Robert White


Chapter 1

The survey ship Last Ditch sat in a parking orbit scanning the new world beneath her. It seemed untouched, it was untouched. Pristine and unchanged by sentient hands, except at one small campsite, and the years-old traces of a single trail that led, or more precisely came from, exactly nowhere. Calling the survey team "vexed" would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Finding any reasonably habitable world was the reason such survey ships existed. Actually finding one that was even remotely habitable in the normal sense was very rare, and quite lucrative. A paradise of compatible flora and fauna like the one they circled would make them rich beyond the dreams of avarice. If, that is, said paradise didn't have any claimants or indigenous sentient residents.
This planet had exactly two such residents.
One basically human and one clearly not. Both apparently male. Both possessed of no less than iron-age and no more than steel-age technology. Both literate in at least one language. And both principle claimants to, or more precisely standing in the way of the crew claiming, a fortune.
The crew had been working feverishly to resolve the facts.
Once the language barrier had been breached, the first question mutually asked was "where did you come from?" The survey crew had been fairly frank about the orbiting space ship and its origins. The "indigenous" pair had been interested and attentive, but not particularly traumatized by the idea of space flight. When the crew asked how the two had gotten there, they insisted that they had walked. Their story was consistent and demonstrably true, such as it was. A continuous trail of old campsites and temporary shelters could still be detected meandering halfway across the southern continent. They could consistently retell that journey but everything they had to say about what came before that trek seemed to be an impenetrable mishmash of religious allegory and fantastic mythology.
There was no sign of a landing site, ship crash, or escape pod on the whole bloody planet. There was no way the planet had ever supported a sentient population, let alone the culture and industry required to supply the ore and facilities to make the various possessions and swords they both carried.
By now the entire crew had considered more than once how much easier their lives would be if the two enigmatic strangers simply had never been found.
Ship's doctor and geneticists Andrea Alton Perez, self-appointed linguist and ambassador, sat stewing amidst the increasingly dark tension, and nurtured an idea. She knew the rest of the crew quite well after all this time. She was also getting to know, and like, both of their "problems" quite well. And they were talking about a vast amount of money. Splitting that money eleven ways instead of nine would be no hardship on any member of the crew. It would be an incredibly difficult deception to engineer, the entire crew would have to agree, and would have to help create and maintain the necessary fictions, probably for the rest of their lives.
The revised history would be simple. The "rescue" of two travelers from some kind of ship and then the "discovery" of the "unoccupied" planet would be recorded as separate events. In this fiction the rescuees would have agreed to join with the crew instead of demanding they be returned to port, which was perfectly within their rights as shipwrecked citizens. Then the crew, newly bolstered to eleven had found this rich world.
There would be records to falsify and details to hide aplenty. But the ship's company would be the only ones who could dispute the disbursements from the ship's trust. One dispute would bring out the truth and immediately reclassify their prize as an interdicted world, so who would complain?
Doctor Perez smiled, cleared her throat pointedly, waited for everybody to look her way, and said "I've got a thought..."

Chapter 2

Raio's soul longed to be sailing through the great void along a milky river of stars, but that was never going to happen. Generations ago someone discovered the gateway to the stars lay within the stars themselves. No man would ever sit a lonely watch eight light-years out from a vast stellar nursery, staring in wonder at a cloud of luminescent hydrogen as it gave birth to a thousand suns. Instead traveling to distant stars was about getting a scheduled shove or four into an overcrowded and over-mechanized, extremely low solar orbit and then punching your way into a nanosecond of oblivion. Then there you are, orbiting another sun almost indistinguishable from the first, being shoved again, out of that valuable low orbit into one or another squalid habitable zone.
Raio took off his glove, thumbed the lock on the door and waited a few beats for the thing to open. Security scanners hated him and he really wished they didn't, even as he hated them right back. Every day he reported to work by sneaking in through this otherwise disused entrance. The door was there to let troops get directly from the staging area to the transport deck in case of civil disorder or emergency. Raio used it because it was the path of least resistance from the street to his locker and the safety of his uniform.
The door unlocked with a slight pop and he pushed his way through, slipping his ID-shield glasses off as soon as he was safely inside. The automated scanners blazed across his vision once, and then once again as he headed up the hallway to the changing area. Out there somewhere, in some other building, possibly halfway around the world for all he cared, a system flagged him as an anomaly and possible intruder, and asked for human attention. He was carrying his Civil ID and it began arguing with the building security system like it did every day.
There were no isolation gates along this hallway so he didn't get held up by any automated systems. He walked quickly and directly to the briefing room, and straight through it to the day room, and back into the locker room. Every person he passed was already in uniform and each of them looked at him. They had to. Each of them received a tiny gnat's buzz of alert from central security as he got near. Most just gave him a nod but Kevers said "hey rye-oh" while keeping a discrete distance to prevent mishaps.
And then he was safely at his locker.
Raio pressed his hand to the plate and the locker door opened. A series of telltales, all nicely green, made a comforting pattern down the door post. Inside there was a custom tailored uniform, his SELComm, his weapons, and, for those very special occasions, his ablative armor. It was good for a guy like him to be in the military police. Security systems hated him, it wasn't paranoia it was medical fact, but once he was in his uniform he would be part of the system and largely immune to its vagaries.
The whole thing went on in layers. The skin-suit with its bio-neural interfaces and trans-dermal taps, the light-duty armor cloth that would protect him from a normal knife or bullet, the brown clothes that were the true uniform, and then the harnesses for his SELComm, his side arm, and the other tools of his trade. Last came his boots which not only fit perfectly but also latched into the bottom of the harness.
Raio took his SELComm out of its charger. The Secure Engagement, Logistics and Communication Module had an instruction manual several hundred pages long, but it boiled down to a few essentials. Check the display, check the battery, check the case for damage or excessive wear, and look at the interface contacts and the chemical reformer ports to make sure they are clear. Its storage rack constantly maintained the device, but the manual says you check, so you check. The last thing you want is to have the thing fail on you in the field.
Installing the SELComm into the receiver on the front of his right thigh brought his gear to life. The mottled off-brown clothes shifting quickly through a series of colors and patterns before dropping into a comfortable even black. Trace amounts of blood and lymph were extracted from his body through the transdermals and analyzed. A telltale appeared on the small screen of the SELComm and shifted through a series of colors and shapes as Raio's neurological and biological condition was evaluated and recorded, and he was added to the system. The screen faded and Raio felt the hairs on the nape of his neck rise momentarily as the antipersonnel field in the harness went to full strength and then dropped back to passive mode.
Apparently the system didn't think there was anything wrong with him today.
The armor didn't slide out to greet him, so his posting for the day was probably civilian, and he wasn't one of those paranoid types who liked to wear his armor anyway. Just as well, the stiff protective plates did nothing for your ability to get around freely and having to sit for any length of time was impossibly uncomfortable.
He clipped his baton into its receiver on his left hip and holstered his sidearm on his right, each of which was immediately surveyed and its key-numbers and conditions were logged. Then he secreted the myriad of other bits and pieces of his equipment into the pockets and receivers designed for them. Finally he attached the optional user interface along his left forearm. He was one of the few people he knew who actually wore the UI module every day, but voice recognition systems didn't like him either, so having a key-entry system around was just too useful. He tucked his gloves and cover under his arm and then closed his locker.
On the far side of the room he approached the only machine he hated no more or less than anybody else. Everybody hated the thing, you just had too. He put his chin on the rest, pushed his forehead against the plate, and lasers began blaring at his eyes. The machine didn't scan his retina, thank god, since that was the kind of thing that always made machines distrust him. It didn't have to. The SELComm said he was square with the system and this machine just needed to do its job.
After a moment to consider size and shape and current condition of Raio's eyes, the machine laminated them.
It made his flesh crawl every time, and even after several years of duty, it was still the single biggest Ugh in his day. Having it out each night before he went home was number two, but that was more of a sticky pasty Yech.
It was still worth it. You do not need to get flashed by retinal scanner when you are in an urgent situation. You really don't need to have to deal with a deliberately jacked scanner blinding you when you are entering a suspect building. And the very last thing you need is having some lowlife taking an illegal scan of your eyes and then selling your identity, or using it to track you down off-duty.
The stuff could stay in your eyes for nearly two weeks with no negative effects, and then it would start to flake away in an itchy, gritty, but also harmless, mess. But if you weren't wearing a SELComm you couldn't go anywhere with your eyes shielded and not expect a hassle. The whole thing was necessary and safe so he tolerated the spritzy foaming gel that fizzed and globbed around in his eye sockets until it formed a dulling film that made his eyes look muted and silvery-flat even as it improved his vision.
Safe in his cocoon of technology Raio left the locker room.
Kevers was loitering around out in the hall, talking to a couple of the guys. To a man, the rest of Raio's squad were waiting in the hall, everyone but Kevers standing around in their street clothes waiting for him to come out. As soon as Raio hit the door, they broke up and headed back past him into the locker room, nodding friendly greetings as they passed. The whole unit knew about his little technology problem and made allowances. As the guys brushed passed him there was no sign of the careful distance Kevers had observed earlier. There were no security alerts stalking any of those people through the building, so there was no chance of Kevers' or Raio's antipersonnel system giving any of them a punishing jolt.
Kevers patted Raio on the shoulder and said his name and rank. It wasn't a gesture of friendship, even though it was done by a friend. Their SELComms exchanged security tokens and Kevers' checked his own bio-signs. Once it decided Kevers was telling the truth and wasn't under duress, Raio's SELComm was added to a continuous web of trust that spanned decades and star systems. It was the final human validation of Raio's identity.
Raio went to main briefing, flopped down into a chair, pulled the display plaque from his UI and called up his economics coursework. He wanted to be a voter but getting the necessary degrees was taking a long time. He couldn't learn by wire, and RNA imprinting technology made him physically ill. That left learning it all the long way. He was just glad that he had enough brains in his head to take care of it. He'd already finished his mandatory term of public service. He liked the job enough to stay in service, and he already had advanced degrees in virtual-mass physics and music, so he was almost qualified. The economics coursework was different. Raio was beginning to suspect that it didn't actually make any sense and normal people only thought this stuff was reasonable because they were preconditioned to think so by their wire-bought programming.
The real answer was to study, and like countless students in countless generations before him, figure out the answers he had to give to pass while he kept his real opinions to himself.
All around him the men and women of his tactical unit filtered in from the locker room. They were loud and friendly and generally a well functioning bunch. Raio tuned them out affably while he did his reading and they affably let him. It was a familiar scene and it went along about the same as always. The group came to order and Raio put away his plaque as the commander came in.
The commander dropped his briefcase on the table with a thud and thumbed it open.
Raio wanted to groan.
There were twenty five little cylinders of blue gel in the case. An RNA augmented chemical briefing. Depending on the content he might be really sick really soon.
The tubes were handed around and even the commander took one, never a good sign. The receiver for the vial was built into the harness just beside the SELComm mount, and nobody would get their dose until everybody in the room had them loaded. Raio flinched as he slid the vial home, even though there was no pain involved yet.
All twenty-five vials emptied themselves at once and Raio imagined he could feel the stuff migrating through his gear and seeping against his skin; creeping up on him. But he knew the slick feeling he had close to his skin was really just his own flop-sweat. He set his mind on ignoring the self-fulfilling prophecy and re-extracted his plaque to read the mission briefing. It didn't look serious enough to rate a chemical briefing. They were all going to hop out to the planetary transfer station and run second-tier support on a smuggling raid. The details went on for a while and he studied them to the exclusion of all else.
