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A Short Story by Samwiz1

         The Gemini Freighter was one of the premiere criminal outposts scattered around the surface of the Pacific Shell. It was deliberately stationed at the mid-point between North America and Japan in the final months before the oceans froze over, and once the freezing occurred it was rapidly converted to an airtight fortress and sold on the black market as a perfect place to open whatever clandestine business a cunning opportunist wanted to risk setting up. Over the centuries since its original sale it had been taken and retaken by countless criminal, governmental, corporate, and cultist groups alike, but the Iron Noose Gang—its most recent owner—had held it the longest, at a staggering 23 years uncontested. Through a mixture of good relations with other gangs and useful contracts with various government officials from both the East and West, 2284 was shaping up to be another quiet year for Iron Noose.

         “Food’s all wrong today.” Tom’s rusty fork pierced the lump of protein with an indignant thud, making a clang as it struck the metal plate beneath. “Wednesdays always have carrots in the morning. Usually a piece of bread or somethin’. And the coffee?” He took a sip, glaring at that skinny, brown-haired, hunchback bastard Frank across the mess hall table as he did so. “Coffee’s good. It’s never good. What’s the game?”

         “Teddy—sorry, Theodore—thought you could use the boost.” The 24-year-old sniper picked at a potato peel hanging from the side of his mouth. “I think today’s the day.”

         “Really? About time—it's been two years to the day since I signed on and not once have I seen you lot take a big score. D’ya know anything about it?”

         “Dunno,” Frank replied with a full mouth. “Wouldn’t tell me first, if he did. Don’t s’pose you’ve heard anything from your boss?” He finally swallowed, sending it all down with a swig of rum for good measure.

         “Nothin’. Not even sure they’ll put me on the roster if there is one, regardless.” The 17-year-old ex-scavenger tried to lean back for a ‘back in my day’ reflective pose, but the folding metal chair squeaked in just the right way to convince him it wasn’t worth the risk. “Well. Here’s hoping!” He raised his cup, toasted himself, waited for Frank to join, got Frank’s “you serious?” stank-eye response, and downed the fruity concentrate alone, feeling just a little more awkward than he did a moment ago.

         At that moment there was a harsh scraping noise over the intercom, followed by a very raspy and very angry-sounding voice. “Oi, wherever that runt Tom is, get yer pretty face to my office or I’ll smear it in the snow myself! Got somethin’ for ya, and I don’t like waiting. If any o’ you lads see ‘im, ‘urry ‘im along, will ya?” The intercom shut off with an electronic clunk.

         “Someone’s in troublllllle,” Frank whispered to him. “What’d you even do?”

         “Nothing!” Tom whispered back. “At least, I think nothing. Never can tell with the Head Butcher.” He checked his watch: 3:12. Try as he could to remember, no missed meetings or broken promises came to mind, and after a moment of silence he gave up. “Well, guess I’ll get this over with.” He stood up and walked off.

         “Don’t let the old dog eat ya!” Frank shouted after him.

         “Piss off!” came Tom’s simple reply.

         It was a short walk down the corridor to Head Butcher Theodore’s office. Old Teddy liked to put on a big show—it had shaken Tom rather badly when they first met—but he was harmless enough in person, Tom had decided. A few women (probably about to leave on a supply run to the Epsilon Oil Rig’s market) passed him in the corridor, and one recognized him. “Tom, is it? Did you—”

         “Yeah, yeah, I heard the boss,” he told her. “Heading that way now.”

         “Alright, good luck!” The woman and her friends continued on, talking to themselves. Tom wondered how she’d recognized him; he’d seen her around before, sure, but he couldn’t remember a single time they’d talked.

         Theodore’s office was marked by a large frowny-face painted in black. No mistaking which room it is, Tom reminded himself before knocking on the door. He was about to do so with his knuckles, but then thought better of it and pounded a few times with a clenched fist. “Tom here!” he shouted at the metal. “Can I come in?”

