Friday, September 19, 2008

Breakaway by Joel Shepherd

“Look at the size of that,” Ayako breathed, gazing down at the seething mass of people along central Patterson. “Looks like eighty thousand plus.”

“Peanuts,” said Ari with studied disinterest, eyes fixed to the navscreen on the dash, “Patterson’s got half a million and over four hundred thousand stayed at home. It’s an apolitical city, everyone says so. Get us a direct approach, the circuit wastes time.”

Ayako punched keys, uplinking directly to central traffic control through CSA Headquarters. Ari spared the protest a brief glance as it faded behind looming towers, a flood of humanity beneath a white, spotlit glare, air traffic hovering in close attendance, most roads blocked by police vehicles. Everyone hoping the mob stayed quiet this time, no one wanted a repeat of the Velan protest with its two hundred and fifty comatose rioters still filling space in the nearby hospital. But what option did police with no riot gear have but neuralisers when confronting rioters? Tanusha, the apolitical city, was woefully unprepared for such events.

“. . . no,” Ayako cut into some unheard transmission, “this is Googly, we’re CSA One, I have priority override . . .” and broke off at an interruption, throwing Ari an exasperated look.

“I’ve got it.” Ari pressed the speaker button.

“. . . live perimeter,” the voice was saying, “we have no record of your authorisation, this is an unscheduled incursion . . .”

“Fuck you, you little piece of shit,” Ari said calmly. “Do you know what CSA One means? Authorise this.” Uplinking mentally he triggered his best attack code. Static burst from the other end as the attack software took control of com frequencies and shoved the CSA Priority ID into the uncooperative guard’s visuals.

“Lot of traffic,” Ayako said nonchalantly into the pause that followed, eyeing the display ahead, and the airborne ID markers that blipped about their inward trajectory. “Going to have to bump someone down a space.”

“Do it, the damn suits can wait for once . . .” Authorisation flashed to green on the navscreen as the local heavies cleared them through. “Thank you,” he told them, loud with sarcasm. And to Ayako, “Jesus Christ, if I have to fight through another fucking turf war in the next thirty minutes I’m going to use my gun.”

“Change that silly codename,” Ayako said mildly. “No one believes CSA One Ops would use that codename.”

“I shall do no such thing.” Scanning at maximum capacity through his scanning linkups, additional airspace data from central filling in the three-dimensional space around the termination point of their flightpath—Kanchipuram Hotel. The whole tactical picture hung clear and tactile in his inner-vision, even as his eyes gazed through the windshield.

“Googly. What on earth is a googly?” Ayako steered the cruiser through a gentle approach bend past the West Patterson towers, the nighttime cityscape looming up on the left as they banked. Blazing light, towers, traffic filled streets, all blissfully free of protesters.

“Cricket, you poor philistine Asiatic person—it’s a deceptive, spinning delivery . . .” Ari’s scans came up empty. He didn’t trust them. “The cornerstone of all true civilisation—first there was upright bipedal motion, then there was language, then there was cricket.”

“Oh,” said Ayako.

The hotel lay ahead, a broad, neo-colonial sprawl of floodlit pillars and arches, seriously retro-Greek architecture and seriously five-star, on the perimeter of a broad park, tree-filled and dark with shadows. The infonetwork showed security everywhere. “Snipers,” said Ayako as she followed the display course, bringing them about and descending.

“No kidding.” Ayako’s vision enhancement was better than his. Ari preferred network capability, Ayako liked her physio-perks.

Another few seconds and he could see them himself, armoured figures crouched on the broad roof above the driveway that passed beneath the front pillars. Limos and vehicles everywhere. There was no shortage of grounded air traffic on the nearby lander either, mostly big official cruisers, with the occasional four-engine flyer, armoured and expensive, drivers waiting around the open doors.

“Too damn many,” Ari muttered, hopping from site to site as his software jumped along the security perimeter, sorting files and searching those of attendees. It was the usual messy overlap of local, private and government security, too many layers in some places and too many holes in others. “We’re going to have to wait until we get inside.”

Ayako set the cruiser to auto-approach, the windshield display indicating the gleaming route ahead as she took both hands off the controls to check her weapon and belt interface. Ari did likewise, absently, staring intently through the right-hand windows as they came in past the front pillars. Hotel staff and security clustered about the unloading space before the main doors—various well dressed importances still arriving, a throng of over-long vehicles with tint-out windows and accompanying security with dark suits and broad shoulders.

The airpark was temporary, a hotel staffer was waving them down in the wash of the cruiser’s forward light. Ayako killed the glare with a control button as Ari holstered his pistol at his side, frowning as a pair of suited security came jogging their way from back near the main entrance. The cruiser touched, doors powering upward even as Ayako activated the standby sequence. They got out and left the cruiser to complete its own wind down, the hotel staffer protesting loudly that this was a temporary space and if they wanted to park permanently they’d have to move to the visitor’s park . . .

Ari ignored him, walking even as Ayako jogged around the car to catch up. The two security agents, moving fast to intercept, had to change direction abruptly.

“Can I see your ID please?”

Ari flashed it, walking fast with Ayako in tow, headed back along the hotel front toward the clustered activity at the main entrance. They paused as the security man internalised both his and Ayako’s vis-seal, no doubt sending back on uplinks to reverify for himself. Ari spared the front hotel gardens a brief scan as they walked. Broad and green in the wash of light, obviously wired end to end with sensor gear. Groundcars flashed by beyond the perimeter fence. Beyond rose the clustered towers of Patterson central, a pair of mega-rise soaring skyward in a blaze of light, flanked by smaller buildings. Several near-stationary aircars, circling slowly amid the usual airborne flow—official or media, he guessed, no doubt monitoring the protest.

Above the gentle, familiar rush of traffic noise, Ari fancied there was something else in the air. Not a sound, not a sight, nor a smell. A feeling. An urgent, prickling buzz in the air, like electrostatic charge. Tension. It was everywhere. The city was alive, with commotion, nervous energy and outright fear. A resident of Tanusha all his twenty-eight years, Ari could never remember having felt anything like it. Even New Year’s celebrations, notorious events in party-mad Tanusha, felt nothing like this. The old happy complacency was gone. The universe had descended upon Tanusha. In some senses, literally.

“How can we help?” the security asked, falling into step alongside Ari. Ayako edged herself past in annoyance, taking place at Ari’s side.

“You’ve been branched,” Ari told him. “I have a very reliable information source telling me that there is a potential code-red security threat present in the hotel, probably among the guests. You can get me whoever’s in charge of security here and full access to the guest and staff lists, minus the usual privacy censors.”

“You could have just told us that, we can handle it.”

“Branched is branched, pal, your networks aren’t secure. And I know who I’m looking for, you don’t.” Several more security were looking their way amid the procession of newly arrived guests and vehicles before the main entrance. At a signal and inaudible transmission from the first guard, one headed inside at a fast walk. Ayako skipped ahead onto the sidewalk, off the road as a departing ten-metre-long limo accelerated past, her smaller steps hurrying double time to keep pace with Ari’s stride.

The guests at the main entrance ignored them as they entered the huge, gleaming lobby, all Tanushan importances being inclined to ignore the ever-present security these days. A huge staircase ascended past reception to the main ballroom, late arrivals climbing in tuxedos and a glitter of fancy gowns that caught the light and pastel shades of the walls and cavernous ceiling. A broad African man in a suit emerged through the crowd to meet them halfway.

