Experiment #337

Six Zeros Part 1

Inmates poured out of the giant hole into the forsaken landscape of the asteroid. They’d be dead inside seven days, but even death seemed better than continued service in the gulag. Colonel Kilmer and two of his men, each armed with a sniper rifle, stood a safe distance away.

“Prepare to fire,” Kilmer shouted.

He called off targets from the tablet in his hand. His men picked off those targets from the ID tags on the fronts of their neon-yellow jumpsuits.

“Filigree, H675

“Gerard, Y721”

Each inmate they hit vanished.

“Kleeple, T125”

After the second or third inmate disappeared, the rest stampeded.

“Fishmonger, A956 and Wisk, Q785.”

The man aiming for Fishmonger fired.

“You missed him, Corporal,” Colonel Kilmer said.

The man fired again and this time Fishmonger disappeared. “Sorry, Sir,” he said. “The other guy moved in the way as I fired.”

“Fine, we’ll sort it out on the ship.”

“Sir,” the other man said, “these inmates are just going to die.”

Kilmer smiled. “Sure, Sergeant. Have fun. Switch to bullets.” Kilmer touched a few buttons on his tablet and disappeared the same way the inmates had. The sergeant and the corporal smiled at one another, then reloaded their weapons and fired.

Experiment #338

Six Zeros Part 2

Colonel Kilmer entered the room amidst yelling, name-calling, and general anarchy. Four men and two women in bright, neon-yellow prison jumpsuits were restrained around the room. All fought their restraints and shouted except one. The yelling and name-calling only got louder as Kilmer entered the room and became its focus.

Kilmer stopped in the center and tapped a few buttons on his tablet. All six former inmates felt a jolt of electricity. After the screams died down, Kilmer spoke. “Welcome. You are now all employees of the Colonial Federation.”

In unison five of the six former inmates spat. Though most tried to spit on Kilmer, none reached him.

“I thought you might feel that way.” He dialed up the voltage and zapped them all again. “Your restraints have been fitted with a behavior suppression system. When I press this button,” he tapped it again, “you all feel excruciating pain.” He turned to one of the criminals, a burly man a half-foot taller than everyone else and three times as strong. “Yes, even you, Mr. Wisk. You may have dulled your sense of pain through steroids and other modifications, but you’ll be glad to know we’ve found a way around that.”

The former inmates breathed heavily and pulled on their restraints.

“Ok,” Kilmer continued. “Now that you all have a reason to listen to me, lets discuss a few more ground rules. Number one: I don’t have to hit this button–if any of you tries to attack me or any of my soldiers, the restraints are programmed to shock you automatically. Fight through the pain, you think? Well, each time you do it, it’ll get worse. Eventually it’ll kill you, or leave you brain-dead. The techs were a little unclear on the final outcome. Either way, you’ll be useless to me and I’ll jettison you into space.

“Now, each of you was recruited for some special talent you possess. Mr. Wisk here is as dumb as an Ox, but as strong as ten of them.”

A crazy look of pride entered Wisk’s eye. “Twenty!” he interjected.

“Clearly,” Kilmer said. He gestured to the next former inmate, a slender man whose hair was whispy and thin. His skin was mottled with scar tissue. He had no eyebrows. “Mr. Filigree here is a pyromaniac, calls himself ‘Pyrite.’ He’s an explosives expert and generally annoying individual. He also possesses pyrokinesis. Bought, I’m certain, through the most legal means. Those bags on his hands are lined with asbestos. I hope that you don’t want to have kids, for so many reasons.

“Ms. Samantha Gerard will be your commander in the field.” Kilmer indicated a dark-skinned girl in her late teens. Her hair was cut close to the scalp for efficiency. She had a dangly earring in her left ear and a bad attitude. “An expert in logistics and engineering, she’s already performed more bank robberies in her teens than all the rest of you put together.”

Experiment #339

Six Zeros Part 3

“I ain’t following no twelve-year-old girl,” Wisk yelled.

“Least I ain’t stupid,” Gerard retorted.

“Ms. Melodious Kleeple, also known as Masquerade–“

“Just Masq,” she snarled.

“–is our disguise and infiltration expert,” Kilmer continued, unperturbed. “I’d hardly believe she was a woman if I hadn’t seen the scans myself.”