         “Well, that was fast,” came the muted response. “Get in ‘ere!” Tom put his weight against the ancient door handle, pushed until it clicked, and opened the door. The room inside was relatively small, but ornately decorated with a host of tacky relics. Tom noted the old rug on the floor Theodore had supposedly taken from a mansion in Cali, a few carefully framed posters found in an old bedroom he had tracked down as belonging to one of his ancestors, and a rack of various knives he claimed he had won in duels across the world, among other things. Theodore himself sat at a plain metal desk, though a fancy leather chair rested behind it that everyone in the gang envied. The room was lit with a reddish hue, emanating from a single lightbulb Theodore claimed he had washed in the blood of his enemies. Everyone knew he just used food coloring, but nobody dared suggest so in front of him. It was funnier that way.

         “You said you had something for me, and thought it was worth telling the whole gang so as well.” Tom tried to look strong and angry, but if Theodore’s stone-hard face was anything to go by, he guessed he was failing. “Why’d you ask for me?”

         The 43-year-old bald behemoth fidgeted with his orange moustache as he widened his mischievous smile. “I called you ‘ere ‘cause we’ve finally got a score, and I want you in on it,” Theodore told the boy while he lowered his bushy orange eyebrows. Tom raised his own eyebrow, but he waited for Theodore to finish. “There’s a train leavin’ Olympia Outpost in 3 hours. Just got word. ‘Cording to everything we know about this “Radiant”, she’s heavily armored, armed to the teeth, and is probably carrying some goodies to the commies out west.” Theodore spread some pictures out on the table, mostly showing the train from different angles. Tom leaned over to look at them, but not so far that he’d be getting close to the Head Butcher. “There’ll be talkers, fighters, and maybe even some techies aboard. If we were into the kidnappin’ business, this’d be the heist of the century. But if my source’s right, there’s somethin’ even better aboard.” He slapped a picture of an absurdly large safe on the table, nodding at Tom as he did so. “This chunk-a-junk is your target. Three-foot wide, solid steel, and supposedly invincible. Inside it will be a small stack of papers.”

         “Cash or bonds?” Tom asked eagerly. His heart was starting to race at the idea, though he’d need to get his hands on some fancy tools to crack the safe. Maybe Frank knew where to get a mobile plasma torch...?

         “Neither,” Theodore retorted with a smug smile. Tom raised both his eyebrows this time. “If my source is right—and he hasn’t lied to me yet—inside that vault is an unsigned treaty between the US and the PRE that would make our thug of a president look proper foolish if the public got wind of it. I know it’s been a bit since our last big job, so some urgent wet work would do nicely just to make sure we still got it, and my contact’ll pay nicely to make sure the right people hear of this mess.”

         “I wasn’t aware political work was quite up your alley,” Tom told the Butcher with a smile.

         “Usually it ain’t. But if it’s an excuse to get good press, good pay, and an excuse to jack a stinkin’ train at the same time, I won’t pass that up.” Theodore leaned back a bit, just to show that his chair could do that. “So. You in?”

         “When do we leave?” Tom asked, trying to sound more serious than giddy.

         “You got 30 minutes. Bring whatever ya need to either pop the safe on the train or get it off the train quickly. Your buddy Frank’ll be running sniper support, along with the rest of their team—they need some good target practice and we’ll get turned to slush on the spot if they screw it up. Fike’s crew’ll be makin’ sure the train’s engine stops dead so we can board it, and I’ll be there with my boys makin’ sure you get a minute or two to work in peace.” Theodore stopped and looked at Tom intently for a few seconds. “Well, what’re ya waitin’ for? Get yer stuff!”

         “I’ll be ready in 30!” Tom left the room running—though he did pause briefly to make sure he didn’t hit his forehead on the way-too-small door frame. As he dashed downstairs to the workshops to fetch his tools, the frozen freighter’s klaxon started howling the alert: after two years of relative peace, it was time for a job.




         The Olympia-Pacific Whiterun wasn’t much different than any of the other Whiteruns across the Pacific—though it did see quite a bit more travel than some of its southern cousins, like the LA-Bangkok Whiterun. Its center was composed of nothing but a long strip of grayed-out ice going in a perpetually straight line as far as the eye could see in either direction, about 100 feet wide. Trains were the most common vehicle seen on the Whiteruns—as long as they could travel without needing guiding rails ruining the pristinely kept ice—but other types of convoys regularly passed by. On both sides of the ice sloped a gradually increasing layer of atmospheric snow, about 50 feet long each, rising to a little over 30 feet high before evening out across the entire rest of the Pacific. Some Whiteruns had different levels of slopes—a few were even completely vertical, with the Whiterun itself basically appearing as a trench—but the Olympia-Tokyo Whiterun had to be normal. After all, it was the main route diplomats took between the US and the PRE.

