Lease of Life

Author's note: I wrote this two years ago, when I was going through a Peter F. Hamilton phase. As such, this is inspired much more by the bad-ass image and gimmick technologies he uses rather than the more philosphical SF which I generally prefer. I don't pretend that it's good, I don't even strictly agree with the morality that it preaches. Nonetheless, I still look back fondly on it, mostly as an exercise in short story-writing. Think what you want of it.

Red Eye' Camill jarred his right ankle diving for cover as the sentry opened fire. High calibre slugs tore through the jungle, sending splinters of wood flying at crazy angles. Treetops shook and fell whenever it scythed in their direction. The big mercenary crawled under a shallow embankment and covered his ears.

His enhanced eyes saw blurs of movement, grey and green and infrared. After what seemed an age, the fury and the noise abated. After a cautious initial peek over his shelter, he vaulted up into the open and walked toward the nearby clearing, silently thanking whichever soft, cost-cutting auditor had installed this place's defence system. What kind of idiot, he asked himself, would put a motion detector into a jungle installation's defences?

His ankle twinged, and his endocrine symbiont pumped a cocktail of adrenaline and painkillers through his system to dull the pain. He knew that he would be feeling it later, especially after walking on it, but if he didn't push on now then he would be isolated, unpaid, and quite possibly dead. Mercenaries lived on a knife edge between breaking even and going bust - there was no room anywhere else for them.

His helmet's optical enhancement unit moved into his line of sight, highlighting the spent autogun several hundred metres in front of him with bright violet targeting graphics. He considered the situation, then got ready to sprint. He leapt forward, gene-tailored muscles pushing him far faster than any normal human could hope to go. The jungle whipped past him in a blur, and then he was in the open, diving and rolling for the safety of the DAL Corporation installation's overhanging doorway. He stood up and took stock of his surroundings while getting his breath back. The facility seemed to be made from some type of synthetic polymer/stone mixture. It looked like the entrance led to a small reception and then a lift. Must be pretty secret stuff if the whole place's underground. Maybe they're hiding a drug factory or some illegal weapons research. Drugs or guns would certainly explain the ludicrous sum he was getting for this mission.

I'm not cleared to tell you what DAL have down there, Jerry Raines, his MacroSol contact, had said, But we want it destroyed, or preferably looted. As for your payment...

Three million dollars, Earth US. The hardest currency around. And now Red was finally realizing why his corporate employers had agreed to such a sum. The bastards don't think I'll make it back. While mercenaries were obviously expensive, they only stayed that way while they were alive. Red decided that even without the money, he would make it back, just to spite the greedy, machiavellian executives back on Earth. Filled with this new satisfaction, he got a code breaker out of his backpack and slapped it onto the door's lock. Green and yellow lights flashed in a strangely hypnotic pattern as the sabotage device worked its magic, subverting security routines and slowly worming its way into the door's motor control systems. After several seconds, all of the lights glowed gold for half a second, and then switched off. Red gave a satisfied grin and pushed the door open.

The sound of someone clearing his throat prompted Red to turn around. Slowly. The one thought going through his mind other than uh-oh was a faint hope that heaven had a place reserved for mercs too poor to buy life insurance.

The thing pointing a gun at him was more machine than man. No face was visible, but it had a human torso, and Red knew from experience that its brain was inside the gleaming dome it had for a head. A professional. Red had the sinking feeling that there would be no talking his way out of this situation. Ah well, he thought, if I'm gonna die I might as well as well try to kill him in the bargain. The bulky humanoid nodded as if acknowledging a skilled opponent.
You killed my friends. The other guards. Red had indeed, taking them down one by one, trapping them and then either frying them with his maser carbine or (if stealth was called for) slitting their throats with his knife.
Their fault for being slack. I was only doing my job, just like them. You too, he added, waving a hand at the hulk. So will you please get this over with? There's nothing more in it for you than money, after all.
The cyborg seemed to consider this for a few seconds, and then nodded.
Have it your way, then.

