Author: Cartesia

Chapter 8


      In a world supposedly devoid of capitalist ideologies and material wealth, here the cream of the elite dined, wined and ruffled their peacock feathers on the verandas and cafe domes of one of the most beautiful habitats in all the Galactic.

      Sada seemed nonplussed as he leaned on the guide rail of the hermetic pedway, the sparkling crystal orbs and gelicate habitats of the city towering above the glass roof of the corridor like jewel encrusted spines on an ice-queen’s crown, a magical light playing upon the scene as though reflected from the clear waters of a pool. Woodrow and Luth stared upward, jaws slack, aesthetic appreciation reeling.

      Rising from the top of a mountainous pyramid to the east of their position, the sister shafts of the European geo fountain rose into the sky, looming above even the tallest of the crystalline habitats. The shafts resembled twin towers of silver, dark grey in colour but metallic and reflective, a distorted image of the surrounding city reproduced deep within their surfaces. iNet sky rails looped around them like spun cotton, giving a breath-taking indication of scale. The towers were narrow, but immeasurably tall. Higher than any building Luth had ever seen in all his Galactic travels. Even at their apex where they seemed to taper to a needle point he could see the thin threads of the elevator cables rising, apparently untethered, into a hazy stratosphere.

      His instincts were at odds. The tranquillity of that view seemed dangerously infectious and part of him longed to pause, to relax and take in every inch of Monaco’s beauty. But the greater part remembered Pergay. Assuming the Shensu was on the next scheduled hydroplane, she would make Monaco around fifteen minutes from now and when she did, the race would be on.

      Sada had already warned them that the Monaco pedways were temperamental, set to convey passengers at the same steady rate in order to dissuade personal momentum and thus avoid those inherent dangers associated with humans in motion. They could only hope that the hold-up this caused them would affect Pergay in precisely equal measure, flattening the odds between them. A race to the death at the pace of a gentle stroll.

      Each pedway was a wide, slow moving conveyance composed of four lateral travelators allowing a maximum four passengers to move together, a proximity gap of around twenty metres separating each same-lane passenger. The floor of the four lanes consisted of successive two metre long conveyor belts eating into one another by way of lateral and revolving thresholds. Each belt, no more than a few metres long, moved at an independent rate based on the motion of its occupant. If the passenger remained inert, the belt would move at the favoured rate of four point eight kilometres per hour, passing its velocity on to adjoining belts both in front and behind. If the passenger walked forward or backward, the belt would compensate accordingly by reducing or increasing its own speed relative to that of the occupant, again favouring the ideal velocity. If the passenger tried to run, the belt would reverse its own momentum, holding back the speed of the passenger to the same relative velocity of four point eight kilometres. Feedback and compensation mechanics were highly responsive. A passenger could attempt any number of sudden changes in direction and speed without losing his balance as a result of sudden compensation in the belt underfoot.

      Essentially this amounted to the imposition of law by impeding sensible options rather than enforcing rules. Legality and the policing of judicial law were obsolete social concepts, shunned by Gestalt in favour of personal choice, albeit personal choice influenced heavily by dynamically enforced local regimentation. As with ration defray, the pedways suggested the illusion of freedom while simultaneously restricting otherwise limitless degrees of choice. Passengers could move however they wished, but within the parameters of pedway mechanics, inertia was the most logical option. It was a common theme by which Gestalt maintained a pacifistic mode of social control.

      For Luth, the urge to jog on toward their destination proved as irritating as an unscratchable itch and after a time it distracted him from the divine scenery. Woodrow, however, seemed unperturbed. The usual synth ability to ignore reality. Sada too, seemed unaffected. But this didn’t surprise Luth. Who knew what oddities streamed through the mind of the average TT agent. More to the point, who wanted to know?

      Five minutes before the ground station Luth asked Sumiteru for a time check and situation update. “1457 Spanish time. Three hours and three minutes to deadline. I’m finding no indications of delays on the geo fountain, Luth, but even assuming a smooth journey, the elevator trip will take at least another hour. That leaves...”