         The Whiterun, normally even darker than the Head Butcher’s sense of humor, was suddenly illuminated by intense light from a small squad of nine motor sleds surging down the north slope. “Right, lads, you know the plan.” Theodore was the first man off his motor sled, swinging his antique trench coat in a wide arc as he leapt onto the ice. Nobody knew when or where exactly he had chosen to start wearing a trench coat over his skintight surface suit, but it was a good look, and much of the Iron Noose Gang had since adopted it as a sort of active-mission uniform. “Frank, Jayden, Cooper; you’re in the snow. Hold your fire until it’s necessary and stay out of sight even then.”

         “Got that,” responded one of the white-coated snipers.

         “Fike and Lardo? You’ve done the math. Make sure the EMP only pops at a safe distance from the rest of us, but still close enough that momentum’ll bring our quarry ‘ere. Then get yourselves clear and we’ll see you after the fight.”

         “Will do,” one of the two tinkerers acknowledged before turning their motor sleds back around to head up the Whiterun a few hundred yards.

         “Matt and Gordon, you’re on me, as usual. Whateva happens—protect the kid. This gig is for nothin’ if we don’t get that vault.”

         “Aye, got it,” responded the two butchers.

         “And Tom?” The Head Butcher wheeled his head to look at the locksmith. “Stay behind us and out of sight. If we get heat in there, that’s our problem, not yours. Right?”

         “Right,” Tom replied only a little nervously. He checked his pack and pockets one last time. Blowtorch? Check. Headlight? Check. Better put that on before I forget. Crowbar? Ol’ reliable; check. Standard lockpick set? Check, front left pocket. Drill? Check. He tapped a button on his wristwatch. Heat and UV vision views functioning? Check and check. Pack of C4? Absolutely check. Laser cutter? Check. Bungee cord and duct tape? It would be a sin to forget those; check. Finally: Sidearm? Check. He always made sure to check the sidearm last, as it was always the true last resort and should never be forgotten—but also never prioritized above the other tools. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” Tom reiterated after he finished patting himself down.

         “Good.” Theodore hesitated for a moment, then shook the idea of a speech out of himself. Tom knew it wasn’t his style. “POSITIONS!” he screamed over the radio, smiling coldly.

         The snipers found good spots in the drift on both sides of the Whiterun, the tinkerers set up their deadly plaything further upstream, and the butchers sat next to Tom on their motor sleds ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. And then they waited. Tom was never good at that part. It was great having the adrenaline of prepping for a job—whether it be something criminal or his old profession of scavenging—but waiting for something? Scavenging the dead suburbs of Portland taught him if you had to wait for something to happen, you should probably start worrying, and he hadn’t been able to shake the habit when he signed on with the Iron Noose Gang. It took a few minutes of radio silence, but eventually the crew saw a crimson light approaching in the distance. The armored train bore a massive steel plow at the front with small slits at eye-level for the conductors to see through—probably only used to clear out idiots who parked their vehicles in the middle of Whiteruns without thinking about other traffic—but most of the cars behind it were plain and boxy, with little care for aesthetics in the design. However, they were covered in various patriotic murals, depicting anything from historical scenes to over-zealous art of various presidents and national heroes. As the intense, blood-red beacon at the front of the train grew brighter, the beast lunged towards them with such speed it was hard to imagine it wasn’t lifting itself off the ice. Then radio silence was broken for a countdown.

         “Three. Two. One. Bombs away.” The surface suits of everyone in the crew flickered off and on for a moment before reporting a few minor errors and returning to normal. The train in the distance flickered off and stayed that way, though it continued to close the distance rapidly. “That’s our job done,” tinkerer Fike reported after pulling up to the group on their motor sleds. “We’ll be getting as far away from here as we can before the troops come calling. Good luck.”

