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“Will you make up your mind already?”, said the bulky man to the small group of interested though taciturn buyers.
The trio of men wore black, unadorned exo-suits. Optical augmentations of varying quality featured prominently on their faces. They had been meticulously examining the article on sale for what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time, while one of them had communicated a single word. Neither spoken nor transmitted, in any single language or wavelength. Gretchetna was evidently growing impatient, and put down his chopsticks and bowl of arsubuta before assuming a faintly sour expression:
“It might be the pork, but I’m smelling something sour. If you’re here to waste my time, buzz off. If you’re here to buy, then buy. Am I getting through to you? Is your auvosense busted or something?”
The irate commentary did not appear to have much of an effect on them, nor the rude gestures that accompanied it. These by no means ordinary customers seemed to be looking for something particular, running meticulous scans with some kind of sensory equipment that looked delicate, expensive and very sensitive all at once. They had largely ignored Gretchetna and that was perhaps the real reason he looked like he was about to explode from frustration.
He decided it was about time he made his point a little more convincing, so he reached for his amada gun below the counter, and clicked the on switch. The characteristic low-pitched harmonics were heard, and the trio were suddenly but calmly becoming aware that some kind of important event had just occurred. They momentarily stopped fiddling with their equipment and the box on sale, and slowly lifted their heads to look at Gretchetna. A radiant smile had appeared on his face, and he seemed to be enjoying the fact that he finally had their attention, even for a little while:
“You said you wanted a look-see. Fine, you looked at it. You can probably just make a copy by now, with all that scanning. The point is, are you buying? ‘Cause if you’re not, I’d like to be compensated either way. I got a Lambda-Lambda here which says you’d be happy to reimburse me, unless you feel strangely attracted to plasma projectiles. Still want to play dumb and mute?”
The trio exchanged some silent, unemotional looks. One of them made a small step forward, his hands half-raised in a non-threatening gesture. For the first time, he spoke with a dry voice and a heavy mandarin accent:
“We do not wish to buy.”
Gretchetna’s smile widened to an impossible grin and he aimed the LL-type amada gun directly to the small-framed man:
“Do you wish to be evaporated? I don’t mind the cleaning-up later. Pay up. Next thing I know, you’ll be selling these cheaper than hamps.”
“We wish to destroy it.”
Gretchetna’s fingers twiddled with the side-switch settings, amping the power to the megawatt scale. The humming noise from the amada gun became a loud buzz, an onerous cacophony that usually implied something was about to catch on fire, explode, or probably both. The moustache on Gretchetna’s face seemed to droop somewhat, barely moving with each word:
“Pay up first, buddy. Last chance before you get to see the Big Bang from real up close and personal.”
All three men were facing Gretchetna now with hands outstretched, as if they wanted to show they meant no harm. Their palms seemed to glow faintly. The one who had spoken up first, continued:
“You have been tainted. This is nothing personal.”
Gretchetna had time enough to see the glow from their hands turn into a searing beam of light. His unaugmented nervous system barely had time enough to let his finger squeeze the lambda-lambda’s button. The superconducted mass driver unit on the amada gun started discharging, accelerating the tungsten-beryllium projectile to near-escape velocity. The tiny projectile turned into plasma, illuminating the shady emporium of Gretchetna as if an exotic aurora had manifested itself. At the same time, a searing pulse of light came out of the men’s palms, a blinding blue and white illuminiscence filling the space between them and Gretchetna.
When his body hit the floor, there was no blood to speak of. There was, in fact, no sign of Gretchetna’s upper torso. The three men though, seemed quite unharmed. There was a passing smell of ozone, and the quite distinct acridity of burnt human flesh. As the three men once again approached the box, this time they each produced a small metal object, each different in shape and size.
One of them made a sudden alarmed motion with his head and an intricate sign with one hand. The one who had spoken before did so again, his voice unnatural, icy and dry:
“Assemble the device. I will take care of that.”
While he started walking towards the entrance to Gretchetna’s emporium, the two other men complied with speed and precision. They made adjustments to the metal objects with their hands. The pieces interlocked, a perfect fit. Then, they placed the resulting object on the box that was so misleadingly plain and ordinary that Gretchetna had been using it as a bench.
The large emporium echoed suddenly with the massive thumping and ricocheting sounds of a hail of bullet rounds. Immediately, they stepped right in front of the path of some incoming stray shots to protect the device they had just assembled.