“Takane,” he introduced himself, hard and businesslike, “S-3. What’s the problem?” S-3 was Parliament security. Ari knew there were three senators present, and one Progress Party backbencher . . . but no way did S-3 have this many personnel spare for the presence he saw, and certainly not for the snipers on the roof.

“You’ve been infiltrated,” Ari repeated, reflashing his badge. “Who’s your joint cover?”

“Infiltrated by whom?”

“Dangerous people.”

Takane scowled at him, eyes narrowed. “What’s your source?”

“Can’t tell you.”

The eyes narrowed further. “This is S-3’s patch, Agent, I’m not going to allow some hotshot ghostie just to come in here and shoot off on his own private pursuits. If you’ve got a trace, you hand it to us and we’ll take care of it.”

Ari’s gun holster suddenly acquired an attractive, tempting weight beneath his jacket.

“Callsign Googly,” he said instead. Takane blinked. His security clearance was high enough, evidently, to know the significance. “Give me full access or there’ll be trouble.”

Receptor software kicked in, a pressure on Ari’s inner ear, as internal visual graphics overlayed schematics across his vision. It registered Takane’s own abrupt transmission, and the reply reception, confirming his own codes. But he didn’t need the enhancement to tell that Takane was rescanning his own datasource, looking for visual confirmation. Three seconds later . . .

“Get them full access,” Takane said to a nearby heavy, “do what they say, keep it quiet.” And he stalked off. Ari and Ayako followed the heavy up the broad staircase.

“I trust that’s the last silly crack at the callsign?” Ari formulated on their private, encrypted frequency.

“For now.” Ayako didn’t change her mind easily. “Their joint cover is all separated. I checked their systems, they’re integrating on an MP5 tac-grid, local net, standard encrypt.”

“That’s about as safe as primed plastique . . .”

“No shit.”

The main ballroom was broad and extravagant, filled with expensive guests sipping champagne and snacking from tables beneath gleaming chandeliers. Red-gold leaf decorations covered the broad ceiling. The band was African, guitar and drums, strictly background music. Hardly a techno rage, Ari reflected, gazing about as they followed the security through the milling crowd and mingling perfumes, and up a side stairway that climbed the ballroom wall. The balcony ran in a big U across the ballroom’s far and side walls, descending to the floor via the staircases on each side. Uplink graphic unfolded across Ari’s internal vision, showing him the meeting rooms and auditoriums that lay beyond through the corridors that sprawled across the lower floors of the hotel. Dark suited security stood at intervals along the balcony, covering the doors that led back into those hallways. Observing the guests with dark, intensely scrutinising stares.

“Wait here,” Ari told Ayako, before following his guide down a corridor that led off one side of the balcony. Headed past hurrying hotel staff and caterers and caught a brief glimpse inside a room through a closing door. Well-dressed people inside seated about broad display-equipped tables, deep in discussion. This, quite obviously, was where all the real business was taking place, away from the chattering masses of the ballroom—high-powered meetings between high-powered Tanushan and off-world elite, complete with five-star catering. Another corner, more security suits, and an innocuous side door. It opened onto banks of mounted displays, three security monitors seated before them, uplinked and visored, scanning all rooms, corridors and network monitors simultaneously in a multi-layered rush of sensory data.

An uplink was available by a mobile unit. Ari took the chair, slipped on the visor and connected the input socket to the back of his skull behind the right ear—wham, the uplink hit him, vision glaring across the visor, datalinks and modules in colourful three dimensions. He selected, scanned, then picked out the correct links, sorting through the oncoming rush with practised skill.

“Ayako, give me a feed.” Flicker and bloom, and a second, real-world visual scan overlayed his schematics, a first person’s view over the ballroom—Ayako’s view of the milling crowd. “Good . . . I’m going to run you a sort-and-match, give me as much resolution as you can, show me those upgrades were worth the money you spent.”

“I’m government now,” Ayako replied smugly, “the CSA pays my bills.”

“Yeah, ain’t that a laugh.” He hooked the feed to the datasearch and let it run on auto. Guest names ran by, files, associated links, connections. The scan raced across the net, branching out from the hotel across Tanusha and Callay beyond, searching for incriminating data and matching faces in the room. The database continued to compile, and the list of suspects ticked slowly downward.

“Why not just use the ballroom security scanners?” asked one of the seated security techs, watching his progress with curiosity.

“Not safe when the system’s been branched,” Ari replied distractedly, “you can’t even trust that the monitors will show you the right face if they see it.” The sec-tech blinked in astonishment.

“Realtime graphical replacement? I didn’t know even the CSA can do that?”

“Hey, it’s Tanusha. The biggest network geniuses don’t work for the government, you know.” Not until he’d joined, anyway.

Ari, meanwhile, switched attention to the back rooms. Seven meetings were in progress through the various hotel suites he counted, and several others that didn’t look so formal. Two of the senators and the Progress Party rep were in the second floor executive suite above the main kitchen on the floor below. Security there was super tight. The other senator was just two rooms down from this security hub. He switched to local visual and got an internal view of one of the rooms—five people, seated and standing, sipping drinks and deep in discussion. The display screen was running, someone was demonstrating a stats schematic of some business model or other.

He scanned the faces, zooming for closeup. The senator was Allesandra Parker, Progress Party again. All of them were Progress Party, plus the rep. Curious indeed. Parker, Ari knew only too well, was a good friend of high-tech industry, didn’t care much for social policy, and hobnobbed frequently with the corporate movers and shakers. Pan to the man conversing with her . . . Ari recognised him too without effort, Arjun Mukherjee, Bantam Technologies CEO. Big-time infonet company, very big recent moves into implant interface software. It made waves because the interface modules themselves were threatening to override what the neuro-researchers were calling the brain’s natural “load capacity,” or the amount of digitally generated information it could handle without augmentation. Neuro-augmentation was of course a touchy subject in Tanusha. It warranted much discussion amongst policy makers, and they with their constituencies. Allesandra Parker’s position was well known. Mukherjee’s went without saying. The potential profits involved were, as always, colossal.

The auto-scan abruptly fingered a possible and Ari switched scans back to the ballroom, finding that an Asian woman in a glossy red dress had been highlighted. Too old, and wrong background, a few seconds’ further pursuit showed him, especially considering who he thought he was looking for. But still, an unannounced breach . . .

“Who’s this?” he said to the room at large, and flashed them the image on general freq.

“Um . . .” The woman in the seat behind did a fast scan. “. . . not on the main list, must be one of the sublist invites . . . hang on, I’ll check.”

“Sublist?” Ari frowned. Spun his chair about to stare at the young security woman. She looked barely twenty-two, S-3 were recruiting them young these days. “What sublist?”

“Oh . . . A-list guests had the option of selecting their own invites, security vetted them, of course, full checks . . .”

“Which security?” A very, very bad feeling was building in the pit of his stomach. As bad feelings went, this one rated among the very worst. “S-3?”

“Of course.”

“You double-checked the IDs? Counter-forgery?”

Frown from the puzzled young woman. “No . . . should we have? They were all selected by A-list, security-cleared guests . . .”

“Who submitted the list?”

“Mrs. Tatiana Chernomirsky, she’s public liaison for the Government Trade Department . . .”

“Get her here, now!” In a tone of voice that turned the young security woman pale and wide-eyed as she rushed to comply. Ari switched frequencies, heart thumping, his mouth abruptly dry as all his previous contingencies went up in smoke. “Ayako, there’s a sublist of guests submitted by some damn Department woman, they didn’t run checks for shifters . . .”

“Oh shit,” Ayako summed up succinctly, “you never trust civil servants with security, I thought everyone knew that!”

