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  • Joe

    Part 1: Night Falls

    The curved bow of the sunset lurched eastwards. Across the innumerable settlements on Planetface sharing the same meridianline, dusk was encroaching - same for the observation towers and watchers of Hive dens, operators hundreds of meters below the surface. Same for the shuttered streets of the Datatech metropolises, undergoing their latest power outage in recent weeks. Same for the sand-polished remnants of the Usurper fortresses, lonely amongst the dunes, and within which nothing animal has stirred for over seven thousand such sunsets now.

    Sunset was not due for over a metric hour yet, in Data DeCentral. Along GammaProm, the sluicegates opened to allow egress for the geothermally heated steam to escape - turbines specially baffled in order to suck every last joule possible from the energy source. GammaProm offered an eastward facing view of the cultivated farmlands and ominous sensor arrays that littered the sprawling Planetside around the central cities. It also offered a good view of the closer of the two suns, Alpha, as it descended Planetwards to deprive this hemisphere of its warmth and energy for another 8 metric hours.

    Already the crowds were thinning - the Datajack's moderate attempt at a nascent police force were doing their rounds in the city now, broadcasting on all commercial headwaves for the citizens to return home. Times had toughened recently, what with the successful Species Wars on Harmonia, and the Datajack had decided to meet the crunch gradually. Hence the initially-gentle police force. Time would come - the unspoken fear was - when the police would have to turn their ministrations outwards. Perhaps it was that fear alone that kept the normally-defiant populace in line.

    Joe caught the headwave along with all the rest of the transients in RapCafé Blue. Maybe it was the crackling of the steam vents' electric currents, maybe it was just his bad headache, but either way his headset couldn't catch the first half of the transmission.

    " return to your homes or to designated public rest areas. This is for your own protection and wellbeing. The Proms Alpha through Lambda must be clear by 16.00 hours. Any malingerers after 16.00 will risk punishment. This is a preliminary curfew warning - all civilians are strongly advised, for reasons of internal security, to return to your homes or to..."

    Joe took his headset off and hung it round his neck. No point in turning down the volume - the squad rovers were broadcasting on hidden frequencies too, one of which was bound to be the internal operation frequency of the headset. They could turn the volume up just as loud as they wanted to. Best to leave it off the earlobe altogether, then replace it come 16.10hrs.

    The glare from the eastern sunset was more than Joe could bear, accustomed as he was to his polyfilter eyeshades. Unfortunately, they came included with the headset. He rubbed his eyes and squinted. Sacrifice your eyesight to save your hearing.

    "Something wrong?" asked the prop'.

    "No," snapped Joe angrily, then immediately regretted it. The proprietor was a nice guy - he'd let Joe come in to use the net-lets even though he only had netcreds to spend. Most other props would only accept cash, preferring the comfort of cold hard chips to the airy uncertainty of credits, in these uneasy times. "Yeah," said Joe. "Playing too much holoNet. Screwed my head in."

    "What, is it a dull - aching - pain in front?" asked the prop' eagerly.

    "No, just a big burning in the back, near where the neck meets the skull, you know."

    The prop's face fell slightly. "Oh," he said, evidently disappointed.

    Joe ordered a synthemesc anyway and continued to speak, massaging his eyeballs with one hand and the back of his neck with the other. "Too many goddamn hours of Guesswork. I shouldn't do this to myself." He grabbed the drinking bulb with more enthusiasm than he felt, and downed the drink.

    Guesswork was the latest craze of pretentious and rather unpleasant games to hit the holoNet recently. Based in part on news nodes, and in parts on the pungent forum nodes, Guesswork emphasized tasteless bets placed for various outcomes, and moderated by several delocalized authorities. Exactly who these hidden authorities could be was the target of much speculation on the net - current thought billed them as bored Morganite wealthies, frittering away netcreds to generate rumors and a subculture; all for their own amusement. Subjectwise, the present winning question concerned guesses to the current kill rate on the distant shores of Harmonia, where the ruthless armies of the Hive were at present deployed. There, you could bet against other military specialists who reckoned their death tolls to be in the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands. The numbers changed hourly, and so too were credits awarded to successful punters. You could color in a greyscale image of war corpses for a tiebreaker if you liked, or guess the location of the decapitated Progenitor's head, anywhere in the hologram, the headless corpse of the actual creature rotting away happily in the foreground. If it appealed to you, you could even revisit the node an hour later and see how far the cephalopodic body had decomposed in the nitrate-rich air.

    In earlier days, the big bet had been which side would be first to call off the conflict: Hive marauders, or Caretaker defenders. Both sides of the argument had reasons to back them, one citing the mysterious pre-warning resonance capabilities that the Caretakers possessed, enhancing their defence systems; and the other looking to the past example of the utter destruction of the Usurpers at the hands of Hive soldiers. Those days of polarized betting were long past, now - with the Chairman's total commitment to full nerve gas deployment, the xenomorphs had vanished from Planetside just as inevitably as their dead Usurper peers had, two decades prior. Now the predominant bets concerned whether the Guardian herself would somehow escape the conflagration. It was perhaps a mute testament to the Chairman's sinking popularity that many net-heads were still voting in favor of the xenomorphs.

    Better Prog' than Prol' ran the slogan on the nets. Their own species were beginning to hold the Hive in lower trust than they did the aliens. Still, the central continent of Planet did indeed host both the valuable Uranium Flats and the mysterious Manifold Harmonics, the latter of which lent its name to the entire landmass. The Chairman's slow extermination not only secured him the continent, but these two Planetary anomalies.

    Joe didn't consider himself to be a sadist and he would never acknowledge any political swerving, but he visited those forums all day long. Hey - there was good credit to be won from that sort of netdipping. Plus, you got to meet all sorts of interesting people there. With these lies he justified his ghoulish pastime to himself.

    "When you're going insane - push a drink in your brain - it'll ease the paaaaaaaain..." crooned the prop'. Joe reluctantly slid back into reality.

    "Another, please."

    The prop' accepted the empty bulb and refilled it, humming the popular song out of tune. Joe sat back on his stool and lazily tried an earpiece to see if the police broadcast had ended. It had not. He sighed, put the headset back down on the table, and looked out toward the sunset. There was lazy and half hearted bustle in the RapCafé as others moved seats, changed tables, ordered drinks, hooked up to net-lets, tested headsets, picked crumbs, swung their feet, looked up at the ceiling... Joe let it all pass over him like a cool wave of air conditioning.

    He has not seen many sunsets for a while - let him enjoy its orange-clouded, brown-fielded splendor while it lasts.

    [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited August 20, 2000).]
    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ

  • #2
    Part 1 cont - Night Falls

    The police cars had long ceased issuing warnings about the curfew, and the primary had long since fallen beneath the horizon. Many of the loungers at the RapCafé had left the open gregarity of the common room and headed to the shared doss-rooms and bedders upstairs. The prop' was still there, though, cleaning glasses - although, mercifully, his attempts at friendly chat had given way to neutral silence.

    Joe sat back in the hard metal seat of the net-let and connected once more. Time to see what the latest developments were. Retinal scans - both eyes. M/MI or manual? Manual. Peripherals deploying. Accept.

    Joe's headache had cleared up with sundown, and he was feeling brave enough to tackle the Guesswork forums again. A series of unusual fellow visitors had piqued his anonymous interest, and he was anxious to resume conversation. The net-names of these acquaintances had been as gaudy as the costumes and pretences of the whores down at DeltaProm ("Lemme show ya why we're called the Delta, baby!") - shameless, tasteless, and tediously nightmarish.

    Online: FelléShow - Dritnam - Hue G Rection - Eyulback - Dratsa/b/itch - MastaHacka

    Logged on as: JoJo

    Joe paused for a second, considering. Then his fingers extended to the keyboard, and he began to type. The missive to Dritnam was brief and to the point. Typically, for netspeak, it was filled with unnecessary punctuation marks, extraneous numbers, and grammatical errors... but such speech was a second language in the Datatech holdings. Joe sent it out and inserted his tongue firmly into his cheek. A wry smile crossed his face briefly.

    Joe skimmed the other messages with little or no interest, but penned less laborious responses to each. Every message sent off resembled nothing in any language correctly spoken - Joe did not really care much if their recipients understood them.

    Another power outage dimmed the lights alarmingly for a few moments, but the net-let remained fully lit and functional. Twenty-two years before, the Planetary Council had passed a minor ruling to encourage free flow of information "as a safeguard against tyranny" - this had resulted in an over-emphasis on net-lets and their sturdiness and availability.

    What the Commissioner Pravin Lal could not have forseen was the most popular abuse of this sudden emphasis - small-time illicit activities, mostly by small gangs of young male net talents, proliferated. But the matter stood, an embarrassment to many, and irrevocable without tremendous loss of face.

    Dritnam's reply came back:

    Th3r3 4In't n0 c3ll that c4n ho1d Da Rat-boy! Kowakasha!!lll!1!!! - l4rgeniot DOGGYSYLE MAnn 8)

    Joe sat back and appeared to ponder this. As he did so, another user intruded on their node: a certain Clyterion. This surfer's message ran "r u HornEeE???"

    Joe lazily erased the newcomer from his user log and returned to Dritnam. A moment later, and Clyterion's name reappeared in his log with the message "u r my H0rNBitsch babBY". A look of annoyance flashed across Joe's broad face and he quickly chased up the identity.

    Whoever Clyterion was, his safety was decidedly mediocre. A higher standard than the absolute network newcomer would sport, and evidently with a few handwritten code-constructs embedded in its defence, but all the same Joe was into the outer profiles in a few moments. He disabled Clyterion's file exchange for his node, and the name instantly faded from the user lineup.

    It did not reappear.

    By this time, Joe had five urgent messages from various others to attend to. He sent off two promisingly fatuous responses ("YehIOd simFac 4 drulers" and "Methasmack *boolean* 2 D Massive!!1" respectively) and then lost patience with the other three. He applied himself to Dritnam, and painstakingly fashioned a response.

    U d1dn#t GR4$$ D4 Fu£ka didd U??

    Dritnam's response was swift and unhesitating.

    N0t A £haN£e 1N hEL1, /B4By!

    Joe unceremoniously pulled the plug on the net-let and withdrew his credchip. Across six different net-let terminals, the name JoJo faded into blankness. Five of the users at those terminals would have no realization of why. The last, however, knew all too well.

    * ~ * ~ *

    There is a danger with security wherever you go - oftentimes, the greater danger is met by the greater countermeasures, fostering confidence and overconfidence in the user. The greatest of these dangers in the present age is that presented by M/MI - or Mind/Machine Interface. Commissioner Pravin Lal was not alone in condemning the morally defunct state of this technology, but his protest was recorded and debates raged, for all the wrong reasons. The greatest danger attending M/MI was the risk that the user would assimilate with the machine beyond all possibility of identity escape. The massive neural simulant that was the Machine could conceivably swallow the frail-born Man-mind whole, and leave not even the bones of a psyche for burial. Morally, too, the dilemma struck of how to cater for the drooling vacant shell left behind - does it receive life support? Is it technically human? Is it technically even alive?

    Joe was sensible to all this, of course. Joe was sensible to an awful lot that his outwardly blank appearance did not belie. He knew the dangers of being traced and directly controlled by the Machine or those who used the Machine - and that was the reason for his fastidious preferment of the keyboard. He knew that with the recent imposition of the curfews, more and more Datatech users were congesting the net late at night. He knew this, in the same instinctive manner as a young minnow knows safety in swimming with the school.

    The RapCafé toilets were roomy and tolerably clean, but what had attracted Joe to the establishment in the first place had been the emergency escape. Data DeCentral was an old city - dating back to the times of Frontier societies, and one relic of this was the quaint fire-escape ladders. Nowadays, there were any number of quick-reaction extinguishers which could quench a fire with water, sand, or nitrogen without human intervention, but the buildings sporting the fire escapes were allowed to stand. Many had been nominated for antique building status, although - sadly - the GammaProm SloMo RapCafé had not been one of them.

    Fire exits are strange objects - like many warning devices, in order to ensure their effectiveness, it is necessary to discourage overusage of them. A famous case in point could be found on Datalinks: on Earth, sonic alarms had been used so predominantly on roadfaring automobiles that the mere sound of an alarm quickly became integrated into society, and easily ignored. However, fire escapes, as life-saving installations, must be easily accessible in case they needed to be used. The Frontier solution was to fit a net beacon to the door, which was activated immediately upon opening the door. The beacon broadcasted evacuation alarms on all nearby commercial headwaves, and used a more powerful transmitter to register a report to the base authorities. A variety of punishments awaited those who tripped the alarm without good cause, ranging from a written reproach in UN territories to imprisonment and nutrient deprivation in the Hive underground lairs.

    This alarm, though old, still valiantly stood its duty - a preliminary scan showed all systems to be functional, though slightly dusty. Marks on the casing betrayed the brand, even though the lettering was worn away - Morgan SafetyTech. Joe estimated its age to be over 150 years. That was good. Switching his polyfilters onto high detail zoom, he examined the actual alarm mechanism itself - a pad against the door's hinge side. It appeared to consist of two components: a pressure sensor, and a proximity sensor. Joe guessed the prox to be radioactively fueled or redundant. Either way, the answer was simple enough.

    Joe gently peeled away a strip of syntheskin from his light undershirt, and selected a nice hard cash-chip. Spraying this with liquid from a small vial, he then placed the small disc in the middle of the clothing material. Focussing one last time on the locking mechanism, he lined up the cloth edge with the surface of the pad, and slid it underneath in one deft action.

    The alarm remained silent, and he slid the cash-chip underneath the cloth, tying it hard against the pad. This done, he tested the door a crack, then, when the alarm remained steadfastly untriggered, swung it open fully. Only the pressure detector remained active, and that was held in check by the hard surface of the coin bound to it.

    A gentle breeze swept through the open doorway. Quite possibly, it was the first in 150 years. Joe left the pressure pad bound up for now with the cashchip, and stepped outside into the alleyway.

    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


    • #3
      Part 2: Footfalls

      The police operation had been a rather hurried one, and not entirely successful. Reacting to the report of a curfew malingerer, the police force had taken two metric minutes to arrive at the scene. Once there, they then took another two minutes apprehending two youths at a public net-let. It was not until one of the officers passed a handheld data uplink across the net-let that they realized the depth of the misdemeandor being perpetrated.

      This was duly reported to the commanding officer, who wasted a valuable minute or so roughing up the two defiant youths in an attempt to find an explanation for the nature of the net abuse. By this time, the real culprit had made it across the prom and into the safety of the alleys. From there, a sensible application of wits and resource would have guaranteed complete evasion from the police.

      The culprit, however, knew that that would be an impossibility. Forced to leave at such quick notice, the net-let still bore traceable leads to several embarrassing identities - each of which could reveal damaging information, if the tracers were sharp enough. And in the realm of the Datathieves themselves, that was a foregone conclusion.

      There was a low-rise apartment block nearby. Very quickly, the lone shadow made its quiet way to the entrance foyer and peered in through the plastisteel of the front doors. There was a special-duty guard sitting at a desk, his face illuminated by the cerulean hues of the palmtop screen. In an alcove nearby, behind the block staircase, would be the public-use net-let.

      The shadow vanished from the doorway for a brief moment and reappeared with a lens in one hand, and an ominous, blunt-looking barrel emerging from the other. Quickly the lens was placed over the outside retinal scanner - within eight seconds, a correct match had been found. The lens was taken from the scanner and dropped into a side pocket and the doors were pushed unresistingly open by the now-free hand.

      Footsteps sounded lightly on the concrete surface of the ground floor, enough to rouse the guard. His eyes turned from the chatrooms of his palmtop, rose to glimpse the open doors, saw the dark robed figure striding through, arm raised towards him, something glittering in its depths. Then the guard felt the thrusting puncture in his neck, felt void spreading throughout his chest and engulfing his head even as he slumped back against his chair. The world spun round and blackened, his legs going last of all, kicking once or twice against the table.

      The figure dropped the tranquilizer gun into another pocket in the folds of its robe, and strode lightly to the guard's desk. The guard's palmtop would have the clearance codes for the cameras - the intruder retrieved the palmtop from the floor and sat the guard back in his chair casually. Then grabbed the palmtop, retreated into the corner with the node, and set to work.

      The cameras were as yet simple in their networking - the Datatech security measures had not yet been uniformly upgraded to war-capable security. Working quickly and with an increasing tide of anxiety, the figure hunched down and keyed in data. The guard had accessed outside lines from within the outer security hub; a punishable act, but almost universally practised. From this it would be possible to access and perhaps manipulate the cameras.

      Camera access granted - good. Cameras active status - all online. Clearance options. Clearance options? Yes. Open/Access - Delete/Amend - Test. Test? Test: Security code needed.

      Ok. Screw that. Delete/Amend Yes. Delete/Amend: Security code needed.

      Again? Bollocks to that.

      The hooded figure returned the palmtop to the desk and withdrew back into the alcove, activating the computer. Light shone from the net-let's screen. Fingers keyed in data, slipping once, deleting. Typing rapidly, then slipping again. No good.

      The figure reached up and drew back her hood. Now, brown eyes unimpeded, she continued opposite the screen. First thing - shut down all active nodes. She logged in at Guesswork, deleted a few posts, and logged out again. One of six. Noise outside. She logged in at ChironNet and deleted an entire profile. Logged out again. Two of six.

      Squad cars drove by, slowing as they did so. Repeating the curfew message. Loud, inhuman squawks of metallic reprimand floated into the night outside.

      Logged in at NeoCities - why was it taking so bloody long??? All right, scan quickly - delete, delete... delete.... delete, log out. Three of six. Logged in at Lok's Palace - scan quickly... nothing to delete - good. Logged out. Four of six.

      Amidst the very real hubbub outside, and the imagined racket of her own typing, the hacker became aware of a disturbance. The guard's desk-call was beeping. Somewhere between a humming noise, and the sound of polite cough; somebody was trying to contact the guard.

      Ignored the noise. Must sign out of Shelarin and ImmVac net. Logged on at Shelarin, incorrect password. Must have mistyped an underscore - there we go. Logged in.

      What's all this garbage??? 73 new messages? How? Safe to read? Is it being traced? Who sent them? New orders? Abort mission?

      The beeping noise on the desktop stopped. Strangely, this brought the outside noises into sudden focus. They were knocking on doors now, a few buildings down the prom. Shouts of police authority. Flashing lights. Citizen's arrest. Be calm, obedient, this will soon be all over.

      73. New messages. 73 new messages. They're tracing me. Assume the worst scenario. The hacker reached forward and deleted all new messages. If base were watching, they would understand. If not now, then maybe tomorrow when they locate her body.

      Last one. GigaDrive - log in. Scan ... hell, no time! Delete profile. Log out.

      Knocking on the building next door. Telltale spark of overridden security - next door's doors swing open.

      One last thing... The hacker keyed a series of commands into the net-let, trying her best to replicate a clumsy outsider's attempted hack of the building's security. Retina scan, achieved. Tampering with the camera systems - failed. But that wasn't a problem.

      Suddenly, light flooded the area as the elevator doors opened. A fat woman stood in her walksuit, her bare ankles and slippers showing beneath. She stepped out into the anteroom and was halfway across the room, approaching the guard with an imperious demand for an explanation, when the hacker's dart hit her square in the shoulder.

      Big mouth wide in animal pain, the woman wheeled around from the impact and her eyes fixed on the hacker. Two steps were all that she managed, along with what would have been a hefty yell, before she collapsed and went still.

      The lift doors closed on the echo of her flabby mass smacking the floor. The elevator light faded...

      The hacker stood up, and was blinded by the glare from the police lamps.

      "Open up in there - police search - cooperate ..."

      Blinking owlishly, she ran over the considerable bulk of the fallen woman, then past the downed guard. Flashed her lens over the scanner at the other side of the building - it worked first time.

      Doors in front of her opened to the blessed night air, just as the ones behind her swung open to admit the armed and armored police.

      "Stop where you are!"

      Two gunshots, and relative silence as she pounded down the alley, alone. As she ran round corners and mounted ledges to gain the rooftops, a disinterested part of her mind sat back from her struggles and reflected:

      Pros: Deleted files from network. Destroyed tracers to others. Witnesses amnesiac.

      Cons: Seen on cameras - no hood. Left behind two darts - compromised poison.

      Unresolved: Evade capture. Complete mission.

      Now she was over Beta Prom, and from the rooftops she could see the squads of Datatech police converging in the streets. What had begun as a coded transmission to commence-and-proceed had turned, in the course of just five minutes, into a right royal node opera.

      Shouts from behind her alerted her again and she skidded down the sloping side of a rooftop. She came to a halt against a wall with a jolt that did not favor the weight of the case on her back, and nearly winded her. Slithering down the side of the buildings by means of nearby net-let booths, she touched ground again and considered.

      Now would be a good time...she reached into the case on her back, retrieving components and joining them together.

      Working feverishly, she set and activated a tapping device on a net-let. File transfers began in the booth behind her as she pelted away from the street and plunged into the alleyways once more.

      Tracing the newest call from a public net-let, the police delegated one squad car to investigate this. The four policemen screeched onto the scene about half a minute after the perpetrator's departure. They consulted their LAN analyzers and were puzzled to find the net-let automated. Two got out to investigate the area, while a third went up for a closer look. The fourth in the car sent out an update on the situation.

      Inside the booth, the policeman discovered the tapper. Even a brief glance at the screen and transactions was enough to tell him the chaos which it was committing at random - even as he watched, accounts were being accessed, altered, deleted, exchanged, or publicized. The work of an anarchist...

      With a quick, unthinking reaction, the policeman grabbed the device and detached it forcibly from the console of the net-let. Whilst it was still in his hand, the incendiary device's dial turned full circle and engaged.

      The police car was showered with shrapnel from the netlet booth, and gobbits of scorched flesh. Within the car, the driver was still making his bulletin when his eyesight was seared by the light of the explosion. Screaming into the sound-relay, he unwittingly ensured the allocation of yet more of his cronies to the scene - four more cars diverted from their patrols to investigate.

      As the cars screamed by, Lydia headed eastwards. The ruse of the tapperbox had worked - now she had a few more precious moments of diversion to make it to the end of Alpha Prom. Heading through the darker streets, she avoided the cameras as best as she could - now, they would actually have watching eyes behind them, instead of impartial tape.

      The curfew was her best friend, here. With no panicked residents taking to the streets, she could assume full hostility to anybody she did meet. The tranquilizer gun had been swapped for a 33ZhF light pistol - a silent firearm that could nonetheless incapacitate, regardless of hit location, due to a fragmenting antipersonnel round. A few heartbeats' work with the case, and it was primed and ready.

      Lydia ran up a story and made her way parallel to Alpha Prom - her hands clutching at rails when they weren't clutching weapons, her back hunched from the weight of the case. At the juncture of Grid 7 and Alpha Prom, cars were holding the corner with alert guards. There, a story up from road level, she shot a civilian with the tranquilizer - an old man, pacing the fire escape walkway - and caught him in her arms as he fell. She thrust his head against the lock, wedging his drooping eyelids open with two fingers, until the door took his eyescan and slid open. Inside, she flew through a tiny cramped sitting room, into the corridor beyond, and up onto the roof. Two buildings later, and she was across the Gridroad from the corporate district.

      Corporate district was location Alpha-One, so called because of its nestled locale between Alpha Prom and Grid road 1. Here, the night held no curfews, with corporations naturally walling their employees up well into the night anyway. However, Alpha-One was usually heavily guarded - tonight moreso, what with the evening's entertainment. At each corner were cars, and new ones came and went as their orders rotated or changed. In each car, at least four police members were fully alert and kept aware by the very real events of the earlier evening. Although still a green police force, they were learning quickly.

      And it had all been her good work.

      Lydia ran back into the building and headed down the stairwell. At the very end of the well, she looked up and exposed the whole of her face to the camera located on the underside of the stairs above. Then in one swift motion she shot the camera, and headed back upstairs again. She reentered the dingy apartment of the old man, and headed out to the living room, activating the light as she did so. She dragged the old man's limp body back into the room, and took out her knife. She knelt down beside him, lifted the knife to his face, then looked up into the camera at the far corner of the room. She shot that one too, then turned back to the man.

      A brief internal struggle, and she decided on wedging him against the wall, shielded behind his heavy chair. He had seen many more years than she had - she had no right to deprive him of the few he had left. Finally, she detached another tapperbox from her case and quickly assembled it. She set it for time detonation, and threw it downstairs right down to the bottom of the stairwell.

      She was down the outside fire escape and round the corner when the tapperbox exploded, shattering all the windows in the building and perhaps killing all the people on the first floor. That brought police cars in a matter of mere moments - she could only see two, but perhaps the computer still hadn't managed to match the camera evidence of her face yet. The cars opened and disgorged six or so soldiers, who seemed at a loss for what to do. Now was her chance.

      Lydia crept closer and sighted down the 33ZhF. A quick shot hissed out of her barrel, and the driver in the nearer vehicle slumped in his chair. Another shot broke the rear windshield of the far vehicle and hit the driver. Neither driver made a noise as they collapsed - the hits must have been good torso or head hits.

      Lydia was on her feet and running as she emptied the rest of her magazine into the disconcerted policemen milling about. Not one of her shots hit a viable target, but she had no time to reflect on this as she sheltered behind the car door and dragged out the deadweight of the bloody driver. She disgorged him onto the road's hard surface as the soldiers ran for their other car, shouting to their incapacitated driver. Then a quick adjustment, dumping the case on the seat beside her, and she was squealing towards the center of Alpha-One.