Crude and cheap, kinetics were quite efficient for most rough types of troublemakers. To Vic’s surprise though, these men were not the usual kind. Vic had just unloaded a full box of 20mm caseless on them, and they had actually got in the way on purpose.
“Oh, fuck me,” Vic said quietly to himself, the twin muzzle from his CK-auto making the air sizzle.
Instinctively scrambling to reload, Vic didn’t have a chance to see the blurry shadow that hit him with enough force for his ribcage to shatter and his body to be send flying across the emporium, only to have his neck broken on impact with the aerogel walls.
Momentarily assessing the badly light corridor outside, the talkative member of the trio asked the other two:
“Is the Exagrammaton aligned?”
They had been merely looking at the box and the device attached to in a sort of hallowed silence. After a small amount of time had passed, as if they counted every millisecond with atomic precision, they replied as one man, with one voice and one mind, as if they were nothing but automatons:
“The Exagrammaton is aligned. What about the rest of them?”
“Trivial,” the one they seemed to defer to as their leader replied, while the the one who had never spoken a word said with what a careful voice stress analysis could identify as a hint of worry:
“Leave now, and let us remain.”
The man who had led Gretchetna and Vic to their untimely deaths, was now wearing a grin that felt completely out of place with the rest of his face, as if someone had painted a smile on a jagged piece of granite:
“A touch of Anxiety, Dispatcher?”
To which the man promptly answered while bowing his head only slightly, an almost imperceptible gesture of subservience:
“Only for success, Exchequer.”
The man they called Exchequer nodded briskly and said:
“Move. We are done here.”
He then suddenly turned into a transparent shadowy figure that challenged any eye, even augmented ones, to an impossible task. The other two men also seemed to quickly vanish into a wispy shade, and then they blended into nothingness. Even their footsteps seemed to be echoes of ghosts. The only sound that could be heard was the repeating welcome message, blowing over the ceiling soundbands, in a rugged but hearty voice:
“You just made the smartest choice, mister!”
* * *
“Sam, I know it’s going to sound old, but.. What have we got here?”
Sam smiled with a slight hint of irony before assuming a business-like manner and answering with a voice that could have easily belonged to a first-gen android, flat and almost emotionless except for boredom and the occasional hint of irony:
“I thought noticing stuff was your job, detective Bodereau. Two victims. One and a half, actually. The one behind the reinforced bench is semi-evaporated. High-yield high-frequency lasers, most likely. The other one seems beaten to death. Got a broken neck. Medbots are sweeping for the details you never really care about.”
Bodereau’s gaze ran around the points of interest that Sam, the forensics officer, had brought up. He seemed to look around as if he was another customer, and not the detective on the case. After a small period of silence, he asked Sam, his words heavy with dissapointment, floating on the vapors of cheap liquor:
“That’s it? No DNA on the perps? Something I could use so I can post a warrant and let the ‘forcers handle it? Doesn’t seem they wanted to keep the place clean..”
Sam lit up a cigarette, the homegrown-in-orbit variety, which made Bodereau reach out and grab it from his mouth just when he was taking his first draw. Sam instantly became pretty full of emotion:
“Hey! Hey! Fuck you Bodereau!”
“Why, won’t it grow back? You’re messing with the crime scene, asshole.”
“That’s bullshit. As if someones care for a smuggler like Gretchetna and the likes of him. Who probably wiped him cause he owed them money. Or because he owed them, same deal.”
“Do you want my job, Sam? Cause if you got it all figured out, I can go home, and you can fill in the blanks, do the monthly report and yeah, you can have my implant too.”
“I’m fine with letting the robots cut up corpses, thank you.”
“So stick to your end, then. Gretchetna had a good name, as good a name as they come down here. Every dealer in the market has had tradings with him, and word is he kept his word, which in this line of business is like sainthood or something. I don’t think his esteemed colleagues did it.”
Detective Bodereau started to stroll around the emporium, noticing the signs of the firefight: intense heat marks from the amada gun, chipped off blocks of aerogel and polysteel from the kinetics, clean-cut holes from the lasers. Not much in the way of looting, which only made him pause and think.
The medbots were hovering a few feet away, humming like worker bees, their sound unobtrusive yet prevalent. At length, Bodereau took notice of the box lying almost in the middle of the emporium, not far from Gretchetna’s bench. Sam had moved over to one corner, trying to light up another cigarette without being noticed, taking advantage of Bodereau’s unusually deep thinking. Even while Sam savoured the first few puffs, Bodereau started talking without taking the box out of his gaze:
“Do you hear that?”
