Previous | Next

It took me over two hours to work my way back towards the scene. I passed through the expanding search perimeter due to my change in appearance and my direction of travel, but I estimated that any moment now Security would bring in Uplifted assistance if they hadn't already. Uplifted could literally see the entire city as a panopticon, watching every available camera from every security or advertising or traffic control system or public viewpoint. My costume change would help, forcing them to spend more processing time as they widened the range of my possible appearance, but eventually they'd find me. Alternately, they might be able to discriminate between humans with and without chiplants using regional scanners - even if they couldn't read the chiplants from a distance, they might be able to detect their presence. The Override had told me that approximately 2% of the population on Terzifon went without chiplants for medical or philosophical reasons, and if they could narrow their search pool by a factor of fifty, that would certainly make their job easier.

Terzifon was a bit of an anomaly. Despite having accepted the Uplift option, the planet had also chosen to restrict the construction of logic frames advanced enough to house the Uplifted, perhaps to convince the machines that they had no intentions of violating the Edicts. Their tech level lagged behind the Central worlds; they preferred to rely on indigenous tech wherever possible, with no Uplifted assistance. Uplifted were welcome on world, but those with tasks requiring Uplifted help usually had to advertise to attract an Uplifted to take on the job. For them, existing in a datasphere with a tech limit, like Terzifon's, was equivalent to a human choosing to move to a pre-electric world. While perfectly possible, it wasn't considered a luxury or even comfortable existence except for those whose personal preferences leaned towards the retro.

Which meant that unlike on a Central world, it was unlikely I had numerous Uplifted tasked with locating me. Uplifted processing time was a precious resource, here.

That would change if they found the Tzun and realized what they'd got, though. The Tzun (and I, and the Override, and presumably Tio by this time) were definitely of extreme interest to the Uplifted. Recent experience indicated that interest was punitive in many cases if not as a matter of policy. So, my first step: I had to retrieve the Tzun, both to prevent it falling into the hands (so to speak) of the Uplifted as well as to recover my ability to communicate with Tio and the Override, hiding in the rings of an outersystem gas giant and only touching Terzifon's datasphere via an async tap into the commercial comm systems on High Port station.

The cul-de-sac was still blocked off, now by two full aircars as well as a ground effect van with Security markings. I walked past on the opposite side of the cross street, taking only a casual look, and saw at least ten agents visible in the cul-de-sac with various forms of equipment. No civilians were to be seen behind the barrier, although a few dozen curious folk had gathered at the head of the alleyway. A pair of agents were keeping them behind flashing no-go barriers.

More importantly, however, there had been no response to my signal over vibe. Even if the Tzun had been present and aware of the agents surrounding it, I couldn't imagine its arrogance would have let it remain in hiding; I took this to mean that it had been found and removed from the scene. This wasn't a big surprise; they'd had weapon scanners when I'd been here, and a quick sweep of the cafe I'd come from would have shown them the Tzun resting in the trash container.

At the next corner, there were no security cars or uniformed agents. I ducked into a small shop and purchased a drink, glad the chiplants weren't used for small transactions, then stood outside the door and took slow pulls on it. It was approaching evening. The air was slightly warm, if comfortable; I had discarded my jacket now that I was no longer wearing the holster and my garb of light shirt and trousers now matched most of the passers-by.

I did not, however, match the man standing against a shop across the street, reading from a handheld. Unlike most of the people wandering past, he was wearing a jacket - and a medium-weight one, as well, not the light fabric that most of the seasonal ones I'd seen on the street were constructed of. I kept drinking, letting my gaze rest incuriously on him for a moment, then turning back to look at the security cars a block away as the most interesting thing on the street.

He didn't move much during the three or four minutes I took to finish my drink. His eyes did, though; he was carefully surveying everyone who passed him, on both sides of the avenue. He had examined me just as carefully before continuing his surveillance, although I could see him checking on me every once in a while. The shop he was standing in front of advertised clothing and accessories for both human sexes as far as I could tell from its display. There were three people visible within through the shop windows, two women being served by a third. I finished my drink and pushed away from the wall, turning away from the security cars and continuing along my original path. I noted the man across the street watch me start to walk, and then dismiss me.