“Okay, that could mean any number . . . we might need backup here. Be ready, there’s overlapping security concerns here, we don’t want to trigger a panic or they might end up shooting each other, for all I know . . .”

“I’ve got a good view here, if we evacuate it’ll be spotted and that could be a trigger. Let’s just stay cool and find them first.”

Ayako was keeping her head, Ari noted with relief. Probably better than he was. Dammit. He wiped sweaty palms on his thighs.

“Sir,” said the young security tech, “Ms. Chernomirsky’s on her way, she was just about next door.” A monitor screen showed a well-dressed woman walking up the nearby stretch of corridor. Ari unhooked from the monitor, went out the door and met her halfway.

“Oh hello,” said the rather attractive civil servant, blinking pleasantly, “you must be Mr. . . .”

“I need your sublist of invited guests. It’s not on database. I want full attachments and I want it immediately.”

Confused blinking. “Of course, it’s on my personal datacomp . . .” turning back the way she came, “. . . if you’ll just follow me . . .” Ari followed, heart thumping, pushing vision enhancements into multi-light, the corridor turning to a wash of red and gold before him. “. . . is there some kind of problem? I’d swear I followed all the protocols . . . what we’re given, actually, is a standard form. CSA issued them to all government departments just last week, I believe, and we’re all trying to follow them as closely to the letter as possible . . .”

People passed in the corridor, hotel staff, mostly, and a guest on his way out of the men’s bathroom, wiping newly dried hands upon a handkerchief. Ari’s hand itched to reach for the gun holster beneath his jacket, but he did not want to start an alarm yet. He monitored his position in the back corridors, passing another smaller function room as they turned into a wider thoroughfare. Big double doors, an electronic noticeboard pronouncing a guest speaker at some earlier hour, attendees still milling around discussing the recent presentation. Adjoining double doors from the next presentation room up ahead, a security man on duty, doors opening to admit another guest from within . . .

“Oh look,” said Ms. Chernomirsky, “there’s Mr. Carvuto now. He’s one of the sublist invitees, perhaps he can help us . . . Mr. Carvuto!” Walking eagerly toward him as the dusky, clean cut young man turned to look . . . his eyes missed her completely, and locked on Ari, trailing a step behind. His eyes widened. Ari’s did.

Carvuto ran, with Ari exploding past the startled Chernomirsky in pursuit, ripping the pistol from its holster . . . no time for silent formulation . . . “Ayako, got one. Track him and watch for responses!” Carvuto slammed a pair of guests screaming to the ground, smashed a stunned security agent with a well-placed running elbow and vanished about the next left corner. Ari hurdled bodies and ducked, rolling around the corner . . . shots exploded overhead, blasting chunks from the walls, Ari rolling up, pistol tracking as Carvuto kept running, firing back past his side. Security appeared in front, Carvuto changed targets real fast and blew him messily in half. Ari fired from a tight crouch against the wall, three quick shots precisely between the shoulder blades . . .

The explosion blasted him backward, flaming wreckage and shrapnel shredding the hotel walls like paper . . . Ari rolled, arms over his face as the secondary explosion decimated the walls further up.

“Ayako!” he yelled on open channel amid the crackling flames, hissing fire retardant and screeching emergency alarms, “it’s fucking suicide rigs. They’ve got themselves primed to blow! Don’t shoot them with people around, the blast’ll kill everyone!”

“Ari!” Frightened and bewildered amid what sounded like the outbreak of mass panic in the ballroom. “Are you okay?”

“Get the sublist off Chernomirsky’s database!” he yelled, rapidly getting drenched by fire retardant as he heaved himself up on one knee, aware of flames crackling dangerously close and noxious fumes in his lungs. “It’s on her personal datacomp, rip the codes to pieces if you have to, just get it out. I don’t have time! Get anyone who came in with a guy called Carvuto . . . it was Hector Iglasio, the fucker recognised me . . .”

“Iglasio! That’s Vanguard. I bet Yueman and Christophson are here too . . . Wait, I don’t need any sublist, I know what the fuckers look like . . .”

“Great, good, go!” He staggered upright, cursing himself for not thinking as straight as Ayako in a crisis. He knew Christian Vanguard’s main goons as well as any underworld hack . . . Found himself being roughly grabbed by the arms and dragged stumbling around the corner . . .

“You okay?” shouted a man over the noise of alarms and fire . . . Not even security, Ari noted—the man holding his arm was a guest. Where the fuck were security? Uplinks rushed in as he accessed, racing across the local network . . . oh, of course, that was where they were . . . “Sonny, you hearing me? Oh hell, your arm’s hurt . . .”

He stared down, and found the jacket sleeve of his left forearm pierced in several places. A considerable amount of blood was seeping out. Human bombs. Shrapnel, ball-bearings. Recalled the wall being decimated beneath a hail of exploding metal . . . God only knew how it’d missed him, maybe being set off accidentally had triggered it wrong . . . It should have hurt, but of course the enhancements took care of that too.

“I’m okay,” he gasped, his lack of breath surprising him as he steadied against the corridor wall. “I’m CSA, you’d all better get out that way.” Pointing unfeelingly with his damaged arm. “There’re exits on the other side of those rooms . . .” His uplink-map showed him so. “. . . don’t try to get out the main doors. There’s important senators and stuff that way, security everywhere . . . they’re the targets, you get me? Keep away from them, the bad guys aren’t interested in you, only senators.”

And beat his way clear, off down the thoroughfare, shoving and weaving past screaming, panicking guests emerging from side rooms or looking wildly about for lost friends . . . Uplinks showed him the way, a staircase ahead and main corridor leading back to the ballroom on level one. All the security were up here on level two where the senators were, but the underside was vulnerable . . .

“Ayako, see anything?”

“Nothing, everyone’s panicking, there’s a mad crush headed for the exits . . .” A brief flash to visual channel, Ayako’s overlayed view of the ballroom from the level two balcony. Crowds of running guests swarming toward the main staircase and entrance hall . . . “Anyone could be right under me and I couldn’t see them, I’m going to get down there . . .”

The staircase descended left and Ari hurtled down it, leapt the last seven steps and hit the ground running, avoiding major collisions through good luck and agility . . . The ballroom doors ahead were ajar, hotel auto-safeties activated for evacuation, and most people were running in the same direction he was. Ari roughly collided with someone on the point of entering, bounced off breathlessly, staring around the huge, increasingly empty ballroom. Tables overturned, glasses and food platters strewn and broken across the floor, instruments abandoned . . .

Gunfire crackled from out beyond the grand staircase, accompanied by an explosion of warning yells over general frequency . . . Security broke and ran across the ballroom, hurdling debris. More yells for help and backup . . .

“Come on!” came Ayako’s yell from the right-hand stairway leading up to the balcony above, a small figure in a long-tailed leather jacket pelting down the steps . . . Uplinks showed the firefight outside, someone in the gardens by the side exit way, pinned down and spraying fire. Another, they thought, might have gotten in through that exit, though cover was now on the way . . .

“Wait!” he shouted at Ayako as she hit the bottom step. She spun, frustrated, security racing out down the main steps beyond. Ari stared blankly ahead, only marginally sighted on her or the ballroom. Ayako’s eyes widened. She recognised that look.

“What? You think . . . ?”

“Senators are that way.” Pointing back and upward to the corridors leading back from the balcony above. “Security just went that way.” Pointing out at the main entrance. “That’s not right.”

