I can't say for certain, of course, that you've never taken a ride in a hopper. But I'm pretty sure you haven't. Not unless you're one of the miners they've been sending to Luna City on the moon lately, or unless you're extremely wealthy. Shit, I'm a network personality, and I make boatloads of cash, and I'd never been on one until that night. They're not inexpensive.
The fact that Jeremy must have paid for it himself -- Network wasn't going to cover it -- made me think he had a serious story. I made a mental note to throw some cash his way when we got back -- I know what he makes, and it's less than a quarter of my salary.
The hopper essentially looked like a big metal ball on three legs. A short, burly local handed us pressure suits. Mine was red. As we suited up, I finally thought to ask the obvious.
"So, where are we going?" I asked, hoping he wouldn't say "the moon." I mean, I trusted the guy, but come *on.*
"Mauna Kea," he said.
I had know idea what those words meant. Something Hawaiian. So at least we weren't leaving the atmosphere.
"And that is?"
"Observatory. Up in the mountains. Used to be a college thing. Funded by corporations now, I think. Anyway, an old buddy of mine works there. Got me the scent of something that..." he trailed off.
I simply nodded. I didn't know much about hoppers, but I knew they were mind-blowingly fast. We'd be back before we were missed. That was the hope, anyway.
I'd never taken a hopper ride before, but I knew the concept. The little ball would shoot up -- fast. Faster than any humans inside would be able to withstand without becoming a permanent part of the vehicle's floor. Exact speed? No clue. But the news report I'd seen on them mentioned that, without the hopper's safety system, occupants would be liquified.
The pressure suits were only a part of the system, and were mainly there to keep the riders... well, clean. We also got helmets. Once the helmets were on, the suits were air- and water-tight. Well, liquid-tight, anyway.
Then came the second safety feature. The entirety of the hopper -- the ball -- filled with a sort of... goo. It was a thick gel that took the shock of the acceleration. The passengers floated in the center of the ball, surrounded by this crud, as the hopper rocketed directly up.
We were alone. There was no pilot on board the hopper -- its course was pre-programmed into its computers. There was, however, an operator of sorts. One guy at the hopper's takeoff point monitored the flight via a link to the hopper's flight computers. In an emergency, he could...
OK, in an emergency, we were probably fucked. The most the operator could do was come up with a convincing story about our deaths. Our flight was too short to make any corrections -- it would be over in less than 30 seconds.
Jeremy and I were lowered into the gel. As we cleared the frame of the sphere's hatch, mechanical clamps grabbed our ankles and pulled us into position at the ball's center. The clamps let go, and I was floating in the center of the sphere. I tried to turn and look at Jeremy, but the clear gel was thick. Moving my head wasn't going to happen without more effort than I wanted to put in, so I did my best to relax my body for the flight.
There was no countdown, no red light turning on inside the sphere to let us know we were taking off. But there didn't need to be. We definitely knew it when it happened. Even with the gel, even with the pressure suits, I felt like I was being curb-stomped. By an elephant. With an overeating disorder.
I know the flight only took 30 seconds -- 28, really -- but it seemed much longer. I could swear I felt the heavy metal boots attached to my pressure suit touching the hard bottom deck of the sphere at one point. Just as the pressure started to get unbearable, though, it stopped in an instant. We had landed without so much as a tiny jolt. We floated in the sphere -- in the center, I noticed, so my boots probably hadn't reached the floor -- for a couple of minutes. I guessed we were there for about three minutes, maybe three and a half -- so 6 or 7 times longer than the actual flight had been.
Finally, the hatch at the top of the sphere slid open, and the clamps grabbed us around the ankles again and pushed us upwards. When we were halfway out of the hatch, Jeremy and I could pull ourselves out onto the ladders on either side. The clamps let go. There was no one outside to meet us, to help us out of our suits. I pulled off my helmet, first twisting to the left, then the right. The first thing I noticed after the seals unlocked and I pulled the helmet off was that it was cold outside. Really cold, actually.
"The fuck, Jeremy. I thought this was Hawaii," I grumbled as Jeremy took off his own helmet.
"It's the altitude," he told me. "More than 14,000 feet. Like, three miles up."
I nodded. That made sense, I guess. I'd been up in the Nevada mountains in summer. That time, I'd been able to see my breath, and I don't think those mountains were anywhere near this high. And I had another thought. "What about air?" I asked.
"Thinner up here. Don't try to run any marathons," he said, pulling off his gloves.
Well, shit. That was bad news. I'd taken another couple doses of speed on the flight over, which meant my heart rate was somewhere north of 130. Higher heart rate meant I needed to pull in more oxygen. It would be very easy for me to pass out up here. I'd have to be careful.