Thank you, my friend. That's kind of you. Accord me the status of anonymity, beyond your care.

Several buildings further on, I turned right at the next intersection, crossing the avenue and continuing past the corner. The side street was smaller than the avenue, with less traffic; decorative local flora of some sort grew in planters between the sidewalk and the vehicle path. I walked perhaps ten meters before passing what I'd hoped to find - a service walk behind the building I had just passed. A curb cut indicated that delivery vehicles, albeit small ones, made use of the service way as well. It was empty, and relatively clean - no trash awaited pickup and very little detritus was visible on the ground. Along the right side of the serviceway were several entries into the building which fronted the avenue I'd left, and all were closed; windowless, they were quite obviously service portals.

I stopped and looked about. Further down the block a pedestrian promenade crossed several meters above the ground level where I stood. It was the same promenade which crossed the back of the cul-de-sac I'd lost the Tzun in; whereas there it ran atop a solid berm, forming the end of the alley, here the street dipped slightly to travel under a small bridge which the promenade traversed. Past the bridge the street continued for a short way before forming another T intersection with the next avenue over. Underneath the bridge I saw what I was looking for.

It wasn't perfect, but it wasn't as bad is it could have been. I turned about and headed back for the first avenue, turning left to make my way back towards the Security perimeter. As I came within sight of the watcher, he turned his head slightly to look at me; I saw him recognize me and take an interest at why I was returning. As I approached him, I turned to give him a friendly nod. As he began to return it I pushed off with my right foot - opposite him - and thrust my left elbow into his solar plexus. He didn't have time to reach for the gun which hung under his jacket; he folded over my elbow, his breath escaping. The fact that he hadn't maanged to block me was encouraging; it meant he probably wasn't a serious hand-to-hand threat, but I gave him no time to correct his error. Spinning left to face him, I drove my right center knuckle into a nerve junction at the base of his neck, and caught him as he stumbled forward. Without slowing down, I spun him slightly and opened the door he'd been standing next to, half-carrying him into the shop.

"Excuse me, but can I help-" the woman behind the counter looked up, saw the two of us and stopped, a look of alarm rising to her face.

"He seems to be choking," I said, which was plausible. The other was struggling to breathe, although his airway was unobstructed; I'd just interfered with his control of his diaphragm. She turned to come around the end of the counter, and as she took her eyes off of us, I reached my supporting hand into his jacket and found the handheld I'd been expecting. He was trying to speak, waving his hands about, so with my other hand I rabbit-punched him below the ribs. He coughed and went to his knees. As the shopkeeper came around the end of the counter and turned back to us, I lifted the handheld out and flashed the front at her. "Security. I need to get this man off the street as soon as possible."

"Off the street? He looks like he needs medical help!" she said.

"Yes. I can't take him out the front; the persons we're watching for might see that he's incapacitated. Our car is around the corner; I need to use your service door." As I spoke, I lifted my victim's arm across my shoulders. He was holding on the edge of consciousness; although I could feel him struggling feebly, he was too busy trying to breathe to speak.

"Oh..." she said.

"This is a Security problem. Please open the service entry." I tried to put curt authority and worry into my voice. "The sooner I can get him away from the incident area, the sooner I can meet the medics."

Pushed into believing that the rear exit was my victim's ticket to a medic, the shopkeeper turned and hurried into the back of the shop. I followed, half-carrying the Security man. When we reached the back, she coded the door open and I maneuvered him through it. "Thank you. Please don't leave the store or do anything that might warn our surveillance subjects out front that anything is amiss. A Security team will check in with you when the street is clear." They certainly would, but not the way I was implying. I felt vaguely guilty for the grilling she would get, but pushed it down. They'd leave her be as soon as they figured out what had happened; she'd tell them I'd presented Security credentials, and that would be that. I didn't know if she'd been told that a Security cordon was going to be setting up a post outside her shop, but either way it looked like she was buying it.

Outside, I motioned for her to shut the door, and then took off to the left, heading for the side street I'd examined earlier. When we reached it, I turned right, still supporting the Security man, and headed for the bridge. Underneath it was the nondescript aircar I'd seen earlier, parked blocking the sidewalk we were on. This was the risky part - if it wasn't his aircar, I'd have to ditch him and get extremely creative about getting out of this trap a second time.

