Authors: Steve Stanton
Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction
“I’m Detective Alil,” said a young man with shaggy hair and dark bangs. He laid a palm toward his female compatriot, a teenager with tawny skin and a bristle of black hair. “This is Nakistra Gulong, our registered empath.” The girl’s face remained staid, her unwavering gaze intent, her mind a mystery of bioengineered enhancement. She carried no data pad or recording device, but Detective Alil continued without pause. “This preliminary interview is simply to gain information related to the homicide investigation in progress. Do you submit to oath, Zen Valda of Star Clan, planet Bali?” The man had an unusual offworld accent, his words only partially formed and hurried in expression.
Zen shrugged. “I have nothing to hide.”
The detective offered a reedy, businesslike smile. “Say ‘I do’ for the record, please.”
“Fine. Now, Zen, can you present any evidence of your formal relationship to Simara Ying?”
Zen pouted for a moment and darted his eyes at the recording empath, wondering if she could read his mind with the magic of science in her brain. He felt exposed like a blind cavefish in a glass aquarium, surrounded by skullriders with a host of invisible witnesses talking about him behind his back, analyzing his every gulping breath. “Magistrate Loring of the community cave Keokapul has entered our partnership statement into record.”
“And this is a relationship known as
in your parlance, not the result of a civil ceremony, correct?”
“You also have entered into a business partnership with Simara Ying to dispose of the debris from her shuttlecraft for financial gain, correct?”
“She crashed in my quadrant and granted salvage rights. We used the proceeds to pay for boost tickets.”
“Yes, very good. And what became of the flight recorder from the vessel?”
Zen glanced at his representative. These people knew everything already. What hope did he have? “I dumped the black box in Old Joe’s hole in the deep trench along Zogan Ridge.”
“And this was done to avoid detection?”
Zen huffed a sigh. “We take the GPS beacons out of skyfalls to keep pirates from stealing our treasure.”
“Was this action taken at the behest of Simara Ying?”
“No, she was still unconscious. She almost died.”
The detective glanced at his empath, but the biogen never wavered from her steady gaze. She was an automaton to duty, a robot with eyes to pierce the soul of man.
“Do you believe that Simara killed Randy Ying?”
“No,” Zen said hastily. “But if she did, he must have deserved it.”
“Hearsay evidence,” Genoa Blackpoll interjected. “My client has no firsthand knowledge of any events prior to Simara Ying’s crash in the desert.”
“Granted,” the detective said. “I think we’re done here. Move to adjourn?”
Zen whirled to face his representative and spun off his perch into weightless space. “Where’s Simara? I need to see her.”
Genoa Blackpoll reached to steady him as he careened into the empath opposite. “She’s being held in solitary confinement pending a court appearance on Cromeus. She’s a proven flight risk and is not allowed visitors.” He pulled Zen back to his seat.
“Take me with her,” Zen said. “I’m guilty. I admit it.”
“Strike from the record,” Genoa said to Detective Alil. “No charges have been laid against my client.”
Zen turned to the empath. “But you know I’m guilty. Tell them.”
Genoa tugged his arm. “Ms. Gulong does not allow herself the distraction of speech while she works.”
“All omnidroids are intimately available on the V-net,” said Detective Alil. “You can communicate with Simara at any time.” He shook his head with finality. “The Crown does not require the presence of Zen Valda for court on Cromeus. Move to adjourn?”
“Granted,” Genoa said with a tight grip on Zen’s arm to hold him steady. “End of session. My client is released into my care.”
Zen felt a fresh wave of helplessness smother him like a dark blanket, sucking the last dregs of energy from his weary body.
Detective Alil smiled at empath Gulong. “Closed. Thank you for your excellent work, Nakistra.” He turned back to Genoa and extended an arm. “A pleasure to meet you again, Governor Blackpoll.” After a quick handshake, he offered an elbow up to Zen in respect to Bali culture, but Zen felt too sick to move. His wife was gone, whisked away to jail on their honeymoon, their escape plans crumbled to confetti.