“Scans can be faked,” Masq said. She was currently a light skinned blond woman, who seemed like she could wrap any man around her finger.

“And Anthony Fishmonger, half-man, half-machine. He’s replaced half his organs with cybernetic versions. Former biotech professor on Ashkelon, if the rumors are to be believed.”

“They’re not,” said Fishmonger. Most of his modifications were internal, except for his right eye which had been replaced by a disconcerting camera and an orange light.

The guy who’d been quiet the whole time coughed. All eyes turned to him and his wan smile. He was scruffy, thin, tall, and looked very out of place, like an accountant in a biker bar.

“Who’s this loser?” Gerard asked.

“Yes, who are you?” Kilmer asked.

“I’m nobody.”

Kilmer turned to one of the bodyguards who’d entered with him. “Kill this nobody.” The body guard lifted his weapon.

“Wait! Wait! My name is Kringle.”

“Kringle? Like Santa Claus?” Wisk asked.

“Okay, kill Kringle,” Kilmer said.

“Wait, okay, that was a bad lie, and I really shouldn’t lie to guys with guns. My name is Hero.”

“Seriously?” Pyrite asked.

“‘Hero?’” Masq asked with derision. “No wonder you said, ‘Kringle.’”

“What are you in for?” Fishmonger asked.

“Saving the day?” asked Pyrite.

“No, it was, uh…murder,” Hero said.

“Cyneheard Berhtoald Hero,” Kilmer said, “Breaking and entering.”

“Yeah, that’s how it started,” Hero said.

“Cyneheard?” Fishmonger asked. “What a stupid name.”

“It’s my Mom’s, okay?” Hero said. “My friends call me Cy.”

“Named after your Mom?” Pyrite asked, gasping with laughter.

“Apparently, elderly Mrs. Finchin, who’s very much alive by the way, decided to press charges.” Kilmer said.

Everyone laughed.

“What landed you in the max system? What are you, a Moorvat or something?”

Cy looked down. “No.”

Kilmer, who was still fiddling with his tablet, stopped laughing. He turned to the man next to him. “Double his restraints. I want him on camera every second.”

Kilmer and his men rushed out of the room.

“What’s a Moorvat?” Ox asked.

“The soldiers, you idiot,” said Gerard.

“A genetically engineered killing machine,” said Masq.

“Maybe first gens,” said Cy. “But the second generation–“

“They reproduce?” Pyrite asked. “Gross.”

“They’re still human,” said Cy.

“Not likely,” Fishmonger said.

“You area Moorvat,” Masq said. “Aren’t you?”

“Well, yes,” said Cy, “a second gen.”

“So you, like, turn red and get laser-proof when you’re angry?”

“Not exactly. Anger’s often a trigger, but–“

“Good thing stupid’s not a trigger,” Pyrite said.

Everyone laughed except Cy. “Yeah.”

The night continued in much the same vein. Eventually Kilmer killed the lights in the room, and they all took that as their cue to sleep.

Experiment #340

Six Zeros Part 4

The lights blazed on as smoke, noise, and commotion filled the room. Kilmer shouted orders at his men. Each one went to a former inmate and touched a medical device to their neck, each arm, and each leg.

“No time for pleasantries. You’ve all been fitted with five subcutaneous explosive devices. Should any one lose contact with the other four in your body, you explode. Should any be taken out of your body, you explode. Should you behave poorly, you explode. Should one of you get out of line, you ALL explode.

“We’ve been attacked by a pirate vessel, most likely Ftharan. While my men are fighting off the pirates that’ve boarded us, I need you to go to the other ship and neutralize the threat. I don’t need you exploding on my ship, so stay in line, at least until you get over there and get the job done. I’ll use you as ordinance if I have to.”

A soldier ran into the room. “Sir, they’ve reached engineering.”

Kilmer turned to his men still in the room. “Get them undone and get to your stations.” Then he left following the messenger. Kilmer’s men, true to his word, released the former inmates and left the room.

“All right,” Gerard said, “Dumb Ox, you’re on point.”

“I told you, I ain’t following no twelve-year-old,” Wisk yelled in her face.

With moves faster than anyone expected, Gerard grabbed his neck and swung up on his back, and with the touch of five nerve points had him on the ground and twitching.