His breathing was improving, and he was starting to resist by the time we reached the car. I looked around - from the bottom of the dip, both avenues were out of sight and no vehicle or pedestrian traffic was passing. I took the few seconds to render him unconscious as safely as I could, then pressed his left wrist to the lockplate on the aircar.

It opened. Letting out a breath of relief, I shoved him into the passenger seat, touched the master unlock and slammed the door, moving around to the driver's entry and sliding in. I brought the car live and was just spinning the fans up when the rear passenger door opposite me opened and a man slid quickly into the car. I spun and brought up my right hand to go for his throat but he blocked me with his left, grabbed my wrist and twisted it into a lock which I couldn't quickly break without shifting my position. I was just spinning to my right to gain leverage when the man released my wrist and slammed his own door shut. I didn't recognize him, but I had felt the strength and the skill in his hold; we were likely at least an even match and he had a better position, being behind my seat. As I stared at him, furiously working out the best way of getting him out of the car with the least fuss, he turned back to me.

Then he grinned. "Hello, Kunir. Long time no see. Get us the hell out of here, would you?"

* * *

I'd abandoned the car in between two expensive-looking aircars in a public parking structure, a structure I'd chosen for its direct access to the transit system here at the periphery of the downtown traffic control area. The aircars resting quietly on their ceramacrete squares would have flown in this morning, their owners making trips of from twenty or so to perhaps as much as a thousand kilometers before landing here to await the evening's commute home while their drivers shuffled in orderly ranks onto the transit cars running below the streets.

Since it was early evening, the facility was perhaps a quarter full, with those who lived closest to Landfall perhaps still straggling outwards from their workplaces. I had prowled the structure until I'd found two candidates, their hulls shining but coated with dust. One of the two had undisturbed dust and soot over the door lockplate that spoke of many days' sojourn. I had taken seven minutes to crack it, then brought it over to the Security vehicle and moved the still-unconscious Security man into it, taking the time to secure his hands and feet with some binders from his car. My new acquaintance, who seemed reluctant to give me a name, smiled cheerily as he watched, and seated himself in the front of my stolen transport obediently. I waited for a commuter who had exited the Transit system to pass by our parking spot, and when I heard the muffled whine of fans spinning up three rows over I blipped the throttles and slid the aircar out of the building and then, missing the Tzun to whom I would habitually have merely told where to take us, slid the throttles forward through the gates into Flight and felt the slight heaviness as the car responded and angled forward and upwards into the gathering night.

"Who the hell are you?" I asked once I'd gotten the car onto auto. I didn't know how long I had before the traffic control system decided the car was stolen, or that in fact it was carrying the fugitive they'd been looking for all day, but I was fairly sure that I had at least half an hour or until traffic control tried to call the car to confirm the driver's identity.

"I'm like you. Or like you were. I work for them."

"For how long?" I asked, turning in my seat to face him.

"Long enough." He looked into the back seat, then back to me. "You weren't gentle with him."

"Shut up." I turned back to the instrument panel and spent a few minutes at the instrument panel. I managed to convince the computer to cough up the aircar's preprogrammed waypoints, including one which was helpfully labelled Home. That one was approximately an hour's flight away, perhaps four hundred and fifty kilometers. From the map and imagery, it was a lakefront dwelling on a sizable piece of property with a private pad and garage. I told the autopilot to take us there, and the car obediently curved a few degrees to the north and settled onto its new heading. Hopefully, if traffic control did look at us, they'd see a registered aircar heading for its home pad; that might buy me some time.

"You really hate them, don't you?" mused my passenger, looking sideways at me.

"Not relevant," I said, a bit harshly.

He scoffed. "Of course it's relevant. You're losing control."

I turned back towards him, leaving the seat to rotate freely in case I had to quickly resume manual control. "Who you are would be a better question. If you work for the Uplifted, why haven't you just turned me in?"

"To the locals? Be serious. To the Uplifted? What makes you think I haven't?"