Detective Alil sucked his lower lip with regret and dropped his elbow to follow Nakistra Gulong up and away through the upper portal. Genoa Blackpoll slid effortlessly around the bench to face Zen and made no move to leave.
“I’ve got to go after her,” Zen said.
Genoa nodded grimly. “Are you sure that’s what she wants?”
Zen shook his head sadly. “No, I can’t be sure of anything.”
“Your resources are limited,” Genoa said. “You could cash out your tickets for a shuttle drop to Bali and return a rich man. Or you could trade them for a ticket to Cromeus and risk your future on this
girl.” The tone in his voice said that a trader girl was a base and untrustworthy creature. “You might never get back home. Either way, I will help you out of respect for your father. We served together for our constituents and culture, and Valda died before his time.”
Zen scrutinized Governor Blackpoll with a critical eye. His beady eyes were framed with crinkles of age and experience, his forehead ridged into a permanent frown, the sure mark of political wisdom. He cellulose dress uniform had creased edges fresh from a fabricator. “Why would a fancy bureaucrat on Trade Station take time from his busy schedule for a meeting with a wandering peasant? Are you working for Transolar?”
Genoa pursed his lips and nodded at Zen’s cynical insight. “I volunteered for the job because of my familiarity with your case, and I don’t mind billing the corporate bastards every fair chance I get.” He grinned as though he might gain credence from Zen for the common grounder sentiment. “My authority comes from Bali, and my ultimate duty lies with its citizens.”
“And your advice to a wayward youth from the badlands?”
Genoa’s face relaxed into the dour stare of a man hardened by years of toil in political trenches. “I knew your father,” he repeated. “You have a worthy heritage, and your mother, Luaz, must surely miss your presence. This
girl . . .” He let the disdain in his voice linger. “. . . is beyond my understanding. An omnidroid is more machine than human, a multiplicity of virtual experience not to be trifled with. My advice is to go home and count your blessings.”
Zen scowled. “And if I choose not to retreat like a cactus turtle with a bump on the nose? If I choose to protect the girl I love and chase her to the end of the universe?”
Genoa chuckled and clasped his hands in his lap as his eyes crinkled again with animation. “Then your father would be proud of your blind courage at least, may the saints of Kiva sustain us all.”
“You’ll help me contact Simara?”
He grinned. “Shouldn’t be too much trouble, if you don’t mind trading privacy for freedom. Omnidroids are omnipresent. Plug up to the V-net and you’re away.” He tapped his earlobe with a finger. “But you’ll have to get wired to join with her. She lives in a different world.”
Zen shivered at the thought of joining the skullriders in their digital nirvana. He remembered watching Simara’s body convulse in connection to the nexus. Is that what it would take to follow her? Did he owe her that sacrifice to keep his reckless promise of protection? “Will I need brain surgery?”
Governor Blackpoll rubbed at his chin in deliberation. “Well, that would be optimal, and there are plenty of corporate sponsors who will fund the operation for market share. But, you know, an implant changes things, alters the brain chemistry, even if you don’t choose an augmentation. The quick alternative is a simple earbug and eyescreen. It’s non-invasive—just a cochlear implant and contact lens with an exterior wi-fi amp.” He turned his head and pointed at a tiny light blinking on his earring pad. “You’ll be able to hear Simara’s voice and see her face, but you won’t have any tactile or imaginative sense. You’ll get no feelie from her, no background of emotion.”
“That’s okay. Let’s do it, just the minimum to get online.”
Genoa nodded. “It’s probably for the best. A full-blown connection to an omnidroid stays with you forever.” He rolled his eyes up under closing lids to peer inside his skullrider forehead. A hint of a smile flirted at the corners of his mouth, and his lips moved in pre-formed speech similar to the lip twitches Simara had shown while working. He opened his eyes. “Your appointment is tomorrow. Get a good sleep. I’ve sent for a pill to make sure you’re well rested.”
