Note: in prepping 'NetWalkers for Closed Circle publication, I'm doing a final edit. I've rewritten this beginning, making it snappier and to the point. I'm leaving this version up for comparison. Hope you find it interesting.
Revised Beginning: PDF
Prologue: in which you meet the young Wesley
Chapter One: in which you meet the enigmatic Jean-Phillippe
A Walk on the Wild Side: A glimpse into Seneca's Glorious Madness
A nova flares in the black-opal sky
Graphite on paper: in all humanity’s technological advances, no one had ever come up with any combination more convenient or more viscerally rewarding to the confirmed doodler.
A quick handful of strokes, parallels here, perspectives . . . there. A circle. Three sweeping, intersecting curves, a sensual recurve. Lines on paper achieved form, reducing three dimensions to two, became a state-of-the- biological-art Life Support Unit against a glowing backdrop of monitors.
On the far side of the monitors, the circle became a portal on the Vandereaux system. The curves became a planet, Vandereaux, drifting past the shuttle window. Strategic erasures created a sparkle: the diamond ring of the rising sun. Three spots marked the planetary ecliptic.
Color didn’t matter in this most primitive of virtual realities, only line. Line created shape and contours, mass and . . . gravitas.
Some called it a focal point, that thing toward which all elements in the finite universe of the paper sheet pointed; for him, it was a black hole, a gravity well of meaning as well as substance, the raison d’etre of putting pencil to paper in the first place.
In this case, the LSU.
Or rather the infinitely large personality currently housed within that deceptively small container.
Defying an unspoken self-promise, pencil strokes shifted, grew organic, compromising the coldly clinical design. The shadows beneath the LSU spawned a figure, human, but not, elongated limbs stretching toward the portal . . . reaching . . . not for the planet, but for the stars beyond. . . .
And totally screwing the composition.
Wesley Smith sighed and closed the sketchbook, clipped the mechanical pencil to the cover and tucked the tablet into the briefcase drifting on its tether above the seat beside him.
The planet reappeared in his starboard window, a waxing crescent of blue and white with subtle hints of green and brown. Beneath those masking clouds, cities thrived along pristine coastlines. Vast farming complexes filled rich, broad plains. Vandereaux was a perfect replica of humanity’s homeworld in all but the shapes of the continents, a living tribute to the terraforming artists who had shaped her.
Advertisements didn’t do her justice, Wesley knew that from first hand experience. He’d surfed the waves below, skied the slopes of the backbone ridge of the main continent, and skinny-dipped in one hellaciously cold lake—all in one never-to-be-forgotten vacation with his rarely-seen father.
A vacation cut short by the news of Seneca’s collapse.
He stared at the LSU, wondering, not for the first time, what might have happened had he been in Albion Station—where he belonged—on that fateful day; and in his head he heard her voice, not for the first time, chastising him for the foolish thought.
Seneca had known her time was near, had done all she could to smooth the transition of her loss, then practically shoved him onto the Vandereaux-bound ship.
Her efforts had fully addressed the legalities, but had done little to ease the pain.
No, it wasn’t Wesley’s first visit to Vandereaux system, political center of the ComNet Alliance, but it was scheduled to be the longest. In fact—he allowed his eyes to drift across the shuttle cabin’s empty seats to the station coming into view on the port side—in fact, should all go according to long-laid plans, this wouldn’t be a visit at all.
ComNet Authority Station: home of all the ’Net Design Programmers in the universe. His future, his destiny . . . hell, it was his legacy. Seneca Smith had created the Nexus Space Communications Network that provided the real, philosophical, and political core of the ComNet Alliance, and where it came to the ComNet, he was Seneca Smith’s only true heir.
Familiar excitement rippled through him as the station filled the window. Delicate spires, sparkling with lights and diffraction paint, rose from only one side of the centrifugal rings, giving ComNet Authority Station a sense of up and down virtually unique in space station design. The tour guides had poetically dubbed it the “Crown Jewel of the ComNet Alliance.”
A fitting epithet. Crown jewels were beautiful objects designed to make power more palatable to the masses, and the ’NetAt was power incarnate, controlling as it did all aspects of the N-Space-dwelling Communications Network, without which civilization would collapse into chaos.
The laws refining human social behavior were the realm of the Alliance Senate, House and Council and subject to the flux of human nature, the enforcement of those laws was the realm of Central Security. The rules of N-Space, on the other hand, were defined by nature, and thus completely non-negotiable. The enforcement of those laws was the province of the ComNet Authority.
N-Space. NexusSpace. A universal address at once infinitely large and infinitely small. A near-mythical realm unfathomable by the vast majority of the human race. A realm of theory, of mathematical equations, yet absolutely real. N-Space made faster than light travel possible, the ComNet gave FTL a reliability unimaginable a century ago.
N-Space also allowed for instant communication throughout the many star-systems comprising the ComNet Alliance. In theory. In fact, its operational use in that sense was highly limited—for the moment. His eyes caressed the LSU, and he made the body within a silent promise. That blemish on the ComNet’s perfection would change within his lifetime, perhaps within the next handful of years.
Well—he looked again at the ComNetAuthorityStation, thinking of that same power incarnate which, at the moment, ruled his life as well—make that within the next decade.
In the meantime, the ComNetDataBase filled the communication needs of the Alliance. The CNDB contained the entirety of human history, recorded within the fundamental particles of the universe. That DataBase was accessible to anyone and everyone willing to play by the ’NetAt’s rules.