         Theodore chuckled and wished them well as they pulled off into the perpetual trackless snow. Then he unslung the automatic shotgun from his shoulder and beckoned the other butchers to do the same.   “Now it’s our turn. Let’s get crackin’, lads.” The three butchers dismounted and walked towards the center of the Whiterun, with Tom sheepishly following behind them. After 30 seconds of waiting, the train finally came to a silent stop in front of the four. The name “RADIANT” was written in gold-crusted letters on its side, but aside from that there were no other markings on its hull. Theodore stood dead still for a moment with a clenched fist raised, and to Tom’s horror, something happened. A large rocket flew into the sky out of the roof of the rear-most train car, shimmering red, white, and blue as it went. “Frank? That’s on you,” Theodore muttered over the radio.

         “Shut up and let me focus,” Frank whispered back. As the rocket started to slow down near the zenith of its climb, there was a breathless whisper from Frank’s rifle in the snow and the rocket’s top was picked clean off. The thing fell back to the surface—completely lifeless a few dozen feet from the other side of the train—and exploded in a patriotic show of colors. A few more point defense rockets emerged in quick succession, and Frank’s crew disarmed them in the same manner. “There. Cluster seekers have been taken care of, and somehow we’re still alive. Do your job.”

         “Don’t give me orders, runt,” Theodore shot back, but Tom could tell by his voice he was smiling when he said it. “Our turn. Matt?”

         “Here we go,” butcher Matt whispered as he hurled a small sack at the side of the train. It bounced off against a hand-painted picture of an old man giving a speech labelled “William McKinley,” who seemed to be looking down at the sack with a disappointed expression. Matt backed up a few dozen feet and released the dead man’s switch he was holding, at which there was a bright flash and a man-sized hole was blown into the side of McKinley’s face. “GO!” Theodore shouted, and Tom pulled himself from his thoughts and dashed towards the hole with the other butchers. The butchers leaped into the hole without issue, then whirled their trenchoats around to offer a pair of helping hands to Tom, who they pulled into the breach. Tom almost lost his balance as his suit detected the ground was suddenly no longer ice and retracted the traction pads built into his boot, dropping him down half an inch.

         “If the source is right, this is the car,” Theodore told Tom with a light push. “Vault should be somewhere in ‘ere.” The car was about 10 feet wide and 60 feet long, with a blank interior completely filled with various metal crates. Tom tried to open one at random, but the mounted padlock refused to budge.

         “No idea which one it is,” he told Theodore, who moaned at the news. “You’ll have to give me some time to search.” He pulled the crowbar out of his bag and cracked the simple padlock from its position on the first crate. After opening it, he found it was completely full of exclusively packing peanuts.

         “Blast.” Theodore put a slug in the peanuts out of frustration, then closed his eyes and moaned again as the sound of his gun set off an emergency alarm that somehow hadn’t gone off previously. “Well, there goes that.” He motioned for his two compatriots to guard the door leading further up the train while he positioned himself at the rear entrance. “Snipers’ll cover the blast hole,” he whispered over the radio.

         “Just buy me time,” Tom told the brute as he cracked another lock off a crate. The second crate had packing peanuts like the first, though a small collection of various trophies rested close to the top. “World’s best dad, sports champ, employee of the month... what is this?”

         “Heh. Cultural souvenirs.”

         Tom cracked open three more crates of packing peanuts before the door facing the front of the train finally opened. Tom looked up briefly to see a woman in a fancy government surface suit enter the room unsuspecting, only to get jumped by the two butchers stationed there. She quickly surrendered when she saw their firearms, and from under her visor Tom could see she was mumbling something to herself. “Orders, boss?” one of the butchers asked.

         “Just keep ’er there. We do this with no casualties and it’ll look betta on our record.”

         “Got it. Gordon, watch the door, will ya? I think she’s smart enough to stay on the ground so long as I’ve got a barrel in her face.”

         “Will do.”

         Tom spent another five minutes opening crates before he got the idea to look in the corners of the room. Most of the crates had just been packing peanuts with occasional eccentric collectibles inside, so he wasn’t very surprised when he found the vault had been hidden underneath and behind a few crates towards the back of the car. He was a bit disappointed in himself, of course—rookie mistake, not checking the full room before opening boxes—but the vault had been found. It was exactly how the pictures made it look: 3-feet in all direction, solid steel, number code unlocker, heavier than Theodore’s daily calorie intake. “Found the safe,” he told the others. “Do I try to open it here or can we drag it back to the sleds?”

