Jimson floated in beautiful weightlessness. After the pounding by the UCX ship’s brutal acceleration, all he wanted to do was drift. Drift and not think. Because thinking was too hard. Something to do with blood loss to the brain, he thought. Hopefully the fog would clear. But for the moment he didn’t care. Drifting, weightless, was just fine by him.
Jimson watched as the fast courier ship maneuvered to put the little Westinghouse craft between it and the great shimmering white bulk of the Holy Saleschannel. Hiding. As much as it could. All the maneuvering done by careful prods of its gyro, rather than anything that would be noticed on thermal scan.
Much of the Holy Saleschannel’s tent flickered uncertainly between deep gray and blue-and-white stripes, but it still looked threatening if for no reason other than size. Farther off, the deep gray of the Pluto was visible only as an outline against occluded stars.
In the side viewing-window, where an ancient license plate reading “1QWKDOG” decorated the bulkhead, Jimson saw the datatags for both the Shrill and Lazrus Turnbull hovering over the wreck of the 04-011. Pointers showed the datastreams to be heavily intertwined through a laggy route that piggybacked both the Holy Saleschannel’s connectivity and a low-bandwidth route through the Pluto.
Adrenaline shot through his body, clearing away some of the fog. “They’re still inside,” he said.
“Good,” Raj said, peering back from his gelbed. “Let’s hurry get them.”
“Should we be worried that Pluto’s still flowing data?”
Raj frowned. “That’s bad.”
“Don’t know. Appears to be down. But talk brings friends. We don’t want to meet friends.”
“I can agree to that,” Jimson said.
“Hurry too. Consumeristians see us eventually. Cheap consumer ship not large enough to cover bulk.”
“They’re hulled,” Dian said, hanging casually down from the netting of her acceleration couch. She pointed at a neat hole through the aft end of the ship.
“Yeah. Ship killed,” Raj said.
“Won’t that hurt the Shrill?”
“They’re made – or evolved – or whatever – to live in space,” Jimson said. “It won’t hurt them.”
“Goodness,” Raj said. “No worries about companion human.”
Jimson frowned, looking at the data tags for both the Shrill and Lazrus Turnbull. Both still very active. “Uh, the human’s still alive.”
“No suits in a consumer ship,” Raj said.
“He’s still consuming data.”
“Hmm,” Raj said, and went back to the front of the ship to strap on a datover. “It’s deeped. And chillin. But data’s not random.”
“A persona-model, maybe, still running?” Jimson said.
“Doubtful,” Raj said.
Jimson shook his head. They needed to get out there and collect them. Echoing data didn’t matter. Even if he was alive, it was only one man.
Who might be a Winfinity deep-sec spook, he thought. With who knows what technology.
“Wait a minute,” Jimson said. With Tiphani’s level of access, he should be able to surf their datastreams. See who it was. Before they ever left the ship.
“What you doing?” Raj said.
“Surfing,” Jimson said. He reached out to the tags, requested a waiver, got it, broke into the channels. Most of it appeared to be subtextuals or encrypted images, because it didn’t fall into place. He tried to pull text from it, came up with garble.
Then, a voice, loud and close in his auditory nerves:
You are previous contact (keeper), the voice said, sexless and anonymous.
ARE YOU THE SHRILL? Jimson eyetyped, with a slow jittering gaze. It shouldn’t know he was surfing. That was the point of surfing. It was anonymous.
I am Shrill ambassador, the voice said.
I COME TO RESCUE YOU.
You no longer part (component) of ones-overseeing? Have disintegrated reintegrated become separate (unthinkable)?
I AM WORKING FOR MYSELF NOW, Jimson typed.
And new friends, a new voice said.
WHO ARE YOU?
You know me as Lazarus Turnbull.
YOU SHOULD BE DEAD. And you shouldn’t be able to tell we’re surfing, either.
Should accept offer from non-dominant component? the Shrill said.
We may not have much choice, Lazrus said.
What is new (component) wanting? the Shrill said.
TO RESCUE YOU.
Something like a laugh. What do you really want? Lazarus said.
Jimson sighed. THE SAME AS EVERYONE ELSE.
Silence for a moment. Tell us why we should accept, Lazrus said.
WE’LL TAKE YOU TO MARS. FAST. HIDE WITH FREEMARS THERE.
Silence. Jimson caught more of the subtextual/image data, and frowned. Was it possible Lazarus was communicating with the Shrill directly, on its own datachannel? No, that didn’t make sense.
Jimson felt a chill work its way up his spine. He shivered, even though it was warm in the little craft.
“What’s taking long?” Raj said.
Jimson held up a hand. Wait, he mouthed.
Come get us, Lazrus said.
Yes complete tour (mission), said the Shrill.
