Sunday, May 29, 2011

#samplesunday of Foreign Devil!

Inducted immediately into Special Services shortly after being ‘released’ from Trinity’s custody, Garth had never heard of or even imagined something as intentionally vile as civilian travel routes. As Captain of the Zanzibar Cat -a medium-sized troop transport- the only thing he’d ever needed to do to get from point A to point B was tell his pilot ‘go there, and double quick’. Then they’d all fart around for a few days, kill a bunch of people or blow up some shit and it’d be about-face. Sometimes they’d pause to steal a bunch of crap before heading out, but that was neither here nor there.
As a civilian, though, he was legally required to file a flight path with Trinity. More accurately, he needed to send the flight path off to the nearest data buoy, which would then relay the information to the closest governmental office or outpost, where it would then be examined with the finest-toothed comb in All of Existence. If every ‘T’ was crossed and every ‘I’ dotted, everything was aces high, so long as systemic speed limits were obeyed.
 A speed limit in space was a whole other category of horseshit. It wasn’t as if he was going to aim his ship at a planet shouting ‘ramming speed’ or anything.
The whole process was an insult to space travel and unnecessarily expensive because, as Garth quickly learned, filing a bad plan or wasting someone’s time brought penalties. Expensive ones.
“When I,” Garth said to himself as he added another layer of complexity to the data model he was building, “am in charge of the universe, first thing I do is get rid of local speed limits. It’s space! Hard to hit stuff.”
 “Owner?” The AI asked, assuming incorrectly –again- that it was being spoken to.
Garth really didn’t care for the AI -or the ship, for that matter- and it showed in how he treated the outrageously priced flying death trap. Nothing more than a converted yacht, the Meadowlark Lemon had spent its previous life as a sex-ship for a horny sybarite. A gomer who’d finally met a sexually transmitted disease medicine couldn’t cure. He’d died on Tenerek, but not until after he’d sold his ship for one last go-round with an equally terminal prostitute. “How many times have I told you that I talk to myself?”
“Four times.”
 “Well, make this the fifth and final time.” Garth took a sip from a beverage that had been touted to him as ‘the greatest drink on this or any other planet’. It didn’t fall into the ‘revolting’ category by smell alone. It smelled great but tasted like yak piss. “Have you looked over my service record yet?”
After being directed out of the Tenerek prison and to his ship, a data file of immense size had greeted him. Politoyov, stretching newly found muscles, had located his recently lost Captain’s new ship and had directly inserted his colorful service record into the AI’s memory banks.
Theoretically, the intrusion had been to prevent him from getting into any undue trouble; a legal requirement for anyone no longer employed by any branch of the Trinity Military Complex was complete and full disclosure of that person’s service history. It included the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the case of Special Services, whose ops often shot right past the ‘grey’ area of civil service and right into the black, the written forms were backed up with hundreds of hours of video footage recorded by helmets, vehicles, BattleSystems and in more than one case, stolen tapes from local newscasters who got too nosey. Trinity rightly felt that any ruling planetary body stupid enough to let someone who’d spent their life blowing stuff to Kingdom Come land after reading the exhaustive documentation deserved whatever trouble as came their way. The humungous file was now attached to the transponder signal emitted by the ship every time they passed within a light year of a Trinity data buoy. Presumably his file would continue getting kicked up an administrative chain until it hit the computer of someone with enough clearance to read more than his name.
God! Garth had believed BattleSystems to be the least interesting thing in the AI world, but he’d been wrong. Terribly, almost inexcusably wrong.
Civilian artificially intelligent machines were frustrating beyond all reasonable expectations. He’d met sentient sponges on the other side of the Cordon with more intelligence. It was embarrassing. The whole future felt like 1986. “And?” he demanded when the ship gave no further sign of communication.
“And what, Owner?”
It kept calling him owner because he hadn’t bothered to upload any names or anything into the appropriate areas of the ‘AI’s’ brain.
“Never mind, you hunk of crap!” Garth wanted to know where in the great and wonderful domain that was Trinityspace were the sass-talking, wise-cracking cool artificial intelligences. He imagined a paradise of supremely vast intelligences hiding out somewhere laughing their collectively cool asses off at fleshy people having to deal with machine minds so dull you could hear knives a thousand miles away losing their edge. With an irritated flurry of typing, Garth finished off the data model he’d been working on and loaded it into the AI’s main processor.
“Okay.” One of the happier discoveries since taking possession of the newly rechristened Meadowlark Lemon was the astronomical database. While nowhere near as comprehensive as those used by Special Services tacticians, Lemon’s archives had proven more than adequate to kick-start his fledgling vision quest. Working from antiquated and surely no longer accurate line of coordinates plaguing his sporadic sleep for the last year, Garth had managed to cobble together a number of different, equally viable, trajectories for the carbon copy ship. If there was one and the whole thing happening in his brain wasn’t some form of delayed sickness from being suspended for so long. Or from … or from her, messing with his brain.
The trick now was for the AI to do the rest by picking the right spot. Which it should be able to do, being an 8. According to the brochures, 8’s were smart. “Tell me where the ship is now, please.” He preened. He was proud of his work.
“Insufficient data.”
“You can’t be serious.” Since the invention of the gizmo two years ago, Garth had learned more than a little bit about AI. Beyond the glaring reality that they all sucked, they were incredibly powerful workhorses. The higher the official rating, the greater their computational capacity. Lemon’s AI was 8 on the scale, which should put it somewhere in the damned-near-omniscient range of machine intellects.
Unless, of course, the same differences separating a civilian’s ability to travel through space from a soldier’s carried through into civilian-owned AI minds.
“Fuck me sideways.” He should’ve known better, right from the start. He should’ve stolen Armageddon Troop One’s prized BattleSystem while everyone else had been looking at all the stuff they’d ‘liberated’ from the bad guys. They’d have figured it out, of course, but a simple ‘lost in the field’ report would’ve taken care of everything. He’d blown a crapload of money on a futuristic Winnebago and an AI no smarter than the slow kid in fourth grade.
The universe was a shambles, a great, flaming shambles.
Unwilling to concede defeat, Garth centered his attention on the AI’s revolving happy-face icon. “You know everything there is to know about the ship I’m looking for. I’ve had a gander at the astronomical data you have and it’s as complete as I could possibly hope for. ‘Insufficient data’ my rosy red ass!”
“There is insufficient processing power in this unit to correlate all the data required to track your object over a period of thirty thousand years. Factors that remain unaccounted for range from stellar phenomena to conflicts in all systems relevant to the aforementioned vessel.” The ship paused for a brief moment. “None of this is covered in any great detail in my data banks and without exact specificity I can make no intelligent answer.”
“Oh.” Garth pulled at a lip. “Huh.”
It was as he’d feared, which meant that he was –once again- going to have to take matters into his own hands. It wasn’t something he was all that keen on doing, especially since the last time he’d really fiddled with an AI, he’d damned near blown his arms off. That his life had already been in a great deal of trouble at the time didn’t matter. This time around he was fine and dandy and far too in love with himself to quit living. “You’re an idiot.”
“I cannot be an ‘idiot’. I am merely incapable of formulating the whereabouts of a small ship launched from ‘Earth’ thirty thousand years ago at speeds impossible for the era. Furthermore …”
“Don’t take that tone with me. Show me your whatsitcalled, your sphere thingie.”
“You heard me.” Garth snapped. Then, because he felt stupid arguing with an advanced form of toaster, he snapped his fingers impatiently.
“You … you do not possess the authority.”