The big man-machine raised his gun and levelled it at Red's chest.
The gun fired, and a white beam struck Red for nearly a second. He felt heat, incredible searing agony, spreading all through his torso, but he knew then that he would live.
The adept must have used a laser, he thought while trying not to throw up. Good thing I paid for those skin treatments after all.

The sheer amount of genetic meddling you could go through for the right price these days was amazing. Little microbes swarmed throughout Red's skin day and night, slowly breaking down glucose molecules for oxygen and water, while turning the remaining carbon into tiny diamond crystals. They weren't just hard, they acted like millions of tiny prisms and mirrors when hit by a laser. The heat was still excruciating, but his carbofibril muscles absorbed most of it with no ill effect.

Red stood up and pulled out his maser, pointed it where he knew the adept's brain was. Then he fired - almost too late. The cyborg had brought another gun online when he saw that the laser didn't produce the desired results. Red was certain that the big guard wouldn't make the same mistake twice. As it was, the maser shot skewed the adept's aim enough that the blast went through his shoulder, not his face.

Pain came from the joint. His skin was did nothing to stop the blast, and neither did his flesh. Desperately hoping not to lose his bones, Red prayed that the carbofibril filaments in his muscles were as good as the advertisements had promised. They were. The dark strands glowed red, yellow, and then white, burning the flesh above and below the beam, but they did their job and absorbed the heat, keeping it away from the bone. Red fought to keep from blacking out as his feet gave out under him. The ground came up at him like a hammer and made him even dizzier. His symbiont frantically pumped hormones and stimulants through his body, struggling to keep him conscious.

Aching all the way, Red got back on his feet. He had snapped several bones in the awkward fall, his ruined shoulder felt as hot as some kind of demonic barbecue (and smelled worse), but he was alive. He absently noticed that the wall where the beam had hit after going through him was molten rock - a testament to the power of thermal induction weaponry, his library symbiont said - and that the door was open. He walked into the darkened hall.

The installation had obviously suffered a power failure recently. None of the consoles were working, and the main lights were off. Emergency power was lighting some old twentieth century-style fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, but they were spaced so far apart that there was more shadow than light. It had also gotten the lift working, a simple fast-fall affair, so Red guessed that he was at least half a kilometre beneath the surface. Doors lined the corridor at regular intervals, but the blackout had forced them closed. This place is spooky. And Jerry never did tell me what they're hiding down here. Dozens of improbable scenarios, from bug-eyed aliens to illegal viral weapons, ran through his mind. The dark, empty corridors gave credit to most of them.

He had slept in the lift, giving his symbionts and crude robotic mircomedics time to sterilize and partly heal his wrecked shoulder. He had dreamed that night - although he already had difficulty remembering what it was he had been dreaming of. Mercs tended to dream. Visions of death and primitive brutality, screaming victims and dying comrades, all woven with fire and mud and explosions, tended to feature heavily. Synthetic protein, an agent commonly used by most people in the business who wanted to boost their musculature, often had the unintended and unwanted effect of causing vivid, frightening nightmares. Red, and most other mercs, used drugs to give themselves dream-free, restful sleep, but his supply had run out several days ago; he only had combat stimulants left now.

But dreams were probably not the most dangerous thing he'd be wrestling with in the near future.

A dull sound rang through the corridor. Red, relieved that he had bought ear enhancements instead of more guns, edged back into a shadowed doorway. The sound came again, louder, and then a third time. Red relaxed and continued down the corridor - but kept his hand on his sidearm, just the same. The solidity, warmth, and compact deadliness of the gun comforted him, making him far more confident of being able to deal with whatever DAL had hidden down in the dead base.

He blinked, and suddenly realized that he had done so because his eyes were picking up unaccustomed brightness. He switched his visual feed away from the real-time radar imaging his helmet gave him, and saw that the room behind one door in front of him was normally lit. His IR membranes showed that it was a full ten degrees hotter, too, and he could see several warm bodies within ten metres. He hoped that he wouldn't have to kill them. Dead bodies were hard to work around, and he might need someone to work data systems for him. And they are people, too, a little voice at the back of his head told him. Their lease of life hasn't expired yet.