         “We’ve shot time here already; only crack it if you can do it quick.”

         “Roger.” Tom reached for his pack and pulled out the mechanical drill. The laser one would probably work fine, but it had a higher risk of ruining paper products inside and he didn’t know what specifically to expect. After lining up the drill with the center of the code unlocker he turned it on, and after holding it there for a few seconds, it made a clean hole through to the inside. Surprised, Tom opened the safe to find its walls on the inside were mostly artificial, with the steel being an intimidating plating less than an inch thick at any given point. “The mechanical drill got through in less than five seconds. Idiots got a decorative safe,” he told the crew. Even the snipers laughed at that one.

         Inside the safe was, as expected, a small pile of papers. Tom picked the stack up and gave it a quick skim to see if anything stood out. Most of it was legal jargon and various references to obscure laws and committees no real person had ever heard of, but a single phrase stood out among the filth: Sale of Guam. “Got the papers. Let’s get out of here,” he whispered, trying not to laugh.

         “Right, you ‘eard the kid,” Theodore stated before coughing lightly. “Ach, this suit’s older than me. BACK TO THE SLEDS!” Matt put his pointer finger to his mask in a “keep your mouth shut” gesture to the trembling woman on the floor of the train before wheeling on his heel and making a run for it. As he was turning, the door to the interior of the train opened and a pair of suited guards peered through, unaware of what to expect. Gordon closed the door on their face again before putting a few slugs in the door’s control panel for good measure.

         “That oughta hold them for a minute or two.” His black and brown trench coat swirled behind him as he hopped out the side of the train car. Tom jumped out after him and steadied himself while his suit reenabled the traction strips, tightly gripping the bountied papers in his free hand to make sure they didn’t slip.

         “That’s four,” Theodore gruffly announced as his spiked shoes hit the ice behind Tom. “Listen up, we’ve got the papers and we’re off the train. Scramble and meet up at the Epsilon Rig. Our buyer’ll be meetin’ us there with cash. MOVE!”

         Tom made a mad dash for his sled, managing to get there just as the suited guards poked their heads out the side of the train. Spinning the thing around with his zebra striped trench coat flowing behind him, he hastily climbed the snowy slopes on the sides of the Whiterun before activating the map feature in his surface suit’s display. Nobody in Iron Noose was dumb enough to have tracking services enabled, but Tom had a feeling he knew which ways to Epsilon the others would be taking, so he marked out a more scenic path that would take him across the Whiterun a few miles behind the train before eventually cutting back north. All things considered, that wasn’t so bad, he told himself.




         The Epsilon Oil Rig was one of many offshore bases built in the last days of normalcy, though there was technically no oil that ever went through it. President Bush had paid off a handful of surveyors to pretend like there was oil there, and the US used that as justification to construct a rig. The rig itself was built subtly airtight from the start, with the exclusive intent of being an outpost for the US to project military might into the area in the aftermath of the Persephone Incident. What the US didn’t count on was a mutiny among the soldiers stationed there, with the mutineers succeeding. They then held out for a siege that never came, as the government had bigger problems to worry about and never got around to retaking the rig. Over time the mutineers formed a new “raider republic” on the Epsilon rig, taking in outcasts from anyone on Earth who found their way over the ice and snow to get there. Over time they began to expand their facilities to include small buildings on and in the ice beneath, including a myriad web of gun placements and booby traps covering every sightline in the base. Epsilon was the home of the Pacific’s shadiest business, and their stiffly frozen flag—a half-obscured white face on a black banner—embraced that fact.

         Tom’s long drive across the darkened snow finally ended when his eyes caught Epsilon’s skyward-facing spotlights lighting up steeply erected flags and billboards in the distance. “I can see a light coming in from... south by southeast,” came in the staticky voice of Frank talking to the group by radio. “That you, Tom?”

         Tom finally hit the slope, and the much-treaded snow started to taper off as the elevation lowered into the icy crater below the rig. “Took a safer way here,” Tom told his friend as the signal became crystal clear. “Still got the papers, but running low on energy.”