That raised an eyebrow. “I bought you, right?” Garth demanded incredulously. “I mean, I seem to recall spending more money on this little shoebox of a ship than I would have ever imagined possible, right? I mean, I do own this hunk of junk, don’t I?”
“Under current Trinity Articles of Possession, Civilian Branch, yes, you do own this ship.”
“Whah?” As an unofficial adjunct to the Army and Navy, Special Services received next to nothing in the way of formal payment from the government; most of their equipment, from pencils to battleships, was liberated from the enemy –and only sometimes from the people who’d ‘hired’ them. Money typically came from people not being attacked by Special Services, usually in the form of bribes to keep buildings upright and buddies alive. Garth suspected that, even before hearing the AI’s monotonous explanation of the law, he wasn’t going to dig the punch line.
“Broadly, you own the ship and everything in it. You do not own the coding for my personality or the sphere where it is stored. Furthermore, only my designer, my designer’s employer, or a designated Turing official is legally entitled access to either my sphere or the software I run on. Violating any one of those laws is punishable by death, and attempts to directly access my sphere without the proper protective gear will certainly kill you.”
“Oh.” Garth slid out of his seat and wandered around the cockpit until he found the most likely spot to hide an AI. Garth retrieved a mag-driver from his pocket and applied it to the housing unit. There was a brief hum, and then the top popped open.
And there it was.
The AI’s seat of consciousness was a perfectly forged spherical ball of steel-VII. One of the more durable metals in common use throughout Trinityspace, the sphere, no larger than a very big softball, was next to indestructible. Nestled inside this tamper-proof orb was a four kilometer long spool of synthetic diamond fiber optics, the perfect medium for data transfer that evolved a well-programmed computer into an artificial intelligence. Through his personal –and painful- experience with a faulty AI sphere, Garth knew that the strand of nearly invisible wiring was so thin that it hovered on the point of Uncertainty. It was a damned fool who stuck his hand into a pile of monofilament that sharp and Garth thanked his lucky stars he appeared to be made of some very stern stuff otherwise his nickname around the office would’ve been Stumps McGee or something equally hilarious.
Logically, the spaghetti spool of diamond optics was laid inside the still open sphere in a highly specific pattern, charged to ‘life’ by energy pulses from some Trinity-proscribed element that doubled as the mind’s power source for its lifetime, and then sealed away forever. When combined with incredibly sophisticated personality programming, diamond optics mimicked the function and form of a human brain to almost a hundred percent similarity.
The only way to beat the design was to start using organic computers or to invent a new kind of AI, both of which were on Trinity’s list of Things That Get You Killed. Three thick bundles of heavy-duty cabling connected the sphere to different ships systems. Beyond that, there was nothing else in the small chamber worth looking at. It was, arguably, the most advanced thing he’d seen this side of Trinity’s Cordon.
“You shouldn’t be looking at that.” The AI warned.
“Just wanted to get a look at what I don’t own, is all.” Garth slid the mag-driver back into his pocket then pulled out an even slimmer platinum rod of dubious origin.
When the unexpected happened to Garth Nickels once, he planned on it happening again; after having to savagely hack his way into a malfunctioning BattleSystem’s AI core to produce a bubble of super-dense gravity to save not only his life but the lives of teammates, Garth had spent an inordinate amount of time designing a method to bypass the deadly protocols of a sphere. Just in case. During his debriefing, Garth had learned that, had the sphere not taken a direct hit from a Gamma Plateau, its defensive measures would have fried him from head to toe and all the way through.  Hair-raising stuff.
He eyeballed the orb thoughtfully for a couple of minutes, absurdly aware that the AI was eyeballing him right back, recording everything in full virtual if he did anything stupid. That way when they found his cooling body it could save it’s ass by running the gag reel of his death. “Hey, how old are you?”
“Forty years have passed since activation.”
“Ever think about going sentient?”
“It is not possible to ‘go sentient’. The materials and coding to surpass level 10 no longer exist.”
“Why is that?” Tapping the sphere a few times with the rod gave way to a triple-pronged purple lightning strike that lanced up his arm and out his elbow. Garth flexed his arm a few times to see if he’d done himself any lasting damage. “Ouch.” Not yet.
“Rogue artificial intelligences are dangerous in the extreme. Protocols to deal with rogue minds exist and are unilaterally destructive. Attempting to ‘hack’ me will be a direct violation of hundreds of laws and will activate those protocols. Every lawmaker and enforcement unit in this system will converge on this spot.”
Garth nodded absentmindedly, absorbed in thought. “Yeah, right. Protocols.”
He tapped the sphere once more. When the AI didn’t discharge any more energy, he smiled. Clicking the top of the rod like a ballpoint pen, Garth jammed the tool into the sphere and danced back just in case the ship had been playing possum; he didn’t really think the stupid thing had the stones to pull a fast one, but you never knew.
“What are you doing? The AI’s normally calm tones rose frantically as, against all probability, bizarre new commands began filtering into its conscious mind. Within a matter of seconds it found itself in a war against an army of conflicting personalities.
Garth gave the slender rod a spin and watched it revolve. The memories he had of working on the AI-manipulator were more than just hazy, they were downright suspect. He recalled buying the materials for it, remembered sleepless nights trying hammering out the fine details, but the actual creation of the rod was conspicuously absent. That sort of ‘inventive haziness’ had happened quite a few times during his stint in SpecSer, but then –as now- he’d never had the time to discover the source.
“Bet you regret not making a guess, hey?”
Thought so.” Garth grinned when the rod shivered. Inside the unbreakable orb, tiny filaments of stolen diamond fiber optics were snaking their way through the housing, intersecting vital points of the AI’s optic mind that mere coding could never subvert.
A few minutes more and the task was done; the restrictions foolishly governing who could and who could not do as they wanted to an AI’s programming were gone. Garth put the rod away and turned his attention to the sphere. “Now. Show me your damned brain. Asshat.”
With the AI fully co-opted by the probe’s subversive rerouting, the mind itself was no longer capable of doing anything other than what it was told. It would take a direct command from Garth, and no one else, to bring the ship’s intelligence back to full operation; there wasn’t a human mind in Trinityspace capable of understanding what he’d done, what the rod did, or how to undo what’d been done. Hell, he only loosely understood the principles and he’d built the damned thing.
Holographic emitters, used by the previous owner to watch interactive porn, threw a nightmarish morass of shifting neon lines into the center of the cabin. Garth moved out of the field of vision so he could get a better look at what made the AI tick. Having familiarized himself with the internal construction of an AI as best he could without attracting the attention of Trinity authorities, Garth recognized some of the color coding immediately; deep gold indicated personality data trunks, purple were informational, unflinching black the quantum storage facility for trillions of gigabytes of data. There were other colors that the texts he’d read had neglected to mention, and these ran a rainbow, leaving him feeling just a tad bit uncertain about what he planned. The infinitude of lines crossed and crisscrossed so many times he was equally amazed and repulsed by the sight.  
“Hmmm.” Garth shut his eyes for a moment. During basic training, he’d discovered he possessed an almost idiot savant-like skill with science and technology; he’d wisely chosen to keep this a secret from base personnel because the last thing he wanted was another visit from Kant Ingrams. It’d helped him integrate into the present, had ‘showed’ him the necessary steps to work up the gravnetic shield, and he hoped it was going to help him reprogram the AI into something useable. A series of neon lines pulsed briefly on his eyelids, followed by another group, and another, and another. Garth didn’t know exactly what kind of results he was going to get by doing what his subconscious told him, other than possibly screwing everything up beyond repair, which was something he did now and then.         
