Author: Cartesia

Chapter 2

The cab.

      It pulled off the sky rail approximately ten minutes later and docked into the nub terminus, a saucer shaped construct resting on the organo bulk of the transceiver power station, its gently domed roof covered with a garden of sub-tropical bio fauna, much of it non-indigenous. About fifty sky rails entered the server, all converging on one platform where cabs were forced to queue in packs of four to deposit their passengers. Personal cabs and buses docked at a different platform, their passengers able to make the transition from cab to nub with minimal delay.

      As Luth disembarked he noticed the majority of bus transers seemed to be Terrans, dressed in simple, loose fitting garb. Earth fashion; colourless and inoffensive, bland but obviously expensive. There was probably a vocational admin centre nearby. Most of them looked human, though these days you never could tell.

      Security details lurked on the sidelines, watching the Terrans hawkishly. They were largely cosmetic, particularly out here in the nubs. Luth doubted any of them knew how to handle a weapon correctly.

      Like most of the transitory passengers emerging from cabs, Luth was ignored by the watchful eye of security. Just another Galactic visitor exploring the biosphere. Only when he reached the iNet gate would his true nature be revealed. It caused him only a slight delay on the inward journey, so he had no reason to assume anything worse on the way out. How wrong that assumption would turn out to be.

      The two platforms opened directly into a main lobby serving a compact but busy space crowded with travellers and synths. As Luth made his way across the concourse, heading for the nearest iNet gate, the crowd jostled him.

      “Shit. Sumiteru!” Luth ducked behind a thickly veined organo trunk, its spreading branches merging into the domed roof above. He pushed his back against the column, eyes sliding sideways. He watched as the Shensu sauntered by, stood for a moment with her back to Luth, then stepped once more into the crowd. She was tall, lithe and barely clad in a figure hugging blue outfit, her fiery red hair flowing over bare shoulders, her wide, piercing eyes scanning the crowd. On her back were two sheathed kanji, hilts fashioned to resemble two samurai in full battle dress, etched with the fighting spirit heiroglyphs. At her hip, a tarantula class ordnance cap, capable of firing anything from hollow tips to explosive napalm rounds.

      “Did you see that? Damn.”

      “The Shensu, Kokin Wakashu Pergay,” the simpad’s intelligent stealth mated audio directly with Luth’s cortex relay. In turn, Luth’s otherwise inaudible whispers were transmitted by the same relay. The closest thing to telepathy there was.

      “Can you confirm Sumi?... Admittedly, I haven’t seen her in five years.”

      “Yes. I can confirm to within a ninety nine point nine nine nine nine percent threshold. Facegrid matches. There is, of course, the negligible potential for coincidence or error.”

      “Speculate,” Luth slid away from the trunk and continued toward the gate, his pace quicker than before. “is she here for me, or has the contract run its course? Can you give me a likelihood threshold?”

      “I can, Luth.”

      “Go ahead?”

      “I don’t think you want to hear it.”

      “I figured as much.”

      Glancing over his shoulder every now and then, Luth approached the nearest security portal and the iNet gate.



In 2346, the Gestalt biosphere implemented the first subnet flash between Earth and Jupiter triggering an exponential spread of the Galactic Stem Plexus. GSP as an innovation, iNet as a Gestalt patent.

      The modern Plexus contained more than six hundred locational spheres, each furnished with a central hub, numerous radial traffic servers and, in most cases, hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of peripheral nubs. More were emerging into the network every day.

      When he utilised iNet, the transer relied upon the existence of a theoretical no-man's land, an inner space between one point and any location within the corporeal universe, to carry him to his destination. A concept commonly referred to as subether transmission.

      The prominent physicist and mathematician Max Dyer theorised in his ground breaking thesis of 2234 that if a singularity beyond the event horizon of a black hole represented the pure incarnation of the numeral one, then some cosmic or quantum parallel must represent zero with the same level of perfection. Dyer’s subsequent work in zero mathematics, a study of the sub-decimal system or infinitesimal physics, altered the thinking of a generation. From Dyer’s initial model came an innovation of thought: that in fact there was no cosmic or quantum parallel, but an entirely new strata to pluralism which, in its essence, would prove to unify the schism of accepted science and change the face of human civilisation forever.