      Shots rang out behind her, and the windshield collapsed. She scrunched up in the seat as far as she could, turning the corner and heading for the Octagon Center building. Two cars lined the road ahead of her - as she wheeled past, she could see them set off in pursuit. She turned at the corner of the MedCorp Headquarters, and continued on halfway up the thoroughfare. By this time, the police had coordinated an anvil - she could see vehicle lights turning onto the street ahead of her, but by now she had already achieved her goal.

      Slowing down slightly, she waited until she saw an opening alleyway on the right, and then threw herself and the car down it. Sparks flew as the car crashed into the walls on both sides - the alleyway, like most, were designed with pedestrians in mind.

      At the dead end of the alleyway, she got out and took her case out with her. Three hundred meters to the south lay the opulent corporate buildings of the economic structure of Data DeCentral, amongst them such august names as ImmVac, MedCorp, and GenSyn. All pharmaceuticals, all centers of medical technology.

      She opened a latch on the side of the case and keyed in a value, then squinted into the oncoming headlights of the patrol cars.

      "Drop the case!" squawked a loudspeaker. "Get down on the ground!"

      Lydia complied with the former, but not the latter. The case skittered away to a juddering halt, but she continued to look defiantly into the light, as though to outstare it. A bright flash of fire spurted from somewhere northeast of the headlights, accompanied by a high shallow booming sound.

      "Down on the ground!"

      Lydia's left knee gave out beneath her and she tumbled to the ground holding the bleeding mess that had been her leg. The pain came later, in drenching waves of heat. She pushed it back as well as she could - little mattered now.

      "Make no sudden moves! Keep your hands visible at all times!"

      Footsteps were pattering all around her, now, as the many policemen closed in and held their inexperienced aims against her form on the floor. One came up, his steps echoing strangely in the distant noise and nearby light, and crunched her knee beneath his boot. She closed her eyes, and imagined the pain elsewhere, dispersed throughout her body, to be more manageable. She bit through her lip with the effort.

      "Speak only when you are spoken to! This is a citizen's arrest!"

      Footfalls echoing around her now, as her perception of time bleeds into slowness, even as her blood flows into pulselessness around her. Footfalls, clumsy footfalls, as inexperienced young men approach her warily, with varying shades of contempt and fear. Footfalls as one young man approaches her dropped case and lifts it up for a closer inspection. He notices the timer underneath the latch, expiring, fading through to zero, even as he watches.

      * ~ * ~ *

      From the rooftops of Beta-Four, the explosion was not only visible - it was palpable. Joe, seeing the bright flash of light before anything else, immediately dropped to a stooping posture and covered his ears with his hands. The explosion shook the city, and he lost his balance during it and tumbled over, still guarding his ears against the roaring of the blast and the collapse of the buildings. Down the street before him, a burnt out police car was hurled before a wave of air like a piece of aluminum foil. A bright cloud of orange and yellow roiling flame burst into the sky, casting a pall of smoke and illuminating the surrounding neighborhood with a ghoulish form of were-day.

      Joe scrambled to his feet, still dazed somewhat, and ran for shelter in a doorway. Within moments, vehicle-sized pieces of debris were hailing down from the skies, gouging great holes in the street level where they landed, in their smoking masses.

      As he made himself as small as he could and shrank back into the tiny refuge, Joe's mind was on other things: the first was small, and concerned the very new development of Lydia's success, juxtaposed by her almost assured death. The second was somewhat grander, and concerned the way forwards from here.

      The smell of scorched foundation reached him, and Joe took in its reek. Somewhere, in the molecules that wafted to him on the hot wind of the district, he would find Lydia, now united with the goal she had striven so hard to achieve.

      [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited July 22, 2000).]
      "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


      • #4
        Part 3: Blame Falls

        The following civilian arrests made on night of Alpha-One bombing:

        Angelican Jonthan Laing Netwatcher a.k.a. Jingbean - released

        Speaker I'Liphf'd, Caretaker technician/diplomatic attache - released under escort

        Angelican Justin Bailey Netwatcher a.k.a. sumaS - released

        Hiverian Hu Man Bing diplomatic corps - remanded in custody, release pending review

        List continues - scroll down? (y/n)

        YES/< enter >

        The following civilian arrests made on night of Alpha-One bombing:

        Morganite Rishad Utmriganka Managing Director ImmVac Corporation - release pending review

        Morganite Abu Jikenshar Personnel Manager ImmVac Corporation - release pending review

        Speaker Hiroaki Shizukame, Cult of Planet preacher - remanded in custody, release pending review

        List continues - scroll down? (y/n)

        NO/< enter >

        * ~ * ~ *


        At 17.18 hrs DataTech Eastern time, an explosive attack was carried out by a single terrorist of unclear political allegiance. DataTech police have yet to disclose the precise details, but preliminary sources suggest that the terrorist involved was female and Aryan. Some photographic/holographic evidence has been obtained, and will be made available to nodes by this evening, sources claim. Said Ryan Davidson, of DataTech Police "Final identification checks are underway, and we expect to have publicable information regarded the suspect's ID on the nets very shortly. Fortunately our electrical security system has proven its worth."

        The explosion itself demolished the buildings of many key industrial corporations and holdings in the base's financial district - among these were MedCorp, ImmVac, and GenSyn. Miraculously, the casualties were much lower than first estimates placed - only 24 known deaths, and 40 to 50 casualties. Morganite Abu Jikenshar, a speaker for ImmVac, spoke of the recent economic decline and slump in production as being the major proponents of this mercifully low death toll:

        "With the Act passed, [DataTech Curfew Law] our in-base sites have reduced man hours and shifts - and luckily very few staff were in the building when the attack occurred."

        Several prominent arrests were made, including one Hiverian diplomat whose name has yet to be disclosed. Certainly it would appear that the changes in security measures and attitudes within the DataTech territories are not merely cosmetic.

        More on this later.

        Other nodes.

        Email this to a friend!

        Notify me of responses to this topic

        * ~ * ~ *

        Hiverian Spokesman Hu Man Bing joined with Morganite Ambassador Jodrilh Bankar and Peacekeeper Inspector Je'yar Thyrangh in condemning the terrorist attack on DataDeCentral yesterday evening. Although relatively few people were killed or injured by the blast, Mr Bing voiced his concern for the people of Data DeCentral, and the need for all parties to be vigilant during what he called "These fitful attempts to terrorize and to intimidate the civilian populace".

        Spokesman Bing was present in DataDeCentral at the Northern Sea Summit, where it was hoped that a Hive - DataTech breakthrough could be achieved, thus lifting the trade sanctions and uniting the extant human factions against the Progenitor threat. The talks have now been suspended until further notice. When questioned about the Hive's present stance on the future fate of the Progenitor faction, Mr Bing was tight lipped: "I have not come to discuss that issue and I have no comment to make on it - I am not a member of our XenoRelations Bureau."

        The Hiverian XenoRelations Bureau declined to comment when questioned.

        * ~ * ~ *

        Cool darkness. Gentle breeze, perhaps real, perhaps imagined. Heady smell of incense in the air - velvety, sweet to the throat. Whiteness is blank. Smoke carves blank-trails in the darkness. Darkness is void. Blankness in void.


        Two eyes slowly open, greeting the darkness. Two hands, weathered with age, yet powerful, reach forwards. Arms stretch outwards, forming a circle before the body. The position is held - but only just beyond the limit of serenity. Then both hands curve downwards towards the abdomen, clearing the chi. Sigh of controlled exhalation, rigidly controlled, with imperious power behind it.

        The lights come on.

        The Chairman's gaze rises, without haste, to meet that of the Second. The Chairman's expression does not change.

        Zhu He Lai bows down at the waist, casting his eyes towards the concrete of the floor.

        "Esteemed master..." His raspy voice pauses while he straightens again. "Your word is required for an important matter."

        The Chairman's gaze, inscrutable, has not broken from him. The expression on his face was dispassionate, almost as though half-surprised - although it could have been abiding rage just as easily as it might scientific appraisal. Zhu had long ago learned the futility of attempting to read the Chairman's mood through his eyes. As Zhu stepped forward haltingly, a quaint saying came back to him from the Datalinks The eyes are windows to the soul.

        He wondered, not for the first time, what that meant for the Chairman.

        Sheng-Ji Yang came to some internal decision and nodded, looking away for the briefest of moments. Zhu relaxed imperceptibly - evidently the Chairman was not angry. The Chairman rarely broke eye contact when something interested him, for whatever reason.

        Zhu handed him the PalmTop and readied his own. Accustomed to the Chairman's speed of assimilation, Zhu spoke quickly as he crosslinked the relevant data files.

        "Early last evening, Hive meridian, an explosive attack was committed in the center of Data DeCentral. The people arrested and detained included Comrade Hu, though he was later released without guard. Our sources confirm covert Datatech tracking on his communications. The talks he was to attend have now been postponed. We do not know when, if ever, they will resume. Question: present allocation of Agent Hu."

        The Chairman was not far behind his Second, all traces of the earlier trance gone. "We have Agent Hu right here, in emergency, do we not?"

        "Yes," acknowledged Zhu. "But the process could take up to a week to fully clone and program his new shell. And there would be no way of feigning a natural death or disappearance..."

        "...unless the subject took his own life," finished the Chairman. "Too extreme."

        "Yes," agreed Zhu. "Alternatively, Diplomatic Office would quite like Hu back in one piece, to send to the University. Which brings us to Question two - the Caretakers."

        Zhu tapped his screen via M/MI, bringing up the news.

        "At 09.00 hrs this morning Hive meridian, a surprise attack was launched by our X Dragonfly squads on Consonance base against the Progenitors. The attack was primarily successful, in that all military Caretaker forces were satisfactorily cleared. However, unknown to our teams, a DataTech contingent were present and similarly wiped out."

        The Chairman regarded this news impassively, though the implications of it were heavy. Zhu sensed the sudden tension in his leader.

        "...and even now, the Datatech Central Office are processing the information."

        The Chairman nodded. "Then," he said without hesitation, "they are planning on aiding the Caretakers. And opposing us."

        "As far as we know, but -"

        Yang interrupted him.

        "Then Agent Hu is in trouble, and the talks will never resurface. Can we get him out?"

        Zhu consulted a node in the PalmTop. "Yes, we may be able to arrange for a Diplomatic FlyLift to ferry him out. Any overt move to hinder or capture him would give us clear reason to move against the DataTech government - now that they have released him without guard."

        "...and if they kill him, his knowledge dies with him, and we still get to move against them," Yang affirmed. "Sounds solid enough for me. In any case, we can get the HK Transmission through to him, can't we?"

        Zhu was sure, but he checked anyway. "Yes," he confirmed after a pause. "The Orbitals are more than sufficient to relay the HK to him. But we should only consider that as a last option."

        Yang flicked a glance at Zhu. "Why?" he asked. "Hu is only a small part of the whole. He can be regrown after we have killed his present shell. What he knows can be retaught to his new shell."

        Zhu almost flinched, but knew better than to do so. "Well, true, but only at expense to the whole. Better to preserve what is there if possible than to prune out of hand, and have to rebuild."

        Yang nodded. "Well reasoned. In times of war, let materials, not morals, guide you."

        Zhu nodded, all obedience. Yang did not remove his gaze, however, and Zhu looked up again owlishly.

        "There was something else."

        Zhu nodded again and swallowed.

        "Speak, Second. As long as we still think rationally, no report can be wholly ill."

        Zhu linked into the key nodes, as the Chairman's machine followed suit.

        "We... We have picked up heavily encoded readings from the DataTech industrial parks, not far from the capital."

        Yang looked at the screen, eyes flicking rapidly as he read. Zhu continued.

        "Their rate of production is higher than normal. The times of production are staggered, suggesting modular construction towards a whole. And in the capital itself..."

        "...power has been low," finished the Chairman laconically. "Blackouts. Brownouts. All blamed on the Hive."

        "Yes." There was an uncomfortable silence as Yang pondered and Zhu perspired. Yang looked at Zhu.

        "Er..." stammered Zhu, "the power appears to be redirected to the industrial parks, and the terrorist attack on the capital may not be wholly unrelated. The attack damaged the records of ImmVac, MedCorps, and GenSyn. All of their plants in the industrial park have been working full time this past week. After the attack, the plants have fallen silent."

        "So they are working on a Secret Project, you think?" Yang asked.

        "We know." Zhu tapped into another node, and the Chairman followed. "This is top secret - we had to hack a University node to acquire the algorithm for this encryption. It seems the Datatech branch responsible for industrial coordination was sloppy, and merely altered University encryptions for themselves."

        Yang read on. When he spoke, his tone was almost shockingly urbane. "So: they really are building a Cyborg Factory."

        "This is a matter of great concern. If they are to improve their military using direct cybernetic upgrades in the field, then any aid they lend the Caretakers is serious indeed!"

        Yang nodded, frowning. "And how is ours progressing?"

        A hint of desperation entered Zhu's voice. "Not yet half finished, Leader."

        "And how much left of theirs?"

        Zhu accessed another node. "Their internal ministry is hoping to have it online and producing in less than half a year. Perhaps four months."

        "So soon?" Yang seemed quietly impressed. "I presume some of the energy came from Caretaker harmonic grids."

        "We suspect some may have come from the Peacekeepers, too, but perhaps not with military purposes intended."

        Yang grunted. A pause, then:

        "They must not be allowed to finish the Project; that would aid the Progenitors. Activate all our dormant Probes in Moonshadow, Ergonomia, and FerretsLair to converge on DataDeCentral. Issue commands to all active Probes in DeCentral. Nothing is to stand in the way of terminating that Project."

        Zhu relayed this immediately. Affirmation came from the relevant quarters.

        "Next," said Yang. "The war against the Progenitors goes on as usual. However, deploy the Great Northern Fleet on patrol exercises. Issue a council warning against naval trespassing, so the whole world knows, and then give our Fleet orders to attack and subdue trespassers on sight. Demand a council vote on the matter of 'Alien Containment' and word it such that all the others know exactly where we stand, concerning the Progenitors... and also so the Angels know they can expect more of the same if they interfere."

        Zhu relayed this to the Naval Command. Affirmation came readily, and not without a certain amount of relish.

        "Finally," said Yang. "Most importantly, find some way of getting Hu back out. If you cannot, then send the HK Transmission and we will reform him here. Either way, it is imperative we deal with him before taking any other steps. If the Angels suspect we will rob them of their Project, or burn their soldiers on Harmonia, they'll take Hu in a moment. So make sure that they cannot get to him when they see our moves against them in council."

        Zhu relayed this final piece, and it was affirmed. He straightened, and then bowed, to indicate submission. He looked inquiringly at Yang, as if to ask if there was anything else.

        Yang was sitting in the lotus position, as he had done for the past few hours. His eyes were distanced, and his hands were rubbing at the palms, fingers spread out and well back. Yang raised an eyebrow and turned back to Zhu.

        "In all fairness, Second, I think it simplest to eliminate Hu. But if you wish, however irrationally, to retrieve him, and you have the logic to justify this rationally, then I will not forbid it."

        Zhu colored at this, but said nothing. Yang's eyes hooded and the corners of his lips dented slightly - it was the closest that he had to a smile.

        "If it salves your pride, Second, run it through the probability calculators. I would not think it much more complex than killing him." Yang's eyes dimmed and closed once more. "And, Second, you are not alone in this. For, even in the face of illogicalities, I see much to save in our good Agent Hu."

        Zhu bowed, letting no sign of his inner satisfaction surface, and retired as quickly as he could before the Chairman might change his mind. Even as he left, though, he heard the Chairman's muttered epitaph, so low it was nearly inaudible.

        "...and all for a bag of thinking chemicals..."

        [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited August 20, 2000).]
        "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


        • #5
          Part 4: Duty Falls

          They came for him early in the morning.

          The suite was lavish and opulent, but also quietly designed for strategic defensibility. In addition to its banquet room, state room, dressing room, immersion-cleansing room, and luxurious reposition room, it featured many more sinister installations. Among these numbered guard posts behind walls, mechanical fuse-lock doors, extensive surveillance systems, retinal scanning codelocks, hidden automated guns, one disabling pulmonary gas trap, and a hand picked contingent of eight elite guards.

          It was the guards that were the problem. High Command had finally issued the order to evacuate and regroup - they would do so at Huddling of the People, where the extensive anti-aircraft installations would thwart enemy pursuit. However, the nearest locatable safehouse was the AAA Chaos Cruiser HCV Jian Guo Men, which lay at 60 klicks' distance offshore. There, a needlejet conveyance awaited the diplomat's leisure, but until then Hu Man Bing would have to survive in a chopper lift out.

          60 kilometers is a distance that the dropship chopper could accomplish in roughly 20 metric minutes - a virtual eternity of a time, during which the substantial Datatech air force could coordinate and implement a response. Thus, to maximise their chances of success, the retrieval team had determined to keep the operation as quiet as possible. Whilst the agent was still on terra firma, and inside Datatech borders, the opposition must not be made aware of the situation. Once aloft, the Diplomatic Corps had affirmed, it no longer mattered.

          Anhalt Reinhardt had liaised with the Diplomatic Corp until the last minute - they wanted Hu Man Bing out of the city and onto the Jian Guo Men, whereupon he would fly to Huddling on a needlejet and be transferred to University territories. That in itself was a relief; it implied that they were fairly sincere about his continued living. Too many times Squad Leader Reinhardt had retrieved a targetal and brought him or her back to Hive land safely, only to be informed later that the targetal had been recycled and reformed.

          The logic of this escaped him for a long time, until he realized the covert facet of punishment therein. What did it matter to an empire spanning all three peninsulas of Planet's most easterly continent, whether a subject lived or died? The important thing was to remind him ever of the duty he owed the rulers, those who made society possible - those who had braved and bested the early horrors of Planet to make later lives better.

          His timepiece commlink bleeped inobtrusively.

          "Ready in two em, Aurum-4."

          Reinhardt glanced down and whispered quiet confirmation - "received". Though almost aggressively Scandinavian in looks, Reinhardt spoke English in a regionless accent, bland and flat. He spoke Mandarin Chinese rather well, with an accent that would have been called (perhaps three hundred years earlier) a Beijing dialect, curving off the vowel sounds with a rolling "r". Reinhardt, despite his looks, only learned English recently, and from plugnets; his first language was the language of his motherland and society. He was an anomaly - a freak: here on Planet, not to learn English was to guarantee a lifetime of ethnic minority.

          Behind him, three men stood as still as monoliths. All had been picked for their speed, strength, and previous training. Two of them were orientals, codenames "Kwai Shou" and "Qing Jiao": Fast Hands and Light Feet. The other was a tall black man codenamed "Jengo Alef".

          It would surprise Reinhardt if he were ever to learn their real names. They had worked together for the past few weeks - a long time, for a covert ops military team. Kwai Sou was good with electronics and demolitions, Qing Jiao had a predilection for nondetection, and Jengo Alef a superb marksman and formidable combatant. Together, their skills had fortuitously complemented each other... so far, at least.

          Reinhardt gestured to the others, and they took up positions with one metric minute to go. The outer guards were bound to be Datatech honor guards - placed there to show deference and concern for the diplomat's well being, but also to remind him as to whom he owed his suite and honor.

          Then, inside the complex, there would be found the fellow Hiverian soldiers. They had not been informed of this motion against them, and might put up resistance. They were to be subdued, not killed, with drug injections if possible. If not, they were to be incapacitated with sleep gas and restrained. If that proved unachievable, then their deaths would be deducted from the merits credits of the team, including the theoretical cost of their reformation at home.

          "Ready in ten secs, Aurum-4" whispered the voice in his ear.


          Reinhardt closed transmission and attached the mock-lens to the retinal scanner. Within two seconds, a green light glowed - a match had been found and with a keypress, would be flashed to the door. Meanwhile, Kwai Shou's palmtop cracker stood ready-linked into the systems of the front antechamber.

          Qing Jiao and Jengo Alef readied their stun rifles and prepared for the outer ward penetration.

          "Go!" whispered Reinhardt urgently.

          The retinal scan took hold and the light turned blue - engaging. The door hesitated, and then slid open. Kwai Shou glanced at the readings of the palmtop - normal.

          Reinhardt retrieved his mock-lens and shouldered his stun rifle. He gently threw a cloth bundle into the room, and turned to face Kwai Shou. Kwai Shou nodded - normal. Reinhardt gestured the others into the room as Kwai Shou set the palmtop to remote detonation. There was no sense in leaving traces of one's modus operandi, after all.

          The antechamber had sensors far more subtle than cameras - those were left to the outside hallway, and were childishly easy to disarm anyway. Inside the antechamber were pressure sensors, weight sensors, motion sensors - all of which had taken Kwai Shou two days prior preparation to infiltrate, and which now were placed on a protracted loop of previous data.

          The ruse would not hold long before the algorithms detected rogue programs at work, however, and Kwai Shou had emphasized a two-minute upper margin for the ruse to work. As it was, there was no time for subtleties at the inner doors - Kwai Shou set two fusecharges and melted the lock with thirty seconds to spare.

          Inside, they had caught two of the Datatech guards conversing - a lucky break. Jengo deftly put a dart into each as Qing Jiao secured the far doors. The internal cameras they couldn't do anything about from the outside - the best that could be done was for Kwai Shou to shut them down internally.

          This he did, and their time was limited - no doubt somewhere in Datatech Intelligence, this alarming news was being noted and security measures taken. Kwai Shou also uploaded a locking algorithm, which would override all known opening programs in the system. This way, they could section off each room to create a safe route for the diplomat, locking all doors and opening the ones they needed judiciously.

          From the front guard room, three doors led off. They wanted the left corridor, which led through one guardroom (and hopefully one Datatech guard), then the banquet room (known to have no counter defenses) and finally to the lounge and reposition room. That path was short, although not the path of least resistance.

          Reinhardt could now activate his motion sensor - his primary defence against a hidden guard ambush.

          Kwai Shou opened the left door and Reinhardt's scan proved clear. The corridor bent round to a straight, heading towards a door, but Reinhardt knew better. Reading his scanner, he waved Jengo forwards and gestured to the wall on the right, hung with carvings and stone murals. Jengo nodded, drew his magnetic pulse pistol, and engaged infrared. One quick shot through the wall, and another guard was downed.

          Reinhardt consulted his motion scanner, and nodded. Kwai Shou knelt down before the control panel of the banquet door and keyed furiously. The door slid open -

          And Kwai Shou took two fatal rounds immediately, one in the chest and one in the face.

          Jengo fired off two shots, backpedalling furiously, and Qing Jiao was quickly behind the cover of the corner, laying down cover for his team partners. Reinhardt reached cover with his left arm crippled by a shot that shattered the elbow. He was breathing heavily, pushing back the pain as he had been taught so many years ago. Jengo made it with a final lunge and scrabbled against the floor - his leg had been hit.

          "Tamen yeh shir He Fang Ren," gasped Reinhardt. They're also Hiverian.

          "Talk to them."

          Reinhardt considered this. They had to be Hiverian - no other military training program yet devised taught the new recruits the fundaments of inaction. Only with the rigorous Hive training of patience could a pair of soldiers stand so perfectly still as to be motionless and unscannable.

          Wasted time. Even now, the Datatechs were working to crack Kwai Shou's code - and once that succeeded, they were sitting ducks in a series of corridors, whose doors no longer obeyed their wills. Reinhardt cleared his throat and spoke in Mandarin.

          "B'yeh kai qiang! Women shir He Fang Ren!"

          Hold your fire - we are Hiverians!

          No response. Reinhardt immediately saw the futility of his speech - the dedication of the guards to defend their master to the dying breath, and their immunity to petitions or pleas. He glanced at Jengo, whose infrared scan had produced results. Jengo motioned - "Two". Reinhardt continued his parley.

          "Women lai jiu tongren Hu Man Bing - zher shir nimen zui hou de jing gao!"

          We have come to retrieve comrade Hu - this is your final warning!

          Silence. Reinhardt made a quick motion to Jengo and Qing Jiao. Orchestrated, the three spun around the corner, firing the sleep canisters. The opposing guards tracked Reinhardt first, firing off two rounds that grazed him, then one spun his weapon towards Qing Jiao. By this time, three dull cracks near them signalled it was too late, and they slipped reluctantly into unconsciousness.

          Jengo fired a bullet into each guard's leg from their position. Neither guard moved. That was hardly proof of their unconsciousness - after all, they were Hive guards - but no time was to be wasted.

          The three stepped over the body of Kwai Shou, Qing Jiao pausing to drop a timed incendiary on the corpse, set for five minutes' detonation.

          At the door to the lounge, Reinhardt engaged his motion scanner, but motioned for Jengo to engage his infrared as well. Jengo made out three people - Reinhardt made out one. One person moving - two utterly silent and still.

          What would this be? Two Hive guards - one Datatech? Two Hive guards and the diplomat? The diplomat, a Hive guard, and a Datatech?

          Reinhardt leant against the wall, oblivious to the pains in his shoulder and calf. Then, he gestured back to Qing Jiao and Jengo - action suggestion?

          Jengo made a fist and a knocking action - full force.

          Qing Jiao pondered a moment, and then nodded, making the same action - full force.

          Reinhardt swallowed, then switched his rifle to pulse. There were three of them - all might be armed - the sleep canisters could not be fired as quickly as could rounds. Three against three were not good odds to be firing sleep canisters.

          He grit his teeth, and then nodded to the others. Qing Jiao knelt to the door panel -

          "Zao an hao, shifu," called a cheery voice. "Wo xiang waimen yiding huei bijiao leng - luguo nimen Hu Fang Ren xiang jing lai, wo bu huei dangzu ni!"

          The three men started - Qing Jiao most of all. Staring at him out of the video screen of the panel, was the face of a middle-aged, urbane-seeming Hiverian man. Oriental featured, smiling slightly, and with the hint of the rogue about him.

