Vajra on the Periphery
    Note: The following is a draft of the first 50 or 60 or so pages of my new novel. Do not read if you find strong language or explicate sex references offensive.

"What happens to near-baselines in a civilization ruled by posthuman powers that are sometimes kind and sometimes cruel, but always stronger and smarter than they?"

1. Hernandez Orbital

Hernandez Orbital, Wilson Free Alliance. It's one of those prosperous little banana-beaded Free Zones established by the Treaty of Egan along the border of Dominion and MPA space. The War's over, at least around here, been over for more than a century, but the black market isn't. You want to buy anything, you can get it here. You want to sell anything, you can get it here. You want pirate nanosoft? Illegal memebots? Banned fuckware? Get it for a song here. Infect and subvert isolated sephirotic colonies. There's near-infinite opportunities in all those worlds still not reconnected to the wormhole nexus. Get rich. While millions of sentients get drugfucked religionfucked cuturefucked and decide to change allegiance. You pocket the profits.

That's the idea. But really, Rig and Eton and the Lynch and me are just one more bunch of stoopid sapients in the hire of the superbrights. Messenger boys. We're at the bottom of the galactic food chain. Anything goes wrong, we're the ones get fucked over.

"Can see him yet?" The Lynch says. He's big and shiny and dumb and he's sweating already, even though the ambient temperature is a baseline comfortable 25 Celsius.

"No." I'm scanning the crowd of bioids, cyborgs, tweaks, uplifts, reanths, droids, bots, remotes, uplifts, of a million clades and races and the whole dumbfucked galaxy. Where the fuck's Eton? I want to message him, but we've gotta maintain broadcast silence. The rules. It's bright and disorientating here, all my gear is weighing me down under my coat, but it seems even heavier is the small capsule of a illegal memebots I'm carrying. Ads leap at me from every corner "Ganno Juice - it refreshes - it enhances - it augments - what else do you need? Synergesis I.P - validate your protocol here! Kosmika it's the greatest epic you've virched since Kranton's Quest Kosmika. Dark Matter Mining - invest in the future"

How you're going in there Companion?

Just barely, Billy. These ads are paying havoc with my defenses.

I see what you mean.

"Cleopatra - the beautifying nanite with the Communion Seal of Approval; If your software isn't Metasoft, you're not there; Timetours - take a wormhole trip to five years ago!"

Two station cops walks past in powered myoarmour. I tense, finger in my pocket twitching for a grenade. They give the Lynch the usual glance-over but they're not looking for us.

Eton's late. Not a good sign.

Olympia had said this delivery could be hairy. Features too perfect and symmetrical to ever have been human, garb like a mythopoeic deity from bronze age Old Earth: "We have reason hu Billy Dante to believe Dominion intelligence may have uncovered the plan to exchange of contraband with the Vance corporate hyperturing. A probability of two point six percent, were it any higher we would cancel the operation."

"Dante"

I look at Lynch.

"Me hungry."

"You're always hungry you stupid biomorph."

"Me can't help it! It's my metabolism." He peers at me. "Dante worried?"

"Eton's late, Lynch."

His eyes go big. "Something happen?"

"Dunno. Maybe he's delayed." It's not like Eton. No matter how much pharm that sib shoots up, he's always on time. Fuck!

"Dante!"

"What!?"

"Me hungry."

I sigh. "Okay Lynch." Cafeterias, crowds, lights, big holos, touristie wankers everywhere, all in brilliant psychedelic day-glo. We stop at a Conwai Fried Soymeat food outlet, find a table near the window. I scan the crowd outside.

A little spherical vec floats over. "Can I take your orders Zers?"

"Yes please thank you," Lynch studies the holographic menu floating above the table top, punches clumsily through a few windows. "Lynch will have half a dozen burgers with the lot, two plates of corona fries, three garlic, vanilla and newnut shik shakes, and four bowls of pineapple and chocolate arctic ice-kreme-supreme." He and the droid both look at me.

"Uh, yeah, I'll have a shik shake. Chocolate" Companion, see if you can locate Eton.

Dante, the Olympia hyperturing said unless it's an emergency we have to maintain net-silence.

This is an emergency. Find the sib!

Seeking... Located.

Patch me through.

Connecting...

A little window opens in my field of vision. My best friend's face comes up. He's still in the B-floor market. "Eton!"

His eyes go wide. "Billy! We're supposed to maintain silence!"

"I know." A heavier duty floating droid, at least three times as big as the little one that took our order, comes back groaning under the burden of The Lynch's order, it's aerojets whining audibly. I take my chocolate shik shake off the piled plate. "What's kept you?"

"Just was held up at customs?"

"Customs! But the hyperturings were handling that."

"Yeah they fucked up good. I'm really pissed at the Vance. The fukkas almost sprung me!"

"They scoped the package?"

"No no it's optimal! Had to do some quick talking. I'll be there in 15 min."

"Optimal" I say.