      The quantum mechanics of inner space and the Einsteinian laws of atomic space were irrevocably locked in a constant tussle of contradiction, one face of the coin disproving the logic of its flip side, while the flip side refused to acknowledge itself as anything other than a one sided coin inhabiting multitudinous coordinates in space. Infinitesimal physics separated both sides and focused instead on the edge of the coin. Not, then, a unifying theory of everything, but a connection clamping the two into one all encompassing reality.

      The third law of physics as evoked by Dyer covered both physical space, time and quantum mechanics, but was uniquely anti-monistic in its conception. Dyer suggested that the universe was a cosmo-organic entity, space and natural chronology merged into an inseparable flesh, hierarchically structured and cyclic in nature. The universe, Dyer maintained, was not an expanding sphere. Nor should it be represented in a conventionally spherical manner but as a circle pinched to resemble a figure eight, and crucially – at least for the manifest perception of the human consciousness - the eight should be lying upon its side.

      The left eyelet of the eight represented the greater cosmos, the physical, observable, quantifiable universe. The right represented inner space, the spookiness of quantum mechanics and the controversy of everything to its left. The two eyelets were separated by the crossover, or vertex, of the cycle and here, Dyer theorised, lay the proverbial zero. A meeting point of cross roads, separating the manifestation of two existing realities while simultaneously knitting them together as one.

      Dyer’s studies resulted in the experimental verification of the subether; a formless, fathomless and invisible quantum membrane stretching at once over the entire space/time fabric of our own universe, simultaneously smaller than the decimal point of a singularity and vast as the universe itself. His discovery won him the Nobel prize and opened the way for an entirely new era in communications, subether transmission and, long after Dyer’s death, transportation and space exploration; the creation of GSP.

      Before GSP, scientists had theorised that television or radio signals might pass through the subether using a relatively low energy outlay, creating a superluminal method of beaming information from one place to another within the cosmos. This theory led in turn to the creation of the Universally Synchronized Ether Relay Network and Ecumenical Telecommunicator, or Usernet, and later implementation of subether channels, or subnet, using conventional broadband, fibre optics and radio waves.

      Only within the last two centuries, with the emergence of the Gestalt intelligence and its subsequent computing power, had  the subether as a mode of transport and a means to Galactic expansionism become a feasible possibility.

      The subether had no dimension and therefore no gravity, time or specific coordinates relative to actual space. Thus the traveller could use it to move between two chosen coordinates instantaneously. At no point in the process did the traveller truly enter the subether, he merely slid across the horizon of both points, using the mechanics of infinitesimal physics to do so.

      Without spatial dimension matter, mass, light and time ceased to exist. And yet because experimentation indicated the subether’s presence; because the infinitesimal zero was proven to be there - the pinch in the symbolic figure of eight, the ticking down of all decimal places to a neutral state of void – the subether was determined to exist.

      And exist it did, in the same way that the threshold between one side of a doorway and the other exists. And, like the threshold, the subether could be crossed.

      The logistical process started with a flash, a complex conglomeration of events which concluded with the simple passage of a passenger gondola from one station to another. The conglomeration started with a scheduled flash request from a sphere archetype – an artificial super-intellect - sent through Usernet. The request prompted the stabilising of three Einstein-Rosen bridge wormholes (a triplex) within one of two dedicated particle accelerators; for Earth this meant either the Vast Saturnian Collider (VSC), which used Saturn’s rings as a colossal electromagnet and Saturn herself as a mega transceiver; or the less innovative but larger Mjolliner Accelerating Donut (MAD), a truly Olympian transceiver construct in the Orion nebula.

      The first hole was contained and macro morphed using an initial base load, a huge inverse energy investment paid into the subether. The investment usually came in somewhere between one point zero one and one point zero two petawatts depending on the mass load intended for transportation.

      The exit point opened at the relevant receiving station where a transceiver would tether itself to the bridge by accepting the subether charge. The second and third wormholes would then be transferred through the first which decayed naturally as soon as transfer was complete.