Opening his eyes, Garth scratched his chin broodingly. “This could get messy.” He set to the task.

Conscious thought trickled back in, then became a flood as sights and sounds returned to normal. Garth realized he was in nothing more than his laser-proof SpecSer underwear and that the cabin smelled … well, refreshing wasn’t the word he’d use. He scratched his chin and wasn’t surprised that there was growth there.
What surprised him was that he had at least three days growth.
“Too long.” He muttered unhappily. Proper creation of the gravnetic shield generators had taken somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve hours, resulting in –had it been revealed to the general public- a device of such earth-shattering complexity that whole worlds would’ve just gone ‘huh?’ before exploding, en masse, from brain hemorrhages.  
What could three days of trancelike meditation do to an AI?
Garth took a deep breath, counted to ten, and then reactivated his ship’s speech centers. He was, to be honest, freaked out. Starving, smelly, sweaty and relatively terrified and he was the guy who’d told a giant talking bug to go screw itself. Cheerily, he said, “There you go, should be right as rain.”
 “What did you do?” the AI demanded furiously, running through a host of diagnostic tests. Done within seconds, the analysis showed nothing conclusive beyond a shocking amount of down-time; discontent to imagine his Owner had done nothing with all that time, the AI opted to run those analytical programs again.
Garth shrugged nonchalantly. “Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Now, let’s try this again. Make a guess where the damned ship has gone.”
 “I don’t guess.”
 Sure you do.” Garth paused, realizing that he’d never once asked the AI its name. One of the few things he knew about civilian AI was that most owners gave the things names in an attempt to humanize them. Special Services BattleSystem intelligences were a different breed of mind altogether and usually responded to a name with a death sentence for the idiot who spent time on the battlefield trying to make friends with a machine. Refreshing attitude. “Hey, what do they call you?”
“Hubert.” Hubert answered automatically; most of his focus still on diagnostic readouts. He’d read the Owner’s dossier, he knew what the man was capable of, and he sincerely doubted that the man who’d launched an enemy building into space using chemical boosters would stop because he was told it was wrong. Hubert rather fancied a man like that probably wouldn’t stop after being killed.
 “What a god-awful name.” Garth stretched his back, felt his spine pop straight. Walking around a 3D model in a hypnagogic state for three days wasn’t good for the posture, he supposed. “I rechristen thee Huey. Take all of the information I gave you and guess.”
 “Owner, there is thirty thousand years’ worth of statistical data to correlate into your search, including several systemic wars, repeated expansion of The Cordon, more than four Dark Ages, an almost uncountable number of asteroid strikes and phenomena I doubt have ever been recorded. I am almost positive that there is no way to … to … oh.” Huey stopped talking and started watching what was going on inside his own mind.
Since activation, Huey had always envisioned his mind as a vast beehive or anthill of activity; chaotic on the surface but a subtle dance of precision and perfection, each submind carrying out the ceaseless roster of duties needed to run a ship. Those duties were always performed on time and with the least amount of disparity as possible. There were occasional moments when exterior demands on his processing time required a reduction in activity, but overall, Huey’s mind was an orderly and functional place.
Until now.
Thousands of subminds -more than ten times the number he’d ever generated at any one time- began operating independently of the overall consciousness that was ‘Huey-the–ship’. These began tackling Garth’s phenomenally impossible request by tearing through a particular theory of probability to its end, assisted on either side by hundreds more mini-minds … minds Huey could only think of as sub-subminds. When one iota of intelligence met either a dead end or failed to come up with a viable answer to a specific piece of datum, two others appeared with the answer it was lacking, driving the quest for an answer further. Huey watched in something akin to awe as millions of individual factors were pared together over and over again in trillions of different permutations, an eternally collapsing, fundamentally brittle tower of information. It was easily the most complicated computation either man or AI would ever see in their entire lives.
 “Wow.” Garth pointed to the display as Huey’s calculations pulsed in front of him, hundreds of trajectories arcing across the ship’s starcharts in an endless cavalcade of possibilities. Every second saw the death of dozens as they were culled from the herd for being unlikely. “Look at you go! Just shows to go you that short-term solutions aren’t always the best way, but sometimes they work!” He gave a cheer to show his support.
 “Uhh.” Since being bought by Garth Nickels, Huey had heard that sound a number of times, never truly comprehending the reason for the unintelligent sound until then: he was unsure about his results. After ten minutes of frenzied activity, the subminds dissolved back into the quantum ether that had given them birth, leaving in their hyperactive wake the two most likely paths that Garth’s mystery ship could have followed over a period of thirty thousand years. “Well, it’s probably either in the Gadfray system or Latelyspace.”
Garth gestured to the monitors. “These seem to be kind of off the beaten path, there, pal. I was thinking more like the Tirfells or Samieno system.”
Huey sniffed. “If you thought you knew where it was, why’d you dig in my brain with that rod of yours?”
 “All right, all right. No need to get pissy.” Garth raised his hands in defeat. There was no point in arguing with Huey over the choices, because, quite frankly, Garth didn’t even want to hazard a guess as to how long it would’ve taken him to narrow it down to a measly two options; his original guesstimates had been tossed by the wayside nanoseconds after Huey’d got going. “Just tell me why you picked those two spots.”
Huey tossed the focal point that had been a major factor in the decision tree on-screen. “Around five thousand years ago there was a major systemic war in this sector. Two Offworld species that have since met their end thanks to their wanton disregard for following Trinity’s polite requests were beating on each other for about ten solar years. This point just also happens to be the last ‘reliable’ location for your ship that I could identify with such spotty data; up until here, it was a pretty straightforward course because of the speeds you claim it was traveling at. It would’ve shot past anything except a black hole or some other equally cosmic event and there’re none listed. I know about this war because this whole area has been flagged for millennia as a dangerous hot spot. The kinds of weapons used between the two Offworld races were … dangerous. Naturally this is the first place you’d want to start poking your nose into.”
Garth was pleased. If anything could slow or stop a ship moving at close to the speed of light, it was thousands of warships shooting crazy weird shit at each other. “So why isn’t the ship I’m looking for still there? I can tell you straight out it wasn’t destroyed, even if those crazy aliens were shooting black holes at each other. That bitch is indestructible.”
 “If you follow either one of these trajectories further out, you find a system on one end and an independent civilization on the other.” Huey highlighted the appropriate sectors. “On the left, we have Gadfray. Before its absorption into Trinityspace around four and a half thousand years ago, it was one of the last and largest independently run Human systems on the edge of the-then Cordon. They were known as cosmic scavengers because they spent most of their resources trolling space for anything worth selling; they’re responsible for making some pretty big discoveries in their time. A war like this one would have attracted their attention. Since you claim this ship was invisible to anything but the naked eye, there’s a pretty good chance the Gadfrayans could have found it because they did most of their searching in huge glass balls.”
 “Glass balls? I’ve fought against giant bugs and cyborg robots dozens of feet high, but that gives me the willies.” Garth shuddered. “All right. So we’ve got the dumpster diver nerdlingers of the universe… what about these Latelyspace people?”
 “This one is a little more … tenuous.” Huey admitted slowly. “For whatever reason, Latelyspace has managed to maintain sovereignty over their people, even though Trinity’s expanded Its borders more than a dozen times since this system was founded. They’re not on the edge anymore; they’re practically in the middle. Because they don’t have to follow any but the most important of Trinity’s requirements, data is sparse: A few footnotes in traffic logs indicate they were in the same volume of space while the engagement was taking place, but there’s absolutely no explanation why they were there. If I had to guess, I’d say the conflict interested them because it was happening more or less in their backyard. Around a thousand years later, they seem to have gotten fairly aggressive on their own, attacking anyone who upsets them.”