Red shivered, but not from the cold. All mercenaries were lonely, it came with the territory. But Red had long had a reputation in the business for being soft', and had lately started to get the nasty feeling that the stress and madness of his job were beginning to catch up with his sanity.

So he what he wanted now, more than anything else, was company. Of course, if the people inside were hostile, he'd have to kill them; a mercenary was still a mercenary, no matter how soft. I can only hope they're not.

The door, like all the others, couldn't be opened without power. Red planned on not spending too much longer underground, so he took the quickest solution and shot a roughly man-sized hole through it. As soon as he stepped through the opening, he could see that his entry was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. There were five people inside, all scientist types and completely unarmed. Good, he thought, it means they won't put up much resistance. The room was filled with twenty coffin-sized bioengineering pods, each of them topped with some kind of clear polymer that had been fogged over. One, near the end, had been opened. A corridor lead away from the opposite side of the room. After a few seconds of startled fear, one man who looked like a leader of some sort piped up.
I- I don't suppose you'd be one of the mercs we hired?
Red shook his head. Sorry to break it to you, people, but I've been ordered to take or destroy whatever it is you're working on and kill anyone who tries to stop me. They took it rather well, all things considered. Red guessed that they were thinking of co-operating.
Ah, well. I hope that you could at least help us with the last bit, then, the leader said. We're about to wake them up.

Our project. At this, several scientists looked uneasy.
Red, his interest piqued, decided to ask more - strictly against his company orders, of course, but who'd know? He walked over to one of the pods and knocked on the surface.
So what have you got in here? I've been asking myself that question since I landed on this rock. Drugs? Guns?

The leader glanced around nervously. Well, not really. We're actually working on- He stopped talking abruptly as a bullet smashed through his head. In a moment of clarity, Red saw one of the scientist's colleagues - obviously a plant - pointing the smoking weapon. He brought it round to bear on Red.
The big mercenary's combat training took over. Red's left leg dropped out beneath him, pitching him down and sideways at a crazy angle. Red rolled, pulling out his maser as he came up. There was little to see - everyone was hiding behind the cover of the pods, down on their hands and knees. The ersatz scientist was shooting all over the place, hoping to kill the rest of his colleagues. Red's ears triangulated the source of all the blasts, telling him what to do.

Red jumped. Boosted muscles in his legs gave him a surge up and over the pods, giving him a clear view of the room. Bodies were sprawled left and right, and the plant was now hurriedly pointing his weapon at Red. A particle bullet punched through his flank, and then Red fired. The maser beam hit dead on target, burning away the plant's chest and some of the floor beyond.

He landed awkwardly. A wet snapping noise told him that his left arm had broken, probably in several places. Damn, that'll cost a fortune to replace. Red's micromedics were already swimming through his bloodstream toward the fractures, ready to aid the bones in knitting, and his endocrine symbiont started pumping even more stuff into his system. His other shoulder was hurting, too, along with his ankle. But he was still alive.

And when there's life there's hope. So let's see what's down here that's so fabulous.

A gasp made him turn around and face the room's other door, the one that led deeper into the complex, and saw a young woman, almost a girl, standing just inside it. Although she was short, she also had an air of tense preparedness, ready to take on anyone. But as soon as Red concentrated on her, it was obvious that she was terrified. Great, all I need is some airhead girl to take care of.

She noticed his attention and immediately ran back the way she had come from.
Red cried. Not that it would make any impression on her at all. He had obviously been labelled bad' in her mind. Maybe he would have felt less of an idiot if he had gone along and said something more sinister... Run, run, or you'll be well done! That's what the bad guy should say.

But no. He didn't want to kill her, or even hurt her. All he really wanted was his payment, so he could break out of the vicious cycle of debt and violence. Leaving the business - every mercenary's dream. After a few moments' deliberation, he decided to follow her. After all, as a mercenary, he had nothing to lose. If she led him into a trap or got some big guns, his death would hardly make the world a worse place.