The DB gave humanity interstellar economics based on reality rather than speculation, it provided a sense of community for Humanity’s computer-driven masses, but most importantly, the DB gave Humanity’s computer-driven masses Knowledge. Knowledge freely available to the most distant reaches of the ComNet Alliance. Ignorance—and the associated poverty of body and spirit inherent in that state—was a thing of the past.
Theoretically, of course. In practice, the ComNet database was painfully unwieldy. Errors proliferated and had to be addendized. Real space echoes of those errors had to be tracked down and eradicated. Students hoping to tap the minds of masters past and present found themselves faced with a mind-numbing barrage of information.
And every moment of every day, with every upload to the DB from a very limited number of access points, those errors proliferated.
Thousands of highly skilled ’Net Technicians throughout the alliance spent their lives converting the ever-expanding information flow into useable packets.
’NetTechs abounded, but the elite of the elite, the handful who actually manipulated the very substructure of N-Space . . . they were the jewels within that crown outside his viewport. DesignProgrammers were the explorers into that theoretical realm. They designed the hardware to better access the N-Space realm and wrote the programs to manipulate the database stored therein.
That was power. Power he’d been born and trained to wield. Someday.
Strangely, while he’d always known that eventually he’d be a DesignProgrammer, while his childhood dreams had had him leading that team of elite minds to new heights, he’d never actually stepped foot aboard ComNet Authority Station. CNAS had been as off limits to him as it was to most normal citizens.
Granted, he could have taken one of the tours, but he wasn’t, and never could be, a tourist where it came to the ComNet. Seneca might have taken him, could have introduced him to those wonders within in ways no tourist guide could begin to comprehend, let alone match. But Seneca had left the ’NetAt and Vandereaux system behind years ago—sixteen years, to be exact. She’d helped create that body, had fought for its political independence and to give it exclusive authority over the ComNet, she’d developed the DProg program, trained the entire next generation of DProggers, and then left it to mature on its own, devoting herself to developing new marvels for public consumption.
And ultimately, to raising her great-grandson.
Seneca had intended to introduce him, both to the station and to its occupants—when he was ready. She’d purposely kept him free of their influence, had planned to spring him on them fully formed and ready to take a leadership role. . . .
Only to have her own body betray her before that grand entrance could be realized.
He was headed to that legendary station now, but not as a tourist, not even as the authorized DesignProgrammer he’d always assumed he would be. No, he was going to CNAS merely to deliver the shuttle’s cargo, and to set up the life-support system only he understood, having helped Seneca design it. Then he would have to leave again, to try to make some sort of life within Vandereaux academy, to “complete” an education curriculum he’d surpassed years ago.
All because he was barely nineteen and the ’NetAt wouldn’t even consider an application from anyone under twenty-five.
Oh, they had their reasons, that faceless “they” also housed within that glittering crown. That internal nation within a nation that was the ’NetAt’s governing body. The policing forces that controlled the use of the ComNet throughout the Alliance. Those forces controlled the lives of the jewels-within-the-crown as well, controlled them according Seneca’s own guidelines, Seneca’s Rules for creating and maintaining a healthy ComNet. Rules designed, first and foremost to keep those elite jewels sane and socially . . . acceptable.
Rules that came back now to haunt the heir to Seneca’s technological throne.
“This just in from the Albion embassy. The legendary Seneca Smith is dead.”
He winced, and tapped the button in the armrest that would protect his tiny portion of the empty cabin from the rest of the news broadcast. He didn’t need to hear it.
Hell, he’d helped his father draft the pack of lies, right down to the press release.
Across the aisle of the transfer shuttle, the monitors on the LSU beeped and flashed, keeping him apprized of the status of the flesh held therein.
The status of the spirit was never in question; not to him.
He’d been infused with that spirit in his cradle. As long as he breathed, that spirit, the dream that was Seneca Smith—
There you go, getting purple on your defenseless old grannie.
He started, stared at the LSU, half expecting her to rise from its sealed confines, her voice in his head was that real. A moment later laughter welled up and spilled over.
“Oh, GrannieSen,” he said aloud, alone as they were, “What am I going to do without you? The ’NetAt made it clear to Pop they won’t budge on the twenty-five year rule. Six years, six years, before I can get back to work. What in the name of sanity am I going to do for six years?”
Memory supplied her answer, the warm-but-dry tone she reserved for him:
You’ll think of something.
Her Darling Idiot . . . Wesley . . . was still . . . limited.
A metaphor. Metaphor was a RealSpace thing.
Wesley was there, his hand on the hand of the body.
Had to make his own mistakes.
It was experience he lacked, not wits, or talent . . . or balls.
He’d accumulate others:
And her Darling Idiot did not suffer fools well.
Keep a low profile. Blend in.
He never had figured out why those rules applied to him,
Until he did, he’d be bound by them,
Still, his plan was ridiculous.
Most ridiculous of all was the fact his “something” appeared to be working.
But then, neither could they imagine
Idiots. True idiots.
Not like her Darling Idiot, who was simply terrifyingly naive.
She wouldn’t interfere, not directly;
She wouldn’t order, wouldn’t demand.
But damned if She wouldn’t throw a bit of temptation his way.
Memory hadn’t lied.
Jean-Philippe Beaubien controlled the urge to duck back into the bubblecar that had shuttled him over from Vandereaux Prime along with several dozen (Lord, had he ever been that young?) energetic students . . . and stepped free of the outbound flood of humanity.