“Anyone else want to challenge the twelve-year-old?” Gerard asked.

No one raised a hand.

Gerard reached down and released Wisk. “Dumb Ox, you’re on point,” she said. “Filigree—”

“Pyrite,” he interjected.

“Fine. Pyrite, you’ve got our backs.”

“Fishmonger and Masq, be on the lookout for anything we can use.”

“What about me?” Cy asked.

“You stay here.”

“But—”

“Listen, Mr. Special-pants, I ain’t a nursemaid for crybabies, so, Moorvat or not, if you couldn’t steal candy from an old lady you’ve got no place with me. So shut up, stay put, and try not to get yourself or us killed.”

Cy watched as they walked out the door.

Experiment #341

Six Zeros Part 5

In the hallway, they largely followed Gerard’s plan, each of them figuring they might as well until something better comes along.

Fishmonger was the first to see an opportunity. He ducked down a corridor and was out of sight, and within seconds they heard an explosion and a cry of pain. They ran to the spot only to find Fishmonger with one less leg than he’d had before.

Gerard turned down the corridor they had come. “Hey, Freak…”

Nothing happened.

“Moron, Hero, Dingbat…whatever you answer to. I know you’re following us,” she said. “Come on out of the shadows and carry Fishmonger.”

Cy stepped forward. They used strips torn from Gerard’s prison jumpsuit to bind the wound. Without ceremony, Cy lifted a whimpering Fishmonger and put him over his shoulder.

“Ok, let’s move,” Gerard said. They made it to the corridor around the corner from the airlock without incident.

“Dumb Ox and Pyrite, take out the guards and clear the way.”

“Can’t I just be Ox?” Ox asked.

“You wanna be Stupid Stupid Face?” Gerard asked.

“Okay, okay,” Ox replied.

Ox and Pyrite turned the corner. Ox charged two of the guards, took them down and smacked their heads on the floor, knocking them out. Pyrite flash-fried the third.

Gerard stepped forward, followed by Masq, with Cy and Fishmonger hobbling behind. They stopped to one side of the airlock. “These guards don’t look Ftharan,” Cy said, but no one was listening, not even Fishmonger.

“The airlock provides no cover; it’s just a long deathtrap to the other ship,” Masq said.

“Okay.” Gerard pulled a helmet and oxygen tank off one of the guards. “Pyrite? If we send you down the hall can you burn up all the oxygen?”

“The guards at the other end’ll have masks too.”

“Yes, three to one is better than seventeen to one.”

“I should go,” Cy said.

Gerard didn’t hesitate: she punched him in the mouth and said, “While in this craptacular situation I will not have my methods questioned by someone who can’t even steal vid equipment from an old lady. Now help Fishmonger, or shove off.”

Cy’s skin turned red as he set Fishmonger down and started down the hallway. Pyrite made to go after him, but Gerard stopped him. “Anger’s a trigger, right? Let’s see if he can take any out before he dies. Worst comes to worst, the Ftharan’s will be overconfident.”

Cy picked up speed and a deeper hue of red as he barreled down the hallway. The guards at the far end of the connection tube had plasma pistols, but his toughened, red skin could handle that. Their shots singed and stung, but Cy didn’t slow down.

When he reached the other side, his genetically engineered instincts took over–or they would have if he hadn’t tripped on his own feet and fallen headlong in front of the guards.

Point-blank plasma pistol shots sting a lot more than ones from farther away, but that only gave Cy more impetus to stop them, or, rather, try to stop them.

He leapt up and grabbed the guard nearest him by the shoulder and the muzzle of his gun. Unfortunately, the guard kept firing, and Cy’s grip on his shoulder wasn’t tight enough. The guard slipped out of his grasp, leaving the gun, and ran down the corridor.

Cy cursed under his breath. He aimed the plasma pistol and fired after the guard and his compatriots, pushing them back a corridor through his blind advance. He’d bent the pistol’s muzzle as he disarmed the guard, and after a few shots that went far wide of their targets, the pistol exploded in his hand. Rage burned through Cy, and he roared as he ran at the guards still firing at him.