          "That was..." he began.

          "I know. Comrade Hu," confirmed Reinhardt. Onscreen, the diplomat paused and then repeated the message in English.

          "Good morning, gentlemen. I'm sure it must be rather cold outside - should you Hiverians wish to enter, I will not block your way!"

          "But how..." asked Qing, before the onscreen diplomat interrupted him.

          "I have been expecting you, and your sign language convinced me as to who you are. Do come in."

          The panel glowed green - unlocked. The voice came again.

          "Oh, yes. Just make sure you enter slowly, or these overzealous men might do you an injustice."

          The panel glowed green.

          Reinhardt, Jengo, and Qing Jiao watched it, as though considering a venomous snake.

          Reinhardt nodded to the others, and made a few quick gestures. You stay back and cover. I'll go in.

          He pressed the door pad, and looked down two gun barrels as the door irised open.

          The diplomat was there, all right. The other two guards were indeed Hiverian. Reinhardt ignored their guns and walked into the room slowly. There, he met the diplomat's gaze, and then slowly knelt down, bowing his head against the floor.

          "Rise, friend." Reinhardt stood up again, noting that the two guards had yet to relax. Hu Man Bing regarded him closely. "Codename?"

          "Aurum-4" replied Reinhardt.

          "Ah, yes." Hu Man Bing smiled. "Anhalt. It is good to see you." He gestured to the guards, who lowered their weapons. "Normally, I wouldn't trust you further than the entranceway on the other side of the guns, but this is a special occasion. Invite your friends in."

          Reinhardt did not hesitate.

          "Are we leaving soon?" asked the diplomat. "Is there room for all three of us?"

          "Yes, and no. The dropship is waiting in the Safehouse Five, but there is room for five people only. That means you can bring one guard, but not both."

          "How do we get there?"

          "There is an unmarked diplomatic carriage and an outrider rover downstairs. The guards believe we're being summoned to a Trade Union conference."

          The diplomat gestured to one of his bodyguards, who nodded and set about unloading his pistol. As he secured his travelling case and necessary items, Agent Hu spared a glance at Reinhardt.

          "It may be best for you and me to share the same vehicle," said the diplomat. "Anybody chasing us will be shooting to kill. You for certain, me possibly. Stay by me, and you'll be safe as long as they're trying for a capture."

          They stepped outside. Reinhardt's response was determined. "No, sir. Our orders are to keep separate from you, and your bodyguard. That way, you're captives, and not accomplices. Your reputation is more important than our lives, sir."

          Comrade Hu pondered this as they made their way through the corridors. "Very well. You will take the carriage and my bodyguard and I will take the outrider."

          Reinhardt acknowledged with a nod of his head.

          "And Aurum-4..." began Hu. Reinhardt met his gaze.

          "I'll pay for Agent Kwai Shou out of my own wages, when I get back to Hiverian soil. You can depend on that."

          Reinhardt bowed his head, more deeply this time, as they paused before the gravlifts.

          "Thank you, Comrade. He will be most grateful to you when he learns of your generosity."

          * ~ * ~ *

          Two floors up, a dull thud echoed through a small chamber, and the remaining Hiverian bodyguard flinched. A delicate red flower of blood bloomed at his left temple, while simultaneously a tiny black hole marked his right. His arm came down lazily by his side. The smoking pistol slid unprotestingly down, turning in midair as it did so.

          It touched ground, some unspecified time later, with a metallic clack that seemed to echo forever in his mind. It was getting cold. Cold, and empty. The guard felt a swirling, multicolored darkness encroach on his field of vision, and a strange sense of vertigo, as though flying.

          He thought he heard birds singing, but that might have been his own breathing, loud in his ears and sinuses. There was a wind blowing against his sides, as his knees gently folded beneath him. Clouds, cow-like in their mottling against the sky, flew across his ceiling and before his eyes faster than the mind could follow.

          The weight was off his feet now, and he was flying, unfettered from the burden of his own bodymass, in this gravitational field, a full 30% stronger than the dead planet he'd left so long ago.

          A distant part of him seemed to find something disturbing: a thought that came unbidden and would not go away - a feeling that he was now to die, and leave nothing to mark his passing. His vision had faded to a blank grey now, and the outside world was fading in all but internal sense. Up and down meant nothing to him, as with infinitesimal slowness, he drifted down towards the floor.

          I'm dying. he thought, and what remained of his brain more or less agreed. Hard to argue with a bullet in your head. Hard to stand - how did it go? Hard to stand when your legs have gone to sleep.

          Gone to sleep.

          Not dead, only resting.

          Asleep - dead to the world.

          Now all sense was fading, overtaken by an oblivion that was peaceful yet not pleasant. Only a knowledge that this death was a minor thing, compared to the death of an entire planet, so many years ago...

          * ~ * ~ *

          The guard's body slumped to the floor almost immediately after the bullet wound was administered. The limbs and fingers were splayed in an almost aesthetically pleasing natural fashion.

          The tableau was complete: Agent Hu missing - presumed dead. It was all the Datatechs needed to know.

          [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited August 12, 2000).]
          [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited September 12, 2000).]
          Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; June 4, 2001, 15:17.
          "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


          • #6
            Part 5: Interlude

            It is 05.34 hrs along the DataDeCentral meridian. Along the more westerly meridian of the Hive headquarter base, it is 06.34 hrs. UN Headquarters, situated as it is on the Pholus meridian, was enjoying another pleasant sunset at 15.34 hrs. Further north, among the sprawling Achleon forests, the citizens of Gaia's Landing dozed peacefully, singly or in pairs, in the 16.34 hrs dusk.

            Prentice and Joely McClelland are two such Gaians. Their lifestyle in the capital base bore none of the refreshing freedom of their hillside retreat, beyond the city outskirts. Their base residence, though pleasing, was small and felt confined. Balancing this was the impeccable location, and the ease of travel to and from the senate lodge.

            The day had ended a good three hours later for Prentice McClelland, than for most other Gaians. His workday bore the dubious honor of "senatorial indispensibility" - meaning that, amongst other things, he stayed up as late as the Gaian senate needed him. Today had been more busy than usual, for more reasons than one.

            Firstly, there had been the usual interfaction bumf to resolve. Ten bills had called for agreement from all factions. The UN Peacekeepers had endorsed no fewer than seven of these ten bills. None of these bills remotely concerned Gaian policies directly, and many within the senate Lodge had resented being forced to answer them. A "veto" answer was no good either, because the dogmatic UN policies insisted that vetoes eventually be exchanged for definite votes - to veto was merely to broadcast one's inability to come to a quick decision.

            Secondly, there had been an extraordinary meeting of the Aquascante Treaty factions, invoking the UN Charter's right to election. What the Gaians and most other factions had expected all along, had finally come out of the background and into the limelight - Lal was pushing for presidency, and seeking to secure the strongest possible base of support before pressing his candidacy in Planetary Council.

            However, UN formalities made it impossible for the Gaians (or any other faction save the Peacekeepers themselves) to legitimately vote on this matter whilst any decisions on bills were outstanding. Before the Gaians were officially allowed to register their heartfelt lack of interest in the matter, they had to consider each and every one of the ten bills aforementioned.

            Thirdly, and perhaps most problematically, the University had sent a proposal for peace talks: an invitation for a Gaian diplomatic envoy to be received in their nearest base, Otkretia-Discovery. The talks would include a Hiverian presence, anxious to reaffirm their mutual trusts.

            Prentice had been unable and uneager to answer the first two of these duties, but he had had no choice in the lattermost. Whilst political tape-dodging had become a necessary evil in today's world of Council, at least it had been an evil they knew. This talk with the University, however, was a different matter. The University of Planet were a faction far away on the other side of the Sunrise Seas.

            And their close neighbors were the Hive. In fact, it could be said that the University rented their land from the Hive's sprawling territories. To put it pleasantly, they were neighbors with, and tenants of, the most enigmatic faction on the Planet.

            To put it unpleasantly, the Hive were a faction of Progenitor-gassers and people-butchers, and the University were their allies.

            However, they might also turn out to be amongst the most powerful factions on the face of Planet. Their exact dimensions unknown, it was whispered that even the Aquascante Treaty factions were fearful of the potential danger of the Hive. Morgan - who had the power to buy what he could not take, Lal - who had the power to wrangle what he could not buy, Svensgaard - who had the power to sink whatever seafaring vessel he could not subvert. All knew nothing about the Chairman Yang, save what was whispered of him in the West. Oftentimes, the whispers contained the term "Demon" in the same breath.

            Recent rumors had circulated that the Hiverian economy had suffered a drastic collapse, or that their burgeoning growth had oustripped supply and resulted in mass starvation, or that their outermost bases were experiencing dissent and rioting by their oppressed citizens. All in all, nobody knew for sure how true these reports were. To the Gaians as to many others, the Hive was a closed fist. Nobody knew its true intents, but all cautiously prepared to expect the worst blow that its demon dictator could throw.

            And Prentice McClelland, in his lauded diplomatic capacity, had been chosen to represent his faction to these faceless Hiverians and their amoral University allies. To go into the hands of murderers and mass murderers, and those who killed for power, and those who killed for mere curiosity's sake, was a journey from which he had no guarantee of ever returning.

            Prentice McClelland had never been a religious man, but he had pondered once or twice on the subject of death. He too had read the famous, anonymous poem "Cubicle", and been struck by its nihilistic beauty - and he still feared death, and clung to his life dearly.

            Perhaps this explains his wife's apprehension. If so, it would have to proceed on the belief that death is an aphrodisiac, and the threat of imminent death a surefire way to increase the lust for life. After all, the last thing a hanged man experiences before death is a climax, most likely in a last-ditch attempt to distribute and propagate genetic information.

            If so, it may also explain to the pleasantly-surprised Joely McClelland, why her husband has made desperate, intense love to her for the second consecutive time that evening - an uncommon occurrence in their marriage.

            "What's wrong?" she asks, almost timidly, in the brooding quiescence.

            Prentice does not stir. He is both mentally and physically exhausted. Joely runs two possible courses through her mind; turn away and forget, or close ranks and deduce. After a short, one-sided battle, Joely chooses the latter.

            Lifting the soft silken between them, she sidles close behind the broad back of her husband and gives him a gentle hug. "Prent?"

            No answer. She glances at the timer inset on the wall - 17.45. Well, yes, it's late, but there was no reason for this sudden hot-and-cold behavior. Prentice was a caring husband, despite the rigors of his senatorial post, and was as open to his wife as he could be concerning himself. Concerning his job, however, certain discretions had to be practised.

            Perhaps the problem was at the workplace. Those blessed Peacekeepers and their nitpicking love for bureaucracy. This thought crosses Joely's mind and she creases her brow. If so, she might not be permitted to know. She would have to assume that it, and her husband's strange mood, would pass. What to do?

            A slight sensation reminds her: either way, she needs to tidy up. She rolls away from Prentice's still form, swings her feet off the bed, and pads gently to the adjacent bathroom.

            The bathroom is five meters by three meters in size, and has a basin, a bathtub, and a lavatory. It is half the size of a Morganite bathroom, and about three times as large as a Hive bathroom, but Joely is not aware of this as she rinses. Her worries occupy her mind: if Prentice's mood has been caused by a downturn in the senate, then the outlook is grim. She might not be able to share in his knowledge of classified information, and thus be unable to lend anything but lay moral support. However, if it is just the exertion of overtime taking its toll on his fortitude, then it is less serious. In fact, Joely considers the present course of action to be best for him; a release of tension (or two) and undisturbed rest.

            Things would definitely look better in the morning, Joely decides. However, a sleepy murmur from the bed tells her that her ablutions have disturbed Prent's rest. She hurriedly switches off the glowlamp.

            "It's all right," says Prent. "Leave that on if you want."

            "Are you all right?" asks Joely.

            Prent blinks at her owlishly as the light glows back on, and passes a palm over his forehead.

            "What time is it?" he asks.

            Joely tells him. "17.50. You only just dozed off for a while. Why?"

            Prent sinks back into the bed and covers his eyes. "I had a strange dream," he says simply.

            Joely, finished at the bathroom, returns to the bed and adheres herself to her husband's side. "You want to talk about it?"

            Prent shakes his head and exhales. "Can't remember now. Just a jumble of images."

            "No, not the dream," says Joely. She buries her face in his neck for a second, thinking, and then continues. "Do you want to tell me why a man goes home, goes to his dinner, then goes to his wife - twice - and finally goes to sleep...without saying more than two sentences in all?"

            Prent's face tightens briefly. "No -" he begins to say, then he rolls on his side, to face Joely.

            He looks her in the eyes and considers. More than once, he starts, but then hesitates, his fine lips working to make the words. Joely says nothing, only stroking his cheek gently.

            "I - I'm going to have to leave tomorrow," he says. "I may be away for a while."

            Joely nods. This was an infrequent evil in their relationship, but certainly not unprecedented.

            Prentice continues. "The meeting takes place across the Sea. I'll be meeting with two other faction reps who want to talk treaty."

            Joely nods, understanding. The Peacekeepers and the Morganites lived south and southeast of here, respectively. Both were situated on the far side of the freshwater sea. Both had harrassed the Gaians for treaties since time immemorial.

            "And you're the only rep?" asks Joely.

            Prent considers this. "This time, more or less. But, if all goes well, we'll decide on mutual signings and further meetings." He glances back at Joely reassuringly. "This should only be a preliminary assembly."

            Joely smiles fondly. "Okay. You won't let those Artists push you around - I know you." Here, a yawn silences her briefly. The toll of her exertions is starting to catch up with her, too.

            "No, love. I certainly won't," he replies, truthfully.

            Prentice smiled at her slang. "Artist" - a Gaian term, doubtless brought up from Earth by those Gaians selected from the Newcastle-Gateshead Nature Reserve. "P.A." stood for "Peace Artist" - a play on an oldworld term for a drunken reprobate, and aptly described the UN forces: people addicted to the bureaucracy of peace - often with attendant belligerence, deleteriously affected judgement, and an inability to cooperate with the police.

            Prentices frowns slightly, and remains so as Joely dozes off. The Police... this time round, though Joely wouldn't know it until it was over, he would be looking the Hive in the face as he spoke his diplomatic bureauese. The faction from whom the west of Planet had heard next to nothing, save for an occasional terse memorandum detailing the latest successes against the alien clans.

            These would be the ultimate police fanatics - a whole nation of citizens who looked up to their police for guidance in every walk of life. Slaves, actually and positively grateful to their captors and tormentors.

            What would be the penalty for refusing to co-operate with them?

            * ~ * ~ *

            At about the same point in time, but at a displacement of some 24,000 kilometers eastwards, Tryskel Carpenter is rudely jostled awake by the claxon. She springs out of her bed with a sprightliness that seems slightly mechanical, somewhat more a reflex action, rather than genuine enthusiasm.

            She curses as she fumbles on the floor for her belt, then throws on her base jacket and jumps into her base leggings. With no time to guide the belt through the cumbersome loops, she fastens it hurriedly over her waistband.

            She dons her beret - the only piece of her clothing that she puts on with recourse to a mirror, and carefully adjusts it. Here in the DataTech air force, discipline starts with little things and works upwards. In times when your commanding officer can pick on nothing else, a poorly-arranged beret is a liability just waiting to earn you an early-morning parade.

            And God knows, Tryskel's early mornings are her own damn business, TQVM.

            Okay - happy with her beret, Tryskel pats her naturally pale face with a tonepack to remove some of the puffiness beneath her eyes, and then sits down to cram her sluggish feet into her boots. She glances at her wall timer as she does so: 05.34hrs. Far too early. Far too early. What the hell were they up to this time?

            A sleepy voice comes from the bed: "Triss?" A belch, and a fumbling in the sheets as her boyfriend, Greg, pokes his face out in disbelief. "Wha'daphuxgo'non?"

            "Shh! Just stay here and give it a while." Tryskel is finished now - must run to the briefing room. Probably a drill. "Probably a pep exercise. If I'm not back in half an hour, I'll be out all morning."

            "Mmm-hmm," mumbles Greg sleepily. "Don't get shot," he says, perhaps facetiously.

            "Don't get caught," Tryskel throws over her shoulder as she leaves the room.

            In the corridor, Marshall and Strong are already starting the knockup call along the doors. Anybody not out by the time they got to their door was in middling trouble. As it is, Tryskel hears some curses of an anonymously extreme nature as she heads down the corridor at a controlled jog.

            The stairs are a flurry of activity - all the pilots seem to be called up as well. As she descends, she rubs shoulders with male pilots, similarly frowsy and blinking in the light. The guys, too, are being summoned for this, whatever it is. Well, that ruled out her main suspicion - that the female block's contraband ginseng, smuggled in by an enterprising young cadette, had been found and reported.

            Unless of course, the male block are also suffering cramping and hot flashes. It being still early in the morning, Tryskel is uncharacteristically ready to believe any dam-fool explanation for this ungodly reveille.

            "Hey, Carpark -" an irreverent male cadet hails her by her nickname "-any idea what this is?"

            Tryskel shakes her head. They'd have to wait until they got to the briefing room. Four flights down, two blocks across...


            DataTech military procedures are strict, but not overly so. Compared to Spartan or Hiverian practices, they are lax - compared to Morganite practices, they are stringent. This, coupled with the fact that their air force has seen few times of emergency, mean that the Briefing Room is usually a social area - a place of last-minute comradeship and catchings-up before the recruits are sent out on aviation exercises. Usually the commanding officer jokes and laughs along with the soldiers.

            Today, however, the atmosphere was subdued. The first reason for this was the early and universal wakeup. Everybody, from Ground Crew to the Base Commander, was by now fully awake and readied. Wing Commander Karn was present, unshaven and even more irascible than usual, at the lectern and the hologram podium. This time, he was not smiling.

            As the last of the pilots filed in, Karn began his presentation. Characteristically, he did so with a bang.

            "SHUT THAT DOOR YOU CLUMSY OAF THIS IS NOT A SHEEPFARM." Said in a roar, somehow without appearing to even raise his voice. The eyes were reptilian and cold. "Thank you." Deathly quiet now, clipped. "As you may or may not know, we are in a state of emergency."

            Gasps around the holohall.

            "Two nights ago, our capital erupted into flames. A terrorist attack destroyed three major corporate holdings, and our 'infallible' DataBoyz couldn't guard us against them. Yesterday evening, Agent Bing of the Hive was detained and then released. This morning, about 30 metric minutes ago, Agent Bing of the Hive was abducted from his lodgings in our ambassadorial suite in Governor Halls."

            Real tension in the air, now. Governor Halls were respected and wellknown government buildings - and evidently, the target of a successful enemy operation.

            Karn tapped the holopode and a 3D holo appeared, quickly flicking through a journey through the city streets, to the trade ports.

            "Bing was taken by rover to a safehouse, where a hidden chopper transport took off with him in it. It is heading for unknown destinations, but it is our job to follow it."

            The holopode now showed various, rather cosmetic, extrapolations of possible destinations for the chopper transport.

            "I will lead Cuckoo Wing Interceptors to make contact with the chopper transport. Flight group Lapwing Interceptors must be in reserve, back at base, but ready to intervene. Flight group Whirlygig Chopper squad are to remain at base in guard capacity.

            "Any questions?"

            Stunned silence around the hall. Karn nodded, hurrumphed, and then once again waxed utterly obnoxious.



            Five minutes were all it took for Tryskel to gear up and insert herself behind the throttle of her chaos interceptor. Her flight team consisted of five, not counting their delightful Commander Karn, and they were to be the ones to make first contact with the Hiverian diplomat's captors.

            First contact. Tryskel felt a numb thrill inside her somewhere - this was her first real possible enemy contact. She felt the same cold dread and elation within her as she did all those years ago, when the Progenitors were first encountered. Except that they had been caught and neutralized, courtesy of the Human Hive. And now she was facing their killers, perhaps to save one of their number.

            A sudden bark from her Wing Commander brought her attention back to the hangar bay, and away from the Harmonian shores.

            "Everybody ready?" growled Karn.

            "Sir" - "Yessir" - "Sir" - "Sir" - "Firmative"

            "Good. Follow my delta vector over the bay and then regroup over Waypoint Alpha."

            Then it was time for radio silence, as the complex shielded magnetic forces came into play. The six interceptors occupied a hangar carved into the rock of the Seabands - a massive cliff face that shielded DataDeCentral from the worst of the northern seastorms. Consecutive floors allowed access to each craft, and once boarded, the craft were released in a powerful magnetic field, and quickly accelerated to cruising speed horizontally.

            This was much more fuel-efficient than burning precious fossil fuels just to accelerate. Solar energy could be gathered from solar panels and boreholes, to be used in a base, but it could not be carried onboard a craft. The engines activated after a few moments of stomach-turning freefall - a sensation that still bore some primeval terror even for the most seasoned of pilots.

            Around her, Tryskel sensed the strong magnetic fields coming into power. The sensation was purely psychological - the craft were heavily shielded and sufficiently redundant in their wiring to withstand this field, but the first wobbles and then initially slow acceleration were unlike anything fuel-based. Then, the oblong brightness of the hangar bay doors at half a kilometer's distance suddenly leapt towards them to swallow them, and the craft shot noiselessly free from the confines of the earth-vault.

            A few moments' suspension between gravity and orbit, and the engines came on with a roar that deafened at first. They were still using fossil fuels, synthesized using Morganite techniques at great cost, but to great effect. Rumor had it that the University had perfected a fusion drive, and ominous whispers of the Hive's attempted acquisition of this technology for themselves... but that was something that nobody knew for sure.

            Unless, of course, Tryskel and her flight team were to discover it empirically today.

            The sky was still grey, although dawn was threatening to make an appearance over the western horizon. Tiny, and largely ignored, was the Centauri C star - a little moonlike waif of a heavenly body floating somewhere over Tryskel's rear aileron. Even so, there was enough light to see by without engaging the thermoptic view. Just as well, too - Tryskel didn't think her slight hangover would be much improved by staring through an expanse of green computer display.

            "Okay," rasped Karn. "Let's turn and burn. We've got a Hiverian penpusher to rescue."

            In five metric minutes from takeoff, they were roaring over the Great Northern Straits, and Tryskel on the lookout for any reading her craft might provide. Twice, they had received confirmation radios from base assuring them they were on the right vector, but each time they were cautioned to prepare to compensate.

            'Compensate' in this case meant 'improvise'. After five minutes and no sighting, this injunction seemed dangerously likely. Over an open stretch of water, a patrol might take up to an hour to find a moving aerial target - by that time, it could have docked, crashed, or self-destructed.

            At five minutes fifty-eight, all the pilots were alerted, as Commander Karn gave a barely human snarl of triumph.

            Moments later, Tryskel got it too - an outbound blip, conforming in size to a chopper lift.

            It was heading northeast at a speed of about 180 kph, and was almost fifty klicks distant from shore.

            "Take up approach formation! Initiate decel to two-fifty!"

            Tryskel complied, dropping her interceptor back into subsonic velocities. With Karn leading, the Cuckoo flight group formed a delta-wing flight pattern.

            That was when Patterly first caught the second blip.

            "Commander! Naval presence vector oh-three-point-two-five; distance - fifteen klicks."


            What Patterly's sensors had detected, now faded into clarity on all their scopes - a Hiverian cruiser. Defying all probability, its menacing bladelike hull and bristling air defences left no doubt as to its nature. It was there to receive the chopper.

            Therefore, the Hive were behind this all along. This was no capture mission - this was Mothership retrieving her Young from danger... or retribution.

            A warning transmission came to them from the sighted vessel. Their rudimentary shipboard encryption computers took a few moments to decode it, then the message played in unison on all five craft:

            "You are advised to turn back. The HCV Jian Guo Men is protected by Hiverian border law, in accordance with the Global Zones of Control Convention. The chopperlift contains nothing of military value."

            Karn consulted briefly with HQ as they sped onwards, gaining quickly on the thrashing chopper. He had no doubt of their mission.

            "Stay in pursuit," he relayed to the others. "Maintain escort rotation around the chopperlift until we receive clarification from HQ."

            They closed ranks for the encirclement, while sixty kilometers behind them, DataTech diplomats and strategists alike racked their brains.

            A voice that only the Commander was authorized to receive spoke urgently, and the Commander considered this. The entire flight group heard his message to the Cruiser.

            "Your chopperlift is to be surrendered, with occupants, to DataTech police. This retrieval of your agent has resulted in disruption and loss of DataTech lives. Failure to surrender your representative will be taken as Hiverian interference and obstruction of justice."

            The chopper loomed large in their screens, and then all five craft killed the speed to hover sedately alongside the beleaguered chopperlift. Tryskel could almost make out the figures inside the copter.

            Meanwhile, the Hiverian cruiser had responded to Karn's message. The decoded transmission played amidst the background static.

            "Repeat: do not harm our diplomat or his transport. Our reclamation is for diplomatic internal purposes only and has no military value. Do not interfere or you will be held in breach of interfactional diplomatic trust concerning a representative of the Human Hive."

            Tryskel listened for Karn's response, and it was clear that HQ's indignance could be felt. Sure enough, Karn's response left no doubt:

            "Hiverian Cruiser: we do not accept your appraisal. We do not appreciate your interference. We will not let your agent go unpunished for the chaos he has caused in our capital. Stand down and surrender him, or resist with your cruiser - and let the whole world know your guilt."

            There was a tense silence. Sluggishly, closer readings indicated a slow rotation of the cruiser - it was preparing for a broadside. Up against AAA tracking technology, the short range Chaos Guns of the interceptors would be sorely tested. It was now or never - catch the chopper before it reached Mothership.

            And then, just as the tension had begun to evolve into bleak desperation, a transmission broke in amongst them. It was to end the entire affair.