That was it? So quick! Life was a whirlwind up here. Meetings were fast and business almost instantaneous. “Where will I stay? Are there any vacant apartments on Trade Station?”
“No, you’ll sleep right here.” Genoa floated upward and palmed a sensor pad that Zen had taken for decoration. A launch couch with sensor-studded armrests and comfy padding tipped down out of the wall on whirring hydraulics, as lights dimmed for evening repose. “You’ll have to buckle up in a room this big.”
Zen tipped his head back at the strange notion. “Big?”
“This is a double,” Genoa said with a sly smile. He tapped another sensor and an opaque hologram filled the area at bench height where Zen’s legs disappeared into a grey partition dividing the meeting space.
“Whoa,” Zen said as he launched up out of the hologram and floated free. The acoustics of the room had altered to a quieter tone to deaden his exclamation. He windmilled for a moment in panic until he hit the wall, then lurched to latch thankfully against the Transolar launch couch. He pulled himself up and buckled in. So this was home for now.
“Your appointment tomorrow is at A5:15 on Level 4, medical clinic #259, with Nurse Stavos.” He began tapping a keypad on the armrest. “I’ll program that into your couch for you.”
Zen watched Governor Blackpoll with chagrin. “Is it day or night now? I’ve lost track of time.”
“Trade Station stays in perpetual shadow in synchronous orbit around Bali to avoid the solar flares from Signa, so there is no day or night here. We divide time into three duty shifts designated ABC, seven hours to a working cycle, 60 minutes to an hour. It’s C2:52 now, so your appointment is in nine hours and twenty-three minutes.”
“How will I find the clinic?”
“You can access a map at any doorway by pressing here.” At his touch, a schematic pattern became visible near the doorframe showing a complicated grid with trails branching off the main shafts like follicles on slender stems. Each hair in the labyrinthine maze had numbered bumps that Zen took to be hexagonal housing quarters similar to his own. There appeared to be no open areas or main thoroughfares, and
was a misnomer because there was none to spare!
“We’re here on the docks at Level 1,” Genoa said as he pointed, “so you’ll move outward three levels to the clinic.”
“Got it,” Zen said as he calculated his route and noted the time C2:52 displayed in the lower right-hand corner. “Clinic 259 on Level 4 at A5:15.”
“Very good. Blessings for your evening, then,” Genoa said in typical Bali custom. He swung around the doorframe with ease and floated away.
A few minutes later, a green light blinked above the open portal, and a young boy poked his head in. “Package for Zen Valda?”
“Sure.” Zen launched himself upward and crashed awkwardly against the doorframe as the courier eyed him with curiosity. Zen pressed his palm on the proffered sensor pad and was rewarded with a red flash and bad beep of negation. He felt like a peon from a primitive planet, an unregistered vagabond, but the delivery boy shrugged with disinterest and tapped in some sort of bypass code as he glided away. Zen opened the package to find tubes of grey goop and pouches of water, his breakfast, lunch, and dinner. His stomach ached at the thought of such minimalist fare, and he longed for the crystal caverns of his youth and a spicy, snake-meat stew. He found a blue sleeping pill in a blister pack and swallowed it with welcome relief, wishing he had a mug of honey mead to wash it down and calm his rattled nerves. There was no chance he could sleep without chemical aid in his state of trauma, trapped and alone in this foreign world. He had gambled with fate and lost everything.
Zen decided to double the calculated allowance for travel time to his appointment, thinking he would probably get lost along the way. He hugged the wall of the tunnel, crawling carefully from handhold to crevice, fearful of falling. According to his study of the schematic, he was moving up, but he struggled to hold that view without the solid anchor of gravity below his feet. He could just as easily be travelling down or sideways, and his stomach seemed to gyrate in all directions at once.
