Oh for, Pete’s sake! I’ve only gone and come up with an idea for a sequel to Zero. Zero is a sci-fi novel I thought of some time ago which I catalogued on here and then placed back on the mental shelf, knowing the danger of getting distracted by something new and worried it would impede my progress of The Road Elsewhere. I did shelve it and all was good and productive and everyone was happy.
And then I thought of an idea for a sequel to Zero. The gods of inspiration are being too generous, if such a thing might be possible.
I have spent this writing night getting down the opening I have come up with and I shall post it here to hopefully allow me to shelve it along with its predecessor.and once again get back to what I’m supposed to be working on.
For anyone who has read the first couple of chapters of Zero, (found here and here) I will warn you that there is some faint spoiler-age in this opening sequence of a potential sequel (at the moment imaginatively named Zero-Two). I suspect it might be too vague for anyone to be able to figure out what it might be spoiling though as Zero is still a long way off the important events referred to in this sequel.
You’re welcome to peruse and I hope you enjoy. If anyone has any comments about how best to handle it when you have *too many* ideas, please do let me know.
And please also be warned that this passage contains some adult content.
Hugo paused for a fraction of a second then forced himself to rap on the metal door. The lack of any sort of response did not convince him that the the occupant of the room was either out or asleep. He knew Webb better than that. He glanced up at the camera he knew would be somewhere above the door, almost feeling the scrutiny. He kept his face neutral and waited.
The door slid open as he knew it eventually would.
“Hugo.” Webb tucked his gun back into his waistband and pulled his shirt over the top. “Long time no see.”
“Can I come in?”
Webb narrowed his eyes slightly. “Am I under arrest?”
Webb examined him a moment longer, arms crossed, eyes cool. Then he shrugged and stepped back to allow Hugo into the room. The door hissed shut behind him. There was barely room in the tiny boarding pod for the two men, the bed and the one work bench. There was a computer panel with a locked screen on the work bench and a single bag, open and spilling clothes and wires onto the bed. “I suppose you know what hell time is is on Lunar 2.”
“You’re up, aren’t you?”
“Got me there,” Webb replied. “You want a coffee or something? At least, I think it’s supposed to be coffee.”
Webb suddenly laughed, re-crossed his arms and grinned at Hugo. His smile had a hardness to it that Hugo had forgotten about. “I know you were never the greatest one for small-talk, Kale. But as you’re the one that’s turned up out of the blue after ten years, at the ass-end of nowhere in the middle of the night…the conversation ball is kind of in your court.”
Hugo straightened, not letting his gaze break from the other man. He couldn’t help but notice that his one-time commander looked older, though not as much as he should. He knew his own hair was a lot greyer than the last time they’d seen each other. Webb’s hair, which he’d let grow back out again so it was the length it was when they’d first met, was still an even midnight black. He was still lean, although now a little on the thin side. But he leant against the wall with a practised but dangerous ease. There were a couple of new scars on his arms and face to add to the ones he remembered. There was also a new tattoo on his right bicep, stark black lines of the Roman numeral for ‘two’. Hugo felt something clench inside him. It was Webb’s dry humour, but he found it far from amusing. Webb saw him looking at it and the brittle grin widened.
“I need your help,” Hugo finally said.
Webb’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “You need my help?”
Hugo nodded. “I need someone with your…experience. And expertise.”
“You mean his experience and expertise.”
“They’re yours now.”
“You kept his name…” Hugo said quietly, watching the other’s face.
“Not like he was using it.”
“I know what I said,” Webb snapped. “Shit changes. I’m tired. Want to get to the point?” He rubbed his face, weariness showing for the first time.
“I need you, Webb.”
“Look, Hugo. Colonel Hudson has already tried to rope me into helping the Service before. I told her…”
“I know what you told her. She forwarded the email to me and questioned whether we should consider bringing you in to answer for it.”
Webb chuckled. “She should have known better than to ask. As should you.”
Hugo felt anger flare bur suppressed it. “This isn’t for the Service Webb. This is…personal.”