            Unlike the conversations with the cruiser, this one had a visual element alongside its audio. Thus, in the five interceptors, and on monitors back at HQ, the same oriental face appeared, speaking the same words. The same ragged voice broke out, and the same circle of gunpoints surrounded the speaker.

            It was Agent Hu Man Bing, tired and bedraggled. He had suffered a blow to the side of the head, and one eyelid was cut and bleeding. The other eye was bright with desperation and his manner seemed a strange mixture of abject resignation and terrible, suppressed hope.

            "It is useless," he said. "For the benefit of the DataTechs amongst us, I can only speak to spare your effort."

            As he spoke, it became apparent that his lip was cut also - at least, his teeth were awash with bloodstreaks. His eye blinked rapidly as the blood from his lid trickled into it.

            "I am to serve as an example to my countrymen, of the destiny that awaits the unscrupulous, and the impure of heart. Rest assured-" here he faltered, then continued again doggedly. "Rest assured that my trial will be fair and just."

            Tryskel's eyes opened wide in confusion, as every human ear, in the air or back at Base, strained to catch the hapless man's words.

            He continued, speaking haltingly and with evident pain.

            "I am receiving the proper and correct punishment for my failure, and ask you to refrain at all costs from interference or the performance of any action against my country on my behalf. I ask you not to presume to bear my punishment with me. And if it should not be presumptuous on my part, I hope to serve as an example to you all, if you will listen. Greed does not prosper, and I do not prosper."

            A deep, wavering breath, and the pitiful single eye glanced screenwards again.

            "You have to power to take heed... and look to your own integrity. Thus may you give meaning to my fate."

            The agent's gaze failed, and his face faded from the screen at this juncture, but in every watching eye, its mental mirror remained: brutalized, wounded, and cowed by the wrath of its own country. Bleeding the same blood it had shed for its nation, only now paying it in punishment. An eye that blinked at the salty sting of its own blood, and the watchers all knowing they were now powerless to intervene, in this internal diplomatic action.

            The cruiser relayed a transmission that was longer than usual to decode. When it came through from the Babel of the static, there was no mistaking the steely force behind its meaning.

            "Final warning: continued interference in this criminal case will be obstruction of Hiverian internal diplomatic law. You have thirty metric seconds to leave the safety envelope of the HCV Jian Guo Men before countermeasures are taken to ensure the captive's safe landing. This is your final warning."

            Tryskel's next transmission was almost a whisper. "What do we do now?"

            Karn's head was tilted to catch any message from HQ. A handful of precious seconds flitted away, each one further delivering the doomed man closer to his fate.

            He returned to the upright posture and gave the transmission. "Cruiser HCV, we are leaving your safety envelope. All craft Cuckoo Wing, regroup eight-oh-six minimum and return to base. Repeat: we are leaving Hiverian Cruiser Vessel safety envelope, and returning to base."

            They killed speed to allow the chopper some distance, then gently peeled back to vector homewards again. The dawn was closer now, with the clouds becoming rosy, but in every one of the pilots, something leaden remained.

            This, then, was to be their virgin flight: a feeble and showy aerial pursuit, destined for futility; and a diplomatic confrontation, the outcome marked only by their impotence. Their headlong flight and enthusiasm was not to be an iotum of help - still the agent returned to Mothership, his final fate still unknown.

            "A hell of a day," murmured Tryskel out loud, and though she said it unintentionally, there was not one pilot in the flight who disagreed with her.

            * ~ * ~ *
            [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited November 08, 2000).]
            "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


            • #7
              The time, Hercules meridian, was 12.35.

              It was warm and sunny in the southern half of Phoenica. The warmth was no problem, although the sun was less benign. Fortunately, the polyfilter skydome above was 99.83% efficient in eliminating ultraviolet rays from the internal sunlight.

              On the inside, oxygen levels were high and the air had a crisp tang to it. The average Centaurian would not know the source, but it was a mixture of camphor and pine - two trees synthesized at great cost, for that little extra authenticity. High above, birds of paradise perched in the anomalous evergreen branches, blissfully unaware that their oldworld ancestors would have considered such trees poor mating grounds and spurned them for warmer jungle rainforests.

              Above the gentle roar of the distant artifical waterfall, Morgan could make out a plaintive female voice. Giggles, laughter, and a few splashes. Then the female voice called out once more, vexed.

              He stole a glance towards the paddling pool and rockery. There, three young ones splashed and covorted like minnows - but the youngest, Nkeea, stood trembling at the pool's edge. Every entreaty of her brothers and sister was met by a fearful shake of the head, and a convulsive clench at the blue cloth she always kept near.

              Morgan turned back to his broadsheet and tried to concentrate. What Mriaka's children did, or did not, was none of his business. He smiled as he remembered Mriaka's defiance of him, refusing to take her share of the family money. Insisting to live on her own abilities and income. Insisting that her family's visits to her father's palatial residence would only be for "reunion purposes".

              Truly, she was his wife's child, and not his own. Such headstrong behavior did not befit the corporate sector. Morgan himself, notwithstanding his advanced years, had always been one to accept whatever gifts Fate chose to bring him. If nothing else, he knew the sensation of regret that starvation brings, for example, and the perfect recall of every missed meal, every uneaten dish, every dropped slice of wholewheat toast. (Butter side down.)

              Bah! With a gesture of ill humor, Morgan angrily turned back to the broadsheet in his lap and blocked his grandchildren from his view. There he was again, letting sentiment get in the way of business. This report, printed off by his Relations Office, presented him with no fewer than seven bills requiring his attention. He could indulge himself in nostalgic retrospective when business was finished, and not before.

              He smoothed out the broadsheet with a determined air, glancing at the titles of the seven bills.

              1. UN Bill for the Endorsement of DataTech Talents, to restore Freedom of Information Intercourse.

              Morgan denied this the dignity of even a second glance - as far as he was concerned, the DataTech were not even a separate faction. Lal would have to be made aware of this, and then they would see how to advance. Perhaps Morgan could persuade Lal to understand that funding Data hackers and information criminals was not in good interests - already the Peacekeepers had offered the Angels a unilateral loan, and God only knew what the 'techs were doing with that money. Probably developing yet more powerful code crackers, in order to carry out more scandalous net robberies, he wouldn't be surprised to hear.

              *sigh*. What next?

              2. UN Bill to achieve partial Disarmament and ensure increased Domestic Peace.

              Morgan sniffed. This old chestnut, again. The arrival of the aliens, a hundred and twenty years ago, killed off any hopes for early peace and restructuring of the UN Charter. Now, their likely extinction at the hands of the Hiverian faction simply meant that the new enemy defined itself automatically - the Hive. Morgan loved peace as much as any capitalist, but he had no doubt about the truth of the old adage: "To prepare for peace, one must prepare for war." Here, Lal's proposal of disarmament was about as dramatic a change as Yang's own bizarre social changes had been.

              A clear waste of time. What next?

              3. UN Bill for the assembly of Planetary Council, subject: Governor Appointment.

              Morgan set down the paper and considered. Commissioner Lal had confirmed this a few days beforehand, but Morgan could not see the tactical weight of this at such a time. Perhaps a few decades before, when the Usurpers had successfully overrun two Gaian bases on the west side of Phoenica, then Lal might have had a chance. Even then, the terror felt by the humans had been largely overblown: the Usurpers had indeed conquered two human bases, during which time they had indeed consumed human flesh, but then the Hiverian counter attack had well-nigh flattened their headquarters. Within a few years, the Gaians had been able to drive them back over the Great Ocean, and thus abandon them to the relentless extermination program instituted by the Hive.

              The two Progenitor factions were dead. Usurpers in deed, Caretakers as good as. The Hive would destroy every last base and slaughter every last Caretaker Progenitor just as cleanly as they had done to the Usurpers. And what then?

              Morgan had had no trouble with the Hiverians. They were odd, needless to say, and believed in almost masochistic self-denial and deprivation - Morgan had heard of even the government officials living in habitation spaces that would make his shoe cupboard look flattering by comparison - but they weren't trouble. Generally speaking, they had kept to themselves, and even aided the University in their hour of need. True, they weren't Morgan's greatest clients and trade partners, but they produced and exported nothing of value to the western factions. That in itself was a godsend - Morgan's early trade monopolies had much to owe to the absence of any organized competition.

              Morgan pondered a while longer, then waved the question away. Well, Lal was a political mastermind and all that. Let him fathom out his petty policies and campaign tactics. Morgan would sign the bumfodder and that would be the end of the whole sordid affair. Right. What next?

              4. UN Bill for the Planetary Condemnation of Hiverian Genocide Campaigns against Harmonia and Inhabitants.

              5. UN Bill for the Planetary Condemnation of Hiverian Deployment of Weapons banned by Unity Arms Conventions.

              6. UN Bill for the Demotion of Rank of Executive Officer Sheng-Ji Yang for Gross Abuse of Office.

              7. UN Bill for the Trial of Executive Officer Sheng-Ji Yang for Crimes Against Humanity.

              Ah. So.

              Morgan's right eyebrow elevated and remained that way for a good minute and a half. Evidently, the Chairman was to be Lal's next bogeyman. Well, Morgan could certainly have thought of poorer choices of targets - and given the relatively introverted diplomatic status of the Hive, perhaps Lal could pull a resounding victory out of this one. And once Lal had the Governor's datalinks to share with him, Morgan's own businesses would secure their presence in the areas of greatest demand.

              Morgan looked at the list again. Had he been honest with himself, he would have admitted to a few qualms about these last four points. Qualms perhaps concerning the propriety of holding the Progenitor races up as martyrs. Qualms perhaps concerning the propriety of resurrecting a rather patchy historical rumor - that Yang had engineered atrocities onboard the Unity.

              But Morgan merely sighed and dropped the broadsheet, considering his grandchildren before him again. Little Nkeea had finally immersed herself, but was still clinging onto the side railing like grim death. Her brothers had given up in exasperation, and paddled out to the deeper waters. Her sister Kria remained, attempting to coax her out into the warm water.

              There was no room for self-honesty in politics, thought Morgan, just as there was no room for self-questioning in economics. The world of business was a ruthless and dirty one. But, sitting here in his solarium and watching the fruit of his family at their play, Morgan knew that a life without honesty and love must be a lonely one indeed.

              Let a man be as cruel and crooked as he needs in the world of politics and commerce, but as long as there is somebody to warm his heart back home, he is still human. That was important to know.

              He would bear that in mind next time he spoke with Commissioner Lal. Perhaps behind the bureaucratic prose and diplomatic poetry, he would find some hint of a homely love in the politician's stern face.

              * ~ * ~ *

              It is 05.34hrs in DataDeCentral, and most people are asleep. However, with a cry that wakes his next door neighbors, Joe sits upright in his rented room, sweat beading his face and dampening his shirt. His eyes wide, he screeches a few more times, shielding his eyes, oblivious to the thumps on the walls.

              It is a full minute before his screams stop, and he remembers where he is. The familiar bed beneath him no longer gapes to an infinite drop, the ceiling above him does not erupt into flames and explosive winds. His flesh is whole and, apart from a few superficial burns, most of which are healing, he is healthy.

              Joe has, for the first time in the 48 hours since the bombing, regained consciousness.

              There is much to do.

              [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited August 18, 2000).]
              [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited November 08, 2000).]
              "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


              • #8
                Part 6: Prepping

                Joe's face was in pretty good shape, considering that he had taken the heat from an oncoming fireball head-on. There were scars healing from superficial burns across his forehead and cheeks, but fortunately for him he had thrown his arm across his face as he'd dove for cover.

                They were still raw and red, but the scars were no longer weeping. That in itself was a stroke of luck, but nothing compared to the greater miracle of Joe's survival.

                He remembered kneeling in the doorway as the city around him erupted into flames and deadly heat, and could recall the intense, almost erotic feeling in his veins as he savored a job well completed. He could remember exactly his thoughts in those few moments, that Lydia had done her job well, and that Lydia was almost certainly dead.

                What might have worried him, in a different situation, was the fact that he had no memory between that and waking up just now.

                Alpha sector was far away from this GammaProm tavern of his. His room was three floors up, and the doors were paranoically locked and secured against entry. Yet still he was here, having somehow evaded the police and security, relatively unscathed save for a few painful welts on his face and forearms.

                Joe filled the basin with water and bathed his forearm. His fingers ached slightly to move, and he examined them carefully, somewhat distressed that he could not locate the source of the pain. Then, when flexing his arm out to the side of his body, he noticed the cut in his forearm amidst the burn scar. No doubt those were the tendons controlling his fingers. They weren't severed, but it was painful to move his fingers, and would be a for a few more days, until the shrapnel wound healed over. Thank providence that there had been no embedded shrapnel in him.

                Typing would be a problem. Maybe today he would have to dive into the Net using M/MI.

                He squinted as he rinsed his face with cold water. The basin was scrubbed clean, virtuously white against the dingy background of his rented room. Joe wondered at that somewhat, then discovered his hunger.

                How long had he been out for? Had he been in a coma? However long, his body mass was still roughly the same, and thus starvation could not have set in. Not clinically, at least; literally, however, Joe would have admitted to being ravenously hungry.

                He worried about his face. Would the scars single him out for attention? That would be bad - very bad. Better to hide it. But how?

                Wearing his headphones would allow the polyfilter shades to shield his eyes. Maybe if he could trade for an old version with a full helmet plus visor... but then the trader would know why he needed it.

                Joe realized, with a sensation of annoyance, that his hunger was reaching a distractingly insistent level. Time to eat.

                Downstairs, the prop greeted him unhappily. Joe's eyes caught the unmistakable bruise on the prop's temple and he chanced a nod and a wan smile. As he sat down to his first meal in who knew how long, the prop quickly began conversation. As Joe had reason to expect, it was heavily weighted towards the camaraderic exchange of recently acquired wounds and personal bodily complaints.

                "Headache any better?" asked the prop. Joe shook his head as he tucked into his synthesized meal of root vegetables and oo-proteins. "Me neither," continued the prop. "Will you just look at that?"

                Joe looked. The bruise was a deep purple, and had evidently been caused by some blunt instrument. It festooned the prop's head, on the strong bone just a few centimeters in front of his soft temple. It was lucky that the prop hadn't suffered real damage from it.

                "Police bastard pig farmers. Said I was harboring publicans without a license. Well, I gave 'em hell." The prop smiled proudly. "Didn't matter how police-crazy you are, you can't argue with the Public Licenses you issued, can you?"

                Joe shook his head. No, you evidently couldn't. But the prop wasn't finished yet.

                "There were three of 'em. Guy who hassled me was big toughguy, thought the world of himself and his electroprod. After he passed the prod over my head, I thought I'd show him who I was. He took one look at my credentials and knew there was nothing he could do me for. Then I let him know who he was dealing with."

                The prop leaned over conspiratorially and smiled. "I let him know who he was dealing with."

                Joe nodded, trying not to look too bored. "What did you tell him?"

                The prop flicked out a discreet holocard. Joe caught the slightest glimpse of a DataTech military ID, old with age, with a holo inset of a bald man, finely muscled. It looked reasonably like the prop.

                "I told him if he took out his electroprod on me one more time, I'd stick it so far up his butt he'd be passing lightning bolts for weeks."

                The prop leaned back again, smiling happily. He continued to clean the counter.

                Joe finished his breakfast and passed his ration tray back to the service hatch. He surveyed the room with a brief glance that didn't lock eyes with anybody else in the room. Some of them sported scars, too. Evidently, the curfew laws had been less than a complete success.

                That made Joe feel better. At least he wasn't going to be the sole center of attention with his scars. Maybe he would continue his residence here, for a while at least. Either way, there were more important matters to resolve.

                Accepting one more caffistim drink from the prop ("from a fighter, for a fighter!", as the prop addressed him), Joe slid away from the bar, squinting in the early light. The sun was already breaching the horizon - time to put on those polyfilters.

                It was 06.24hrs.

                The Hive-DataTech border skirmish has yet to become world news.

                * ~ * ~ *

                It is very dark in the bowels of Ferretslair. Here, there is no sunlight to penetrate the gloom, nor any air that has not been recycled many times over. Water is available in profusion, as the bunker is constructed directly beneath the sewer systems, but it must be doctored heavily in order to be potable.

                There is sound, however. Here, in the very bunker whose codename later gave name to the metropolis above it, is where the DataKnaves convene. These are a motley crew of people - nobody would, in normal society, have regarded them as sharing any linking traits. From the bespectacled slender adolescent to the aged crone, almost all walks of DataTech life was represented by the DKs. This time, there are eleven of them - the others apologetic for their absence or merely declining to come.

                The DataJack presides over the meeting like an elder sister: with an air of quiet seniority, yet attentive patience. Her eyes are filmed over by two screen lenses - each capable of projecting an image onto the cornea with the illusion of fullscreen size. These are dimmed, although a close inspection reveals their images still to change.

                The DataJack is the only member allowed a direct outer link during these high-echelon meetings.

                As the last DK seats himself with care (age has reduced his lower body strength, and he must not fall or he might never rise again), DataJack Roze clears her throat with an inobtrusive cough. It is time to speak and be heard.

                "Thank you all for coming. Today are only seven absentees, including of course DataKnave Whisperlisp - may his recovery be a swift one. It is important that you have reached us today, as the recent developments are serious."

                There was no need for the DataJack to go over the details. Most of the DataKnaves had known this even before she had.

                "General Rowling will be made aware of our latest stance on the matter once we have actually decided one on. For the record, his attitude is still noncommittal and he does not advise us on a direct confrontation with the Hive."

                DataKnave Morganghast spoke up.

                "So we turn the other cheek?"

                "Militarily, yes," responded Roze. She stood up and placed her hands on the table. "We cannot afford to make enemies of the Hive. Not now, while our own status is under review by the Aquascante Treaty factions. Svensgaard can, if he chooses, block all our ports and starve us into submission if he wants. Our only means of preventing the Hive of doing the same, lies in persuading the Aquascante Treaty factions into accepting our peace."

                It was a long speech for her, and she was momentarily pensive afterwards. Roze, who had been used to speaking with her fingers, in the myriad tongues of computer languages, was still a hesitant spokesman in the world of men.

                It was DK Hiedelman who broke the silence. "What do the Aquascante Treaty factions want from us?"

                Roze motioned to Grysel, the foreign affairs expert. Grysel had no difficulty in speaking.

                "The Peacekeepers are pretty happy to welcome us, since it lies in keeping with their code of human rights and their emphasis on democracy, equality, and freedom. They also approve our data trading, which falls under the aegis of 'freedom of information intercourse' for them."

                There were a few smiles all round at this. It was amazing what a positive-sounding, bureaucratic title could do to spruce up one's illegal activities.

                "The Nautilus Navy are more or less indifferent, insofar as morality goes, but in terms of maritime supremacy, they are willing to side with any faction that can pose a geographical stepping stone against the Hiverian continent. This has become more emphatic since the Hive began expanding their oceantop bases westwards, towards the Harmonian continent.

                "As for the Morganites, well - we all know their stance."

                There were grim nods all around. A few years earlier, a DataTech spy had been located smuggling illicit goods on board a Morganite tanker bound for the northern coast of Phoenica. The tanker had been refuelling at a Morganite oil rig in the Great Northern Sea, when the spy was discovered. It is said that Nwabudike Morgan himself gave the order for the tanker to make a detour 500 kilometers south in order to maroon the DataTech spy within Caretaker territory.

                None of the DataKnaves had heard from the spy again. Even though he was among friends and Pact allies, it was unlikely that the friendly Caretakers were able to shield him from the terrible genetic weapons of the Hiverian choppers. Likely that his body had decomposed alongside the equally helpless corpses of the Caretakers.

                The worst thing about this move was the sheer brilliance of Morgan's revenge. Nobody could fault the man for deporting an enemy spy to a pact continent, even though he knew the deadly consequences that the Hive would bring against that spy.

                Morgan's hatred of the breakaway faction had observed no boundaries when Roze first defied his authority. It was, perhaps, foolish of them to expect anything less of this man.

                "So the situation is serious. For a nation stranded as we are, on an island continent, we cannot afford to offend the Hive - their military ruthlessness and thoroughness are already proven. Nor can we afford to reject out of hand the Aquascante Treaty's offer of friendship and help. Already our sanctions against the Hive have taken their toll on our citizens and city brownouts - and our Sisterhood with the Progenitor Caretakers can do nothing except excite the suspicion and enmity of the Hive. We must tread carefully."

                There was silence again as the assembly, many of whom had no professed experience of diplomacy, pondered this.

                Roze spoke up. "All in favor of military response?"

                No hands were raised.

                "Good. The question then remains of our diplomatic retaliation. As we are now aware, it is heavily likely that their diplomat's function in this nation was more to do with Project PowerClip than anything else. Grysel?"

                Grysel stood and continued.

                "If the Hive are aware of our Project, they may try to sell the information to the Peacekeepers. That would be the most damaging diplomatic move possible - then Lal would know of our misappropriation of the Development Loan he gave us last Council meeting. That is, if he chooses to trust a Hiverian source... In any case, the information is still dangerous if the Hive opt for subtlety and make it known to an intermediary first."

                "- If they have this information," interrupted Morganghast. "How do we know that they do?"

                "We searched all transmissions and property of Diplomat Bing, and found nothing directly implicating this discovery," responded Grysel. "As you say, we do not know for sure, but we must be prepared in case we're right."

                "I can tap the Hive headquarters. I may be able to find out direct from the Chairman himself if they do know. Would you like me to proceed?"

                Roze looked at Morganghast. There was a definite smugness in his face, but it was not yet encroaching upon contempt. Roze would have to check this quickly.

                "Of course, Morganghast. Only bear in mind that I too have contacts in The Hive base, and they can bring me similar readings."

                She tapped at the keyboard effortlessly and the holopodium in the middle of the table flickered into life.

                A mundane scene spread out before them - a long hallway, warped by the curve of the camera lens, stretched to a fork. As they watched, a man walked down the corridor and past the camera. He was followed a few moments later by a pair of guards carrying a large piece of machinery between them. Although the resolution was a bit fuzzy, there was no mistaking the half-circle YinYang of the Hive emblems.

                "One of the first eyes I established in the Chairman's abode," finished Roze. Morganghast was silent, but his face was appreciative.

                That was good, thought Roze. At least he can appreciate a skill greater than his own. Perhaps he might aspire to greatness, as the mediocre never do.

                "Anything that you might add to this information, though, will be indispensible." At Roze's words, Morganghast bowed his head slightly, recognizing the absence of rivalry in the DataJack's words.

                Roze turned to Fusili, their economics contact.

                "If the PKs find out about our credit-dipping, how soon can we make reparations?"

                A quick consultation on the keyboard, and Fusili was back with an answer. He did not look happy. "At present situation, assuming no direct trade with the Aquascantes, we would need about five decades to repay the loan. If he doesn't find out about it, we keep the loan for a hundred years before repayment."

                "So, military response and economic reparations are right out then. We must therefore win our way through more covert operations."

                She lapsed into thought, at which the gathered DataKnaves began their own quiet discussions. Grysel held a brief consultation with some DataKnaves and then returned to consult the DataJack.

                Within ten minutes, a decision was reached. This was accomplished with numerous contact/crosscontacts established with agents and informants, and if nothing else, demonstrated the supreme efficiency and breadth of the DataTech network. Granted, many were on hold or given to expect a reasonably direct contact, but many were not. Of these, at least one reported back from within Hiverian territory, although owing to various factors his input was minimal.

                Cross-referenced and voted upon, the matter stood, decided at the end of the day.

                Officially, General Rowlings would not move against the Hive.

                Officially, DataJack Roze would contact the Peacekeepers with a request for an official complaint to be voiced in Council. She would also register a direct complaint against the Hive and whatever diplomat they chose to receive her message.

                Meanwhile, several unofficial things were to happen. General Rowlings was to fully militarize his available reserves and resume recruitment drives. Fusili and his more legitimate cronies were to raise capital through higher taxations and covert theft from the Morganites and Gaians. A Probe Team contingent were to vacate Hiverian territory and breach the University, alert for the possibility of Fusion technology. Production on the Project PowerClip - the cyborg technological marvel made possible only through M/MI - would continue, the completion of which would be simultaneous with the carefully-timed climax of General Rowlings' military preparations.

                And police presence, in the streets and on the Net, could only increase.

                As the DataKnaves dispersed, Roze wondered what the Aquascante Treaty would think of her decisions today. Would they recoil in horror at the measures she had taken? Would they reject her from their friendship, decrying her actions as limitations of human freedom and as unacceptable to their creeds?

                Roze did not know. But this much she knew - none of them knew the situation as well as she did. Theirs - or her own. Though small and equidistant between the two planetary centers of power, the DataJack's faction was far from negligible. And she would see much hardship and failure before she would consent to sacrifice her self-survival for any foreign creed - humanitarian or despotic.

                Standing back at this juncture, the omniscient casual observer might note that even the DataJack has been unable to see the importance of Joe and his cronies. In this respect, the DataJack bears yet another point of similarity to the Chairman Yang.
                Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; June 26, 2002, 23:23.
                "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                • #9
                  Part 7: Contacts

                  The elevator slowed as it reached the top floor. Inside, Jorenson felt the slight giddiness that came of briefly losing body weight, then his full weight returned as the elevator halted. The door before him opened, and he stepped slowly into view of the cameras and guards.

                  Observatory level.

                  "Good morning," hailed the guard, who knew Jorenson by sight. Even so, that familiarity didn't prevent him from running a quick infrared scan over Jorenson's body and a quick eyeing of his pass papers.

                  "Go straight on through. He has been told you were coming."

                  Jorenson threw the guard a quick glance. "What mood is he in?" he asked.