Raio didn't realize he was missing the briefing, or shivering, or sweating, until he felt the cold bite of the recombinant pharmacopoeia strapped to his leg pour something into his bloodstream.
He looked at the telltales for a moment and then the around the room. Tania, whom everybody called Ton-Ton for no apparent reason, gave him a slight nod. To dose him without his consent either he'd been registering as an injury victim or at least three of his squad mates had to have authorized it. It was always good to know his team had his back. By the time he was back to himself the briefing had gotten to the point where the commander gave his customary "I trust one of you will bring Raio up to speed" look and walked out.
At times like this Raio felt like a burden to his team. They wouldn't agree. To them he was just a tad peculiar in a bunch of small ways, only the least of which was his odd problem with machines here and there. In the field he was solid as a rock and brave to a degree just short of foolhardy. Socially he was a good friend, fun to be around, but ready to help you out of any jam. And on a carouse he could lay out an endless pile of hurt without causing the slightest wisp of harm. In short he was something between squad leader and team mascot, and nobody minded it when he went back into the locker room and spent a few minutes puking after a blue-briefing.
"That seemed a little worse than usual" Tania said as he came out of the stall.
"Yea, I wonder what was in there that wasn't in the text," he said just before taking a pull from a bottle of mouthwash.
"Hadn't thought about that" she said, a little puzzled, "there weren't any specific people mentioned in the briefing. Just general mission parameters. Go to the transfer station and look for anything unusual. Intellectual property smugglers I think."
He spat out the wash, already starting to feel the inevitable hunger. "That's probably it. `Anything unusual' is a pretty broad order. Probably scavenged a bunch of habits and memories from the station workers for us so we'd know `unusual' if we saw it."
They headed back to the day room, and Kevers pressed a public-ration into Raio's hand. They knew him so well. He tore open the wrapper and took a bite. Uniform, bland, tasteless, and nutritionally complete. The human kibble was universally available, free for the taking, and deliberately designed to make you not want to eat it unless you had to. They could all afford better, but since it was the only food to be had without leaving the station, it was better than tasting bile all day.
Raio's return from the bathroom was the unspoken signal. As they walked through the day-room and out into the main corridor the rest of the unit casually formed-up around them. It wasn't an emergency deployment. They didn't take the door he'd used earlier, they took the long way around to civil transport. A bus was waiting for them and they all piled in. It was a standard military-issue hybrid transport. Two rows of seats facing center so that the whole unit could get up and out the back in a hurry.
Raio found his seat and pulled out his plaque again. "So why do they need us?" He looked across at Davidson and Kevers. Neither had an answer and the plaque was useless.
Ton-Ton just said "Something must be getting through customs."
"Then juicing us wasn't very smart. It'll just make us overlook the same things as everybody else."
The bus started to move. Silent, smooth, and electric. First on wheels and then on suspensors when they got onto the highway. The routing system treated them as just so much cargo, which was good because it let them drive directly into the heart of the transport and distribution center. Civilians and even staff had to walk in from subway or transit parking.
They all got off the bus, formed up, and started walking like they each knew exactly where they were all going. Raio just fell in and went along for the ride, just like he always did when that happened. They weren't quite in parade order. They were just a hair off. Walking casually out of step, instinctively ready to become a combat unit, but not marching around making the civilians unhappy.
They headed straight for an orbital-transfer junction.
The planetary transfer station was in a coerced geostationary orbit directly above them. A multi-mode laser kept two small masses, one here and one there, entangled at the quantum level. Around each mass was a ring of identical rooms. A Tao-Zerner-Knuth field projector could extend the entanglement into one of those rooms here and its counterpart in orbit with such intensity that the two spaces temporarily become one. Put something in that combined space and then let the field collapse just so. Collapse it in one direction and the material `stays' in the planet-side room. Collapse it in the other direction and the material `stays' in the off-planet room. It was expensive, exclusive, a little delicate, and nearly instantaneous. It was for rich, important, or necessary people in a hurry. Most things went by cargo lifter.
Apparently they ranked very high today.
There was no sensation of entering the entangled space and there was also no sensation when the field collapsed.
The light was red, they waited. The light turned amber, they walked in. The light turned green, they walked out.
"God I hate that thing." Kevers whispered.
Raio grunted in agreement, "you don't know the half of it."
"Just don't tell me anything I don't need to know, okay?"
"Got it."
The transfer station was simultaneously dirty and clean in the way that only a busy near-orbit space station can quite manage. There was very little actual dirt, but a continuous skim of residue and condensation fought with the cleaning and recycling systems to leave the entire facility feeling a little greasy, with overtones of disinfectant and overcrowding. The effect steadily worsened as the squad worked its way down from the high-rent sections into the bowels of shipping and receiving.
They peeled off in fours, Raio following Kevers, Davidson, and Ton-Ton. Kevers was his usual partner, just like Ton-Ton was Davidson's. When they worked by fours the two teams were almost inseparable and they meshed without effort. They moved in and out of all sorts of operations throughout the station smoothly and nearly without notice. They almost seemed to not be anywhere with any particular purpose, like a roving cloud of coincidence. The entire operation was so subtle that virtually nobody noticed that there were hundreds of military police in ones, twos and fours crawling all over each of the transfer gates and economic portals. Only Raio ever seemed to trip up on anything, but that was to be expected since his biology was actively fighting the RNA programming.
It was during one of those little mistakes that Raio saw it.
He had a moment of almost double vision. He was looking at a group of men manually moving a long, tall, thin crate through an IP scanner by hand. On one side, the blue-briefing said this was normal, on the other side something was nagging Raio incessantly. Without breaking the rhythm of the casual conversation he was having with Kevers, he secretly nudged a key-switch on his UI, activating his SELComm without making the characteristic hand-clap gesture that would let everyone know he was starting a computer interface.
The device leaped to attention. He put his right hand under his left bicep up near his armpit and made a couple of hand gestures that nobody saw. The device read the movements through his gloves. One was a command to activate the bridge into port security and the other was a stealth code. A nearby security scanner flashed his eyes once in acknowledgment. He glanced at the shipping crate, making another gesture, and the system took note. It was good to be part of the system.
Raio brushed Kevers into a slight turn. At the touch both Kevers and his SELComm learned their half of what was going on. As their comms conferred, Kevers took up the burden of smalltalk with a long joke Raio had heard before. Raio was really looking over Kevers' shoulder at a holographic node; the public terminal kept running its normal general announcements, except to his exact field of view. What Raio saw was the shipping information and freight manifest listings for a certain crate.
His arms crossed and smiling, apparently listening with rapt attention to the joke, Raio's right hand twitched and flicked, navigating the document and its attachments. Then his smile went very wide.
"You've heard this before?" Kevers asked him smiling back.
"Oh yes, I think I have."
"How sure are you?" Kevers asked, reaching out to casually punch a button on Raio's UI, activating the subvocal audio channel for their team.
"We have a shipment of high-end office equipment, `boardroom table tops', listed as fragile, going out through the human-handling-only ports. They have to stop repeatedly for the Information Property scanners to check each workstation position because the thing is too long to be scanned all at once. The feature list for the tables includes `dedicated optical links between each station', `enough storage and processing power to accommodate the most demanding presentations' and" he scanned the specs again for a second, "`quantum scramble erasure of internal storage to prevent leave-behind attacks."'
"Wow, sounds pricey..."
"It is that. More to the point, while the middle stations are being probed data can be sent from one end to the other without being scanned. The scrambling means that the last station scanned won't even have leftover traces."
Kevers thought about it for a second then said "we have a breach."
Once spoken, those words began relaying the information and evidence through the security net to annalists and command staff. Meanwhile the other teams started receiving alerts and casually moving into positions from which, if orders came, they could act. They couldn't just jump in, they needed orders. The "far side" of the transfer station was a Treaty Space and while there was a breach, an opportunity for data to flow, it didn't mean that the breach was being used now, nor for that matter that anybody actually knew the breach existed.
But all sides had to know that something was going on today since the police were up in force.
Central security was doing a risk assessment. Policy and Affairs was probably checking ships registries and affiliations of every ship in or near the transfer station. Coded intelligences were rechecking every ID listed for people in and near the ongoing breach, where "near" probably included the entire environmental containment section. And the assault teams continued to saunter and shift about the place until every security station, every bulk head, and every choke point seemed to have an officer or four within arms reach. They had plenty of time, there were twenty-seven more of the tables waiting to be scanned.
And then someone somewhere messed up.
Or deliberately tipped their hand.
Every retinal scanner in the transfer station system, both in-orbit and planet side, came to life at once. Not casual random scans, and not the systematic scans at points of entry. Every person everywhere was re-scanned, re-identified, and triangulated at the same time. You couldn't miss the effect, and nobody did. People everywhere stopped, or started, or changed what they were saying and doing. Any chance at surprise was lost, and every person in each of the facilities was suddenly feeling guilty and self-conscious.
In the Treaty Space weapons started coming out, and Kevers muttered "shit" just as a crush of data began to sag through every system.
The first wave was a storm of personal information as every node was notified of the "new" identity and position of each person. Then there was the weapons alerts. Then there was a flush of customs, visas, and permit updates. And finally there was all the panicky inquiries and freelance news-net requests and reports.
Raio and Kevers didn't know or care about the whats and whys of any of that. They saw the flash that couldn't blind them and then almost instantly felt the dual tingling sensations of their antipersonnel fields coming up full and a synthetic adrenal compound flooding through their transdermals.
Raio was trained for this, even though he never thought it would happen for real. In subjective slow motion he looked at Kevers telltales, then across the way to Ton-Ton for confirmation, as if there was any doubt. The red triangle with the black X across it was unmistakable. The words "Free Action" jumped into his head triggering a wealth of military training and conditioning, and right behind it was another compatible body of training the military knew nothing about.
All of their sidearms were on full power and full auto before they even started to reach for them, but while every other officer drew their guns, Raio drew his baton. His eyes scanned the crowd one face at a time. It seemed to take forever, but he seemed to have forever; and then he saw it.
One face different from all the others.
One face that held no sense of surprise, that showed no confusion.
One face moving slowly but with purpose toward a docking port.
He and the stranger locked eyes for an instant and then moved at the same time.
With perfect confidence in the conditioned responses of his team, Raio moved. In two steps he reached the invisible wall of the AP field fence that separated the common area from the Treaty Space, and jumped through it. Normally the SELComm and the fence would have synced up and let him through seamlessly, but there was no open data channel. His personal AP was out of phase with the fence and a blue-and-while nimbus surrounded him in bright numbing pain for just an instant. His military-grade fields were very good. They drew away the pain and shock even as his momentum took him through the fence.
He didn't even flinch. With the extra adrenals in his system he probably couldn't have flinched if he'd wanted to. He was moving so fast he seemed to outrace the civilian reaction to the bright flash, but the distances weren't going to be his friend. He already knew that he'd finish a close second in the race to the docking port. Whatever ship was out there was probably sovereign territory.
Behind Raio there was a double or perhaps triple flash as his team followed him through the AP fence.
In front of him, two men were coming up out of the docking port. Armed.