      The second wormhole was then macro morphed using the charge stored in the station transceiver. The destination tethered itself to the newly formed bridge by accepting the inverse charge and the iNet connection was forged.

      A passenger gondola or freight cab would then travel, along with the third wormhole, to the destination station. At destination the inverse charge would be spent on macro morphing the final wormhole and the original accelerator would accept the charge, refuelling its own transceiver in preparation for the next flash request.

      The flash occurred, from start to finish, in less than ten seconds with the simultaneous investment and acceptance of the same recycled inverse energy packet occurring at precisely the same point in universal synchronicity on both sides of the bridge, but offset between payments by point zero one of a second. The majority of lag occurred with the physical process of standard momentum, the gondola accelerating as quickly as its passengers’ physiologies could comfortably stand.

      Base loads were sourced by the accelerators which exploited the proto mass in planetary nebula or converted moons and established planetary systems into raw energy. These packets, often erroneously assumed to be the main ingredient in a flash, were in constant motion, see-sawing back and forth between iNet transceivers and the two accelerators. Over time they decayed, but costs involved in topping up the loss were negligible compared with the raw, energy rich material available to the universally roving accelerator nanites. Available to Earth, there were four such packets, constantly recycling across the mega-gulf of Galactic space.

      At the microscopic level – easily achieved without vast energy input - the infinitesimal pinch of the bridge represented the neutral state of the wormhole, a form of quantum string through which waveband radio could freely pass.

      Signals passing through the bridge were transmitted to every point in time and space, expanding to become an undetectable white noise which roared from the moment of the Big Bang to the end of time. Early 21st century radio astronomers had mistaken this white noise for natural background radiation, little realising they were listening in on the infinitely stretched signals of every Usernet conversation ever conducted, spanning from the inception of subnet to the final broadcast (whenever that might occur).

      Receiver equipment condensed the digital signal and sifted through, searching for a singular broadcast package with an accompanying audio string known as a simcom. Upon locating the signal, the equipment would then extract and recover the package, decrypting and resolving the garbled result into its original form.

      Subnet contained an inconceivable cacophony of signals, all jumbled together and condensed by foundation receivers as a single, illegible blast of noise. This made human or standard computational resolution of individual messages a physical impossibility. Only the most sensitive organo tech could provide enough processing smarts to untangle the mess. A device called the simpad.

      Another contrivance of Gestalt ingenuity, the simpad worked by swapping with each sim in its personally cleared list of safe communicators, or simfriends, a conventional but highly secure digital code, sent through normal space, a one-off process requiring physical proximity within a range of at least forty thousand kilometres. The code contained a unique encryption string, some billion integers in length, which the simfriend would use along with simple chronology to extract incoming messages from the general subnet din.

      Communication was conceivably instantaneous, but only if the receiving simfriend was aware of an incoming message and its precise time of transmission, a situation typical, for example, of inter-archetype communication and the scheduling of iNet flashes. Otherwise the simpad simply scanned the subnet on a regular basis, once every couple of seconds, searching for encrypted strings containing its own code and any respective time stamps. In accordance with the Gestalt Covenant for the Prevention of Paradox, simpads were unable to source random time stamps or unencrypted chatter, preventing clients from accessing messages from the future. All comms from the past, of course, remained accessible, the timeless and ultimately secure nature of the subnet providing a useful alternative to the unreliable matter storage otherwise required for holding archived data.

      Usernet costs, in terms of resource application and local funding were relatively economical. Most spheres contained one or two primary level subnet gates, with a network of conventional fibre optic and digital relays in between. Most of the cost associated with comms came from the maintenance of these networks and not the creation of the gates.

      The mass transport infrastructure of iNet, by comparison, was extraordinarily expensive. The sourcing of material for conversion to base load and the hideously complex scheduling of flash packets were beyond the means and economic capabilities of man. Only with a system as infallible as Gestalt could iNet operate safely and efficiently.

      Compared with former methods of interplanetary and interstellar travel, iNet proved to be comfortable, quick and easily within the ration restrictions of most transers. The perfect solution to the Galactic segregation crisis and a scientifically elegant method of transporting humans from one side of the Galactic to the other.