                  The guard smiled. "He's all right. Really. Go on."

                  Jorenson passed the wall-mounted cameras without a second glance, and placed his hand against the doorpad. He met the lenspiece with his stare, and the door clicked as the lock opened.

                  Beyond the door was a glow of artificial light. The Provost sat before a complex array of computer screens, his own personal eyepiece itself a miniature console screen. He was halfway through a conversation as his eyes flicked towards Jorenson with a glint of recognition.

                  "...and authorize Miri for Code Six pass by tomorrow, yes? Or the ceremony begins without him altogether, and he catches up later." The Provost, still chatting into his mouthpiece, distractedly displaced a chair's worth of papers, datapads, and pens, then gestured for Jorenson to occupy it. "Ha? What was that? Yes, okay. Okay, Benko, I speak to you later. Yes, later."

                  Jorenson consulted his datapad briefly as the Provost cleared up a few of the numerous screens.

                  "What of the Hiverian delegation?" asked the Provost, his eyes now focussed on the younger man.

                  Jorenson brought up the details on his datapad and crosslinked them to the Provost. The Provost squeezed the corners of his eyes, and the data appeared briefly in his left eyepiece.

                  "They are sending in Diplomat Hu to propose a treaty of cooperation between us and the Gaians," said Jorenson. "This could be our first contact with the western powers."

                  The Provost turned back to the screen and began typing a response to a Research Project Clearance notification. Whilst he did so, he spoke in a distracted but perceptive tone.

                  "Hu again, eh? I wonder that the man is still alive - little incident over the Great Northern Sea this morning. Yes!" said the Provost, forestalling Jorenson's puzzled question. "The Chairman's aide, Zhu, was in touch with me shortly after breakfast. He confirmed that the meeting was still going ahead..."

                  Here the Provost concluded his typing and swivelled to face Jorenson with a faint smile on his lips. "...and also to reassure me that any rumors of Hu's death that I might have heard, were greatly exaggerated."

                  Jorenson shook his head in doubt. "What's the old rogue gotten himself into now?"

                  Zakharov shrugged. "Some sort of diplomatic botheration in Iphiclia - Data Angels decided to show him the door, perhaps."

                  A low beeping tone, soft but insistent, caught the Provost's eye.

                  "Please excuse." He nudged away from the table and his hoverchair floated gently over to a holopode turning as it did so. Jorenson caught only a few snatches of satisfied-sounding conversation as the Provost hailed and received from what sounded like an old colleague.

                  "Jorenson!" he said. The diplomat stepped forwards, uncertainly, as the Provost turned to him once again. "Maybe you might appreciate this..."

                  The Provost sped across the room in his chair with a hearty kick and came to rest beside the largest of the computer screens. He concluded the conversation on his lip-mike and transferred the signal from his eyepiece to the screen.

                  A large grid appeared, with small black discs and small white discs spread seemingly at random over the grid's many intersections. The Provost turned to his servant and gestured to the screen.

                  "Tell me - what do you see?"

                  Jorenson concentrated on the screen. There was a large patch of mostly black space in the upper left quadrant, and creeping round down to the middle. Then, across from that, there was a white blur caused by segmented white pieces not entirely covering the spaces they had. In the bottom edge of the grid, blackness spread, and tapered away as it reached left and right side of the board.

                  "I..." stammered Jorenson. "I'm not entirely certain."

                  Zakharov prodded him with a bony finger in exasperation. "Certainty be damned! If you don't know the answer, make an educated guess!"

                  Jorenson smiled and mouthed the first thing that came to mind. "Is it... a rabbit?"

                  The Provost looked at him and sighed. "Then again," he murmured, shaking his head, "I suppose you could always make an ignorant guess, if all else fails."

                  Jorenson turned away, averting his momentary irritation. "But, good Provost, what then is the importance of this?"

                  The Provost gestured towards the screen. "That," he said, "is wei qi."

                  Epiphany did not quite occur for Jorenson, much though the Provost might have expected it. "Way chee?" asked Jorenson. "Is that a game?"

                  The Provost had begun to ponder the screen, and his answer was some time in coming.

                  "Wei qi. It means 'encircle chess'. Invented circa 400 BC by a Chinese emperor to teach his son the rudiments of military tactics. One of the oldest games known to man, and perhaps one of the most graceful."

                  Jorenson, formidable though his education was, possessed no appreciation of the term "BC", and only a very vague mental association for the terms "Chinese" and "emperor". He had heard of the Chinese, but only as a vast and sprawling race of oppressing, or possibly oppressed, people. People whose importance had waned with the departure of the Unity Project, and the abandonment of Earth to its unknown fate. In exactly the same vein, the term "Germanic" or "German" would have held little meaning for Jorenson, though within his every living cell was the most farflung examples of their kind.

                  He had some vague recollection that the Hiverian Chairman had had some strong connections with the "Chinese" back on Earth, but the exact nature of this was not known to him.

                  The Provost was still speaking.

                  "I learned the rules very recently, and they are marvellously simple. Each player - either Black, or White - places a single piece down in turn. The pieces do not move once placed. If a piece is surrounded on the four cardinal points by enemy pieces, it is taken and removed. If several friendly pieces are likewise surrounded on all sides by the enemy, they are taken and removed. If they can preserve empty spaces within themselves, or "breathing spaces", they are safe."

                  The Provost had decided on a move, and tapped the screen. A white piece appeared, next to a black line.

                  Jorenson looked away. "It seems a bit dull. Compared to real chess, I mean."

                  The Provost snorted. "'Real' chess. By what authority do you claim Persian or Indian chess to be any more 'real' than oriental chess? Here, the difference is that the pieces stay where you put them! You do the acting, not the pieces. I -" Here his voice faded as the screen indicated a new move by his opponent. He sat back and considered again.

                  "Is he good?" asked Jorenson.

                  The Provost sucked his teeth and nodded as he touched the screen again. Another white piece came up.

                  "What?" asked the Provost, aware that he had been spoken to.

                  Jorenson waved towards the screen. "Your opponent. Is he good?"

                  The Provost smiled. "The best. I have yet to beat him, and we have played seven games to completion already. Although last time," he added, "I did come within seventeen pieces of a draw." He nodded firmly. "I think victory will be a matter of time and practice, not sudden inspiration."

                  Jorenson didn't know which he found more surprising - the fact that the Provost was repeatedly beaten, or the fact that he was so unashamed of the defeats. " can you lose?" he asked, in no uncertain species of awe.

                  Another move was made onscreen, and the Provost responded. This time, he spoke whilst doing so. "I play by different priorities than the opponent, probably erroneous ones. Although I think my far-reaching strategy is the match of his own, he often surprises me by the sheer pyrrhic nature of some of his offenses against me." He sighed. "I suppose I do not yet have the correct attitude towards defending and attacking with static, legion pieces."

                  Jorenson watched the screen. The Provost's forces in the middle right of the screen were desperately attempting to cordon off breathing spaces for themselves whilst the enormous black forces to the upper left joined themselves to constrict. Meanwhile, in the more sturdy southwest, Zakharov had fallen prey to a surprisingly well-defended placement of a handful of black stones that threatened in future to choke his quadrant from within. It would be impossible for white to react quickly and decisively to this new insidious infiltration, without neglecting and abandoning his forces up north.

                  "To be honest," said the Provost, "I don't think my opponent intends to switch this time round." Something like a rueful smile crossed his features.

                  "What do you mean?" asked Jorenson.

                  "Oh," the Provost waved the question away. "Twice it has happened, that I was on the decline, and my opponent offered to change sides, so that I would play the winning side, and he the losing one. Both times he managed to pull off a victory of numbers, not strategy. We deadlocked without a conclusion both times, and at the final counts, he had the greater number of pieces on the board."

                  Jorenson was impressed, even though the terms were as yet new to him. He began to see why the Provost had spent so much time online - this mental challenge for his already formidable mind must have proven irresistible.

                  "Who is the opponent?" he asked.

                  The Provost was in the middle of a move, and did not respond directly. Jorenson fancied he had offended the Provost, and so was silent, but much to his surprise the Provost turned to him and answered.

                  "He is the man who taught me the game; Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang."

                  Jorenson turned back to the console again, alarmed. "Chairman Sheng!"

                  The Provost chuckled. "Yes, Chairman Sheng. For this production-slowing pastime, I am indebted to him!" There was a definite smile on the aged academician's features now, as though enjoying a private joke. "And I plan to repay the favor this afternoon!"

                  There was a definite mischievous glint in the academician's eye. Jorenson chanced a probe. "And how will you do that?"

                  The Provost sat back in the chair, eyes lidded. "Since last evening, I have pondered the mechanics of such a game, and I feel it would be viable. Even more, I believe I have an advantage in my early strategy." The Provost cleared the console and brought up a graphic of a wire cube, nineteen lines by nineteen lines by nineteen lines, forming a grid of extended length. One by one, white and black pieces appeared at random in the grid, sometimes disappearing singly, other times disappearing in great cancerous vacuums.

                  The Provost looked back at the diplomat with a breath of pride, and a hint of mischief.

                  "Wei qi, with a twist - we play in three dimensions!"

                  Before Jorenson could reply, a signal relayed from a discreet console, and the Provost diverted to that momentarily. Then, turning back to Jorenson, he spoke.

                  "The Hiverian diplomat Hu has arrived. Go to meet him and finalize the meeting with the Gaian McClelland. You have your briefing - I need not add to it. Do you have security clearance for a direct line to me?"

                  Jorenson retrieved his datapad just to make sure. "Yes," he responded.

                  "Very well. You may open it during the meeting, but unless I specifically interdict, you have full aegis at the conference."

                  "Thank you, Provost."

                  The Provost waved him away with a gentle but firm air. "Send my regards and respects to McClelland, and tell him I will meet him in person if he so wishes."

                  Jorenson noted this, and turned to leave.

                  "Oh! almost forgot," exclaimed the Provost. "When you get a free moment, commiserate mister Hu on his bizarre and untimely demise for me. Honestly, some of the trouble he gets into..."

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Jorenson had not known what to expect of his erstwhile compatriot and vague friend, Hu Man Bing. Certainly, when dealing with the man, it was a good watchword to expect the unexpected. Atypical of the Hiverian stereotype, Hu was a man of casual ease and open friendship.

                  Contrary to the sinister menace that the Hive exuded - intentionally or not - Agent Hu was forward and honest, and, ostensibly at least, warm. When he laughed, it required more work than usual to realize that the laugh was under full control of the man's higher mental functions, but at least he did laugh.

                  If any proof was needed of the Hive's success, it was present in this Agent. Fiercely loyal to the doctrines of self-nullification, he was nonetheless contrarily and oxymoronically a happy man, who evidently enjoyed his lot and carried out his work with relish and enthusiasm. It was difficult to be sure whether or not he truly believed in the ultimate disposability of man, when he himself demonstrated such a skill in living life to the full.

                  Today, he was sporting a fetching scar across his eyebrow, and a dry cut across his lip. He smiled broadly nonetheless, and shook Jorenson's hand with a firm vigor that indicated nothing but pleasure at meeting his friend in University territory once more. Cordial kisses on both cheeks were exchanged as they stepped from the landing pad, and retreated to within the climate controlled interior of the tower.

                  Jorenson knew his colleague too well to baulk at asking it directly:

                  "What happened to your face?"

                  Agent Hu fingered his lip briefly, as though remembering, and then smiled. "Ah! Trouble with a woman." He glanced slyly at Jorenson. "The pushy and assertive type."

                  "Dear me. A domestic affair?" asked Jorenson.

                  Hu smiled roguishly. "Officially? Yes. Unofficially? No. Actually? Who knows."

                  Jorenson did not respond, and Hu's smile gradually faded into something more thoughtful. "Friend," he said. "I can tell you more in private."

                  They descended the elevator in silence, mindful of the two guards beside them. Something was troubling Hu, and Jorenson could tell it. Not from the state of his face, which betrayed nothing but friendship and joy, but from the slight distance in his eyes. Well, time would come when all would be known. But, given the Provost's data record...

                  The elevator stopped at the banquet hall. Preparations were still being made - the tables had been set, but the food was still being delivered. Relations between the University and Agent Hu went back a long way, and it was already tacitly agreed that Hu was comfortable in less informal occasions.

                  Hu threw himself into a hoverchair with evident delight and floated across the room from the momentum.

                  "It is almost like being a child again," he said. "Jorenson, are you wearing a wire?"

                  Jorenson lifted an eyebrow. Agent Hu kicked back to his friend, and hollered a series of rapid-fire Mandarin Chinese syllables at Jorenson's shirt button.

                  "What was that for?" asked Jorenson.

                  "Just saying hello to the Provost," said Agent Hu. "I said 'Good morning - I hope today's timetable is to your liking'. You don't think he minded, do you?"

                  Jorenson took the microphone out of his pocket. "Actually, he's in here."

                  Hu affected disappointment. "Well, I suppose I missed him. Send him my deepest regards when you see him, neh?"

                  They reached a quiet corner, and Hu set his hoverchair to stationary. After a few moments, Agent Hu seemed to slip into a more serious mindset.

                  "I assume you haven't heard?"

                  Jorenson shook his head. "A few things. We heard you might be dead."

                  Hu chuckled - a surprisingly neutral sound. "They were going to try, that much we know. This morning I escaped from the air interception forces of the DataTechs. The DataJack believed I was a spy, and the Chairman believed I was in danger. So he sent in a pack of deadly wolves to get me out, and she sent out a flight of preybirds to bring me back."

                  Jorenson, noticing the curious looks of the distant caterers, affected a smile, as though listening to an interesting tale. "...and you were the helpless baby in the middle."

                  Hu shook his head impatiently. "No, not quite. I was back in the safety envelope of a Cruiser, but they wouldn't let me go without a fight, it seemed."

                  "...and hence the scars?" asked Jorenson.

                  "Sort of. Do you have any orange juice? I am struck by a sudden and unexpected thirst," said Hu, his usual prolixity returning.

                  Orange juice was summoned, brought, and sipped.

                  "That's better. As I say, it was a sticky situation. On one hand, you have the crack squad ready to kill me rather than let me fall into enemy hands, and on the other hand you have the enemy ready to execute me rather than let me take their valuable secrets back home with me."

                  Hu sipped deeply and sighed.

                  "So how did you get out?" asked Jorenson, intrigued.

                  "Well," said Hu, "I knew the leader of the team. I think he's retiring soonish. Anyway, I persuaded him to bosh me in the head with his gun handle a few times and bloody my face. Being the good Hiverian, he was only too kind to oblige - although I think he may have displayed more enthusiasm than efficiency. And from there, it took a simple video transmission - and a few ambiguous words - to convince them that I was being reclaimed by a punishment squad and on my way to face court martial in Hiverian territory."

                  "And therefore," stated Jorenson carefully, "the entire action was officially a domestic one?"


                  "And the DataTechs would risk being accused of interfering in Hiverian internal policies if they intervened," concluded Jorenson. Then he mused, half to himself, "You know, it can be truly said that you are a devious, crafty fiend."

                  Hu pondered this.

                  "No, I look upon it as merely being self-preservation. And of course, saving human resources for the Hive. All this trouble was owing to a woman, you know."

                  Jorenson responded doubtfully. "The DataJack Roze?"

                  Hu nodded. "Very pushy. Very assertive."

                  There was silence for a little while, and then Jorenson spoke. "What does the Chairman think of this?"

                  Hu shrugged. "As far as I am authorized to say, nothing. But, to be honest, if the DataTechs decide to go public with this news, anything they say can and will be countered by both our news networks, and yours." Hu stood up and dusted himself off. "After all," he said, regarding Jorenson with a mock stern eye, "I stand before you now, and you must know that I am not an imposter."

                  Jorenson looked askance. "Don't be too certain of that. We didn't even know about this incident until your Second, Zhu, told us. And even so, we knew nothing about the details until you told us yourself. Our limited resources will not extend to a sufficient spy network, and even if it did, the Provost's pride is not easily won over to the idea of gleaning knowledge from others." He picked up a porter glass from a table and swirled it beneath his nostrils pensively. "We depend very strongly on your information network, make no mistake about that."

                  Hu picked up a porter glass and drained it. "Don't worry, friend," he said, earnest in his reassurance. "Our two nations have never been anything but allies. And, if people such as ourselves do our job with any degree of competence, our two leaders will remain Pact Brothers, as intended." He looked pensively into his glass, and then set it down hastily with a self-chastising look. "Of course, competence can sometimes be a nebulous thing."

                  They were cut short in their private exchange by an annoucement in Jorenson's earpiece. He listened intently for a few seconds, and then set down his glass.

                  "Come on," he said, "It is time to meet the Gaian."
                  [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited October 11, 2000).]
                  "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                  • #10
                    Part 7 cont. Contacts

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                    * ~ * ~ *

                    McClelland was a tallish man, with soft brown eyes and a graceful demeanor. He was not heavyset, being more athletic in his build, and his facial features occupied a comfortable space more or less equidistant between boyish charm and adult ruggedness. His hands, Agent Hu was the first to point out, were very articulate, being somewhat large for a man his size.

                    Jorenson commented on the strange quality of his clothing - very shiny, and rather creased. Hu then forwarded the possibility that it was real silk, at which Jorenson expressed surprise that real silk still existed.

                    "Oh yes," said Hu airily. "I believe the Gaians farm worms for it. Ecologically friendly, etcetera."

                    McClelland sat, clearly nervous, in an antechamber with his briefcase balanced on his knees. Two University manservants stood nearby, their light blue uniforms strange in comparison to McClelland's own dark clothing.

                    "He looks nervous," said Hu. Jorenson nodded, contemplating the monitor. "I wonder what he's nervous about."

                    Jorenson replied quickly. "He's meeting you, Hu. That would make any foreigner twitchy and excitable the first time around."

                    Hu threw Jorenson a haughty look. "Only females, though."

                    Jorenson smiled and shook his head. "Maybe it's us. He'll have been briefed as well as the Gaians could about what we're like."

                    "That's true."

                    "And it is possible," continued Jorenson, "that our two factions hold even lower a reputation over in the West than we were expecting."

                    Hu smiled grimly as he gazed into the monitor. "For which we can thank one thing: Pravidence."

                    Jorenson looked at him across the table. "Thank what?"

                    Hu waved it away and watched the man in the antechamber. Jorenson shrugged. His friend was in an introspective mood.

                    "He has recently had sex," mused Hu. "Possibly a fair number of times."

                    "How can you tell?"

                    Hu suddenly seemed to come out of a reverie. He looked at his friend with an air of firmness. "Are you ready?"

                    Jorenson arranged his papers and then stood up. "I suppose. Want me to show him in?"

                    Hu nodded. "You'd better. After all, you are the host - technically speaking."

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    "Mister McClelland, thank you for being so very patient with us."

                    Prentice stood up, a little too quickly, in his own opinion. "Oh, no bother at all," he affirmed warmly. To his own ears, his voice sounded well modulated, but he chided himself for the hasty action of standing. The blue-clad aide must know his nervousness now.

                    "The two speakers of the Hive and University are within. May I lead the way?"

                    The room beyond was an arc segment, that much McClelland knew from his education in mathematics. What he did not know was that the measured arc of the wall of the room was not merely to conform with University architecture. The Provost, in a moment of characteristic whimsy, had based it upon an embryonic fractal equation. The curvature was so slight a deviation from normal that the fractal would need to be very simple indeed, but even so, it pleased the Provost that his diplomatic meetings would occur in a room that was mathematically undecided between being a circular room, or a series of self-replicating circular cells, reflected into infinity. The irony of this tickled the Provost's grey cells in some forgotten cranial lobe, far beyond the reach of many normal human beings.

                    McClelland did not appreciate this subtlety in the conference room, because he had never been told. Jorenson, on the other hand, did appreciate this specifically because he had been told. Hu Man Bing, now seated at the conference table with an expression of careful neutrality, had feigned interest when told about this whilst secretly stymied by the Provost's sense of humor.

                    To McClelland, the two diplomats were opposites. Jorenson - he would be the University man - was a slim blonde man with an air of friendly inscrutability. Hu - the Hiverian - on the other hand, was a shorter oriental man whose eyes seemed very remote, with an air of undeniable coldness to them. Fish eyes. Or, not quite fish eyes, but perhaps lizard eyes. Hu was not looking at McClelland, a fact which distressed McClelland very much because of the relief he felt at it. To have those two almond eyes on you was like being considered by a very well dressed viper.

                    McClelland smiled, bowed his head slightly, and shook hands with Jorenson before he sat down. He looked up with a slight trace of nervousness and glanced at Hu before exchanging an otherwise cordial greeting. Hu returned the appell formally, bowing as well as he could at the table.

                    "I think it is best to cut to the quick," announced Jorenson. "Firstly, both our factions would like very much to thank you for responding so courteously and quickly to our talk requests." McClelland noticed that Jorenson only smiled with his mouth, and not his eyes, although his voice was rich and warm. "This is the first true meeting that the University has enjoyed with a Western faction since the Usurper Wars."

                    Jorenson glanced at Hu, who had not stirred in the slightest in his seat. "And I hope that we will arrive at a situation of mutual understanding after so many years of silence and separation."

                    McClelland nodded, honoring the compliment. "And we Gaians are likewise honored by your attentions. I hope you will forgive any hesitation or uncertainty on my part, and allow for the extreme novelty of this meeting."

                    Hu's voice rang out across the table, with surprising warmth to it.

                    "Certainly, Mr McClelland. After all, both of us are as new to this as you are."

                    A few documents were exchanged across the table, both in paper form and in data stream.

                    Jorenson was the one to speak.

                    "Twenty years ago, the factions on the continental landmass of Xing Ya concluded an ongoing war against the xenogenous species - or 'Progenitors'. We moved against the primary aggressors, or the 'Usurpers'. After a carefully planned campaign against the early bases of that species, we were able to announce complete victory and deliverance from the threat of Usurper domination."

                    Jorenson paused as the datapads brought up salient images of that war. Several would be meaningless to McClelland, because he had never seen the glorious city that was University Base before it had been annihilated by the Progenitors. Still, the visions of destruction, genocide, and grisly man-eating would suffice to make the point.

                    "We had intended," said Jorenson, "to contain the Usurper threat on our shores. The Hive and University factions adhered to a systematic and tactical strategy, that we hoped would make escape impossible. However..."

                    He altered the visions shown, to those that he knew would be instantly recognizable to McClelland - images of two Gaian bases, Memories of Green and Razorbeak Wood, overrun by Usurper troops. The human corpses now Gaian corpses.

                    " was quickly apparent that our plan had not succeeded entirely. Unknown to us, a naval exploration contingent of the Usurpers' maritime vector had been sectioned not far from the coast of Phoenica, your continent. Upon receiving word of their imminent defeat on the homeland, had landed upon your shores to establish a secondary base."

                    A pause, as McClelland considered the horrors that still haunted Gaian living memory.

                    "Fortunately, the damage they did was contained by your military forces, and the navy was driven back to their homeland for resupplies. At which point -" here Jorenson indicated Agent Hu with a gesture "- the Hive were able to thoroughly conclude what they had begun."

                    There was a tense quiet around the table, as they each considered the import of that single sentence. Not a single Usurper lived on Planet any longer - not even as slaves or subject peoples. The faction had been totally exterminated; left as though they had never been.

                    Hu spoke up.

                    "This is all more or less academic. The facts were that they directly threatened our existence, and we directly threatened theirs. In such a situation, our response was the only possible response, and we are not ashamed of our victory. Indeed -" here Hu threw a significant glance at Jorenson "- without our intervention, their early offensives against University territory would have enjoyed much greater projected success. Perhaps even of such magnitudes as to be fatal to the Provost's faction."

                    McClelland nodded. This much he had heard from covert reports and diplomatic hearsay. It was interesting that the Hiverians and University were finally confirming this.

                    "In underestimating our foe, we failed to contain them completely, and your faction - the faction of the Sisterhood of Gaia - suffered as a result. The Chairman Sheng has always held this knowledge close to his side, and intended to pledge his debt and future friendship to the Gaians."

                    McClelland struggled to conceal his surprise, even as a shadow of doubt crossed his mind. The Chairman? Would such a man as the Chairman was purported to be, even credit the notion of gratitude and guilt?

                    He felt that something was required of him here. He also decided that honesty was the best policy.

                    "That may be as is, but from the Gaian perspective, we do not view our faction as owing the Hive anything, or as having the right to make demands of the Hive."

                    "But what of the destruction of your two cities?" asked Hu. "It was our oversight that allowed the Usurpers to land on your soil."

                    "Perhaps. But who is to say that they would have avoided us without your actions?" McClelland placed his hands down on the table as he carefully voiced his words. "I do not know what your appraisal of the situation is, but the West does not hold you responsible for what happened to us on Phoenica. There is no need for reparations to us or any other faction, and there never has been a need."

                    "...And the Commissioner Pravin Lal's recent accusations of genocide?" asked Hu, with a hint of arch amusement. "Need we answer to those?"

                    McClelland felt he had to tread very carefully here.

                    "What the Commissioner proposes, and what the Lady Deirdre Skye believes to be true, are two separate issues. The UN Peacekeepers are at present calling for an investigation into your campaign against the Caretaker Progenitors - that question yet remains to be answered. However -" McClelland licked his lips and continued "- we have never held the Hive to be responsible for our conflict with the Usurpers, and we have no reason to believe that your actions precipitated that conflict. In fact..."

                    McClelland coughed abruptly. A University manservant brought a glass of water, and he drank it gratefully.

                    "In fact," he continued, "we all share, to some extent, your attitude towards the Progenitors. When we saw their contempt for the human race, and even for Planet itself, we learned that these were not beings in harmony with Planet. They were mere despoilers."