“Shit, how powerful are the bombs?” She strode quickly his way, angular Intel-issue pistol comfortable in her small hand. Ari shook his head, racing full speed through the uplinks, scanning all available hotel schematics and getting way too many blanks . . . the blast had taken out half the hardware network. The inner convention centre was effectively network blind.

“Powerful enough. I’d guess someone’s chem-lab plastique, directional shrapnel front and back. It went straight through the walls back there . . .”

“Would it go through floors and ceiling?” And saw at close range . . . “Oh shit, your arm . . .”

“It’ll last ten minutes.” Distractedly. “I’d be almost as worried about the firearms. He had an Ubek-5, he was taking out whole pieces of wall back there. That’s the HE-shells—if someone’s got AP mags, he wouldn’t even need to blow himself up, he could shoot through the floor.” The volume of gunfire from beyond the main entrance had increased to steady, irregular bursts—covering fire, Ari figured from the schematics before his eyes, pinning the infiltrator down while someone moved around for the killshot.

Another rush-scan through the nearby rooms . . . S-3 had only enough personnel for level two, not enough for top and bottom. He determined several signals on S-3 frequency that showed agents in blocking positions about the ballroom level, but there were plenty of gaps, especially with half the network hardware missing . . .

“Take that side,” he said to Ayako, pointing across to the other doors in the ballroom’s rear wall, beneath the overhead balcony. “I’ve got this one . . . remember if you have to shoot, shoot for the head, these things could be uplink triggered.”

In which case there was no guarantee, he reckoned, as he darted back up the corridor he’d come from, that blowing the bomber’s brains out wouldn’t also trigger the explosion. Took the first right into a small meeting room. Comfortable chairs set about a central table, doubtless for comfortable covert meetings between various involved persons. His uplinks got no reading on the room through the open doorway beyond. He flattened himself against the side wall, darted a quick look around, then followed, with gun levelled one-handed. Rear corridor, much smaller than the mains. Staffroom down one way, dead-end door with no-admittance notices. Closed. They shouldn’t be closed with the auto-emergency systems opening everything for evacuation. He edged sideways down the corridor, pistol trained the opposite way, covering his more vulnerable side. Uplinks gave him nothing beyond the closed staffroom door either.

He spun and kicked in one smooth motion, pistol searching as the door smashed open . . . there were lockers, cabinets and drawers for various staff things in rows, narrow aisles between for access. No sound, beyond the echoing wail of emergency sirens, and the background crackle of reports, gunfire and schematic audio in his ear. The room smelt slightly stale, telling of less than perfect ventilation, and too much shoe polish and body spray . . . and something else.

He crept forward, darting a quick look into each aisle between the big storage rows . . . and was little surprised by the dark-suited body lying face down in the third aisle, head bent around at an unnatural angle. S-3 monitored each other’s vitals, was his immediate thought. But the network was chaotic, damaged, and various encryption channels weren’t working at all. A quick attention to his uplink schematics showed where the next obvious hole in the perimeter would be.

He turned and walked, briskly, weapon ready. Running was too dangerous now. In this proximity, he needed time to react. Down the narrow corridor into the broader thoroughfare and turned right where the main traffic would continue straight ahead—that was carpeted, with wall signs pointing toward convention rooms. The way right was bare floor, and the open doors down the end revealed wide steel benches for food preparation.

Ari entered the kitchen sideways, back to one side door, weapon ready. Switched quickly across to the other side. The kitchen was broad, divided by several long aisles, benches, microwaves and other kitchen stuff between . . . Ari didn’t know, he preferred takeaway most nights. He rolled quickly behind the near benches, and crawled.

Heard muffled activity, close by, like someone rearranging gear. A clatter that could have been a weapon on a steel counter. Whoever it was was in a hurry. He reached the end of the bench and rolled fast to his feet, pistol levelled. “Don’t move.”

The man froze. He’d been standing on a counter, out of sight of the main kitchen entrance behind the tall storage units, now side-on to Ari’s position. Attempting to stuff something into the space between the big storage cupboards and the ceiling. He was wearing formal pants and shoes like any number of guests, Ari noted, but his jacket was lying on the counter alongside his feet, and his plain shirt bore crease marks in unusual places. The bundle he was attempting to stuff into the gap between cupboard and ceiling dangled harness straps, close-fitting, low-intensity magneto locks, undetectable on basic security scan. God knew how they’d gotten the charge past the detectors, though.

“Hello, Claude,” Ari said. The pistol fixed an unwavering sight upon the blond-haired young man’s left eardrum. That was where the uplink transmission would come from. With his own systems at full-max, Ari reckoned he’d detect anything serious in time. Human encrypt formulations weren’t exactly millisecond fast, and personal bombs would require serious encryption to avoid them going off in random traffic. “Change your mind about the ‘suicide’ bit, did you?”

“Ariel.” With jaw-tight frustration. “I might have known. Did you kill Hector?”

“Hector killed himself. His death was pointless and achieved nothing. Yours will be too unless you deactivate that stupid thing and step down here. You can’t penetrate the floor with that explosive, anyway, it’s too thick.”

A blatant lie . . . at least he had no real idea of the truth. But Claude had the position spot on, directly beneath the room now holding the senators. He’d done his homework. And, at this range, Claude had enough uplink capability to detect if Ari made a transmission to warn them. Ari knew he had that capability, it was on file—a file he himself had written. If Claude tried the trigger, Ari knew he’d have to shoot to kill. And Ari wanted a live interrogation. This much of a security breach warranted some serious analysis.

“Hector’s death was not pointless,” Claude retorted, clenched jaw trembling. Not looking Ari’s way. “He has gone to a far better place. As will I. You, however, Ariel, are in question in this regard.”

“You’re running around the city blowing people up, and you question my Godly virtue?” Damn these guys were funny. His arm was suddenly throbbing. “That’s . . . that’s creative, Claude, really.”

“Ariel . . . Ariel, in the Lord’s name,” Claude burst out in frustration, glaring with wide, trembling eyes in his direction, “you’re a smart man, can’t you see? Can’t you see what’s going on? This . . . this is lunacy!” Waving a hand about, encompassing the kitchen, the hotel, the entire teeming city of fifty-seven million.

“You’re damn right it is.” Thinking furiously. He couldn’t patch-and-disable Claude’s uplink trigger by remote, Claude could mistake it for a warning transmission and blow them both to pieces. He needed to knock him out cold, but carried no stunner. Dammit. Last time he made that oversight.

“Ariel, I know about you . . . most of my friends know about you. Opinion is divided but I, I, Ariel, I alone believe you to be a decent person. But you serve the wrong side, why don’t you see that? These . . . these people, Ariel, they believe in ungodly things, they would vote for things that would forever warp and . . . and distort all of humanity in evil ways, and they would use this vote in the houses of power, Ariel, and life for all God’s children would never be the same again!”

“Claude,” Ari said, with what he thought was commendable calmness, “I respect your beliefs.” Holding up a placating free hand. The arm was definitely throbbing now. It made concentration difficult. And holding one’s temper. “I respect your beliefs, and I respect your right to hold them—and to voice them to whoever may choose to listen. But there are other ways to voice your beliefs than to go about killing people . . . ‘thou shalt not kill,’ Claude, does that ring a bell?”

“Like they’re killing us?” Eyes blazing. “Like they’re wanting to turn us all into some . . . some damn synthetic machines for their profits and their portfolios and their grand corporate empires!? Like they’re wanting to kill our souls, Ariel? Dammit, man, how can you be so naive? You know better than anyone how the system works, you’re a part of it! You know the politicians are in the corporate executives’ pockets! And you’re protecting them, you’re protecting the whole, twisted, immoral system!”