Experiment #342

Six Zeros Part 6

Meanwhile, Gerard, Masq, Pyrite, and Ox, carrying Fishmonger, slipped through the airlock and made their way toward the bridge. The hallways seemed empty, almost inviting. As they reached the bridge door they heard a commotion from behind. A battered and burned Cy was running full-tilt toward them with a gang of twenty or so Ftharan mercenaries in pursuit.

Gerard sighed. “Light them up, Pyrite.”

“Including ‘the Hero’?”

“Whatever.”

Pyrite, free of the asbestos gloves, juggled flames around his fingers and then, with a smile, a conflagration flowed from his hands. The hallway was covered from top to bottom with flames.

“Enough!” Gerard shouted. “You’re going to burn up all the oxygen!”

Pyrite just cackled and burned harder–he still had the oxygen mask from the airlock guard.

Suddenly a red mass burst through the wall of flame. As Cy landed he punched Pyrite in the face, shattering the helmet, knocking Pyrite out and ending the flow of flame. Cy barreled past and through the bridge door, and as Gerard and the rest entered the bridge door they found Cy at one end of a nasty looking blaster. At the other end they saw the person they least expected: Colonel Kilmer.

###

“Good. The rest of you finally showed.” He motioned for Cy to stand back with the others. “Truth be told, I expected more of you to go the way of Mr. Fishmonger here. Might only have two heads and a set of limbs between the lot of you.”

“This was a test?” Gerard asked, getting there a few seconds before the rest and a full minute before Ox.

“I was also concerned that an extra, inept ruffian might be more than you could handle, Gerard, and he was. But you, Mr. Hero, proved that even a buffoon can be useful.”

Masq patted Ox on the back. “There’s hope for you yet, Ox.”

“So what was this?” Gerard asked.

“It was an interview. A test run. A measurement to see if you were up for the job.”

“What job?” Masq asked.

“Tut-tut, not yet. There are more hoops to jump through first. Your next assignment is the retrieval of an object on a postal carrier.”

“Aren’t they pretty heavily shielded?” Pyrite asked.

“Commander Toliver will explain the details and will oversee your operations.” Colonel Kilmer gestured to an officer behind him as he briefed them on their mission. “From this point on he will hold the kill switch. Kill him, maim him, or otherwise harm him, and all of you will feel the consequences.”

Toliver stepped forward. “That was the sloppiest operation I’ve seen since my Grandma took her bridge club to the casino. We’re going to need to cut that time in half if we’re going to be cracking this operation.”

“I’ll crack your head in half,” Ox muttered.

Gerard put her hand on Ox’s shoulder. “And just why should we do this?” she asked, addressing Kilmer.

“I thought I was very clear about the explosive nature of your situation.”

“So blow us up. Why should we risk ourselves on some suicide mission just to make you happy? We die either way. What’s in it for us?”

“You’re not in a place to make demands.”

“And you’re not in a place to make me comply, explosives or not.” Gerard crossed her arms.

“I chose well for my field commander,” Kilmer said with a disturbing smile.

Gerard waited.

“Fine, you need a carrot as well as a stick. Upon completion of your missions you will receive time off your jail sentence.”

“Commute our sentences, expunge our records, and set us each up with a long-range shuttle and ten million credits.”

Colonel Kilmer laughed. “Not even if I could.”

“Commute the sentences, expunge the records, one long-range shuttle, and one million credits each.”

“I’ll have your sentences commuted, expunge the last five years and give you one million credits to leave the solar system.”

“One million each,” Cy said.

“How about I blow you up and find a new team of criminals?”

“One million total,” Gerard said. “Done.”

“A one and six zeroes,” Pyrite said with satisfaction.

“Toliver,” Kilmer said, “take them to the ship and get them ready.”

Experiment #343

Six Zeros Part 7

“You sent for me, sir?”

Kilmer sat behind a wide desk in front of a wall of awards and commendations. “Yes. Make certain you watch the Moorvat closely. If he gets even a little out of line, kill him.”

“Yes, sir,” Toliver said.

“Dismissed.”

Toliver turned to go, then stopped and turned back to Kilmer. “Sir, what if the subcutaneous explosives don’t work on him?”

“They will,” Kilmer said sharply. Toliver nodded and left.

Kilmer drummed his fingers on his desk. He picked up the communicator and punched the button for his secretary. “Get me R&D,” he said.

