Bennet tried not to think about what he was wading through as he and his men worked their way up through miles of slough tunneling, gradually nearing the hazmat treatment center.
"This is disgusting." Agent Nond, one of the four Bennet had chosen to go with him, was taking the forward position of the group. "There's a mass of... something, I don't know what it is exactly, just kind of sticking to the ground. It's not solid, it's just... goopy."
"Thank you, Nond," Bennet said. "That's more than I wanted to know."
The five agents were all wearing "flex suits," lightweight environmental suits designed for people who needed to do detail-oriented work in corrosive, radioactive, and high-pressure atmospheres. The suit was made of a special polymer that felt almost like rubber until current was run through it, upon which it stiffened and sealed the body completely from the environment outside. They were a little awkward to use sometimes, and their effectiveness lasted only as long as the power cells did, but the great advantage of the suits was that they were semi-collapsible and very easy to transport without arousing suspicions.
At the moment the suits were not powered up. They were walking up the slough where post-treated material was discharged into the 'lake' every two hours, and while unsettling, it wasn't particularly dangerous. The suits would be activated just before they reached the treatment plant.
Which was when the fun would really begin.
The five agents were tethered together by a single cable attached to their flex suits. It would keep them together when they were swimming "upstream" through the hazardous material, and it doubled as a solid-line comm link, allowing them to talk without fear of the transmission being picked up by anyone else. They were making the most of the luxury. Once they were in the station, they would spend most of their time communicating with hand signals, so station security wouldn't pick up unauthorized voice patterns and lock the place down.
"There aren't supposed to be any solids in this treatment line, are there?" Bennet asked, worried. "That might tangle us up. We might have to cut the line."
He heard Agent Dox swear over the line. Dox was taking the rear position, and if the line was cut he was the one most likely to get lost.
"I'd like to formally request we not do that, Lieutenant," Dox said.
Someone else chuckled. "That's OK, Dox, if we get separated you get to turn around and go home."
"Don't give him any ideas, Bera," Bennet said, which provoked a round of laughter from everyone, including Dox.
"Wait," Dox said, in a decidedly better mood. "I can feel... something... cutting through the line..."
"All right," Bennet said, "let's not get carried away. Sev, could you answer the original question?"
"No solids," Sev said. "This stuff comes from runoff from the reactor, various lubricants, that kind of thing."
"Lovely," Dox muttered.
"Here we are," Nond said. "I think we've reached the lock to the treatment center."
"OK." Bennet checked the chronometer on the heads-up-display on his visor. "2352--another eight minutes."
"And then at 0200 it does it again, right?" Dox sounded worried.
"Every two hours," Bennet said. "That's what Sythe tells us."
That produced an uncomfortable silence. No one was entirely sure that Sythe was "all right." She'd been in the field so long that even if a Sword hadn't brainwashed her there was always a chance she'd gone native just from trying to stay alive. No one was sure if she'd wind up double-crossing them.
"I know what you're thinking," Bennet said. "Stop thinking it. Start working."
The agents secured themselves to the side of the lock in preparation for the stream of treated waste that would come pouring out of the lock in eight minutes.
"Power up the flex suits," Bennet said, and activated his.
Power surged through his suit, and he felt the segmented plates placed all over the suit harden instantly. His helmet display indicated that all the miniature servo motors were online, meaning he could bend his limbs freely.
"Everyone working properly?" Bennet asked. One by one, the other agents replied they were.
A low rumbling sound came from the other side of the lock.
"All right," Bennet said. "Make sure you're secured to this wall. When the lock is open, we've got about twenty minutes to force our way upstream. Get started immediately."
The lock started to open. A trickle of brackish liquid streamed out of the center as the two plates separating the treatment plant from the outside world moved apart.
"Here it comes," Bennet said.
"Early," Nond muttered.
The trickle became a stream, and as the plates extended even further tons of treated waste roared down the slough toward the lake.
"Go!" Bennet shouted. He could hear the roar through his helmet, and it nearly drowned out the link. He wondered for a moment if the cable would hold against all the pressure.
Nond was the first in, using synthbond grips built into his suit to seal himself to the wall as the suit servos fought against the rush of liquid pouring out. Sev followed, then Bennet, then Bera, and finally, Dox. After the first ten minutes, the pressure had abated to the point where they could make their way more freely, though they were still forced to use the grips to keep themselves attached to the walls.
The treatment chamber was essentially a huge tank where waste entered one end and left the other. All around the tank were vents and spires and columns that emitted whatever it was that rendered all the hazardous material inert in only two hours. Bennet didn't know how the process worked. He did know they'd have to sit through the entire process on the way out, and he wasn't looking forward to it. He hoped these suits really could stand up to the crushing pressures and temperatures everyone claimed they could. He also hoped the energy cells didn't run out of juice before the process ended.
They were close to the other side when they heard the rumble of the external lock as it began to close.
"Let's hurry up," Bennet warned. "We have a bit of a climb."
