On the Brink
Adventures on Earth (Sylvia Manuel)
Adventures on Earth
17 July 2110
The game opened with Os working with James to rehab his wounded hand. Os also worked with Jack on his minor injuries and Penny on her fragile mental state after nearly being killed by Beltran. While that went on, Konrad recovered from his hangover and fought off melancholy.
A few days passed before Dr. Sylvia Manuel contacted Konrad to let Aegis know the cargo was ready for delivery to Earth. Konrad remembered back to the roguish fellow who’d ended up helping save Penny’s life. He had the guy’s contact information. He looked it up. Osmodeas Jax. He’d been good with the little details. He also had . . . what was it? Something missing in Aegis. Empathy. That was it!
Konrad contacted Os and offered him a contract for the cargo run to Earth. Lacking any other meaningful opportunities, Os accepted. Konrad asked Os to swing by the Aegis offices and meet with the rest of the team and to bring his traveling clothes. Konrad then called the rest of the team in to have them ready for the meeting with Dr. Manuel and the subsequent off-world travel.
At the icebreaker, Konrad realized he was the odd man out. Os had already established something of a rapport with the others. Konrad chewed on this for a bit then jumped into a quick briefing of what he wanted out of everyone.
Dr. Manuel had hired them to transport cargo of a questionable variety. She’s assured them it wasn’t technically illegal, but Konrad wanted everyone alert during the meeting. Was the doctor hiding something, did the cargo look dangerous, were there any technical details that didn’t add up, and so on. Or, in Jack’s case, Konrad just asked that he not hit the customer. The contract details would be gone over one last time as well in the meeting, so Konrad asked the team to stay sharp on that as well.
The group traveled to Dr. Manuel’s apartment in the Aegis crawler. Mariel stayed behind to work out travel arrangements and to research something for Konrad. No one questioned this decision. There were other pilots, although Mariel was the most skilled. Since she rarely carried a gun, it made sense to leave her behind for a riskier, lengthy mission.
When they reached Dr. Manuel’s apartment building, Os quickly noted that the area was low-middle income. That wasn’t a problem, just a curiosity. Dr. Manuel was apparently an advanced researcher. Either she wasn’t a successful researcher, or she liked living a simple life.
Dr. Manuel greeted them at the door to her apartment. Although large enough, it was modestly appointed. Half the apartment was actually a level two biosafety lab, its outer wall serving as the living room’s entertainment center. Dr. Manuel invited everyone to have a seat in the living room.
Dr. Manuel came across as serious, decent but world weary and somewhat cynical. Konrad had already researched her background and discovered she was once a respected bioengineer. During the discussion of the job, she made no secret that she had grown tired of metacorporate exploitation, of which she had been a victim for going on twenty years.
Dr. Manuel held up well under the group’s questioning. She didn’t come across as insincere or as a fraud. She simply didn’t offer details on the cargo and the group didn’t ask. Dr. Manuel did offer that the cargo could be sneaked through customs so long as the customs folks weren’t overly curious. The cargo crates had ID that would register them as risk-free materials.
Dr. Manuel showed the group the cargo crates they would be delivering. The crates had been sitting in the living room the whole time. The group gathered the crates up. Before they left, Dr. Manuel warned them not to tamper with the crates. So long as they were sealed, the contents were safe. Break the seal, and the contents would spoil fairly quickly afterwards.
The group loaded the crates into the crawler and headed for the spaceport. Mariel called to let them know everything was cleared for them to go. She provided the latest updates and administrative clearance and wished them luck.
The trip to Earth took less than a month, during which time the group got to know each other. Os was fairly up front about his situation, although he didn’t necessarily share details. For James, Jack, and Penny, the return to Earth seemed bittersweet. For Konrad, it brought on the melancholy again. Most hoped for a moment of peace while on-planet to reach out to loved ones. Konrad sourly reminded them it was a business trip.
As they approached Earth, the shuttle received instructions on potential landing sites for customs searches. The original instructions they’d received indicated there would be a destination message when they arrived. The message directed them to Bogota, Colombia’s spaceport.
No sooner had they hit Earth’s atmosphere than the group’s customers sent a new plan, redirecting the group to land at a private airstrip outside Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The course adjustment was easy enough, and the change made sense. The airstrip was legally registered as an alternate government airport.
