Hyram settled into the perch of his personal ship, the Dionysus: a slender cylinder of tungsten, no larger than a small bedroom, which spun imperceptibly fast to produce an artificial gravity. A spire protruded from the vessel’s nose, integrated with a dual camera-communications satellite to provide an image. Hyram Nick was watching this image on a monitor that encompassed the aft wall, his face expressionless, lost in thought. Because of the government’s paranoiac secrecy—and chiefly because of Hyram’s need for seclusion—he was both captain and pilot, the only crew.
Hyram preferred to be alone on these missions. It gave him the time to rationalize the act of murder; for him to submerge himself beneath a protective layer of reason, of patriotism that wouldn’t crack under pressure. There was no misconception about his livelihood: Hyram knew, without guilt or pleasure, that he was a man who killed for money. But he also knew—or convinced himself—that the people he murdered deserved their fate.
And, as Hyram quickly deduced while devouring the mission profile, Jiang Yu certainly deserved to die. The file itself was shallow, most of Yu’s background intentionally deleted. The scant information left was neither striking nor pertinent either: went to Harvard, married young, divorced young, no children, no family, no contacts, took a keen interest in Marxism. Even his wife’s name was blacked out. Job history, blacked out. Every event after Jiang’s CIA initiation: blacked out. Hyram felt it though, instinctually, exactly why he had to die. Just couldn’t consciously express the idea. As if his thoughts were truncated and blocked by a mental barrier; by subtle, willful omissions. With a quiet click the profile disappeared.
But his face—Jiang’s face: the featureless plane that stared out lifelessly from the computer screen. The picture seemed to challenge Hyram simply by existing. He uploaded the image to the ship’s projector; Jiang Yu appeared, wiry body poured into the black jumper of a CIA operative; hawk-eyes peering out from wary slits, bald too. A maze of silvery veins lined Jiang’s palms, mirroring Hyram’s own implants. As was mandatory and custom for all operatives, AR tech was imbedded into the skin, hardwired to his prefrontal cortex. By applying pressure to the palms and concentrating, the agent could recreate any piece of information—blueprints or objectives, for example—into a three-dimensional model at his fingertips.
No doubt, thought Hyram with disgust, Jiang is performing parlor tricks to bedazzle the natives.
Jiang Yu’s image melted into a wraith-like shade, then disappeared entirely. Hyram lit a cigarette and watched the unchanging landscape of space unfold in huge wrinkles. The ship would reach the Quasi system in several hours, and the planet Quai soon after that.
Until then, Hyram was content to observe the smoke rise in ephemeral drifts and obscure the cabin.
As the Dionysus decelerated, the stitches of sooty black began uncoiling like threads into actual dimensions, and a series of tiny flashes caught Hyram’s eye. The planet Quai—no larger than Earth—seemed trapped within the massive star’s corpse like a stone caught in a lake of fire. Its atmosphere was pockmarked by grey clouds, nearly indistinguishable against the planet’s arctic landscape. Communal fires flickered across the plains. Again a series of white flashes erupted at the corners of Quai’s body, growing brighter—and thus closer—with every second. Hyram tried magnifying the computer image; he succeeded only in blurring space into a white-orange haze.
Then the thought struck him, blatantly obvious yet preposterous in its implication: They’re ships. The government had promised him that no one—least of all Jiang!—knew what the CIA was planning. A wave of panic crawled along his spine, but he repressed the sensation and began calculating frantically: the other ships were at least three minutes away; the warbirds were armed with hydrogen-missiles and amplified lasers; the Dionysus was a stealth craft disguised as a civilian cargo transport—he couldn’t fight them off, nor evade their approach.
The array of lights grew closer, nearly in scale. Hyram Nick could barely trace one fierce silhouette against the snowy backdrop.
The word screamed in his brain like an alarm, a cacophonous epiphany. An asteroid belt had formed hundreds of years ago, the remnants of a moon ripped apart by the titanic gravitational struggle between Quai and its expanding star. Thin bands of intermingling carbonaceous (formed of compacted lunar regolith) and silicaceous (formed of superheated metals) asteroids wrap around the planet like a crescent. Currently the belt was on the opposite side, but that wouldn’t be a problem. He would run with an old alias.
Hyram carefully swiveled the commsat toward the approaching envoy of warships, began his mock distress call.
“H-hello? Is anyone out there?” he asked, modulating his voice to a raspy, tired sound, “This is the Dionysus. Mining vessel. Out of propellant. God’amned speck of space dust slipped between the plating and sprung a leak. Lucky the ship didn’t explode.”
Hyram stopped transmitting, lit another cigarette. Incidents of this nature were common around Quai—alien sympathetics, taking offense to the Quai-natives’ assimilation, would occasionally arrive and play at blockade and protest. Per standard procedure, all trespassers were blown to bits.