The corridor turned out to be short, splitting off into a T-junction after only ten metres. A cursory inspection showed him that one branch led to a kitchen of sorts, while the other went to a dormitory. Wow, he thought, this place really is a haven for nerds. You can eat and sleep and still be right next door to your work. His IR membranes showed him that the girl had ran into the dormitory. He found her on one of the beds, not trying to hide, just looking frightened.
Uh, hello? I won't hurt you. She didn't respond. Damn. Red was never tactful, and just having slaughtered a room full of people was hardly going to make her trust him.
he said, persisting, You have nothing to fear from me. I don't kill people unless they try to kill me, or I'm paid to do it. If you want, I'll leave you alone. It's just that-
I know. You have been lonely all your life, haven't you? She was still not looking at him. What's your name?
People call me Re... uh, never mind. Seriously, you don't want to know me. I kill people for money. How much sicker can you get?
That response spoke volumes to Red. And how the hell did she know anything at all about him in the first place? He sat down beside her on the bed. She looked at him, and he saw that she hadn't been crying. In fact, the lack of emotion on her face was eerie. Also, there was something wrong with her eyes. Something hard to place.
You haven't answered my question. Who are you? Red felt obliged to reply.
You can call me... Jason.
Jason. That's a nice name.
Uh.. Thanks, I think. Red hadn't used his real name for years, now, not since he had sacrificed much of his humanity to become a mercenary. But he could hardly give her his business name.
And you are? he asked.
I don't have a name.
No name? Red repeated, sounding like an idiot.

OK, this is definitely weird, he thought I should have been suspicious as soon as I saw her. And- oh lord. That pod in the room. It was open!

She looked at him and confirmed his suspicions.
Yes, I am one of their freaks, she said, now sounding bitter. They made me because they could. And they only gave me human form because of their arrogance, that only a human could be a telepath.
A telepath! You mean you've been reading my mind? How can that be possible, I mean, no-one's done anything like it, not ever!
I don't pretend to understand the technology, she replied, now almost sounding haughty, But without it, I am doomed. You see, without the others, the nineteen incomplete ones, I am weak. And the company will send people here when they find out what has happened here. If the others were conscious...
Red, his curiosity piqued, decided to prompt her.
Then we'll be able to leave forever. From humans, from corporations, from the whole culture that created people like you.

She was angry now, the first real emotion that Red had seen from her yet. She walked over to the other side of the room and seemed to deflate a bit.
I'm sorry. They didn't do a very good job of making me, you see. My emotions are very unstable - when they're there at all.
Red wasn't sure of what she had just said. It was all a bit over his head.
Let me get this straight. The big bad corporation people are coming to get you, and you're going to do what?
Leave this world, of course. Together, we are powerful enough to create a small universe of our own.
And the catch is you need my help, isn't it? I'll tell you the truth, I didn't know what was happening here, and I didn't want to know. But I'm getting paid to screw DAL, and I guess that's what will happen if you get your way. I'll help you, She brightened up. But don't expect for a minute that I want any part in this mystic crap. And you'll need to give me some instructions, It's not as if I know how to work any of these things. OK?
Her reaction surprised him.
Of course, Jason. Let's get to work, then.

Red woke up in darkness. Something was wrong.
He had spent the rest of the last day helping the girl to finish her cohorts' growth. Apparently they had, for security reasons, been kept unconscious long after their brains had been grown, to prevent them from communicating. But even though they had been woken, they were still underendowed: as a final precaution, the science team had yet to grow their spinal cords. The vertebrae and peripheral nervous systems were all fine, but that critical link was missing. The rest of the telepaths could neither feel or move until they were completed.

The girl had told Red that she had been completed early to let the scientists sound out their work; whether the rest would be worthwhile, or better off destroyed. She had told him that she had passed with flying colours, and then asked him what the expression meant, as the scientist who had told her hadn't bothered elaborating.

Even though it was well outside his usual line of work, Red found it quite easy to program the computers to start the growth cycle; the only problem was that without the master program's authorization, the lesser computers couldn't even do so much as copy several bits of data. So while Red set the growth programs in motion, the girl worked to subvert the central computer's security routines.