         “Your sled or your stomach?” Frank laughed a little, and Tom thought he heard a few other staticky chuckles in the background before they cut out.

         “Both,” Tom replied with a wide grin as his motor sled came to a stop next to the disorganized handful of other sleds. Only Frank was waiting for him.

         “Others have already gone inside to get a bite to eat,” he explained. “Rumor has it some hidden rancher all the way from Nigeria’s brought in a shipment of real beef, and of course the Epsilon cooks bought the whole thing to turn into genuine burgers.” He started to walk away from the vehicles and through the small cluster of minor buildings scattered about the base of the rig.

         “You sure it’s safe to just leave the sleds here unattended?” Tom asked after a brief hesitation. He’d never told Frank, but it was his first time at Epsilon—all the leave time he’d had since he signed on with Iron Noose was spent on various scavenging jobs in Cascadia and he never bothered to go on the seemingly mandatory pilgrimage to every notable outlaw base in the area, and it didn’t take long for Frank to guess that was the case.

         “Hah, I forgot how little you actually get out to just go and visit places that aren’t dead already. You should try it sometime,” Frank told him while suppressing more laughter than would be respectable. “See that gun up there?” He motioned to a red-lit pipe extending out of one of the many tripod-legged towers surrounding the base. Tom looked up and noted it. “Those things register anyone in a group as having arrived together. The tech’s a bit finicky for strangers, but Iron Noose has all their vehicles and suits registered in Epsilon’s database already. We’re regular customers, and they like that sort of loyalty here. Don’t worry, they don’t ask and don’t tell; our vehicles’ll be safe though.”

         “Neat,” Tom said to himself before catching up to Frank.

         “Any more questions, moron?”

         “Alright, lemme think...” He paused for a moment and looked around him. The outskirts of the base had been explained, the spotlights for lighting up flags were obvious in intent, it’d be stupid to ask about the rig itself... “What’s inside all these smaller buildings?” he asked, pointing to the many hut-shaped boxes and strangely-painted shipping containers around them.

         “Most of ‘em are overflow housing and refugee centers, if I remember correctly.” Frank banged his fist a few times on the side of a red-spotted shipping container, and he felt someone on the other side knock a few times back. “Epsilon gets good credit with the various governments in the area by picking up any unidentified stragglers they encounter out here and returning them to their homes. Usually it’s just normal civies broke down or got lost or something, but every now and then they pick up some important military guy or a politician’s daughter, and acting as the only emergency service in the area helps keep the governments off their back—lord knows Washington and Beijing don’t want to deal with it themselves—and they can use that as a semi-functional cover for all the real business they do out here. Like ours.”

         Tom nodded and continued walking. At the base of the rig a makeshift spiral staircase rose up into its belly. Two guards in armored surface suits (painted a crude black and white, of course) stood sentinel nearby. “Universal radio on?” one of the guards asked after pausing his conversation with the other.

         “Yup. Weapons are back in our vehicles,” Frank told the man. Tom quickly realized his pistol was still holstered beneath his trench coat, not that Frank would’ve been able to see it. The guard looked skeptically at him, so Tom broke the silence.

         “Actually, I still have a pistol on me. Forgot to leave it with our sleds. Sorry.”

         The guard let out a huff. “Alright, fork it over. I’ll keep it in a locker here.” He gestured to a colorful row of lockers someone had probably salvaged from an old grade school. “And you can pick it up once you’re done up there.” He sized up Tom and quickly decided the kid probably wasn’t a threat. “I know you’re Iron Noose and you probably aren’t gonna cause trouble, but rules are rules.”

         Tom unholstered the pistol and handed it grip-first to the guard, who let out a subconscious thank you under his breath. “We’ll only be in there for an hour or so,” Frank told Tom in an unfamiliarly authoritative tone. “Don’t forget your gun on the way out, yeah? They tend to keep things travelers forget about here.”

         “Don’t need to tell me twice,” he said with his hands extended, before promptly thanking the guard and ascending the staircase into the rig. He looked back before reaching the top and was able to see the two guards setting down a pack of cards and a wad of some strange foreign currency, which earned a light chuckle.