                    Hu sat back and nodded, impressed. "I see. Then, in absence of reparations, let this instead be a gift to your faction." He keyed in a sequence and Jorenson's console bleeped.

                    Jorenson typed quickly into his console, inputting the numerous complex security interlock codes.

                    "The Hive lives underground," continued Hu in a bland tone, "as you will see in your tour of our bases later this week. We do not have space or atmosphere to squander, and as such, our lifestyles have gradually become both more spartan in its luxuries, and more conscientious in its consumption."

                    McClelland's screen showed up various images of the Hive cramped internal structures: meeting rooms, feeding bays, sleeping rooms, cleansing rooms. All seemed clean, though there was no denying their claustrophobic limits.

                    "The Hive cannot afford waste and pollution. And it is with a sense of surprise that we find ourselves adopting interests very similar to your own, Mister McClelland. Preservation of the environment, and care for the surrounding ecology. Although," here Hu smiled thinly and sipped his water. "I must admit, our reasons are somewhat less noble than yours. We adopt a Green practice through the interests of self-preservation, not world-preservation... but I believe that our ends are convergent and similar."

                    Jorenson finished typing and looked up from his console. "Ready," he said.

                    Hu quickly typed in his access codes, and suddenly McClelland's screen was filled with data. Numbers and equations printed out, filling the screen from top to bottom, and then cleared as quickly as they appeared.

                    Jorenson spoke as the demonstration loaded, with the tones of a proud father speaking of a favored son.

                    "This information is classified, but you may send back to your leaders at Gaia's Landing immediately. They may analyze it by whatever means they see fit, and determine its veracity for themselves. If they have any questions, we have established several secure links by which they may communicate with us - directly to the Provost and Chairman, if necessary. We regret that we cannot forward the full details of the technology, but as you will understand, this is highly sensitive and must be protected as yet."

                    McClelland peered at his screen in perplexity. The numbers had cleared, and now a visual demonstration was underway, showing what appeared to be atomic particles. Yet, strange effects were being achieved, with some detaching and reattaching themselves to the array, and still others disappearing and "teleporting" across the arrays. All around the display, text and arrows delineated key transitions, but for Prentice McClelland, served more to confuse than to clarify.

                    A growing suspicion was already in his brain when he pulled himself away from the hypnotic display. "Is it what I think it is?" he asked.

                    Hu had lapsed back into his characteristic silence, but Jorenson's enthusiasm more than made up for it.

                    "Most likely, Mister McClelland. The subtle manipulation of quarks, charms, and other subatomic particles. The influence of this interference upon larger atomic structures. The balancing of an energy equation that has long held the world stymied with its complexity." Jorenson smiled broadly, and there was a hint of true intellectual fulfillment in his face. "In short, Mister McClelland, you hold on that screen the theoretical vector of our latest development.

                    When McClelland turned back to the screen, his lips were dry and his voice was a whisper.

                    "Atomic fusion power," he said simply.
                    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                    • #11
                      Part Eight - Judgement Falls

                      The magtrain engaged its dampers and began to slow gently. The afternoon sun shone in through the plastisteel viewports a mellow orange.

                      The University skyline was beautiful - the bases had been situated on top of the Sunny Mesa, and faintly in the distance, the faraway lands of the lower Hive territories were just barely visible to the naked eye. Frequently, in slightly hazy weather, they vanished from sight, giving the impression of a foreshortened horizon. Almost as though the University were its own private microcosm.

                      That impression had remained constant throughout the Chironside history of the University, and through Hiverian colonization of the plains below, to the depredations of the Usurpers to the north. A brief glance through the history links, as seen by the University eyes, would speak much of their personal part in past events, but perhaps would reveal even more about the thoughts of a University worker.

                      Each attack and counter attack, each razing of a University-owned base, every bloody massacre of human or xenomorphic life, had been recorded with a uniform, professional detachment. Even at the height of the seige of University Base, when the Provost's own life was saved by mere minutes in a final escape from the doomed capital, the Academician's diary entry of the day had been concise, practical, and frighteningly impersonal:

                      - Flanking maneuvers at multiple gates to undermine structure. Frontline defenders immobilized by unspecified force. Reports of "resonance waves" as yet unproven.

                      - Fallen defenders stunned; biorhythms indicate involuntary muscular paralysis and motor function impediment.

                      - Good news: have acquired example of xenotechnic; fallen bearer was retrieved before recovery by allies.

                      - Cannibalism practised. Pulse rifle wounded xenomorph subject in chest. Ally of xenomorph subject withdrew fallen friend and consumed interior of braincase. Possible preservation of knowledge???

                      - Must acquire complete head of xenomorph. Future possibility of education by ingestion? (vide Terra Flatworms, note 4c)

                      Jorenson concentrated on the board, the polished verroplast chip wavering in his hand. Then, with a move decisive and firm, he place it in the eastern quadrant of the board.

                      He looked up and met Mao's eyes.

                      Mao was a slim, slender woman, of a build even slighter than that of Agent Hu. Her face was round and her eyes appeared very large. Her mouth was very small, set like two krys-blooms beneath her slightly leonine nose. In fact, had Jorenson not been assured otherwise by his friend, he would have assumed himself to be sitting opposite a girl in her early teens, not a woman in her mid twenties.

                      Agent Hu had not offered to reveal the precise nature of his relation to this woman, and Jorenson had been too timid to ask.

                      The Agent was not a bad man, but Jorenson had always associated him with dark depths, and fierce, almost angry, loyalty to the Chairman and to the Hive. He had never thought of Hu as the relationship type.

                      "Ah," said Mao abruptly.

                      Jorenson looked up at her, distracted, but she was merely preparing for a sneeze. It came, sounding for all the world like a small and slightly squashed mammalian squeak.

                      "Chu!" concluded Mao.

                      Then she carelessly made a move, placing a piece endwise first, then sliding it to the horizontal.

                      "Your move," she said, and smiled politely. By her side was a book written in the Xinyin script - a language that Jorenson had studied for communicative purposes only. Given the apparent inscrutability of the text, Jorenson guessed that it might be a technical manual. Hu did not elaborate on what the citizen Mao did for her living, but he did mention that her technical skills far outmatched his own.

                      Jorenson turned back to the board. They were only seven moves into the game, and the board looked to him to be a vast expanse of empty space, with their small moves creating tiny holes of existence in this void. As yet the pieces were isolated and separate, each one a solitary banner waving in the outbacks... but from the two games that he had played to completion against Agent Hu, he knew that the positions held by these pieces were of great importance - it was from them that future forces would engender and spread, to meet each other across the board.

                      Of late, Jorenson had considered this to be an apt description of the colonization of Planet. Already the globe was crisscrossed by their magtubes and encircled by their aircrafts' jetstreams and contrails. The many factions on Planet's surface (and, in the case of the Hive, just beneath) were well established in their latticework of bases and cities, from peak to valleybed, from coast to desert.

                      This latest discovery, fusion power, would solve the need for a renewable fuel, and open up energy consumption to levels hitherto unsustainable. Perpetual-motion devices, once a twofold impossibility, now became a mere onefold improbability - the problem of fuel being solved, the only problem remaining would be that of perishability of materials. The ability to power whole cities on the strength of a small and renewable number of atoms alone would force a dramatic rethink of economical basics and the value of the fossil fuels industry.

                      Jorenson pondered. That was another problem. CEO Nwabudike Morgan, whose economic strength derived largely from his synthetic fossil fuels industry, would not be pleased to lose the market. Whereas the Gaians, on the other hand, had responded to the revelations first with dumbfounded awe, and then with positive warmth. The same evening that the diplomat McClelland had sent home the encrypted precursor files, the Chairman and the Provost had been flooded with encoded petitions for audience from the Gaians.

                      Jorenson did not know what had passed between the Chairman Sheng and Lady Deirdre, but he had been present during Zakharov's conversation with the Gaian leader. Zakharov had responded with evident coolness towards the demure self-assurance of Skye, though he had emphasized the importance of the discovery and its nature. More than that he could not say, except that the University had every intention of opening the potentials of these findings to the Western nations.

                      The details of the transaction would be left to the Chairman to administrate. The Provost, to be honest, had little to no interest in the sordidities of political barter. Hu had even said to Jorenson afterwards that the Provost seemed rather like a disinterested father, dividing a newly-earned load of bread amongst his family, whilst impatient to be off and earn another.

                      Jorenson leaned back and closed his eyes. It had been a tiring day, full of diplomatic obligations, and there would be more to come. McClelland was to be taken to Hiverian territory and led on a tour of the bases, to further emphasize the ecological/recycling imperatives of the Hiverian way of life. After all, you could not live in an underground layer without meticulous cleanliness and efficient reusage. It was hoped that the Gaian might find something of mutual interest in this lifestyle with the Hive, and perhaps further close the ideological and geographical gap between the two factions.

                      Then, the Gaian would be brought back to the University state after his two-week-long tour of the major Hiverian bases, and further acquainted with the Provost. By that time it was hoped that the Gaians' interest would have returned some diplomatic benefits, perhaps in the form of introductory talks with other factions.

                      Maybe, one day, the University would once again speak to the Peacekeepers, or Morganites - both member factions of the anti-Hive Aquascante Treaty.

                      Jorenson realized that Mao was looking at him steadily, in her somewhat feline way.

                      "Are you all right?" she asked, with a petite moue of concern.

                      He shook the memories from his skull and smiled back.

                      "Just tired," he said. "And also... maybe a bit awed."

                      Mao regarded him solemnly with her wide, round eyes, nodding in agreement.

                      "Yes, me too." She hesitated, and then spoke. "I have never seen an outsider in my life, and from the many stories that Bing has told me about their ways, I am even more interested in them than in the aliens."

                      Jorenson blinked at this, and considered this even as he made his move and sat back.

                      So - Mao, unlike Hu, was a Planetchild?

                      * ~ * ~ *

                      There was darkness, and there was heat.

                      The air is heavy, and intrusively warm, carrying with it the strangely alluring smell of burning. Ashes, carbon compounds, sulphur. The olfactory detritus of burning organics. Organics are quickly consumed in the plasma of fire, yielding forth their hoarded energy even as the enzymes that gleaned them denature and evaporate.

                      Quick breaths came, each ragged and scouring the windpipe as the heat invaded the lungs.

                      A presence was felt, rather than seen, in the ruddy darkness next to her. Somebody was standing behind her. Somebody of moderate build... but nonetheless assertive and substantial.

                      A few footsteps, and a pause. Now, the presence was behind her and to the left - a new acrid odor reached her nostrils. She screwed her eyes tight shut and wondered what the odor was... it was familiar, but elusive.

                      "Ni xi yen ma?" Do you smoke?

                      The voice was kindly, but only just. Behind it was the promise of subtle inflexions and not-so-subtle inflictions. The prisoner did not turn her head to view the speaker, but spoke to the air in front of her.

                      "No thank you." The words seemingly casual, in other situations, a polite declining of an offered treat.

                      "Sui bien. Hao." Very well. Suit yourself.

                      Soft steps as the questioner walked slowly around to the prisoner's side. The proferred cigarette now lit, hanging lazily from gloved fingers, a bright speck in the prisoner's peripheral vision.

                      "Kan wode lian."

                      The prisoner kept her eyes resolutely fixed forwards.

                      "Lai. Kan wode yenjing."

                      The prisoner gazed into the fire before her. She would not turn her head as ordered.

                      Agent Hu, tired of the pretence of kindness, stepped closer and pressed the lit end of the cigarette into her earlobe. Then, as her attention was diverted, he reached around and jerked her head round to the side, forcing her face towards his.

                      "Ni tungtong ma?"

                      The prisoner did not even have to respond. She knew that her face betrayed her agony, yet somewhere inside herself she felt relief. At last, the torture would begin. That alone relieved some of the torture of waiting.

                      Hu waited until her arms, chained to the ceiling, had stopped their spasms of agony, futilely reaching for her injured ear. Then he placed his lips close to her ear and spoke, in perfect English.

                      "Good. Let us begin."

                      It was to be the last distinct sentence she remembered without unpleasant associations.

                      Over the following session, the Datatech spy was subjected to the standard Hiverian method of interrogation. That was to say, her sensory bodily equipment was slowly put under pressure and stimulus, whilst the Hiverian continued to press his questions to her. He would phrase each question in a variety of fashions, the better to prevent association-pattern triggers in his patient.

                      The first breakthrough occurred some thirty minutes into the treatment, when he fractured her right forearm with the side of his hand, and flexed the splintered ends of her bone against each other. In addition to her noisy outbursts at this stage, she gave a name - that was all. But it was enough to prove to Hu that her first detailed confession earlier had been largely fictitious.

                      The session reached a plateau while he allowed the stimulus to abate and focussed on probing her knowledge for cracks. However, in true Datatech fashion, she had prepared many mental fortifications and had succeeded in persuading herself of their false validity. Now, she engaged this constructed explanation as though she genuinely believed it to be true.

                      Hu understood enough psychology to feel the import of the dangers here. If he pushed her now, it was inevitable that she would abandon her present chosen story. However, the mental decisions one makes under physical stress and psychological trauma are not dictated by the higher brain functions... a person faced with sensory input from all sides indicating a morass of agony and torture is just as likely to reach for a branch or twig that can save them from drowning, as the clearly signposted "This way out" path. More than once, Hu had questioned a person and stumbled across the literal truth, then pushed them further in his inflexible disbelief, and elicited further false responses.

                      Backtracking had always been uniformly tedious, difficult, and unnecessary.

                      Hu left her arm alone and returned to her elevated left sole, where the pressure-point needles twitched in time with her pulse and other stimuli. He retracted a needle in the joint of her first toe slightly, reducing the tension along her cranial axis channel. To compensate, he placed a needle in her calf, a third of the way down along the side, where the muscle was deep.

                      "Who is this... Li Min?"

                      The prisoner was withdrawn now, sullen and ashamed of herself. Hu nodded to himself - good. At least that suggested she had given something away of true import. Only time and repetition would tell, but this was the tip of the iceberg.

                      Li Min... a name that Agent Hu was familiar with. It was the first in the lineup that this woman had given him.

                      Forcing himself to supress the tinge of slight triumph, Hu continued his interrogation for the next hour. Over the course of this, he replaced the needle in her toe and put another two in her wrist, while compounding the fracture in her arm, and shattering the shinbone of her right leg above the foot, and dividing the integrity of her left hand up to the carpels.

                      By the time he finished his session with her, he had learned much that he felt was worthwhile. The inquisitor to take over from where he left off was briefed to transmit any new findings to Hu directly.

                      The magtrain was pulling in at Climatic Research Center's station. Hu had to run to catch it, but there was a spring in his step and a smile on his face as he greeted his friend Jorenson.

                      "Sorry I'm late," he apologized. "Something new has cropped up."

                      [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited December 19, 2000).]
                      [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited December 22, 2000).]
                      "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                      • #12
                        Part 8 cont - Judgment Falls

                        The arrangements were far from ideal, but they were the best that the team could secure in the short time they had to do so.

                        From the moment that the leak occurred in University territory, the team had been converging on Climatic Research Base. There they had met in twos and threes, and then finally assembled over a brief encoded conference. This was their first chance to strike at the major blood vessel in the Hiverian chain of command - Agent Hu.

                        For the previous ten years, probe activities in Hiveria had been severely curtailed by the emergence of a deadly new net Algorithm that ruthlessly hunted down and sought any probe activity. The Data Angels had wasted literally hundreds of specialist hackers in an attempt to kill the Algorithm, to no avail.

                        So aggressive was the Algorithm that it had even spread globally, and killed off any attempt by factions to create their own such program nationwide. The Hive, not content with merely sealing themselves underground physically, had gone so far as to block out all outsider contact diplomatically. Now, the Algorithm was cementing their isolation, rendering the past decade a complete blur of static-filled vacuum and mystery, even for the most devoted probe team.

                        The obvious response from the Data Angels was to probe the University - the direct allies of the Hive. This was easier than probing the Hive and challenging the Algorithm, by a factor beyond measurement. However, the Hive had taken great care to seed each University base with probe teams of their own, monitoring each data transaction. Although their close partnership with the University did not extend the deadly aegis of the Algorithm, it did allow for the tacit stationing of probe teams for counterespionage. Many bloody conflicts had erupted in complete silence between the Hiverian and Datatech probes in University territories - all conflicts that the light of day would never see while both factions existed.

                        One such Hiverian probe team was probably responsible for the late start to the day.

                        The Datatech probe team works by cells, with units working together only when absolutely necessary, to minimize the damage caused should one member be compromised. However, the Datatech interior had specified that there would be eight members working in this action today. The job was complex and needed to be carried out quickly, but certain elements were crucial to leave untouched. Thus, a large number of highly skilled and internally informed people would be needed.

                        Only seven such people had turned up - Sakrabloo, Foster, Huang, Li Min, Jordanax, Forge, and Cockerico. The eighth - a certain "Avise" by moniker - was nowhere to be contacted.

                        Avise's absence had very nearly caused a dissolution of the meeting, as three of their number voted that the authorities must have gotten wind of the operation, and prepared countermeasures. However, four voted for continuance of the mission, and given the frenzied preparations of the previous twenty-six hours, this view was held to some extent by all members. Some had not slept during that time - on Planet, one and a half days' worth of hours.

                        Interior was communicating to all seven, thus eliminating the possibility of leadership rivalry. The Hiverian diplomat Hu Man Bing, close friend of Zhu He Lai, Second to the Chairman, was to board the civilian magtrain heading south from Climatic Research Center. Sakrabloo possessed a concealed snub-nosed sniper rifle in his welding equipment, and remained at the magtrain station to observe, and, if possible, to eliminate the Agent.

                        The Agent would have to be onboard the train or near the train, as Sakrabloo could only strike as the train was moving out. Any earlier, and the members inside the train would be alerted to his act and may leave the train. This would require him to eliminate the University representative, Jorenson, and capture the Gaian himself in the middle of a crowded tube station - not exactly a task geared towards simplicity.

                        The train would ideally leave the station carrying the Gaian. At a hill outside the base, the train would slow somewhat as it climbed a gradient and engaged thrusters to provide force to drive it over. At this point, Foster would be ready with an optrimeter placed against the side of the tube, which could, provided the train was moving at slow enough speeds, calculate visually the seating arrangements in the train as it passed by.

                        This data, if processed quickly enough, could be relayed to the remaining five probe units with as much as four minutes to spare. The distance from the hill to the intended latchpoint was twenty kilometers. There, the tube broke free from the confines of ground and rose into the air for a good kilometer stretch to ford the Djezh-kamensk river. Here, the tube ceased to be a solid tube, and the outer layer became a gridded lattice, to allow for flexibility during minor earth tremors.

                        With the gridded tubework, the probe teams would be able to climb from the outer surface of the tube to the inner surface. Provided they were fast enough, they could then attach themselves to the train and board it from outside whilst it was moving.

                        Given the frailties of the human frame, they would require some assistance in doing so - leaping from stationary onto a train moving at 300 kilometers per hour was bound to cause problems. To aid them, they had been provided with a disguised repair utility rover, which could briefly achieve speeds to match that of the train as it passed through the tunnel. The rover was altered to hug the sides of the tube and accelerate along it, but it could only achieve this through jet propulsion and repulsors - it could not, unfortunately, exploit the magnetic forces at work within the tube.

                        Taking the maximum speed of the train to be 300 km per hour, and the extent of the girdwork to be just under a kilometer in length, that left the entire team with a window of roughly twenty seconds for five people to lower themselves from the utility rover and to attach themselves to the train surface.

                        This was a taxing but feasible proposition.

                        However, given that every twenty meters was barred by a grid post leading widthwise, they would in fact be required to somehow squeeze through the gap in 0.24 seconds. This would entail, even in the case of petite Forge (height 1.83 meters), a head-to-toe velocity of 7.63 meters per second, or approximately 27.5 km per hour with near instantaneous acceleration. This velocity had to be maintained for merely 0.24 seconds, after which an instantaneous stop was absolutely required to prevent the traveller from becoming a dark stain against the side of the train.

                        This was, quite patently, an impossible proposition.

                        Fortunately, Huang did not come unprepared. A pair of lowly mining lasers had been scavenged and fitted into mounted weapons in the event of partisan warfare, some months before. These were further cannibalized for use as a cutting device on the underside of the rover. Travelling at the speeds that they were, the lasers would shear away the grid supports more or less in parallel. One laser would cut through the support just ahead of the other, lending an axial spin to the support as it came away into freefall behind the speeding rover.

                        This then presented the problem of clearing the falling grid segments before they hit the descending climbers. The rover, travelling at that speed, would (relatively speaking) be dropping rear-moving spinning bullets into the path of the lowering passengers. This would be equally as fatal as merely leaving the gridwork in place. Here, too, Huang had made an adjustment - a minuscule repulsor had been fitted to form a v-shaped arc across the front leading edge of the rover's underside.

                        A few tests had shown that this repulsor could provide enough repulsion to deflect debris off to either side of the rover, and not directly underneath. If all went well, the rover would accelerate along the tube's outer surface, then match the speed of the train, then shear away the gridded portion whilst its occupants dropped and harpooned themselves to the surface of the train beneath them.

                        It was imperative that at least two people got on the train and inside. One would be required to neutralize the University representative, assassinate the Hiverian Agent, and what ever other non-civilians were present, and the other would need to secure the Gaian diplomat, McClelland. The window for operation meant that, in theory at least, all four operatives could conceivably secure passage on the train, with Huang left behind to steer the rover clear.

                        Each operative was equipped with a concealable rad pistol capable of projecting a continuous stream or a brilliant spray of radiation. Each operative was also equipped with a vibro-cutter and dartgun. The dartgun fired a projectile dart with subsonic velocity, meaning that it could be fired within the cramped confines of the magtrain without deafening all present. Each dart was laced both with conventional opiates to disable the central nervous system in a matter of seconds, as well as rudimentary nanites to denature the enzymes that facilitated chemical changes at the end of nerve cells.

                        Preliminary tests had proven these darts capable of inducing complete paralysis in animals of large human biomass, whilst not resulting in asphyxiation from paralyzed respiratory muscles. McClelland, though tall, was not stocky, and a single dart placed in the flesh mass of the buttock or thigh would be sufficient to immobilize him for the purposes of the attack. Agent Hu, being of lower than average stature by Western standards, would succumb quickly to a limb hit, and possibly asphyxiate entirely from a torso hit, owing to his lesser body mass and the extreme concentration of the poison.

                        The team, in no uncertain terms, had been instructed to go for Hu's and Jorenson's torsos if needed.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        "Roger that. I see him," whispered Sakrabloo. He replaced his welding mask, behind which the direction of his gaze was invisible, and shielded him from the Agent.

                        Hanging from his workman's harness from one of the support pillars, Sakrabloo considered the face of his quarry very carefully. It was definitely Hu, travelling on his own. The man was moving at a brisk pace through the station.

                        Sakrabloo set aside his plasma cutter with inobtrusive care, and switched on the small scope set into his mask. It was only meant to zoom for delicate welding operations, say for the installing of circuitry and electronics, but Sakrabloo had discovered that it served an equally good role as a sniper viewfinder. He picked up his blowtorch - modified so that it could fire rounds from the small magazine of three bullets - and began circling around the support pillar for a better view of the Agent.

                        A vibrating hum filled the air as the magnetic field began to power up. The gates began to shut, but Hu sprinted and vaulted over them with ease and ran for the nearest airlock on the magtrain side - even now being closed by a guard.

                        He slowed down to remonstrate with the guard, and came to a stop next to the uniformed man.

                        Sakrabloo stopped working on the pillar and appeared to be examining his equipment, the open end of the blowtorch swinging round and holding steady in the direction of Hu.

                        "Yes, I have a pass," murmured Hu impatiently. He bowed his head somewhat as he rooted around in his breast pocket for his civilian papers. "Hold this, would you?"

                        Hu passed the box of cigarettes to the attendant and found the papers.

                        High up on the support pillar, Sakrabloo gently checked his harness to make sure that he was secure, and then released his right hand from the broken railing that he was meant to be repairing. With this free hand, he reached across his blowtorch and appeared to be adjusting the nozzle. In reality, he was aligning the chamber, so that a quick, sharp flame would propel the bullet out of its casing and towards the Agent with sufficient velocity to kill.

                        The chamber fitted into place with a satisfying snick.

                        "Is there a problem?" asked the station manager, coming up behind Hu. The Agent waved him back impatiently and brought out his civilian pass.

                        "I'm sorry, sir, but the train is leaving..." began the manager, then noticed Hu's diplomat papers underneath. "Oh," he said.

                        "I'm meeting your representatives on board the train, but I've just come out of a previous meeting, so I'm late."

                        The manager took a step closer to Hu, regarding his diplomat papers with a confidential air. In doing so, his head came between Hu and the faraway support pillar.

                        "Very well, sir, I think we can let you on."

                        "Thank you," said Hu with a faint smile. He waved at somebody inside the train.

                        The door was duly opened, and Hu was escorted inside by the manager. Moments later, the manager returned outside. A few signals were exchanged along the line, and the magtube activated its powerful monopolar magnetic field. The train pulled out in near silence.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        Huang's headset beeped. He listened, head cocked for the transmission, and unconsciously nodded.

                        "All right, everybody," he broadcasted locally. "The magtrain has left the station. Agent Hu is alive, and on board."

                        There were a few crestfallen faces at this, visible even beneath the oxygen masks.

                        "Sakrabloo says he couldn't get a clear shot. Apparently, they stopped the train just so he could get on. Okay, how are you doing, Foster?"

                        "Mag readings up," came the transmitted voice, scratchy from the blocking hills. "The train'll be past me any minute now, and I'll get you a reading."