      “An hour? You’re sure? Just to reach the nub station?”

      “Yes Luth. At least an hour. Which leaves approximately two hours to transe through at least one nub and traffic server, access the orbital hub and connect with a dovetailed sphere - which I believe to be virtually impossible - and from there access an iNet connection to Jupiter Station.”

      “Speculate, what chance do we have of making it to Jupiter?”

      “The chances are not good, Luth. I anticipate further delays as a result of Woodrow’s actions at the Spanish nub. It seems extremely unlikely we will be able to pass freely through security; a near zero percentile. In fact, I’m extrapolating a seventy nine percent chance that another encounter with Terran security details will result in our incarceration and eighty two percent that the encounter will prove terminal. This last projection falls considerably if Woodrow is not present. Both extrapolations rely on the Timetable agent, Sada, finding an exit from one of the most secure closed spheres in Terran territory. The percentiles on such an achievement are negligible.”

      “Don’t think I hadn’t thought the same thing,” Luth responded through the cortex relay, eyeing the back of the TT agent’s head. “I guess we’ll just have to hope this guy is as good as Hollow Shell suggests.”

      Minutes later they found themselves moving into the pyramid, a gargantuan ground station littered with transports and stacks of freight packets in places up to thirty stories high. An organo crane extended from the sloping roof of the building, which also bristled with an array of alternative limbs designed for moving, shifting and sorting freight. The crane was busy removing packets from the elevator and positioning them neatly on top of a distant stack.

      The elevator itself was an organo ring surrounding the shaft on the left. Fibrous couplings on the inside of the ring, agitated by shivering vibrations passing down the length of the shaft, would convey the elevator upward. The violent oscillations were absorbed by an intricate system of suspension cantilevers and gyros on both sides of the coupling making for a relatively smooth ride inside. It was a system Luth had seen elsewhere, efficient enough, and easy on power so ideal for low-tech spiral arm projects, but excruciatingly slow. Typical archaic human design. Sumiteru’s anticipated hour made perfect sense now.

      The shafts themselves were simple organo bores, effectively gigantic gun barrels through one of which a particle stream would be fired upward at high velocity, slowed by kinetic converters to produce an inherent electricity supply while simultaneously transferring lifting force to the two connected tower structures. This would exert an elevating reinforcement, supporting the shaft’s weight and encouraging the upward momentum of the elevator itself. Beneath the ground station one of four super conductors would fire the upward streams and receive the downward flow from the adjacent tower. At the fountain’s apex some four hundred kilometres above, the stream would continually buffet the underside of the nub station and maintain its sub-geostationary position in the thermosphere before the particles turned full loop and fell back to earth.

      “Okay. Time for a reality check,” Luth growled. Both Woodrow and Sada glanced around.

      “What’s up Luth?” Woodrow seemed almost jovial, “you look perturbed.”

      “Damn straight I’m perturbed. See, according to my simpad, getting up in that thing will take at least an hour. It’s three o clock now. Assuming there is a way out of the orbit sphere, which my simpad informs me is unlikely, bordering on unfeasible, I then have just two hours to get through at least two secure iNet hubs and reach Jupiter Station before my personal deadline winds down and Janus has the legal right to put every agent inside this Galactic arm on my ass. Presumably this includes you,” he jabbed a finger at Woodrow. The same finger turned on Sada, “so what I want to know is, how exactly do you intend to get me from orbit to Jupiter? Answers now, or I’m causing trouble. Let security come. Let Pergay come. Fuck it. I’m dead anyway, whichever way you...”

      “It’s true.” Woodrow nodded. “If the deadline winds down I have orders to terminate you, Luth.”

      “No big surprise.”

      “Nothing personal. I’m also at pains to ensure your safety while the deadline remains unfulfilled. If I could override orders to kill you, I could override orders to protect you. So you see, this really isn’t my fault.”

      Luth remained unimpressed. “You have my sympathies.” He raised his hands, cupping either side of his mouth, and shouted, “I’m an insurgent! I have a bomb!”