It had been five years since he’d last stood on this shuttle dock, a single duffle in hand, and vowed never to return to Vandereaux Academy with all its associated undocumented social features.
Five years, and here he was back on the same dock from which he’d left. Only this time his feet were on rim-side rather than core, and the case in his hand held a state-of-the-art ’NetAt Security-level-five Independent Personal Computer, not a double handful of underwear and a (mostly) clean shirt.
Strangest of all, he was here as a teacher, an assignment that still had him slightly dazed: Jean-Philippe Beaubien was not, had never been, and never would be a teacher, and no effort on the part of his superiors was going to make him one.
Do them credit, they didn’t expect that of him, not really. It was only a part, a role to play for a week or two—perhaps as long as a month—after which he’d be back in his CNAS lab with his research group.
Or so Antonia Hanford, director of ’NetAt Special Operations had promised.
“Excuse me, sir, can I be of help?”
A light voice. A pretty, female voice, just off his left elbow. Jean-Philippe twisted to face the voice, found an equally attractive, if young, face gazing up at him. He found an easy smile and slipped the dark glasses off his nose, granting her eye contact, taking special note of the little gasp that escaped her.
Never failed, that look.
But (he stifled a sigh) he was here as a teacher and teachers had rules to follow. Besides, she was (very) young. He let the smile warm a degree.
“Thank you, no, I’m expecting someone.”
“Oh . . .” Disappointment flooded her eyes. “Okay . . .”
He nodded and replaced the glasses, and as if some spell had been broken, she hurried away.
Nice ass, he thought, and renewed his reconnaissance.
Five years away from this place . . .
Five years and the halls were as gray as he remembered.
Jean-Philippe Beaubien was no teacher, but he’d learned to take advantage of opportunity long before he’d begun taking orders from SpecOps Director Hanford. Doors rarely opened twice for an asteroid miner’s orphan. An asteroid miner’s son learned to smile, to say yes, to perform well . . . and to take notes—copious notes—for the future. A future in which one was giving, rather than receiving, those orders.
One didn’t ask questions, but one learned very well to suspect what might be left unsaid between the words, let alone the lines, of any given order.
From behind the pleasant anonymity of his darkened glasses, he scanned the docking platform for a similarly bemused individual, a stranger seeking a stranger—in this case, his guide to his (temporary) quarters on this superior side of the Vandereaux shuttle dock. According to the files he’d been given, the stranger he sought had a name, James Ohriley, and a face, a nondescript, predictably “academy” face topped with too-short, but very red, hair. To his annoyance, he saw nothing besides the skittering, gossiping mass of students, those pushing past him to get off, those pushing past to get on, and the inevitable lot that seemed permanently aimless.
He smiled at no one and nothing. Engaged with nothing. As a child, he’d spent hours in the observation deck of the Mining Station Beta aquarium, that on-board food source and baby-sitter in one . . . he’d float dead center in the observation room, surrounded by water, losing himself in the strange flashing waves of undulating bodies, those schools of small, nameless creatures whose official purpose in life was to feed the fish that fed the stationers.
Years later, navigating the crowded between-class corridors of Vandereaux, he’d seen himself as one of those schooling fish, the bottom of the local food chain, whose personal security lay in anonymity.
But he wasn’t at the bottom now, at least not of this particular food chain. Now, as he’d been as a child, he was something else and apart, a lone observer of the flashing, mindless patterns.
Sent in to assess said fish for the handful that might just rise above their breeding.
As he had.
He stifled a yawn and blinked away memories of flashing silver bodies.
Six o’clock in the bloody morning, the call from the front offices had come through. Pulled abruptly out of deepsleep disk-study at an hour when he was normally going to bed, he’d been ordered to report to Antonia Hanford’s offices at 0700h, no excuses. A too-quick shower and just under a gallon of latte later, he’d stood before her desk, only to be shunted immediately to a secure conference room to answer an oral exam the likes of which relegated his ’NetAt entrance exams to casual conversation.
In a handful of questions and exactly four hours, a panel of three, two women and one man—none of whom he recognized, none of whom Hanford, sitting on the sidelines, deigned to introduce—had left him more drained than the week-long marathon that had gotten him into the ’NetAt Design program. Drained, and a damnsight less certain what his job was.
He’d expected questions regarding the students whose potential he was allegedly here to assess, students whose faces and names still darted about his head in a post sleepdisk tango. Instead, from the panel, he’d gotten in-depth academic queries regarding a curriculum he hadn’t thought about in years. Those carefully phrased questions had demanded not just an academy-clone’s rote responses—those ivory tower answers a dutiful Section Leader was expected to give his charges—but the less orthodox responses, too, the kind of answers he himself might have given in his pre-Vandereaux years, before he’d learned the value of playing The Game.
One hadn’t dared, in the midst of that rapid-fire interrogation, wonder why such questions were being asked, one simply answered and trusted a reason to come clear.
And perhaps that reason had come into focus, or perhaps it was because he was in situ now, his mind beginning to phase with the assignment rather than counter to it, that he realized the job—the real job he’d been sent here to do—required both skills.
He wasn’t here as a teacher; he was here as a prospector. A ’NetAt headhunter. Ready to place first dibs on the cream of the graduating crop.
And the ’NetAt didn’t want conservative thinkers. The ’NetAt didn’t want starry-eyed dreamers. The ’NetAt wanted dreamers with the brains and common sense to give their dreams substance. He was here to sort diamonds from quartz crystals and he’d had to prove to that grim-faced jury that he could actually tell the difference.