Halfway through, they had taken a break. The scientists' kitchen was reasonably well stocked, a fact that had been welcomed by both of them. Red had been living on combat rations for a week, while the girl was only eating for the third time of her life.
What's with your eyes? she had asked him over the meal. I've never seen any colours other than white with blue or brown.
It's a special membrane attached to the surface of my eyes, he had replied, almost automatically, that lets me see better in the dark. It shows people's body heat.
She had been puzzled as to why he would want it - Red had thought it better not to explain the life of the mercenary to her, and they had gone back to work without further comment.

He had done all but two of them when his chronometer warned him that he had been awake for over twenty hours. Assuming that this planet had an earth-style diurnal cycle, (and most inhabited worlds did) that meant that it was around midnight. The girl had been looking tired, too, so Red had suggested that they sleep. She had looked frightened at that, and Red had felt some of the guilt at the scientists' deaths leave him. So he had promised to sleep just inside the main door, standing guard, while she had a bed.

Now he was feeling cold, and his back ached along with all of his other injuries. There was a small sound above him. Red looked up.
The other mercenary had been balanced precariously between the two walls of the corridor, obviously hoping to give Red a rude awakening. He let go, and fell to the ground right in front of Red. He was big and well-muscled and, by his generally well-off look, probably had some weapons implants as well as the nasty looking 30 millimetre carbine he was toting.

Red fumbled for his maser, knowing he'd be dead before he could use it, but still fervently hoping. It wasn't there - someone had taken it!
His enemy laughed bitterly. Really, for the guy who killed all the rest of my boys, you're incredibly dumb. Did you actually trust that freak in there? She took your gun the minute you fell asleep. Red wasn't surprised at all by that, just the fact that she hadn't used it on him. He decided to rile the other merc, just so that he would end it all quickly.
Have you found all the bits yet? The big mechanical guy was in quite a few. Not the smartest comment to make, as the other merc expressed by kicking Red hard in the guts. The blow had greatly boosted strength behind it, and Red thanked all things holy that his tormentor hadn't gone for the face or groin.
Think you're so big and tough, don't you, you bastard, the merc said, kicking Red again, Going around killing my mates, screwing up my job, all for money! Which of those sad bastards hired you, eh? Amex? Or maybe Central Engineering? Huh? There was no point in withholding; after all, mercenary contracts didn't have confidentiality clauses.
Astronomical Macro Solutions. And believe me, they paid well enough.
That was too much. The merc snapped, he started raining blows down on Red, holding nothing back but always striking at the torso.
They better have! Because when I'm done with you, you bastard, you'll be in more pieces than you'll be getting credits!
Red was too tired to fight back. His shoulder, his ribs, and the multitude or broken and fractured bones were too much. He was out of energy, and he knew that his lease of life had just expired.

There was a bright flash, and Red felt his skin blistering from the heat. His opponent stopped hitting him, and Red used the opportunity to wrap his hands found the other man's shoulders, dragging them down to his level. In his peripheral vision, he could see his enemy bringing the gun up, ready to finish him. Red didn't care, he just wanted to hurt his tormentor, haul him in closer. Red raised his head up, opened his mouth. He looked the other merc in the eye. There was fear there now, as well as anger and pain. Then Red closed his teeth around his enemy's throat. The merc's instinctive reaction to pull his head back did not help him. His larynx had a huge chunk torn from it, along with his carotid artery and most the rest of his throat. Blood sprayed all over Red's face. He weakly shoved the corpse away, drained of all energy by the encounter. His endocrine symbiont was exhausted, and he had no more artificial drugs.