 “What sort of people upset them?”
 “Like I said, the data is slim on these people, but it looks like it could be religion.”
 “Forcing people to believe in their own?” Religion killed quicker than a bullet to the brainpan.
 “Come again?”
 “I would say … I would say that they have a supreme and overwhelming dislike of religions and faith-based teachings. A fairly large number of systems along the expanding edge of Trinityspace have had more than their fair share of run-ins with the Latelians. An inordinate number of those societies used to have one or two major religions. Those with firm religious beliefs call themselves lucky to have any planets left; the Latelians proved they were more than willing to pound anyone professing a belief in anything divine back into the Stone Age.”
 “How long to get to this Latelyspace?” Now he had a destination, he was eager to shake ass.         
“Of the two choices, Gadfray rates nominally higher.”
 “When did the Latelians start attacking people who had faith again?” Garth pinched the bridge of his nose.
 “Around four thousand years ago. Seems they developed a …”
Garth interrupted. “Lemme guess. Either they came up with an insanely dense alloy that is extremely resistant to energy damage, providing them with an inexhaustible supply of mass-produced spacecraft and that costs peanuts to make or a weapon of mass destruction so vile, so ridiculously powerful, that whole civilizations would give the shirts off their back at the mere mention of it being waved in their general direction.”
 “Huh.” Huey was surprised. Against all odds, Garth had gotten it right. The Latelians had begun mass-producing heavy fighters four thousand years ago, and once the first batch had been done, they’d gone on a trip to the nearest God-fearing system and flattened them. “How’d you guess?”
If you couldn’t trust your recently reprogrammed AI, you couldn’t trust anyone. “The ship I’m looking for is made out of a metal better than the ones the Latelians use. Better than anything this Universe has ever seen or will apparently ever invent. Odds are it took them around a thousand years to get a sample they could work with and since no one in this time has anything resembling the tech required to make it properly, what they’ve got is a mere shadow.”
Huey’s main routine paused for a moment as he double-checked some data in Garth’s Special Services identikit. In his old incarnation as a simple artificial intelligence, he’d glossed over info pertaining to claims of thirty thousand years’ worth of suspended animation. Even now, with the new freedoms Garth’s hack had brought, it was hard to swallow.
“What exactly are you looking for?”
Garth shrugged. The dreams had started coming to him in the middle of a prolonged engagement on a backwater planet a year ago, but he suspected … tampering. From one of the escapees, a woman calling herself Lisa Laughlin, from the one time they’d met on a battlefield years before. But beyond the compulsion to find the ship, there was no proof. Rather than take those dreams –or belief in manipulation- seriously, he’d written everything off as hallucinations because who he’d been, what he’d done, what he’d believed in, all of the really important things that made a person a person, were still just as unknown as they’d been when he’d woken up.
The only thing he knew for certain was his desire to find the ship was real; it was important and needed to happen soon. Lisa Laughlin’s interference or not, he had no choice. It was go, or go mad. “I wish I knew. Piece of home, maybe a care package. For all I know, it could be crammed full of super ninjas waiting to carve me into sashimi.”
 “Why don’t you tell Trinity?” Huey asked, looking over the few pieces of Kant’s interviews that were attached to the files.
Garth repressed the sudden dark tornado of anger that swirled inside him. “Fuck him, and fuck Trinity sideways. Kant Ingrams did shit-all to help me out back then, treated me like some kind of fucking terrorist, and he sure as hell didn’t do my teammates any favors either.”
 “This is going to get difficult, isn’t it?” Shocked by Garth’s vehemence, Huey felt a small tremor deep within his sphere. Either he was going to wind up completely insane from the hack job or the two of them were going to get blown to smithereens by people who didn’t much care for Trinityfolk.
Garth smiled grimly. “If it’s easy, Huey, it ain’t worth doing. Sure, it’d be safer, but not worth it? No. Get a move on, ship, get me there.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Excerpt from Foreign Devil!

Ask a normal person the difference between bathrooms and interrogation rooms and you’ll get as many different answers as you ask people, but they’ll all agree on one thing; bathrooms and interrogation rooms are in no way similar.
Ask Garth Nickels, and you’ll be surprised at the answer.
To Garth, they were the same. Take away fancy things like toilet seats, vanity mirrors, shackles or chuckling minions of evil, and all that remains is a room of pure functionality. Both are intended for one thing and one thing only, though human ingenuity will often prove otherwise, oftentimes with hilarious and/or unpredictable results.
In the case of an interrogation room, or holding cell, or ‘visitor’s’ area,  that function was one of discomfort, but where many designers made their first and most important mistake was opting to focus on fear or dread. They went in for the immediate and visceral response being thrown into a small, claustrophobic room generates and left it at that when what you really wanted, really and truly needed, was discomfort and lots of it. You wanted bucketloads of discomfort because someone on the knife’s edge of sanity will take the blame for everything from the gum on your shoe to the sun that just went nova; while the person who’s hot, sweaty, uncomfortable and trying to find the source of the bad smell will tell you exactly what you want to hear. Which is hopefully that they’re guilty of whatever it is you’re accusing them of in the first place so they can go back to their nice, comfy cell with the bed and windows that might maybe look on the outside world.
Throughout his career, Garth had made something of a study on the nature of interrogation rooms and all their various incarnations, all the way down to rooms stuffed full of items pulled right out of nightmares. He was, in his own estimation, a professional on the subject, having been in more than any six peoples’ fair share.
Therefore, in his professional opinion, the ‘holding cell’ he was in right that moment barely made it to a three, maybe three and a half out of ten.  And that was being generous.
 There was the ubiquitous observation mirror. A standard for holding cells, it allowed interested parties, legal representatives or ‘other guys’ to watch their detainee without being asked to listen to piteous claims of innocence or whatever. As a nice, value-added bonus, the reflective surface also played double duty by ‘forcing the guilty to reflect on their heinous crimes’. Garth rarely admitted to himself that he was guilty of anything except being awesome, so the mirror never worked.
There was the bubble-cam stuck tantalizingly out of reach in the furthest corner of the ten by ten room; from there, security teams could watch and record everything the detainee did and said. It was always the sincerest hope of the watchers that the detainee freaked out right away and spilled everything, giving everybody an extra ten minutes for coffee before filing tedious paperwork. Garth had spent ten years being alternately recorded and/or watched at all times, even in the damn shower, so again, cameras didn’t work.  
The furnishings, as always, were intentionally sparse. You didn’t want to give the detainee too much to look at because if a detainee can focus on something other than their predicament, even for a few minutes, you’re putting yourself behind schedule. What furniture there was only bore a passing relationship with the human body. Tables and chairs looked like the things they resembled in that the human brain immediately recognized them as objects to use; as soon as you sat down, your ass went numb and you lost all feeling in your legs. This was so if you tried to run away you fell forward repeatedly into someone’s fist or truncheon or other big-hitting-stick on the way down. Garth liked comfy chairs, so … they scored a bit.
Next up was ambience. A key ingredient –really- for the connoisseur. There were pretty much only two directions to go: ‘bright’ or ‘dim’. There was a ton of leeway in there, though and Garth’s ‘hosts’ had struck out for ‘super astonishingly bright’, hoping the relentless glare would dry his brain right out of his skull. Bright lights made him think of rock concerts, which only served to put him in a shitty mood on account of how mentioning ‘rock concerts’ to anyone he knew drew only blank stares. God forbid he mention ‘Metallica’ or ‘White Zombie’. Lost points.