While the left side of his brain thought longingly of his ablative armor back in his locker, the right side of his brain took a swing at something with the baton. He didn't even know what it was, he hadn't really looked at it. There was a sharp report, a tiny jar snaked up his arm unnoticed, and a glinting random something described a bright frozen arc from the top of a crate to the face of one of the emerging men.
The first man fell back into the ship below just as a stuttering lance of violet pulsed out from behind Raio and slagged the docking port control pillar. Leave it to Ton-Ton to make the right choice, and a precision shot on full auto at the same time. Autonomous safety systems immediately began sealing the docking airlock. The second man dropped back into the ship before the doors could trap or crush him.
The escaping figure turned and it finally registered on Raio that he was chasing a woman. A very fast, very angry woman who just discovered she wasn't going to get away. The point was driven home by her sudden choice to attack them. To suicide. She was going to try to get herself killed. Which told Raio she needed to be taken alive.
And then they clashed.
The experience had a life of its own. She was augmented, illegally so; skill wires hyper-extending her reflexes, increasing her strength, and blocking pain. He was juiced to the gills with sharply rising levels of the best tricks science could pack into the portable pharmacy strapped to his leg. He had a baton, and he discovered she had a blade of some kind. They each touched each other some with their weapons in ways armor, reflexes, and near reckless abandon absorbed and deflected. The military had taught and programmed Raio to fight with all the weapons in their arsenal, including his fists, and that was good. But Raio's father and his uncle had raised him to fight with instincts, and weapons, and a joy so primitive it would have frightened his drill instructors.
She was fighting to kill, he was fighting to subdue. He was in the air. He was on all fours on the ground. He was wherever he could find advantage against a shifting and aggressive target. Moment by moment he learned things about her while she tried to kill him, and then there was a crystal moment. In his first real fight for life he finally understood everything his father and uncle had tried to give him. The flash of thought nearly cost him his life, but all his training held. He began to conquer her in earnest.
He had to work his way in from the edges. Breaking an ankle here and a knee there. A wrist. An elbow. He would strike and she would not yield. She did her share of harm in return, but he managed that, taking what small harms he must in order to breach her defenses, never risking more than necessary. Finally he managed a series of blows to her head and body, each harder than the last, each skirting a killing blow by fractions, until he managed enough measured harm to drop her into deep unconsciousness.
Raio jumped up from the final blow, roaring in an inarticulate, furious joy.
He turned to his team unthinking, expecting a cheer or a... well something... and saw their pallor just as Kevers' SELComm telltale switched to a stylized purple lightning bolt, matching the ones displayed by Davidson and Ton-Ton.
He had enough time to register the symbol; medical emergency, sedation required; and a moment longer to wonder how long he'd been fighting; how long the data feeds had been back on line; before the icy grip of a paralytic roared through his mind.

Chapter 3

Raio woke all at once, but not all the way. One moment there was nothing and then, after a hair's breadth passage through infinite darkness, he found himself lying trapped in a suspension of medical gel, with just enough of his will missing that being restrained didn't bother him. Much.
A stranger's voice asked "How you doing there soldier?"
The question tipped the balance of his will for a moment "I don't know sir..." and then his will lagged again.
The strangers voice said "I think he's ready for you" to someone.
There were at least two other people in the room, shuffling around for a few moments, then a new voice said "look at me soldier."
Raio noticed for the first time that his eyes were closed. When he opened them he was uninterested to discover he was in a very high-end medical suite. Standing above him was a flag officer of some sort. He couldn't quite see the rank insignia, not that he cared, but he knew an officer when he saw one.
"Pursuant to regulations, I must inform you that you are being questioned under the influence of medical treatments that may affect your judgment or ability to act in preservation of your legal rights. Do you understand?"
Well of course he understood...
"Answer yes or no soldier, do you understand?"
"Yes sir, I understand." His voice sounded oddly definite, even though he thought it ought to be dreamier. He kind of wished they'd ask him if he objected, but it didn't seem that important.
"State your name for..."
Yet another voice cut off the second speaker, "Sir, I don't think we can proceed."
"The transcript sir, the transcriber isn't working right. We can't establish legal domain without a live transcript."
"What exactly is wrong with it?"
"I'm not sure, it's getting down what we say just fine, but its flagged both of his responses so far as `insufficient'."
"What do you mean insufficient?"
"Hold on sir..." Raio heard some mumbling "it says the voice recognition is less than seventy four percent accurate for the selected source."
"Why is it so low?"
Raio kind of felt that was a question for him and he found words leaking up out of him, "hates me sir..."
The officer turned back to him. "Explain soldier."
The other voice started to object but the officer shushed him.
"I said explain the machine's problem soldier."
Raio found himself searching his head for the right words. The complete answer just felt like too much work. It was too far away, too complex to be worth the effort to pull together and say. Finally two words, "freaking mutant," welled up out of him.
There was a little more moving and mumbling, and the very first voice came back. "I'll be damned, he's listed as gamma-variant humanoid." Raio decided that first voice was a doctor. "In fact, his paternal lines are only listed to one generation, and at that there is only a name."
The officer didn't seem to care much, "So what? why won't the blasted machine record his voice?"
"It's recording it just fine, the audio is clear, it just won't transcribe it correctly." That was the assistant again.
"Yes, but why?" The officer was sounding exasperated.
Raio thought `this is kind of fun' even as he threw another word, "harmonics," at them.
"Say again soldier?"
What choice did he have? This time his voice sound properly blurred to his own mental ear, the pauses between words stretching with vacancy. "Harmonics, inflections, aural cadences, bunch of little things..." The distant fuzz around his will was just starting to balloon into a pleasant floating sensation. "The machines pay too much attention... they can't just listen... they get lost."
"Damn it." The officer didn't sound happy, which bothered Raio not at all. "But you said the audio is recording okay? That will have to do."
The assistant said "that isn't legal" one more time to get it on the record, and then let it drop.
"Soldier, state your name, rank, and CID for the, uh, record."
"Raiolal Vasquez Carteher Neizchka-Perez," let um choke on that, "Security Enforcement Specialist First Class, ANX8828-41405-QV521."
"ANX?" the officer asked.
The doctor responded "matches the available record. No hospital of record or birth license. Fee penalty birth registration, paid in full at filing."
"Damn," the assistant said, "what's a rich boy doing enlisted passed his term?"
"Yeoman." the officer said ominously.
"Sorry sir."
"We are way off-topic. Soldier, do you remember how you ended up on sick call?"
"A fight sir."
"Yes, a fight, do you know with whom?"
Raio smirked at the memory. "Someone good."
"Someone good, yes, but do you know who she was exactly?"
"No sir."
"She was a military courier from the I.E. Alliance, with diplomatic credentials."
It wasn't a question.
"If you hadn't crushed every single one of her augment controllers we wouldn't have had grounds to treat her embedded systems. We wouldn't have gotten any proof she was receiving stolen goods, we also wouldn't have had any way to avoid a political incident.
"Of course if you hadn't attacked her..."
It still wasn't a question.
"How did you know?"
After an expectant pause dragged on for a while, the doctor quietly said "specific questions sir."
"How did you choose your target?"
He didn't have to think about that at all, "she knew."
"She knew what?"
"She knew the scanners were for her."
The voices were all silent. Raio started feeling something more ominous than floating. An urge he knew fairly well was starting to creep up beneath the pleasant vacancy in his mind. They were feeding him some RNA coded behavior modifications. He wanted to ask them if they were idiots. Hadn't they read his file?
He needed to yak.
The questions started up again but he couldn't bring himself to pay any attention to them, or his answers.
He should be twitching by now. He should be sweating. He ought to be doing something besides just lying there answering pointless questions.
Then he noticed something new, something cold and dark washing over his unexpressed nausea in building waves. A dark and foamy surf made of electric fire.
He wanted to scream but he couldn't do anything but wait for another question.
It felt like forever, a moment of tormented silence while some idiot officer pondered his next thought.
The officer finally asked his next question. Mid-response Raio's hand twitched. That broke the bonds in his brain and in seconds a frothing seizure buried him in a crush of lightning.
He started awake, barking out a single yelp, then relaxed into a nice normal hospital bed. The pain of broken ribs, deep tissue bruises, and split skin registered themselves with thorough urgency. Things were attached to him, medical things touching him clinically and uncomfortably, passing who-knew-what in and out of his body. There was something that felt remarkably like a shackle wrapped around his left leg and there was a guard on the door. He ignored it all and tried to sleep.
The door to his room opened and he was instantly awake.
A terminally cheerful orderly, doing his best to live the stereotype, stepped in with a tray. "Good, you're awake. Breakfast?"
Raio wanted to be angry, but the very idea of food overwhelmed everything else, filling him to exclusion with hunger.
"I'll take that as a yes." He put the tray on the universally ubiquitous adjustable hospital bedside table, and started in on all that opening and uncovering intrinsic to any medical dining experience. "Lucky you. Sequenced protein. And here, nutrient supplemented juice substitute. Yummm."
It was supposed to look like nice large pile of scrambled eggs, he supposed, but it didn't really. It wouldn't have made any difference. He would have eaten it if it were soggy public rations swimming in industrial runoff. Raio wondered at proper protocol. Was it more correct to kill the annoying orderly for trying to feed you something this awful or for taking too long to do it?
He reached for the utensils and stopped in wonder. How hard is it to bruise the palm of your hand anyway? And his forearm in a pressure cast, it didn't even hurt, but there it was. The fact that his face ached when his arms didn't, bothered him. Maybe that was why the orderly was so cheerful, maybe he was disfigured. He wanted to worry, but the hunger would not be denied, and Raio started shoveling in the food.
The orderly noticed the fleeting worry, and did his job. "They took pictures you know. You'll want um. Nobody is going to believe you when you tell them how badly you were beaten. You probably won't even believe it yourself," he said conspiratorially.
Raio looked up shocked.
"Seriously, when the last of the swelling and bruises are gone there isn't even going to be a mark. I'll have to show you the stills. They're the talk of the unit."
That didn't sound too bad.
"So what'd you do to catch a beating like that anyway?" That was real interest, not facade.
Raio swallowed a mouthful of the moist and wiggly tripe, "I won."
"Oh, `ought to see the other guy' hua?"
"No clue there. I just did what I had to do."
"How many were there?"
Raio looked up at him, suddenly suspicious, "depends how you count."
"Seriously, what happened? I was on duty when you came in and I've seen the news. I'm just curious, were you up on east-four?"
Raio stopped eating and pinned the orderly with an empty stare that drained his color away. The guy was probably just curious, but he could be trying to make a buck on the news-net. Hell, he could be military intelligence or an I.E. Alliance partisan for all he knew. When Raio was sure he had the man's undivided attention he said, in a flat empty voice, "I can neither confirm nor deny."
When he was sure he'd made his point, he smiled the best "no hard feelings" smile he could manage, and went back to shoveling the `eggs' into his mouth.
Later that day Kevers stopped by.
He was in full uniform, the muted silver-gray coating on his eyes making him seem distant. There was even more to the odd distance in him, like he wasn't sure about anything. He glanced around as if the room was watching him, and then tapped something out on his UI.
Raio snorted at him, he was acting ridiculous. "Since when do you wear one of those?"
"Well, rye-oh, someone has to be the company throw-back."
