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2: Slings and Arrows

ELUL 19, 5820
0930 ZULU

I hate guns.

U.N.I.A. instructs every one of its new hires in the use of personal firearms, but the "training" is usually nothing more than a half-hour vid screening followed by a short written quiz and five minutes in a simulator. To make things worse, all this happens during an employee's first week on the job, and is never repeated after that. A victim of convenience. Our newly declared state of war required something more solid.

The Director wanted everyone certified on a real shooting range by the end of the week, which stretched the instructor pool pretty thin. Since I had been a police officer, Lenara recruited me to train my Group and three others in the same wing. Actually, she drafted me. I hate guns.

"This is a Pennington Twelve semi-automatic parabellum. It fires eight millimeter cased ammunition with an extreme range of one hundred meters in standard atmosphere, and one hundred seventy meters in vacuum."

All of Rickford Group watched as I braced the gun with both hands and pointed it at the reinforced concrete floor of the shooting range, one of several such bunkers below Paperless. My voice seemed to echo forever off the steel walls.

"Never point your weapon at anything or anyone you don't intend to shoot. Always brace the weapon with both hands: your dominant hand gripping the stock, index finger on the trigger, your other hand at the bottom. Never, never fire your weapon one-handed. And never hold a gun near your head, especially not your ears. None of this drat."

I brought the gun up next to my head for a moment, pointing up at the ceiling, then quickly moved it back down.

"The chance that your weapon will misfire is remote, but it does exist. Always hold the weapon at arm's length, and point it in a neutral direction when it's not being used, preferably down toward the floor. When you're on the range, always point your weapon downrange, toward the targets."

I placed the handgun on the table beside me and picked up the filled ammunition clip.

"This is a standard magazine, which holds sixteen rounds of ammunition. The Penny Twelve is semi-automatic, which means you have to release the trigger and pull again to fire each bullet."

I picked up the gun, holding it level and pointing it downrange, then slid the magazine into the stock and slapped it into place. Erika started at the noise.

"First, make sure you push the magazine in all the way, hard. Then you have to cock the weapon to load the first round. Do not do this until you're sure you have an immediate need to fire the weapon. Pull the slide back, all the way, until you can see the bullet load into the chamber." I demonstrated. "Release, and the slide will spring back into place. Notice the hammer is now cocked."

I tapped on the hammer, then on my index finger. Lynn, obviously bored, cocked her head to one side and crossed her eyes. I glared at her.

"Always keep your finger on the trigger guard when loading a new magazine and when cocking the weapon. If possible, also keep the safety on."

I turned the gun and pointed to the safety lever.

"A red dot here means the safety is off, and you can shoot. Push up, and the safety is on, and nothing will happen when you pull the trigger."

I demonstrated, then un-safed the gun, placed my thumb on the hammer, pulled the trigger and slowly eased the hammer back down.

"If the weapon has already been cocked, and a bullet is in the chamber, you can still fire with the hammer down like this. You'll just have to pull a bit harder on the trigger."

I safed the gun, put it down, and picked up the recoil suppresser. Randall frowned, probably because he wasn't an astro and didn't recognize the device.

"This is a recoil suppresser, also known as a reaction compensator. It fires a backwards blast of compressed gas to balance the gun's natural recoil, and is only useful in zero-gravity."

I picked up the gun again and ran a finger down the slide, almost the entire length of the gun.

"Only certain firearms are equipped for reaction compensators, and those weapons will have this white striping on the side. To attach a compensator, line up the guides with the striping like this and snap it into place. The nozzle should be pointing toward the hammer." I demonstrated. "Then push forward and close the latches on both sides to lock it into place."

I turned the gun ninety degrees, to show the top of the recoil suppresser. I held it a bit high, so Lynn would have to crane her neck to see it. She met my gaze and narrowed her eyes in mock threat.

"If this indicator above the nozzle is red, the latches aren't in place, and the compensator won't work, even though the weapon will still fire. A single gas cartridge holds enough for eight shots. When the cartridge is empty, the indicator will turn red and the unit will unlock itself. You'll see the latches pop up on both sides of the weapon. Twist the nozzle clockwise and pull to remove the empty cartridge. Do not stare down the barrel of the gun when you're doing this."

Lenara chuckled. None of us were really that stupid, but I had to recite all the safety procedures.

I unscrewed the gas cartridge, an insulated steel-crystal tube, and held it up. I rotated it to show the neon red markings etched into the matte black surface.

"To load a new gas cartridge, point the arrow toward the nozzle and push it into the casing. Twist the nozzle counterclockwise until you hear a click. Then close the latches to lock it in."