Hyram Nick wasn’t keen on dying, but survival meant time, meant alibi. He thought a lowly and lost mining ship would suffice. There was no way to detect a propellant leak, short of watching the stream of liquid ooze out and coalesce into tiny spheres. No way to detect his lie either, unless they asked for a personal history; and then Hyram would give them a name, the name of a perfectly reputable miner with an uncanny record of wrong place, wrong time: Mr. Archer Charles. He was a man whose bungling misadventures were so well documented as to be legendary. Hyram smiled, smoke rising like exhaust from the sun.
“Standby Dionysus,” crackled a far-away, almost mystical voice over the radio.
Hyram didn’t respond, only watched the cluster of sun-drenched ships manifest out of the ether. A warbird—as predicted: a rotating miles-wide sphere, centrifugal forces creating the same artificial gravity that Hyram enjoyed, only on a larger scale. Essentially a militarized habitat, belted by platforms installed with missile-pods. The vessel fought by spinning around and firing each hydrogen bomb in turn, like the broadside cannons of ancient mariners. Luckily these flying fortresses were deterrents, nothing more.
At least, they were deterrents in the hands of the UN.
Other ships began appearing now, tiny rocket-propelled vessels that glimmered beneath their superior’s shadows. Archaic things, amateurish—the tenuous first steps, Hyram realized, of the Quai’s space program. They had learned much from humanity in a short time. Then again, he thought, we’re excellent teachers. Squinting, Hyram barely made out the tiny letters the primitive rockets wore like stitched badges: English names—of course—like Apollo and Voyager and Discovery. And our language too! These Quai were most impressive.
“Dionysus, where’s your cargo,” echoed the radio, less of a question than a demand. Hyram had anticipated that. Most mining vessels tugged large carriages of collected material, sectioned like train cars—they were also equipped with drill-bits at the nose. Thankfully the NATO guard had only noticed the missing cargo cars and not the absent bit; if he had been better prepared, Hyram could have fabricated them using AR tech, but…
Again he affected the voice of an exhausted, thirsty refugee, “I detached it. Thought I’d drift a few extra kilometers with less inertia.” It was a plausible explanation: smaller vessels often jettisoned their excess weight for a boost.
The communications channel clicked off. Hyram blew a smoke ring over the display, the hoop of grey circumscribing the warship like an outline. A Quai rocket burned closer and nuzzled itself beneath the sphere. After a moment, the radio crackled to life, and a static-laden silence befell Dionysus. The captain didn’t say anything for a long minute, filled Hyram with an odd dread.
When he did speak, the man paused many times, wavering, as if mediating the predictions of a crystal ball.
“You are…a miner? How unusual, as all mining operations were…suspended some time ago.” Hyram nearly choked on his cigarette, pounded his chest. With an angry snarl he stamped the smoke out.
“Too much radiation.” continued the soldier, “Caused by a solar flare. No one’s been mining for at least a month. And there’s no way you’ve survived adrift for thirty days.”
Another sensation of panic ran through Hyram, and he muttered a stream of curses, eyes gamboling across the screen. The escape pod was out of the question: ejecting from Dionysus was an admission of guilt, and no one would dare rescue a renegade with a warbird hovering over the area. He frantically began retooling his alibi while the open channel hissed. When the captain’s voice reverberated across the cabin again, it didn’t seem corporeal anymore, as if emanating from a prophet.
“Do you know what happens to heretics?”
Heretics? The word surprised Hyram, and for a moment his thought process fell apart. Why would he say that?
He shook his head, concentrated: suppose he hadn’t been adrift? What if the ship had been trapped in the orbit of some other body, such as Quai’s sister planet? It was only four hundred thousand kilometers away, and Hyram could have ejected the cargo to achieve escape velocity…
In silent answer to the guard’s question, an arc of light crept out of the warbird—slowly, so slowly it seemed an organic thing, growing across the dark gulf under the raging sun. Hyram Nick held his breath and watched, his mind erased by sheer terror. The laser slithered toward Dionysus—then abruptly changed course, followed the sphere’s curvature downwards. The beam of light serenely burrowed into the Quai rocket nestled under the warship like a clinging pup. Without so much as a whimper the journeyman ship fragmented, its million pieces deteriorating into motes of fire and fluttering away; radio static echoed around Hyram like tearing metal. Three stubby, stout bodies pirouetted into a decaying orbit. The fledgling Quai astronauts were made an example of.
“You must be the assassin,” resounded the guard, “prepare to be boarded.”
The radio clicked off.
The warbird inched closer. Plasma vapors enfolded the white planet in a blue haze. Painted on the ship’s stern was an image: three pictures of a face side-by-side, from left-profile to full to right-profile—Jiang’s face.
A new godhead.