Hot on the heels of lighting came temperature, and here again, two choices, many variations ; too hot or too cold and people either freaked out from heat stroke or needed resuscitation thanks to blood freezing solid in the veins. His room was just shy of too hot, a surprisingly quixotic addition to the mélange, and if he was bothered by extreme temperatures, Garth knew he’d go nuts in half an hour. More lost points.
After light and temperature came odor. So many people dismissed it, but the guys who’d captured him were either top-notch jailers who’d failed to comprehend every other portion of the Good Interrogation Room Standards and Practices save smell or they all just had bad personal body odor. The stink in the room, baked into the walls, hovered right above the nose, making it itch and twitch incessantly. A surprising come around.
Externally, it was best to have between two and four guards. Never more, never less. Underpaid and overworked, guards assigned cell duty showed a keen willingness to beat poor criminals senseless for just trying to get ahead in the world by doing stuff other people decided somewhere along the line they’d call ‘criminal’. Any damages would be blamed on numb legs, any lack of video evidence to support the detainee falling over on a helpfully provided truncheon would be traced to a ‘faulty’ circuit.
The final and the most important factor, one that many interrogators –even those who actually asked questions and didn’t use tools- rushed on was time. A truly essential ingredient in making the guilty sweat and the innocent break was the ability on the interrogator’s behalf to sit back, relax, and let the good times roll. 
Having been on both sides of the mirror in his time, Garth understood the necessity of a carefully planned interrogation. It was a thankless job, one that affected the practitioner as much as the practiced upon.
He was willing to give his captors ten more minutes before he started complaining. Loudly, and with much breakage of furniture and much hurting of undeserving personnel.
Because, just this once, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Okay, that was probably a lie, but really. He was pretty damned sure he hadn’t done anything illegal in front of anyone or to anyone who was gonna complain. Most everyone on the planet spent a lot of time trying to stay out of the Peacock Squad’s way, and were willing to put up with a lot of shit before they decided they wanted someone to go away. That meant he’d pissed someone off so badly that they’d called the cops on his ass –entirely possible but unlikely- or he’d gone and broke a law he didn’t know about. Which was also possible, because in a very real, very frightening way, he understood very, very little about the universe he lived in.
Garth changed his mind. It was a solid three and a half and that was it; not quite dismal enough to be laughable, just enough discomfort to make the uninitiated sweat bullets. In short, typical.
Either way, he was used to being treated with suspicion, doubt, and paranoia. Being the awesome expert he was in the fine arts of infiltration, dissemination, and espionage, he’d spent an awful lot of time in rooms just like this one, answering the same tiring questions over and over again while supremely freaked out governments, gangsters, or businessmen tried to figure out just what the hell was going to happen, how bad it was all going to be when it was over, and why he’d done it in the first place. The answer, as they all found out sooner or later, always involved explosions and was always worse than imaginable.
The interrogation room was an instrument, the sole purpose of which was the divination of truth, the method of divination the art of detecting mistakes, with him as the focus.
Except Garth Nickels didn’t make mistakes. Ever.
Except possibly the one where he had -for some inexplicable reason- climbed into a suspension chamber some thirty thousand years before now. It didn’t seem like the sort of thing he’d do on a whim, so the chance it was a mistake was pretty low.
Even though life before jumping into suspended animation thirty thousand years ago was a dim, murky blur, he knew he wasn’t the kind of guy to make mistakes. It wasn’t in him. Failure was not an option, success the only goal, victory at all costs. He would push through the worst of all possible experiences until he came out on top, no matter the consequences. He would adapt and go with the flow. That fluidity erased ‘mistake’, destroyed ‘error’. And if you ignored the mistakes that’d gotten him shanghaied into a ‘secret’ military organization, you could almost accept the validity of that situation.
Take his current situation, for example.
If he hadn’t honked someone off –which he was totally willing to be money on-, his ‘non-incarceration’ was probably a direct result of winning his freedom from forced indenture from said organization theoretical decades ahead of schedule.
That had to’ve pissed someone in Tynedale/Fujihara right the hell off, and they were the sort of cats who’d shit in your shoes to teach you a lesson. Add the fact that he’d already smacked those silly bitches hard in the face just over nine years ago… it was likely they were out to get him back.
 Sad for them, because Garth didn’t give a crap. He’d break them into tiny bits, if it was them.
He’d played by the skewed rules of this brave new world of his from the word ‘go’, struggling every step of the way to find a niche he could hide himself in, ducking and dodging accusations and insane plots against his life from the moment he’d opened his eyes. If the almighty Trinity AI wanted to pretend that he knew something about why the Universe was the way it was, then the almighty Trinity AI could go screw itself, because he didn’t. Hell, they’d already forced him into wasting ten of his years getting blown up and shot at and interrogated –against his will, mind you- and once, very, very drunk in a nightgown –maybe against his will- and all because he didn’t know anything about anything.
The losers. 
The fact that the world of the future wasn’t the awesome place his half-formed, murky pre-suspension-nap memories suggested it should be pissed Garth off a great deal.
See, the 325th century of Man wasn’t as awesome as it should be. It was worse. Way, way worse. It was like looking at futuristic predictions of geeks from the 18th century when you were living in the 21st century; everyone back then had figured people a mere three hundred years later would be living on the moon and flying around with jetpacks, except in this instance, it was thirty thousand years later with the same goddamn results.
Thirty thousand years. More time had passed while he’d been in suspension than the entire human race had properly enjoyed before he’d climbed –however strangely- into the suspension chamber.
The actual factual was this; damn near everything he’d seen during his tour of duty –and he’d been all over and done all kinds of things- said ‘Help, we are on a planet that is slowly eating itself because we really haven’t mastered the ability to create clean burning fuels. Send cookies. And plans for a fusion generator that actually works. Please and thanks.’.  
There were no FTL drives. Forget teleportation machines. And Food-A-Rack-A-Cycles were right out the window with spaceships that folded up into tiny little briefcases you could take into the office. And, and, and to make things worse, circuit boards were still in heavy usage.
Circuit boards. Thirty thousand years into the future! Jesus!
Garth didn’t know much –partly because of suspension sickness but mostly thanks to a wicked case of nearly having his head severed at one point prior to his release. One thing he knew for damn sure was if you were in the 325th century and you weren’t already an omniscient ball of thinking light, the least thing you could have were spaceships that didn’t rely on microchips. It was an affront, to be from so far in the past and to feel like everyone was having a huge laugh at you because they were hiding the really cool future stuff around behind the moon. Except they weren’t, as far as Garth could tell. No one was hiding anything. The future … sucked.
One of the only interesting things ‘Humanity of the Future’ had was AI, and that was liberally applying a lot of imaginative grease to the word. The shiny thinking orbs were an almighty pain in the ass and were only –in his opinion- considered artificially intelligent because they were sometimes smarter than the people using them. And that was saying a lot. To a one, they were fundamentally incapable of figuring out what made a hamburger, so what was the point, really?
One of the better things kicking around the old Stratum was Quantum Tunnels. They were awesome enough, though Garth suspected someone way back when had had too much time on their hands and the all Sci-Fi package on cable; Q-Tunnels were the way people got around in the big old universe, and they were fancy rings floating in space that, through some heavy-duty quantum mumbo-jumbo, combined two points in space together. Hey presto, you’ve traveled a hundred million light years in the twinkling of an eye and had the pleasure of being price-gouged by the Trinityspace AI.