Like it was such a horrible, sinful thing to do. Well, Ari’d heard that one before. And from saner people than Claude Christophson. He pursed his lips in exasperation.

“You know, Claude . . . you’ve nearly convinced me. Really. Why don’t you put that explosive vest away, and rather than blowing yourself and all your very convincing rhetoric into very small pieces, you can live on, and stay here in Tanusha . . . You’ll get a trial, it’ll probably be public, with all the civil rights attorneys who’ll no doubt do your case for free because of the publicity . . . You’ll get a planet-wide broadcast podium, everyone will be listening, and then you can tell them all what you’ve just told me and everyone will believe, and then everything will all be right again. What d’you say?”

Too sarcastic, was his immediate thought. It was his usual flaw. But Claude actually hesitated. Ari could see it in his eyes, the faint uncertainty, the pause for thought. And maybe, just perhaps, that little voice of self-preservation whispering in the background, looking for excuses, reasons to be listened to. Religious loonies always believed their truths were universal. That there was such a thing as truth itself. It was their weakness.

A blue flash lit the air. Claude jerked and convulsed, then fell from the bench.

Reflex overcoming initial surprise, Ari leapt forward, awkwardly catching the falling body one-armed, the other ready in case the vest tumbled from its hiding spot . . . it didn’t. He dumped the young man’s limp body upon the floor between stainless steel benches and checked his vitals. Racing heartbeat, but he was still breathing.

“CSA give you that too?” he asked, searching Claude’s pockets.

“Of course,” said Ayako, coming down the aisle and repocketing her stunner. “You can get them through the underground, of course, but they’re too expensive.”

Ari found the sidearm, an Ubek-5 again, and plenty powerful for a concealed weapon.

“That Claude?”

“Yeah . . . I think he’s the last. There’s at least two outside. Four’s the absolute limit I’d have thought could get in. The rest of it looks pretty well covered.”

“And you left someone alive to question this time.” Ayako sounded impressed. “You’re evolving as a CSA operative, Ari.”

“First guy who gave me a choice,” Ari replied, finishing with one leg, then the other. There was a light thump as Ayako leapt onto the counter behind, and started to gingerly remove the explosive vest from up against the ceiling. “You know,” he added, “I always picked Claude for a nutter, but suicide vests are just a bit extreme.”

“The future of the human race is something that tends to make them a bit upset.” After disarming the vest, Ayako pulled it down. A simple contraption, a basic vest with flat, body-hugging pockets, a few wires and a trigger switch. Too slim to be visible under an evening jacket. “You know, if this keeps up, you’re going to lose all your lunatic friends very shortly.”

“Oh no.” Ari gazed down at the young terrorist’s calm, sleeping face. “I can always make new friends. Plenty more where these came from.”

The swell was large today.

Sandy sat on her board, part submerged in the heaving sea, and watched the churning curl of the last wave pass, thundering on toward the beach. Breaking, a muffled roar of collapsing water, headed for the distant shore. A surfer emerged from the churning wash, nose first, and resumed paddling. Lost, momentarily, as the swell took her down again, and moving dunes of water rolled between, glittering in the pale light of an overcast sky.

The wind was changing. Sandy turned to face into it, brisk and salt-smelling from the southeast, blowing leftwards along the north-south coastline. And tending now to onshore, she thought, as it whipped at careless strands of salt-wet hair, narrowing her eyes as it chopped the heaving seas to a broken mess. Soon it would be completely onshore, and the scudding patches of low cloud would turn to thick, blackening thunderheads, dark with the lateness of autumn.

Another swell lifted her, and suddenly, she could see a long way. The long, thin line of coast, stretching away to the southern distance. Nearby to the right, Lindolin Heads, a flaring mass of dark rock and sprawling reef, the surrounding sea flat with white, broken wash. Further out, the breakers pounded, exploding white spray along the outer reef. Beyond, a pleasure boat was cruising a rolling, bounding course through the roughening seas. Back on the near beach, the small figures of people, watching from the shore.

The other surfer continued out on a different angle, briefly hidden by the rolling swell. It was no one she recognised.

Weather for serious surfers, she thought idly, scanning the surrounding sea for other dark, wetsuited figures upon the broken surface. There were several, widely spaced across the broad stretch of beach front.

A faint smile played at her lips. So she was a serious surfer now. Vanessa thought so. Vanessa had wanted her company at lunch, with friends and family. Vanessa hadn’t understood how a weather report could make that impossible. A serious surfer was surely someone who, given several hours’ respite from the worst security crisis the planet had ever seen, would grab her board and wetsuit from her CSA locker, hire a flyer from a regional hire company and head out to the coast. Most agents spent such precious time-outs sleeping, or, like Vanessa, catching up with friends and family, mostly unseen for the last few weeks. Lacking family, not needing much sleep, and her attention consumed with the surf report, Sandy’s priorities were different.

The swell loomed up in front, not quite the correct angle of face. She let it go, a giant heave and rise over the lip, then sliding down the back. Roar and crash as it broke behind her, churning on toward the beach. A wonderful sound. The last opportunity she’d had, on a precious rotating weekend off, she’d camped overnight on a beach near this. Vanessa had been with her that time. Lying in the dark, wind rippling the canvas tent walls, they’d talked about many things, and looked out the window mesh at the stars, while the waves had pounded and roared out in the dark.

Meteors that night, she remembered, reseating herself upon the board, facing the wind. Shooting stars, Vanessa had called them. Another of those strange civilian terms, unconnected with reality. Yet all the more charming for it. Sandy gazed out into the freshening wind, beyond the lumpish horizon of sea in motion, and remembered the most spectacular meteor storm she’d ever witnessed. Nothing natural could rival the aftermath of a trans-orbital battle. Wreckage that burned in brilliant flares, flaming pieces that lit the sky in their multitudes and turned a moonless night to noon-day glare. Yet another difference between her perceptions and those of the people around her. She had stopped counting long ago.

Further out, another dark swell was looming . . . and another behind it, she saw, as another rise took her higher . . . even larger than the first. She thought it looked very nice, very promising. And felt a flare of excitement, watching that first, looming wall of water grow. Rode it all the way up, a fast ascent, then plunging over the lip as she saw, to great delight, that the second had indeed been worth waiting for. Roar as the first broke, rushing away. She lay flat and turned the nose of her board back toward the shore. Behind her, the mountain rose, dark and glistening.

And then it was on her, several sharp thrusts from her arms to accelerate as the board tilted forward, and the massive wave lifted her clear of the flat surface . . . then plunging forward, upward shove from tightly gripped hands, and a smooth swivel got her feet under her. Firm grip of bare skin on the roughened board as she plunged and bounced down the huge, racing wave face. Decelerated at the bottom and cut hard left, back up the face, shooting upward and slicing back . . .

. . . and for an exhilarating, flying moment, she hung upon the vertical face, high above the flat sea below . . .

. . . and plummeted down, a rush of wind and racing water, a mad vibration of board on water that jolted through her legs. Sudden explosion of foam everywhere, half the lip collapsing behind as the wave broke, and she cut left again, aiming to keep ahead of the surging mess. Up and racing at double velocity across the face. Flat sea below, balanced midway up a rushing, vertical wall that roared with howling, salty wind and spray.

She laughed out loud, soundless against the roar. Trailed the fingertips of her left hand along the racing wall-face, and at that hurtling, shuddering velocity, it felt solid as concrete. Spray erupted along her path as she zigzagged madly up and down the vertical face. And then, with heavenly grace, the lip curled over to fall like a giant curtain on her right, and she was in a tube.