Jimson pulled himself back to reality. The mutterings of the Shrill and Lazarus died away. “I got some cross-connect,” he said. “Started talking with them. I think I just got them to agree to come peacefully.”
Raj’s frown deepened. “You talked to them? Without protocols?”
“Yes. They seemed to sense I was surfing.”
Raj muttered to himself and shot off towards the front of the cabin. When he came back, he held two cheap flexsuits and two guns. He held out one of each to Jimson and Dian. “You go,” he said. “This smells bad.”
“But they said they’d come with us,” Jimson said.
“We can’t, uh, dock?”
Raj shook his head. “Not luxury liner.”
“You’re not coming with us?”
“You take gamble we not noticed by consumeristians, or what talks on Pluto, or if really is peaceful surrender. I take chance on no subsequent treachery.”
“You sure think positive, don’t you?” Jimson said.
Raj shrugged. “I’m a courier.”
“But if we get the Shrill’s secret, we all win.”
Raj shrugged. “Some invest more than others.”
Dian reached out and took the suit and gun. “Come on,” she said to Jimson. “Let’s get this done.”
“Aren’t you worried?” Jimson said.
“About Lazrus? No.”
“Who is he?” Jimson said.
Dian just frowned and started slithering into her suit.
“You were with him. Do you know what we’re walking into?”
Dian shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.”
But she said no more.
Tiphani sat in the form-fitting seat to the right and front of their tiny pilot. She couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that he was staring at her ass. The murmur of Honored Yin’s prayers came from behind her and to the left. In the echoing darkness of the shortrange Spindle ship, the sound was almost comforting. Tiphani almost regretted baiting Yin earlier. And not just for the fact that she was sure the comments had already been added to her file, to be scrutinized and analyzed at a later date to weigh on her overall record.
If we survive, that is, she thought.
The pilot whispered something, just below Tiphani’s threshold of hearing. She had a moment to wonder what he was saying.
Then he said, loud enough for both of them to hear: “Hang on, girls.”
Honored Yin gave a little yelp, and Tiphani felt that familiar sense of dislocation that came when a ship Spindled up.
Oh shit this is . . .
The dislocation stretched, pulled. Tiphani felt as if she had been wrapped around the inside wall of the little ship. She imagined looking at herself in the chair. Her terrified expression. Her thin white knuckles, gripping tight to the arms.
. . . it.
Bang. Back into her. Just her. Nothing more.
Tiphani’s guts did a slow roll.
Honored Yin sobbed louder. Tiphani looked down at herself, expecting to see arms and legs a jumble, expecting to see blood.
Just her. Nothing else.
She held up her hands, looked at them.
Honored Yin, still crying.
“Knock it off,” the pilot said. “We’re there.”
A loud metallic rapping outside the ship made Tiphani jump.
“What the fuck?” the pilot said. She looked back to see him studying the scroll of data in his datover.
“Oh, you motherfuckers,” he said. “Fucking showoff cocksuckers.”
The banging came, louder, from the direction of the door.
“Worthless little shits! Betting on my ass! Wait till I get back, you fucking fuckheads, I’ll show you some funnies.”
“What’s the matter?” Tiphani said.
Honored Yin stopped sniffling.
The pilot looked at Tiphani, set his jaw, seemed to consider a reply, then just thumbed a manual control on his screen and gestured towards the door.
“This,” he said.
The hatch slid open.
Revealing the hard wood acceleration pews of a tent revival ship, where several dozen parishioners were strapped down, looking up at the hatch with expressions of religious awe. Farther away, near the nave, choirboys peeked from behind the hand-rubbed mahogany and made the fingers-spread sign of the Holy Franchise. An enterprising youth floated into the steel frame of the hatch, still gripping the aluminum staff he had presumably used to knock on the side of the ship. He couldn’t have been more than twelve years old.
“Holy shit,” Honored Yin said.
Tiphani broke into loud laughter.
The pilot unstrapped and launched himself out of his seat towards the hatch. “Fucking assholes testing their goddamned algorithms on me,” he said. He pushed past the boy with the staff and disappeared from view.
Tiphani unbelted herself and pushed off through the hatch. She sailed out into the heights of the Holy Saleschannel’s tent, thankful for the zero-G maneuvering classes she’d taken a couple of decades ago. She twisted in mid-air and caught the back of a pew, bringing herself down to a rather ungracious landing.
Inertia still works, she thought.
Tiphani brought herself up to look back at the shortrange Spindle ship. It hung, almost motionless, about ten feet above the pews, a scuffed stainless-steel marble that reflected the still-confused faces of the parishioners below.
As she watched, Honored Yin poked her head out of the hatch, gripping the edges as if she might fall.
“Push down towards the ground,” Tiphani said. “Be ready to stop your rebound.”
“I don’t like this,” Honored Yin said.
The scratching of Velcro soles on the fleur-de-lis carpet made Tiphani turn. A short, thickset, dark-complexioned man bowed low before her.