      Seasoned travellers like Luth didn’t see it this way, however. His opinion matched that of most transers; that iNet was outmoded, slow and inefficient. An uncomfortable way of getting from A to Z. The reliance on flashes invariably entailed long delays while sphere archetypes compared traffic notes and attempted to untangle snarls in the system. Flashes were also limited, which meant endless queues and, during commuter periods, intolerable spells of inactivity stuck in some backwater server crammed shoulder to shoulder with crumpled grey suits, body odour and rising tension.

      Freight took priority and, though the transer had access to predetermined trade flash schedules, if he had no choice but to travel during a trade period he probably faced days of frustration, or worse. If he found himself at hub level the archetype might simply divert him as part of heavy traffic to a different hub in order to free up space. The unsuspecting transer could find himself shunted to the far end of the Galactic arms, or thrown deep into the densely packed Black-Hole community at the heart of the galaxy. To the more adventurous transer, these diversions might prove interesting, a good excuse to see some spectacular starscapes and take in some localised culture. To most, and especially to the Galactic commuter, they were an inconvenience. Curiously, the commuters were least vociferous in their complaint. Recognised Galactically as being the most calm and centred of humans, they were widely respected for their composure in the face of generally intolerable iNet delays. There were those who believed prolonged exposure to iNet caused such shifts in natural human temperament. Others simply identified the calming influence of steady employment and a strong social network as responsible factors.

      The two mouths of a bridge occupied the same point in space and time, separated only by the threshold of the subether. So the inconceivable distances involved in archetype diversions had no relativity effect on the transer. Travel between servers was superluminal, therefore time passed according to local chronology and never deviated from sub-relative universal synchronicity. The two way ticket returned the transer to the same place, with no dilation effects other than time delays associated with the intervening stopover and a cursory dilation caused by the age of the wormhole itself, never more than point zero one to point zero two of a second.

      Compare this with conventional propulsion and velocity travel at near light speeds (light speed itself remaining a physical impossibility) which caused such enormous time dilation effects and were so slow that some of the long distance ark expeditions of the 23rd and 24th centuries were still underway (the destination systems already populated in many cases by transe colonists) and it was easy to see why transing had replaced most traditional modes of transport.

      The absence of relativity had no effect whatsoever on the physiology of the transer, but raised plenty of problems for those construction crews responsible for planning exo-Gestalt aspects of the iNet plexus. The observable universe, the light from which was subject to the laws of relativity and which did reach humanity hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe millions of years after embarking from source, bore little relation to the actual universe of sub-relative synchronicity. The stars observed and charted from the surface of Earth were merely an old snapshot, centuries out of date. Unreliable as medieval maps.

      It was a problem the man sitting opposite Luth seemed eager to explain. “You can’t rely on hub archetype synchronicity because the archetype can only observe a proportion of the Galactic, even as a collective eye, and even then there’s nominal time dilation. Anyway, most of the archetypes don’t take kindly to handing information over to intel. As for us, we just haven’t colonised enough space yet. And the whole thing is constantly on the move. Nor can you rely on digital evaluations or CP extrapolations of universal motion. There are just too many variables. We can only go by the images we have, and even 26th century observations can’t determine the precise movement of every single astronomical body. There’s stuff out there we just can’t see with any degree of accuracy. Solutions reduce defray, and with the current industry rations... well, let’s just say the expansionist programme is grinding to a halt.”

      “Sounds like a problem,” Luth nodded politely and sipped from the cup of rapidly cooling coffee. Expansionism grinding to a halt sounded okay to him. There were already too many people cluttering up the Galactic.

      This guy was leading up to something, Luth could tell. Requests for charity by the sound of it. Was he for real, Luth wondered, or was he some kind of Terran bum, intelligently homeless and possessing of a sophisticated sob story? Regardless, something didn’t sit right, but so far Luth was willing to give his uninvited company the benefit of the doubt. At best, eccentric vocationist, at worst delusional maniac who thought he worked for Triumviral Astrocartography. So long as he didn’t pull a knife, Luth was content to let him ramble. Besides, Pergay would be looking for a lone target.