Time slowed. Encircled by rushing, shimmering water, everything echoed. The curl of arcing sea above her head was possibly the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. The world turned green and shimmering blue, refraction of moving light and water. It was eerie, and heavenly, and utterly exhilarating.

And suddenly ending, as she shot into open sky amid erupting spray from the blowhole effect, the wave collapsing further ahead. She cut back hard right, falling downslope, and sensed the rest of it falling in behind her, like a cliff-face collapsing. Everything exploded, with massive force, blasting her forward . . . within which she held her balance, inhumanly, and came back down on her feet . . . except that the board was no longer under her.

Wham. Roaring silence, everything churning over. Muffled thunder. A few exploratory strokes, to test resistance. Direction. Up from down. Felt herself rising, as the foam passed, and stroked in that direction.

She broke the surface, a rush of light and sound. Hauled her board in by the leg strap, grinning uncontrollably, and looked around for the next set. There was another one out there, rising nicely and coming her way. What a day. She threw herself jubilantly back onto the board and began paddling back out to sea.

Frequency alarm—a sharp register in her inner ear. She frowned, still paddling, and accessed. Click and response, a merging tune into frequency . . . a shielded line with priority code, but no message. A specific recall, just for her. Someone wanted her back at work. She swore, loudly. Several more strokes and she decided that she had to stop paddling. Dammit. Ahead, the next wave exploded into towering whitewash, and she was nearly too annoyed to bother rolling under.

She emerged from the water several minutes later, board under one arm, bare feet trudging over rough, shell-strewn sand. Wiped dripping hair from across her face. Refused to hurry, the recall would have told her if it were urgent. More damn procedural rescheduling. Some politician had probably slipped in the shower and twisted her pinky. To hell with politics, didn’t they know the surf was up?

She walked along the shore, sand plastering her wet feet, and headed for the ranger’s bungalow on stilts that overlooked the beach from the height of a neighbouring dune. Surfers gathered about. Boards, clothes and towels, and carry bags for a day trip or longer. She walked among them, dripping, getting looks from many of the men as she went. Broad shouldered and somewhat less than tall, she was hardly the long, leggy, wand-like surfie-girl ideal. But broad shoulders came with broad hips, and compact, lithely muscular curves, pronounced enough, as Vanessa said, to take your eye out.

Sandy knew very well what she looked like in a wetsuit. She’d been told often enough lately. And in a city where the predominant skin colour was brown, and the predominant natural hair colour was black, attractive blonde Europeans got more than their fair share of attention.

She reached her bag where she’d left it on the sand, shouldering it without bothering to check the possessions—here among the surfer community, no one worried about rare urban concepts like common theft. Besides, no one stole stuff in Tanusha. The very idea was beneath majority criminal contempt. There were so many infinitely more valuable things to steal in Tanusha than the contents of surfers’ carry bags.

>From the beach it was a fifteen minute walk through scrubby dunes and along a pressed-earth road to the small park designated for flyers. Groundcars parked haphazardly along a roadside that was definitely not equipped for auto-control, wearing ruts off the road shoulder. Sandy recalled one of the locals saying recently that the council had wanted to build carparks to accommodate all the traffic, but the locals wouldn’t stand for it. Scrub turned from low bushes to trees as she walked along the roadside, board under one arm, and the most hi-tech thing she could see was the solar panel atop the public toilet, near the mouth of the path that led to the camping ground. Sandy had long decided she liked it better this way, all natural bush and sand, a fresh breeze blowing and the roar of surf upon the air. But she kept a careful eye upon the occasional groundcar that rolled past on its way to or from the major western freeway ten kilometres off—out here, all cars drove on manual, a skill Tanushan drivers rarely practised. Despite the onboard computer assist, away from the urban central network several still managed to end up nose first into trees.

The flyer sat upon a rectangular, grassy clearing off the roadside behind a line of tall trees, one of an angled line of other flyers. It was already humming in the pre-flight mode she’d initiated with a mental uplink. She stowed the board and climbed to the driver’s seat without bothering to remove the wetsuit from her lower body. Engines thrummed within the nacelles, and the ground fell away below . . . the field with its row of parked flyers, the road to the beach, then the white, rippling dunes, a pale line before the turquoise ocean, broken in white, frothing lines . . . all laid out below, the short distance she had walked, maplike.

Sandy gazed regretfully at the ocean for several lingering seconds, at the churning white froth of a break, at a big swell looming further out, a glimpse of a surfer, plummeting joyfully along that advancing wall of ocean swell . . . She reangled the thrust and banked away from the ocean, heading inland and gaining altitude.

Rajadesh passed below, a single main street, some basic buildings and side streets, holiday accommodation and not much else. Beyond, and all about, the trees grew thick, green and profuse. To the left, the glittering tangle of waterways that made the Shoban River Delta. At a further distance to the right, the looming peaks of the Tuez Range, a bare, rocky spread of tall, broken landscape. Above, the broken grey cloud seemed near enough to touch, scudding by at noticeable speed as she angled the nacelles to cruise. Spread before them, and seeming quite close at even this low altitude, was the forest of tall, reaching towers that was Tanusha. Like a forest of gleaming sticks beneath a dull and broken sky. It spread for many kilometres to either side, towers too numerous to count. One of the greatest, monolithic civilisations in all human history. Home.

The skylane brought her into Tanushan airspace at .86 kilometres, four hundred metres above the uniform Tanushan height for mega-highrise. Towers sprawled in clusters in every direction, central regions fading to suburbia and back again, and the sky was alive with a profusion of air traffic. Sandy recovered her makani juice from the little refrigerated glovebox where she’d been saving it, and took a long sip. Offhandedly decided to interface through a local connection, high bandwidth receiver. A fast reception and in, zooming through a section of regional infrastructure network as her eyes and hands effortlessly followed the lane ahead.

Scanned on a range of securitied levels, searching for telltales, anything with that certain scent about the codes . . . sipped again at the makani juice, flying one-handed as she waited. Rush of data, freeform and tangible, network branches sprawling in an orderly, tangled mass . . . click, right there. She zoom-scanned and focused, there was a feeder-monitor of some description attached to one of the central control relays, part of the air traffic grid. Put there to monitor something, obviously. Small system, to escape curious attention. A fast probe showed it as official. Illegal to hack, not to mention difficult. A quick push further, through linkages open only to her . . . and caught the active trace . . . there was something about the diversion flows, the way each key linkage was siphoned off through fancy accesses . . .

Which meant . . . she did a further quick break-and-enter, using a series of coded combinations that would have frightened certain security types if they’d known she possessed them . . . and found the connection, and the data trail, and the spot to which it all pointed.

She turned about in her seat and looked. Could see, a brief glimpse through the rear-side window past the nacelle, a small spot among many such spots, cruising innocently on a parallel skylane. A fast flash-zoom through the gap between nacelle and window-side—a Chandara Falcon, large cruiser, darkened windows. A type commonly used by government agencies. Three point one kilometres away, with a clear monitor-fix upon her flyer.

It annoyed her no end. She accessed another, more familiar code, and awaited an answer. Got one, several seconds later.

“Sandy?”

“Hi, Ricey,” she said, racing ahead on a separate link, checking out her assigned flightpath. “Are you on call?”

“I just got out of my car. I’m at the apartment, thought I’d better change. What’s up?”

“I’m in a flyer on the way back from Rajadesh Beach, and I’m being followed. Chandara Falcon, no identifying marks, just over three clicks away but they’ve got a jobby monitor somewhere in the local airgrid infrastructure. It’s feeding to them direct.”

