“You die in twelve minutes, Gamma.”
Zack Gamma dropped his book onto the library floor at the sound of the voice, but relaxed when he saw that it was Igneous. The stone woman rounded the corner, her impressive bulk making the walk through the stacks of books a slow and careful process. He could see cracks in her rocky hide, and a dull, red glow coming from within them, a new feature that matched the red glow of her eyes and the tips of the ring of spikes at the top of her head.
“Igneous,” he said, stooping to retrieve the book. “Been a while. Your skin’s got more bad cracks than a comedy club on amateur night. Time for another metamorphosis?”
“No time for small talk, human,” she said. “You die in twelve minutes.”
“I heard,” he said. “You’ve never been good at jokes, Igneous. What do you mean?”
“I’m here as a courtesy,” she said. “You saved my life once. I’m indebted to you for three times that, but this should more than cover us. Especially since I die tomorrow if they find out I told you.”
Zack looked at her face. It was nearly unreadable, even with all the time they’d spent together, but he could see a firmness in her jaw and purpose in the crimson glow of her stare that told him she wasn’t joking.
“How do I die?”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” she said. “I overheard an agency magistrate give the order to a scribe and rushed over to find you. As soon as the computers update for the new day in just twelve minutes, your personnel file will be amended to portray you as deceased. The date of your demise will be kept blank. Initially, at least.”
Zack’s blood went cold. For six years he had been working for the Desperate Measures Agency, a solutions company that specialized in mercenary employment, investigations and, in spite of a total lack of evidence to support the fact, assassinations. The organization was generally good about keeping those mercenaries with morals away from the shadier assignments, but everyone knew what the real business of the company involved. If an agent was ever found to be guilty of treason against the DMA beyond the limits of what firing them on the spot could fix, the standard procedure was to officially list them as deceased. The rest of the company would then be told about the bounty on the agent’s head, normally sizable. The date of death would always be left blank, but in nearly every instance of this happening the date of death wound up being filled in on the same day.
“Why?” asked Zack. “What did I do? I’ve not even had a regular field assignment in months.”
“I didn’t ask,” said Igneous. “No offence, but I don’t want to be associated with you mere minutes before your escape attempt.”
“Escape,” said Zack. “How does someone escape the Agency on Veskid? A fifth of the planet must know an agent, and those agents have a pretty good eye on everyone else.”
“I didn’t come up with a plan,” she said. “That’s for you to do. Be the Void Pilgrim. Vanish. And if someone sees me see you after the update, believe me when I say that you won’t get away from me. I don’t want my own death certificate just yet.”
“Right,” said Zack. “Of course… Thank you, Igneous. It means a lot that you’d risk so much to-”
“Stop talking, you stupid human,” she said, the dull red from her eyes and the cracks in her skin growing visibly brighter. “There’s no time!”
“Right,” he said. “Sorry. Goodbye.”
Zack backed a few steps away from Igneous before turning and walking as quickly as he could without it being obvious that he was in a hurry. He dropped his book onto a service robot’s shelving cart as he moved past the Agency Library’s reference desk, reasoning that he didn’t need to keep doing research for a project in a company that was putting a price on his head. In less than two minutes he made it to the glass elevator that could take him to the ground floor.
As the (thankfully empty) elevator descended, he looked at the city outside the Agency’s headquarters, still busy even this close to midnight. As the elevator’s slow descent brought him closer to the ground, he thought about the situation. Midway down, he found himself wondering if, perhaps, Igneous had been mistaken. He’d committed no crime against the DMA, after all. Why would they send assassins after him?
He had almost convinced himself that there was nothing to worry about by the time he reached the ground floor. As the doors slid open, the holographic clock in the ceiling of the stately marble lobby was the first thing he saw, revealing that there were only eight minutes until midnight when the system updates would occur. The second thing he saw was a woman with dark brown hair and a black and blue tech-suit, one likely designed to give its wearer options for stealth and the rapid deployment of weaponry. She locked eyes with him briefly as she approached the elevator, her right eye staring through a cybernetic targeting lens. Fletch.
“I…,” he started, but wasn’t sure how to end it. He’d thought that the single most profitable employee in the agency had been off world, but there she was.
“Yep,” he said, trying to remember how he looked when he wasn’t hiding something. “Big case. As long as there are politicians, private investigators will have plenty of work.”
“I could say the same,” said Fletch, stepping into the elevator as he quickly stepped out. “Don’t get in too deep, Gamma.”
The elevator doors closed. He looked at the clock. Seven minutes.
He decided that, ridiculous as Igneous’ premise was, it couldn’t hurt to leave the agency headquarters and check the file remotely, a safe distance away.