      He’d already checked the gates. The earliest flash to a traffic server would occur in twenty two minutes. Time enough for some breakfast in one of the nub’s neat little cafes. He’d chosen a seat outside the quietest eatery under a pointless awning (since the whole server was already under cover). The would-be astrocartographer had taken the seat opposite a few minutes later, wolfing down a savoury Spanish pita and sipping iced tea while lamenting on the more irritating nuances of his profession, real or otherwise.

      The man’s name, already announced, was Sedric Klinkenborg. He was overweight, out of breath, ruddy cheeked and full of shallow self importance. His voice was ever so slightly louder than necessary, in order, Luth guessed, to ensure every word he said reached the cafe’s other patrons, none of whom looked any more interested than Luth. Lucky for them they weren’t sitting in front of the guy. His constant barrage of chatter was probably disturbing their breakfast, but at least they were missing the experience of his breath.

      “You heard of the doomsday scenario?”

      “Can’t say that I have.”

      “A supernova, equal energy burst to an inverse package, both happen simultaneously. You know what happens if you accidentally macro a bridge in the middle of an exploding star?”

      Luth shrugged and peered at the man over the rim of his coffee cup, “I imagine the result would be... diverting?”

      “So much more, my friend. Gravitational collapse. An inverse magnetospheric implosion! Instantaneous energy  payment into the subether, received by the transceiver at the precise moment of injection! Two inverse payments hitting each other on the down slope with nowhere to go.”

      “Sounds bad.”

      “Forget about it! It’s a doomsday scenario. The subether touches every coordinate in space and time. So you’re looking at the whole universe from start to finish. Pop. Up in smoke. Or the particle based equivalent. Now imagine some radical insurgent group actually doing it on purpose. Scary huh?”

      Luth’s eyes were constantly roving, on the look out for the Shensu. He’d watched the vicious bitch leave in a cab, knew she was probably miles away by now, no doubt heading for Luth’s habitat. When she found the place deserted she’d do the math and head back to the nub. Then again, Luth was pretty sure he’d left no trace of his own movements or intentions in the habitat. Maybe he’d get lucky and Pergay would lose the trail. His eyes continued to slide nervously around the complex.

      Sumiteru, or more precisely the cortex relay, chimed. “Sorry to interrupt your conversation Luth. The flash for Main Line Espana will occur in fifteen minutes. You should probably set off now as security procedures may take anything up to ten minutes.”

      “You’ll excuse me,” Luth rose from his seat, bowing slightly to the overweight cartographer/lunatic, whose jowly face followed Luth’s progress from seat to feet.

      “I didn’t catch your name there.”

      “Schmidt,” Luth lied, “Fulov Schmidt. Russian sphere.” A cheap shot, he knew. But the name request had been abrupt. Out of synch with the previously diffuse maundering. Anyway, someone with a name like Klinkenborg would never spot the joke. Sure enough, Klinkenborg nodded and smiled naively. “Transe safely Schmidt.” Was Luth imagining it, or was there a hint of disappointment?

      “Yeah. Likewise.”

      Luth strode across the fairly quiet concourse, still glancing from side to side, hand hovering instinctively near the hip case where he usually stowed his speedloader.

      Smart move that. Checking in his only weapon then crossing paths with Pergay. Couldn’t be helped. He’d already spent five days untangling the licensed-weapon-in-cargo formwork on the Mystow, which was good to go for so long as he subscribed. There was no sense going through the same harassment at some small time traffic server and, naturally, he hadn’t anticipated the need for small arms. Particularly as Gestalt was known to command the most secure sphere in the Galactic. Luth hadn’t anticipated roaming assassins and psyche-addled astrocartographers. At least not until he reached Jupiter Station which would, hopefully, have its own public access trunks and, with luck, a little more security.

      Nub terminals, comprising the outermost or ultimate ring of a sphere, dovetailed only with the secondary or penultimate ring of traffic servers and had no direct connection whatsoever with its own or any other hub. As such, in most spheres, nub security measures were minimal. A single latchkey manned by synth or human guard details and only on the departure gates. Arrivals tended to enter the nub freely. More latchkeys, plus additional security checks called flintlocks would occur at traffic servers, ensuring no substantial threat made it into the highly secure core level, or hub.