“Official?” Vanessa sounded concerned.

“It looks that way, but I can turn orange if I decide I’m a pumpkin. I was wondering if I should run a trace.”

“Hell no. Run a fix and throw it priority over to Ops. They’ll nab him and ask some questions.”

“Even better.” She smiled, doing that in a flash, full position and fix data, straight into CSA Ops, where the traffic rider ought to be receiving some very interesting information right about . . .

“Hello, Snowcat, this is Ops,” spoke a formal, unrecognised voice in her inner ear. “Your queried vehicle is black-flagged. Do you require further assistance?”

A “black flag” meant government. More than government, it meant official, authorised, and not to be messed with. Sandy took in a deep breath through flared nostrils. The texture of golden light upon a gleaming tower shifted shade to pale—heat-light amid a darkening curtain of infrared. Independent movement highlighted, cruising aircars, a beckoning awareness, precursor to targeting-vision. The vibration of engines thrummed with enriched texture upon her eardrums, unveiling whole new shades and levels of sound and complexity.

She thought about taking it higher. Thought of contacting Ibrahim and putting the question to him directly. He’d told her the SIB were watching her. She hadn’t thought it meant a tail on her surfing trips. She hadn’t thought it would include a tail this blatant at all.

But there was a time and a place for such inquiries. Her instinct told her that this was neither.

“No. Thank you, Ops.” She changed frequency, upped her encryption, and reconnected the old hookup.

“Sandy? Shit, is this another of your key-grade encryptions? This stuff gives me a headache.”

“Tough. Ops says it’s a black flag.” Pause on the other end. Sandy’s own readings showed the Falcon still with her, feeding off the air-grid fix. Her right index finger felt jumpy, the strain feeding through her hand, back up her arm. The redness had not left her vision.

“Well, you did kind of expect it,” Vanessa pointed out.

Sandy made up her mind, reflexively slipped half-tranced into attack mode, and infiltrated the air-grid monitor through her connection.

“That I did,” she replied shortly, eyes unsighted as she found the trailing aircar’s defensive barriers. Broke them with her best combination and released a killer-cell, military-level code destroyer, a selective virus that fed on complicated software. Many years of League military ingenuity did their job and the Falcon’s civvie ID beacon gave a shrill, panicked screech, and died.

“But,” she continued, seeing a clear wobble show up on her nav-scan, “I’ve decided that I’ve had enough of being tailed. It’s a clear security risk to me and my broader circumstances, don’t you think?”

“Obviously,” Vanessa agreed. “Someone unofficial could imitate a black flag, or use their surveillance as a cover. You want me to talk to Ibrahim?”

“Not necessary.” The Falcon, Sandy registered through her own links, was being queried by central flight control as to their lack of ID beacon, and their erratic flightpath. The Falcon gave their flag ID. And announced a flight emergency. Flight systems failure, massive systems malfunction. Backups operational, they were headed . . . somewhere. It didn’t register on the flightpath. Sandy reckoned that with their systems down, she might be able to infiltrate far enough to find out that one, too. But she didn’t want to push her luck. “I just nuked them.”

“Subtle,” Vanessa said dryly. Then, “Shit. Oh well, makes things a bit exciting, I suppose.”

“That’s the Dark Star concept of surveillance, Ricey. If you don’t know where the bastards are, send them a mail bomb and watch where the smoke rises.”

“This is a flammable environment, Sandy. Everything burns.”

“Not me,” Sandy told her, taking another sip of her drink. “I’m resistant. Didn’t you know?”

“I could have guessed.” Still dryly. “Since you’re airborne, you want to give me a lift?”

Vanessa came jogging across the landing pad to the rear of her apartment building, two gearbags bundled under her arms. Tossed both in through the open rear door, and climbed in the front, up beside Sandy.

“Hey-ya.” Looked at Sandy’s wetsuit-clad lower half, loose arms tucked between her back and the seat. The doors closed, and Sandy fed on the power. “Good waves?”

“Excellent waves.” Throbbing vibration, and the flyer heaved off the pad. The rooftop awning flapped in the downdraft, above empty rows of car space. Sandy noted Vanessa’s government cruiser, alone in her spot. Next to Sandy’s vacant space. Rows of garden ferns rippled and waved, dropping away below as they gained altitude. “They ought to be just about perfect right now.”

“Oh well, we all have our sacrifices to make.” Vanessa stretched. And silenced the blinking panel light by buckling her seatbelt. The apartment building’s approach lane began to turn horizontal, and Sandy angled the engines once more. The rooftop slipped away below, giving way to now familiar neighbourhood roads beneath a spreading canopy of trees.

Further down Tago Road were the stores at which she now did her shopping, and got takeaway when it suited her. Further on still, beyond the Leung Street intersection, was the Santiello swimming complex, rectangles of blue water in a break in the trees, surrounded by decorative green gardens. In the opposite direction, Romanov Park, sports ovals about a central garden of lakes and drooping native willows. Beyond, the Subianto Stadium, grandstands looming in the middle distance.

Suburban Santiello. Vanessa had lived here for the past four years, and liked it. The only serious highrise was over to the southeast corner, where the Lantou Tower loomed skyward, and the crossstreets converged into full-on mega-density downtown. But mostly, Santiello was mid-to-low density suburbs, residential living, and an eclectic mix of architecture that largely did what it pleased. Some complained of a lack of ethnic-chic . . . but for the odd mosque or church . . . but Sandy thought it little to complain about. And Vanessa declared that she did not want to live in a postcard.

It had been Vanessa who had suggested Sandy take an apartment near her own. In the same building, as it turned out, that being specialised for government employees. And it had made certain official, bureaucratic types happy that the reliable, security-approved and “rising star” (a term she hated) SWAT Lieutenant Vanessa Rice was living next door, and taking care of her. Making sure, Sandy had supposed, that she did not assault the occasionally noisy neighbours, disembowel the somewhat coarse-mannered grocer on Tago Road, or, as Vanessa herself had suggested, bring home bevies of pretty, innocent Tanushan boys to molest in her apartment at her leisure. God save her from bureaucrats. And social conservatives in general. And representatives from the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare. Those most of all.

“How did lunch go?” Sandy asked, remembering. The airlane climbed toward a merge with a lower altitude lane. The flyer cruised ahead, engines fully swept, as towers loomed in a sky scattered with traffic.

“Awful,” said Vanessa, quite pleasantly. “Just awful. I’ve never been so glad to receive a callback in my life.” Vanessa, Sandy had noticed, was prone to exaggeration. “I swear, I have the most obnoxious relatives in Tanusha, did I tell you?”

“Many times.”

“My aunt-in-law . . . good grief, ninety-four years old . . . is suing her surgeon for some pointless hearing enhancement she had done two weeks ago—she claims it’s given her insomnia. She can hear the bats squeaking to each other in the trees outside the bedroom.”

“I can,” said Sandy.

“Hearing enhancement, at ninety-four! Cost her half her savings . . . she doesn’t eat well as it is. She thinks she’ll make a hundred and thirty on enhancement alone. Doesn’t believe she still has to worry about trivial things like diet and exercise . . . spends half her life on immersion hookup . . . you seen that adreno-glactic sim?”

“I have.” Turning the music volume up, still soft enough to talk over. The engine noise was a gentle thrumming, erasing all higher tones to Sandy’s ear—she had to tune consciously through it to grasp higher sounds. Not all GI sensory enhancements were perfect.

“What’d you think? Cheap junk?”