Antonia Hanford knew him better than anyone living, knew his strengths and weaknesses. She’d set the time for that grilling on purpose, knowing that he’d be operating primarily on a caffeinated hind-brain. She’d wanted him off-balance, vulnerable. If he was to fail, she wanted him to fail spectacularly.
One had to wonder, was that just one of Antonia’s rather sadistic little power plays, or did she place that much importance on what did seem to be something of a milk-run operation?
The students, their holiday attire a rippling wall of color, dissipated down gray corridors and into gray lifts like marbles falling into their slots. Tomorrow . . . Monday at the latest, they’d all be walking about in gray slacks, gray shirts, even (one shuddered) gray shoes.
God, he hated gray . . . that pearly shade, so the experts maintained, that induced tranquility, that aided focus and promoted critical thinking. Personally, he’d found it roused violent tendencies he’d constantly had to curb during his incarceration here.
But that was five years ago. He was older now, more mature . . . Besides, it wouldn’t do to murder one of his students in a moment of gray-induced dementia. He’d get through this assignment, as he had every other task Hanford had set him over the years. It was the kind of assignment he both wanted to ace—as a way up the ’NetAt ladder—and the kind he didn’t want to get assigned twice.
Do it and get out.
Jean-Philippe pushed his glasses higher on his nose and wandered along the now-vacant dock, scanning the intersecting corridors for signs of life, vexed at the unnecessary stall in his day.
The dark glasses were not entirely affectation: he’d spent too much of his early years in darkened corridors to feel entirely comfortable in the high-light environments of most stations, however he had to admit he enjoyed the distance it put between himself and others, particularly the random others like the minnows. The fact that he could observe without the subject’s knowledge was an added bonus.
Of course, the built-in audio and video augmentations were a rather nice feature to a confirmed eavesdropper.
Unfortunately, once classes began, he’d have to shed them. Damned academy dress code.
Although the idea of these particular glasses gracing a student’s head during a test did rather well argue for admin’s position. On the other hand, these same glasses worn by every teacher and SL in the academy might make a few potential delinquents behave themselves.
He smiled and caressed the rim of his beloved accessory. Note to self: suggest same to Admin. Not that he was likely to get anywhere with it, but it was worth a shot.
At least he wouldn’t have to lecture. According to his cover profile, he was the new Section Leader for an elite senior echelon of graduate students, ESE-1350. Advisor, tutor . . . human go-bot for the chosen of Vandereaux Academy. As an SL of this advanced group, it was highly unlikely he’d actually be required to pass on the understanding that grim-faced panel had wrung from his caffeinated nerves, which was good news good for both sides, since teaching, in any form, had never even remotely touched his list of possible futures.
’NetDesign had been and still was his goal, he’d settle for ’NetTech . . .
Teaching? Bot repair would be preferable. Teaching was for those who couldn’t do, and Jean-Philippe Beaubien could do.
Damned if he’d settle for less, and damned if any bunch of students, regardless of their talent—or lack thereof—would be more than a minor detour on his path.
Temptation had arrived. Excellent.
Antonia had tried to pull a fast one on them;
But then, Antonia was doomed to fail
Dogged and determined, yes.
Powerful, if annoying allies, yes.
And in the end of this Game, Clever would rule.
She’d seen to that long . . . long ago.
Twenty minutes and counting. Jean-Philippe cursed softly and paced.
Get settled, Antonia Hanford had said at the end of that hasty briefing, and we’ll talk again.
Not that unusual a parting shot as Antonia Hanford’s shots went, but nerves long since attuned to the burn of station security cams watching his backside were flaring warning.
He’d been chosen for this part, so Hanford had said, because he still looked like one of the students, an accident of nature and genetics that would allow him to pass unnoticed among them. That felt hollow, to say the least. Appearances were the most malleable of an agent’s assets. So there was assuredly some other reason she’d chosen him, which could mean a further step up the ladder—if things went well, as at the moment they were not.
He tapped his computer case against his leg impatiently. If he really was here to assess some ’Nethead geniuses, they didn’t need this elaborate facade. If recruiting wanted to know which of the elite students were worthy of the ’NetAt’s attention, put them in a lineup. He’d make a decision and be out in two hours.
He had a singular talent for reading people. It was part of what made him useful to the ’NetAt’s Special Operations department.
Hanford knew damn well he could make that kind of rapid assessment—and be right more often than not—even if the others about the ’NetAt’s core offices didn’t, but she’d said two weeks, maybe even a month, of observation. So what was the game?
A month of playing Section Leader to a bunch of privileged students, not to mention whoever else crossed his path. And perhaps the reason for the long-term assignment was just that simple: you never knew who might prove to have the right stuff for the job.
Still . . . SLs had duties that stretched beyond their assigned students. He had visions of trying to explain to Senator Perkins’ son Timmy that no matter how much he wanted it, no matter who his mama was, he couldn’t take ’NetScaping 501 without first taking ’NetMapping 101-403. Hell, what did he personally care, if Timmy were that set on it? And if Timmy crashed and burned, well, Timmy would have learned something far more valuable than ’NetScaping 501.
But he was here as a Vandereaux Academy Section Leader, and SLs had Rules to follow. Lots of Rules, and reconciling their students to the registrar’s rules was right at the top of the list. As for the rest of those rules . . . he’d waked out of his pre-mission deepsleep prep to be handed a pamphlet and a study disk—the Section Leader’s Handbook: a guide to a healthy SL/Student partnership—along with his 3X-latte (the room attendants being well-familiar with his caffeine habit.)