      Things were different on Earth where a mixture of human insecurity and Gestalt’s tendency to over protect those humans in her charge fashioned a constant level of heightened paranoia. Here every nub had a manned latchkey on both departure and arrival gates, with five automated flintlocks at server level. Only saints, politicians and the infinitely powerful accessed hub level. Unless, of course, you happened to have access to someone like Deringer. In which case you simply bought yourself political amnesty and strolled through unmolested.

      Luth approached the armed guard at the latchkey, a military class synth. The guard’s head tilted slightly as his visor performed a perfunctory facegrid check and made a preliminary ID on Luth. Luth ignored the guard, removed Sumiteru from his harness and snapped the simpad into position on the portal dock. The guard’s head jerked suddenly and levelled the stutter rifle cradled in his arms in Luth’s direction, aiming from the hip. Sumiteru had probably communicated Luth’s actual classification at the same time as the facegrid made its ID. The guard’s visor would be flashing a stream of alerts by now.

      “Credenciales por favor,” the guard held out a hand, his heavily accented Spanish muffled behind the visor. A nearby security detail composed of five stern looking uniformed officers glanced toward the gate. The same firework display of alerts would be appearing in their visors too.

      “Anglo?” Luth requested.

      “Anglo. Very well. Credentials please.”

      Luth sighed and produced the necessary documents, animated with the OHQ logo. The guard remained sentinel for a moment, his visor zooming in on the logo and verifying its authenticity. Finally he lowered his weapon and took the document, tapping various links with his fingertip, his face turned down and away from Luth. “You are agent.” A statement, not a question. “Do you have a weapon to declare?” The guard handed the document back and Luth folded it away.

      “No. Just travelling, not working. No weapon.”

      “Proceed,” the guard gestured and Luth started to squeeze himself through the kissing gate, unsnapping Sumiteru along the way.

      “Alto! Stop!” this time the guard moved with purpose and instead of aiming from the hip hefted his rifle to shoulder level, synchronising line of sight with the barrel of the weapon, feet planted apart.

      Luth stared into the black muzzle and raised his hands. The guard nodded, “you are carrying a weapon.”

      “No sir,” Luth stammered, genuinely surprised. “Seriously. You’re wrong.” Even as he said it, he knew that somehow he was carrying. This was Earth. Tech here was Gestalt engineered organo, intelligent super-polymer, impervious and infallible. That applied to everything from the guard’s visor, to his gun to the shoes on his feet and the feet in the shoes. It also applied to whichever detection unit had found Luth to be armed. He glanced around, looking for sensors.

      “Keep your hands where I can see them! Make no sudden movements.” the guard was immobile, at one with his weapon. Behind him the five strong security detail were hastening across. On the nub concourse, transers had stopped to watch.

      The uniformed officers, also synth, flanked Luth and set up a barrier between the portal and the public. All were armed now, carrying the kind of prods used in riot control. The nearest officer holstered his own prod and glanced at visor. “Es él llevar?”

      “Sí. Arma sin declarar. Bolsillo interior. Aseméjese al snub. Se guardan. él es una policía OHQ. Es Anglo.”

      “OHQ Agent?” the officer frowned as he patted the side of Luth’s travel coat. “You are a little out of your territory sir?” He reached into the pocket and removed a small machine pistol, a Baxter snub by the looks of it. Luth stared at the gun. His cortex relay chimed. Sumiteru. “I didn’t detect it Luth. Must have a negative mass core. Extrapolation suggests it was most likely planted when we bumped into those men upon entering the nub concourse.”

      “I’m...” Luth knew how ludicrous this would sound, “on holiday.”

      The officers exchanged a look. “Fiesta?” One of them started to laugh. “Falso grande!”

      From behind them one of the others held up a hand, not to Luth but to somebody approaching from the concourse, “lo seinto senior. Esta latchkey es cerrado temporal.”

      “The flash I need to catch is scheduled for five minutes from now and you’re blocking the departure gate,” came a fairly reasonable complaint. Luth couldn’t see the speaker, but he thought he recognised the voice.