"We better cut the link or Vance'll have my balls for his cold computranium breakfast and Olympia will have yours."

"Copy."

"See you soon."

"See you soon."

He cuts the connection.

Thank the gods, I was worried for nothing. "Lynch."

The Lynch's stuffing his face, making a huge mess of dribble as he takes in burger after burger. He mumbles "whahh" through full cheeks.

"Eton's on his way."

"Ohp mahl," he mumbles through another mouthful, spitting bits of food and sauce and crumbs everywhere. I feel sorry for the poor droid that has to clean up this mess.

The Shik Shake's quite good, better than the ones back at Dato-Barthold in fact. That's free enterprise for you.

Eton should be at the rendezvous in about 12 minutes. Ought to wait till Lynch finishes stuffing his face, then we can foot it. Stare out the window. A pair of cyborg neodolphins float past on aeropods. These last few runs I've noticed a few, must be the new wormhole to Syrtis that's has been opened up. Three reanths of uncertain zoological parentage walk by clutching goods in shopping bags, while more goods float on remotes behind them. A couple of Bianca-Seaborgs stroll by the other way, their ornaments glittering like moonpearls. A humanoid droid and a compact cylinder on wheels stop to converse, the only thing uniting them being the little interactive Metasoft display pattern they project like a hovering hologram halo come mobile ad of their head. A tall genen saunters past, bearing the usual supercilious smirk genen of the lesser houses have for all non-genen as a sort of inferiority compensation. Something isn't right. Customs?

Now what are you worried about Dante? You know this accelerates aging.

Can't help it Companion. We've never had customs problems before. Vance and Olympia always make sure of it. If they didn't we'd've been caught long ago.

hmmm...

"Lynch?"

Lynch looks up while slurping the third Shik Shake.

"I think we've been sprung."

He stops slurping. "But Dante just said Eton's on his way!"

"I don't think it's Eton."

"Not Eton!"

I nod. You can fake, replicate, and sim anything. Still, takes a lot of processing power to get through all our encryption checks. I'm thinking the Dominion Nanocops.

Lynch says "just let Lynch eat these icecream supremes."

"Okay be quick."

Lynch is quick. Three point six seconds by my biochip clock, that's one point two seconds per icecream supreme. I get up. "Okay, back to the Screaming Jack."

Lynch burps "okay."

I push my way through the crowd. Companion, patch me through to Rig.

Rig's voice and his av pop up in a little window in my field of vision. "Made the exchange?"

We're sprung, prepare to blow station.

"Huh!?"

DO IT!!!! I minimise the window. One hand in my pocket, I prime emp the grenade.

Brace yourself Companion.

This is not an advisable course of action Dante!

Do it.

Hardening...

A whirr of faces of every race and species. "Hey!" one goes as I push past. Each wall could be full of microcams, they're tracking us now, only thing we got going for is that it's a Free Zone. The elevator tube to the dock is in sight. Shouts behind me. My heart jumps they've spotted us. I risk a look behind. No it's just Lynch sending other sentients tumbling as he pushes through in my wake. The elevator tube's just a hundred meters away. Through this crowd and we're home free, they wouldn't risk grabbing us on the docks-

"That's far enough Citizen Billy Dante."

I dunno where he and his clone came from, but the two Dominion cops are there big as life before me, the gold Sun and Pyramid seal shining bright on their breast patch. I don't even think, just trigger the emp grenade "I'M NOT YOUR CITIZEN!" Screams everywhere. The Dommie cops go down in a heap, at least for the moment. So do half the crowds behind me. Everyone's got cyberware nowadays. Alarms and sirens scream in my ears. The Lynch rushes past me. I prime and throw the goo grenade, race after him. The Lynch's pounding the elevator door. "Won't open!"

"Get back Lynch!" I pull my laser pistol out, start burning through the door. Behind me there's a gurgling as the nanites from the goo grenade start interacting with the air and walls, forming a fine but impenetrable sticky mist. Harmless but should cover our escape.

"Out of way Dante," The Lynch yells. "We not have time!"

I've only burned through half the door but I put the laser back in the holster. The Lynch charges the door like a bezerker-bot. THHOOM!!! It wasn't meant to take that punishment.

"Come on sib!" The Lynch grabs me in one powerful arm, jumps through the broken door into the tube. We almost fall, but he grabs the access ladder with his free hand, swings me under me. I make the mistake of looking down. It's a long way. A long long way. "The ladder grab the ladder Dante!"

I scrabble for the ladder. The Lynch starts climbing above me. Right now the Station superturing will be tracking the damage. Tracking us.

Above me the Lynch is burping hard.

"Shit Lynch, you shouldn't've stuffed your face!"

"How could Lynch know?" he wails. He stops climbing.

"Move it you fuck. They'll catch us!"

"Lynch feels sick."

Oh Sweet Sophia. "Not now! Please not now!"

"Lynch can't help it! Lynch feels sick. Lynch feels... bwaaAAHHHWWWHWHWHWHWH!!!" An ocean of stinking vomit rains down on me.