Sam looked at Bodereau with confusion.
“What, the medbots?”
Bodereau had his eyes fixed on the box. His voice came out suddenly diminished, faint and trembling:
“The voices, Sam. Can’t you hear them?”
Sam furrowed his brow in disbelief. He then nodded and grinned, the cigarette hanging from his lips:
“Medical discharge on grounds of mental instability. Can you put on a good act for the tribunal?”
Bodereau became strangely drawn to the box, running his hands around it, almost caressing it as he would a marvellous sculpture or the body of a beautiful woman. He seemed to revere it, as if it was something hallowed. The sight alone gave Sam a chill down his spine.
“You can cut the crap, Bodereau. The tribunal won’t eat it up. You’ll get the Farm for that kind of bullshit, not a discharge.”
“I can hear them, Sam. They’re wonderful. They’re so vibrant. So real.”
Sam dropped his cigarette and put it out. He walked towards Bodereau, his expression a mix of anger and worry, the grin extinguished.
“Bodereau, what the fuck? Snap out of it. Are you on something? It’s bad enough with the drinking, don’t tell me you started doing trippers or sky now. Hey, man. Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Bodereau did not turn to face Sam. Nor did he stop his weird show of adoration towards the box. Sam still felt he was looking at a bad practical joke. Bodereau became ever more attractede to the box, almost hugging it now. Sam took a deep breath and punched him on the face. Bodereau calmly took the hit, and started mumbling. His eyes had now taken an otherworldly gleem, their focus somewhere beyond the walls of the emporium. Sam was now starting to worry. In fact, he felt an uncanny sensation of fear across his spine. He took a step back before touching his armband’s interface.
He quickly selected the Emergency tab, and then brought up the Officer Assistance dialog. He selected two enforcer droids and a class-II medbot, complete with table and restraining harness. This was not an act, he now knew. Bodereau seemed to have snapped like a twig, in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a shock, with all of Bodereau’s history and psych profile. But to see a man break down just like that, was enlightening.
Sam felt a sadness and pity he did not think himself capable of. Then, as he stood there, near the mumbling, hunched form of Detective Bodereau, he heard a voice. It was the voice of an angel, or perhaps the voice of the heavens. It was a sweet melody, not a voice. There were no words, only chords of blissful sounds. It was like everything around him vibrated with music. He could still see Bodereau hugging the box as if they were lovers, his lips moving endlessly to a rhythm that now Sam could understand.
It was joyous. It was an answer. The answer to everything. It felt like everything could be explained, that everything could have an absolute, infallible meaning. The sensation of wonder was mind-numbing. Sam could now see more clearly than ever. He could now feel everything in dizzying detail. A cosmic awareness seemed to envelop him, and caress his heart and mind like only a mother would know how.
Then he heard a clear voice, bright and mellow like the sun:
“Will you have us?”
Sam felt tears of running down his cheeks, like icy rivulets on desert bedrock. He still possessed a clarity of mind and self to ask in his mind:
“What about Bodereau? What about me?”
The voice then spoke with a timbre that could noone could resist to hear in awe and tearful marvel:
“He is spent. You are not. Will you have us?”
Sam closed his eyes and accepted, in what he believed was his last act of free will. He knew then, he had no other choice. As the enforcer droids entered the emporium with the medbot in their trail, Sam disappeared as if he had never been there, as if he was less than a mere illusion. Along with the box.
The small device the three men had left behind gave a flash of light, but the droids’ advanced sensors registered nothing. And then a stream of high-energy particles ensued before the orbital was obliterated, turning into a cloud of ionized plasma. The death shriek of a small star in the sky.
Sam looked up into the bright mauve sky, and saw the small cloud hanging like an iridiscent pearl, shining with an ever diminishing glow, until nothing but a faint, hazy shadow remained. It was still him, he thought. And then he heard the voice once again, crystal clear, and much less monumentally awe-inspiring:
“Welcome to the Exchange, Sam.”
He talked to himself then, feeling a strange serenity, as if a huge burden had been lifted off his shoulders:
If the voice could have been the voice of a man, the man would have been smiling:
“Now Sam, we walk.”