      “We have a slight security problem,” the guard switched to modern English. “There is nothing to worry about, senior. If you...” a grunt, deep from within the officer’s chest, and he crumpled to the floor. Visor turned instinctively, the rifle turning with him, the hefty stock pivoting on its cantilever, a perfect ballet of machine and synth ending in a short, sharp blast of noise and an exhaust of spent jackets.

      The target, Sedric Klinkenborg, ducked under the rounds with athleticism unbefitting a man of his size and evident health, or lack thereof. As he rose from the crouch his hand came up, precisely angled at the wrist, the full force of his entire body driving the palm into visor’s face, lifting him off his feet, while the other hand grasped the stutter rifle and yanked it sideways. The guard’s finger twitched as it departed the trigger housing and a second burst fired abruptly, skimming the side of Klinkenborg’s head, spinning him away. Some rounds had gone wide as the gun slipped out of visor’s grip. Some way out across the concourse a group of spectators erupted blood and fell apart. Then screams and a general scattering of feet. Visor hit the floor, blood pouring from the base of his helmet. Sedric, recovering his balance, watched the guard drop and threw the rifle to one side. It span a surprising distance before shattering against the concourse wall.

      The other officers, trained for surveillance, customer liaison, troubleshooting and the kind of low brow situations a small terminal like Espana probably attracted, were ill prepared to deal with this sudden explosion of violence. The one with Luth’s snub made an empty gesture, lifting the weapon as if to fire. Sedric dealt with him first, then the others, at one point using the bulk of the first officer’s body to block their feeble attempts with the riot prods. Once down and incapacitated they were at his mercy.

      Luth felt inclined to step in. “Stop!”

      Sedric glanced over his shoulder in a semi-stoop, one of the officer’s arms pinioned at an alarming angle between the big man’s hands. Sedric’s face had taken a fragmenting stutter flechette at point blank range. Most people would have no head, very little torso remaining. In Sedric’s case, the left side of his jowls and cheek were gone, displaying the aggregated diamond endoskull of a ninja class synthetic.

      “So what was all that astrocartography stuff?” Luth moved away, his backside touching the barrier which was now firmly locked. Beyond the synth and his prone victims, the concourse had emptied... quickly. A few satchels and other items of debris were abandoned where they stood. The dead transers were so much warm meat steaming in a gradually expanding lake of red. They were gone. But there would still be suffering in that small corner of the nub. Simpads screaming for their lost owners.

      “My name is Woodrow.” His reply was quick-fire, matching the pulse of recent events. “I’m OHQ. Bodyguard detail. For you. The astrocartography was just a cover. Not a very good one I admit but the best I could come up with at short notice – I’d been reading media in the nanoloom catalogue. Astrocartography stuff. Then I spotted you. I was sure it was you, but the facegrid didn’t match the details I have. Nothing matched the details I have.” he gave Luth a puzzled look, starting from the feet and ending with the head. “I needed to check but didn’t want to blow my cover. You’re good. I’ll give you that. Quite a disguise. Schmidt huh?”

      “The facegrid wouldn’t...” Luth shook his head. “I’m incognito. Long story. Bodyguard?”

       “We knew you were being set up. We just didn’t know how or when.” Woodrow gazed at the dead transers. “We should leave. You’re being tracked, you know that right? Two Shensu.”

      “Yeah, I know. I’ve seen one. His name’s Conner Pergay. Nasty piece of Guild hardware.”

      “They’ve made progress then. Last I knew they were looking in the wrong sphere. You killed this Pergay?”

      “No. He didn’t see me. I hid. Please let that guy go. He’s out of it and there’s really no sense in killing everybody is there?”

      “Very well.” Woodrow released the officer who slumped to the floor, eyes closed. Luth guessed he was faking, but didn’t blame him. Woodrow dipped down with that same unlikely dexterity and scooped up the snub, seemed to think better of it at the last minute and let the weapon slip through his fingers. “Let’s go.”

      “No offence,” Luth said as the synth waded past him and smashed effortlessly through the kissing gate, bars of organo clattering across the floor, “but that wasn’t exactly subtle. We’re pretty much fucked now. Our facegrid will be on every security detail from here to Galactic Central. Mine won’t match anything on record, which will make me public enemy number one for sure. We might make it to the secondary ring of this sphere, but beyond that we’re dead in the water. This is Earth. You can’t just go around killing people.”