"Turn around so I can get you out of your suit," Jeremy said, holding up his now-ungloved hands.
"Thought you had a pal here. Why isn't he out here helping us?" I grumbled as I turned.
"He's working. This place only has a couple of employees these days. Back when it was government funded, huge staff. Now that it's basically a corporate tax writeoff, it's got a skeleton crew," he said.
And as you'll see in a few minutes, everyone's pretty busy."
Getting us both out of the suits took another ten or fifteen minutes. Upside of that, though, was that all of the goop stayed on the suits, and my clothes were still clean and pressed. Gotta look good. Apart from being a talker, it's one of the main parts of my job.
I checked the screen on my wrist as we headed to the observatory. Despite the darkening sky, the screen was dimming. I didn't remember the last time I'd eaten -- lunch in Dallas hadn't happened. As the screen used my body's electrical impulses for power, the dimness was a bit worrying.
Worrying, too, were my vital signs. My pulse was 138, and my blood pressure was 150 over 95. I was already feeling dizzy, a combination of malnutrition and amphetamines.
"Anything to eat up here? A snack bar or something?" I asked as I trudged after Jeremy through the observatory's front door.
"Shit, that was rude of me. Didn't even ask when you ate last. I was just so on about this story --"
"It's fine. I'm just a bit--"
"No, totally. I understand. I'll try to track you down something. The scientists live up here, so they must have food around."
That was good news. Food would help -- not as much as if I didn't have five doses of speed kicking around my bloodstream, but...
Even inside the observatory, no one came to meet us. Didn't seem to matter, though, as Jeremy seemed to know where he was going. Our route took us through what looked like a small kitchen. Though all of the lights were off, we could see a food machine blinking. I hated the food from these machines -- soy and tofu mechanically formed into foodlike shapes, sprayed with taste chemicals. Yech. But if I wanted to stay vertical, I couldn't afford to be picky.
I chose the least evil-looking option -- braised "beef" and rice. The food machine was old -- it rattled and bubbled -- but it produced a small, trapezoidal container with Chinese characters on it. There were some chopsticks and plastic forks in a small bin next to the machine. I learned to eat with chopsticks when I was two. I tried the faux-Chinese faux-food. It was authentically terrible, but I ate it as Jeremy and I continued through the huge complex.I didn't vomit, anyway. I'm counting that as a win.
Finally, we saw another human being. It was after I'd finished my sad "meal." We were walking, of all places, past a men's room. Just after we passed it, the door opened, and a big man in a black coat came out.
When I say big, I don't mean muscular; I mean fat. I couldn't help staring for a second -- you never see overweight people. Not these days. Especially when being trim, with the ubiquity of soy and tofu and the easy availability of metabo-boosters, is easy. Easier than letting yourself get heavy, anyway. I don't even know how one would go about gaining 50 or 60 extra pounds anymore.
"Tim," Jeremy said to the heavy man.
"Jeremy!" Tim said, his pudgy face breaking into a wide grin.
"Hi, I'm --" I started.
"Oh, I know. Watch you on Global all the time," Tim said. I didn't think it was possible, but his grin got wider. A bit scary. The big man looked like he was about to unhinge his jaw and swallow both Jeremy and me.
"Want to show Dane what you showed me?"
"Of course, of course," Tim said, his grin shrinking back to a usual size. He waved a massive hand in the air and started walking. Jeremy and I just followed him.
I was starting to feel a little less shaky, but Tim was walking fast, especially for a fat man. I dropped back a bit -- I figured if I could keep Jeremy and the big scientist in sight, I would be OK, and I was gasping for breath. At least my screen wasn't as dim anymore. That was definitely something.
"It's just through here," Tim called back, turning. He led us into a small room with screens covering three of the walls. The lights were off, but they really didn't need to be on. Even in suspend mode, the screens threw enough light to illuminate the room. Tim rolled up his sleeve and tapped his screen twice. The screens jumped to life, but the room got darker -- we were looking now at black screens with only pinpoints of background light.
"Think your screens are broken, boss," I said, leaning against the doorframe and trying like hell to calm my heart rate.
"No, they're functional. You're looking at a bit of space between Jupiter and Saturn. Lemme just..." Tim mumbled, tapping his screen.
The screen's image shifted, and that's when I first saw it. The... object. I couldn't say what it was, but I wasn't the only one.
"What is it?" I asked.
"I try not to ask those questions," Tim said, magnifying the image. It was massive, whatever it was. The shape was... well, not quite symmetrical, but not asymmetrical, either. I'd say it was roughly squareish, but it had odd angles. Protrusions. Ridges and valleys.
"Asteroid?" I asked.
"They don't think so," Jeremy said.