###

Over the next few days Toliver began training the criminals to work as a team. He began with long marches around the cargo bay and trust falls. Gerard interrupted Toliver every chance she got and turned the long marches into competitions and war games. The others may have not been united in their love for Gerard, but they were definitely united by their hate for Toliver.

Masq took to doing impressions of Toliver whenever he wasn’t looking. Ox tried this too, but ended up showing only a caricature of himself. Pyrite burned up anything Toliver handed him and made random walls and metal objects in Toliver’s way red hot. Cy was glad to have someone else as the butt of everyone’s jokes and tried, unsuccessfully, to chime in on the ribald humor concerning their commander.

Only Fishmonger seemed to actually like Toliver, but this was mostly because Toliver had requisitioned a military prototype prosthesis to replace Fishmonger’s leg.

###

“We will infiltrate the derelict postal carrier and retrieve an item from it.” Toliver told them one morning in a mission briefing.

“Sounds tough,” Ox said.

Gerard almost did a spit-take. “You broke us out of prison for this?”

“I never said it would be easy,” Toliver said. “You’ll need to defeat one of the best security systems ever created.”

“On a postal carrier?” Pyrite asked.

Gerard turned to him. “Postal beacons are trusted throughout the galaxy. So far no one’s been able to successfully spoof one. If a postal beacon’s coming from a ship, you can trust that it’s legitimate. Part of that is the security of the cabinet it’s held in.”

“Part,” Fishmonger offered, “is that a beacon is integral to the ship that carries it. You can take the cabinet out of the ship, but that’ll inauthenticate the signal.”

“So why do we want to get into this cabinet?” Masq asked.

“At most postal stations, there’s a calibration system that re-calibrates the signal and performs other maintenance,” Toliver said.

“I thought we were hitting a carrier,” Ox said.

“There’s a portable version of the calibrator on every carrier,” Toliver said. “That’s your target. Get in, open the cabinet, and retrieve the calibrator.”

“Don’t those portables only attenuate the signal with a verified postal beacon at a station?” Fishmonger said.

“Sounds useless,” Pyrite said.

“‘Why’ is above your pay grade,” Toliver said.

“Which is ‘None,’” Masq muttered.

“You’re military, right?” Gerard asked. “Why are we hitting a Colonial Federation target?”

“You weren’t recruited to ask questions. Do what you’re told and you’ll get what you’re promised,” Toliver said.

Experiment #344

Six Zeros Part 8

Toliver brought them out of hyperspace five hundred meters from the postal carrier. “The carrier’s system is fuzzled. I can’t get a clean lock to dock. You’ll have to walk it. Once inside, you’ve got air pressure in there, but it looks like no Oxygen. Pyrite, you’ll stay behind and man the canon in case we have trouble.”

“You expecting any?”

“Always,” Toliver said. “All right, Gerard, suit up. Your mission is a go.”

Gerard, Ox, Fishmonger, Cy, and Masq got into space suits and took a plasma pistol each. Every one of them thought about shooting Toliver as soon as he gave it to them, but they all remembered Fishmonger’s leg and the automatic kill-switch.

The five of them entered the airlock accompanied by a modified liftbot for carrying the calibrator. Toliver opened the outer door.

Gerard jumped first, then Ox. As Masq jumped she noticed a ship on the far side of the postal carrier. “You see this, Tolesies?”

“We’ve got company!” Fishmonger yelled into the intercom.

“Yes, the postal carrier masked their signal,” Toliver said.

“Don’t give me excuses,” Gerard yelled into the comm.

“They’re postals,” Cy said.

“How do you know?” Fishmonger asked.

“Like the mailmen?” Ox asked.

“No,” Gerard said, “postal inspectors. They’re the law out here.”

“Everybody hold tight,” Toliver yelled.

“They’re coming out of the ship,” Fishmonger said.

“What are they doing?” Pyrite asked.

“They don’t seem to have seen us,” Gerard said.

Before Toliver or Gerard could give a command, Masq opened fire.

Toliver cursed into the intercom. “Get in there, and get the job done.” Cy, holding the liftbot, jumped. Fishmonger followed.

“Ok, on me, I want Dumb Ox on point. Masq, back him up and run interference. Fishmonger and Cy, you’re on rear guard with the liftbot.”