      “Technically, the guard killed those people, so I’m still within the legal framework. The officers I damaged will recover. And there are means of avoiding detection. I’m fully trained.”

      “I noticed.” Judging by the moves, the subterfuge, the smart ass answers, Woodrow was ninja class. Sentient and highly skilled in combat, but not Guild, so no Imperial restrictions. It made him dangerous and probably unpredictable. “You know I have an appointment on Jupiter station at 1800? If I miss it I’m dead, which means you’ll have a lot of questions to answer.” Woodrow didn’t respond. “Does that... hurt?”

      “My face? No. But it might cause a few looks when we reach Main Line. I’ll tell folks it’s the new Galactic fashion.”

      They entered the area beyond, deserted but for a single synth concierge, ingénue class. He alone seemed unmoved by Woodrow’s assault and ruined face. Everyone else was long gone. At first the ingénue attempted to guide them gently toward the departure gate. When it became clear they were going to run the whole way and probably ignore him in the process he increased his own speed and kept pace like some kind of bionic stalker. With the rest of his crew gone, it seemed he intended to fulfil as many functions as he could.

      They emerged from an L shaped corridor into the gate itself. In front of them was a sleek looking twenty person gondola, its tiled chassis shining beneath an array of spots, its bulk suspended on the end of a short sky rail. The other end of the rail finished at huge circular doors, closed upon transceiver pincers beyond and the point at which the bridge would appear. When the flash occurred the gondola would already be inside the gate, its passengers protected from radiation and heat by the vehicle’s non conductive skin, fifty two centimetres of Kevlar clay shielded on the outside by a further twenty centimetres of ablative ceramic. High spec life sups within the gondola were supposed to ensure a comfortable ride. In most parts of the Galactic, these support systems were rarely reliable and either temperature, noise levels or air quality would be compromised. Recycled body odour and tropical conditions. Earth, of course, was different.

      The concierge, ahead of them now, gestured politely as he stood alongside the embarkation ramp. Luth paid him little heed. Ingénue meant minimal stock-level sentience, little to no smarts. Luth could tell by the blue on blue eyes, the sheeny skin and the dazed, stupidly happy expression. A walking, talking mannequin and Luth was savvy enough not to be fooled by the human face. “Mind the step gentlemen. A safe transe to you both. Departure in approximately three minutes and fifty seconds to Main Line Espana traffic server.”

      Once established within the gondola they stowed their packs in the chunky overhead compartment, pulled on harnesses and settled back into their seats. The concierge stepped in with them and closed the ramp. Evidently the steward had jumped ship. “Just us today gentlemen. Unusually quiet for some reason.” The ingénue passed to the front of the vehicle and the gondola’s regulator where he proceeded to adjust ballast to match the altered weight of the cab. The mass had to be precisely equal to that covered by the flash investment. As passengers embarked, so the concierge would deploy ballast respectively and recalibrate mass accordingly. They could hear the muffled thud of the ballast uncoupling near the back of the vehicle.

      “Sedric,” Luth turned to look at the ninja and winced. He could see the full extent of the injury now. One marble-like eye, popping out of its socket, revolved to regard him in the sparkling aggregate of the exposed skull. “You don’t mind if I call you that do you? Its just I associate Sedric with a nice, albeit  irritating astrocartographer from Orion Nine while the guy I associate with Woodrow only has half a face, kills people for a living and scares the living shit out of me.”

      “I’d prefer Woodrow.”

      “So look- I’m a little in the dark here. Why are the Shensu on my case? I mean, that is, I know why Pergay wants me. But two of them? How does one agent draw that much surplus heat?”

      “Its likely Pergay tracked you through the Guild. If the other was given classified information, he probably has access to secondary files. He’s probably after you for this new thing.”

      “New thing?”

      “The transitor.”

      Luth’s guts lurched. He wasn’t sure why. “Transi... the Tourists? What the hell do I have to do with any Tourist?”

      Woodrow shuffled uncomfortably in the gondola seat. “Don’t ask me for details, Luth. I’m just the hired help.”


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