The external lock--the lock that deposited the treated sludge into the "lake"--was located at the bottom of the treatment facility. The internal lock--the lock that provided the treatment facility with the hazardous sludge that needed to be treated--was located at the top of the treatment facility on the other end. This meant that the agents would have to climb up the side of the tank. Fortunately, the servo motors on the suits were strong enough to handle it, and the force of the sludge pouring in meant it would arc over them for the most part, but it was still psychologically daunting.
It was a large tank.
They were a quarter of the way up when the internal lock started to open. Bennet and his men were a little to the right of the lock itself, and they saw a stream of waste hiss down the side of the tank before the pressure caused it to arc into the room.
"I bet it smells really bad in here," Bera said.
They worked their way up to the lock and began the laborious process of fighting their way into the oncoming rush of waste. There was a single terrifying moment as Bennet pulled himself headfirst into the waste and realized he couldn't see anything at all.
He forced himself to remember that he liked his job. He forced himself to remember that over and over and over again.
Bennet crawled on slowly with others. Finally Dox announced that he was in, and they began to force themselves forward in earnest.
"You know," Nond said, after they'd worked their way in silence for a while, "I wondered why they didn't bother to put more security measures here... and now I know why."
"Why's that?" Bennet asked.
"Because only an idiot would try to get in this way," Nond said.
"That's what they pay us for," Bennet said.
"Is it?" Dox asked. "I thought they paid us to get shot at in a goddamn pirate ship."
That provoked dark mutterings from the other agents, and Bennet sighed. There was a fair amount of bitterness among the agents concerning that debacle.
"Focus," he said.
"It's all right, Lieutenant," Nond said. "It's all crawling through muck for the next half hour."
Bennet sighed again, but said nothing.
"How long do you think until the Major tries to take the ship again?" Sev asked.
"I hope never," Dox said. "I don't ever want to have to fight that woman again, ever."
Eventually the lock closed, ending the current and making it easier for the agents to move. They made more progress then, flowing "upstream" to the vats where the waste was deposited.
"Hold on," Nond cautioned. "I'm going to disconnect, check ahead, and see if she's waiting for us."
"Go on," Bennet said. "We'll wait here."
There was a click as Nond disconnected himself from the communications tether, and then silence.
"I hate being in the back," Dox said. "You can never see anything."
"I can't see anything, and I'm in the middle," Bennet said.
"Yeah, but you're the boss. You're not supposed to know what's going on."
Bera and Sev laughed.
There was a slight vibration and a click, and then Nond's voice re-appeared over the link. "She's there," Nond said. "Coast is clear."
"Let's go," Bennet ordered.
They moved out of the sewage tunnel into a pool where waste was collected before being sent on to the treatment plant. They climbed up the side awkwardly and heaved themselves up onto a lip on the side of the pool. There was room for people to stand here; Bennet assumed there were things in this room that needed fixing from time to time.
Wiping the muck from his visor, he saw an observation room not far from the lip where they'd emerged from below. Standing in the window was Meaghan Sythe.
Sythe pointed to her left. Bennet saw a decontamination chamber.
"All right," he said. "We're going to remove the link. It stays off until we return. No speech unless Sythe tells us it's safe. Got it?"
"I want Nond, Bera and Dox into D-Con first. Sev and I will follow. Unhook now, see you on the other side."
He unhooked the Comm tether from his suit and let it fall to the ground. The others did the same, laying it carefully along the wall so it would stay out of sight from anyone in the observation booth. Then Nond, Bera and Dox stepped into the D-Con room. Sythe keyed in a command from the observation room, and the door closed behind them.
The room filled with foam, obscuring the agents briefly, then the foam was washed away with a chemical spray. The process took about ten minutes in all, and when the other door opened the agents moved into the next room.
Then it was Bennet and Sev's turn.
When the process had finished, Bennet deactivated his flex suit. His arms and legs felt unusually heavy, a side effect of servo-assisted motion. The other three agents had already removed their suits and were stowing them in a container.
Bennet removed his helmet and nearly gagged. His suit stank.
The door to the D-Con room closed behind him, and the door to the observation room opened. Meaghan Sythe entered the room, eyeing them warily. She looks tired, Bennet thought. Not that I could blame her.
"It's safe to talk in here," she said. "Too much noise from the sludge room for sensors to pick up voice patterns."
Bennet nodded as he removed his flex suit. "How far are we from where they store the robots?"
"It's the other side of the facility," Sythe said. "But, as luck would have it, I need to drive across and pick up some extra parts for one of the machines in the observation room." She smiled slightly--almost but not quite a smirk, tired but not defeated, still defiant. Bennet decided there was no way in hell that woman had turned on them.
Bennet nodded again. "Dox," he said. "What's the status of our equipment?"
"All here, Lieutenant," he said.
"Get the harness hooked up," Bennet said. "You're getting us into the warehouse."
"So you're getting ready to go over there now?" Bennet asked Sythe.
She nodded. "About ten minutes. Look, you're taking me with you, right? I'm getting out of here?" There was an edge to her voice that made Bennet worry. She hadn't cracked yet, but she was only human, and all humans had limits. She'd nearly reached hers.
"Yes," he said. "We're getting you out. But we came here for a reason, and we're not leaving for a while yet. This is only the first part of a… a very complicated process. We can get you on board the ship, but if we do that too soon people are going to start looking for you."