      Sada intervened, “you should stop Luth. I’m detecting numerous ion beams, security visuals scanning you. We’ll have company.” He sounded concerned. A kink in his plan? The human cargo acting up. Luth bared teeth.

      “As for you,” he wagged a finger at the TT Agent, “I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m nearly there. Perhaps some kind of fabricated IOL error? You’ll lead me into a dead end and watch as the deadline unravels and this bastard rips out my heart? Or maybe you plan to throw me to the Shensu bitch? Let Pergay fulfil the contract and stream the whole gore and guts media back to Janus? Oh, he’d enjoy that.” Again Luth yelled, his voice echoing strangely in the enormous space of the pyramid.

      “I can assure you, my intentions are wholly professional. Please stop shouting, my friend. The local infonet claims security details have been dispatched.”

      Luth laughed. It sounded manic, “you thought I’d just float up to orbit, a quiet little payload? Die without a fuss? Not today. Not yet. Your mistake,” he turned on Woodrow, “was the Espana nub. You implicated me when you burned those Terrans. Provided I go quietly, which is my intention, I’ll receive the Gestalt version of incarceration for my part. One, maybe two weeks in a nice comfortable holding habitat, then deportation to the Tri-State for trial. But we agents know a thing or two about melting into the Galactic continuum. You can tell Janus, my ass, his lips. Beyond that, you won’t see me for dust.” More yelling. Bombs. Insurgency. Threats to detonate. Even he could sense the myriad eyes of security sweeping their position. A swarm of facegrids.

      “Luth, for goodness sake,” Woodrow stepped toward him, arms outstretched. His lane compensated and he remained stationary. “It’s imperative we don’t stop. The Shensu!”

      Luth could see the security detail arriving. Cop cabs swooping in on sky rails, disgorging teams of six onto the conveyor, each dressed in the same visor and black garb as the Espana nub. Their weaponry looked formidable. Made sense, Luth mused. Freight was more valuable to Gestalt than transers. All four lanes slowed then stopped. No turning back now.

      A loud hailer punched in with a subtle thud followed by the lead security guard’s voice. “Prego arresti ed aumenti mani!”

      Luth raised his hands, “do not shoot! I surrender completely and without condition. Please be aware that I claim no association with these synths,” he pointed at Woodrow and Sada, hands still above his head, “I cannot be held responsible for any action they choose to take. Cedo, cedo!”

      “Damn it Luth!”

      Something shimmered, somewhere behind the security detail. A disturbance in the air. A wobble in the atmosphere. Luth’s ears popped and a sudden pressure squeezed his skull. Darkness overwhelmed him. A strange momentary feeling of disconnection as unconsciousness threatened, then ebbed. For a second he suspected the use of some unfamiliar Terran weapon, employed by a trigger happy visor guard. But then he saw the shapes emerging from thin air and in a moment all other considerations became null and void.

      Woodrow saw Luth’s eyes widen. Some behavioural instinct interpreted the expression and formulated a lightning response. The ninja class leapt forward, knocking Luth to the floor, holding on as they both tumbled across the pedway. The thunderous staccato roar of heavy artillery rocked the air and a slicing battery of rounds tore apart the nearby track. Something mechanical complained beneath them. Then a distant, hollow pop and the faint whine of incoming munitions. Their section of belt was moving again, but too fast. Something in the mechanism damaged, propelling them forward.

      “Get up!” Woodrow was staggering to his feet, dragging Luth by his arms. The grenade landed fifteen metres short of target, exploding and enveloping Woodrow in a cloud of smoke. Luth tumbled across the inner lane of the pedway, fingers scrabbling for purchase on the rubbery belts. In the periphery of his now blurred vision, he saw the TT Agent, Sada, dashing at unnatural speed away from the blast.  

      Woodrow dragged Luth upright, pointed him away from the smoke and yelled, “run!” in his ear.

      Luth ran, glancing back only momentarily to see the same incredible scene as before.