"We don't want to rush to --"
"Fine. No conclusions. But what do you think it is?" I asked, sighing. Scientists could certainly be fucking frustrating.
"Well, I can tell you what we've observed," Tim started carefully. "It's moving. Fast."
"It was near Neptune yesterday," Tim said.
"That doesn't seem that fast," I said.
"Trust me, it's faster than you think. It's gaining speed," Tim told us. "There's more. It's heading this way."
Well, yeah. I'd guessed that, otherwise they wouldn't have dragged my tired ass all the way up there.
"I can see that doesn't mean much to you. Let me restate -- it's coming for Earth. That means it's changed direction. More than once. It's had to make course corrections to keep headed towards us."
"You mean it's being... flown? Intelligently?" I said, blinking.
"Like I said, we don't like to make those kinds of conclusions..." Tim said, trailing off.
They couldn't make conclusions. But I could. And this was shaping up to be a much, much bigger story than some has-been cage fighter popping up to get a shit award.
* * *
When I got off the phone with Ryan, it would be an understatement to say I was shocked. Dumbstruck would be accurate.
"This is the same bullshit Jeremy told me the day before I sent you," Ryan had said, sighing heavily on the other end of the line. "It sounds just as weak and fictional as when he said it."
"I don't think you understand, Ryan. There are scientists here who --"
"Scientists," Ryan scoffed. "Right. If they were any kind of real scientists, they'd be working for Umbra or The Lungshan."
OK, so pure research under corporate grants didn't hold much weight with my boss. Good to know, I guess.
"They have data, Ryan. Real-time imagery of the object. It could be the first contact with alien life. Don't you think Global News needs to be there first?"
That shut him up for a minute. But only a minute.
"Look, they said this thing is moving pretty slowly, right?" he asked.
"Well, they said it was picking up speed."
"It's still at least two days before we have to worry about it. Do the Andrevich story. "We'll revisit this conversation after that."
Ryan didn't wait for an answer. He just terminated the connection. And I was...
Well, I was furious. There was no doubt of that. But more than anything, I was confused. This was a huge story. Gigantic, in fact. Why couldn't Ryan see that? Why was this Vladimir Andrevich story so important to him, but a potential alien ship was back-burnered?
In any event, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot I could do. Ryan wanted the Andrevich story, and that was what I'd have to give. It's not like I could just do the Object story on my own --Global News would never air it. And I couldn't even go to another Network. If the story was too hard-news for Global, then none of the other Networks would touch it for anything. Not in this country, anyway. Probably not even in Old Blighty, though I'd pretty much burned my bridges with Royal when I left four years ago. I was stuck.
Taking another ride down in the hopper wasn't something I was looking forward to -- it wouldn't be a powered flight, after all. It would more just be a straight gravity-drop until a couple of hundred feet before the landing site. Then, a controlled landing. But there was really no other way to get back to where I was supposed to be, where I guess I *had* to be, now. So we suited up again. A few minutes later, we were back on the ground, almost exactly in the same spot where we'd started. The burly local guy was back. He helped us out of our suits, and Jeremy drove me to the hotel where we would meet Andrevich and his people early in the morning.
"Have they landed yet?" I asked as we rolled down the long, slick highway into the center of Honolulu.
"Hang on. Let me check."
Jeremy let the car's computer take over the driving and tapped a few commands into his screen. After a second, he nodded to me.
"Looks like they landed 20 minutes ago. They should be... well, right behind us on this road," he told me.
"Staying in our hotel?"
"I think so, yes."
A plan was forming. Maybe I'd be able to do the story I wanted to do, after all.
"Kick up the speed. Make sure we get to the hotel before they do," I told Jeremy.
"Because, my friend... I have an idea." I said, grinning.
There's a skillset required for every job. For Andrevich's job, you had to be a big, mean motherfucker who could hit really hard. But there are those of us out there who aren't big, aren't fighters. My job has two requirements --that I look good and talk well. And thanks to those two skills, I've never had to fight anyone in my life.
Growing up, I got myself into plenty of trouble, sure. I don't think you've been a teenager unless you've pissed off most of the people you know. I got close to some fights a few times. But I never had to throw a punch. I could always smile or talk my way out of pretty much everything, which is why I became what I am.
So you'd think there was nothing Andrevich and me would have in common, right? Well, there's one skill in my set that helps. Even when dealing with a guy who could disassemble me without his fight tattoos even changing colors. It's a skill I'm proud of.
See, Andrevich was New Soviet, but New Soviets shared more similarities to their Russian neighbors than either wanted to admit. Apart from the common language and history, both Russians and New Soviets liked to drink. And I could hold a masterclass on drinking. So when I arranged to meet Andrevich in the hotel bar, I knew I had my work cut out for me -- but I knew my plan would work.