A man dressed in standard cellulose approached from ahead and drifted headfirst by him with his hands in constant motion and fingertips tapping the wall. “B’well,” he said as he passed. “B’well,” another man repeated as he squeezed by Zen from behind, touching his leg and shoulder on the way. Spacers flew by with natural ease—“B’well. B’well.”—always in motion, never pushing, never pulling, and they thought nothing of fondling each other with open palms in passing to maintain equilibrium and preserve momentum.
Zen tried with halting success to mimic their fluid motion in weightless space, hopeful that an edge was always near in the constant confinement of the tunnels, fearful of floating free into helplessness. He was a slave to momentum in this place and couldn’t manage a full stop without crashing into something, preferably inanimate.
With aching muscles and two purple bruises on his right arm, he arrived on Level 4 and found his appointed destination with
printed both above and inverted below the open portal. He ducked his head in. “Am I too early?”
A woman in a white uniform turned to him with wide eyes below a fashionably shaggy mop of blonde hair tufted with blue highlights. “Welcome, Zen Valda. I’m Nurse Stavos.” She touched an identification patch that featured a prominent red cross. “Come in. I’ll be ready for you in just a moment.”
“B’well,” Zen said as he floated down toward her, targeting the single launch couch that hung against the wall. The clinic was barely a closet with no room for error.
“May you be well also, sir,” she said with careful enunciation as she reached for a floating pouch of instruments. “You’re scheduled for a virgin cochlear installation without modifications and your chart shows right-handed preference. Is that correct?”
“Yes.” Zen twisted in the air to avoid a collision with her hip. She was unusually buxom for a spacer and presented an attractive hourglass target. “Oops, sorry.”
The woman took hold of his arm and deftly turned him so that he fell into the couch without injury or transfer of momentum. She studied him with interest, tapping the closet walls periodically with her fingertips to maintain equilibrium. “You’ve never connected to the V-net?”
“No. Is that bad?”
“Most installations are done in early childhood when neuroplasticity is optimal in the brain. Do you have any experience whatsoever with virtual media?”
“Not really. I’m from Bali.”
“Yes, I see that on your chart.” She didn’t hold a chart, but she wore a skullrider amp on her left ear and probably had his life story on fast-forward.
“I’m a bit nervous about the whole thing.” The clinic was much smaller than he had expected, just another blister off the tunnel, and the woman was much more beautiful than he had imagined. Her creamy skin had likely never seen the sun, and her azure eyes reminded him of Jula back home. Her lips were painted a bright ruby colour to match the red cross on her breast.
“Yes, I see that also. Don’t worry. I’ll be here for you throughout your transition to guide you every step of the way. There will be no real danger at any time.” She raised a small tube and twisted out a tiny brush. “I’ll just dab this analgesic on your earlobe to prepare the site for implant. You don’t mind if I touch you during the procedure, do you? I know your culture has certain
.” She paused to assess him. “So, is it okay?”
Zen shrugged. “Sure.”
She steadied herself by carefully resting a palm on his shoulder and hovered close in front of him as she brushed cool liquid on his right earlobe. Her flowery perfume mingled with the sharp, medicinal smell of the analgesic, and her large breasts punched out at him from behind thin cellulose, her mature body untainted by gravity. Zen swallowed with discomfort at her touch and peered nervously past her at an anatomical chart on the wall showing skinless musculature.
An intimate hand on the shoulder meant nothing here, and the woman had not strayed from a professional demeanour, but his hormones seemed not to recognize the innocence of her gesture. He began to perspire. “What was your first name again?”
The nurse slid her medicine stick back in its bottle and rummaged in her pouch as Zen’s ear tingled and went numb. She turned to him with a small electronic device gripped in a pair of needle-nose pliers. “I didn’t say, but it’s Nancy.” She flashed perfect teeth and bent to begin working on him, probing deep inside his aural canal. “It’s a traditional name from Earth. Sounds a bit archaic, I know, but my parents still love the old feelies from home, nostalgia for the lost world, you know? They’re first-gen colonists from before the embargo, very staid and conservative.”