         At the top of the staircase was an airlock—not dissimilar to any other airlock in any other surface structure—but once the door closed behind them a small picture of a human face spoke at them from the right-hand wall. “Welcome, Iron Noose Frank and Iron Noose Tom. Your party is at the Star’s End Café on the fifth floor. Please enjoy your stay.”

         “I kinda forgot to mention that your suit’s already tied to your name specifically out here,” Frank explained. “Ol’ Teddy thought it’d be a good idea to get that done ahead of time so he called it in before the job to avoid confusion.” Frank’s faceplate retracted into the surface suit as the airlock’s inner door opened, and Tom did the same. As soon as the warm light of interior bulbs met his eyes, his suit’s dry, recycled air rushed past his face and gave way to the smell of food, sweat and gunpowder that freely flowed within the facility’s airtight walls.

         The inside of Epsilon Rig was alive with a spirit Tom hadn’t seen in years—Gretchen’s Bar, a place in the ruins of Portland, was probably the only other structure on the planet he’d ever seen with so many people and so much movement inside. The corridors were narrow, sure, and Tom was just following Frank through them and up some stairs, but on every side of the main corridors there stood gun shops, scavenger’s exchanges, diners, recruitment centers for every guild, gang, and government under the moon—and the yellowed lights of the rig gave everything and everyone a homely feel that couldn’t be matched anywhere in the world. As they rose to the fourth floor Tom noticed a wide billboard displaying various wanted posters with faces and prizes attached, and he took particular note of a woman with a deep scar on her forehead getting her picture taken next to a poster bearing the same face and a jaw-dropping reward. “I take it bounty hunting isn’t allowed in here?” he asked Frank.

         “If you have a bounty already subdued, you’re allowed to bring ‘em here and whoever set the bounty can use the place as a drop point,” he explained. “But for as long as you’re in view of the anti-theft turrets surrounding the facility, violence of any kind isn’t gonna fly. Among the more rugged criminals, it’s a point of pride to have your picture taken with wanted posters just to show how unafraid you are of the fact that there’s a bounty on your head.” He took a sharp left turn at the top of the stairwell instead of continuing to the next flight, and he motioned for Tom to follow. “If you bring someone here in chains, the Epsilon guards will probably make sure there’s actually a bounty associated with the prisoner, and if it’s something petty there’s always a chance they’ll demand freedom for the individual in question, but most bounties are there for good reasons and they’ll tolerate bringing in criminals as long as they get a small cut of the pay. Interesting system. And we’re here.” Tom and Frank rounded one last turn into a wide Café spanning the length of the Rig’s eastern outer wall on the fifth floor. The name “Star’s End” lit up the entrance with a neon glow. After scanning the room for a minute, they identified their crew at a long table by the continuous window to the left.

         “Tom, you little maggot!” Theodore was the first to notice their arrival and shouted over the din of the rest of the room. “What took ye so long?”

         “Something something scenic route,” he absentmindedly told the Head Butcher. After reaching into his pack, he pulled out the stack of papers and slammed them on the antique picnic table the gang was seated at. Frank and Tom sat down, and Theodore took a close look at the papers. He squinted for a moment, then grunted and reached for a monocle he had hidden in his trench coat’s inner chest pocket.

         “Let’s have it... committee for Pacific affairs... delegation to Tokyo... treaty of Anchorage...” He squinted even harder, then his eyes widened in apparent surprise. “Sale of Guam?” He looked up and got responses of raised eyebrows across the table. “Take a gander at this,” he said, showing the line to the rest of the crew.

         Frank read aloud: “If signed by both the President of the United States of America and the First Citizen of the People’s Republic of Earth, this document does certify that in exchange for a transfer of $10,000,000,000 from the People’s Central Credit Union to the United States Federal Reserve the territory of Guam shall be ceded in perpetuity to the People’s Republic of Earth.” Everyone leaned back on their wooden benches a bit and took a moment to process the phrase. Frank broke the silence first. “Well, that explains why this job was so significant.”

         “Flip to the back page, will ya?” butcher Matt asked. Theodore nodded and did so, raising the monocle to his left eye again.

         “Son of a... is that the president’s signature?” Nobody in the gang except Tom knew what President Frederick’s signature looked like, but he assured them all that was most likely a legitimate signature.