As the shuttle dropped from the sky, the group got a good look at Ciudad Juarez. An island of brilliantly glistening towers rose at its center. Radiating outward, the buildings became shabbier, until the outer edges of the city were little more than shacks rising from trenches and pits. Konrad set down in the city’s main airport and cleared customs without any trouble. The group rented a multi-passenger crawler and headed for the private airstrip, well ahead of schedule. As James carefully navigated the poorly maintained road, Konrad researched possible jobs advertised on the grid, quickly whittling their options down to a dozen.
About an hour later, the crawler cautiously approached the airstrip. The facility consisted of a handful of buildings, including a tower and a hangar. It was empty and looked disused. After Jack opened the gate, James drove them through, ultimately parking between the hangar and a maintenance shack.
Not liking the look of things, the group decided to split up. Os and Penny jogged to the tower while James maneuvered the cargo cases into a hidden spot between the hangar and a maintenance shack. Jack and Konrad stood on the apron in front of the hangar.
After a few minutes, everyone heard a plane approaching. They scanned the skyline and saw a private jet descending. The jet landed on the sand-covered runway and approached the hangar.
The plane came to a stop and lowered its door. Several men hopped out, one of them clearly in charge. The men approached Konrad and James. Oz and Penny tracked the men from atop the control tower. James waited for Konrad’s signal to move.
After a quick exchange with the leader of the group, Konrad called James forward. James pulled the crates up to be seen then took up position next to Konrad. The leader of the buyers—Felix da Costa—handed Konrad some debit sticks. Konrad’s check determined the sticks were well short of the agreed price and there was no sign of the promised cybernetics. Konrad pointed out this deficiency and da Costa explained the deal had changed slightly. He offered to sweeten the pot and let the group walk away with about half of what they were promised.
Suddenly, the group heard the distinctive whine of an orbital shuttle. At the sound, da Costa spun. He offered a little more for the crates. Konrad declined. A gunfight ensued. Most of da Costa’s bodyguards died quickly. da Costa fell prisoner to Jack’s powerful embrace.
The airplane started back up, its door closing. It began to roll down the runway (Penny choosing not to snipe the pilots), but the orbital shuttle landed in its path, preventing it from escaping. The orbital shuttle passengers exited their vehicle and made their way forward.
The leader of the shuttle group introduced himself as Juan Manuel Montoya. He apologized for the situation. He explained they’d been waiting in Bogota when someone had caught the reroute message to Aegis. They flew to Mexico as quickly as they could.
When he heard about da Costa, Montoya explained that the real da Costa was a contact, the impostor’s organization had captured and tortured then killed. Montoya executed the impostor and transferred the promised cybernetics from the orbital shuttle to the group. He told them their payment had been deposited. Konrad confirmed the payment and cleverly pocketed the money the impostor had given him. The group released the plane crew after extracting a small fee.
With the business successfully concluded, everyone hopped back into the rented crawler. Konrad began working his way through the potential jobs he’d earlier flagged. He settled on one advertised in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a subcontract job openly sourced back to ADMP. Despite the connection to ADMP, Konrad found the offer intriguing. The advertiser was SSS (Southwest Security Solutions), which checked out as legitimate.
Konrad established contact with SSS. They provided information on the open bidding process, set to begin in a couple hours, and on screening credentials. Konrad paid the nominal fee for an expedited credentials review (managed just fine by one of the packets of fake identification he’d cooked up in the last few months).
The group arrived back in Ciudad Juarez in just enough time to secure a conference room to connect for the bidding process. There were five other bidders that had managed the vetting process. Luis Gutierrez, head of SSS, explained to those in the vid-conference that SSS had taken on a big job with another customer and is now stretched too thin. SSS owes resolution on the ADMP job. The job is fairly simple: some punks stole ADMP research data from a data center in Jackson, MS. They’re believed to be hiding out somewhere on the Gulf Coast. The job is to either destroy the data or return it. It’s $10,000, regardless. The contractor should “send a message about what happens when you cross ADMP.” As would be expected, Gutierrez was vague on the meaning of the “message.”
After several questions, there were only two companies remaining, Aegis and an unknown. Gutierrez provided the last of the critical information and closed the link. Konrad instantly jumped into action, arranging for clearance to land in Mississippi and renting hotel rooms, a motorcycle for James, and a crawler. Aegis was in the air within an hour.