“Direct immersion VR doesn’t work on me, Ricey. I don’t have a reflex hook-in, it’s all conscious.”

“I’m telling you, I tried it, it’s crap. It’s like bad sex, you get all excited only to be let down.”

“Now bad sex,” said Sandy, “that’s an oxymoron.”

“You’re an oxymoron,” Vanessa retorted, grinning. “Three hours a day on adreno-glactic, six hours for that crummy magazine she works for, that’s nine uplinked hours a day . . . And she calls friends direct, won’t talk to anyone who uses a phone. People like her are what’s scary about infotech, you can spend your whole life plugged into a machine and not realise the alternative . . .”

“Ricey,” Sandy said, smiling, “you’re bitching.”

“Of course I’m bitching. That’s what friends are for, they bitch to each other. Only you don’t bitch anywhere near enough, it’s got to be unhealthy. So I bitch for the two of us . . . it’s quite an effort, you should appreciate it. You’re seeing a master bitcher at work. It’s an honour and a privilege for you, if I do say so myself.”

“You talk for the two of us,” Sandy corrected. “If you’d occasionally shut up, I might get some more practice.” Vanessa ignored her, wincing and flexing her left shoulder. “Damage?”

Vanessa nodded, rubbing with a hand and grimacing. “Feedback. I still haven’t gotten that suit adjustment right.” Sandy reached over with her right hand, keeping her left upon the controls. Took a firm hold of Vanessa’s shoulder, and probed.

“There?”

“Further up.” The hand moved further, and Vanessa winced, wriggling the shoulder. “More. More. AH! Just there . . . oh yes.” Sandy applied gentle pressure, and felt thumb and fingertips digging in. “Ouch! Not so hard, you’ll rip my arm off.”

“Complainer.” She massaged, gently. Was careful not to exceed the reflexive tension generated by the feedback through her fingertips. It was an accustomed reaction, around straights, and as with all hardwired reflexes, it was difficult to shake. It wasn’t at all likely that she would hurt Vanessa. But she could, hypothetically at least. It was a constant concern, and she was never careless. Never.

“Oh yeah . . .” Vanessa leaned her head back, eyes closed and smiling. Soft, dark-brown curls fell about her brow. Slim, fine features. Beautiful, Sandy thought. Delicate. And living proof that some qualities went no further than skin deep. She massaged with careful fingers along the offending length of muscle, probing the collar bone along that slim, small shoulder. “You’re good at that.”

“I’m good at everything, remember?”

Vanessa’s dark eyes opened slightly, and fixed her with a lidded, contemplative gaze. “If it weren’t the truth, you’d be insufferable.” Sandy smiled, steering them through another gentle bank one-handed, massaging Vanessa’s shoulder with the other. Armour strains were always a problem . . . although not so much for herself. But she, of course, was the all-time leading consumer of massage time in the entire CSA, hands down. And Vanessa was the one who usually got stuck with the duty. She never missed a chance to even it up a little.

Vanessa wriggled the shoulder again. “That’s much better. You’ve got it. I’ll have to put you up for loan, charge by the hour. I’ll make a fortune.”

Sandy smiled. And worked her hand carefully up the shoulder toward Vanessa’s neck. Vanessa grinned, and lowered her head, allowing Sandy’s fingers to press and rub at her neck muscles, generating effortless, powerful, careful pressure.

She watched Vanessa’s expression in her peripheral vision, and enjoyed making her wince with pleasure. It was such an easy thing to do, with her fingers on Vanessa’s neck. It amazed her that it should feel so good to do so. That’s what friends are for, Vanessa had said, about her bitching. With perhaps no real idea of the warm feeling that such a simple comment should provoke. It was unexplainable. Like the fingers on her neck, gently massaging. Like the smile it provoked upon Vanessa’s lips, and the occasional low groan in her throat. Friend, she supposed. Perhaps that was all there was to it.

She smiled to herself. Nearly wishing, whimsically and not for the first time, that she herself was bisexual, like Vanessa. That would have been interesting indeed. And sometimes, just sometimes, she suspected that Vanessa wished something similar, if only from curiosity.

But she wasn’t. And try as she might, she just couldn’t conceive of it. Her ever-curious mind did, it seemed, have its limits, however hard she tried to push her thoughts beyond the realm of the comfortable, or the familiar. Vanessa was beautiful. But she wasn’t attractive, not to her. Women weren’t, never had been, and never would be. Not sexually. It was almost disappointing to realise. It was an experience that she would never have. And sex with a person she merely liked was one thing . . . sex with someone like Vanessa . . . well, that would have been something else. Something she’d had so rarely in her life. Something meaningful.

She sighed. And thought, just then, that she recognised the wry, contemplative smile upon Vanessa’s face, eyes closed with calm pleasure. It was their private joke. That a massage was as close as they would get, in that respect. A substitute. And she was suddenly certain, in a way she rarely was with civilians, and straights in general, that she knew what Vanessa was thinking, right at that moment.

“It’s not cunnilingus,” she ventured, “but I bet it’s pretty damn good.”

Vanessa’s smile grew to a grin. And she broke up laughing, doubled up against the restraining belt. Sandy stopped massaging, hand on her friend’s back as she shook with laughter. Grinning broadly herself at Vanessa’s controlled hysterics.

Finally Vanessa recovered herself. Wiped her eyes and leaned back in her seat. Sandy put both hands back on the controls, still grinning.

On an impulse, Vanessa unhooked her belt, leaned over and kissed Sandy firmly on the cheek. And leaned back, in the corner between the seat and the door, to contemplate her.

“No,” she sighed, “it’s not as good as cunnilingus.” Grinned. “But what is?”

“Penetration,” Sandy retorted playfully.

“Nonsense. You’ve got a phallocentric brain.”

“No, I’ve got a phallocentric vagina.”

Vanessa found that hysterically funny, and laughed for another twenty seconds straight.

“Which is kind of a pity,” Sandy ventured further, once Vanessa had stopped. Vanessa sighed.

“Yes, your phallocentric vagina is rather a pity. I feel sorry for it.”

“Please don’t, it has too much fun.”

“I know, I can hear it laughing.” Grinning broadly. Vanessa gave Sandy a rough shove on her shoulder. “Don’t you go feeling sorry for me, Sandy. Me breaking up with Sav isn’t the end of the world, I’ll find someone else to keep me happy. Or someone else’s.”

“I wasn’t feeling sorry for you,” Sandy retorted, “I can’t imagine a one-man life, anyway. Leaving Sav is the first thing I’d have done.”

“Gee,” Vanessa snorted, “thanks for your concern.”

“I was thinking,” Sandy pressed on, “that I like you just about enough to want to make you happy by screwing you senseless, but the catch is that I don’t find you the slightest bit attractive sexually. Which is a pretty big catch.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa sighed. “You’d be as much fun as a cold trout. But thanks for thinking of me.” With amusement. “That’s what makes you such a cool friend, Sandy, you don’t know the rules yet. No other girlfriend I know would have brought it up.”

Sandy snorted. “Well, hell, what would I know? I’m just a glorified kitchen appliance, after all.”

“I said I like that about you, you moron,” Vanessa retorted. “Don’t change.”

“Hmmph. That’ll be a task.”

“Yeah,” Vanessa sighed. “Yeah, it sure will.” Silence for a moment. Headquarters was approaching. Another minute ahead, and the designated lane began angling downward.

“You want your neck done again?” Sandy suggested brightly. Vanessa grinned.

“No thanks. It was making me horny.”

Breakaway © Joel Shepherd

1 comment:

Diara Dominy said...

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