Changing the Guard

Long before he could make out the first, thin plume of vapor, Tomi could hear the telltale rumble of the landskimmer's engine—some steam-powered monstrosity from the last century, no doubt lovingly refurbished in a gearhead's basement. Recreational vehicle, then, not that Tomi had the first damn idea why anyone would want to go joyriding across the Arctic tundra.

"Not Arctic, Vuorela," he reminded himself with a huff of a laugh. His breath clouded the air for a moment, and he dragged his scarf up over his nose. "You're not in Lapland anymore."

He could see the landskimmer now, if he dimmed his goggles to cut down on the glare—or he could see the way the sun struck its carapace, glittering in the distance like the sharp edge of a knife. The air was still, dry and cold enough to burn off the steam from the exhaust pipes. "Tomi Vuorela, calling to report a recreational skimmer traveling north-northeast along the datalink ridges," he said into his comm. "The pilot's on an intercept course with the remote access node. Should I send a round over his head to scare him off?"

"Nah," said Hietala's voice, and even through the crackle of the commlink, Tomi could hear that he was laughing. "It's probably one of the engineers from the server core looking for a refuel. Just plug him in and send him—"

"Negative," Tomi cut in. "It's not an electric skimmer. Steam-powered. Old model—bet you can hear the engine."

"I can't hear a damn thing over this static," replied Hietala. "Look, recreational vehicles aren't our problem, Vuorela. Unless he's trying to crash the node, just give him a fucking cup of hot chocolate and send him on his way, and don't bother me with this again."

"Fucking cup of hot chocolate. Right on it, sir," Tomi said, and he rung off before Hietala could come back at him with some smart-ass reply. Talking to himself was bad enough; if Tomi started hitting up Hietala for company, he'd pack it in and hop the next ship for Terra.

Half the staff on IntelServ were Finns, and anyone who thought that made them friendly didn't know Finns too well.

Over the distant hills, the old-fashioned skimmer chugged along like a fat, little seabird. Definitely on an intercept course, which wasn't surprising. The node was the only above-ground human structure for miles. The antenna had a great damn blinking red light on top so the delivery skimmers could spot it. Or so went the conventional wisdom, but it wasn't like they were going to miss the only damn building above the polar circle.

Back at Equatorial, where the summers got nearly as warm as they did in Helsinki, they had a little joke they liked to tell the new guys. They said you got sent to guard the remote access node when Command decided you needed a cool down—except it wasn't a joke, and the outpost was cold as a witch's tit.

Tomi keyed in the hailing frequency, bringing the comm up to his scarf again. "Access node to landskimmer; identify yourself, landskimmer." When he didn't get an answer, he switched from Finnish to Mandarin, and then tried again in English—and at that, the commlink crackled to life.

"Harper," came a voice through the commlink, so crisp and clear that Tomi nearly startled at the clarity of it. Too used to talking with the bastards at the equator, he thought. Too used to static. "Andile Harper, mechanical engineer. Coming up to service the access node; clear me for docking, will you?"

"There's no service on the schedule," said Tomi, but Harper must've been expecting that, because he broke in almost at once.

"There's some kind of connection problem on this continent, so they sent me to run a diagnostic from the node. Flew me in all the way from Terra, and that was a hop—but you know all about the flight from Terra, right, Mister...?"

"Officer Vuorela," Tomi answered. "Just dock and run your diagnostic, and we'll see if we can fix the connection."

Tomi unshouldered his plasma rifle and slung an old-fashioned pistol belt around his hips. Andile Harper, he thought as he keyed in the docking codes and descended the stairs. If that's really your name. The guy they supposedly shipped all the way from fucking Terra, just to run a diagnostic. I don't know if you're from Terra, but you don't have the first damn idea how we do things on IntelServ.