“I think your name sounds wonderful.”
“Well, thank you. It’s kind of you to say so.” She made a cracking sound near his ear, and a pop followed like a burst of air. “There you go.” Nurse Nancy straightened and smiled. “Your earbug installation is complete.”
She dabbed a tissue on his earlobe and showed him a spot of blood. “Your DNA is being sequenced, and your voice is being digitized.”
“What do you mean?”
What do you mean?
“Now open your eyes wide. Stay completely still for a second.” She leaned forward with a pointing finger and touched a contact lens onto his right eye. “Welcome to the grid, Zen Valda. I always love this part.”
“What’s that noise?”
What’s that noise?
“We’re running an initial biofeedback loop to set up your voice register. The next thing we need is a primary fingerprint.” She held up a forefinger. “This will be the index finger on your right hand. Place it on your sensor pad in the most comfortable manner like this.” She touched the skullrider amp on her earlobe, and waited for Zen to follow her example. He felt a flat metal disc on his ear and reached around behind with his thumb to feel the stud that had been punched through his skin.
“This is your login identity for all credit and debit transactions on the V-net,” she said. “The subtle variations in your other fingerprints and thumbs will give you nine more sign-ons to program for peripherals. Remember that your right hand will be most comfortable for your basic needs.”
Zen held up his hands and studied his spread fingers. “Really?”
“Your next most important login will be for Help mode. Normally we use the opposite pinkie finger for this, which is bit awkward at first, but after a while you won’t need Help, so you don’t want to tie up your main fingers. You’ve no doubt heard the expression ‘spinning with his pinkie in his ear’?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
No, I don’t think so.
Nurse Nancy tilted her head at him. “Starry heavens, you really are a virgin. Okay, just put your left-hand pinkie finger on the sensor like this and say ‘Help Login.’”
“Your inception will be gradated to a widening sphere over the next few hours. First you will connect just to your immediate vicinity, and then you’ll widen out from there.”
::Do you hear me?::
Her voice sounded inside his head, deep and lustrous. “Yes.”
“Good.” Nurse Nancy scrolled her eyes up into her forehead as her lids closed like shutters.
::This will be channel 1. Do you see the indicator?::
Zen glanced around the room. “No.”
::That’s okay. You’ll see it when your brain adjusts. Don’t worry about the details for now. You’ll discover things by immersion and adventure. Welcome to the V-net.::
“This is weird.”
This is weird.
Nurse Nancy opened her eyes and tucked her pliers back in her pouch. “Congratulations, Zen Valda. Your DNA documentation has been successfully uploaded and installation creds have been downloaded to your account.”
“That’s it?” No echo now, no explanation.
Nurse Nancy seemed smug. “Would you like to join me for dinner? A grounder like you must find grey goop quickly tedious.”
“Um, I guess so,” Zen said, “if we’re done.”
Nancy ducked her chin. “Actually, I’m required to monitor you for the next twelve hours to check for side effects during your transition. I’m still on the payroll, but it’s more fun to socialize at the same time. No harm, no foul?”
::It’s okay. I’m here to help you.::
Zen shrugged in helpless fascination. “Sure.”
Nurse Nancy tapped the wall and swung a provocative hip swathed in white cellulose. “Follow me, good sir.”
Zen blinked at a ghost in his peripheral vision, an image of his own face as seen and transmitted by Nancy Stavos. She seemed to be acting a bit flirty now that business was out of the way. Or maybe not. Perhaps it was just his imagination. He wasn’t sure what was normal in this strange place. Zen kicked off after her heels as she floated away down the hall, conscious now of just how slow and clumsy he must appear. He felt an urgent need to put on a show for this beautiful woman, to impress her somehow as she drifted ahead of him and widened the gap.
::Hurry up, slowpoke.::
“Is this thing on all the time?” he yelled up to her. Other sounds became apparent in his background of experience. A male voice, two male voices—
question the aerodynamics of his presentation—following a predetermined migratory pattern across the desert—
and then something that was clearly an advertising jingle—
an apple a day keeps the doctor away.
