said with a sigh. “I’m Agent Celly Boormoon, I’m with the Coalition Executive Oversight Division, and someone used your identity to cover up the killing of a very important person.”
“Yes, Kuter Gartog. The man was known as the only incorruptible politician in the spire, and used his wealth to fund a private army to facilitate some honest law enforcement, since pretty much every officer on Corymbus is in the bag of some crooked shill or other. Incidentally, he’s also the man who salvaged diplomatic relations between the Umaraan and Koz in the aftermath of the Hi’ilian incident 15 years ago.”
“And what about the cop who tried to shoot me in my cell?”
“Not a cop. Your identity was used in the murder of Senator Gartog while you were given a new one. The assassin sent to the precinct to kill you was either the one who killed Gartog, or another who also assumed your identity. After your death, the database entries would be reverted to their original state, and you’d be framed not only for the murder of Gartog, but your own.”
“So I’d be dead, killed by myself, but it wouldn’t be a suicide.”
“Precisely. The real perps would be untraceable, since they’d revert the ID database with a full system reboot while deleting their own snooping. The perfect crime.”
“Until you came along.”
“You’re welcome.” – Just as the Cani said the words with a smile, the air erupted with an explosion in front of them.
“Unidentified pilot, you are in unauthorized possession of CSF property. Land and power down at once.” – The transmission blared from the radio.
“Void take you… the bastards are onto us. Take the wheel!”
“Wha..?” – Before Gavin could ask, suddenly the holographic flight-stick in front of Celly disappeared and materialised on his side of the cockpit. Gavin had a license, but he was out of practice and never flew something of this configuration, as was evidenced by the wild careening of the vehicle.
“Bloody good thing we’re not in a lane, or near a building!” – He shouted angrily, while trying to retain control of the craft. Meanwhile, Celly was frantically fiddling with his VB.
“Think of it as a video game, it can’t be too hard to learn!” – he said without looking up.
As the ship was zigzagging through the air, another shot exploded near the port engine.
“That was too close for a warning shot!” – Gavin shouted again.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing. The sheer unpredictability of your incompetence has their targeting computer fooled.”
“Uh, thanks?” – Another explosion, even closer this time. The ship was rapidly approaching a cluster of buildings that the onboard computer indicated as their destination. As they approached, Gavin unwittingly started to stabilise the ship, which their pursuer’s gunner took advantage of.
“These explosions are getting closer and closer!”
“Fly into that block! The weapons on these things automatically lock down when in proximity to a building.”
True enough, when Gavin got close enough, the explosions ceased and their ship was unharmed.
“We can’t lose them, and more are coming from ahead.” – He said when he spotted flashing blue and red lights approaching.
“And…done!” – Celly said.
“I jacked into their IFF systems. Keep flying towards that group of gunships approaching. The moment we get close enough, I’ll execute the program and they’ll retarget to a different ship as the fugitive and we can slip away.”
Gavin could now make out 12 identical gunships flying right towards them in between the towers. He gripped the hardlight flight stick ever tighter.
“Steady…”- Celly chided him.
“Now!” – The Cani pressed a button just as Gavin jerked the stick upwards, sending the ship diving. The pair didn’t see it, but the other gunships all dispersed in different directions, making their maneuver easy to miss. Gavin quickly ducked the ship behind a platform and flew away from the commotion.
“You think it worked?”
“Of course it worked! I’m never wrong.” – Celly said, almost hurt.
“Set her down over there.” The Cani pointed at a walled maintenance platform snuggled between a trio of vents which was big enough to set down on. Also on the platform was the most average and unremarkable looking skycar Gavin had ever seen. The two got out of the gunship as quickly as they could, scurried over to the car and hopped in. Celly took the wheel.
“Nice flying.” – He said when they were in the air.
“I’m not sure if you’re serious…”
“Well we’re alive and free, aren’t we?”
It was only when they merged with a lane and didn’t hear sirens for several minutes that either of them relaxed a bit.
“So not to seem ungrateful, but why save me?” – Gavin eventually asked.
“The group behind the murder of Gartog? We’ve been after them for years. They never slip up, never make a mistake. You’re our best and only lead Ritter, and there’s no way in hell the Director is willing to lose you.”
“Yes, Director Carlyle. He’ll explain more at the Ranch.”
“Let me guess, that’s the nickname of your super-secret HQ.”