Webb’s eyes narrowed and he saw him take in Hugo’s lack of uniform or insignia. His tired eyes met Hugo’s again for the moment and held them. Then the younger man sighed, ran his hands through his hair and looked away. “Look, Hugo. It’s really late…”
“Will you at least hear what I have to say?”
“No, Kale. I have to be up in four fucking hours. I don’t have time.”
Webb blinked a him. For the briefest moment Hugo saw all the hardness fall away from his face and he just looked surprised. Then he closed back up again with slight frown. “You’re that desperate?”
“Yes. Please at least hear me out. If you do and say no, I’ll leave.”
Webb frowned harder, then sighed again and moved towards the door. “Fine, if you’re going to be a hard-ass about it. I’ll meet you tomorrow.”
“When?” said Hugo, not moving.
“Lunch,” Webb said, gesturing towards the door. “I have business in the morning.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Here.” Webb produced a marker pen from one of his pockets and, shoving up Hugo’s sleeve, scribbled some numbers on his forearm, ignoring his glare. “This is my comm number. Find somewhere, anywhere, so long as there’s food and message me. I’ll meet you around one, Lunar 2 time.”
Webb shrugged. “I’ll try. Now please, piss off. I still have stuff to do.”
Hugo didn’t sleep well that night. He stared at the ceiling in his own boarding room, lit by the dull glow of the maintenance lights bleeding in around the cheap blind. It was just the right shade of orange to make his head ache. Purposely not thinking about what he might do or say tomorrow made it worse. When he did sleep his dreams were fractured and violent. He decided he preferred the headache.
He sent the message next day as soon as he’d found somewhere suitable to meet. He sat down hours early and just watched the colony life roll by him. Webb didn’t reply to his message but he hadn’t expected him to. He relinquished his position a little before one to go and get some food then returned. One o’clock came and went. He was just beginning to come round to the idea that Webb truly wasn’t going to come when a hand clapping on his shoulder made him jump.
“What, is your top-band Service salary not enough to stretch to a restaurant, Kale?”
“We’re less likely to be overheard here.”
“Oh yeah, sure,” Webb said with a crooked grin as he dropped bag by their feet and himself on the bench beside Hugo. “Two guys dressed in black sat on a park bench eating Chinese food out of cartons. Real discreet. You better have got kung po.” Hugo passed the carton over and a pair of chop sticks. Webb dug in without looking up. Hugo thought the other man looked far better than he had a right to if he really had only a couple of hours sleep. “Right,” Webb said around a mouthful of food. “I launch in an hour, Hugo. You might want to get on with it.”
Hugo poked at his rice with his chopsticks. There were a couple of children playing on some play equipment not far away, watchful mothers nearby. There shouts were loud and happy but Hugo couldn’t get used to the sight of a play park without grass. The artificial light of the colony was too bright and it was too warm, too dry. But the children played on.
“Three months ago a Service Agent was kidnapped and tortured,” Hugo began. He kept his voice low. Webb didn’t stop eating beside him but he kept quiet. “We managed to retrieve her before she died. But after two months of therapy, physical and mental, she can’t remember enough of the encounter to produce enough evidence for an investigation.”
Webb chewed for a while. “Do you know who did it?”
“The agent in question was investigating a number of underground organisations at the time. Any number of them had the means and motive.”
“So, explain to me why there isn’t a crack team of Service feds out hunting them down?”
“As I said. Evidence. Or lack of it. The place we found her…there was nothing linking it to anyone. And she can’t remember what happened in any detail.”
Hugo shrugged a little. “Drugs? Trauma? Mental block? All of the above? We’re not sure. But the…nature of what was done to her suggests a…professional.”
“You think it was a hired blade?” Hugo nodded, watching the children chase each other around the climbing frame. “Shit,” Webb muttered around a mouthful.
Hugo took a deep breath and carried on. “If we find this blade, we’ll find out who hired him. For this job…and others.”
“Ok,” Webb set aside his food carton and leant forward, resting elbows on knees. “So as wonderfully bleak as this, I’m almost afraid to ask this…where do I come in?”