Raio checked his partners SELComm out of habit, and saw it was running a field diagnostic.
"Whats going on?"
"We've been trying to get in to see you for days."
"Days? How long have I been in here?"
"Nearly a week. No news, no status, no nothing. We thought we'd better come find out what was what. Iverson called in a favor and the commander did some off-color paperwork and, wham, I'm your guard this shift. What the hell's going on?"
"I have no clue, I just woke up this morning."
"Well, you have been all sorts of inaccessible. You were downright missing for almost two days. Now you are back in corps medical and there is a guard on your door."
"Am I under arrest?"
"No. Guard duty looking the other way man. Someone thinks you need protection."
"That can't be right." Raio went back to what little he could remember about his interrogation, if that's what it was. "I'm glad you all have my back, but you better get back on post. Something strange is going on here. Someone is bound to notice if you are in here much longer."
"Maybe, maybe not, Davidson is in the corridor."
"So what happened?"
"Why are you asking me? You were there. The place lit up, we went free action, and next thing I know you are charging across the line picking a fight.
"I have never seen anything like that man. It was like something from the trid, except without the effects. Then you got her down and... When you turned on us I nearly wet myself. I had the trank on you in a snap, then I realized you weren't attacking, but it was too late.
"It was just as well we tranked you though, you were all broke up. Cut down trough the armor-cloth on your left arm a good five times. We'd just got you to cover when suddenly there was brass everywhere.
"We couldn't get near you after that. Commander couldn't even get playback on the fight. Whole thing has been sealed internally, but there is some low quality trid of it leaking in across the net from off-planet.
"So what happened after they took you away?"
Raio had to think, there wasn't a lot in his head, certainly not enough to cover a week's sick call.
"Not sure, I think someone tried to chemically debrief me. I'm pretty sure I threw up all over at least two of them before I went down."
"Jackasses, didn't they read your file?"
Raio laughed, "I'm pretty sure that's exactly what I thought at the time..." then hitched up when the snicker twinged through his side.
Kevers laughed at that, then twitched, "I better get back outside, my comm's gonna be back on line any second. Glad you're good."
"Thanks for sneaking in, tell everyone I'm okay."

Chapter 4

The orderly had been right about everything. He didn't have a so much as a visible scar and the pictures had been damn impressive. But he was largely fine now, so why was he still on sick call. There was still a guard on his door and a shackle on his ankle. He wasn't actually chained to anything, but he knew he wouldn't get more that a few yards without something bad happening. That meant, in the larger sense, that something bad was already happening.
It'd been three days since he'd woken up and so far he'd seen the same orderly several times each day, Kevers once, and any one of several guards on rotation. Each of those had been a little off. The guards wouldn't talk to him, didn't wear any visible rank or identity insignia, and seemed to have the patience and diligence of machines. They stood silently in the hall just outside his open door and waited patiently for the end of time. In other words, they were blued to the gills.
And in the three days he'd been stuck there in his windowless room, not a single other person had walked by his open door. It was maddening. All he had was a trid and a voice operated public terminal. The latter was nearly useless to him and the former was plagued with the same tripe that infested every public media net in recorded history. If they'd just give him some gloves to use the terminal with he could at least study.
Shortly before he lost his mind, a Major arrived with a sheaf of paperwork. She breezed past the guard like she was expected, and Raio restrained the impulse to jump the woman and flee. He sat up and saluted her. She return the salute.
"Specialist Nezechecka-Perez?"
"Neizchka-Perez, sir. Or just use `Raio' sir, everyone does, and it's a lot easier."
Her face crinkled a little unpleasantly at the overly familiar form of address then visibly yielded to the sense of it.
"Follow me please," she said, and turned from the room.
He got stiffly out of bed and followed her, and his guard followed him. If this was corps medical, it was the secret, empty, sterile basement they reserved for people they wanted to intimidate.
Just up the hall from the cluster of six patient care rooms, and past a nearly decommissioned but first-quality medical monitoring station, they came to a small office. The major gestured for Raio to sit and then went around behind a large generic desk that clearly hadn't ever seen daily use.
After a few moments organizing her thoughts, the Major sought his eye.
"Specialist, uh, Raio, you present us with a bit of a quandary. On the one hand, your unique traits provide us with a several interesting opportunities, on the other, our inability to explain your origins or follow your paternal line raise questions that make us uncomfortable. Then there is the interesting set of skills you demonstrated in the field, an advanced martial training that is not explained by your record."
"Excuse me sir, but who are `us'?"
For just a moment Raio got the impression she wasn't going to answer him. Then she said "I'm Major Winter, Central Security" as if that should answer everything.
Largely, for Raio, it did.
"Now, as I was saying, you have some interesting traits."
She shuffled one of the flexies out of her papers. The expensive flexible display sampled her identity and covered itself with fine text.
"You are, of course aware of the fact that vocal and retinal scanners, eh, `hate you' and that chemical information and enforcement makes you physically ill. You may be aware that something about your neurological makeup makes you incompatible with direct-wire interfaces. What you may not know is that those factors make you virtually immune to interrogation and compulsion technologies."
The way she said it let Raio know that some of `them' suspected he might exist just to keep secrets from them.
"Conversely, it may be possible to construct scanners tuned to exactly match your unique profile that wouldn't respond to anybody else.
"Both of these ideas have an almost irresistible appeal."
Raio didn't like the sound of that at all. He was already racing ahead. They wanted to use him for something. It was axiomatically true that they also would want to make sure he couldn't be, and wasn't already being, used against them. Somewhere up ahead an offer was coming. An offer without an acceptable option to decline. Oh, it probably wouldn't be the next one, or the one just after that, but somewhere sooner or later there would be a hard non-choice to face.
"Meanwhile, Raio, in the abstract, you are a wanted man. The I.E. is looking for you. They want to find out who it was that managed to take their agent captive, and how it was done. Normal skill-wires wouldn't have survived your foray through the AP fence, that's why it's there after all, and so they are very curious. We have already found signs of insurgency on the matter of your identity, and the identities of the three other members of your attachment. There were a number of unfortunately high quality scans taken of each of you.
"We've also noticed their ingenuity contacting you, your unit that is. We'd been hoping for someone more interesting to contact you, but their actions were most illuminating.
"All four of you are being reassigned. These are your orders."
Raio flinched, feeling the first barb of the hook.
Raio slipped the strange SELComm into the receiver on his brand new uniform. Everything was just a little strange compared to his old one. The armor cloth was thicker and still stiffly new, and there was a distinct lack about the entire rig. No sidearm, no baton, no AP field, no rank insignia, basically nothing uniform about it except its clearly protective non-civilian sense of purpose. It felt more like a prison jumper than a uniform. Then again it did have a complete UI and something about the peculiarly heavy SELComm screamed upgrade.
There were gloves, but no cover, and there was no laminating machine in sight. Instead there was a pair of ID-shield style glasses, no, something heavier, goggles, that fit tight to his face. He put on the goggles and, on impulse, he struck the palm of his left hand with the flat of his right fist. Sure enough, a complete virtual interface appeared overlaying his normal vision. There were more than the customary number and type of access objects displayed, but when he tried to operate them they refused to respond.
Raio thought, "well, what's to be done" and left the private changing room.
Outside the normally impassive guard touched his shoulder and sub vocalized something.
The objects in the display Raio had left running started changing colors. Clearly he was being brought into the web-of-trust, which proved to him it wasn't a prison jumper after all. Raio flicked his hand and one of the previously unresponsive objects responded with an empty menu. Whatever the thing was for, it didn't have any active application in his current surroundings. Either that or the unit had been blanked. No matter really, he thought as he turned the display off, there was nothing to do yet but go along with everything.
A walk down a corridor, a short elevator ride, and another corridor led to an ambulance bay that Raio recognized from his single previous trip to corps medical. The pleasant feeling of being back in the world was cut short by the guards' relentless stride, right up to and straight into an armored transport. The windowless vehicle looked less inviting than the hospital room, but he got in.
After about fifteen minutes of riding in the dark, and with nothing better to do, Raio reactivated his virtual display. The results were much more interesting. Several of the extra objects had all sorts of information about his current vehicle's condition. He could even bring up an all-directions exterior display that tracked his every movement. It was like he was flowing across the land with no body. He could overlay tactical information about the other vehicles near him and even some of the buildings they passed.
It was exhilarating and he really enjoyed probing around and toying with the idea of being a vehicle pilot. When he stumbled into the "pilot condition" subsystem he realized that they probably weren't going to make him a pilot of any kind. The uniform and interface were measuring him in exacting detail.
It took some of the pleasure out of the experience, but there was a perverse return. While most of the data was beyond his understanding, a significant number of the indicators and measurements were showing obvious errors. The nosier parts of this machine didn't like him any better than most biometric technology. No matter. He went back to the immersive virtual pleasure of floating bodiless through traffic.
They'd been measuring him for days, and not just his body. He was being drilled in his combat techniques by experts hungry to know his methods. There had also been several academic tests, like an endless final exam. It was almost as if the techs didn't actually believe it was possible to learn things the long way. Retesting music theory had been easy enough, but virtual-mass physics is the kind of math you do from tables and references. Given a choice between trying to describe the theoretical anabatic separation limit of the monopolar fragments of a compiled proton, and smacking around a hand-to-hand combat "expert," he'd take the clean fight any day.
He kind of felt sorry for the doctors though. They didn't know his family secret so they were blinded by their own technology. He was his father's son, and his father wasn't, strictly speaking, human. At least not by the medical definition. The man had two extra chromosomes and several of the normal ones were longer than they ought to be. Both of his parents had been surprised when his mother turned up pregnant, believing it wasn't medically possible. His birth had raised the stakes in an already chancy series of deceptions, so there was no way he was going to tell these doctors that their machines were set up all wrong to find the answers they sought. But none of that meant he couldn't feel just a little bit sorry for their doomed effort.
So he sat through their tests and samples hoping none of them got inspired, or lucky.
After about two weeks of scrutiny some information began flowing the other way. One day Raio found a block of assigned reading on his UI. The topics were vague at first, or obscure in a peculiar way. It took a couple of days to realize that he was reading reenforcement briefings, the kind of texts that normally accompanied a heavy dose of RNA in order to help the recipient hook everything up in their head. It made him nervous. He kept expecting to suddenly feel sick, like they were slipping him some blue, and after several days he did start feeling queasy, but he couldn't be sure it wasn't all in his head.
When "queasy" finally became "downright nauseated" he cornered one of the senior doctors and intimated that things could get personally unpleasant for anyone initiating any secret tests. The doctor allowed that, were such things taking place, anybody might feel infringed upon by such activities. Raio made the point that he expected to know what tests were being done, and what the results might be. The doctor countered with scientific method and blind test theory. The oblique conversation went on for a while, Raio dancing around a pure threat, and the doctor adroitly avoiding anything like an admission.
While nothing was fully said, the tug in his gut went away completely within a few hours, and sometime later that evening a medical report found its way to his UI. Most of it was too thick for him to understand, but a summary section was very enlightening. His reaction to the blue was an immune response. An antibody complex destroys transit gel to a near certainty, producing a metabolic toxin as a waste product. The thousandth of a percent of the gel that finds its way to his target cells wont code through the membranes reliably because the receptor sites are "atypical." Each exposure was, however, inducing small protein fragments into the cells, the long-term repeated-exposure effects of which couldn't be determined at this time.