                        Huang started up the rover engine and the other four team members strapped themselves into the wire frame. The whole vehicle was aerodynamically designed, but in an effort to maximize speed, the armor plating had been removed and only a skeletal wind-blocking shell remained.

                        Very gently, the rover began to accelerate towards the rendezvous point with the bridge, at ten klicks' distance.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        Jorenson greeted Hu with a pat on the shoulder.

                        "You all right?" he asked. "You look somewhat... abstracted."

                        Hu followed him into the first class carriage and pulled his briefcase out of the storage compartment. "Jorenson, I want to get Mao and McClelland up to the second carriage. You'd better get there too and make sure that you secure the Data Case."

                        Jorenson watched as the Agent pulled a silksteel personal lifevest out of the briefcase and donned it quickly.

                        "Ah," he said simply. "Who's knocking?"

                        Having secured the silksteel vest around his body, Hu then took out his personal firearms and readied them. He had a short range laser cutter which could penetrate skin - this he slipped up his sleeve. Then he placed a vibroknife in his left hand, discreetly slid halfway up his cuff. Finally, he removed a remarkable weapon that resembled nothing so much as two short pipes attached to a substantially weighty handstock with a trigger.

                        "What?" said Hu, distracted. "Oh. I shook down a DataTech hacker not long ago. My men caught her hacking into the train timetables, in the diplomatic sections and thought she might know something."

                        Jorenson was halfway through his armored vest. "...and did she?"

                        Hu nodded, loading a small tube of red-and-gold ammunition into his weapon. "Oh, yes. It took me a while, and I was racing against time, but I managed to get her to talk about a planned abduction/assassination."

                        Jorenson was fully armored now and had his rad pistol ready in his holster.

                        "And they're after us?"

                        Hu shrugged, then hooked the sawn-off shotgun to his belt.

                        "I suspect they're after the technology, although they may be after some blood, too. They may well know I'm here, seeing as we hardly kept it a secret, and we all know how much they admire and respect me after what happened over the Great Northern Sea last week."

                        ", they're going to kill you? What about the Gaian?"

                        Again Hu shrugged.

                        "If they strike and kill me, then they'll have their revenge. However, if they kill you or the Gaian, they risk an international incident. If they're after the technology, then they have the handy excuse of 'free flow of information', just as the Good Commissioner proclaimed."

                        Jorenson wrinkled his nose and followed Hu into the next carriage. There they were challenged by a guard.

                        "Gentlemen, if you do not drop your weapons immediately I will notify security."

                        A generous application of Jorenson's official pass more than answered for this.

                        "It's all right," affirmed the diplomat. "He's with me, and I answer to the Provost. Pieterson, isn't it?"

                        The guard saluted smartly. "Yessir. Why the armaments?"

                        "Guard the doorways - we may be under attack soon," ordered Jorenson. "Detail two of your men to escort the Hiverian female and the Gaian male to the second carriage and seal yourselves in."

                        "Yessir," affirmed the guard.

                        "Do not fire unless fired upon, or until I give the command," said Jorenson. Then, a moment of thought, and he continued. "In the event of my death, you will be in charge, Pieterson. Those two and their luggage must make it to The Leader's Horde. Guard them at all costs."


                        Hu suddenly slapped his forehead, as though remembering something.

                        "Ah! Of course!"

                        "What is it?"

                        Hu turned to him. "The Gaian. I had a present for him. I wanted to give it to him with my own hands." Hu holstered his weapon and turned to leave. "I'd better give it to him now, while I still can."

                        Jorenson shrugged in bemusement and headed for the drivers' carriage. It was time to let them in on the likely plan of action.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        "Foster, reading you loud and clear."

                        Huang strained to catch the transmission above the roar of the motor.

                        "Okay... heading at 254 km/h, but that will pick up as it gets to the bridge. Yep. Where's the agent?"

                        The wind whipped the hair of those inside as the rover accelerated to meet the target velocity. Li Min kept an eye on the radar for the progress of the train behind them - they would need all the coordination they could get in order to hit the bridge at the same cruising speed as the train did.

                        "He's what?" demanded Huang.

                        A pause.

                        "In the second carriage?"


                        "Okay. He's in the second carriage."

                        Huang transmitted again to his masked comrades just for clarity's sake. "Target is said to be in second carriage, not last carriage as Sakrabloo observed. Second carriage. So when you guys make your drops and penetrate inside, head up front to reach the agent."

                        Li Min held up a finger, pointing around from horizontal towards the vertical. The train had already begun accelerating.

                        Huang floored the pedal and followed suit, the landscape rushing past.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        In the dead calm and quiet inside the train, Hu found McClelland, guarded by two University guards.

                        McClelland seemed, to Hu, to look worried, although - given the situation - Hu supposed that was fair enough. Hu sat down opposite him with his case on the table, and spoke in a soft and reassuring tone.

                        "Mister McClelland, I have a gift for you. This is not a token from the Chairman or the Hive, and I have no present intention of offering it to Lady Skye or the Gaian Sisterhood. This is a personal gift, from me to you. Not between two factions' representatives, but two human beings who have tasted life on this planet."

                        McClelland mulled this over, puzzled. "Oh yes? May I ask what it is, or is that an added surprise?"

                        Hu smiled and withdrew a large domed object, wrapped in silk cloth, and righted it on the table. He unwound the silk and drew it off carefully.

                        "This," said Hu with a reverential tone, "is a bansai tree. It grew in southern China and Japan. Some of them take centuries to grow even a few inches. The Chinese and Japanese held them to be signs of longevity and posterity."

                        McClelland considered the tiny plant in the magnetic case before him. There was a certain fascination in its miniature branches and trunk, each whorl and knot a tiny replication of something familiar on larger trees. Much as each finger on a newborn infant is the exquisite replication of an adult digit, as though carved in precise marble to a tiny scale.

                        "This tree," said Hu, "was a gift from my father's father to his wife-to-be. It remained in my family for three generations, passed down to the first child of the first child. When I was selected by the UN Committee for inclusion on the Unity project, my elder sister travelled all the way to America to meet with me. She gave me this bansai tree, so that it might travel to the stars through me, just as our family's deeds live on Planet in my life. And now I give it to you, to pass on for your descendants to hold."

                        "Why me?" asked McClelland, touched by this unexpected gift. "I have no children."

                        Hu nodded. "You will, for certain. Very soon, in fact. And when you become a father, remember me and this gift of mine, and then my family might be continued in your works."

                        McClelland chose not to debate this point. However, he was still hesitant to take the casement. "Mister Hu, how can I accept this gift? How can I deprive your children of their birthright?"

                        Hu was silent briefly, and then cast his eyes upwards, with something of a grimace on his face. The red silk fluttered to the table from his hand.

                        "In the Hive, there are no families. There are children and adults to be sure, but we Hiverians do not know the relations of spouses, parents, offsprings, or siblings." He looked back at the Gaian and something like the ghost of a smile passed across his face. When he spoke, it was almost in a whisper.

                        "...and we have not known them for over a century, Mister McClelland. Indeed, some of us have never known them at all, and..." Hu paused again, striving to master himself. "And it is all the more... painful," he continued, "for those of us who have them still."

                        There was a long moment, and then it passed. Prentice drew the silk over the small encasement once more, and then placed his hand on top of the bundle as a sign of acceptance. He nodded, eyes downcast and his lips pursed, but he did not know what words to say.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        "Here she comes!"

                        Huang nudged the accelerator one shade more, and then the humming of the magtube under the rover's wheels suddenly gave way to a staccato tapping as the rover encountered the gridwork lattice.

                        Their carefully-calculated acceleration had been perfect. Directly beneath them, separated from them by the thickness of the tube shell only, was the grey curved mass of the train, relatively stone-still, due to their own high speed.

                        The landscape thrashed past in a green and blue blur.

                        "Lasers ignited and cutting - ready on my mark," affirmed Huang.

                        Looking back, the air suddenly became full of sparks and the smell of scorched metal. Segments of grid, looking for all the world like spent ammunition cases, flew off to either side of the rover's underbelly and disappeared almost instantly into the thundering background.

                        "Okay! We're slicing - time to go!"

                        Li Min and Jordanax harpooned the trainside and leapt, one somewhat further ahead than the other, keeping their ropes taut to brace against the backlash of 300 km/h's worth of wind hitting them in the face. They both landed flat, spreadeagled against the train roof, with the air knocked out of their lungs as they bounced slightly from the repercussions. The wind was heavy and tore at their clothes and faces, but their moorings held fast, and they were safe for the moment.

                        Forge and Cockerico were next, but Huang wanted to slow the rover somewhat so they could land further back without endangering the two already on the train.

                        "Beta Drop: wait, until I give the signal."

                        The rover slowed and fell back and the train inched forwards a few meters.

                        For a fraction of a second, Huang surveyed the rapidly diminishing stretch of gridwork before them. The train was rushing back into enclosed tubing, so close it was already visible.

                        "Hold it - it's too late," he ordered, raising his hand, and he was unintentionally right.

                        Cockerico and Forge had already leapt with the first motion of his hand.

                        Cockerico got the better deal of it. He slid down the harpoon line and landed awkwardly, twisting his wrist as he landed. His shouts rang deafening through the commlink while his compatriots all struggled to block him from their airwaves, but his oscillation was diminished. He clung on for dear life with his nondominant hand, the knuckles whitening as the fingers clenched the secure rope.

                        Forge, a second too late, landed well upon the train, and then bounced upwards just as the solid tubing roared towards her. She may have screamed, but the impact of the tube wall was such that her entire frame literally shattered. Bone fragments littered Cockerico's hair and face as he collapsed into his own world of pain, clutching his leg. There was static in the airwaves where her voice had been.

                        "Ma..." cursed Huang, and then the tube was beneath his rover once more, and the engine was slowing, and the train was far ahead of him, carrying his compatriots with it to a faraway fate.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        Cockerico, unfortunately, had been the one carrying one of the two sonic disruptors. Forge, even more unfortunately, had been the one carrying the other. Even so, the metal and superplastic comprising the train would not withstand the vibrations caused by the device. Jordanax attached the device over a jointure in the train, as far back as the towgun would allow, and then braced himself for the detonation, signalling for Li and Cockerico to do likewise.

                        The blast effect on them was greatly lessened by the fact that the wind was rushing away from them. Against the hull of the train, however, it was devastating, sawing out a circular patch of the metal that began to coalesce and shiver like a body of water.

                        They shielded their eyes as it shone brightly, then splinters of molten metal flew off into the darkness of the tube behind them. Li Min dropped a flashbomb in through the aperture and descended, drawing his firearm as he did so to shoot both stunned and choking guards. Jordanax squirmed over to Cockerico, flapping in the terrific wind, and tried to draw him further down.

                        "Leave it! Leave it!" shouted Cockerico, his voice strained over the commlink. "I'll fix myself up here! You two go on ahead!"

                        Jordanax chose not to argue - every second was precious. He followed Li Min into the carriage below and detached himself from the harpoon cable.

                        "That was surprisingly easy," said Li Min. "They're nonmilitary."

                        Jordanax acknowledged this with a curt nod of the head. He quickly checked his armor and his weapon, then took stock of the two felled enemies.

                        "They're not even armored," noted Jordanax.

                        With their optrimetrical scans they were able to predict the positions of guards in the next carriage along. They quickly sprang the door and surprised their opposition, storming through with weapons blazing, cutting down the unarmored University train guards before they could even react.

                        Civilian interference was minimal as the pair of probers cautiously made their way to the doorways leading onwards, then stopped at the junction to the next carriage.

                        Li Min engaged the optrimeter and frowned. "Careful," he said. "There's several of them here."

                        Jordanax took a look at the scan and then looked ahead once more, mentally positioning the forces beyond the door so that he could eliminate them quickly with a few short bursts. Then, he sprang the door and fired off in a broad arc at the four gathered opponents.

                        Three fell with simple shots to the chest, clutching themselves, but the fourth swung his weapon around and sighted down at Jordanax, the mark from the rad bolt still smouldering in his chest. Jordanax, realizing his oversight, attempted to swing his pistol back towards the standing foe, when the train was suddenly filled with a sudden echoing thunder, and the world tipped over for him as something struck him hard in the back.

                        Li Min, watching from the safety of the doorway, heard the deafening multiple reports of an automatic shotgun and saw Jordanax thrown bodily back against the wall, his armor useless against the deadly impact of the shot. He gripped his rad pistol with both hands and began breathing again as he heard the click-click of a reload.

                        Now or never.

                        Li Min whirled around the door jamb and fired at the figure standing at the other end of the cabin, striking him twice in the chest. After that, he dove for cover behind the nearest seats to fish out his tranquilizer darts.

                        That done, he spun out from behind the seats and fired twice, before realizing that Agent Hu was no longer there.

                        Confused, Li activated his optrimeter and scanned the room briefly, first at short range, then at medium. Nothing.

                        Must have retreated. To be with his friends. Have to flush him out.

                        Li skidded back to Jordanax's slumped form against the wall. A single look was enough to tell that his friend was beyond aid - already, the eyes were closing as the crushed lungs struggled vainly for breath. Although Jordanax's body armor was still integrally sound, his viscera beneath it had been instantly pulped from the terrific impact. Li Min reached into his holster and drew out his dartgun, then closed his friend's eyes for the last time.

                        There was no time to be lost.

                        "Cockerico," he said into his commlink. "You still there?"
                        "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                        • #13
                          Part Eight concluded - Judgment Falls

                          "There's two of them, maybe more," said Hu, breathing heavily as he slid another clip into his shotgun. "Fan out and take up distinct positions apart from each other, if you can. From the way they're shooting, they've got something that detects our positions through doors. Don't make it easy for them."

                          Then the rest was silence as Hu put on his gas mask and knelt down behind the upended table. In this carriage, there were no civilians - he and Jorenson were diplomats licensed to kill in the line of duty, and the guards were armed.

                          Nobody in this carriage could expect any special consideration from the coming terrorists - neither in battle, nor in surrender.

                          Suddenly, there began an ominous scraping noise, as of ponderous vehicles rubbing up against each other in water. Jorenson peered around from behind his covering seatback, trying to place its origin. Hu also perked up, gazing with narrowed eyes at the two doors leading through to the previous carriage.

                          He wondered whether the enemy would be so foolhardy as to attempt a head-on assault. As if sensing the possibility of such a foolish plan, Hu shouldered his short-barrel shotgun and aimed carefully.

                          The metallic groaning grew louder, and suddenly, the left hand door burst open.

                          Jorenson, being the closer of the two to the door, was firing already, and the guards let off a round or two, before they realized what it was. The doorway was empty, but something came hurtling through and landed on the carpeted floor equidistant between Jorenson and the head guard.

                          Somebody shouted "grenade!" and they all crouched involuntarily, despite the assured lethality of an explosive in such a confined area. Then, in a double reflex, Hu straightened again and regarded it closely. It had been a false alarm - the metallic groaning sound was still building in volume.

                          "Smoke grenade," he murmured, as the groaning continued. "They're coming in another way."

                          Jorenson looked up as the metallic twisting and shuddering reached a climax, just in time to see the ceiling glowed from grey to white-hot. An incoherent shout of alarm was all he managed before he was kicking away towards the engine carriage doorway, rolling when he hit floor to get out from underneath it.

                          Hu leapt sideways and rolled beneath an upright table, but the guards were not so lucky. With a screech of collapsing metalwork, the roof splintered under the sonic disruptor's work, and lethal shards rained down on the men below. One guard, looking up in amazement, was skewered through from forehead to ankle by a shard no larger than a paint fleck. Another was caught extensively by shrapnel through his side and collapsed onto the misty floor, holding his innards inside him with his hands.

                          Then there was firing and shouts and screams, of rage, and of terror.

                          Hu kicked the table over and rolled into a kneel, sighting through the increasing smoke at where he thought the doors to be. He let off a whole barrel's worth of cartridges on automatic, bracing himself against the formidable kickback with both arms and a fully tensed shoulder, then aimed in the hazy vagueness towards the other door.

                          He was firing blindly, hoping to catch the final intruder in the rain of buckshot, when Jorenson's vision cleared enough for him to see Cockerico fall through the hole in the ceiling to descend upon Hu like an avenging Angel.

                          Hu took the force of the descent across the back of his neck, as Cockerico brought his entire body weight behind his boot. The Hiverian gave a grunt of pain and toppled forwards, as the DataTech landed awkwardly, bracing himself with his right hand and then howling in pain as he clasped his injured wrist.

                          Jorenson held up an empty hand, the pistol mysteriously lost from it during the explosion, then ducked behind a seat as he scrabbled for another armament. He had a knife.

                          As Hu got up, three things happened at once. Cockerico kicked him in the small of the back and snarled as he drew a tranquilizer pistol. Li Min kicked open the second door and fired twice, each shot deflecting off Hu's armor, then threw down the gun. And Jorenson deftly pierced Cockerico through the neck and throat with a sharp throw of his knife.

                          Cockerico fell forwards upon Hu, his hands fumbling for the blockage in his throat, just as Li Min stepped forwards with a gauze-like bag. Hu was just kicking his vicious way out from underneath Cockerico's gasping dead weight, and drawing his own knife, when Li Min thrust the bag over Hu's head and pulled the cord tight.

                          With a sizzling, scorching sound, and a suddenly pungent smell of burnt meat, Agent Hu's head fell off into the bag, face still contorted from his struggles.

                          Jorenson watched, aghast, as the Hiverian's decapitated body fell heavily to the floor, the knife clattering from its dead fingers. Then, as he saw Li Min's hand go for his second dart gun, Jorenson acted without thinking: his hand found the door panel behind him, and within a split second he had collapsed backwards into the engine room through the open doorway.

                          Li Min fired twice, but it was too late - and the optrimeter indicated another five people behind this door, in the driver's room. He thought briefly, cocking his head to a side in the middle of the smoke, and then decided to abort.

                          Although he could not bring the new technology or the Gaian, he had succeeded in taking the Viper's Head. The Agent had used up his third and last life - the indignity of the successful capture/retrieval at Governer's Halls, the deception employed to win his safe passage at the HCV Jian Guo Men, and now finally his fate at the hands of killers sent in precisely to accomplish this result. Interior would be greatly pleased with this catch...

                          He checked his coordinates, and radioed Huang with the rendezvous details. Then he set four mines in the room and made quick time getting back to the end carriage, acting quickly before Jorenson had time to regroup another squad to clear him out.

                          On the way to the end cabin, a few timid civilians would turn to ask him a question, or to beg for an explanation, but the request died on their lips when they saw his gun and his grisly trophy. At the end carriage, he passed beneath the jagged hole of their ceiling entry, and then entered the cramped and claustrophobic toilet facility. With Hu's head in the cryofreeze containment bag, and the bag safely clutched against his stomach between his hands, he braced himself in the toilet cubicle. Trying to suppress the trembling sense of victory in his legs and heart, he reached for his radio controls and signalled for the mines to detonate.

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          Huang drove on for another kilometer or two, until he reached an embankment shallow enough for the rover to handle. He made good progress to a waypoint, then jettisoned the small repulsor and one of the two lasers, as they were too much extra weight.

                          Receiving Li Min's message, he checked his coordinates and advanced to the point specified. Li Min had done a good job of estimating the distance - after detonating the mines in the second cabin, the rear section of the train had practically detached from the forward repulsor-drive carriage - rather like the tail of a sperm cell, no longer needed. With no repulsors for the magnetic tube to act upon, this cumbersome fuselage came to a halt over the course of ten minutes' deceleration - with Li safe in the rearmost toilets, braced with each limb available. Li Min's coordinates also placed him at a convenient over-ground stretch of the tube.

                          It took Huang twenty minutes to laser him free of the tube. Underground, it would have taken him hours. The two checked coordinates one last time, and then headed back towards University territory, already deciding their subsequent separate movements, back home to the Data Angels.

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          McClelland sat, frozen with fear and uncertainty, in the aftermath of the attack.

                          The final quadruple-explosion of the mines had shaken the train, but the door leading to the drivers' cabin was especially strong and withstood this. Indeed, a sudden burst in speed indicated that the blast had literally torn off the rest of the train, leaving the bulletlike driver's cabin to speed towards the Leader's Horde on its own. Within it, it contained the precious cargo of McClelland, the Gaian diplomat, Mao, the compatriot of Hu, and the fusion power knowledge that McClelland was to present to his superiors.

                          Jorenson had been bleeding heavily from a shrapnel injury in his temple, but he had not noticed this until he fainted and Mao bound it for him properly. Jorenson came to just long enough for him to grip Mao's hand tightly, and endeavor to say something to her before he passed out again. Either his voice had been damaged too, or he had been blankly unable to find the words.

                          McClelland watched this all from afar, sitting in the suit of silksteel armor provided for him, and clutching the magnetic casement that contained the family gift from Hu. It was cool and strangely comforting, as he held it to his stomach between shaking hands, and trembled like a frightened child.
                          [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited December 22, 2000).]
                          "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                          • #14
                            Part 9 - Mechanics of Deliberation

                            JoJo: 40 130y0.

                            Dritnam: #erinya.

                            JoJo: /$pik3d my n0d3!

                            JoJo has logged out

                            Dritnam has logged out

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            Joe pulled the M/MI set off his head momentarily - it was a dangerous practice, but much faster than allowing a normal shutdown procedure. Plus, it had the added benefit of bypassing the data relay on his logouts. Nobody would be able to trace him from his nodes, on the remote chance that somebody somewhere was actually bothering to take an interest.

                            Of course, there was a price to pay.

                            Joe squinted and gritted his teeth as his stomach leapt up to his throat and his temples met in the center of his skull. Then, the convulsed knot in his head and viscera slowly slackened, and returned slowly to normal. The pain ebbed away, with small spikes of repercussion as his pulse slowed.

                            No feeling quite like it, thought Joe gloomily between the pangs. You could probably market the practice, as a matter of fact - life seemed so much kinder after you did it. The sensation was one deep in your spinal column, in the base of your skull, in your gullet-brain - the sensation of being pulled bodily out of one sensory universe, and deposited back in other. The feeling that the premature baby feels when torn from its mothers' womb in a Caesarian operation - the transfer from one set of laws to another.

                            He drew a deep breath and looked around the cafe. A few people were eating and drinking; they were the fortunate ones. Most people who sacked down here were riding on the razor's edge of poverty, able to pay for the space they lay down on, but little else. Ever since the attack on the Alpha-One grid buildings the DataTech currency had fallen further, whilst the Morganites far away grew rich on the economic coup.

                            Joe wiped the sweat from his head and rubbed his stomach, much as one who has just evaded a bout of vomiting and is quieting the fretful belly inside. He was thinking, not of the pain, but of his unease online.

                            Why had he panicked in the conversation? Had there really been somebody spiking his node? The best way to find out would be to dive online again, and watch for the same sensation - feel for the same intrusive other-presence.

                            Taking a deep breath, Joe donned the facemask and clipped the straps to the back of his head. The aural ports clicked, and he was online again.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            Dritnam: £ee1in b3/tter?

                            JoJo: +ry m3.

                            Dritnam: n063l1nk /34992.

                            JoJo: 0k4y. 6imm3 @ $£c.

                            JoJo: Y£@#, +ry +#@+ /34992.

                            JoJo has logged out

                            Dritnam has logged out


                            At a separate node not long thereafter, two people - a certain Joe and one other Dritnam - joined a public conference online. They spoke little to the other divers present, but only to each other, and in cryptically vapid terms. The jist of the conversation was lengthy but empty - Joe bemoaned the loss of his headset to a thief, and that the thief was partially known to him. He stressed that he did not consider it at all amusing a prank, and also that he would locate the thief and visit physical retribution of an undoubtedly crippling kind upon him, in addition to retrieving his headset intact.

                            The other conversant dissuaded his friend from this action, claiming that it would be unnecessary and that a series of mere blows to the groin would be sufficient to persuade the thief to return the headset. Not only that, but the thief would be suspecting an approach from Joe. Thus, it would be more covert and more effective for Dritnam to make the visit. The dull but fruitful conversation drew to a close with Joe hesitantly agreeing to the suggestion, and providing a few meaningless obscene intensifier adjectives.

                            The two chatters used copious amounts of superfluous numerals in addition to the alphabets in their poorly-spelled words. If nothing else, this maintained the erroneous, but very important, facade - that their conversation was worthless, and inconsequential.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            There was somebody coming. Her eyes were open and she was alert, hand already reaching for the alarm handset to grip it poised. There were voices in the corridor, and those of her own guards speaking in urgent responses.

                            She relaxed slightly, her thumb passing over the alarm button and hugging the handset's side. No immediate trouble, then. What was the matter?

                            "Milady?" spoke an anxious voice over the intercom.

                            She held the handset to her lips and responded. "Kumar. What has happened?"

                            "Priority transmission for you. We have it patched through to the ARBANT receiver. The sender refuses to speak to anybody else."

                            She pondered this. The last time when the ARBANT had been used by an outsider was a long time ago, back in the days when the Aquascant Factions would broadcast along it with impunity regardless of her requests. But that had stopped about thirty years ago, after she had flatly blocked any and all transmissions to that center. Since then, the ARBANT was used primarily for the relaying of direct airwave transmissions for domestic ground comms, with a secondary classified purpose for the Mindworm keepers and their bizarre training. Although there had been a third, and even less fruitful, classified application, unique to herself.

                            Either it had to be another disrespectful transmission from the Aquascante, suddenly revived after thirty years' politeness, or it was somebody - or something - from outside. Even as she thought this, her pulse quickened at the possibility. Could it be?

                            Skye placed her face against the lock and the door retracted. Once outside, she met the slight bows of her guards with a dismissive salute of her hand, and accepted the silk gown proferred by Kumar. She would go by skyrail, and the solar-heated carriages did not require much bodily protection to travel. The glowlamps were still muted and the lights were easy on the eye.

