Burkhart squirmed as he watched the screens. He couldn’t stop rubbing his nose, even though it didn’t itch.
“Get it over with,” said a voice very near his ear. It came from the stranger looking over Burkhart’s shoulder, also watching the screens with a grim seriousness.
The screens were security monitors. They showed live feeds from the various containment pods that kept the gate ring from collapsing. There were 36 pods in the ring, but all the feeds now showed the compartments of Pod 17. Kean’s pod.
Kean walked around his little galley in a stupor, struggling to unclasp the cabinets. His feet dragged as he shuffled around, bouncing from one cabinet to the next like a lazy rubber ball.
Burkhart transmitted as he spoke into the microphone. “Pod 17, this is Control. We’ve got an urgent maintenance procedure for you. Let me know when you’re ready.”
On the monitors Kean spun around. He looked into one camera and then another, his eyes drooping and his lower lip shiny with a sheen of drool.
“He’s practically sleepwalking. He’s not fit to make a ham sandwich; how’s he going to purge the reaction chamber?” asked Burkhart. He turned his head to look back at the stranger and was rebuked with a gloved fist to his jaw. The weapon barrel dug deeper into his back.
“Do like I said, exactly how I said it, or I swear to whatever god you like that the next thing through that gate’ll be your frozen corpse.”
It was a convincing argument, even for what it lacked in sophistication. Burkhart got back on the mic.
“I understand you’re groggy right now. It’ll wear off as you get moving. It’s from the activating compounds.” He swallowed. “Bad news for you: you’re a rep.”
Reproductions were quantum-constructed clones; exact replicas of their templates, memories and all. They were sometimes used for specialized operations—one-way trips, or work with high-energy exposure that would impair long-term survival, that sort of thing.
But there were no reps at the gate ring.
Kean was processing slowly. The pods, like the rest of the gate ring structure, were tightly controlled. But somehow someone had managed to drug him. Contaminant in the food supply, maybe. Now wasn’t the time to solve it.
“Listen. We’ve got a gate-collapse situation on our hands. I need you to head down to your pod’s reaction chamber and purge the fuel. Do you understand?”
In reality, the gate was holding stable. But purging one of the containment pods’ antimatter stores would ensure a collapse, no question.
“I’m a rep?” asked Kean.
The weapon at his back again. “That’s right. Look, management says that we might be able to get you a pardon, but you’ve got to purge your fuel, and you’ve got to do it fast. Got it?”
The weapon pulled away and the stranger spoke again. “If that pod isn’t purged in five minutes I’ll blow this control station to kingdom come, you understand me? And don’t even think about calling a code.”
Burkhart nodded silently. He heard hurried footsteps and the shuttering of the door dialing open. He whipped around in his seat but the door was already shutting, the stranger gone. He’d never gotten a good look at him, but he recognized his voice. It was Kean’s voice.
What in hell’s nine circles was he mixed up in?