Sythe shook her head. "I have leave I can take. A lot of leave. And my supervisor has been pressuring me to take it."
"All right," Bennet said. "That helps. When you get off your shift tonight, leave as usual and meet us where you met us before. We'll get you on board the ship. But we're going to be planetside for at least another month, and you'll be confined to the ship the whole time. All right?"
She took a deep breath and nodded.
Bennet looked at the others. "Are you ready?"
"All right--no more talking. Let's go."
Sythe led them out of the room, down a long corridor lined with doors, and into a garage with a ground transport. She motioned for them to get into the back.
Bennet waved the others in, and climbed up after them. Sythe looked up after them, gestured fourteen, then walked around and climbed into the driver's seat.
They were headed to building fourteen.
The ground transport started up and moved into the warm night air. Bennet couldn't see where they were going, but it seemed as if they were moving in a straight line across a well-paved road.
The transport slowed, then turned, then came to a halt. Bennet overheard Sythe talking with a bored guard.
"Hey, you," the guard said in a sleepy, familiar tone. "What brings you out here?"
Sythe betrayed none of the nervousness she'd exhibited earlier. "Doing maintenance on the sludge," she said, affecting an annoyed tone. "And we don't have half of our spare parts. We have an inspection in two weeks, if I don't have those parts..."
The guard laughed. "Yeah. Well, you need any help?"
"No, I'll just get the robots to load for me."
"All right," the guard said. "Number twelve, right? Go on."
And the ground car started moving again.
About thirty seconds later, the car came to a halt. Sythe came around the back again, motioned for them to wait, then disappeared. A minute later she came back.
"Safe to talk," she said. "Security is disabled in twelve."
Bennet turned to Dox. "Your turn."
Dox climbed out of the back of the ground car and grinned at Sythe. "Which direction is fourteen?"
Dox put on his helmet and headed out.
"How is he getting past the sentinels in fourteen?" Sythe asked Bennet as he climbed out of the truck.
Bennet nodded in Dox's direction. Sythe turned just in time to see him press something on his wrist, and he half-melted into the background.
"Chameleon net," Bennet said. "Best we could come up with. Dox has trained in it. He's pretty good, but this is going to take a while."
They waited. Time passed.
Everything was quiet, which was a good sign. Silence meant that Dox had not been detected, that he was moving slowly enough for the chameleon net to read his surroundings and correctly mask his presence from sensors and other electronic equipment. Assuming he didn't run out of power first, or get spotted by a human guard, he'd creep toward the door, get past the security there, and make his way to the building security hub.
Assuming he didn't run out of power first.
Thirty minutes passed. The power cell charging the chameleon net would only last about that length of time, which meant they were about to learn whether or not Dox had succeeded. After five minutes passed without any alarms, Bennet relaxed a little.
Ten minutes later, Dox crept back into twelve, and motioned for them to follow.
Bennet turned to Sythe. "Stay here," he said. Sythe nodded.
They followed Dox out of twelve, along the fence that separated twelve from fourteen, and into fourteen's front gate. There was no one else about--all the living security was focused on the perimeter of the storage compounds, not on the interior.
Dox led them around the side of the building through an open door. Dox took off his helmet and grinned.
"It's safe to talk," he said. "Took me a while to jimmy the locks, though. I ran out of juice just before the whole thing went down. I was afraid that was that..."
"Did you find the manifest?" Bennet asked.
Dox nodded and handed Bennet a slip of paper with model numbers and row locations written down on it. "I wrote down some good candidates. The cargo area is this way."
Dox opened a door and stepped through. The others followed, and they emerged into a cavernous room lined with robots of varying shapes and sizes.
"Here be robots," Dox said.
Bennet used the paper to find the four models Grif had suggested, and chose one of each. Nond, Bera and Sev set to work opening the chassis of each robot and inserting the receptor close to the central processor.
It didn't have to be close, Grif had said, but it made things easier.
Bennet turned to Dox. "How much time do we have?"
"Two hours," Dox said. "The external system thinks everything is still running normally. In two hours my little program is going to shut itself off, and it's going to look like a power outage--backup generators come on, systems recycle, they do a brief check, everything looks normal, life goes on."
"We've got one down," Bera said. "Starting the second."
It took them about an hour to finish. They hurried back to twelve and helped Sythe finish loading the equipment she needed for the treatment facility, then climbed into the back with the equipment and lay low as she drove the transport back to the treatment plant.
Ten minutes later, they were suiting up and preparing to return.
"See you tomorrow," Bennet said to Sythe.
She nodded, tightened her jaw, but said nothing else.
Bennet hooked up a fresh power cell to his flex suit and turned it on. Again the plates went rigid, and power servos whirred.
On the other side of the D-Con chamber, they retrieved the comm tethers and reattached them. Bennet looked up at Sythe, watching them from the observation room. He waved a final time, and then slipped into the hazardous sludge.
"Let's get out of here," Bennet said. "And let's hope this was worth it."
"They better appreciate this," Dox grumbled as they began to work their way down the sewage drain. "All this work while they stay on board that ship and get drunk."
"Slackers," Nond agreed. "The lot."