I replaced the gas cartridge to demonstrate. Then I detached the recoil suppresser from the handgun and placed it on the table, ejected the magazine from the gun and put it down, ejected the round in the chamber, and finally put the gun itself down.

"Any questions?"

"Remember when spies didn't carry weapons?" Erika grumbled. She hadn't taken her gun out of its case, and handled it as if it were radioactive material. I couldn't help but smile at her uncharacteristic technophobia.

All of Rickford Group, except Lenara, was walking back from lunch. We had spent the morning on the shooting range, then eaten and commiserated with Tarago Group, and were now headed to a briefing on our new assignment. The corridor between the cafeteria and the number fifteen elevator had never seemed so long.

"Remember when Hong Kong was still part of China?" said Peter, reading through the U.N.I.A. handgun manual on his hand 'puter. "Besides, we're not spies."

"Excuse me?" said Lynn, eyebrows raised. She swerved to avoid another pedestrian and conveniently brushed up against Randall. "We're getting a Top Secret assignment, aren't we?"

"Well, we're not actually spying on anyone, are we?" said Peter. Lynn rolled her eyes and wagged her head, tilting it from side to side -- that's Rickford Group Sign Language for "Whatever".

"Top Secret," Marvin muttered. "What a joke."

I glanced to my left and saw Marvin fidgeting with the strap on his shoulder holster. He moved his hand away, trembling, and wiped his palm across the leg of his pants. I stared at the side of his face. He looked straight ahead, exhaling through his mouth.

Marvin, the practical joker. Marvin, the unflappable pilot. Marvin, shaking like a rookie cop, afraid of what a deadly weapon might do in his hands -- no longer a romantic notion of power, but a chilling, hard, heavy weight.

Marvin, who wasn't going to tell anyone about his anxiety.

"Do you realize there's nothing in the guidelines that says my gun must be loaded at all times?" said Erika, looking up from her 'puter.

"I didn't hear you say that, Erika," I said.

"This is the entire maintenance allowance? For the whole year?" Lynn flapped her equipment voucher in front of my face.

"It's enough," I said. I stepped into the elevator and held the doors open for everyone else.

"I spend more than this on shoes every year," Lynn grumbled as the elevator doors closed.

"I've seen your shoe closet. I'm not surprised." I flashed a plastic smile at her. She made a face at me.

"I am never going to use this gun," said Randall. He held up his 'puter facing the rest of us. "Have you seen the paperwork we have to file whenever we fire our weapons?"

"Yes. I was on that committee." I tried not to smirk, but his amazed expression was too much.

"When?" Erika asked, also staring at me.

"Last year. November." I bit my tongue and explained. "Look, we just armed every single person in this building. Right now, including the Marine guards and sentry cannons, there's more firepower walking around Paperless than a U.N.S.F. patrol ship. Nobody should even draw his or her weapon outside the shooting range without thinking three times. Right, Marvin?"

Marvin blinked and said, with exaggerated anguish, "Natty, why do you always pick on me?"

Because you can't be alone right now, Marvin. Because being alone with that gun can drive you crazy.

"Because you're so easy, Marvin." The elevator doors opened, and I somersaulted out before he could take a swing at me.

The U.N.I.A. Section Chiefs don't really need code names, but they have them. And though the positions are no longer secret, everyone uses the Chiefs' code names instead of their real names. It's all because of Samuel Gregory.

He Named them the day before he died. Some say he cut names out of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and pulled five out of a hat. Others say he simply turned on his vid, selected the "surf" option, and wrote down the first five names that came up. Nobody knows for sure. The only people with him at the time were the three men who conspired to kill him, and they died three days after he did.

The Chiefs have become as mythical as the Names themselves: Agamemnon, Blake, Dax, Gandalf, Othello. People call them the Majestic Five, the Pillars of the Earth, the Pentagram. They rotate between Luna and Earth, just like everyone else in U.N.I.A., but they always travel either in absolute secrecy or with lavish ceremony. Their lives cease to be normal the minute they're Named by the Director, and it's easy to forget that they're still human.

Othello radiated an aura of being not-quite-human as he sat at the Zpadnov Room conference table. He looked stylized, like a hyperreal logo of humanity; a tall, slim, tanned jaguar of a man, who might have been a Green Beret or a marathon runner before joining U.N.I.A. He carried a walking stick of solid wood -- one of the few status symbols on Luna -- and wore a Seat of Honor class ring, polished Martian amethyst set in a thick gold band on his left hand.

He sat next to Lenara, with his back to the window, as if he couldn't be bothered to care about the bustle of activity outside. His short gray hair and craggy face seemed eternal, having passed that point in life when aging becomes logarithmic. He might have been fifty, or sixty, or seventy. I couldn't tell. As the blinds rolled shut and the room darkened, his eyes glowed for a moment, like speckled blue spotlights.