A glance at said pamphlet had served only to remind him why he’d avoided his own SL during his academy days, and he’d dumped the lot (sans coffee) in the recycler on his way to the shuttle. He knew the academy rules well enough not to step on significant toes, but he wasn’t a twenty-something hoping to placate the Vandereaux Academy Powers-That-Be into recognizing his sterling qualities. No. He was a senior in the ’NetAt’s exclusive ’NetDesign Programming track who just happened to owe his soul to the ComNet Authority, the price of escape from the core of Mining Station Beta.
He’d play by the ’NetAt’s rules; the academy’s were up for creative interpretation, depending on the needs of his ’NetAt appointed assignment.
It wasn’t the first time he’d played a role in the name of ’NetAt curiosity. He wanted to be a design programmer, he was in the DProg track, but even he had to admit his early training in life, not to mention his little added bonus talent at reading people, had prepared him more for field work. Antonia Hanford had noticed that in him, as she’d noticed much else, and overall his career had benefitted from her attention. He might be behind his recruit contemporaries in DProg, but his value to the ’NetAt was currently unquestioned.
Or so Hanford assured him at times such as this.
But then Antonia Hanford was one of the least readable individuals he’d ever encountered. He took nothing she said at face value, and in this case, he could only hope he’d read her poorly, and this job would prove something more than the excruciating bore the evidence suggested.
Headhunter. That’s all he was.
Odd to realize at this late date that he himself had been scoped out long before he’d ever taken the ’NetAt entrance exams: those had been but a final test, not the whole. Following his (perfectly-timed, if he did say so himself) shift of loyalties all those years ago, the ’NetAt had had him lifted off MStatBeta and ensconced here in Vandereaux Academy, one of several “charity cases” Vandereaux accepted (reluctantly) with every incoming class. (Of course, Vandereaux hadn’t any choice, if they wanted to retain their government sanction, the same endorsement that had made them, over the years, virtually the .) He’d always believed he’d been left to sink or swim on his own in the following years. The ’NetAt had given him a chance, they’d gotten him accepted into the academy, but beyond that, he was on his own.
Or so he’d thought. Now, he had to wonder whether Someone had been watching and taking notes—possibly from the moment he had arrived on-station—just as he was about to take notes on all the students who crossed his path, regardless of age or academic standing.
He’d kept a singularly low profile during his time here, a fact that enabled him now to take his unknown predecessor’s place: it was highly unlikely anyone he encountered would recall one John Phillips, and if they did, Jean-Phillipe Beaubien was about as different from that skinny, aloof fellow as night from day.
A fact he would do well, he supposed, to keep in mind as he traveled the gray corridors: the most promising subjects were rarely the most obvious, and it wouldn’t do to be exposed by an overly-curious school-brat.
He doubted the records filters behind his assignment went any deeper than a security level four: not too far above his own—legal—reach. It was an identity easily created, easily wiped once his job was finished—and not totally beyond reach of a clever ’NetHead.
Fortunately, he wasn’t dealing with mining station drug lords with rogue ’NetTechs at their beck and call. Jean-Philippe Beaubien would have to rouse monumental suspicions in a handful of students to make discovery remotely likely, and that Jean-Philippe Beaubien did not intend to do.
A shiver rippled down his spine. It was an old friend, that shiver. It was the thrill of both the hunter and the hunted. He’d been both more often than not in his life, and always, always come out on top.
He had to admit, he liked the adrenaline rush of these assignments. He liked the hint of danger. He liked having to make short-notice adjustments to his schedule.
He didn’t like (he scanned the empty dock again) waiting.
A quick review of possibilities,
Good. Oh, it was good.
Not that he’d care.
He’d grown up in a protected world.
A world of rational minds and lighthearted friendships.
The world of Albion Station, where no one locked their doors.
Three years in Vandereaux had done little to change his habits,
Pushing . . . always pushing.
Daring them to challenge him.
He truly was certifiable . . .
But it was a glorious madness.
"You don't really want to go with me, do you?" Jean-Philippe finally just came out andasked the question as they approached Smith's room.
Marani smiled wanly at him. "Sure I do. I just wanted some time with himself. Haven't seen him for weeks. He . . . startled me when he . . . well . . ."
"Pawned you off on me?"
"That's one way of putting it."
"Maybe he really is sore."
"I'm sure he is--at me for seducing you."
"I didn't mean it that way."
"I know. But hoppers aren't exactly physically taxing. We generally take them out a couple of times a week. If he wanted to be with me, he'd have managed."
"Rani." He stopped and pulled her around to face him. "Be honest, with me as well as yourself. Are you still in love with him?"
"Of course. Aren't you?"
He blinked, having expected denial not riposte. "I . . . no. I barely know him."
She shook her head. "Honesty goes both ways, JP. For people like you and me, the Wesser is like a virus. Either you're immune, or you're not. I think you've been infected, and far from negatively, but that's just my opinion. In answer to your question, yes, I love him. Yes, I miss being with him in all senses, but he's got personal issues that I simply didn't fill, so I'm content with what I've got. Right now, I've just plain missed being around him. I was worried about him and need some sort of gut-level reassurance now he's back that he's all right. I need to hear his laugh."
"Surely you've noticed. It's as if all your concerns just vanish. You can't help but laugh with him."
"Personal issues. Meaning?"
Her laugh held a hint of regret. "His family has a history of finding what some poetically call soul mates. From Seneca on down, according to Wesley, they've found the perfect, lifetime mates. Wesley feels somewhat like the proverbial black sheep in that regard."