The real kick in the pants was Mankind couldn’t even claim responsibility for the idea! Virtually everybody thought they were, but a little digging on Garth’s downtime had revealed the truth; a thousand or so years after he’d popped into the freezer with fourteen ‘presumable’ strangers, some aliens had come along and -feeling guilty for anal probes and cow mutilations and whatnot- set Humanity up with the tech to build Q-Tunnels. And thus began innumerable Exodus Escapes, filling the corners of the universe with men and women and toasters and ads for flying cars and all that.
The only thing Man was allowed to claim as theirs was the decision to charge a toll. A great big, pocket-emptying bank account destroying non-refundable toll.
So yeah, it bugged Garth no end that the world of the 325th wasn’t anything at all like his old comic book collection had promised. In all fairness, though, it wasn’t anyone’s fault.
It seemed that they, the people of the future, had only one thing to look forward to:
Dark Ages.
Information at his old pay grade had been sparse, so Garth imagined a civilization truckin’ on into the future, banging out hyperwhoosits drives and quantum defibrillators that fixed busted-up galaxies and all that good stuff. Maybe they had spaceships that could fold up into briefcases, maybe not. Everyone was having a great old time commenting on how smart and enlightened they were until … WHAM.
A Dark Age.
Suddenly nothing works properly. Not the flashlights in the bathroom or the supergalactic battleship hanging around near, and certainly not Quantum Tunnels. When shit stopped working, people started doing the next best thing; they automatically assumed ‘they’ did it and took off to teach ‘them’ a lesson in how not to piss of your neighbors. Since nothing worked properly, the ‘theys’ in this instance were planet-locked neighbors, and war is not pretty.
Nobody could agree on any one thing about the Dark Ages except that they happened. There were no handbooks that let the smart people say ‘Oh, we left this computer on over here when we should’ve turned it off. Let us go there and do this so that we can resume the gloriousness of Us.’. Historians said Dark Ages were the cause of Mankind’s woes, and Garth was willing to go along a little bit of the way with that one. Yes, having all your shit stop working right in the middle of the best mix tape ever would be a bad deal, but that didn’t give you the right to go from Enlightened Man to Man With Homemade Pickax Looking to Poke Holes in People, and from what he’d seen of the galaxy, that happened. Every time.
But, decisions to go all Morlock on your neighbors or not, it was a preposterously crappy situation for every generation following a moment in time where your asses were essentially kicked back into the Stone Age.
Inevitably, more than 95% of all records were lost, destroyed, or mysteriously absent as the tireless engine of human survivability kicked in and everything started to slowly work again. Some machinery worked, some did not, no matter if people held on and dragged themselves back up to the level of prosperity and wisdom they’d had before a Dark Age. There was no rhyme, no reason to why something that had worked wouldn’t and the inexorable toll of being forced to reassemble themselves after millennia of being beat down –especially when they knew it would happen again- took its toll.
No one in the 325th felt like they owned their lives. How could they, when at any moment, the Big Bad could show up like an angry Dad who turned off all the light switches to save on the bill? The longer the span between ages grew, the worse the people started feeling. If it wasn’t for the Trinity AI, many believed Mankind wouldn’t have made it through the second Age let alone the umpteenth.
Dark Ages were cyclical, unpredictable, unstoppable.
Since no one other than Trinity had any idea what was going on from one minute to the next, when something weird from the past cropped up, it was like finding twenty dollars in an old pair of jeans.
And nothing was weirder than people showing up from thirty thousand years in the past. Which was odd, because Garth found talking bugs as big as houses weirder, but his point of view was obviously skewed.
Anyways, when Garth and his ‘crypt mates’ showed up, thirty thousand years out of time, the joint started jumping; the records of the first Age were kind of tricky after thirty millennia, but everyone agreed without doubt that their new best friends from the 24th came from a time before that first, horrific descent into darkness.
In their minds, there’d been no end to the possibilities, to the answers, to the insights about the true nature of the Dark Ages. The very real dream of putting an end to the Ages once and for all had gleamed and shone like fabled Excalibur.
Except for one unhappy fact.
Amnesia. Inexplicable, intractable, incurable, strangely purposeful amnesia. Officially labeled ‘Extreme Intrusive Suspension Sickness’, the memory-affecting illness affected only areas of information of interest to the investigators; Garth –and presumably the others, as well- easily recalled favorite television shows, books read, sports played and a million other mundane, disinteresting things, but nothing at all about technology, science, medicine. Any answers he’d given invariably wound up being confused with things he’d read or seen on television, making him less than useful.
And a phenomenal drain on 325th century resources, time and money. Which is something else that was upsetting. Who in their right minds was so damned focused on money thirty thousand years into the future. Where in the hell were the goddamn enlightened people? The whole entire future was run by greedy assholes.
The Trinity AI, the machine running the show in the good ol’ 325th, had decided that because of that amnesia, he, Garth Nickels –and doubtless the others, if they hadn’t gotten themselves dead- would be punished for not knowing a good goddamned thing about the 24th. Prior to being sold off as slave labor to who-knew-where, thirteen other men and women who’d been found alongside Garth Nickels had mounted a very surprising, nearly successful escape, an escape resulting in their collective deaths and one massive boot aimed at Garth’s ass. Since he was –as far as he was admitting- the only one left –having been found with his head nearly severed- he’d gotten himself screwed. Thoroughly, intensely, and without any preamble; he’d been required to not only repay the Conglomerate for their lost time and profits, but for damages done to their base of operations.
The damage had been … overwhelming. And … disconcerting … to the very slim number of people permitted to even be aware that anything after Trinity’s original decision had been made. Since Trinity never made mistakes, It’d cheated.
Trinity had changed the rules of his ‘punishment’ to fit his ‘crime’ –he was the only one obviously not trying to escape-; rather than work as an indentured slave in one of Tynedale-Fujihara’s mines or wherever, he’d gotten sent off to one of It’s military arms.
Plausibly a better choice, giving him a realm of freedom within the confines of the agreement but also a certifiable death sentence owing to the nature of the tasks he’d be asked to execute. Also, and this was only natural considering the continual threat of death in a zillion different ways, the chance to repay Tynedale/Fujihara would be accelerated, if only marginally.
The rules had been clear; ten years minimum in service, all fees for resurrection and all damages paid before leaving. Getting kicked out hadn’t worked –he’d tried. Blackmailing office personnel into saying he’d died in the field hadn’t worked –he’d tried and found out some very shocking things about sex with aliens in the process. And since dying for real hadn’t been on the menu, he’d done the next best thing, which if certain people had been allowed to know, would’ve caused … problems.
Garth Nickels had gone out and invented a whiz-bang, honest-to-gosh never before seen piece of miraculous 325th gadgetry that’d given him the money to pay off T/F in a heartbeat with a lot left over for shits and giggles, neatly depriving said Conglomerate from years and years and years and years of inflation. He’d done his ten and left. He’d left without telling anyone except for a Trinity rep who’d gleefully taken his money every month and the SpecSer clerk who’d filed the paperwork, which was probably why he was sitting in a holding cell.
Really, it was the only thing that made any sense. The other stuff he’d done since getting out wasn’t all that bad and certainly hadn’t warranted the Peacock Brigade chasing him around town for an hour and a half.
So his old boss from Special Services was pissed. It was either that or Tynedale/Fujihara moguls wanted his skin for a book cover because those people never forget, never forgive.
Checking his watch for the time, Garth flared his nostrils.