“Well, stereotypes exist for a reason, don’t they?” – Celly said with a laugh. “As for super-secret, well…”
Just as he said it, they took a turn and into full view came the arm’s base. Where each arm connected to the central spire was a massive internal superstructure anchoring them to the spinning outer ring. The rotation was used to generate the artificial gravity, however the massive stresses the structures endure due to the motion require them to be somewhat mobile. As such, the base of each arm acts as a massive joint, so that the structure wouldn’t be rigid and fragile. These joint were also the best armored and least exposed areas of Corymbus, which resulted in the most crucial administrative functions to be housed here – apart from the Senate Chambers and Council Hall, of course, which were at the prestigious tip of the spire. At the base of Quera arm was the Ministry of Security and Defense, housed in an imposing and quite magnificent structure known colloquially as the Fortress. Designed much like a citadel with defensive ramparts, the building’s mere presence demanded respect. Incidentally, the blocks located at its foot saw the least crime on the arm.
“The Fortress, are you kidding me?” – Gavin couldn’t hide the giddiness in his voice. He dreamed of getting inside ever since he moved to Corymbus, but access is highly restricted.
“One of the adjoining buildings, yes.” – Celly smiled. He took the skycar into a small dock on the left wing of the Fortress.
“That didn’t seem too secure.” – Gavin said.
“Please, we were scanned 23 times on approach.”
The duo stepped out of the skycar in a sleek but largely characterless docking bay numbered “G5-4”. They walked over to a door, which led to a corridor that, by its orientation, ran the Fortress lengthwise. It was largely deserted in spite of its size and how many rooms opened from it, with only the odd being hurrying to some errand or other.
“Right this way, Ritter.” – Celly beckoned him to follow. Gavin was in awe. The interior of the Fortress was even more amazing than he had imagined, and this was a mere corridor. The plates covering the walls interwove like armor, while the bare placrete – visually identical to concrete – of the stairs and décor gave the building a brutalist touch. The shaping of the angled windows, the well-defined lines and utter lack of any curves made the Fortress more than live up to its name. Gavin was lead up a flight of stairs to a well-lit office. Celly swiped his VB and the door slid open. The office was roomy with, a desk in the centre, two chairs before it and a few old statues arranged by the rear wall , which doubled as a window. The statues each depicted ancient, historic warriors from each race in the Coalition, with a Roman Centurion representing humanity. A tall, thin and impeccably dressed man was on the comm, with his back turned.
“Yes, fantastic. I’ll send Jarris there immediately to make contact. Thank you for your help.” – He said. His voice was stern, yet calming, in a fatherly way. He turned towards the duo, allowing Gavin to see his face. The human male had strong, handsome features, short jet-black hair and was approximately in his late-forties.
“Ah, Celly, I heard you ran into some trouble?” – He asked the agent.
“Yes, and believe it or not, our writer here actually did much to help.” – Celly replied, pointing back at Gavin over his shoulder with his thumb.
“So my hopes were correct, it seems. Thank you Celly, go on and report to the ready room for debrief.”- The man ordered. Celly nodded, and turned to leave the room. The man started speaking to Gavin immediately.
“My name is Davon Carlyle, and as Celly mentioned, I’m the Director of the CEOD.”
“You were listening in?”
“Naturally. Celly cleared up a few things about what has been undoubtedly a highly unusual day in your life, Mr.Ritter, but I’m sure you still have questions, first and foremost why you are here, meeting with me.”
“I… yes, actually. As a witness, or whatever it is I count as, shouldn’t I be questioned about this group you’re after, instead of chatting with the boss?”
“You see Gavin, we’ve been after this man – or woman, or whatever he, she or it is – for the better part of a decade now. We managed to stay on his trail by way of the odd clue or breadcrumb, sometimes left by himself purposefully, this whole time, but we never caught a real break. No evidence, no communiqués, no recordings. And now, instead of finding a clue, a piece of evidence, a something, I have a someone. You. Whatever it is they’re up to, you’re somehow in the middle of it all.”
“Wait, now, is this one person, or a group?”
“The person, I’ve been after for decades. Sometimes he operates alone, sometimes with a team. Now, we believe he has help. His latest identity was discovered a few months ago, but the original owner of that name and face died long before. That’s the problem, we’re dealing with a perfect chameleon. Sometime he’s a he, like the previous instance, or a she. Sometimes, though rarely, he’s not human, which is why we presume the ‘real’ he, if there even is one, is a human too… but I’m rambling. This man with a thousand faces is responsible for hundreds of deaths, dozens of terror attacks, several assassinations and various incidents across Coalition space. He never came to Corymbus before, but some weeks ago we got a tip that he’s here, and preparing for something big. We have no name, no face, no identifying characteristic to go on. The only thing that’s consistent, the only thing he carries over from identity to identity is a nickname. An alias. Pizarro.”
“Like, Gonzalo the conquistador or Carlos the colombian rebel?” – Gavin asked. The Director was clearly impressed with his off-hand knowledge of Old-Earth history.