         “If that’s the president’s signature, that means we’ve just stopped the sale of Guam,” Frank told the group, and collective sighs and chuckles were let out between them. “Why was it in such a weak safe in a random storage car anyways? I'd think such an important piece of paper would be better protected.”

         At that que, an old African American man who had been staring blankly out one of the windows stepped up to the table. He was mostly bald, but had a pair of small, rounded glasses that balanced his look into one of utter sternness. He exclaimed to the group “you have me to thank for that.”

         Theodore looked at the newcomer and nodded. “Gabe.”

         “Teddy.” Theodore seemed to grow visibly angry at that name being used, but he settled down when the others started to laugh. “I take it you have my prize?”

         “You’ll have it when we have our cash,” Theodore told the man gruffly.

         “Check your accounts; the money has been there since President Frederick stormed out of a press conference with no context a few hours ago.” The old Aussie raised an eyebrow and checked the larger-than-necessary panel on his wrist. After swiping through a few things, he smiled, and stood up.

         “Boys, you are now ten times richer than you were when ya woke up. Do with that as you see fit.” Everyone at the table checked their accounts in the same manner before letting out a series of congratulatory shouts and whoops, drawing some awkward attention from the nearby tables before they calmed down.

         “My name is Gabriel Henri,” the newcomer piped up. “Though I doubt you would know this, I am the Secretary of State of the United States of America.” He paused for dramatic effect. Everyone sat still, save for butcher Gordon, who instinctually reached for his holster before remembering there was nothing in it. Gabriel gave him an amused look, and Gordon lowered his gaze slightly. “I contacted my old friend Theodore because I needed a job done at the last minute, as I’m sure you’ll have pieced together,” he continued. “Only yesterday did I find out that President Frederick was attempting to sell our outpost of Guam to the communists without the approval of congress and then use the funds to secure a safe retirement. I have spent the last 24 hours ensuring that every possible guard, conductor, security firm, secret service agent, and elected official involved in the deal’s completion got on board with the plan of shipping the document of sale to Tokyo in secret instead of under heavy guard. Luckily for all of us, it seems my plan panned out, and there was only a skeleton crew aboard the Radiant today, under the impression the journey across the Pacific was a standard run of no importance. As such, the unguarded document escaped in your hands with zero casualties and minimal damage, though the conductor isn’t happy you traumatized his wife.” He looked at Matt with a piercing gaze, and Matt let out a nervous chuckle in response. “That said, however, this document is all I needed to make sure the sale never goes through. It was only questionably legal for Frederick to offer the sale in the first place; when congress gets word of it, an impeachment for treason will be the only natural response.”

         “And what ‘bout us?” Theodore asked. “Will they know we did it?”

         “I’ll make sure the right rumors start spreading,” Gabe replied with a deadpan expression. “Everyone will know a gang was responsible for the heist. Most will know it was a gang in the local area. Anyone who needs to know will find out it was you once I’m done with my announcement.” He paused for questions, and nobody spoke. “I take it our business here is concluded?”

         Tom looked around and saw everyone nodding passively. Theodore offered a hand to Gabe, who shook it professionally. “Let us know next time you need more rat’s work done, right?”

         “I will be in touch,” Gabe replied before briskly exiting the diner. Tom stared out one of the many windows built into the side of the rig, surveying the tar-black landscape outside.

         “Right, I’m starved,” Theodore told the others, who promptly agreed with him. “HEY WAITER!” he shouted after a short guy with a note pad walking around. “Nine beef burgers over here! And a round of whatever drink for everyone else in the house; price is on me.” A cheer went up from the collective diners, who mostly ordered the most expensive true wines the diner carried just because they could.

         “You doin’ alright?” Frank asked Tom, who was still gazing out the window.

         “Yeah, just thinkin’,” he replied. He sat still for a moment, then finally pulled his eyes from the darkness and back into the yellow-lit Star’s End Diner on the fifth floor of Epsilon Oil Rig. “Ok, now I’m hungry. Just took me a sec, you know?” Frank chuckled and handed Tom a copy of the menu, not that he needed it.

For obvious legal reasons, don’t steal this. © Samwiz1 2022

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