      Two transitors, dressed in trademark black robes, cowls pulled up over their heads, pale features obscured by charcoal shadow and grenade smoke. The pair, female as far as Luth could make out, had materialised behind the nearest security detail. Both were armed with scatter rifles, but these were light weapons, not the source of the sudden onslaught.

      The source stood between and behind the transitors, looming over them by a good three or four metres. A Teratoid, demon class biogenetic construct, non-organo mutation, grown in illegal biolabs hidden in frontier system spheres. It hefted one malformed arm and repeatedly jerked on the stock of its massive Tamper gun, shaking out a jam in the mechanism. It met Luth’s gaze for a moment, tiny red eyes seething behind the black shade of its visor, and grinned. Nostrils situated between the creature’s lumpish brow and above its eyes flared and snorted as the mouth worked from side to side, grinding teeth. Heaving the weight of a full ammo belt onto its left shoulder the Teratoid levelled the Tamper and took aim again.

      Luth hit a stationary lane and fell, cracking the side of his head on the rubber. Rounds screamed overhead, demolishing the wall some fifty metres away. To his rear he heard the bellowing of the monster and its monstrous gun.

      This wasn’t Luth’s first encounter with a demon class. He’d had dealings with them before, so he knew their capabilities well enough. Their method usually started with an impressive display of fire power, a terrifying show of noise, horror and violence designed to intimidate and degrade the target’s confidence. Afterward they would use grenades and other artillery to rout and maim. All this to suppress the enemy while the Teratoid made arbitrary recon observations and determined future tactics. They preferred close quarters combat, hand to hand where possible. Most were psychotic, minds sprained by generations of deliberate genic manipulation and the onset of imposed hereditary diseases like porphyria and chimerism.

      Luth guessed he had about ten more seconds of suppressive fire before the serious rounds started flying his way.

      Woodrow was suddenly at Luth’s side, breathing hard, wrapping a cast-iron grip around his arm. “Bioweapon! Tourists. We gotta get out of here!”

      “You think?”

      From behind them came the sound of shouting and stutter rounds. The guards responding to the new threat, caught between the Teratoid and its target. But, of course, they were no match for two transitors and a demon class.

      A series of resounding thuds preceded a gaggle of blood curdling screams. Luth dropped to his knees, clutching his head. The same crushing sensation, the same onset of unconsciousness withdrawing at the eleventh hour to be replaced by a pounding sense of relief.

      Then silence.

      Luth risked a quick turn of the head as Woodrow hauled him to his feet. No sign of the transitors, but there were five steaming bodies in place of the security detail. A sixth body still stood, swaying on lifeless legs. The head was gone, blood guttering from the short stump of its neck. It toppled then, legs crumpling, and hit the floor with a wet slap.

      The Teratoid swung the immense barrel of its Tamper gun toward Luth even as other guards opened fire, bullets rebounding ineffectually off the bioweapon’s thick hide. The Tamper spasmed, reloading automatically, feeding the belt through and simultaneously spewing out six spent cartridges, each the size of a human arm. “Fuck!”

      “This way!” Woodrow was running. Luth did his best to keep pace, but staggered and lost his footing, fell once more and found himself dragged unceremoniously along behind the ninja class. He could only hold on for a second or two before losing his grip and falling in a sorry heap. Woodrow rounded on him, “Do you want to die?!”

      Luth’s head swam. Interesting question. For a moment he wondered if he might simply pass out. That would, he thought, be a reasonable way to escape the horror and, he surmised, not such a bad way to meet death. A bland relief broke over him with the realisation that the struggle might finally be over. It was an inelegant thought. All numb submission and quiet resignation. How bad, after all, could it be? A fog crept over him and the crackle of security guns, the roar of the Teratoid and the chunter of its weapon faded into calm.

      Then his skull seemed to shrink, crushing his brain. The same sensation. Stars bursting in his eyes. Darkness. He’d been embracing unconsciousness, but now the world was coming back. “Tourists. More of them coming!” His voice sounded strange in his own head. The words echoed, vibrated and fractured in his ears like reflective images breaking on agitated water.