The short version was, even trace amounts of the transit gel produced a toxic reaction and, while there was absolutely no information transfer, repeated exposure to bio-coded data may eventually cause nerve or brain damage.
Raio stepped out of a speed drill with one of the hand-to-hand instructors, leaving the man flatfooted enough that Raio had to step back in and catch him so he didn't fall. Across the room three people in full ablative environmental armor had just come in, and despite something odd in their movements, Raio would have known them anywhere. Ton-Ton, Kevers, and Davidson. They'd finally showed up but something wasn't quite square.
Raio slipped on his goggles and keyed his display awake. He'd been practicing with the thing a lot and it didn't take much more than a thought to bring up the tactical displays. All three of them were wearing full armor, but each was fitted with slightly different tool sets and augments. All three suits were one or two actions away from vacuum-ready. That was not standard in-the-gym kit.
Raio walked up to them, just a little wary but willing to credit them a grin.
They were normally all of a height, but the armor gave his friends a couple of inches on him just now, which felt a little awkward.
Raio put out his hand in greeting.
Kevers looked at his hand, smiled a lazier-than-usual smile and dreamily, as if his head were full of something very distracting, said "oh hey, rye-oh, I was beginning to wonder..." but he didn't take his hand or get on to what he'd been wondering.
Ton-Ton said "good to see you looking good" in an equally vacant tone and Davidson just nodded slowly in agreement.
"What's wrong with you all?" Raio demanded, unsure whether upset or concern were more important just then.
"Oh," Kevers assayed, "just got a head full of blue... and some new wires. It's kind of hard to, um..." but the thought drifted away before he could get the rest of it out.
Raio looked around helplessly. He didn't like the idea of his friends being turned into the kind of zombies that had been guarding him at the hospital. He spotted one of the techs walking towards them purposefully. Raio decided to meet him halfway so he could get some answers in private.
"Do you know what the hell has been done to my friends?"
The tech started in surprise and searched a moment for his voice. Before he found it, they were in the center of a small crowd.
Raio realized his friends were flanking him in a combat ready stance. Behind the tech were several officers and, arrayed about the room, there were a large number of "suddenly interested parties." The whole thing stank of something going dangerously awry.
One of the officers, a man he'd never seen before, stared at him as if he were trying to make his eyes puncture Raio's goggles and said "you need to settle down specialist." There was a peculiar inflection on the "need" and Raio was used to knowing an order when he heard it.
Raio made a conscious effort to settle back onto a relaxed stance, and frame of mind, and said "got it, sir," as if he knew exactly what was going on.
The officer said "excellent. You are overdue for a briefing, and your team has a full training schedule today. Come with me specialist."
As quickly as it formed, the odd, tense moment evaporated when Raio followed the officer from the gym.
It was a fairly long walk though parts of the facility where Raio had never been before. The finishings grew impressive for a while, and then worked their way back down to utilitarian, before they reached an anonymous looking office door.
Inside, the otherwise comfortably furnished room was dominated by a briefing table every bit as technologically impressive as the tabletop that had started this mess.
The officer waved Raio into a chair at the table. As soon as he sat, he felt the device overwhelm his SELComm with a flood of data.
"What, do you suppose, is the greatest problem in modern society?"
The words `overly dramatic military types' pushed silently against the back of Raio's eyes for just a moment, but he held them in and waited out the rhetorical pause.
"The average person would parrot out something about unemployment, political strife, or crime in general." As the officer raised each point, a group of holographic nodes appeared in the space above the table. "An economist would probably talk about how the intellectual property laws have levied a cash-entropy cost on everything done with technology. Hell, the per-use licensing fees on everything this display is doing, and the system monitoring my voice, make every word I am speaking in its presence a tiny but real cash expense.
"Then again, anybody who has ever had to face it would say that identity theft, the specific crime and the life ruining experience itself, are at the top of the list.
"They'd all be right, but they probably wouldn't understand why it is all one inseparable mass."
The display began interlinking the disparate visuals with countless, almost invisible, wire-frame traces marking inferences and causal relations between the depicted elements. The lines multiplied until there was a glittering haze around all the original icons. Raio actually looked at what was really being shown for a moment. It took his breath away. The visual tokens weren't simple metaphors for abstract ideas. The thing was displaying corporations, both legitimate and criminal, and their ongoing business actions with different political and social entities. The glittering on the lines wasn't just visual decoration. One glimmer caught his eye, and when he focused on it, it resolved into an invoice for waste removal that was being paid at that very moment. This was a live graphic representation of a remarkable sub-section of the supposedly confidential planetary financial network.
Raio settled back from the image, sort of in shock.
The officer waived his hand dramatically and the image winked out.
"The real problem, at the center of all of that, is the issue of identity. Without certain identity, the ideas of ownership, license, and proof are meaningless."
Raio didn't think that sentence actually meant anything, and it showed on his face.
"Sorry. There is a mess here, and it goes back so far, and fouls so many things, it's hard to know where to start. Sometimes I just want to wrap myself up in philosophical abstractions and hide."
He paused to gather his thoughts then started again.
"Why do you, indeed why does anybody, wear ID shield glasses when they go out in public? Your face, your retina, the heat patterns under you skin, and the topology of your irises can be and are each used somewhere by someone to identify you to the world. You wear gloves to keep your fingerprints and whatnot private too. Why? Because if someone without your best interests at heart gets a good scan of you, you are screwed. You can't change your retina if someone steals a scan of it. You are stuck with your fingerprints no matter how many crooks have gloves that leave your prints behind at their crimes.
"Meanwhile in the back rooms where the technologists play, every information system paradigm is owned and licensed nearly into paralysis. If someone manages to invent a new means to keep something private, a would-be interloper needs only check what licenses the inventor paid to know almost all of what the new system does and how to defeat it. Worse still, most companies use RNA transit and skill-wires to train their staff because skills taught that way can be removed from the mind of an employee if they leave the company.
"There is more. Issues and technologies struggle against political opinions in ways that defy explanation. But beneath everything we do there is one festering fact.
"Security and privacy have become a hoax. A common myth that functions because, for the most part, everybody is pretending that it is all working fine. The biometric approach to keeping track of who is who doesn't work. A perfect measurement of a person is unique, but everything beneath and behind that moment of measurement is rotten to the core. Any machine that measures you has to know your measurements to start with or there is nothing to compare the data too. Those metrics exist for every person. Maps of each person are stored in so many places, and flow back and forth so often that the cumulative chance of tampering or corruption rises to near certainty.
"The technology behind everything is getting very old. Devices that are made today have to inter-operate with machines that are decades old, and which are, in some cases, structured according to laws that reach back hundreds of years.
"Our way of life is rotted out and ready to burst. Everyone who can takes whatever they have of value and locks it away physically. The rich and the able largely live by barter, keeping their business and their assets on private ships or in sealed off-line enclaves. And while there is a lot of credit flowing through the economies of every world, there is virtually nothing of value behind any of it.
"What nobody knows for sure, but everybody in power suspects, is that for at least the last eighty years every government and significant corporation has been `secretly' working, separately and individually, on how to drop completely off of the net.
"And the first major entity to succeed in dropping off will initiate an economic collapse that will completely scatter humanity."
The officer paused for a moment, reactivated the display, and began backing up his pessimistic rant with hard facts.

Chapter 5

Raio surveyed his monthly IP bill with disgust. For the first time in his life he was really doing the math. It was just a little over twelve credits, but, for obvious reasons, he didn't use his information systems as much as most people. So twelve credits for him meant more like thirty for an average person. But there were twenty four billion people here on or around Hadris prime. In the Hadris habitable zone, three planets, numerous moons, asteroids, and a good number of independent stations, there had to be one hundred seventy billion people. His own Meladain Confederacy had three other star systems in it nearly as crowded. Eight hundred fifty billion people paying about thirty credits each, every month. Twenty five trillion credits, every month. What had the officer called it? The "cash entropy cost."
Twenty five trillion credits was a hell of a lot of entropy.
No wonder the "outer" star systems were constantly in a state of near bankruptcy. If you couldn't attract some of the larger IP Consortia into your system, the continuous drain on your economy would be insurmountable.
Raio thumbed the pad to authorize the payment, flinching at the thought. It was impossible to ever have a zero balance. There would be tiny charge for making the payment, recording the receipts, and committing the information to his Civil ID. All of the systems involved took a tiny bite out of him to pay each of the relevant patent holders. It ought to be illegal.
He pulled his CID out of the slot in his personal plaque, and barely restrained the impulse to spike the plaque into the nearest hard surface. Instead, he tossed it onto the table with well-honed resignation, and slipped his CID into a utility pocket.
Free of his monthly duty, Raio pulled the higher-grade military plaque from the UI on his sleeve and went back to studying the mission parameters.
It looked fairly straight forward. His team would visit several of the key stations of the Solar Orbit Momentum Exchange, replacing the security systems with, well, something secure.
The Momentum Exchange, "the Coaster" in spacer slang, helped solar transit ships get into and out of the low solar orbits they needed to jump between star systems. Each literally massive unmanned station could project and receive millions of Newton-meters worth of momentum in each half-second burst of virtual mass. The coaster consisted of hundreds of small stations, for very-heavy definitions of small, and a number of larger stations all arrayed in various solar orbits. Because of conservation of momentum, whenever a station pushed a ship into a higher orbit, that station's own orbit would drop down, likewise it would jump up if it were helping the ship down. This dance of rising and lowering orbits was, of course, controlled by coded intelligences.
Before any planetary group could secede, those intelligences need to be replaced with ones that weren't trapped in Intellectual Property License bondage. Whoever controls a star system's coaster controls every aspect of trade and communications between that star system and the rest of the cosmos.
The coaster was also a hideously effective security system. An unwelcome ship can be pushed into all sorts of terminally inconvenient orbits. And failing that kind of subtlety, taking a spear of virtual mass amidships instead of nicely aimed into your virtual mass compiler/decompiler is a good way to find yourself holed-through, radioactive, and burning.
So this system, this tool, this weapon, needed a lobotomy and brain replacement, and the brain it already had was likely to resent the effort.
In each of the systems of the Confederacy they would go to the seven main stations and replace the necessary components. Kevers, Ton-Ton, and Davidson would handle the hard vacuum areas, hence the environmental armor festooned with interesting and diverse tools. Once those seven were altered, they in turn would infect the smaller stations with the new systems and intelligences they would need. Raio's role was to stand around and be unique. Okay, it was a little more than that. They were making something described simply as `the key'. Not `a key', the key. Some piece of custom gear that would respond only to his unique biology and the havoc it could induce in any security system. If they could build the thing and he could learn how to use it, it would, for him, and only him, gut any security controller he could physically touch.
So far it was just a bunch of documentation and vapor.
"No, no, NO! Everybody freeze!"
Easily said, but not so easy to do when you're in abated gravity. The exchange station mock-up, or more precisely, the mock-up of just the control core of an exchange station, hung suspended in between two of the largest gravity plates Raio had ever dreamed existed. The room was still open to the atmosphere, they hadn't yet graduated to drilling in vacuum, let alone off planet. The abatement field was proving to be quite enough of a challenge.
Ton-Ton yelled back "What now Raio?" but none of them moved.
"Kevers? What exactly are you doing?"