* * *
“Zortania. Three times in a row. Without using a booster. You know the chances of that happening in a single round?” said a voice belonging to what could be easily mistaken for a mere man with an evident penchant for crude augmetics and non-existent mouth hygiene. Around those parts of the ship, he was known as `Alloy’ and he had a rather nasty habit of spacing certain kinds of people. Namely, those who were unlucky or stupid enough to cross him.
Sam smiled as innocently as possible. “One in four point seven billion? Give or take a few million, I think. Guess the universe isn’t so uncaring to some, right?” he said while reaching out to grab the holochip in the middle of the zort table. A ring of quite unhappy-looking faces directed their collective gaze towards Sam as if instantly magnetised.
The zealous augmetics user had substituted his jawline with a nanoengineered-alloy prosthetic. It looked like it weighed half a ton and gave the impression someone could chew through a ship’s hull with it. When it moved again, the man with the bulky augmetics said through a wisp of cheap Altreidian cigar smoke, the kind that clogged air filters with frightening ease:
“You’re cheating. I don’t know how, but you are. I can’t allow that. You’ll forfeit.”
Sam’s hand froze an inch before it touched the holochip filled with enough credits to buy himself a small Tremaran fast enough to outrun Navy pickets. He seemed to have reluctantly realised there were some standing issues with the `Alloy’ when he asked with the slightest hint of annoyance and just the right touch of brusqueness:
“What, you mean forfeit the game?”
The answer was quickly followed by the unmistakably harrying sound of a rapidly charging plasma carbine:
“I mean forfeit life.”
Sam had time enough to utter a few words for his ears alone, “Told you it was too obvious,” before he suddenly jerked sideways at an inhuman speed, letting the plasma burst make a roughly head-sized hole at the bulkhead behind him.
He could now clearly see that the people around that table had begun to realise what was going on, but they were firghtfully slow to do anything about it. `Alloy’ was still grinning with all the excitement from the rush of a sure and easy kill, even as Sam’s hand reached for his sternum. As the burly man’s biomechanical heart was ripped away from its sheath, blood and bioservo fluid spurted freely, making an almost complete mess of those standing next to him.
The mess would be made complete by Sam’s hands, moving at speeds that imparted more than enough energy to break someone’s neck. He did so, twice, before his heightened senses had given him ample warning of a Double-Z pistol being raised by someone with fast reflexes but a mind too slow to realise he was the one outgunned.
Sam delivered a back kick that made the man’s wrist break in four places while the pistol fired out of control in full auto in an backward spiral; another three men were shot through with pin-prick sized holes, wishing they had chosen an easy night at the sex domes in bay 7 instead of a really unlucky game of Zort.
When Sam’s heightened senses reported that there remained just a terrified junior deckhand looking positively frozen from shock, he reverted to his more usual self. He wiped his slightly perspiring forehead with a dirty rag lying in front of one of the dead B-deck technicians and sat down in his seat once more, casually picking up and cleaning the by now blood-ridden holochip.
“Thank God these things are waterproof. Yeah, I know. No, it doesn’t matter,” Sam said as he picked up the plasma carbine and placed a shot clean through the junior deckhand’s head. With a casual grin he walked towards the main shaft that lead to bay 6.
“No, no, we are a mean son of a bitch. You made sure of that, didn’t you? You sly little devil,” he said, answering the voice in his head while counting with his fingers and grinning under the faint blue-and-white light of the service corridor.
* * *
The captain of the “Incredibly Credible” was having a hard time lighting up his pipe. He looked deeply troubled. A rare silence occupied the bridge; it meant that something unusually serious was going on. The furrowed faces of the executive officer and the navigator were a match; the junior officers exchanged terrified looks but noone dared yet to voice the unthinkable.
It was the captain who did so, with a low-keyed voice that sounded like it belonged to a dead man:
“All hands. Abandon ship.”
The ship’s XO looked at him as if he had just been stabbed to the heart; he couldn’t help but sound moronic:
The captain gave the XO a sullen, weary look and simply said to him:
“Ephraim, abandon ship. Sound the horn. Let me talk to them.” The XO nodded, his face torn between his sense of duty and his sense of reality. His waved his hands across a series of holodisplays, before a beam of light flashed across the captain’s face, indicating he was now addressing the crew of the “Incredibly Credible”:
“This is Incredibly Credible Actual. All hands, abandon ship. All Master-at-arms, secure the escape pod bays. This is a special emergency, but there is ample time to evacuate. Proceed in an orderly fashion, and godspeed. Actual out.”