He became aware, several minutes later, that the girl had been watching him for most of the fight. She must have just missed the struggling mercenaries with Red's maser. Red coughed and got to his feet.
I'm sorry. If you want to kill me, then go ahead. I've got nothing to lose. He expected her not to hesitate. But she lowered the gun and shook her head.
You're wrong, Jason, She said, now seeming both warmer and older than the day before. You have everything to live for. Aren't you a good man?
How can I be a good man? I'm not even sure if I am a man anymore. All those combat upgrades, all those killings. My life has been an awful one.
But you can make it into a good one. You have an easy three hundred years of life left, Jason. I've been talking with my siblings - they're awake now, Jason - and they can all see that you can be good. You can do great things. But if you want, we will take you with us. The company people are on their way down the lift now, Jason. They might not let you live.
Red couldn't figure it out. How could so much have happened overnight?
The girl gave him a bitter, guilty look as he got to his feet.
That other mercenary was right, Jason; you can't trust us. As soon as you fell asleep, I drugged you and took your gun. You were asleep for three days. I finished the job by myself. We owe you this much, Jason. Please come with us.
The girl gave him a stunned look. Red continued. The one good thing you've done for me is make me realize I'm worth something. I can do good, and I will. Thanks to you, money's now the least of my worries, and you've given an idea. And anyway, my injuries are pretty nasty. I doubt you could fix them. So go on without me. I'll remember you, and that's what matters.

Red felt a wave of doubt sweep through his head. He had to go with the telepaths, there was no hope for him anywhere else. He was about to say so, when, just as suddenly, the feeling of desperation stopped, and he realized where it came from. The girl shook with sadness and frustration, probably being reprimanded by the other telepaths for her violation of Red's free will.

But the implications of that attack on his mind were astounding. Whatever had happened over the last few days, the girl had grown attached to him! He must have conveyed a feeling of security to her, but he knew that her attachment was nothing more than a form of hero worship. He decided to be firm. He walked over to her, took his maser back from unresisting fingers, and gently, very gently, took her face between his scarred hands and pointed it so she was looking directly at him.
Listen to me, he said. I'm a big boy. I've been around forty years longer than you, and you've just taught me that there is hope for me. I'm not about to give up now. Get going, and show those bastard corporations how sick they are, and how weak. But I'm not meant for paradise. I built myself to fight; and fight is what I'll do for the rest of my life. But at least now I know what I'm fighting for. Thank you. He paused for a few seconds. You OK now? She nodded, tears running down her eyes.
Her reply was barely a whisper through a choked throat. But Jason, you must take this. She pressed a small package into his hands. It's a special nerve cluster. Get it implanted and it will let you talk with us, even across dimensions.

She was fading now, Red assumed that she was going along with the other telepaths to their new universe. Red wished her luck.
She gave a wan smile, and spoke one last time, very quiet now. Jason. Please remember this. Through the rest of your life, you will face pain and suffering and difficult decisions. I cannot offer you anything more to cope with them than this advice: Always take the moral choice. Fight for what you believe in, for your lease of life has just been renewed.
Red, his own throat now thick, replied. Right. Goodbye.
She nodded. And then she was gone.

After that, the DAL people had found him. Disgusted at being outwitted by twenty of their own experiments, they took it out on Red. He wasn't hurt, and they even patched him up, but they blacklisted him so thoroughly that he could never get a job. No company would touch him. And to make matters worse, MacroSol didn't pay him. They had never been prepared to, Jerry had told him, it was a suicide mission in disguise. Ten weeks later, the entire board of Astronomical Macro Solutions was murdered, and their business arrangements - both the illegal ones and the ones which abided by the letter of the law while breaking the spirit of it - were posted on the net. Overnight, Red Eye' Camill became a hero. The governments and corporations all condemned him, of course, but there wasn't a man or woman in the galaxy who would turn him over. And throughout the rest of his life, he had continued to be that. Corrupt bureaucrats and crooked executives were killed or bullied into honesty. Petty thugs and the scum of rich society lived in uncertainty. People throughout the galaxy supported him.

One day, a reporter caught up with him and asked him for his story. Red had given the whole thing, starting with his getting driven out of the mechanics business by corrupt corporations right up to the deaths of MacroSol's board. He was remembered long after his death for his actions and for two famous quotes, both from that revealing interview. He had said: For all of my life after that operation with the telepaths, I've always let her guide me. Every step of the way. And the second? That came when he was asked how it felt to be a telepath from the implant. Dunno. Some day I might try getting it put in.

John Scobie, 26/9/04