                            Kumar dispersed the two messengers and left his post to accompany Skye, his armored feet trudging more heavily upon the fungal carpet than the bare soles of his leader. The funghi were selected for their chemosynthetical properties - they could create a decent amount of oxygen and water vapor from the copious nitrogen compounds in the air. Normally they only survived in especially moist caves and valleys, but the climate controlled interior of Gaia's Landing provided enough dampness for abundant growth of all plant species. The lamps themselves were comprised of glass globes containing mini-ecotropes; in these were anaerobic species of fern to feed the tiny insects which provided abdominal light. It had taken the Gaians several years of research to perfect this balance (during which time many had grumbled and drawn comparisons with Thomas Edison attempting to sell defective lamps to the public) but once set, the globes could give off gentle light for up to ten months. Additional heat caused a rapid increase in the light brightness, but decreased the longevity of the system. If nothing else, they lasted, and they were clean to the surroundings. Morgan had avidly requested a shipment to analyze, and then returned the whole shipment with a smug memorandum attached - comparing the performance of the globes to a normal light and declaring the former to be of reliquary status only.

                            Kumar Chakrabharti, descendant of an old-world Indian ecologist and green activist, had carried on the good work of his forebears in his contributions to the design of the glowlamp. He had seen enough memorabilia of his parents' late world to know that the path to industry was a steep and seductive one, and not one that was easy to break from. One look at the ecological status of his erstwhile homeland was proof enough of that. His forbear had devised a bacterium that could digest raw oil and break it down into gaseous organic compounds, and the governments of several countries had shown great support during a time when marine oil spillages were causing increasing damage to the beleaguered terran ecosystem. Kumar's place and immediate choice had been with the Gaians, and his first allegiance to his leader, Deirdre.

                            Skye's thoughts were somewhat further away, however. The specific nature of these thoughts is such that it is perhaps reasonable to presume to share them ourselves.

                            ARBANT was the technological/organic wonder that occupied prime space in the center of the Gaians' capital city, Gaia's Landing. It had begun its life merely as a tall and particularly beautiful stand of white pine, primarily for the symbolism of the faction's promise never to repeat the tragedies of Earth. However, in the many decades that had followed, it had grown unbridled in the nitrogen rich atmosphere, and supplied more than enough oxygen for comfortable naked breathing of the air near it. However, its uses had not terminated there.

                            A hydro-electrical engineer named Alex Lindley had discovered, in the second decade, that the tree itself conducted electricity to a limited degree without any ill effect. When teamed with the nanobiologists and psychic talents of the city, the tree had been altered and enhanced to fulfil a previously undocumented purpose throughout history - it transmitted and received along a very broad spectrum of frequencies, and also as a psychic "beacon" for the talents to communicate by.

                            Deirdre had been pleased enough by this alone, but one such development had decided to reveal itself to her, and her alone. The choice of words is no accident - Deirdre had, for three consecutive brief evenings, made contact with a foreign sentience. The sentience had been brooding and reticent, and had made itself aware to her only through half-thoughts and vague emotions, but she had felt it all the same. Not only that, but from the empathic link she had briefly established, she quickly realized that the capacity of the sentience must be truly immense - sensations flitted into its awareness and then left again, but from much, much further afar than any human body would experience. Breezes upon vast shoulders hugging the skies, untold distances away from the same sentience which felt the engulfing tangy taste of sea.

                            She had wondered what sort of biding behemoth the possessor of that vast mind must be. But, after only twelve catalogued hours of observation and experience spread over three deliciously warm summer nights, Skye had inexplicably and irretrievably lost the sensation. Try as she might, the psychic beacon of the Arborial Antenna never again yielded the same hypnotic, all-encompassing consciousness that so suddenly touched upon her life.

                            For the past five years since that unique and maddeningly unprovable contact, Skye had continued in her duties as faction leader, overseeing the initiatives of the Gaians and their care for the environment. But somewhere deep inside herself, in a corner of her being that sometimes blossomed unexpectedly in her sleep, Lady Deirdre Skye felt as though she had conceived a child with a herculean future ahead of it - only to have it stop kicking in her womb, to grow silent and still.

                            The darkness was warm and comforting, as Skye's own thoughts leapt and subsided within her like a fledgling bird.

                            The skyrail was a gravity-dependent mode of travel, which derived enough power from the solar panels during the day to power their smooth operation during the night. They linked the tallest tree-dwellings in descending order of altitude, and relied on the force of gravity to move them to the waypoints at each separate tree. Sometimes they would actually gain a small measure of height with the momentum accumulated from the descent, and their buoyancy in air was aided by various organic noble gases evolved from the cultures on the underside.

                            It seemed you could make funghi do almost anything for you, if only you tried hard enough. In truth, the industrial applications of this were the fruits of many long years of academic research, ecological observation, and sometimes blind luck and chance. And, just like the great, monolithic sentience that Skye had briefly tapped, not all of it was destined for completion - some remained stillborn projects, left to the museums and labs for future generations to ponder.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            "She's through here, milady," directed Kumar as they disembarked at the heart of the ARBANT. Here, biological access, even for the researchers, was restricted. The only sect permitted this far into the tree's split bole was the psychics, and they performed on frequencies far removed from the norm.

                            The Sender sat in the small seat, his brow furrowed with the effort and sweat giving his face a slick pallor.

                            An attendant was on hand, mopping his brow and rubbing his temples. At the intrusion of the Lady, he bowed slightly and explained.

                            "This transmission is along a defunct frequency - one which has not been used by outsiders. The senders have made it clear that they will converse with nobody else but Lady Skye. There appears to be a visual element to the message."

                            Skye nodded, but the attendant was not finished yet.

                            "We must move the transmission off of this frequency and back onto a normal. It is endangering the Sender's sanity."

                            One look at the Sender's face was enough to confirm this - his eyes, when not squeezed shut in agony, rolled wildly in their sockets. Brief low moans escaped the Sender's lips and his saliva gathered on his chin.

                            "All right. Ask him to send back the following frequency and request the UNITY confirm seven-oh-tee-fifty."

                            The attendant bowed his head briefly, and the Sender closed his eyes once more. Then, with a suddenness that was frightening, all the tension left his body and he sank down, slack on his mat. Kumar's palmtop beeped, and they focussed on the incoming message.

                            Snow and static, to begin with, then a voice through the chaos.

                            "...copy? Over. Hailing Lady Skye on Bravo Romeo 67 - do you copy? Over."

                            Skye connected the mouthpiece and responded, trying to suppress her disappointment. It was to be human, after all.

                            "This is Lady Deirdre Skye, respond Delta Osprey 02. Over."

                            There was no response. The snow stopped abruptly, replaced by a blank blue screen. All sound ceased.

                            Skye looked at Kumar, whose own palmtop had also fallen quiet. The silence was sudden and intrusive - Skye's disappointed bewilderment, Kumar's careful suspicion, the Sender's psychic catalepsy. The night around them thickened and the velvety air felt oppressive.

                            Then, a series of text scrolled across the screen - the visual decryption - and cleared, resolving itself into the face of an old man. His features were harsh, but not cruel, his hair was white and close-cropped. His eyes, however, were the identifying feature - apart from the epicanthus, there were few such eyes; at once dispassionate and aloof, yet bold and penetrating. Behind them lurked an intellect and cohesion that seemed effortless and inhuman at once.

                            "My greetings to you," spoke the apparition, in even tones with a floating accent. "Lady Deirdre Skye."

                            Skye strove to keep the surprise from her face and her voice as she tilted her head and responded in a whisper.

                            "Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang."

                            The aged apparition nodded, eyes not leaving hers. "Forgive the intrusion," he said. "A matter has arisen of utmost urgency, concerning your envoy: mister Prentice McClelland."

                            Skye shuddered, but controlled herself. "Is he all right?"

                            The Chairman nodded. "Mister McClelland is merely in a state of shock. However, the University diplomat Bent Jorenson has been removed to a hospital for his wounds, and the Hiverian agent Hu is dead."

                            "What? How?" asked Skye.

                            "The evidence given by both survivors indicate that terrorists attacked the transport near the border. They were armed with lethal force, and may have intended to kill every person on the train. Jorenson's and McClelland's testimonies will be made available soon. Furthermore," continued the Chairman, "we are taking every measure to ensure the safety of your representative. In order to safeguard his being, we ask you to contain this intelligence until further notice."

                            Skye considered this. This was the first time she had seen the Chairman's face in a long while, and it had not grown any easier to read in the interim. The nature of the missive was already oblique enough in its meaning.

                            "Certainly," she said. "But who would have committed this act? What would they have to gain?"

                            The Chairman shook his head slowly. "We cannot discuss this matter over this frequency. I sincerely hope that the matter will be contained, and peacefully. I expect that you will soon receive diverse reports from various sources for yourself. I can only hope that you will remember my words, and wait for those of McClelland."

                            Deirdre quickly interposed. "Wait, Chairman. Am I to understand that this is not merely an unofficial border skirmish? That more factions will be involved?"

                            The Chairman made a noncommittal gesture and exhaled. "I believe that there will be very strong repercussions either way. That is inevitable. I do however hope that these will be calmed, or at least contained, before they reach your shores. McClelland will have more to say on this matter."

                            Skye nodded, unsure, but less alarmed. "I await his report."

                            The Chairman nodded. "These are trying times, Lady. I am sure we will weather them, but all the same it is better that we had avoided them altogether. Look to your own defences and proof yourselves against probes. And may we speak again under happier times." The Chairman angled his head slightly in a bow. "Chairman out."

                            The Chairman's face disappeared from the transmission as suddenly as it had emerged.

                            Skye and Kumar exchanged glances, but the Chairman's meaning had been clear. 'Proof yourselves against probes.' Whatever this new quarrel was, it was between the Hive and the Data Angels.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            There was silence in the chamber after the Chairman finished his brief conversation and then signed out. Behind him, the assembled leaders attended, some in person, others across the bandwidth that linked them to their leader's words.

                            Chairman Sheng seemed deep in thought. After a pause that seemed uncomfortably long everybody save himself, he turned and faced them.

                            "The time is difficult," he said, his Mandarin syllables clipped but clear, "I seek your opinion for the best decision. I believe the classified information must at all costs be contained. If the DataTech pressure Hu Agent, eventually and inevitably they will learn much internal information. This cannot be allowed to happen."

                            There were nods all round. Berzhinev, representing the Civil Intelligence bureau, seemed to harbor thoughts especially parallel to the Chairman's own.

                            "However," said the Chairman, "we do not have his testimony - we can thus prove nothing. The DataTech will have gained from his death, even if we prevent them from learning. This is an unsatisfactory result - our moves will merely be a reaction to theirs."

                            Berzhinev signalled and spoke. "But, esteemed master, we can grow him again and teach him most of what he knew. The Angels will not have stripped us of anything we cannot replace."

                            Lt. Col. Sun (standard name: "Carson"), advisor to the Admiral of the Fleet, snorted derisively. "Comrade Berzhinev fails to see the importance of retaining the initiative. We retrieved the Agent from the DataTechs' wrath, twice. They struck back in University borders and neatly undid all our work. Even if they gain nothing from it, we lose much in the way of face."

                            "I agree," said the Chairman quietly. "The Provost Zakharov contacted me twenty minutes ago to enquire after the health of his aide, Bent Jorenson. He also told me that Hu was well known to him, and would be missed. He hoped he would not have another such friend lost in this way."

                            Every man fell silent as they considered the enormous import of these words.

                            "Jorenson will recover completely," continued the Chairman, "in our hospital, under our guard. But it is not enough. The attack technically occurred on University territority, but we were sworn to guard the University as we would our own bases. The Provost is still our ally, but he can no longer trust us to be infallible. How much longer will his sympathies lie with us entirely?"

                            Dr. Naoyuki Shimoda of the Capitol University was quick to comment. "We must not risk the friendship of the University. Our research would be greatly hampered without their cooperation and goodwill."

                            "Agreed," said the Chairman. There was obvious reluctance of the other representatives to admit this need. "I believe that the time has come for us to provide a demonstration of our force and retaliatory capabilities. The tiger must strike each time he roars, or the macacques learn not to fear him."

                            Zhu, the Second, brightened visibly at the thought. Could it be that the Agent would be saved from the HK transmission?

                            The Chairman Sheng brought up a display on a 2D holovid. It formed itself into a map, depicting the northeast borders of the Hiverian continent, the southern border of the DataTech territories, and the eastern shore of the Progenitor Caretakers.

                            "My first move," mused the Chairman, "depends upon the situation on Harmonia. General Ijoi, what military capabilities do the Caretakers possess?"

                            Ijoi quickly cross referenced, and was back with an answer. "Minimal mobile ground, no psychic, no aerial offensive. Defensive ground extensive..."

                            "-In conclusion," interrupted the Chairman, "how susceptible are we to a concerted counter offensive?"

                            Ijoi looked up and put away his datapad. He almost smiled at the question. "They have no air force to speak of that can reach our shore bases, and their ground troops would be quickly suppressed."

                            "So: I propose we reallocate our ground troops to the sea bases closest to the DataTech's shores. The extermination program continues as before, only with no ground support. This is not a major hindrance, since we have no intention of occupying Caretaker bases, merely levelling them - a task to which the air force are equal on their own. We prepare flight squadrons sufficient to inflict conventional air strikes against DataTech territory, and prepare a ground landing sufficient to occupy their southernmost coastal bases."

                            Ijoi, Carson, and Ma were already crosslinking the information to their superiors as the Chairman spoke.

                            "No feathers and bows - we are preparing for the possibility of war, not a parade. However, this is the display. Carson? Ma?" The Chairman looked at the screens in question.

                            "Yes, master," affirmed Wing Commander Ma.

                            Carson completed his transmission and looked up. "Master?"

                            "I want a marine detachment of coastal patrol to collaborate with the air force. Send out survey flybys to scour the Great Northern Sea. Any unidentified seacraft must be immediately tracked and impounded. If they won't cooperate, board and seize them. Take them to our naval bases and hold their crews. If they are military craft, send out a blanket squadron of bombers to escort them back to base. Block anything: trade, diplomatic, military. Let nothing get through."



                            The Chairman nodded. "In a very short time I will contact CEO Morgan. Between us, we will discuss the future of the DataTech faction. I believe that we already have one unspoken ally in this conflict. You have your orders, perform them and report back to my Second."

                            The military reps all signed out with a sense of purpose and activity. Left behind them were the domestic reps, all somewhat less exhilarated.

                            The Chairman looked at them, kindly. These had been his old friends back on Earthside, and they had fulfilled their quiet posts in the Hive's internal affairs so efficiently that he had never needed to replace them. There was Jiang Erlai, the erstwhile mayor of China's greatest trade city and present Hiverian economic administrator and project planner. Beside him, face deeply lined, yet with merry youthfulness in the eyes, was Dr Shimoda, perpetually active in thought and hinting at intellectual mischief.

                            "Friends," he said softly. "If you can spare the time, I would like your advice before I make the next contact on our behalf."
                            [This message has been edited by Alinestra Covelia (edited May 19, 2001).]
                            "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                            • #15
                              Part 10 cont. - Mechanics of Deliberation

                              Li Min caressed his eyes through their lids with the heels of his hands, bearing a brief but unknown resemblance to a penitent statue of a bygone faith. He had not slept since the successful strike. Huang, on the other hand, was decidedly talkative.

                              "It took me a heck of a redirect enema, but I got through to Internal. Sorry about the wait, but we had to cut off and reroute three times during the transmission."

                              "And?" asked Li Min.

                              "We don't have any record of Ambassador Hu prior to the Algorithm. No genetic information, no personal history, no nothing. He must have been grown in a vat or something. Even the retina scans we performed for his routine visit were untraceable. Too many factors could be manipulated."

                              Li Min stopped rubbing and looked at Huang with angry turtle eyes. "Manipulated? How exactly does a man go about 'manipulating' his retinae?"

                              Huang shrugged. "They didn't elaborate. My guess is that Hu was wearing false lenses during his stay in the Mainland. These lenses were registered with Interior, and they bought it. Now they're too tough to admit that Hu might have thrown them a curveball, so we have to read between their lines."

                              Li lay back and exhaled, his eyes shut again, and moving quickly behind the lids. "So. What do they want?"

                              "They want to be sure it's Hu before they send somebody to pick up the head. They can't afford to risk anything unnecessary. Looks like they're afraid of losing their Golden Subsidy from the Commissioner if the Hive catch us at it."

                              Li's eyes flicked open.

                              "Okay. Let's sort out a plan - before we can ship the specimen back we need to know for sure it's Hu. What we know from Hu is only gleaned during his residence on DataTech Mainland; namely, Data DeCentral. What did Hu's schedule in the Mainland involve? Where might his identity weaknesses be?"

                              Huang brought the details up on the screen.

                              "Arrival on the 34th. Day 1 - inspection of the Recreation Commons and Aleph Null Node centers. Latter postponed to Day 5, later altogether. Not much there, is there?"

                              Li chewed a lip. "Maybe not. Did he engage in M/MI or keyboard?"

                              "Neither. Far as we know, he didn't even touch the stuff. Just stood at ease while our expert showed him the latest Viewbay operating system upgrade coping with security interlocks. Probably endeavoring to look interested - we still don't know what the Hiverian security tech level is."

                              There was silence. Then Li abruptly waved a hand.

                              "Okay - let that pass. Day two?"

                              "Day Two, that was..." Huang searched briefly. "Okay that was the state reception of the Caretaker diplomat and the offer of interfaction handshake talks. The Ambassador declined, stating that his qualifications did not suitably substitute the Hiverian XenoRelations Bureau."

                              Li Min nodded, troubled. Where had he heard those words before? "Could we do a voiceprint?" asked Li.

                              Huang smiled bitterly. "Sure why not. We can do it as soon as he's feeling better from his decapitation, right?"

                              Li tutted and shook his head. "Point. Man, I must be getting tired. Okay, Day Three, then."

                              Huang looked and then frowned. "Not on the records. Let me see what my personal notes were." A brief pause, then: "Day 3; invitation to state banquet at the Slicer's Guild. Accepted - escorted Lady Prynne to the event. Drank two alcohol-free cocktails and consumed starter and main course. Gave speech concerning increase in cooperation and lifting of trade embargoes and striving towards common peace. Then went back to Governor Halls in the company of Lady Prynne. Parted after an exchange of pleasantries - Prynne returned to BetaOne residences and Ambassador remained in Governor Halls."

                              Li's eyes opened. "He drank two of our cocktails and ate our food?"

                              Huang nodded. "But don't get too excited. The fare was nontracing and standard. The cocktails were nonalcoholic but contained fruit juices. Nothing special about that."

                              Li sat up. "What species were they?"


                              "The cocktails, what were they? Fruits, I mean."

                              Huang delved further. "Not too sure. I could check up with the purveyors. They pride themselves on authenticity."

                              "Do that. Also check up on the rest of the meal. If Hu ate food with the likes of Lady Prynne and the Foreign Minister Grysel, then you can be sure he was eating safe food. And if there was anything remotely fruity or pulpy in the meal, there's a good chance they'd fed him Earthside cultures of fruits."

                              Li paused as a yawn came on. It subsided and he blinked tiredly before continuing.

                              "These won't have high levels of nitrates in them. They'll have Earthside proportions, perhaps with a bit more oxygen compounds in them. Search for redundant insecticides - I think they used some fly spray on rindless fruit for the Unity supplies. If Hu ate them, they'll stick out a mile away in the fluoroscope scans."

                              Huang shook his head, confused. "How do we test for that? We left his intestines back on the train in his body, remember."

                              Li Min smiled. "Yes, but we have a head, and the head has hair. Take it out of the cooler just long enough for the hair to dissociate, and extract a few samples to check for recent dietary intake. Make sure you obtain a nice bit of follicle too. If the hair has Earthside pesticides, then we have Hu."

                              Li yawned a final time.

                              "And, if the hair has a follicle attached, we have Hu's DNA... for future reference. Understand?"

                              Huang grinned. "Good. Very good. I'll send the data off to Interior as soon as I can, with a DNA sample for tentative gold standard. I'll be back in touch as soon as we have a positive reading. Out."

                              Huang's face disappeared from the telescreen, and Li lay back. Within ten minutes, he dozed, a dreamless state in which all assumptions and permissions were suspended.

                              * ~ * ~ *

                              McClelland awoke with a start, then felt a comforting presence. A Hiverian male nurse was adjusting a nanostim, attached to his shoulder to monitor his vital signs. The nurse bowed his head slightly, and made a few humming noises to soothe. The orderly withdrew and quietly pressed a summons button.

                              Meanwhile, McClelland tried to move, and discovered no resistance. He was reclining and unhampered - his body also appeared to be whole. That, save for a growing sense of hunger, appeared to be it.

                              The doctor came in, and spoke a few phrases in Hiverian to the orderly, who left. Then he spoke directly to McClelland.

                              "How are your bowels feeling? For the past twelve hours we have had you on monitored drip and osmosis excretion, so you wouldn't grow hungry or dehydrate. But of course that does not allow for a solid egestion, even though it clears the blood of urea and salts. Do you need to pass solid waste?"

                              McClelland hardly blinked. "No, I am feeling fine for now. What happened to me?"

                              The doctor shook his head. "Official report states that you arrived at Leader's Horde station in quite a spectacular wreck of a magtrain. There was hardly any train left to speak of. You disembarked quickly with Mao as we stretchered out Jorenson, then whilst in the concourse you fainted suddenly. We put you on your back and brought you here."

                              "So I'm all right?" asked McClelland hopefully.

                              "Apart from the side effects of heavy stress and trauma, yes. Sorry about the gown, by the way. We'll ask the Ministry to bring your clothes when they know you've woken up."

                              McClelland suddenly remembered Jorenson's head wound from when he stumbled into the driver's compartment and ordered the train sealed. He also remembered his important cargo.

                              "Doctor, I had a briefcase and a few other containers..."

                              The doctor nodded. "The Ministry immediately impounded your effects and belongings. They left instructions that you were to be made free to talk with them, and that they would be returned immediately upon your request. They also left instructions that you were still to be allowed contact to whomever you want."

                              McClelland thought about the case and the demonstration it contained - of Atomic Fusion Power and the investigations of the University, then was distracted by the latter announcement. "I can call my wife?" he asked.

                              The doctor stopped prodding his sole and set down McClelland's foot gently.

                              "I don't see why not. The Ministry thought she might want to hear from you. They also said that the incident was not widely known yet. Would you like to make the call here?"

                              McClelland sat upright and blinked. "Yes, please. That would be very good of you."

                              Within a very few minutes, the Ministry's secure vidlink was brought into his suite, and McClelland provided the identinode of his wife, Joely. The waitawhile dots flashed a few cycles, and then Joely's face appeared. She had been sleeping.

                              "Oh, I'm sorry," said Prentice suddenly. In his haste to call home, he had forgotten the time difference.

                              Joely yawned. "Prent?" Then she sat up, a bit more activated. "Prentice? Where are you? I haven't heard from you."

                              McClelland smiled and held out his palms reassuringly. "It's all right. I'm just recovering."

                              "Recovering??? What have they done to you?"

                              McClelland's answer was smooth and trustworthy. "I'd been pushing myself a bit too far, with the late nights spent sending messages and such. After a long train journey, I had a fainting spell, so they put me in for a day. I'm all right. A bit hungry, that's all."

                              "They'd better be taking care of you. You didn't fly all the way over there to have an illness unattended, Prent."

                              Prentice laughed. "No, really. I'm fine. They're being very courteous and helpful."

                              Joely was now nearly alert, and she sat up at the bed. "Prent, is this a secure line?"

                              "Probably. All the previous talklines they've given me have been encrypted. It's safe, so don't worry."

                              Joely considered, and then came to a decision within herself. "Okay, Prentice. I wasn't going to tell you this until you got back, but given the circumstances... It's probably best that you know now, for the moment, if nothing else."

                              Prentice smiled, his curiosity piqued now. "What is it this time? Has Lady Skye decided to honor you as the widow of a brave diplomat?"

                              Joely's eyes flashed for a moment, then she relaxed. "Prent, when will you take anything seriously?"

                              "Go on," said Prentice. "I'll bet she has. And even given you an indefinite free pass into the Aphroditorium until you find that other 'special guy' to replace me."

                              Joely's face registered both outrage and amusement at this. "Prentice!"

                              "Okay, okay. I'm sorry. Just blame my brush with Death By Fainting for my sense of humor."

                              Joely shrugged and started to comb her hair, evidently deciding to make an early start the day. "Prent, I wanted this to wait, but given your recent patchy contact, I don't know if I'll ever get to say this to you. I'm very worried for you, even though we both know it's probably groundless anxiety." She finished brushing her hair, but still did not turn to face Prentice.

                              Prentice diplomatically sensed that encouragement would be counterproductive. He waited.

                              After a short time, Joely's psyche came to the internal alignment of arguments necessary to facilitate a verbal vector, and she took a deep breath.

                              "Prentice. I am pregnant. We are going to have a child."

                              She turned to Prentice, and saw with relief that he was smiling broadly - albeit with an astonished look on his face.

                              "Why, Joely... that's marvellous!" said Prentice, his face beaming.

                              Joely, seeing the spontaneity of his reaction and the unbridled joy in his features, immediately put to rest her fears. As they completed their exchanges and signed off, she was clearly relaxed and relieved.

                              What she did not see was that Prentice was furiously trying to remember, verbatim, the final words that Hu had ever spoken to him.

                              * ~ * ~ *
                              Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; May 27, 2001, 02:46.
                              "lol internet" ~ AAHZ