      The renewed light of day banished the defeatism and the darkness. Then Luth saw her. A transitor. Same black robes, same oversized cowl, standing behind Woodrow and staring with that strange, curious independence so typical of her kind. Light played on her face, illuminating delicate features, small but full red lips and hazel eyes. Coiled bubbles of blonde hair framed the curve of her cheeks and forehead.

      “I’m Siron. You’re Han Luth?” She was asking Woodrow.

      Woodrow swivelled, stared in surprise at the newcomer for a moment then seemed to snap out of it. “No. He is.”

      The hazel eyes slid toward Luth. A triangle of robe moved outward and a hand stretched toward him. “You may stand. It is safe.”

      Luth stared too. Then twisted sideways to check on the Teratoid. It was standing utterly still, the barrel of the Tamper resting on the floor, the creature’s ugly head tilted at a rakish angle, flesh coloured spume and blood bubbling around its rubbery mouth. At first glance the head seemed to be propped up by a thin metal rod, one end beneath the chin, the other lodged against the floor between its feet. A second look determined the rod was actually embedded in the Teratoid’s skull, presumably thrust upward through the underside of its jaw and into the soft core of its brain. The rod was apparently preventing the monster from sagging to the floor. It looked dead. And if it wasn’t, it should be.

      Luth clambered to his feet. He wanted to check out the female transitor but the demon class remained a priority. “Is it dead? You did that?”

     “Yes and yes.”

      “The other Tourists?” Woodrow’s chest was heaving. He suddenly seemed every inch the overweight astrocartographer, though Luth knew his rapid breathing had little to do with over exertion and everything to do with terror. Not so removed from reality as Luth had previously thought.

      The girl hesitated. Then, “They are no longer here. They conveyed the Teratoid only.”

      It was Luth’s turn to blink. None of this made sense. “You’re my contact. You’re... Alain Dar Siron?”

      “Yes.” The girl was certainly beautiful, but no mistaking that transitor mentality. The monotone voice, inscrutable expression, vague answers to loaded questions. And of course, female in gender. Then there was the definitive arrogance around the eyes, the mouth, the backward tilt of the head. She stood tall and aloof, apparently immune to the situation. A Tourist through and through.

      Yet, Luth owed her. “Thanks for the dry cell on Espana. You saved our lives back there.”

      “Here too,” Woodrow couldn’t take his eyes off the disabled Teratoid.

      The girl nodded. A tiny movement.

      “How? How did you do that?” Troughs of disbelief creased what still remained of Woodrow’s brow. Luth could see micro-tissues of shiny organo flexing where his left eyebrow should be. “I mean, one human girl against a beserking demon class. I didn’t even see... and then you were here so quickly!”

      “I am not a human girl.” She surveyed the dead Teratoid as though seeing it for the first time. A frown, followed by a slight curl of the lips, a difficult expression to identify. Pathos perhaps? “If memory serves, I arrived underneath and thrust upward with the quarterstaff. It was my preferred weapon of the period. You would not have seen me. I was here only briefly. Now I have returned.”

      “Tourists,” Luth shook his head. “Always the bloody same. Some of us have more linear frames of reference. Events happening one after the other. It makes life simpler.”

      The girl surveyed Luth. Blank. “Momentum, both physical and chronological, is relative. And no life is simple.”

      “What exactly are you talking about?” Woodrow rubbed his head.

      “You don’t have much experience of Tourists,” it might have sounded like a question, but Luth meant it as a statement. “It’s easier if you just don’t ask.” Woodrow seemed to spot the inference and nodded.

      Now that the dust was settling, Luth was able to take in the state of the station. One wall had collapsed, exposing rib-like girders. The security details were all dead, though only one team looked ruined enough to be victims of the Teratoid. The other bodies were intact, no obvious signs of injury. Sada crouched by a pillar, watching from a fair distance away. He seemed unharmed.

      “What is all this?” Luth demanded to know.

      “You were targeted. I destroyed the Teratoid. Afterward, you take the fountain and station nub to orbit and I meet with you at Jupiter Station where you represent a mutual friend and learn of The Rift. General Janus will shoot you for his own amusement.”