Kevers yelled back, "I have just finished replacing the targeting and protocol processors and now I am starting the calibration run."
"And what is Davidson doing?"
"Hold it Davidson, I'm asking Kevers."
"I'm not sure."
"Check your display."
"Uh, Davidson is working on the impeller assembly."
"So what happens while you run a calibration test?"
"Well, the tracking lasers run through their range of motion, then they bounce a signal beam from the north and east polar reflectors, then the v-mass compiler feeds a zero-average potential bolt to the imp..." Kevers voice trailed off.
"That's right. To the impeller, which fires the bolt harmlessly into solar-center. Right through Davidson... So what happened?"
"Uh, I got ahead of my checklist."
Well that just about covered it. Raio wondered how he was supposed to practice his own tasks when he had to spend all his time ordering the others around.
Raio keyed his comm to the whole-project channel, "alright, thats enough for today. It's time for a weekend people, detail down off the bird, could technical reset the simulation by oh-nine-thirty hours Monday. Thank you everybody, clear out."
Kevers, Davidson and Ton-Ton each dismounted the simulation with their own flair. Ton-Ton gave a single, gentle push that took her straight to one of the observation scaffolds. Davidson used two quick bursts of his impeller to bring himself around the bulk of the station and onto a gangway. Kevers, showing off as always, launched himself into a backwards tumble that carried him all the way out of the gravity abatement and then, as he plummeted to the floor, got his feet under him and did a dead plant into the deck. The fact that they now had three perfect lines of cover on him was not lost to Raio even as envied their finesse and fumbled his way down off the mock-up.
The entire time he was working his way down the other three constantly shifted their positions to follow his progress. They didn't even seem to be aware of it. They weren't just staring impassively at him or anything. They were doing their stand-down checklists and so on, but it was like they were subconsciously playing a game of chess at the same time. Raio reached the deck and before he'd gotten three steps they were in formation behind him.
It was creepy.
And yet, they were still themselves. In the last few weeks they'd finished the worst of the chemical training and so there was no more of that vagueness to their affect. If it weren't for the constant presence of the power armor, there'd be nothing to say anything was out of order. They were unrelenting with the surveillance and coverage but they were still the people he knew. It was like the watching and the combat readiness waiting just beneath everything they did had nothing to do with their conscious violation.
Raio led the way into the locker room and presented himself to his locker. The device reached out and began interfacing with his own environmental armor. It was lighter than theirs and didn't scream "tank" with anywhere near the stridency. Still it was a good machine that was just as new and cutting edge as the rest.
The locker extended a series of booms and manipulators that joined themselves to his exoskeleton. After a few seconds of data exchange and diagnostics the suit began disassembling itself. In no time he was essentially sitting back in a very personal recliner made up of the spinal tower and leggings of the suit. As he stood those last parts were pulled away into the locker.
What surprised Raio was that the rest of his squad was getting the same treatment. Full environmental armor can be lived in for months at a time if the need arises, and for the last few weeks the rest of the squad had been subjected to that continuous exposure. For the others going to the lockers had flagged down to just procedure at this point. They'd all been expecting the lockers to just do some diagnostics, fluid changes, and power cell maintenance.
They were just staring at Raio in shock.
"Well don't just sit there," Raio said, "get up before they change their minds."
They all jumped at the thought and they each staggered a little under the now-novel lack of weight.
And they'd changed.
Power armor can be light and responsive, as easy to move in as street clothes, but that isn't always the case. The armor is programmed to maintain the wearer, keep them fit and healthy. Their armor must have been set to something a little more extreme. Subtly and continuously the armor had been working on them, making them exercise and feeding things into their systems. Kevers and Davidson had both put on a frightening amount of muscle and Ton-Ton, who had always been hard and wiry, looked like a weapon.
Raio whistled, "Look at you all," then he got a whiff, "and then shower... you reek."
They all piled into the showers and there was a good bit of banter and clumsiness punctuated by laughter as they each tried to find their new equilibrium.
The other three accepted the changes without a second thought or single question, but it bothered Raio more than a little. It felt like another small advantage was being taken. They were all being used but he seemed to be the only one to notice or care.
They got dressed, and again, nobody else noticed that the new uniforms and street clothes waiting for them were precisely tailored to their new larger sizes. Raio decided their new freedom was a perfect excuse to go out and lightly celebrate. They didn't get very far of course, the base was in the middle of nowhere. The NCO club was reasonable, if not well appointed. And best of all, Raio noticed that the surveillance seemed to have relaxed a bit. Maybe it was the newness of being out of the armor distracting them, or maybe the conditioning was keyed to being in uniform. Either way it was good to have some space.
The crowd was nice. The drinks were potent. And the darts were more than a little dangerous with the clumsy triplets drunk and still not on their best feet. Raio's proverbial hollow leg was another gift from his father, and he set himself to filling it, drinking twice as much as his friends. But no matter how hard he tried he couldn't get completely away from the bother haunting the back of his mind. Eventually he ended up sitting in a corner starring at the candle on the table that passed for "atmosphere" and letting his drunken thoughts rumble around unattended.
"I've seen you doing that before." Kevers sat down across from him. "What is that thing anyway?"
Raio mind started up again. "What?"
Kevers pointed at what Raio had in his hand. "That. You get really drunk, you get all morose, and then start trying to burn that thing. What is it?"
Sure enough, he was dangling his pendant in the small flame of the candle. A quick glance through recent memory said he'd been doing it for a while. "This? This is a gift from my father." Raio pulled it up out of the flame and closed his hand around it. "Check it out, it's cold."
Kevers looked at him like he was trying to trick him, then held out his hand.
Raio dropped it into his palm.
After a second Kevers dropped it and barked "No, it's damn cold."
"Uh huh, but give it a few seconds."
Kevers looked down at it. "Looks like cut glass."
Raio just looked at the glittering teardrop for a while then said "try it now."
Kevers picked it up again. "Hua... nothing..."
"Yep." Raio held out his hand and Kevers gave it back.
"So what is it?"
"Don't know really. My father had a lot of stories. He just called it his reminder. The only thing I know for sure is that a friend of his made it for him before he left home."
Raio held the thing up by its chain and looked at it for a moment.
"Does it do any other tricks?"
Raio shrugged. "You can start a fire with it if you know just what to do."
"That's really... strange."
Raio said "strange collects around my parents" then what he'd been saying started to sink into his besotted brain. He slipped the chain over his head and the pendant into his shirt and shrugged the whole thing off.
"You get along with your parents?"
Raio thought about it and smiled, "yea... They're good people."
Kevers grunted, "never had much use for mine."
Raio had heard about Kevers' family before, "I know guy, but I don't think you give them their fair due. They were cincers, there was nothing they could do about that, but they kept you clean. Most kids in your spot would have never gotten out. You have to give them some credit..."
"Compromised Identity, No Credit." Kevers said in angry quotes.
Raio stared at him till he looked up. "Yes. Compromised Identity, No Credit. Cincers. And they kept you healthy, got you your education, and never tried to use your identity to fix theirs. You'd be a CINC yourself if they had, and you know it. You're a good, honest person and they did right by you."
"Yea, I guess," he said, but he didn't sound convinced.
Raio suddenly wished he could tell Kevers some of the things he'd learned lately. The fact that his parents had kept him clean of their problems wasn't just good parenting, it was a miracle. Of course they had kept him out of things, deprived him of a number of the so-called opportunities for kids in his situation. They'd have had to, otherwise his CID would have been on lists. Corporate feeding lists. The kind of lists that made sure the next generation would be well stocked with the kind of cheap oppressable work force that Cincers provided. You can tell a kid why he can't go to camp or have toys all you want, but a kid only sees the privations.
Raio just waited, and after a minute Kevers smiled again.
That was better, but it wasn't right. Nothing was right. Raio's life had been complex to start with, now there were ugly truths and secrets. Secrets he had to keep from his friends, who themselves were being altered. They were all being used and it was stifling.
Raio snuffed the candle with his fingers, downed his drink, and stood. "Darts?"

Chapter 6

In-System Transport 2287 sat, well floated, in a station keeping attitude waiting for its time slot on the coaster. Raio watched the status display do nothing and marveled at how nice it was to have VR gear that actually obeyed him. This ship was really nice too. Long, sleek, fast, enough gravity waveguide to render down a good size asteroid, and it was at his command.
The virtual mass systems were, of course, mounted perpendicular to the primary gravity plates so the ship floated with her nose pointed to galactic south and her belly turned to the coaster station, wherever it was. It was a difficult orbit to resolve, starting that far out and with lots of obstructions around. The spear of virtual mass, really not much more than a bolt of exceedingly energized specific probabilities, momentarily spanned several light minutes of space.
IST-2287's compilers caught the bolt perfectly and began converting the stream back into real mass with real momentum. It would take a good six minutes to convert the virtual mass and another hour and some to convert the sun-ward plummet into the next orbit. Without the waveguide and the impeller wings, the pulses of the coaster would produce a cometary orbit ideal for a perihelion jump but very problematic for any other purpose. They could schedule a longer sequence, more momentum transfers that would perfect a target orbit, but scheduling problems grew multiplicatively with each transfer. Instead, the on-board drive would push against the solar wind and turn the plummet into a swoop. The cycle would go on for days.
And it was completely automated, so Raio didn't have anything to do but watch and wait.
And play with the key.
The ship's node wasn't that impressive since its best available feed came from several light-minutes away. Still, there was enough government equipment on board to keep things interesting. The triplets were armored up and lost in their skill-wire dreams. They weren't very interesting to talk to these days, but their armor was.
The key itself was barely bigger than his Civil ID. It had a few extra bits that interfaced with it, inductive pickups and probes and such, but the key itself was tiny. Raio swiped the key through the UI on his arm. That opened a data path into his VR gear and an icon appeared in his field of view. When he laid the key flat against the node's housing it began scanning the node and feeding him directions. He slid the key gently across the housing until the icon indicated optimal placement.
The key began sampling and scanning the electrical activity deep inside the node. After a few seconds the key demanded the placement of a pickup. Then it did more. It induced currents and nudged quantum states, it hedged, and it tweaked, and it lied until the node believed security keys had been exchanged and credentials had been approved. Those lies then vouched for the real keys and credentials of Raio's UI and built a wall around the node.
Within a minute the node, the key, and his UI were wed.
Together they conspired to pretend to the rest of the net that nothing had changed. The lie could succeed for quite some time. The subterfuge that could survive a dozen minutes or so on a prime node would last a day, maybe two, out here where the information transit delays gave their system the chance to adapt to every challenge.
Raio placed another probe on the casing, put the key into a receiver on his UI and settled back into the pilot's couch.
Out of the corner of his eye Raio glanced at the sinuous self-interwinding animated icon floating in his goggles before doing a through check of the autopilot. When he was sure things were good he stared purposefully at the twisting glyph. It wound and twisted and then exploded itself to fill his display. It wasn't true virtual reality, they hadn't found a way to overcome his uniqueness enough to put in the necessary neural interfaces for that, but it was a good immersive display with 3D sound. The metaphors went by fast and furious as he dug his way from the node into Kevers' armor control systems. And then there was Kevers.
Surprisingly he wasn't alone.
Raio thought of them as `the triplets' often enough now, and it was more true than he'd guessed. Their armor was conjoined and from the VR side they were all in there together. Raio's display showed them working together on their programming. It would be awkward for him but Raio instantiated an avatar into their space.