Hugo took a deep breath. “Officially, we are not allowed to pursue this matter until more evidence comes to light. If it ever does.”
“Which you don’t think it will.”
Hugo shook his head. “They were too careful. Too good. But no one is perfect. I wanted to go after them anyway. But they said I couldn’t. Peace is too fragile and we can’t afford to compromise our position on what amounted to a hunch. Colonel Hudson and I had an…altercation over the matter.”
“Why, Hugo,” Webb grinned. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt closer to you.”
“I’m on suspension,” Hugo continued. “Until further notice.”
Webb was quiet a second. “Let me guess… this suspension means that anything you do…the Service can’t be held accountable?”
Hugo turned to look at him. Webb was staring at his chopsticks. “This blade needs to be found and brought to justice. Evidence he can give us can help us get at many more that deserve the same. But the Service can’t officially do anything on this one, not even for one of its own..”
“This is why they should have a Zero,” Webb muttered. “Then you’ve got at paid team to do your dirty work.”
“I need someone that knows stealth. Knows systems. Has contacts.”
“And no Service record left to tarnish?”
“Someone with skills and no ties to official channels that might…impede his investigation.”
Webb looked at him. His eyes were narrow and hard again. “And what does this person get out of it?”
Hugo gazed out again over the park, thoughtfully chewing on some rice. “I believe Colonel Hudson would be suitably generous to anyone who helped bring in such a dangerous perpetrator. So long as he was brought in alive to get the evidence we need.”
“What makes you think he’ll talk?”
“We will make him an offer he would be very unwise to refuse.”
Webb’s face darkened. “I’ve explained in some detail to the good colonel before – ”
“There’s one other thing.”
Hugo turned to face the other man. He looked at him until Webb returned his gaze. “I believe the man we’re after may be the same one who…” Hugo faltered, gathered himself. “I believe he’s the man who oversaw your interrogation when you were held by AMP.”
Webb blinked slowly. His jaw had tightened. Then he leant back on the bench, dangerously slow, eyes not breaking contact with Hugo. “Let me get this straight. You’ve come to me because you need someone with Service-level skills but who doesn’t have a nice shiny badge or pressed uniform that could bear getting bloodied up. And my incentive is supposed to be that I’m helping track down the man that pumped me with adrenaline whilst he broke all my fingers, pulled out my hair and sliced off my skin, amongst many other delightful things…and bring him in so you can buy his cooperation with protection from his employers?”
“He won’t walk, Webb.”
“Bullshit,” Webb said, standing and shouldering his bag. “You forget I worked for the Service. I know how it works.”
“Fuck you, Hugo,” he said, turning to go.
“Zeek,” Hugo stood, grabbed his sleeve.
Webb shook him off. “I’ve given you my time and I’ve given you my answer, which is all I agreed to, Hugo. I’m leaving.”
Hugo watched him go without looking back. He looked back at the play ground but it was empty. He slumped back onto the bench. A distant rumble sounded in the metal workings of the colony high above his head. He watched his wrist panel and waited a full fifteen minutes before getting up and following Webb towards the space docks.
The anger still pulsed hot behind Webb’s eyes. He hated it. Hated the helplessness of it. Damn Hugo for bringing all that back up. He punched the commands into his ship’s control panel with more force than was necessary.
“Mark and countdown, Sin,”
“Mark, Control,” Webb muttered in response to his communicator. “Ready to being launch in ten.”
Webb continued his checks, pressuring the hatch, running systems checks and scans. A changed reading on of his scans made him blink, confused and then scowl in anger. He drew his gun. “Show yourself, Hugo.” Hugo came out from the service corridor and into the small cockpit. His kept his hands behind his back and gazed impassively down the barrel of the raised gun. “Get off my ship.”
“You stubborn asshole. Get off my ship, or I’ll shoot you, I swear.”
“And risk a hull breach? You’re many things, Webb, but stupid is not one of them.”