Much earlier, on another world…
The elevator chimed to herald the arrival of a client as the doors slid apart, revealing a gruff, dirt-covered man. He still wore the specialized hardhat of his profession, and still had the multiform tool slung over his back. His scraggly beard looked like it had been subjected to a rapid attempt at combing just before the doors opened. He took a deep breath and stepped from the elevator into the opulent bank.
Marble dominated the chamber, punctuated with tables made of rare wood or paintings to break up the monotony of the wall. In spite of the friendly, welcoming smiles of the busy staff members he passed as he walked through to the tellers, it was intimidating. No one stood in the line to delay the final step of the process. A teller waved him over, making him wonder if it could truly be this easy.
“Hello, what can I do for you today?” she asked. He glanced at her name tag. Alice. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded, wrinkled document.
“I have come for the wage I am due, owed for so long.”
Alice took the paper and read it. She raised her eyebrows and read it more carefully.
She looked on the opposite side of the paper and held it up to the light. She looked back at him and smiled.
“This will just be a few moments, sir.”
He nodded, and she walked back to the manager’s office, quietly knocking on the door as she leaned in.
“I think you need to approve this, Mrs. Winlock.”
The bank manager was on the secure line, likely engaged in a conference with the central branch. She waved Alice over to her desk, grabbed her pen, and read the note. She frowned and tapped the pen on the desk before taking a deep breath and speaking into the receiver.
“I’m afraid something serious just came up at our branch, excuse me.”
She set down the phone and read the note again.
“I can’t approve this. I need to make a call.”
Seven calls further up the line, an old man sitting on a beach watched human children splashing the mantis-like alien children from the next world over as his butler approached.
“What are they called again, Williams? We can’t call them Bugs these days, but I can never remember their name. Wahuakeeners?”
“Haukreen, sir. There is a call for you, bank business.”
“I’m not to be disturbed,” he said, glaring at the crashing waves. “Vacation. The doctor said so.”
“It involves the forge, sir,” said Williams, offering a communication device. “Your approval is needed before activation.”
Grumbling, the old man snatched the phone.
“Hello?! Yes it is. No, the forge is never activated. …oh. One of those? But we made that offer ages ago, they can’t expect us to still… no, no you’re right… we’re liable. Fine. Activate it… Yes, I said so, that’s what you called me for, isn’t it?! Now, stop bothering me!”
He threw the phone away, but Williams was prepared to catch it before it could sail through the air and into the water.
“All this time, I thought it was just a prop!”
“No, it’s real,” said Mrs. Winlock, carefully watching the key, the remote activation lights along its shaft and between its teeth remaining as inactive as they ever had been.
“Seems risky letting the branches have something like it, even if it’ll only work when a manager turns it.”
“Only three branches have one. And besides, it’ll only let me turn it if corporate issues the activation signal. They’ll probably fire me for asking for permission to turn it on. The back-up generator is ready?”
Before Alice could answer, the lights along the key began to glow with a sickly green light.
“Looks like you’re not fired after all,” said Alice. “And yes, it’s ready.”
“Wonderful,” said Mrs. Winlock, putting the key into the keyhole. “Get ready to throw the lever.”
Mrs. Winlock turned the glowing key, and the glow seemed to flow from the lights and into the machine. The engine-like device began to illuminate the vault where it alone was kept, its dusty dials and readouts activating. Alice read them carefully and waited for the capacitance meter to indicate full saturation. The three glass spheres at the top of the device came to life, miniature clouds forming within, zapping each other with electrical discharges just as the device became fully operational.
Alice threw the lever and the press slammed down, hissing violently before it began the process of forging. It issued the rumble of a locomotive and the screech of thousands of slow computer printers all tediously producing the same document. The lights in the bank began to flicker and dim, followed by the nervous susurrations of the customers who didn’t know what was happening. Elsewhere in the city, lights also began to dim as one of the strongest and most efficient power grids in galactic history was presented with its first true challenge.
Just before the rolling blackouts began the forge finished its work. A funereal silence echoed through the vault as Alice threw the switch again, allowing the forge to hiss one final time before the press lifted. Mrs. Winlock removed the key as Alice took the newly minted money.
“Of course they’re hot,” said Mrs. Winlock. “They’ll always be hot. Now, you’ve got a customer waiting.”
Alice left the vault and walked back to the front room. The scruffy-looking man was still waiting at her window. She approached him, and presented his funds.
“With interest, this comes to three Virellium Force Coins,” she said, clicking the coins onto the counter. They glowed with a soft, warm light, constantly changing colors as he watched, hinting at a variety of beautiful spectrums outside the visible one. He could see the grain of the wood on the counter beneath the coins, but could also see the engraved faces clearly. He took the coins slowly and reverently as the faint trace of a tear formed in one of his eyes, though he quickly wiped it away. In his mind, money stopped being an ugly problem to worry about and became an answer to questions and concerns about his life. He was rich.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”