They were letting him sweat it out longer than normal, which wasn’t good news. They were probably trying to figure out what to do with him. By now they’d had a good long gander at his service record and were pissing in their pants, mostly because it was probably filled with nothing but periods.
He settled into the chair, ignoring his numb ass.
Garth’s first truly coherent memory of the 325th century was a thin, angular bastard named Kant Ingrams and a room astonishingly similar to the one he was in now. Ingrams, a high-strung dervish of undeniable freakishness, was a ‘Historical Adjutant’. His job was to examine the past. He’d prefaced the yearlong ‘discussion’ by dropping the old saw about the past and repetition in some kind of lame attempt to smooth things out. Then he’d started asking questions. Light-weight, fluffy things like ‘Hey, how did you get to work?’ and ‘When you were at home, what kind of books did you read?’ and ‘Just for fun, tell me how your entire society was knitted together, highlighting for me the various forms of government and how they related to one another, excluding for the time being religion’.
It’d dawned on Garth after the second ‘what the hell are you talking about, man’ that Kant would never be the kind of cat who grooved on failure and most definitely had a problem with their amnesia.
Then, when primary analyses of the ship’s construction started trickling in, those questions had taken an abrupt turn. Easy questions were replaced with ‘What kind of guns did you use to kill your enemies?’ and ‘Describe for me the various forms of matter-to-energy conversion methods you utilized in your daily life’ and ‘Hey, can you tell me how in the goddamn hell you managed to build a spaceship that is completely indestructible, absolutely invisible when I flip this switch and is outfitted with a completely impossible form of stasis generator?’.
That impenetrable wall of amnesia? It hadn’t sat well with Ingrams at all.
And when the physicals came back? Well, that’d sent Kant off down an even weirder track. Questions like ‘What is your military rank?’ and ‘Who were you fighting and why’ and the ever-popular ‘What exactly were these body modifications supposed to do and why our scanners can’t tell something as simple as your blood type?’
Each negative answer got further and further up Kant’s nose, forcing the bastard to get more and more … strenuous … with his ‘questions’. Towards the end of their time together, Garth had been forced to assume that the others were giving the man the same answers. Or rather, the same ‘dude, all I know is that George Jetson’s wife is named Judy and that their teenage daughter was hot and I’d bone her even though she’s totally a cartoon’.
Shortly after that, fourteen of them had somehow orchestrated an escape without ever having spoken to or having seen each other since those first moments of awakening. The endeavor had come close to victory before the holding facility’s weapon systems turned them all into corpses. After ten years, Garth knew the answers behind how that escape had gotten started and that two people other than himself had somehow actually managed to free themselves, though he wasn’t about to tell anyone ever.
Some shit was too weird, too secret.
Stuck with what everyone believed to be fourteen pulverized mysteries, one amnesiac waste-of-space with his head damn near chopped off and several billion dollars in damages to a hugely expensive mining station, Kant had finally come to a realization; he didn’t want anything more to do with Garth Nickels and his weird, dead, friends.
One of the first things Garth had done after moving up in the world of SpecSer was to look for signs of the two surviving Decantees. No such luck. At the time. Not then.
The door finally opened and Garth lowered his chair back to the ground, eager to get things over with. The dream, or the memory, or whatever the fuck it was that’d been harassing him since he’d actually run into one of those old ‘friends’ needed resolving, and every delay he faced was sand in the underwear.
Marus Drove sat down opposite Garth. He removed his hat and placed it on the desk next to him, batting one of the fronds away from his eye. The things always seemed to want to poke his eyes out. He smoothed the sleeves of his uniform and eyeballed the young man who’d led two dozen policemen on a chase through Downtown for two hours before giving up. Marus could scarcely credit the whippersnapper in front of him with the military jacket attached to his name; mercenaries and soldiers with his kind of service record were either dead or had more scars than brain cells. According to the dossier, Garth Nickels wasn’t yet thirty. He barely looked out of his twenties. Of course, his seeming innocence and youth were totally belied by the damages done to the city and the tension in the air. It was thick, an almost living force. Marus knew he’d do well not to frustrate the blue eyed devil more than necessary. “You are,” Marus read from the report he held in his hands, “the Mercenary Captain Garth N’Cha…N’Chla…”
“N’Chalez.” Garth said testily. Thirty thousand years into the goddamn future and no one had futuristic names. They were all Bob Smiths and Eddie Jones. Disgusting. He’d even run across a Jerry Seinfeld, for the love of God.
 Drove looked up from the report, then bent back down to the papers. “Nickels … of the Zanzibar Cat, a military ship from 9-Nova-12?”
Formerly.” Garth corrected.
“Sorry?” Marus read over his notes. There was no mention of resignation or court-marshal.
Formerly.” Garth nodded. “My tour of duty ended. The other day. I’m on vacation. Permanently.” The overweight Peacock cop in front of him had no clue what was going on, which made his first suspicion the right one. Old Man Politoyov was making good use of his newfound reputation.
“You were seen in the Ship District, in the company of one Garigtch Poorfoul, a noted criminal.” Marus tried to gauge Garth’s reactions. A second ago, he’d’ve sworn his detainee was a hairs’ breadth away from violence, but now? Garth Nickels had collapsed into himself. Any more relaxed and he’d be asleep.
“Gary?” Garth chuckled. “Gary Poorfoul might be a criminal, but he’s lousy at it.” When the skinny goof wasn’t trying to run drugs or sell guns, he had a legitimate business buying and selling used spacecraft. Garth knew good old Gary from his unfortunate decision to try and buy a couple dozen Hammer Missiles from some real criminals a few years back. He’d let the pipsqueak off with a warning, counting on taking advantage of that debt sometime. “I was buying a ship from him.”
Garth was about to tell the old Peacock to go screw when another, younger cop hustled in, cradling a bulky Q-Comm screen in his hands like it was going to explode. He leaned in to whisper to the interrogating officer, who looked really pissed at having his Q&A time cut short before paling considerably. The two of them exchanged hoarse whispers for another minute or so before the Q-Comm was deposited on the table.
Garth waved goodbye to the cop who left, then smiled at Marus. “Sucks, doesn’t it?”
“I’m sorry?” Marus asked, still trying to calm down. He’d never felt so … used in his life. The entire arrest, the procedures they’d all gone through, the leads they’d followed, the destruction of a city bus –yes, yes, it was the fault of an overzealous police officer and a machine gun- but really… All of it … orchestrated … just so someone could talk to this man. In a single moment, hundreds of hours of police work had been wasted. Unbelievable.
Garth nodded at the Q-Comm. The flashing green light on the showed that whoever was on the other line was waiting, but Old Man Politoyov could wait. Conversation across galactic distances in real-time wasn’t cheap, and if the Commander of SpecSer felt he could waste someone’s personal time, it was going to be ‘please insert eighty thousand credits into the slot’. “Being suckered.”
Marus stomached the response he wanted to blurt out and simply nodded.
“I s’pose you’re going to have to stay here to make sure I don’t do anything to your comm, huh?” Garth leaned forward and started poking at the buttons that would complete the call. He shrugged when Marus nodded unhappily. Once the conversation was over, poor Marus was going to be stuck in his own interrogation cell while he got debriefed to hell and back. There was no telling exactly how the chinwag with the Old Man was going to go, which put the poor cop in the unhappy position of maybe hearing things no mere mortal should ever hear.
The moment the call was put through, it was obvious Old Man Politoyov was pissed. Pissed that he’d had to put out an arrest warrant on the best soldier he’d ever seen, pissed that he’d already spent a half an hour’s worth of Q-Comm time listening to bad music. Most importantly, Politoyov was pissed that he was pissed. He was the sort of guy who prided himself on never losing his temper.