On the flight to Mississippi, the team reviewed the case data they’d been given. By the time they landed in Mississippi and picked up their rentals then headed to the hotel, everyone had a good understanding of the case: a team of punks broke into a data center in the middle of the night, knocked the workers out with cattle prods, and stole data belonging to ADMP. It was early evening, but time was of the essence.
After settling in and grabbing a snack and drink to tide them over, the team split up to do some investigating. Konrad stayed at the hotel to do some more research and coordinate activities. Jack—hungry for some Southern cooking—ran out to grab dinner for everyone. James hopped on his motorcycle and checked out a hunch he’d put together after reviewing a list of recent employee firings/departures at the data center. Meanwhile, Os and Penny traveled to the data center to check it out.
James hit a couple local dives and got a good feeling from some of the folks he talked to. A few people confirmed that Rory Watson, a temp hire at the data center, had recently quit and that he was a very capable computer engineer who’d been taking classes from a nearby university. That meant he was more than a typical, low-cost dope head functionary.
While walking to his motorcycle, James researched Rory’s home address. He drove for the address and tried to call Rory’s number. Rory’s mother answered and said Rory wasn’t home. As they talked, Rory’s mother heard something (James thought it sounded like a screen door spring). When she went to check it out, James heard what sounded like a short scuffle in the background. Over the live line, he heard male voices with Eastern European accents. James gunned it.
Meanwhile, Os and Penny traveled to the data center. Os told Penny to follow his lead. They checked out security and reviewed the security provided in the case file. Os convinced the data center folks to let him in to do some research on the data theft. After confirming the video—which indicated the thieves had been masked, knew the facility, and carried shock weapons—mapped to the memories of the people working at the data center, Os gave the layout a good lookover. Just as his detail-oriented eye had led him to believe from the videos, everything pointed to an inside job. Interviewing the employees confirmed that a former employee—Rory Watson—had motive, opportunity, and the means to pull the heist off. After convincing the shift supervisor to let them into the cage containing ADMP’s systems, Os distracted the data center folks so that Penny could contact Konrad to help her hack the ADMP systems. With Konrad’s help, Penny was able to extract several bits of information that would help in researching ADMP’s operations in the data center. It wasn’t secure enough to be hyper-critical.
Jack arrived back at the hotel with several bags of food. It was the sort of stuff that simultaneously repulsed and entranced Konrad. He could smell the grease and fat before he opened the door for Jack, but once Jack began tearing open the containers—fried okra, “hush puppies,” fried catfish, blackened catfish, pole beans, collard greens, bar-b-que chicken, smoked pork loin—Konrad was drooling.
James arrived at the Watson house on the northeastern outskirts of Jackson. It was ancient, with a rusting chain-link fence and weed-choked yard. He drove around the block before parking in front of the place. It was dark and looked abandoned. A dog barked in the distance.
James hopped off the motorcycle and let himself into the yard. He spotted a dead dog at the side of the house. James made his way to the back door and let himself in. He found the body of a late middle-aged woman he assumed was Mrs. Watson. He searched the house, finding Rory’s room downstairs. It was a miniature geek cave. James snagged a couple of bits of what seemed meaningful data before deciding to get the hell out. On his way back up the stairs, he smelled something. Realizing it was gas, he ran for the front window, leaping out just as the gas line exploded.
James pulled a couple pieces of glass from his jacket and gloves and ran for the motorcycle. He leapt the fence, made the motorcycle in three steps, and accelerated away as flames climbed into the night sky. After making sure he wasn’t being followed, James made his way back to the hotel, oblivious to the vehicles casually riding in his wake.
At the hotel, everyone got together for a quick pow-wow. Os slipped away for a moment to chat with his mother. He was unsurprised to hear his father still considered him persona non grata. His mother, however, insisted he make time for a visit while he was on Earth. Os agreed to.
It was unanimously agreed Rory Watson was their main person of interest. Since there had been six thieves, the group decided to identify Rory’s associates to find the others. Gorged on fine Southern fare, folks returned to their tasks, leaving Konrad alone in the hotel, totally absorbed in his research, unaware of any threats that he might be exposed to . . . .