"Oh hey Rye-oh." Kevers said in his typical exaggerated drawl.
"Hey, what are you all working on?"
"You look all strange."
"Eh, cheap puppet and no experience, what can you do?"
"Oh, yea, makes sense."
"So what are you doing?"
"I didn't think we were supposed to hit orbit for a long time yet."
The cycle repeated a few times, Raio asking some variant of "what's going on", and Kevers trying to change the subject. Obviously trying. It was wrong. It wasn't even his kind of questions. He didn't say `nothing', he didn't say it was classified. It was like something else was driving and trying over-hard to be subtle.
In the metaphor space things looked fairly normal but something wasn't right.
Raio made a lot of mindless chatter while he probed around. Tracing the threads passing in and out of Kevers he finally found one the key had marked with its interwinding glyphs. He grabbed the line just so and his visual field filled with images and symbols.
It looked harmless enough but it gave him a headache and a half after just a glance.
The key coughed up a few basic diagnostics. It was a skill-wire feedback program of some sort. It shouldn't have been able to give him a headache and it shouldn't be going on so long.
Skill-wires were peripheral augments. Pseudo-organic artificial nerves implanted into the body that are programmed with feats of speed or reflex. The back channel programs tell the brain how to trigger the wires and what to expect as the result. At least that's the theory.
This electric snake was throbbing with something way too large to fit into any kind of skill-wire cortex.
Raio started cloning off a sample. It wasn't his area, trying to figure out neural programming, in fact he'd never thought he'd ever even be exposed to that sort of thing. The key had pointed it out, so it was probably important. At the least, poking at it would give him something to do later.
Something of the conversation he was having and ignoring soaked into his head... "eh, what?"
"I said I don't get it why FTL communication is dangerous?"
Raio glanced at him and the key decorated him with his vital statistics, including what could only be called his homework. Something esoteric about military communications theory. "First off Kev, virtual mass it's not faster than light, its multi-local. It's in several places at the same time while simultaneously not really being anywhere at all. The question of how fast it's going gets kind of esoteric."
"So why's FTL comm traffic dangerous?"
"Two words, `shear' and `splatter'. Matter, real matter, and all the simple energies exist as waves, complex knots of waves that propagate through the media of space-time. When you virtualize a particle you separate its knot into several simpler component waves. But if thats all you do the waves really wont separate and the particle will reassert itself. So you translate one of the component waves, say by swapping a little of its when for some extra where. That where has to be somewhere other than the original particle's position. This produces a kind of haze of probability.
"Once you have that haze you can tweak it around quite a bit. You can hold it, or move it, or stretch it out a ways. But if the bits get to far beyond each others influence they forget about their peers and just latch onto, or rip apart, other `more real' particles. The original theorists called it jealous attraction.
"A VM compiler and decompiler, which are really the same thing, which is why you always hear about them in one breath, can agree to exchange VM over a theoretically infinite distance. They agree to make orthogonally interesting alterations in some particular sub-component waves. This puts them on the same, ah, quantum frequency if you will. Then one of them takes out and throws away a single component wave while the other adds that same component. At the instant that component wave ceases to exist within its haze at one end, that haze yearns for its matching peer. All at once, as if by magic, the energy state of the spatial media between the two virtual masses each pass a suitable component in the same direction. It's not magic, of course, it is a side effect of what used to be called string theory. Anyway, the far endpoint instantly feels the absence of the component and it can replace it, it does so, then the connection stabilizes and disappears.
"So, what if the first guy doesn't actually throw away the component? And what if the component that gets put back in doesn't exactly match the one that was taken out?
"It turns out that once you make the connection, if you never satisfy the system, never give it closure, you can drop in all sorts of nearly-what's-needed components and get them out the other end.
"Only the universe isn't perfect. It isn't pure. So rogue components can get in and out of the pathway anywhere along the span while deliberate components can get side-tracked, and replaced outright. There is also a near certainty that the span would get closed down by a fully satisfying component wandering randomly onto the path.
"So instead of taking out one component, you take out more. A lot more. Once the pathway is bound up it can't get free until equilibrium is restored. Its fully entangled, and you can just keep tearing out components to keep it open. You basically have a pipe that can't survive a trickle, but that thrives in a torrent. You can't predictably send a single photon, but you can reliably transfer several hundred tons of garbage.
"That's still not dangerous though, just inconveniently massive.
"The first dangerous part, the slicing, is just part of the nature of the connection. It is a connection. It passes through the real universe along a real material path. Anything along that path is going to be bombarded with random components and fragmentary yearnings. It's going to get damn hot damn fast, and its going to fundamentally change at the quantum level. Out here in space it's a who-cares operation. Out here, if the VM line of sight, which is only properly a `straight line' in some mathematically peculiar sense, is clear, then some radioactive solar wind and dust are going to be transformed into not-so-subtly different radioactive dust and wind. But pass that same link through a person or an ecosystem and you have made a mess. A `bright sizzling line of radioactive plasma' kind of mess that is likely to leave a radioactive pinhole behind. If that something is moving relative to the endpoints, which of course are also moving, a pinhole becomes a glassy radioactive shear as it traverses.
"The second, the splatter, is primarily radiation. The stray components muck with everything and the connection actually fidgets and twists as it nears each terminus. The hard radiation and the unstable focus make a mess. Sending material through a VM link is like passing a watermelon through a hypodermic. You end up with the right amount of stuff, and any little bit of the result is still identifiably from something melon-ish, but it's not a melon anymore. It's just juice and micro-fine pulp.
"The net effect: if you want to pass a signal through a VM pipe, the energies required are huge and the modulation is very slow, and both ends would have to spend a lot of time dealing with dangerous wastes. It's usually not worth it."
A urgent yellow icon impinged on Morgan's view, demanding his attention. He'd forgotten the running tap on Kevers` skill wires and the clone buffer was quite full. An offhand gesture shut down the tap and he parked the whole recording as an attachment to a draft copy of some random commercial email so it would have an inconspicuous home.
Another icon, much more red than yellow, came up warning that a system public-key exchange would have to be sent in about two minutes. That was Raio's cue to leave.
Raio cut off Kevers before he could ask his next question, "Sorry, Kevers, got to go, we'll take this up again off-line."
"Thanks for the help Raio, but you didn't have to dumb it down for me you know."
Confused, Raio paused for a moment. "Dumb what down?"
"Your explanation, `shear' and `splatter'," he said with gentle mocking, "you could have used the real words."
Raio goggled for a beat, "I did use the real words." His voice changed slightly and he extended the hand of his puppet. "Create meta-search hypercard, technical treatise, search on title `Virtual Mass and N-Space Material Interaction', select study guide for same, title `Shear, Splatter, Slew, Skew, and Saturation, a practical explanation.' or common publicly available variant."
After a moment, Raio's outstretched hand held small rectangle representing the search. The actual search would happen as an independent task over time because the transmission lag and the small on-board data store made an immediate result highly unlikely.
He handed Kevers the card and laughed "never let a technician name anything," then he dropped control of the puppet without waiting for a response. He activated the subsystem responsible for making the key back its way out of the system and erase its tracks and then sat back to wait for his email.
He'd been looking at the attachment for days and it really didn't make a whole lot of sense. It wasn't right, not that Raio was a real expert, and he had to decide what he was going to do with the thing soon. He was being watched in the general case, but out here on the ship that monitoring was limited by the practical constraints of the situation. They couldn't watch him real time, so his activities were being logged. But he had the key, and apparently the watchers weren't fully aware of what advantage that really gave him. Once he'd applied the key to its own self and found its internal logs, he'd turned the shakedown cruise into a brief window of freedom.
He'd been very careful to make sure he was not using the key for anything out-of-spec during any of the public key exchanges or information transfer bursts. He'd also made sure that the triplets never saw him doing anything out of spec. They were his friends but they were also essentially compromised. What exactly had been done to them over the last few months was too complete and complex for Raio to completely trust them to be autonomous with his confidences.
He knew if he were in charge, he would program the three to be as much his keepers as his minions, were he giving him the key; if that made any sense. Even if they weren't programmed to watch him in that way, they would be defenseless to a debriefing.
Living his whole life under the discipline of his family secrets had made Raio a little more sneaky than his normal bearing would seem. He also had a few atypical connections. He readdressed the email and tacked on a message: "Hey Mikey, there is something really odd about this. See what you can do, or show it to uncle." The address would make the message bounce around the system for a while and then get discarded. One of the bounces would take it past a certain sniffer that would clone it off to to its correct destination. Raio knew it wasn't untraceable, but since the original message he'd usurped had just been staged through the node, as opposed to being to or from anybody on the ship, it would be unlikely to draw any attention anyway.
The team was ready, the key worked, accesses and clearances were green, and yet there was no go on the mission.
The geniuses putting everything together couldn't seem to come up with the right replacement for the coded intelligences in the coaster. The current leaky security was infectious. Every simulation lead to one of two seemingly inescapable results. Either the coaster stopped working with the old systems in every existing ship, or the old mess infected the new system and left it just as compromised as the original system.
The mission was stalled, his team's edge was beginning to dull, and Raio was getting quite tired of his seclusion.
He was sitting on his bunk paying his monthly homage to the technology he didn't want when he got an message from his mother. She was fond of sending him full motion video mail, and demanded the same in return. The image would play poorly on his little plaque, if at all, so he needed a full terminal. His quarters didn't have that kind of equipment, big surprise, so he headed off to the commons.
He was neither surprised nor heartened to find that by the time he hit the elevators he was surrounded by his friends, and he made his best effort to be happy with them. He also decided to spare them the effort of casually questioning him.
"Vidmail from mom." Raio gestured with his plaque and half-rolled his eyes. The pretense had worn thin. Despite the programming none of them made any real attempt to convince him they'd all been individually heading out the commissary on some errand or another. For all that the endless string of coincidence was annoying and awkward for Raio, at least it came `naturally' for the triplets. Raio was glad it didn't bother them, they were his friends first, so if it felt good for them that was good for him, even if it was because they'd been programmed that way. No point in all of them being unhappy.
At the commons he rented one of the small private conference rooms, really little more than one-man booths with a table and a screen. It was the kind of facility where any rating on base could get a little privacy and deal with whatever personal business might find him here in the middle of nowhere. Not that Raio believed there was actually any privacy involved, at least not for him. At least his friends were willing to stay outside since they could cover the exit from there.
Raio slipped his plaque into the receiver, pulled the keyboard out of the console drawer, leaned back, put his feet up on the table, and punched up the playback.
"Hi honey, it's mom," like he didn't know that by now, "how are you? We haven't heard from you lately and we're getting worried. Your father and uncle both said to say hi. I think you should message your uncle. He's been out on the range and..." and she was off on another one of her patented rambling retellings of every minute detail of the fit-for-the-public parts of the common version of the lives of everybody back home.
It was largely cover.
Oh, everything she said was probably true and correct, and it was nice to hear about the normal things, but at the conspicuous double mention of his uncle, Raio began searching the image for clues. Uncle Carteher was not a fit-for-the-public topic, he, or more precisely his status as an unique and unregistered exotic, was one of the cornerstones of the family secret. So much so that certain usages of the word "uncle" had become family code for serious business. It took Raio nearly half of the playback to recognize the secret message slowly playing out from the holographic sculpture hanging on the wall behind his mother's head.
