The Danger Zone, Part I

Steam hissed through pipes around the massive platform, struggling to cool the air as the last vehicles of the convoy pulled into position.  The gloom of the gigantic chamber gave the impression of everlasting night, despite the struggling halogen bulbs far overhead.  Men in camouflage uniforms were rushing around.  They walked with a sense of self-importance that went beyond the sidearms strapped to their waists, and in many cases the larger and heavier-looking weapons slung over shoulders or across the back.

Standing in the midst of this activity, I did my best to stay out of the way.  Men with chiseled faces and stern frowns were double-checking a hundred different things on the heavy vehicles; tire pressure, ammunition loading belts, piston pressure gauges, ammunition reservoirs, and other systems that I couldn’t even name.  I couldn’t recall another time when I had felt so out of place.

A week ago, I recalled, I hadn’t been this nervous.  Indeed, I had been ecstatic – I was, as far as I could find, the very first researcher to be given permission to ride along on a subspace transport convoy.  Or, as the mercenaries I interviewed called it, the “danger zone.”

As an academic researcher, fieldwork was always highly coveted, and subspace was the Holy Grail – an entirely new dimension, only recently discovered and still barely understood.  Private interests, namely the Actinide Shipping Corporation, had been quick to purchase patents on the access machinery, and they now held absolute control over what passed through subspace, using the rapid transportation to rapidly grow into one of the most powerful companies in existence.

Of course, the one commodity that Actinide couldn’t control was information, and rumors quickly spread about subspace.  Mysterious lifeforms, unusual materials, and strange messages were all claimed to exist inside subspace.  Some anonymous sources even insisted on the internet that entire ecosystems existed inside this dimension, disturbing and unusual beyond our wildest imaginations.  Nothing was verified, of course, and the Actinide Shipping Corporation regularly issued blanket denials to all such rumors.  If anything, however, this only increased their prevalence.

It didn’t help that Actinide chose to offer relatively few subspace transport options, usually citing the cost of activating portals as the main reason.  They also hired some of the toughest mercenaries in known space, battle-hardened men and women who seemed more likely to be found in a war zone than working for an import/export company.  These men were fearless, emotionless, and, as I had found in my attempts to gather more information about subspace, unwilling to break the terms of their non-disclosure agreements.  But now, I would finally have the chance to see what I had been questing after!

My mental monologue was interrupted by my name, ringing out in a gravelly voice over the sounds of mechanical adjustments.  I turned, and found myself face to face with a tall and imposing man.  I guessed that he had to be in at least his sixties from the gray in his hair and the deep-set lines on his face, but his head was still buzzed and he carried himself like a trained killer.  Several stripes decorated each shoulder, and he was clearly in charge.  He glared down at me as he approached, regarding me much the way that one would regard a particularly unpleasant insect that was about to encounter the heel of a boot.

“You’re the nerd,” he said.  It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes, I’m a graduate researcher at MIT, working on possible practical applications for subspace travel in regards to-” I began, but the man clearly wasn’t interested.  A short wave of his hand cut me off.

“You’re a goddamn bureaucratic nuisance, is what you are,” he interrupted.  “And you sure as shit don’t know much about subspace, or you’d never have volunteered to go on this fool’s errand.”

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