“We don’t know, but likely there’s no connection with either. However, now, for the first time someone whose identity he stole is alive. You. Thanks to Celly, you’re the first person to live through their face being taken by Pizarro.”
“In the precinct, the guy who tried to kill me, he gave me a message from this Pizarro.”
“Something along the lines of this not being personal? Yes, he does that. Both he and the assassin then took your identity. I believe the name Gavin Ritter was worn by at least three people this past day. Walk with me.” – Davon started towards the door and beckoned Gavin to follow.
“Gavin, you need to understand that from today forth, your life has changed. We have access to the ID database, and could give you back your name. But you’d never be safe. Pizarro and his people would be after you, as well as any other party out there who’d still think you killed Gartog and an official pardon would only seem like a cover-up. We don’t know exactly what Pizarro wants this time, but he’s always been an anarchist, undermining the Coalition with his attacks. Are you familiar with the Hi’ilian Incident?”
“More or less. It was a small skirmish between the Umaraan and Koz 15 years ago over a trade dispute.”
“Yes, that’s the official story. What the public doesn’t know is that the Umaraan discovered a smuggling operation being run with the knowledge of the Koz Branch, and when they tried to step in, the Koz sent a military contingent against them. Shots were exchanged and there were thirteen casualties. The Koz were ready to declare war, and with the Lumba, Tekkith and Jakki reliant on them for resources, they would have joined them, while the others would have rallied behind the Umaraan. It would have been the end of the Coalition and galactic peace as we know it.”
“But Senator Gartog prevented it?”
“Yes. Even I don’t know what kind of backdoor deals he cut, but the situation was miraculously diffused. The problem is, we’re afraid some of those deals were on-going.”
“And now he’s dead.”
“Precisely. Pizarro always had an anti-Coalition rhetoric, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d want to tear it down by igniting an intergalactic war.”
“Can he even do that?”
“Gavin, we’re on Corymbus. This is the festering, corrupt heart of galactic politics and diplomacy. I’m surprised peace is even possible with the house of cards the central spire is under the surface. Deals are made every day, betrayal is the standard weekend pastime of these people. If there’s one place to unravel the tenuous peace between the 11 races, it’s here.”
“Okay, but why are you telling me all this? I don’t see what I can do beyond writing a book about it.”
“I heard Celly commending your skill a moment before.”
“Celly also made note of my incompetence during our escape as well.”
Davon stopped in the corridor they were walking through. Outside the window, they had a perfect view of the Fortress’ main entrance.
“Gavin, listen to me. This game of spies I’ve been playing for years? Everyone knows the rules, everyone has agents, everyone has spies. You’re not a spy, you haven’t been conditioned by years of playing this deadly game. You’re not going to act like a spy in the field, and the way I see it, that unpredictability is a plus.”
“So why not pluck some other mook off the street?”
“Because Pizarro took your identity. You have a part in this we don’t yet know.”
“Look, Mr. Carlyle, this is all fascinating but I don’t think you have the right man. I’m just a writer…”
“A writer with a great average on the shooting range, with experience as a private detective, a writer who’s been practicing martial arts for a couple of years, should I go on?”
“Wait, you know about that?”
“Gavin, please, I know everything.” – Davon said with a laugh. Gavin, nonetheless, was not amused.
“Still, you want to put me up against trained killers…”
“You know what Celly was before I recruited him? A mechanic. He fixed trashed up skycars on the cheap, but I saw something in him, something special, and took him in. We started him off with easy tasks, but he learned quick, like I know you will too, and now he’s one of our best men.”
“Yeah, but he’s been with you for years, no doubt you trained him…”
“You know how many hours of training Celly got while with us? In all his 8 years? Three. Three hours, Gavin. We’ll give you the training, the equipment, the resources. You’ll have help, a handler and a chance to unravel this mystery.”
“I don’t know about this.” – Gavin sighed. He was more than tempted, but also afraid. Really, he actually wanted this – it’s not every day you’re offered a place in a secret organisation, but he wasn’t one to easily leave his comfort zone.
“Your life has been taken from you, aren’t you a little bit curious? If you say no, you’re going to have to live under a different name in witness protection until we catch this guy. Don’t you want to know why? Or who’s behind it? You’ve been writing these stories for years, isn’t it your dream to be in one of them?” – The Director was unrelenting. Gavin looked out the window, and stared at the Fortress.
“Are you really content just being a character in your own life’s story, letting others write your fate? It’s time to pick up the pen, Gavin.”
Whatever I choose, nothing will be like it was yesterday, nothing will go back to normal. Someone took my name from me, and Carlyle’s right. I do want to know why. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a title for my new book.
“Where do I start?”
Previously: Chapter 1