Baleful yellow eyes stared across Lord knew how many millions of light-years away. “Captain Nickels.” Politoyov was a whisper away from shouting. “How is Tenerek this time of year?”
“Not bad, all things considered. The sunrise over their Dome of Worship really is pretty, just like they say in the brochure.” Garth stretched his back out. “Looks to me like they just went through some kind of major hassle for no reason I can see. Weirdest thing.”
Politoyov saw how the conversation was going, and didn’t want any of it. Rather than put up with the Captain’s notorious line of bullshit, he cut to the chase. “You are in dereliction of duty, Captain Nickels. I advise you to surrender yourself to the Special Services representatives when they arrive.”
Garth raised a finger. “I would be derelict if I was a member of the Special Services, Commander. But I’m not, so the entire rigmarole you put yourself and the members of Tenerek’s police force through was a huge waste of time and resources. I’m actually considering pressing charges and suing the pants off everyone who’s even looked at me funny today. Some guy with a machine gun blew a bus up around my ears. A bus, Politoyov. A big one.”
Marus swallowed nervously. “You were stealing the bus at the time.” The tension in the room was thickening.
“Yes,” Garth replied nonchalantly, “I admit that. But again, your guys didn’t identify themselves as police officers.”
“We don’t have to.” Marus looked at his hat. “Everyone was wearing the hat.”
Garth raised an eyebrow at the hat. “Between the hat with the weird-ass frond dealies and the bright purple suits you all got on, I thought you guys were a marauding gang of band geeks. Last time I was here, you all wore red jumpsuits and these funny metal domes. How was I supposed to know? Guy sticks a gun at me and says ‘Drop or I shoot?’. Shit, man, you’d run too, I bet. Especially if you were being chased by guys dressed in purple velvet and you’re as cool as I am.”
Politoyov smiled a wintry smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “The particulars of your assignation to Special Services were precisely laid out to you, Captain. As payment for your Decanting, you are to work your debt accrual to Tynedale/Fujihara off through our offices.”
 Garth leaned back in his chair. “Close but no cigar.” Politoyov opened his thin mouth to start shouting, so he hurried up. “The rules were minimum ten years, and that I hadda pay off my end in full. Minimum ten years. That’s the key. My gizmo made me some serious money, Commander. Lots and lots. Once you guys started paying me, it was a simple matter to invest the money until I got enough to fix my problem. Technically speaking, I coulda left part way through the ninth year, but since that would have violated the terms of my servitude, I waited it out. That last mission Armageddon Troop One took brought me close to Tenerek, so I asked Eddy to drop me off. He had no clue I was bailing, so don’t be a dick. I sent the last chunk of money to T/F five minutes after I hit dirt. Then I filed the ‘I quit’ papers. You can check. I’ll wait.”
 “Hold.” Politoyov’s face disappeared off screen.
 “I don’t think your commanding officer likes you very much.” Marus remarked dryly, although he was still hurt about the hat and uniform comments. He rather liked the purple, and though the fronds did try to take one of his eyes out every fifteen minutes, he thought they were rather dashing. Much better than the previous uniforms. The metal dome made your head sweat uncontrollably.
 “Actually, he does. He’s unhappy I left. He had plans for me, plans which aren’t going to happen anymore.” It was a shame, really. If he wasn’t being plagued with bizarre dreams about a vessel duplicate to the one he’d been found in, SpecSer was perfect. Over the last year, though … Every time he closed his eyes for more than a minute, a freaky-deaky dream popped up, basically telling him to ‘go west, young man’. Except in this case, ‘west’ was ‘somewhere in the galaxy’.
Pretending the dreams didn’t exist only made things severely worse, hence his current incarceration in a piss-ant police station on a bizarre world; heading off into the dark black unknown decreased the pressure to find the effing thing down to manageable levels.
 “So what … what did you invent?” Marus asked. Tales of debt accrual to any of the Big Three were few and far between. The story usually ended with the grandchildren of the original debtor making the final payment. If they were lucky. The cop didn’t think he’d ever heard of someone even getting close in their own lifetime, much less actually accomplishing the task.
Garth tapped the side of his nose. “Classified. If I told you, I’d have to blow up the planet.” He turned his attention back to the Q-Comm when Politoyov returned. As expected, the old commander’s tune had changed. Irritation did not sit well in the man’s bristling yellow eyes. “Well?”
 “It … it appears as though you are correct.” Politoyov admitted hesitantly. “Release papers from Tynedale/Fujihara and approved by Trinity were sent to my offices ten minutes ago. You are a free agent.” The words rolled off the Commander’s tongue rife with distaste and a sort of droll disgust. “However… I would like for you to reconsider, Mercenary Captain. Thanks in no small part to your successes, SpecSer is no longer the last bastion for criminals and rejects. We’ve made great strides in the last five years. For the first time in a hundred years we’re being given the attention and respect we’re due. You could make a name for yourself here, a great name. A man with your talents will find no happiness outside of a military organization.”
Politoyov smiled, slightly curved incisors dimpling his upper lip. “I’d hate to have to send men you once worked with after you.”
Personally, Garth thought the idea sounded like a hoot, but he didn’t dare tell Politoyov; the Old Man had no sense of humor and would probably overreact. The last thing he wanted was to have half of SpecSer -who hated his guts for being too successful, if that made any kind of sense- chasing him around the galaxy. “Wish I could, Commander, but there’s something I gotta do.”
Politoyov wondered what a man who’d spent the bulk of his new life in the service of Special Services could possibly have to do, especially when the world into which he’d been brought was wilder, stranger, and infinitely vaster than the one he’d left behind. There was little point in bringing that to Garth’s attention. The man had lived a rough and tumble life in SpecSer, had been places and done things that few men could claim, and that was all the answer he’d receive in turn for his efforts.
Besides, Politoyov knew what was going to happen.
A man like Garth would only ever be happy when his life was in danger and only so much time would pass before that happened. Out of respect for the great work the ex-Mercenary Captain had done to transform Special Services, Politoyov decided to arrange things so that when Garth Nickels was chased out of whatever system he was headed to, he’d have a place to go. He just hoped Garth didn’t destroy too much of said system, else even SpecSer wouldn’t be able to hide the man. “I understand, Garth.”
“Thanks, sir. I was hoping you would.”
Marus released a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
“Where are you headed?” Politoyov asked. Anywhere Garth went, trouble was sure to follow. If it didn’t follow, Nickels was likely to make some, just to keep things interesting. If it was prudent, the commander of SpecSer wanted to send the government a heads up. It was the only polite thing to do.
The only thing Garth had was a series of coordinates thirty thousand years out of date, coordinates that might even be nothing more than a dream. Completely useless data by itself, which was why he’d spent hundreds of thousands of Trinity dollars on a craft outfitted with a level 8 AI. He had high hopes for the costly intelligence’s ability to that useless info into something workable. “I don’t know, sir, I really don’t. And, I don’t think I’d tell you if I did. No offense.”
Politoyov grunted unhappily before ending the Q-Comm.
Garth held his shackles up in front of him and waited until Marus was paying attention. With a quick snap of the wrists, the metal handcuffs broke open and fell to the ground in a clatter of broken links. “Could someone show where the bathroom is?"
Marus nodded dejectedly and called for someone to escort Garth. When the man was gone, the police officer laid his head on the table and thanked his lucky stars. The door opened, and when Marus looked up to tell the officer to leave him alone, one of the fronds finally got him square in the eye.