One of the postal inspectors jumped from their ship to the wreckage. The other covered him with blast after blast from their plasma pistols as Gerard and her team scuttled along the ship to the airlock.

“To be clear, lethal force on the postal inspectors is notgranted; in fact, they should survive this encounter unscathed,” Toliver said.

“You want us to miss?” Masq asked.

“Yes,” Toliver said. “We’re on the same side.”

“That why we’re stealing a postal carrier calibration device, isn’t it,” Gerard said. “Because we’re on the same side.”

“Just do as your told,” Toliver said.

Gerard would have continued the banter, but at that moment the postal inspector rounded a corner. All five of them fired and dutifully missed as the postal inspector jumped back behind the corner wall.

“Federal Postal Inspector!” they heard him yell through his suit mic. “Stand down!”

They fired a number of shots in his general direction while Gerard repositioned her team such that Ox and Masq stayed put and the rest could get beyond them and finish the mission.

“Last chance!” the postal inspector yelled.

Ox and Masq laughed as they fired in his direction again. Without warning the postal inspector jumped from his hiding spot and fired five shots before he hit the ground. Each shot disarmed one of them except the last, which hit Masq in the arm. Her spacesuit automatically sealed the breech, but her arm was useless.

“You’re under arrest!” the postal inspector shouted.

Experiment #345

Six Zeros Part 9

Masq fired at the postal inspector, but with her arm hurt she missed unintentionally.

“Move,” Gerard shouted into the comm. She grabbed the liftbot and sent it careening for the inspector while everyone else ran.

“Dumb Ox and Masq, head for the cargo bay and make a lot of noise so he follows you. Cy and Fishmonger, on me. We’re gonna finish this.”

A few moments later Gerard heard shots being fired as she, Cy, and Fishmonger arrived at the door. “Toliver, I’m here,” Gerard said.

“That’s Commander Toliver-”

“Do you wanna open the stupid door or not? Give me the code.”

“It’s a complicated binary encoding that-”

“So cut the Flying Flark and give me the ones and zeroes.”

“Just put the encoder in the door slot.”

“Why am I here if we’re using an encoder?” Fishmonger asked. “Cracking codes is what I do.”

Gerard ignored him. “It’ll be faster if you just give me the code,” she said to Toliver.

“Yeah but a lot more dangerous. Just connect the encoder.”

Plasma laser fire sounded in a nearby corridor. “Fine.” She put the encoder in the door’s slot.

“Transmitting…now.” The lights on the machine began to blink.

“How long’s this gonna take?”

“Long as it needs to.”

“My Granny could do it faster.”

YourGranny wouldn’t need a device.”

The light turned green and door opened.

“Ok, I’m in.”

“Great. Leave the door open and head back to the ship.”

“What?”

“You heard me.” Then, widening the communication to the whole team, he said, “Mission accomplished, return to the ship.”

“We did all this just to open the door? What about the calibrator?”

Closing back in on her, he said, “Our mission was to open the door. Now head back to the ship.”

Gerard looked inside the large cabinet that held the postal beacon. Most of it was worthless tools or things too big to carry or hide.

“We’re just leaving?” Cy asked.

“Following orders,” she said.

“Don’t want to get blown up,” Fishmonger said, pointing at his bionic leg. Cy couldn’t tell if he was joking or serious. Gerard sighed and headed back to the ship, and Ox and Masq joined them, both with white fire-suppressant gas clinging to their suits.

“Long story,” Masq said, “but I think we convinced him we were after the cargo and nothing else.”

Suddenly the atmosphere of the postal carrier rushed past them. Fishmonger was in the rear; his prosthetic leg clamped down as soon as it registered that it was slipping on the deck. The team’s bodies became missiles rushing back in the direction they’d come. Fishmonger caught Cy, who turned red and quickly caught everyone else except Gerard–she’d been quick enough to activate the magnets in her boots.

“We’ve gotta get back to the ship and out of here before he brings back more postals. Dumb Ox and Cy, you’re in back covering our escape.”

By the time they made it to the airlock the atmosphere in the ship was gone. “Toliver, you ready for us?” Gerard asked.

“Yeah, but make it quick. Four Veruzan-class ships are on their way and Kilmer wants us gone before they get here.”