That image sent a chill down my spine and yanked a poem out of my memory: And he was always quietly arrayed, And he was always human when he talked; But still he fluttered pulses when he said, "Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

He spoke deliberately, with a gravelly voice, as slow and impenetrable as molasses. He told us we had been chosen because we were the closest thing to anthropologists that U.N.I.A. had, and they wanted to keep this all in the family. He told us we would be traveling in a refitted Mitsubishi Nomad-class loneboat. He told us where we were going. He told us what we were looking for.

"This is Target Alfa," he said, tapping the end of his walking stick against the display hollow. "An unremarkable stray asteroid. It measures twelve kilometers across at its greatest diameter and is composed mostly of nickel, copper, other common metals. It's too small, too far out there, and too patchy for it to be worth anyone's while to bring it home and melt it down.

"Next." The hologram rippled and became something else. "Target Bravo is a small, spherical comet. Fifty kilometers across, mostly methane and water ice. It makes one Solar orbit every two thousand years, and is now on its way out. You'll catch it between the orbits of Mercury and Venus, on the far side of the sun. This one's a long shot, but we don't want to risk missing anything.

"Finally. Target Charlie, the biggest one. You'll probably spend most of your time here. Six hundred kilometers down its long axis, two hundred on the short axis. Seems to be mostly granite and other igneous rock. Nooks and crannies everywhere, probably carved by meteoroid impacts. This one's just beyond Jupiter's orbit on the far side. All three targets are out of the ecliptic plane, about thirty Oz north of Sol." He used the Roman name for the Sun, and he pronounced it like "Saul".

He told us about the scanning equipment we would be using, the computer databases we'd be carrying with us. We would be traveling light-hours from the closest telecom relay stations, and we might need to look up data fast. Our lives might depend on it.

He impressed upon us the importance of being thorough in our explorations, but he didn't have to. It wasn't every day that we were briefed by a Name.

Othello took us through all the travel arrangements: How we'd be getting from Luna to Galen, the anatomy of an interplanetary dust storm, when we'd be getting back and where we'd be landing. Fortunately, the schedule had us arriving at Earth on the 24th. My mother would have killed me if I wasn't home for Rosh Hashanah.

Marvin, Rickford Group's most mongrelized member and therefore our default spokesperson, had a few remarks about logistics.

"Would you care to elaborate, Mister Terai?"

Marvin nodded, and the angle of light from the hollow made his eyes turn from dark blue to gray for a moment. "I don't think we really need the Miles Spatium riding along on this expedition."

Othello frowned. "This is an important mission, Mister Terai, and in case you hadn't heard, we have declared a state of war in the Torus."

"Well, there are three things I think you should consider, sir.

"First, our flight path is going to take us far away from any scheduled human travel in the Torus -- in fact, anything that could be reasonably expected. We're flying to the edge of nowhere, the outer-space equivalent of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

"Second, we're going to be traveling in a fully loaded gunship. Drive-mounted lasers, ablative armor, torpedoes, the whole kit, right? And we'll all be carrying personal sidearms, with almost eight hundred rounds of ammunition between the six of us. That's an awful lot of firepower for a one-week trip.

"Third and last, unless security breaches have suddenly become more common than I recall, nobody outside of this room, except for the Director and the Section Chiefs, will even know where we're going.

"If somebody wanted to ambush us, and could defeat all of those precautions, three more guards won't make much difference. They won't be a deterrent or a significant defense, but their presence will certainly irritate us.


Othello studied Marvin's face for a moment. Then, without warning, his face cracked into a wide grin. "You know what I like about you, Marvin?"

Marvin blinked. "No, sir."

"Neither do I." We watched in silence as Othello chuckled and tapped at his hand 'puter. "All right, no guards. But you will have to send reports every hour, in person. We'll wire read-only code pads into the boat threebies."

Lynn and I smiled at each other. Erika frowned; she had just lost a bet with Marvin. I thought I saw Lenara breathe a sigh of relief. Peter couldn't stop blinking, as if Othello's smile was too blinding to look at directly.

He must have known we would resist the Marine escort. Writing it into the mission had only been a formality. In the biggest office building in the Solar System, gossiping is an Olympic sport, and everyone knew the Director didn't want to waste more security than necessary on what he considered a wild goose chase.

I sat, staring at the map in the hollow, overcome by a mixture of elation and apprehension. We would be alone, naked in the vast blankness of space, free to explore but walking into something we knew nothing about. The emotion felt like a swig of hard liquor, burning and soothing at the same time. Like the gun at my side. Cold comfort.


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Copyright © 1997 Curtis C. Chen. All Rights Reserved.
Last modified: 13 Apr 1997