The partner business again. "Good god, he's only . . . what . . . twenty-two? He has a fair amount of time yet."
"Not in his book. All the others--his folks, his sibs, Seneca--were married by his age. Translated, he throws everything into a relationship. I think he tries too hard, but there's not much I can do about it except not hold it against him that I'm not The One, as he calls it. Personally, I doubt his 'one' exists. He's not like any of his sibs, certainly not like his father." She shrugged and shifted about, tucking her arm through his, moving them on toward Smith's room. "But he'll have to discover that himself. As for me . . ." She cast him a long-lashed, sideways glance. "My feelings for him remain. Just smelling him makes me horny as hell. Doesn't stop me from finding intimacy elsewhere--"
"Obviously," he murmured, and she smiled a bit wolfishly.
"Obviously. But any partner I have, probably for the rest of my life, will simply have to understand that if Wesley needs me, I'm there for him."
"Loyalty? or love?"
"Both." She pressed the call button.
"You're an unusual woman, Marani Moharrad."
"He's an unusual man."
The door slid open. On the floor, in the middle of the room, Smith lay spread-eagled, moaning. An eye opened in their direction. Closed.
He moaned again. Loudly.
Jean-Philippe glanced at Marani, who tried to avoid his eyes. She couldn't, and immediately burst into peals of laughter.
"I like that!" Wesley groaned and pushed himself over onto his stomach facing the doorway. "Here I am--dying--and all you do is laugh."
"Poor pitiful Pearl," Marani said without a hint of remorse. And with equal ruthlessness, she waltzed in, straddled his body and sank to her knees to sit squarely on his backside. Smith yelped, then groaned in a totally different key as her fingers bit deep into his shoulder muscles.
"Oh, god," Wesley muttered into his crossed arms. "Ohgodohgodohgod. Where were you an hour ago?"
"Working, Smith. And I've got to go back to work at 1300h. So . . . where are your keys?"
"Keys? Don't tell me you're leaving me?"
"Can't talk you into staying?"
Wesley sniffed, lifted his head and propped his chin on his forearms to gaze cross-eyed up at him. "You got a license?"
He raised a brow. "Since I was five."
"Figured. Miner's brat and all. --Any accidents?"
"Point to the man with the green eyes." Some of the liveliness left the hazel eyes staring up at him. A hint of unexpected sadness that vanished behind the crossed arms. "Keys are in the armoire. Top drawer. Left. Flying saucer key chain." His head burrowed deeper still. "Got a spare pressure suit downstairs that'll fit you, if you need it."
"Have one in my place, but thanks."
He retrieved the keys, then stood watching the rhythmic thrust of Marani's fingers, noting the disappointment on her face, wondering how in hell to get those keys into Smith's hands rather than his. But even as he searched for a viable argument, Marani leaned forward, running the massage down Smith's arms, drawing them out beyond his head until she lay full length along his back.
"Come with us," she murmured directly into Smith's ear.
"I can't, love. Dying. Truly. Gotta get loose for practice."
"Gotta move." She began rocking gently side to side. "Come out with us, now. I'll go to my class, then come back here and help you warm up."
"Oh, god. Tempt me not."
"I'll let you ride the Stinger."
Smith's groaning stopped. His body stiffened.
"You're kidding me."
"Nope. You take the Stinger. I'll take the Bomber."
"You are, without question, the most unscrupulous wench I've ever met."
"That's why you love me. So . . . will you come?"
"If I don't, will the offer ever be repeated?"
"Didn't think so." A heavy, audible sigh. "Damn you, woman, get off me backside and help me up. I'll go if it takes the two of you to lift me into the saddle."
One look at the Stinger explained Smith's abrupt turnaround.
With star-strewn space waiting overhead and the station's hull beneath him, Jean-Philippe could only look on in envy as Smith settled into the Stinger's sleek saddle and adjusted the straps. Smith's hopper, the one behind whose dash he sat, was a good machine. State of the art, as he'd expect from Smith, but the gleaming red and gold Stinger was a custom job, and from the way Rani's gloved fingers deftly adjusted the main engine settings, he could guess who the customizing mechanic had been.
"You be careful, Smith." Her voice, coming over the suit's speaker, held the tone of an over-protective mother sending her only child out on a first date."Hear me?"
Smith's gloved hands caressed the handlebars. "TLC, darlin.'" The helmeted head turned toward him and in the suit's internal light, he saw the gleam of excitement on Smith's face. "You set, JP?"
"Ready when you are."
Marani tapped off Smith's leg and shot over to the third hopper they'd extracted from the hangar, a virtual carbon copy of the one he straddled, save for color. His was red, hers blue. While she strapped herself in, he inserted the key card in Smith's machine, and checked the thrusters. Once assured of all systems, he set the thrusters to idle, tapped the mooring pin with his boot to release the tie-down clamps, and gave a slight shove with both feet, setting the hopper in a conservative, non-powered launch.
Once free of the station's hull, he eased power into the thrusters, testing balance and maneuverability. It was, as he suspected, a hotter vehicle of its type than he'd ever ridden, but not (he rapidly determined) beyond his ability to handle.
"How's it feel?" Smith's voice asked in his ear.
"Sweet," he answered. "Very sweet indeed."
"Take a bow, Rani."
"Bow, shmow, you just watch my fenders!"