      “Wait. What? He’ll shoot me?”

      “Yes. You told me so yourself.”

      “Incorrigible,” Luth groused. “Tourist conversations. First off, I realise,” he spoke slowly, “that I was targeted. The Teratoid with the hand cannon kind of gave the game away. But I couldn’t help noticing - and here’s where I’d really appreciate some candour and a straight answer to a straight fucking question, in the past or present tense if you don’t mind, minus the doom laden predictions and surrealism – that the two individuals who brought the Teratoid into this station were Tourists.”

     She thought about this. “Technically, that wasn’t a question.” Too much. Luth went for her.

     “No!” Woodrow grabbed Luth around the waist and wheeled him away. When Luth rounded on him, fists raised, the ninja class held up his hands. “She’d pulp you. Just keeping you alive. Orders, remember?”

      Luth dusted himself off and glowered at the transitor who raised a curious eyebrow. “Let me rephrase. Why would Tourists want me dead? More precisely, why would Tourists want any human dead? Are we not ultimately inconsequential to you? Isn’t this whole thing kinda unprecedented?”

      The transitor stepped forward, her head lowering slightly, strange eyes piercing Luth. “Because you are little more than a failsafe. To them. But not to me. To me, you are not inconsequential. Does that answer your question?”

      Luth considered this. “Not really. But I do feel oddly flattered.”

      “For you, this is the constant. For us, there are few constants but that which defines time and defines us. There are no more alternatives in which the origin exists. This is the last. Thus must you live.”

      “She’s talking about the past. She’s talking about being human,” Sada had joined them. He stepped in alongside Luth, his anaemic expression betraying none of the shock etched into Woodrow’s damaged features. He seemed fascinated by the transitor.

      “Human?” Luth shook his head, “she’s no more human than you, Timetable Agent. And I’m no more Tourist than...”

      “She’s talking about having a past,” Sada took a step forward, reaching out toward the transitor, ignoring Luth. His long, spindly fingers closed on thin air. The transitor watched his hand without moving. “A past disconnected from time. I’m right. Aren’t I?”

      “Yes,” she dipped her chin and Sada smiled, a strange smile, mirthless and awkward.

      “Then there really is no way out?”


       “No way out of where? Orbit? What is it that you know?” Luth turned on Sada, angry red bruises flushing his cheeks. “You and her seem awfully chummy.”

      Sada seemed to notice Luth for the first time. This only increased Luth’s rage and he grabbed the TT Agent by the throat, recalling in a flash the rebellion that sparked this whole chain of events. “Speak, turncoat! I know you’re Janus’s stooge. I know all about your OHQ contract, so you might as well drop the pretence. What exactly did you have in store for me up there in orbit? A bullet in the head? Woodrow? Pergay? Or did you intend to do the job yourself?”

      “No,” Sada croaked, grasping Luth’s hands ineffectually, eyes popping. “Of course not!”             

      A moment then. The same crushing pressure, muffling of sound, acute pain and dizzying plunge to the verge of unconsciousness. Then, pinpoints of light sliding away from the middle distance, Luth heard “she’s gone.” Woodrow.

      The transitor had vanished, returned to the subether and the timestreams. There would be no more answers, cryptic or otherwise. Luth’s hands were crushing thin air. Sada had collapsed to the floor, choking and retching, clutching at his collar. “Way to attempt murder,” Woodrow nodded approvingly. “Might wanna choose your victims more carefully though. Considering Sada’s the only one who knows how to get you to Jupiter.”

      Standing over the stricken TT Agent, Luth balled his fists, “orbit. Tell me what you have planned, or so help me I’ll paint the floor of this place with your synthetic fucking blood. Trust me. I’m having a really bad day and I’m in just the right mood to do it.”

      Sada unbuttoned the neck of his tunic, then told Luth his plans for orbit. It took no more than a few minutes.

      “Now that,” Woodrow grinned at Sada, “is clever.”

      Despite himself, Luth could only agree, nodding dumbly.

      It was at this moment that Shensu Pergay arrived.


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