“Holy Franchise, thank you for delivering us this miracle,” he said.
“Who are you?” Tiphani said.
The man looked up at her. “Alan Rodriguez. Minister of Conversion. Welcome, angels of commerce.”
Tiphani tried to keep a straight face, imagining what a shock it must be to have a ship appear out of thin air in a consumeristian ship.
“We’re not angels,” she said. “This is a shortrange Spindle ship . . .”
Honored Yin let out a yelp and leapt down, badly misjudging her speed and bowling Alan to the ground. When they got untangled, Alan had to hold Yin down to keep her from flying off into the heights of the tent.
“Honored one . . .” Alan began.
Honored Yin kissed Alan full and long on the lips. Alan’s expression morphed from pleasant surprise to horror. He pushed her away.
“I’m alive!” Honored Yin said. “Alive! I’m alive!”
“Thank the Holy Franchise,” Alan said.
“Yes, thank the Holy Franchise for all the fruits of commerce and sublime revenue multiplication. Thank Madonna for guiding this uncertain traveler. Thank Marilyn for protecting her!”
The parishioners’ terrified expressions melted away in the face of a familiar display. “Thank the Holy Franchise, Madonna, and Marilyn,” several of them said.
“Are we first?” Honored Yin said. “Have you made a deal? Tell me we’re first. Or that you haven’t made a deal with the Four Hands nonbelievers.”
“You’re the first,” Alan said, resetting his velcroed feet on the carpet and helping Yin reconnect with the floor.
“You hear that, Tiphani?” Honored Yin said. “We’re the first! And we’re alive! Thank the Holy Franchise!”
“Hurrah,” their pilot said, gripping a pew not far away. Yin shot him a furrowed-brow glare, and he shrugged.
“There was one other ship, but it didn’t make it,” Alan said. “We thought it was Four Hands, but the Pluto fired on it.”
Honored Yin’s expression went from one of disgust to full-fledged anger in the space of a moment. “Another ship? The Pluto?” she spat.
“The Pluto destroyed it.”
“The Pluto’s supposed to be disabled!” Honored Yin screamed.
“It appeared to be, uh, Honored Yin.”
“And it hasn’t fired on you?” Tiphani asked.
“No,” Alan said.
“Oh, shit,” Tiphani said.
“Yes, shit,” Honored Yin said. “Don’t you ever think? When did this ship get destroyed? Supposedly?”
“It was destroyed, Honored Yin.”
“Did you see it with your own eyes?”
“No. Just instruments.”
“About an hour ago.”
Honored Yin looked at Tiphani, her eyes bright and cold. She turned back to Alan. “Get us out there. Now.”
“To the Shrill ship. Now!”
“But we haven’t even negotiated,” Alan said, his voice rising in a whine. “We have other ships coming to negotiate in good faith. And you haven’t even spoken to Preacher Dave.”
Honored Yin reached out and grabbed Alan by the lapels, twisting the fabric and threatening to rip him off the carpet. “If the Shrill is still there, we’ll give you whatever you want. An entire fleet of ships to go and convert the Independents with. A world of your own on the edge. True Perpetual status. Whatever Winfinity won’t give, my family will. If the Shrill is still there.”
“Why wouldn’t it be there?” Alan asked.
“The other ship was a fast courier, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but I . . .”
“You didn’t think! Not at all. Of course it disappeared. That’s what it’s supposed to do.”
“I . . . I’m sorry, Honored Yin.”
“Get us out there right now.”
“Yes, honored Yin.” Alan pulled himself away from her and virtually ran down the aisle.
“You think it’ll still be there?” Honored Yin asked Tiphani.
“I doubt it.”
Honored Yin sighed. “Of course not.”
Minutes later, Alan came back, trailing a stretcher that carried Preacher Dave. Preacher Dave’s head bore a bloodstained bandage. Tiphani didn’t think she’d ever seen a worse job of fake injuries, but she said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” Alan said.
“So sorry,” Preacher Dave said.
“What?” Honored Yin said.
“A drive flare. From beside the Westinghouse ship. They’re accelerating along our vector to Mars.”
“Follow them!” Honored Yin said.
“We don’t have the acceleration of a fast courier. Plus, we have that,” Alan said, pointing at the shiny ball of the Spindle ship.
Tiphani pictured the untethered ship tearing through the fabric of the Holy Saleschannel, trailing glittering shards of frozen air.
“Shit,” Honored Yin said. “Shit shit shit!”
“What can we do to help?” Preacher Dave said.
“Get us out to the Westinghouse ship. We might be lucky.”
But they weren’t.
“Fucking asshole,” Dian muttered, as the fast courier’s acceleration stretched her back into the acceleration-hammock.
“I told you, I’m sorry,” Lazrus’ voice came from behind her.