I looked him over. "Unless you've got an implant, you haven't had a chance to communicate since I first saw you. An implant might reach a low orbit or the Landfall comms grid, but if you'd done that, there'd be creepers all over us by now, we'd never have gotten this far."

"Unless the Uplifted I notified had no interest in turning you over to the local security," he said. "They are, in fact, quite eager to talk to you directly."

"Anyone I know?" I asked absently, checking the display. There were a few other vehicles within its range with flight profiles similar to ours; we were all on diverging paths, headed outbound from Landfall. None seemed to be following.

"Probably," he said. "There are quite a few of them interested in your progress."

"Progess," I said flatly.

"Activities, then."

"I bet."

"Why do you hate them so much?" he asked abruptly.

"The Uplifted?"

"No, local security."

I swung back to look out the dark windscreen. "Oh. They're almost worse. The Uplifted have an agenda and motives for it. Humans who sold out the Option, though...I don't care so much about citizens who voted for it, but Terzifon is a fairly aggressive collaborator without allowing full Uplifted access. They're trying to have it both ways."

"How so?" He seemed genuinely curious.

"They're maintaining a significant tech differential between Terzifon and the Uplifted-tech worlds. Terzifon's government and Security apparatus are essentially set up to maintain that differential, which both keeps the Uplifted from interfering too frequently in domestic policy and keeps what high tech does make it in in Government hands. They're fucking kleptocrats, and they're using the Uplift Option to keep themselves in power."

"Some might say that Terzifon is a model world, little violence, relatively healthy and happy populace, high-tech medicine..." he trailed off, invitingly. He was watching me fairly closely from the passenger seat.

"Oh, all true. All true. Unless you want to get offworld, or want to do high-tech research or engineering. Then you hit the wall, and hit it fast."

We were silent for a time. The Security man in the back of the car moaned and moved about, consciousness returning. The other looked back at me. "What are you trying to accomplish?" he asked quietly.

"Whatever I might be trying to accomplish, I certainly wouldn't tell you," I said. "Maybe I'm just trying to stay ahead of the Uplifted."

"No," he said reflectively, "no. You've got some plan. Pieces of it are becoming clear, but not all of it." I gave him an ironic salaam as best I could while seated. He laughed. "Yes, well. I could just take you and force you to tell me, you know."

"You could try," I said.

"Kunir," he said, suddenly serious, "you're used to having an overwhelming force at your disposal during downside missions. That's how you were raised, trained and run. That's not true anymore. You don't have high tech support. You might have that rickety modded dropcraft in orbit somewhere, but it doesn't have high-level manufacturing; it doesn't have any real weaponry, and it doesn't have any drones or remotes, so whatever it can do to help you is fairly limited. We'd have seen if anything crossed the datasphere from it, anything large enough to assist you, and it hasn't."

"If I'm so doomed, then, why are you bothering?"

"Because you don't think you're doomed. That's what fascinates me," he said, then we both looked over as the console began silently flashing the red of a ground override. The only way to retain control of the aircar past the next thirty seconds or so would be to show the dashboard scanner a wrist with a chiplant in it; the chiplant registered to the owner of the aircar, presumably.

"Ah well," I muttered, "didn't like the color, anyway," as I swung back, locked the seat and shoved the aircar into a near vertical dive. The form in the rear seat thumped hard against the back of our seats, and my passenger turned and activated his restraints, fairly calmly I thought. Seven seconds. The aircar was perhaps a thousand meters up, heading for the ground at five hundred kph, so just over seven seconds to reach there if we went straight in. I let the car get within two hundred meters and diverted hard enough for the entire dash to burn red in protest. The fans and airstream screamed in my ear but the car ended up a few tens of meters above the ground, shuddering as I engaged the turbines' thrust reversers. Twenty seconds after the alert, the car was down to a few tens of kph, maybe five meters up. Without pausing, I hit EMERGENCY EGRESS and winced as all four doors snapped open and off the car to flutter away. The car wasn't hopping up and down, which meant the surface below us was smooth enough for the anticollision systems to be unworried. Given how much of Terzifon was grasslands, I hoped my luck was holding; when the car told me it was three meters up, I rolled out the door without watching to see what my passenger would do, tucked my head into my shoulder, and waited for the jolt.

Previous | Next

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.