Nancy Stavos dragged her palms along the wall to give up her momentum and turned to face him as he clambered haltingly down to her. She smiled. “Are you climbing or falling?”
Zen peered back at the tunnel behind, trying to orient himself to the schematic map in his memory. Strange ghosts clogged up the edges of his vision, camera views from distant places, stray optical data transmitted to his prosthetic lens. “Falling, I guess.”
::You are such a precious specimen
Nancy pointed to her earlobe. “You’ll learn to filter out extraneous material as you get acclimated. The more data you view, the more creds you build up, and you earn bonus points for user-generated material. Soak it up for now. Have fun. C’mon, I’ll teach you how to fly.” She reached for his hand and held it tight. “Just relax, honey. I’ll drive.”
::You trust me, don’t you?::
“Sure,” Zen said, feeling a sweaty rush of sexual energy at her touch. Was she coming on strong to him, or was he misreading her signals? Had he gone completely crazy?
“Put your arm around my waist,” she said. “Go ahead. I don’t bite. Okay, now keep your arms tucked in and just get the passive feel of it with me.” Nancy kicked off a conduit and flew them recklessly forward toward the next bulkhead as Zen stiffened his body and stifled an urge to squirm away from the oncoming collision. With the tips of her fingers, Nancy caressed the walls, plucking up momentum like treasure and subtly spiralling their trajectory, slowly spinning them away from danger. She had no up or down, no restrictions of perception, and the pulse of life in her writhing body made Zen throb with desire, his hormones raging out of control now.
He craned his neck to keep a forward view and tried to study the mechanics of their movement to calm his nerves—anything to distract him from this gorgeous woman in his arms! He analyzed target trajectories and tried to envision course corrections as a series of overlapping scenes crowded his view. Was he picking up signals from surveillance cameras, or was this actual human vision transmitted from contact lenses like his own? “What are all these images? Who are these people?”
“Never mind them for now. Focus on the moment. Don’t be so stiff.” Nancy slid an arm around his waist. “Loosen up a bit. Embrace the chaos. Let’s try it tandem. Use your right-hand fingers, and I’ll use my left. Be subtle. Relax. Push, don’t drag.”
Together they veered down the tunnel, overcompensating from side to side but keeping a relatively steady pace, and voices sounded in Zen’s earbug as they passed closed portals along the way
—crackdown on illegal fermentation poisoning our delicately balanced biosphere—you can’t do better than the logical invincibility of robotic hardware for a clean experiment—
“This is a good speed,” Nancy said and pointed ahead. “Remember that people come out of these doors. Collisions happen all the time. You’ll see a green light flash around a portal in use, but you may get only a few seconds’ warning. Keep close to the wall in case you have to drag. Oncoming traffic stays on your left, and pass only on the left or up, okay?”
Images continued to play across his field of vision, blocking his sight with bewildering perceptions from elsewhere, some of them fabricated like anime advertisements. Zen grunted and clenched his teeth against dizziness as he tried to squint past holographic ghosts for an unobstructed view—
any variant description of quasi-finite schemes must satisfy Zariski’s original main theorem for birational morphisms—
“Okay,” Nancy said, “let’s practise slowing down. On the count of three we’ll drag our palms. One, two, three.”
Zen stabbed out his hand and clutched at the next conduit, which caused them to swing like monkeys on a tree branch and spin into a backward somersault. He let go with a yell and flailed his arm in a frantic circle as his stomach muscles clenched with vertigo.
::Don’t panic! Hold on to me!::
Nancy Stavos pushed, curled, kicked, and danced in Zen’s grappling arm as they spun together in a whirlwind embrace. Zen dragged his elbows and knees with every stray contact in hope of stability as they slowly gave up their momentum to friction and ground to a halt. Nancy laughed. “You are a crazy stuntman. And so strong! God!”