“Well, if Daddy says so,” Masq said.

“Fishmonger,” Toliver said, “please disconnect Masq’s air supply for me.”

Without even a question, Fishmonger put his hand on the hose that provided air from the tank to her helmet.

“Stop it!” Gerard yelled. “Anthony, stop!”

Fishmonger closed the valve between her helmet and the air tank, then turned to Gerard.

“You’ll kill her!” Cy shouted.

“I will not have any of you disobeying me in the field,” Toliver said. “Keep your snide remarks and disrespectful banter to yourself. Is that clear? And no one fires without my say so. Got it?”

No one spoke. Masq breathed heavily, further depleting her air.

“I need a verbal on this,” Toliver said.

Cy, Ox, Pyrite, and Masq all affirmed. It seemed clear Fishmonger didn’t need to confirm. Masq was beginning to panic–she couldn’t reach the valve, and Fishmonger successfully kept himself between her and the others.

“Gerard?” Toliver asked.

Gerard looked at each of them, coming to Fishmonger last. She looked in his eyes as she said. “I understand.”

“All right,” Toliver said. “Fishmonger, reopen her valve. Everyone back on board, and quick. We’ve got a lot to get done.”

Experiment #346

Six Zeros Part 10

The next week or so was spent alternately between planning and training. Toliver called the next mission “The one they’d been recruited for” but wouldn’t give them any more details on what they were doing, except that they were to plant a virus in a Ftharan dignitary’s personal data center.

“Why do we have to go inside the building? Can’t we hit it from a network drop outside?” Fishmonger asked.

“If only we could, but the virtual screening procedures would pick up any viral code before we could install it,” Toliver said.

“What if we hack the screening software so that it lets our program through?” Cy asked.

Everyone blinked at him.

“It’s a no-go,” Toliver said. “They’re checked every thirty seconds against backups, and even if we were fast enough, the approval process is set at two minutes to thwart such attempts. The only way to upload a virus is at a panel within the building.”

“Can’t we just blow it up?” Pyrite asked.

“The server room is shielded and each cabinet could withstand a bomb hit.”

“What’s the virus do?” Masq asked.

“That’s classified.”

“Then how will we know if it’s installed correctly?” Gerard asked.

“I’ll know.”

“That’s a whole lot of nothing for us to risk our necks on.”

“Perhaps you’d rather I blew up your neck right now?”

“I’m just saying that if we can’t confirm install on the ground, they won’t let us back in a second time.”

Toliver shook his head. “It deletes certain sensitive files, pertinent to the security of the Colonial Federation.”

“Which files?” Fishmonger asked.

“Classified. I don’t even know their exact nature. But if we get this done right you’ll be ready for that shuttle and a million credits.”

“Did inflation go up?” Cy asked. “I remember a million credits being a lot of money. Seems like a lot to delete some files.”

“Files must be important,” Ox said, though everyone else had already thought of that.

“Who’s the dignitary whose house we’re busting into?” Pyrite asked.

“Boss Clawf,” Toliver replied.

Gerard’s ears perked up.

“The head of the Ftharan syndicate?” Fishmonger asked.

“When we pull this off we’ll be famous,” Pyrite said.

“Yeah, till he finds us and feeds us our own stomachs,” Masq said. “Boss Clawf is no one to mess with. I say we pass on this job.”

“Yeah, this is a death wish,” Fishmonger said.

“Count me out,” Ox said.

“Hey, no skin off my back if your head explodes for non-compliance.” Toliver raised his finger above the tablet computer he held. “See you in the afterlife.”

“Let’s not be hasty here,” Gerard said, pulling out of her own thoughts.

“Awww,” Pyrite said in a patronizingly sweet voice, “Did little nummy-kins fall in love with the big, dumb ox?”

“Stop it,” Cy said. His skin began to turn a shade of red.

“Playing the hero, Mr. Hero?” Pyrite asked.

Cy raised his fist but Gerard stopped him. “You can’t do this on your own, Pyrite, so either do something helpful or we all get blown up,” she said. “Either we’re all-out and dead or all-in. What do you say, Masq?”

Masq nodded.

“Dumb Ox?”

“I think twelve-year-olds should be in school,” he said with a smile.