Webb snarled in frustration and lowered the gun. “I’m ten minutes from launch you son of a bitch. Will you get out of my life, already?”
“I just want to talk to you.”
“Sin? Come in Sin. Send your final check results, please.”
Webb ground his teeth, trying to melt Hugo with his glare. When that didn’t work he holstered his weapon with a muttered curse and turned back to the comm. “Will do, Control. Er…I’ve got to late minute addition to the passenger manifest though.”
“Way to go, Webb. You pulled?”
“All due respect, fuck off Control.”
Webb thought he heard a snigger over the comm. “Whatever, Sin. They just better have their ID handy because you’re five minutes to launch.”
Webb glanced over his shoulder and Hugo was nodding, producing a card from his jacket pocket. “He does.” Webb snatched the card from his former captain. “Transmitting now, Control.” Webb swiped the card over his control panel.
“Check. Cameron Bale added to the manifest. Have a good trip, Sin.”
“Starting launch procedures now, Control. Sin, out. You might want to find something to strap into, Bale,” Webb muttered the last to Hugo as he threw his ID back at him.
“Where are we going?”
“I’m going to Tranquillity. You’ll be lucky if I don’t report you as a stowaway and have you arrested when we arrive.” Webb’s hands moved over the controls without him seeing them. The engines started to hum. He saw the docking doors start to open ahead onto the velvety star-pricked blackness of space.
“You’ve already registered me as a passenger,” Hugo pointed out smoothly. Webb wanted to hit him.
They sat in silence as Webb ran the rest of the pre-launch start up and got the engines fired to break the colony’s artificial gravity. The view out of the screen lurched and then stabilised. The glowing numbers on the large panel above the door ran down to zero and Webb pushed the controls forward. Sin eased out of the doors smoothly and then Webb gunned the thrusters to pull them a safe distance from the colony before firing up to full power. The familiar feeling of weightlessness gently rippled through his innards. His shoulders bumped against the harness and his hair floated about his face. He continued punching in commands and Sin turned smoothly through space onto her course.
“It was Marilyn.”
“It was Marilyn,” Hugo repeated. “The Agent they took. She was pregnant.”
Webb swallowed, cold suddenly rising in place of the steady heat of the anger. He looked over at Hugo but Hugo was staring out the viewscreen. “I’m sorry.”
Hugo blinked and met his gaze, eyes unreadable as ever. “They couldn’t save the baby. But they saved her. Physically, anyway.”
Webb looked away. He could sense Hugo hearing the question Webb couldn’t ask. Webb tried to flag up the anger from before but it wouldn’t come. Sin finished turning onto its course and soon the moon hove into view, cold and pale before them.
“I never meant to insult you,” Hugo continued quietly. “I genuinely meant it when I said I needed you for this. You were always better at this sort of thing than me. And I thought you’d like the chance to…you know.”
“I’d like that chance to kill the bastard,” Webb said. “But that’s not what you’re offering me.”
“No it’s not. But it’s the closest thing I can offer. I want to get him, Zeek. Screw what he can give the Service. That’s the Colonel’s agenda. I want to make him answer for what he did. To Marilyn. And to you.”
Webb stared hard out towards the moon. He could see the blinking lights of Tranquillity in the shadow of its crater. The cold he felt sweep through him before was now crawling under every inch of his skin. “I tried to get the scars removed you know,” he said, not knowing why. “Twice. And damned expensive it was too. But my skin is weird…I don’t know. The lasers didn’t work like they should.” He looked up and Hugo was regarding him levelly. “I coped with it. Long ago. I’m over it as much as you can be. But every time I look at the scars, I’m back there. And it’s not the blood or the heat or the pain I remember. It’s the way he smiled.”
Hugo was quiet for a space. Something was flickering deep in his unreadable eyes but whether it was shock, anger or satisfaction Webb couldn’t tell. “So you’ll help me?”
Webb looked back out the view screen. “Yes. I’ll help you. But I can’t promise I’ll let you take him alive.”
“We’ll work on that later,” Hugo said and there was no missing the grim satisfaction in his tone