Thursday, September 20, 2018

Chapter 1

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A Shipful of Antimatter

It was a moon of fences. Not literal picket, chain-link, or plasma shield fences, although plots surely had such barriers. No, the strange thing about this place was that everything was divided into pieces, easily identified and discernable even from Jane’s vantage point in low orbit. The checkerboard of settlements looked so strange to her eyes. There was no distinguishable pattern to be found. Roads branched at strange places, came to dead ends, and the border lines did not make any sense. It was no sensible way to build a settlement.

This moon extended far beyond the flat and wide orangish-red rings that sliced through the pale yellow gas giant it orbited. The reflection of sunlight from the planet was bright enough to give even the dark side of the moon a soft and eerie glow. Jane Leone could not deny the beauty of this place.

“Will this be your first time on Grid, ma’am?”

Jane turned her attention from the moon to the desk jockey on the neuroscreen projected into her mind. He was a fit man in his early thirties, clean cut and dressed well enough to look professional without looking elitist. She was jarred by the archaic use of the title ‘ma’am’, but she let it slip. If she were going to work in this place, she would have to tolerate its culture.

His appearance disturbed her. The disarming smile, the conservative clothing, the easy familiarity; everything about him was perfectly calculated to put her at ease.

That put Jane ill-at-ease.

“Yes,” she replied opaquely. “It is my first time.” He was referring to the moon. In truth, it would be her first time to the gas giant of Odin, period.

“Well, we offer customizable coverage that can suit almost any visitor. How long do you plan on staying? We offer monthly and yearly plans, as well as short term visitor passes.”

“I do not know how long I will be here. I am on Collective orders.”

His eyes lit up in genuine surprise. “We do not get many of you around these parts. What I can do for you is put you on a short-term pass, and then if you are here for longer, I will make a note here and we can put you on the less expensive monthly rate.

He transmitted a presentation image of onto her neuroscreen. “Onto coverage. The basic package covers all McNair Security and Vegacorp properties open to the public. There will be an additional fee anywhere else.”

“I will need to travel to several private residences.”

He nodded, and a new list of terms and benefits flashed on her neuroscreen.

“No patrols there, of course, but we can give you a signal beacon that will alert us if needed. If the threat is credible, response is free of charge.” His smile suddenly became genuine. “If money is no object, we can provide an escort.”

“The beacon will be sufficient.”

“Will you need property dispute or contract enforcement coverage?”

She blinked twice. “I don’t understand the question.”

“We can provide services to arrest personnel for arbitration in the case of a property dispute, breach of contract, or tort violation.”

“You arrest people over property disputes?”

“For arbitration purposes.”

“That will not be necessary.” Despite extensive study, it was impossible for Jane to get a grasp on Odin’s legal system. It was a mess of competing laws, cultural practices, and inconsistent enforcement, depending on who owned what. She would learn on her feet.

“All right, ma’am. We have everything all set for you. Basic protection from aggressive violence against person or property. If you instigate for some reason, we will provide for a trial, but we do not make any guarantees.”

“That will not be a problem.”

“Okay, we also offer shares in Vegacorp to all our subscribers. This means you are now qualified to purchase stock if you so wish. You would have to divest if your coverage lapses.”

Jane waved her hands. “Yes, yes, that is fine.”

“Of course. One last thing. Will you be needing a personal weapon?”

“You would allow me to carry one?” She was a foreigner. Not only that, a member of a foreign government.

“Vegacorp guarantees the right to self-defense in all subscribed territories, ma’am. You can show independents your subscriber card and most won’t have a problem with it. Limited personal arms, only. We can provide you with a list of approved arms, and you can order them from Vegacorp directly if you so wish.”

“Will I need one?” Jane asked. The offer made her wonder what the point of buying security was in the first place.

“Our response time is excellent, ma’am. But we can’t be everywhere at once.” He must have seen the look of alarm on her face, because he quickly added. “People mostly keep to themselves, though.”

Jane glanced at the energy pistol locked in place on the cockpit wall. She reached around her waist strapped its holster to her vacuum suit. She would explain to Authority that the locals had advised her to carry.

“I have my own weapon,” she replied. “It is a Collective issued side-arm. Is that permissible?”

“That should be fine, ma’am.” He paused. “You’re a long way from home. May I ask why you decided to come all the way here?” The implication was that she was a Freyjan dissident. She did her best not to be offended.

“Authority orders,” she replied simply.

He nodded. “Of course. I am sending over the subscription decals and armband. Just wear the armband in atmo and put these displayed prominently on your vac-suit. We have sent over a summary of your policy and a quick factsheet on how to deal with a number of situations that could come up. Welcome to Grid.”

“Thank you.” Jane smiled. She shut off the neural link and steered her small spaceship to one of the many orbiting docks. Like everywhere else here, she had to pay for access. She wouldn’t appreciate it if she weren’t on the Authority’s credit—if her purpose was not so important.

Jane maneuvered the ship to the dock, passing clouds of drones stamped with the insignia of Vegacorp: a yellow five-pointed star on a golden ring in a field of black. Jane slid the ship into one of the docking bays and disconnected the wireless neural link and opened the hatch with the standby controls.

After so long at space, stepping out of her ship was like stepping out of her own skin. In the week-long voyage it had become a part of her. Cutting herself off from all extrasensory inputs was like blinding herself. So, she would go into the Bhutto compound blind.