The light flickered off; the captain sank back in the relative comfort of his battle manoeuver couch and the darkness of the command pulpit. His XO was evidently nervous, perspiration glistening across his forhead in the ambient red light that bathed the bridge. He was accompanied by the astronavigation officer when he approached the puplit and managed to speak his mind:
“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think this is the correct approach, sir. We could try and contain this person – this thing – whatever it’s supposed to be. Abandoning a frigate without due cause, sir.. That would be the end of our careers, sir. Surely a single man can’t pose a threat to a ship of this size.”
The XO tried to put a smile on that last sentence, but his face muscles weren’t up to the task. It was painfully obvious he was trying to bend reality to a situation he could cope with. At least, his own sense of reality.
The captain picked up his pipe once more and managed to light it up; he took a deep puff before exhaling forcefully, the wisps of smoke curling and dancing around him. He simply pointed to the three men standing in one corner of the bridge, seemingly stargazing idly through the port viewport. His words came out dryly:
“See those robed figures over there? These are Monitors. They.. monitor these abnormalities.. these aberrations.. The-”. One of the robed figures interrupted the captain from afar:
“The Exchange. Captain Voronin, there will be no more delays. Allowing your crew to abandon ship is a rarely extended courtesy. You should be grateful.”
The XO turned to face the figure in a fit of what he probably perceived to be well-deserved indignition. He blared at him, the veins around his throat bulging from tension and strain: “Grateful? Grateful for abandoning a frigate and casting adrift two thousand souls? What gives you the authority, nay the nerve-”
With a quick nod from the talking robed figure the other two men seemed to instantly vanish and reappear next to the XO, his hands locked behind his back and a terminally sharp object threatening to puncture his jugular effortlessly. The captain stood up and removed the pipe from his mouth unable to mouth his objection, while the XO’s gaze was locked on to the tip of the spike threatening to end his life in a very bloody instant.
The robed figure lowered his hood to reveal a face so featureless that it could easily be forgotten. He motioned with a hand to the men to release the XO from their deadly grip, to which they promptly complied without question. A slight twitch of his mouth was his idea of a smile when he said:
“You’ll have to excuse my Dispatcher. He can be overly zealous. I only meant for him to discourage your executive officer from doing anything that might prove disadvantageous to your safety,” the man said looking at the captain. He then turned to face the XO who was barely beginning to compose himself, instinctively straightening his uniform. The Dispatcher bowed slightly to the strikingly featureless man saying:
“Only trying to serve.”
“Aren’t we all?” the captain said seemingly out of turn.
“Sadly, trying is not enough my dear captain. Serving the State is your duty. We answer to a higher authority.”
“God then? I thought such nonsense had nothing to do with your kind.”
“I was referring to survival of the species.”
“Why, the human species captain. Naturally.”
“Damned be the day you came aboard my ship.”
“Only by necessity, I assure you. Now please, follow the lead of my Dispatcher and his Drone, and make your way to your escape pod.”
“I’ve very little left as far as pride goes, Exchequer, but nothing waiting for me at port. You might have me by the balls and my ship by her helm, but I’ll go down with her if I must. Will you?”
“A quaint thought in this day and age, captain, but I assure you your death will have no impact on the larger scheme of things. You might even prove to be a dangerous hindrance, which we cannot allow. Dispatcher, if you will.”
“No need to sic your dog on us, Exchequer. I realise you’re quite an unreasonable man. Not unlike your kind at all. You were a mistake. Might be our last one.”
“Ruminate on it in that escape pod, captain. If I hadn’t been waiting on that evacuation to be complete we wouldn’t be having this little conversation. Think of it as another courtesy.”
“You’re an arrogant son of a bitch, Exchequer.”
“I wasn’t actually born, captain. Hear that chime? It’s time. Dispatcher.”
“I can only hope I never see you or your kind again.”
“A purely human condition, captain.”
Once the crew of the bridge was removed to the escape pod, the Dispatcher and the Drone each devoted a few moments to an array of holographic controls. Once they were done, the Dispatcher informed the Exchequer:
“He’s moving. Shaft C. Should be here within a few minutes. Standard D pattern?”
“I want him caught, Dispatcher. I need to know.”
“About the frigate, or the orbital?”
“Everything, Dispatcher. Absolutely everything.”