The sinuous glyphs of what Uncle Carteher called `the old tongue' were subtle and fraught with ideas that didn't necessarily make sense to human sensibilities. Still, his uncle had insisted he learn them as a youth. With the family in the business of keeping secrets, he said, having a written language nobody outside the family knows will eventually be useful. And here it was being just that.
Raio restarted the vid from the beginning and watched the message slowly emerge in couplets and trigraphs.
"The scent you have cast to the wind" "calling the mind to dark caverns" "the tyranny of instinct" "the jealousy of reproduction" "the urge to kill the young of others" "clan duty and liege duty in opposition" "needs in balance" "protecting ones own offspring" "destroying the unfaithful mate" "the clan falls upon itself" "the wise flee the hunter they can not kill" "acting without reason in the times of passion" "the tragedy the unrestrained hand visits on its people".
Those weren't translations, just the names of the glyphs, translation was more a exercise in alien poetry. The translation only made sense if you really understood Uncle Carteher's people. To hear him tell it, they were sane and sentient people, and he had always been just that. But when they were breeding the hormones and pheromones relentlessly brought out their predator origins. The brooding instinct could lead the new or prospective parent to try to kill anyone who seemed a rival, or any other's young. Until the children reached a kind of adolecence they would inspire territoriality and violence in adults. This led to complex social practices and left myriad stains on his people as they rose to society. There was a lot of information behind each ideograph.
The message was clear after some reflection. Mikey had sent the skillwire program on to Uncle Carteher for review. He believed that the program was designed to tap into the less savory impulses harbored in the target's mind. It would wire up or at least inflame the jealous and protective instincts, balancing the kind of emotional states that lead to murder-suicide on a knife edge. That knife being Raio's loyalties. This was what was being fed into Kevers, and likely what was in Davidson and Ton-Ton as well. As long as he, Raio, did nothing to to make them choose between their loyalty to him and their sense of duty, everything would be fine. They were programmed to protect him as if he were their child, or mate, that was a little vague. If he did anything out of program, if he seemed to turn traitor, the three of them would tear him apart and then probably fall into a three-way bloodbath. Last man standing gets to kill himself.
Uncle Carther's advice was to run like hell. That would, of course, set them off.
Raio leaned his head back and closed his eyes and let his mind wend and rumble to itself.
Clearly the reason he'd been drilled by the various hand-to-hand specialists when he'd come to the base was not just to let them understand how he'd taken out the Alliance diplomat. Unless they were stupid, they'd have to have been cloning off those sessions to better equip his friends to fight him. Also his friends were keyed to him rather aggressively. Not just responsive to his will but aware of his every action.
That whole child or mate thing was creepy though. There were plenty of glyphs in the old tongue. Even though the old tongue was mired in metaphor, it was subtle and flexible enough to avoid carrying those ideas around if his uncle hadn't meant them explicitly. It made some kind of sense, he supposed, since the skillwire system attached into the brain at such a primitive level it would have to tap into primitive drives. Then again, he'd only gotten a fragment of the one program on the one occasion. Who knew what else was in there.
They'd been refashioned from friends into friendly, protective stalkers at their deepest instinctual level.

Chapter 7

The military hates waste unless, of course, it is completely pointless.
All across the system people were on station in expensive places waisting expensive time doing absolutely nothing of any worth whatsoever.
Raio and his team, on the other hand, were laying low; maintaining strict secrecy around a singular opportunity, namely Raio and the key; and drilling diligently while they waited for the replacement coded intelligences to be finished. All that diligence and import simply must draw the casual eye, and fire the political imagination of comities and budget annalists in a way with witch the ubiquitous leaching of universal waste is simply powerless to compete. Under the flinching, pandering, baleful eye of government oversight an inexorable pressure began to build. This team was expensive. This team was new and important. Why then, the unthinking beast of political aspiration asked, isn't this new and important team doing anything?
And so, somewhere nameless and untouched by the light of basic reason, orders were cut.
Equal parts vague and emphatic, those orders percolated and filtered down through layers of procedure, losing form and direction until Raio found himself and his team assigned to a series of maintenance and repair missions.
The old Coaster station was bleak. It was just a rock, barely twelve billion tons, which was very small as such things are measured. A single installation made the rock look shot-through by a stubby chrome arrow. There were obvious signs of pitting and wear. The environment of the moderate-to-low solar orbit having had its harsh way with all of the exposed surfaces.
"What a dump." Ton-Ton dropped herself into the couch at the second-pilot station and brought up a display.
Raio muttered "very funny" and nudged the autopilot into a slightly different approach.
He cleared the unnecessary telemetry from his display and realized she probably didn't even have the physics training to recognize her words for the very old pun they were.
"Oh sorry, I thought you were joking."
She gave him a dull look.
He shook his head and said "skip it. How are the remote diagnostics looking?"
"Kev says the diagnostic and targeting systems check out five-by-five. Dave says the primary impellers are over-worn, I think the power systems show excessive wear myself. I'd say something doesn't add up."
Raio keyed the comm, "Hey Kev, check out the life support systems. That rat-hole looks small. I don't think there is going to be room inside for armor."
"Right oh, Rye-oh, give me a sec."
Ton-Ton snorted, "There's plenty of space outside, I'll trade you. You can haul my waveguide and innerduct all over that rock and I'll re-seat your bunch of circuit cards."
"No deal. My suit doesn't have your augments. Besides, you'd just kick the system around and call it fixed."
"Hey, I haven't taken anything to the gun-deck since your last E-2250 fit-rep."
She had a point. Raio opened the comm, "stand ready for terminals in," quick glance aside, "eighteen. Cat three, power one, duration seven... mark."
Ton-Ton absently snapped on her restraints. "These power histories are completely wrong."
Kevers' voice dropped in from the comm, "all secure aft for maneuvering."
Davidson's right behind him, "station reports zero, cold, open, and secure."
And finally, Ton-Ton "ship-to-shore link state positive, emergency channels clear."
Raio had to look around for a second to check his telltales, "pilot confirms, clear to execute."
The autopilot could, and would, dock the ship just fine without the formalities. At the same time, their small ship could get torn to pieces if it approached a coaster station during an exchange, so a little procedure and double-check were called for. With the station's internal systems shut down the ship's internal gravity systems could say on full. Nobody aboard would feel so much as a nudge as the ship matched the station's attitude and velocity. But the military teaches one thing above all else: things go wrong. So there were two types of things on the ship, everything that could be strapped or bolted down, and everything else. All members of category two were, in accord with regulations, sealed inside things from category one.
"So what's wrong with the power histories?"
"Even if every power coupling on the station were substandard, the systems would have to be, I don't know, ten or twenty years older than they are to show this kind of wear at the logged power levels."
"A. P. Confirms Maneuvering. Kev, how are the orbital plots for, say, the last ten years? What are the maintenance reads on the storage ring Dave, do they match the power systems?"
Raio watched the universe pivot about him in a vaguely unsettling way as the autopilot made strong attitude corrections on all three axis simultaneously.
Davidson's puzzled voice came back a few seconds later, "Maintenance reports active storage holding 124.5 megaton-kilometers per second at azimuth twenty-two point eight degrees, elevation point oh oh two degrees above the ecliptic."
Raio snapped back "you reported status `zero' not ten seconds ago."
"Correct, station systems report zero unrealized velocity in the Tao-Zerner ring but the maintenance subsystem is showing about 125mkps of abated potential in the ring at the same time."
"Well which is it?"
Ton-Ton keyed in, "current power output levels are consistent with a large stored potential."
Kevers jumped on the comm, "so this thing is hot?"
Raio said "it looks that way, and it would explain the wear."
Ton-Ton started to say "shouldn't we get out of here?" but was cut off by a quick bleat from the starboard docking clamps.
Raio shrugged at her and said "looks like this problem is our problem now."
Kevers said "Not that it matters, but the orbital plots look dead on with the audit log."
"So," Raio said after a moment, "wherever that potential came from, it wasn't logged and we have no way to know how long its been in there. Check the maximum loading, assume the, ah, discrepancy, has been in there for two years. Has the ring been maxed-out in that time?"
"No. Looks like it never peaked over 80 percent of rating."
"Then we should be safe enough. First thing, we need a plan to discharge the ring. I'm authorizing diagnostics and on-site visual inspections only. We'll meet at fourteen-hundred. Oh, and, maneuvering complete, A. P. reports docked."
Raio shifted his weight for the hundredth time, trying to relieve the pressure where the edge of the deck plating was digging into his back. The interior of the station was not designed for comfortable maintenance and he'd been poking around in access hatches and under decking for hours. They'd verified the mass and momentum in the storage ring was actually there, but the main control systems seemed unwilling to reconcile itself to its presence. They'd been running safety system and sensor diagnostics, and even tried poking the data in manually. The systems simply would not believe in the stored virtual matter. Whenever he put the data into one system, the redundant validation software would overwrite his data with the "correct" zero value. Somewhere in the tangled logical interior of the control grid, the safety systems were fighting to ignore the data.
While the triplets were outside essentially building a alternate, independent impeller out of their spare parts store, Raio was going through the on-board systems node-by-node. If the ring were cold the way it should be, he could have just rebooted and reload the entire grid. With the ring loaded, that would be an explosively bad idea. Cutting the new impeller in was likely to be a major pain, so Raio bent his brain to finding a way to get the on-board systems to do their jobs.
Everything was bolted, glued, or otherwise affixed to something else in ways intended to survive the intense accelerations the station regularly experienced. On this, his second straight day of un-bolting, uncovering, and prying up, Raio had almost managed to expose the entire string of secondary processing nodes that stretched from the storage ring to the control core and on through to the primary impeller mounts.
The place was a mess. Numbered and labeled baggies of large bolts and strip-ties were taped to access-ports, and deck plating was wedged akimbo in every available out-of-the-way spot. He hadn't planned on anything this intrusive, but one system at a time had dragged him on to the next until the station's nerves were laid bare.
Raio wrestled with the large pan-shaped cover almost arms-length above him, freeing one of the heavy bolts to fall onto his forehead with an painful thump. Even in the slow-motion realm of one-third gee the bolt was heavy enough to raise a welt and a few choice epithets. But with the last cover off, and the last errant fastener accounted for and bagged, the central conduit would hide no more secrets.
That fantasy failed sooner than expected.
Within hours it became evident that several days might not be sufficient. Then after another day things were decidedly looking down.
With his right hand pressing the Key snug against the nearly inaccessible far side of a gunmetal gray hexagon, Raio keyed his comm awkwardly with his left. "Any of you got any idea what an O.T. Pad is?"
"Say again? `oatie'?" came Davidson's labored voice.
"Negative. I say again `O.T. Pad.' Spelled oscar, tango, papa alpha delta."
Davidson said "I've got nothing here."
Kevers agreed with a simple "nope."
Ton-Ton came back with "what context?"
"Er, I've got a router here with some odd ware running on it. Symbol table reads, `O T pad distribution relay'."
"Well, I didn't get it in the specs," she replied, "but who knows what we don't know."
That wasn't good. The three of them had been blued and wired with just neigh-everything there was to know about these stations. Raio had to learn what he could long-hand, but if they didn't know something it probably wasn't in the plans.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.77.
On 17 Apr 2014, 23:15.