The beginning of a new cosmic order.



The corporate logo emblazoned at his temples was of intricate design and dazzling color. Iridescent reds and greens and yellows and blues flashed then faded as his head moved in the dim light. He was speaking animatedly about working in zero-G; the vacuum of the void, the burning touch of the raw, untamed Sun, that kind of thing. A handsome crowd of admirers watched with obvious relish. They were gathered as gangsters about a large table, which was sloppy with spilled drinks and overturned glasses, mirrors and blades scattered among the ash trays and smoking butts. He was sitting atop a low, heavily padded couch, a buxom beauty at each knee, and paused occasionally to steal a sip from the glass in his right hand, or to steal a handful of breast with the other. The women giggled and protested, but not too much.

I was close enough now to make out the finer details of his logo. G-Tex. My opinion of him was both raised and lowered in the same instant.

Raised, because G-Tex hired only the best of the best. Lowered, because G-Tex did the worst of the worst with its ample resources. I've heard it said that, if one wasn't working for G-Tex, one just . . . wasn't. Well, I guess I just wasn't, then. But I was there, and that was something. Whatever I might be or might have been, I wasn't riff-raff or pond scum. I had just as much right to be there as he. Only my logo wasn't so colorful, or so artfully illustrated. And it wasn't a G-Tex logo.

Still, we might have purchased our suits from the same tailor, perhaps even cut from the same pattern. His face resembled mine. We were equal of statute and equally broad at hip and shoulder. I might have been his twin.

Yet he didn't pause or take notice as I moved closer and around the table to stand slightly behind and to the right of him. I was close enough at last to get the final detail of his flashing logo. It told me that he held the rank of senior director, and that he worked for the special projects division.

My curiosity was piqued. It was an alarming combination. It said he was the cream of the cream, so to speak. G-Tex hired only the best of the best. And of its own number, only the absolutely perfect were assigned to the special projects division. Even then, to attain the rank of senior director before one was old, wrinkled and impotent was the equivalent of having climbed the razor edged peaks of frozen Calypso without an armored E-suit or even breathing apparatus. Again, my opinion of him was both raised and lowered in the same instant.

I was forced to step back from my initial impression of his boyish features and charm and wonder what sort of monster could hide behind such a pleasing facade. What sort of deviltry had allowed him to climb so high, so quickly? And what was his 'special project'? What was his role in 'directing' it at a senior level? Even as I stepped mentally away from my assessment of his appearance, I found that my unwilling feet also moved back an awkward step, as if repulsed by the raw power flashing from his brilliant logos. Only then did he take notice of my presence.

It was with a quick flash of his hypnotic eyes, that both assessed and disdained in the same movement. He was quick to take in all that I was and would ever be. And quicker to discard me. He would tolerate my presence until he determined my real worth, but it was obvious that I would be nothing more than a shadow at this table surrounded by G-Tex cronies and their associates. All this in a glance, and he was returned to his tales, his drinks, his unbelievably beautiful women.

In the wake of his brief interest, I was left to tremble imperceptibly. My throat worked to swallow, while my hands struggled to hold my glass without betraying my terror.

And I, a grown man. I, a veteran of countless combats on scores of planets. I, that had seen and been and done more in my short life than a dozen old men, I, that had once counted myself a boulder among rocks, I simply stood there and warred with the terror gripping my icy heart. It was a short battle and I won it, in the end, but I felt a moment when the outcome was in question. I felt, for a rare moment, that I should turn and run away from it all, no matter the consequences of abandoning my assignment.

To my credit, however, I didn't run. I took back the step I had surrendered, and then took another. Pretending to sway drunkenly, I leaned close by to catch the scent of him. I recognized his cologne as being both extremely expensive and extremely evocative. It was laced with pheromones patently designed to attract both sexes equally. And I noticed something else from the detail of his logo. A small glyph that lingered behind his 'Special Projects' designation. It resembled a 'Y' with three arms, rather than two, which I recognized as the archaic Greek symbol psi. I took that to be some sort of specific insignia, perhaps marking the esoteric name of his current project, whatever that might be.

Oh, gods, I breathed and leaned away again, feigning intoxication. What sort of assignment was this? I was overcome with a sense of tragic self-pity, for I had been handed my death warrant, as surely as I had been handed my orders. And I had accepted both glibly.

G-Tex, special project Psi. Senior Director (read that 'god'), Sheckeel Lowel. His friends, as my brief reported, called him 'Sheck'.

One called his name even at that moment, perhaps reading my thoughts, and asked for a clarification on just how it felt to be exposed to the abhorrent vacuum. "What was it like, Sheck, when your suit blew that time on Station Seven?" The obvious patronage in the man's voice was disgusting. I nearly retched.

But Sheck lapped it all up like a heady liquor, and didn't seem to care that the man was clearly a boot-lick. With a roar of laughter and a squeeze of each girl's breast, Sheck loped off into his latest adventure with the enthusiasm of an actor replaying a part. For, indeed, that is what he seemed. He related every pitch and yaw of his E-suit as it careened out of control into the lifeless void, flinging him away from Station Seven at an ever increasing rate, borne on the thrust of a jet of gasses escaping from a tiny hole in his suit's outer 'skin'. This way and that he tossed, imitating how he rolled and tumbled, despite his attempts at controlling the thrusters at his back to compensate for the wildly spraying temporary rocket that was the hole near his right foot.

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