Authority had sent several requests to Bhutto, but never received a single response. The local security companies refused to facilitate the communication. There were no subpoenas for Collective Regulators. And the requirements for registering as an arbiter were absurdly prohibitive.

Thus the home visit.

Jane pushed off from the dock and floated into the cramped tube-like hallway into the shuttle bay. The wide open cylindrical bay bustled with people crawling along the outer walls and inner floors in all directions, as if to foreshadow the chaos she would experience below. Garish lights and video screens flashed random words and objects forcing Jane to squint to see. It dawned on her what their purpose was. They were selling products. The same sort of messages could be heard on the speakers placed throughout the docking bay, between announcements of shuttle timetables and safety instructions.

So you had to listen to them.

Vegacorp drones the size of her head buzzed around the interior keeping tabs on the customers. Jane slapped her Vegacorp decal on the chest of her vac-suit in a bout of paranoia and clipped on to one of the lines at the end of the bay, pulling herself along by the hand rungs in the wall.

After reading a map of the color-coded signs, Jane monkeyed her way over to her dock. She authorized another ration payment and was allowed entry. After a short security check and safety checklist, they boarded the shuttle and strapped themselves into the seats, all oriented in the same direction for the least amount of difficulty when they hit gravity.

The shuttle accelerated and they hurtled towards one of the checkered splotched on the brownish cratered sphere. The retro rockets fired minutes later, and the angle changed slightly towards the vast barren area just outside of the concentrated settlement. Nozick. Jane could make out the large bubble of artificial atmosphere that shrouded the city. Smaller bubbles ringed the main one with expanded settlements.

After short contact with the thin atmosphere came the brilliant lights that dotted the city center, and gaudy image projections directly in the path of the landing shuttle. More advertisements selling consumer goods.

Once they had finally slowed to a landing on the large paved tarmac, there was a bustle of conversation. The safety lights went off, and people happily unstrapped themselves from the center, discussing their banal concerns.

After pouring out of the tarmac, most of the passengers took a tube to Nozick. Jane’s destination was the opposite direction. Bhutto was a recluse. She had settled far from the city. Jane had already chartered a big-wheeled off-road vehicle for the journey. It was easily recognizable among the lot of compact and mid-sized sedans immediately outside the shuttleport. Once she reached the door, the rover pulled alongside the dropoff and its door slid open.

“Thank you,” she said, and stepped inside. Once she slipped inside her safety harness, the rover took off on its pre-planned course.

Near the tarmac the roads were well maintained, and there were many. Overpasses made their way over, and tunnels made their way under the properties that they passed through. Farther away from the shuttleport became sparser. There was some semblance of pavement, but maintenance was intermittent. The automated rover made several long detours to avoid gated-off plots, or ones that had no road access at all. The tally of road tolls ticked up as she passed from one virtual tollbooth to the next.

Jane had almost fallen asleep by the time the vehicle came to a stop at the edge of an unpaved path cutting through mostly flat rocky and barren land. The glint of solar converters sprouting from the landscape was the only indication that she was not on an unsettled lifeless rock in all directions. Jane stepped out of the vehicle and gingerly walked toward it, feeling the thumping of her heart in her helmet now that the rover had stopped. Buzzers and warning alarms rang in her ear through her neural interface, along with bright flashing alarm lights. She disabled Bhutto’s warnings and took a deep breath. Odinians generally did not get regular mindwipes. This person could be crazy. Jane unconsciously had moved her hand to her pistol.

Jane knew she was being watched. She ignored the cloud of drones above her head and advanced towards the bunker entrenched below the surface. The Bhutto Compound.

Jane made it about a kilometer out before her sensors went crazy and locked onto a fastmoving object launched from the horizon. A voice entered her head. “You are trespassing on private property. You have about ten seconds to turn around before you’re just another crater in this moon.” The low, authoritative voice said.

It was too slow moving to be a missile—Jane thought. She might have dashed to cover is she could have found any, but none of the rocks would have covered above her waist. Instead, she stopped in her tracks and held her hands up. “My name is Jane Leone. I am a Regulator of the Freyjan Collective. I wish to discuss a proposal with you—an expedition.”

The missile above reached the peak of an arc high above her and she realized that it was a military drone, humanoid in form and armed with heavy cannons. Jane had to remind herself not to run. The drone emitted several bursts from the thrusters on its back, correcting its trajectory to crash into the soil in front of her, kicking up a wide and short-lived cloud of dust. The massive drone fixed its twin cannons directly on her.

“What makes you think I would help Collective jackboots with anything?” The voice said. Jane realized that it must be Bhutto.

“Perhaps we could help each other. We are looking for The Leviathan.”

“You think that you can succeed where I failed?”

Earth, these people were dense.

“Our combined efforts would be more effective than either of us alone. I know you have searched extensively.”

“And I lost a fortune. Now I just want to live in peace, without anyone bothering me. That includes you. Now, get off my property, or I’ll remove you myself.”

Bhutto’s threat was credible, and Jane’s oh-so-benevolent corporate security provider would not blink an eye if that drone blew a crater right where she was standing. Not if Jane put up any sort of fight. Not on Bhutto’s property.

Jane quickly sent an encrypted file to Bhutto’s network, hoping that no one would intercept it, hoping that it would change her mind. After a short minute, the drone lowered its cannons. A voice in her head said, “Okay, I’ll hear you out.”

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