A raspberry followed by the distinctive vibration of a powered launch as heard from inside a pressure suit answered her. The Stinger lifted free in a high, arcing loop, clearing the hull and achieving free space in a heartbeat, where a series of thruster puffs set it spinning wildly, chaotically.
"Wesley! Goddammit--" Marani's hopper shot after, slowed just outside of the wild orbit as laughter rang out through their localized com line. Three quick puffs, and the Stinger came out in a gentle, easy glide toward her, coming to a precise halt just short of her position.
"Showoff." He tapped the main thrusters, set the homing guide to their position and let the onboard computer determine the decel. As a child back on MStatBeta, he'd ridden hoppers daily, but those days were long gone. He'd had occasion to use the small single-passenger transports over the intervening years, but only for practical moving about between ships, stations, and, for a handful of horrifying months, asteroids. He had none of his companions' easy facility with the controls and wasn't about to risk Smith's hopper or his neck trying to prove otherwise.
Fortunately, unlike the Stinger's swivel thrusters, a complex, delicately balanced system that allowed for those fancy arcs and spirals, his hopper was limited to conventional straight-line maneuvering, and the feel for those simple controls rapidly returned. As he relaxed, the joy of being outside the station, floating among the stars as freely as mankind could, soon caught him up and he found himself following the other two in a rapid-paced scamper between stations, riding high above the commercial flight plane, exchanging waves with other, similarly independent-minded people with expensive hobbies.
Planet to one side of that plane of stations, moons to the other. Everywhere else there were stars or stellar lookalikes. Solar panels formed a gridwork about the stations, generating power, storing it in a localized, subspace bubble that everything within that gridwork, from his computer to the hopper he rode, tapped. It was yet one more manifestation, as were the hyperspace drives of starships, their inter-suit communications, and the Nexus Space ComNet itself, of SS&W's cracking of the multidimentional energy-state matrix.
Their random path led them toward ComNet Authority Station. Smith, not content with his conservative vectors, literally rode circles around him and Rani.
"Evidently not as incapacitated as he claimed," he said on the smallest com-bubble setting, excluding Smith.
She grinned across at him. "Knew it would do him good." Her eyes followed a particularly complex spiral. "Bastard. I'll probably have to let him borrow it again--or give the damn thing to him. You know, the hell of it is, I can build it, but I can't make it do that. First time at the controls, and he's making it dance."
"Maybe you're just not crazy enough."
Her laughter rang in his ears as Smith squeezed into formation between them, demanding to be let in on the joke.
"Never. If you're going to leave the party, you have to accept the consequences. --So, how do you like her?"
"Like her? I'm in positive lust. The AG/CG is phenomenal."
"Do I get an explanation?"
"I put a small grav-field generator in the seat and linked the directional thrusters to its input."
"Gives the unit a functional center of gravity," Smith's voice explained. "Turn it on and all I have to do is shift my butt, and she turns on a dime. Further you shift, the more she turns."
"Energy hungry as hell. You're paying my VEM bill for today, Smith."
"Worth every penny, love." His gloved hands stroked the handlebars. "She is a beauty."
A tiny sigh reached his ear. He couldn't see her past Smith, but something told him Marani had just given her pride and joy up for adoption.
Smith, clueless as a newborn, took off, packing, one would extrapolate, as much into his two-hour test-drive as he could. His swinging, spiraling, rhythmic course took him to the apex side of ComNet Authority Station where he puffed to a relativistic halt, hovering above the third ring, waiting for them to catch up.
Every station in Vandereaux, likely every other human built station in the galaxy, employed standard centrifugal gravity in a half-dozen different basic designs to keep coffee in the inhabitants' mugs. CNAS was no exception. The smooth-lines of the outer shell, looking rather like the earliest of UFO images, hid seven independently controlled rings.
However CNAS, unique among all stations, did not rely exclusively on centrifugal force for its artificial gravity. Its central core rose in elegant, glittering planetary-city-like spires, full of offices and conference rooms, consuming energy ruthlessly in a large, expensive, and oft-times cranky version of that grav-field generator that gave Rani's Stinger its high-performance.
The first born child of the Second Construction Wave, CNAS embodied all the ComNet Alliance had hoped to prove to the universe at large--in architecture as well as in spirit and in substance. It had been designed as a showcase station, a promise of things to come, but the reality was spinning floors, in whatever form, were simply more practical, and so the CNAS towers remained a unique jewel in the art of station construction, a must-see landmark of the system, source of a major local industry, from tours to t-shirts to keychains, and therefore, taxpayers had decided, worth the cost of maintaining.
Somewhere below them, in the smooth lines of the outer shell in the conventional rings, were his real quarters, a student cell differing from his student cell in Vandereaux only in square footage and neighbors. He'd be back there soon, would be back there now, if his initial assignment had remained unchanged. Instead, he was coasting, carefree and happy, above the labs where he should be working.
His life could be worse.
Smith was leaning forward, elbows hooked around the handlebars, staring at the station. Rani, seeing him safely delivered to Smith's side, took off for a bit of her own free-wheeling.
"Tell me what you're thinking, and I'll contribute a milicred toward that VEM bill."
Smith leaned back in the straps.
"She's just inside there. See that service entrance? Go in there, up the ladders and to your left. No locks, no questions, no rules. So close and yet so far . . ."
"And what's keeping you from going in?"
Laughter, infectious, yet holding a touch of bitterness. "You have to get through the lock first."
"That about covers it." More laughter. This time free and easy. Too free. "Wait here."
But he was off. Full speed, headed straight for the spires.