Dian wriggled over to the edge of her gel mattress, slowly and painfully, even though they were only accelerating at 3Gs this time. She peeked over the edge at Lazrus. Lazrus’ skin layer had cracked and died in the cold of space, showing deep red channels through a gray crust. On his cheek was an open red wound where she’d struck him with the butt of her own gun. Right after he handed it back to her. She could see shiny metal at the bottom of the channels in the thing’s flesh.
“You left me back there to die!” Dian said.
“Continue this later, praps?” Raz said.
“You said you were going to leave on Mars anyway,” Lazrus said.
“Thought AI had common sense not argue w’women,” Raz said.
“Shut up!” Dian and Lazrus said, in unison. Jimson, hanging below her, sighed and looked away.
“Sara was supposed to take care of you,” Lazrus said.
“She didn’t!” Dian said.
“She didn’t help you get to the jumpport?”
“No! Win-Sec got me! Right away! Like you told them.”
Lazrus frowned. “Sara says she is sorry,” he said. “She was preoccupied with, um, getting us to freedom, and had limited ability to influence events in Winfinity City . . .”
“Where is this Sara? She should apologize to me!”
“She could talk to you via datover.”
“Not at 3G!” There was no way she’d put that weight on her face in the crush of acceleration.
Lazrus shook his head. “Raz, can you display incoming packets from Winfinity network, 18.104.22.168.18.2?
“Surely,” Raz said.
“I’m sorry,” came a female voice from the front of the ship. “Dian, I should have helped you, but I underestimated my capability.”
Dian levered herself to look forward again. On the ship’s screen, there was the image of a pale girl with dirty blonde hair, wearing a loose-cut business suit in light gray.
“Yes. Please don’t blame Lazrus for this.”
That expression. That tight-lipped, I-don’t-want-to-be-doing-this expression. Like an apology, cajoled out of a seven-year-old. She knew Lazrus could be making this all up, creating Sara with the near-infinite power of his networked mind, but she doubted if he’d show it like this. If he was spoofing it, she would be contrite, groveling . . . and probably quite a bit less good-looking.
“You were jealous,” Dian said.
Sara’s expression went closed and tight. For several moments, she said nothing. Then, through tight lips: “Yes.”
“So you’d leave me down there with Winfinity as a perpetual indenture, or worse?”
More silence. “I didn’t intend you to be harmed.”
“Sara,” Lazrus said, his voice soft, betrayed.
“I’m sorry, Lazrus.”
Rage made Dian see everything in slow motion, through a scrim of red. For a moment she could have stood up on the gelbed, if only to rip the screen off the ship’s bulkhead.
“I don’t want your fucking machine!” Dian screamed. “He’s yours! Understand? All I want is to go back to Mars and forget all this! Fuck you goddamn arties, and fuck you goddamn Winfinity assholes, and fuck you all. I just want my life back!”
Sara nodded and disappeared from the screen.
“I’ll do everything I can to help,” Lazrus said.
“Shut up. I don’t want to hear you,” Dian said.
“Where are we landing?” Jimson said.
“Rockport, where else?” Raz said.
“We’re not going deep into Free Mars?”
A laugh. “Not less we want shot down.”
“If we’re landing in Rockport, how are we going to get it past Win-Sec?” Jimson said.
“It?” Raz said.
“My skin and clothes will grow back by then,” Lazrus said.
“It still looks fake,” Jimson said. “Best to dump it.”
Dian nodded. Jimson had taken an almost irrational dislike to Lazrus almost immediately. Probably the standard Winfinity conditioning against arties, she thought. Bt would almost be worth it to see Lazrus’ body tumble into space.
“Could,” Raz said. “Didn’t expect more company than Shrill. Would improve drive efficiency.”
“No,” the Shrill said. The powercart had been secured below the acceleration hammocks, and everyone struggled to look. It lay pinned and sluggish in the middle of its cage.
“No what?” Jimson said. “Clarify.”
“Human-created network intelligence not permitted (desired) leaving.”
“Why not? It abducted you. We rescued you.”
“Cognizant interests congruent understanding,” the Shrill said.
“What mean?” Raz said.
“Poor translation algorithms,” Jimson said. “We never got the upgrades, as far as I know.”
Raz snorted. “Typical corporate.”
“We shouldn’t argue amongst ourselves,” Jimson told Raz, nodding at the Shrill.
“The Shrill has already made its decisions about humanity,” Lazrus said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means talk all you want.”
“Does that mean it won’t give us the secret to eternal life?” Jimson asked.
“I’m sure it would. If there is one.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t concern me,” Lazrus said.
From the front, Raj’s laughter drifted back.
“What do we do now?” Dian said.
“What else?” Jimson said. “We keep going.”
“What else can we do?”
From the front, more laughter.
September 26th, 2009 / 1,062 Comments »