Marani shot past him, only to come to a spinning, barely controlled stop when it became clear Wesley wasn't listening.
The Stinger, a bright glittering jewel among the lights of the towers, dodged and darted among them, weaving a complex, random path, disappearing from view for long, heart-stopping moments, only to return, skipping and dancing as if without a care in the universe.
"Damn him," Marani whispered. "He's going to get me--"
A general cease and desist rang in their helmets on a band no legal receiver could ignore. Smith had to hear, had to know he was pissing off CNAS traffic control, had to know the fine was building every moment he continued his manic defiance of that order.
Just as the controller was threatening to launch a team to corral him, Smith made a full speed run straight at the tower, flipping at the last moment to use full reverse thrust, creating what had to be mind-numbing grav pressing him into the padded seat-back, coming at last to a spinning halt directly in front of the observation tower.
Upside-down. Relativistically speaking. The spin slowed, and stopped, the Stinger face to the window.
Over that same open band, Smith's voice said cheerfully:
"Wesley Smith, at your service."
"Your ID, sir?"
"Aw, shucks, laddie, ask your boss. She knows. Tell her 'Hi' for me, will you?"
And with that, he was off again, a high curve that let him wave to the tower before heading off full speed on a direct line for Academy Station.
"Damn." The soft curse pretty much summed up his own feelings.
"What the hell got into him?"
"Damned if I know."
"I think maybe I should talk to the controller."
"He'd never forgive you." She shook her head slowly. "Damn you, Smith. --Nothing for it. Let's try and catch him up."
The Stinger was parked and covered by the time they got back to the stalls. Silently as the trip back, they secured their vehicles among the service hoppers and emergency pods and passed together through the air-lock and rotational-sync into the gravity of AcStat, only a short distance from Smith's room.
"Moving fast," he observed. "Guilt."
"I'll believe that when I see it." Marani, angry as he'd never seen her, strode off toward Smith's room, pressure suit and all.
"Rani, wait." He had to run to catch up. "Don't--"
She wheeled to face him.
"Don't what? That was my fucking hopper he used to pull that stunt. It's my fucking neck he's put on the line, and if they confiscate my Stinger, I'm going to fucking kill him!"
She was off down the hall before he could think of any argument that might cool her down. Possibly because there was no excuse and she was fully justified. He hurried again to catch her and just held to her flank, ready to step in should murder appear imminent.
At Smith's door, she didn't bother to announce herself, but walked in, the locks yielding to her bios.
Inside the room, Smith was on vid-phone . . . with CNAS tower.
He was laughing.
The controller on the screen was laughing.
The controller sobered first, his eyes moving past Smith to the woman seething beside Jean-Philippe.
"You'd best look out, Smith. She might have a gun."
Wesley turned, held up both hands. "Wait, Rani. I can explain--"
"I take it you're the hopper-queen Smith told me about."
Marani froze in her slow stalk of Smith.
"It was my machine, sir. I take full responsibility for allowing him--"
"He's explained everything, Ms Moharrad. I must admit, I'd have had a hard time not putting it through its paces myself. --Next time, Smith, take it to the commercial course. Damned if I'll try to explain this twice."
"Honestly, Bill, just send me the ticket."
"Hell, no. I'll have lunch off this one for a week. Just don't repeat, hear me?"
"I hear you, Bill. And thanks. I owe you a drink."
"That, I'll collect."
Smith signed off. His back heaved and with an audible sigh he turned to face them.
"Rani, believe me. I'm sorry. I honestly don't know what got into me. I just . . . saw those towers and had to go."
Marani shook her head. "And you, damn you, got away with it, you slick-tongued bastard. Any normal human would have been diced, fried and served up on a platter to 'NetAt security."
"Helps being a Smith, I imagine," Jean-Philippe observed drily, and regretted the statement in the next breath as both Smith and Marani turned on him, frowning. "I appear to have committed a major faux pax. Smith, I--"
"I'll tell you this once, Beaubien," Smith said slowly. "I never have and never will use Seneca's name to whitewash my own stupidity. I called the tower to clear Marani of all responsibility. I lucked out that Bill just happens to be a hopper racer in his spare time. He asked about the Stinger's unusual maneuverability and I explained. That's it. That's all. I'm embarrassed as hell about the whole thing and wish he'd send me the ticket I deserve, but he's not going to and the important thing is, Marani's out of it, except--" He turned to Marani with a grimacing smile. "I gave him your e-addy, love. He wants the specs on the AG/CG."
"I should kill you anyway."
"And maybe now you'll get that paperwork in like I told you to."
"I know." He leaned to kiss her, and Jean-Philippe had to wonder if he felt her melt under that casual caress. Probably not, from the easy way he released her. "Thanks, love." A look of wonder filled his eyes, and he gave a bone-popping stretch. "I'm healed!"
She gave a reluctant laugh. "Fuck you, Smith. I'm outta here."
"You'll be back, though. You promised."
"You're healed. I'm superfluous now."
A shadow crossed his face. "Never, love. Come warm me up."
"You're too warm already."
"Bat your lashes at someone who gives a shit. Yeah, scum, I'll be back."
She headed for the door.
"Rani?" Smith pulled the keys to the Stinger out of his pocket. "Catch."
She caught the keys and in one smooth continuous motion tossed them back. "Keep 'em."
"Rani, you can't--"
"Happy birthday, scum. --JP?"
"Mind if I stay here?"
"Only if you promise to remind him at least three times what an idiot I am for what I just did."