"You idiot!" I yell. Some strands of half-digested Corona fries and globs of garlic and pineapple icecream slither down my face. I try to grab the next rung, but all the rails are sticky with vomit. My hand slips.

"Lynch feel better now!" the Lynch yells. He grabs me by the scruff of my jacket and throws me so I land on his shoulders. "Hang on tight sib Dante. Me will draw on my reserves."

He climbs like a manic fly. I hang on to his galloping muscular shoulders for dear life.

Zero gee in the hub and we burst through into the station dock. I yell "fire in the hole!" Habit I guess. Don't bother even looking for remotes, just throw an emp grenade in front of us. Palm down another adrenal booster. Alarms and sirens going everywhere, noise, machinery, dockies and stumbling confused droids, automated cargo lines, shouts and people running everywhere. Lynch races ahead, pulling himself arm over arm like a crazy ape. I try to keep up, my arms almost pulled out of the sockets as I try to correct my momentum. "HEY!" some dockworking bioids who weren't affected by the emp launch themselves at Lynch. In his panic the Lynch swats them aside like rag dolls. I make it to the to the Screaming Jack's access lock. Shit!!!! The station AIs frozen the airlock. I hammer at it with my palm, it doesn't respond. I glance up. Tanglefoam is drifting down from the security ports, targetting us. Closing fast. I open the window to Rig; as soon as I do he says "Why didn't you answer me? Dante there's something-"

"Not now, Rig I'm gonna blow the station lock!"

"What? Are you crazy?"

"It's alright I know what I'm doing." I hope.

"Dante there's -"

I minimise the window again so I can think, set the shaped charge to blow straight ahead, leaving the docking tube untouched. "Lynch cover your eyes!" VHOOMMM!!!! We barrel through. Floating droplets of white-hot metal burns at my coat and soon it'll burning me too, Lynch screams behind me, but barrels past, molten droplets spraying my hand and arm is on FIRRRREEEEEEEEEE the smell of burning flesh and hair in nostrils the lock to the Screaming Jack is open and we tumble through, howling in agony as the lock closes behind us and I'm SLAMMMMEDDDDD against the hard carbonite inner hull by the acceleration.

2. Henry Bob

The first thing I feel is the agony of the burns, a million whitehot needles. Otherwise I don't think anything's broken. We're in freefall. Companion?

You have suffered some second degree burns Dante. Minor bruising from the acceleration. Otherwise no serious injuries.

I open my eyes.

Lynch is huddled, moaning from his burns. Hopefully it's only superficial. The Lynch's tough.

Tougher than me. Omega! Companion. Can you kill the pain?

I've already done all I can, Dante.

Okay okay. I squint against the pain, use my good hand to push myself through to the control deck.

Rig is there, floating on the bridge of the Screaming Jack. He's not alone.

It's hard to tell if the sphere is solid or a plasma ball.

"Wow you are a mess," Rig says. "Is that fried vomit you're caked in?"

"Lynch felt sick. What is that?" I stare at the sphere.

He notices my gaze. "I tried to inform you but you were busy blowing up station airlocks."

The sphere says "now I understand where you get your name, Citizen Billy Dante."

"I'm not your citizen," I say warily, ignoring the pain. "What do you mean my name? Billy?"

"Dante Inferno."

"Oh," I laugh. "Yeah." It is a good nickname. I'm proud of it. "Who the fuck are you?"

"My name is Henry Bob"

Companion, face with the ship and tell me who or what the fuck this thing is.

"No need to ask your Companion. I work for Adventuremedia Unlimited. I've been recording your adventures. I just need to access the memories of yourself and your friend to complete the recording."

Rig says "he's on the level Dante."

It is a photonantech foglet that appears to be deploying mediatech. There is a hyperlink to a new Zarauztar-startup mediacorop called Adventuremedia Unlimited. It may be a blind though.

"No it is not a blind," the Henry Bob thing says.

"He saved our hide," Rig says.

"What do you mean?" I regard Rig with narrowed eyes. Has he been subverted? He looks like the same old cyborg rigger we all know and love. But you can't always tell with things like that.

The sphere says "I made a deal with the Hernandez AI to go lightly on you in exchange for a media share deal."

"Lightly?"

"Did you wonder why you and your friend weren't cut to pieces by security lasers as you made your blundering escape? Or your ship wasn't blown out of space by the station defense systems?"

"Benisol's Omega." Times like this, I really do feel like a pawn. "But what about those poor fucks I emped? Doesn't the AI care about them as well?"

"AIs get bored too Billy Dante." The Henry Bob sphere says. "It was an amusing diversion. And when complete it will be a wonderful immersive. Besides, apart from a few unlucky droids and a cyborg who was too close to one of the emp grenades no-one was killed."

"Cosmos." My skin is hot and stinging like hell. "I've killed some sapients." The flashback of the woman's frightened face. I push it aside.

"Won't be the first time Dante," Rig grins.

"Shut the fuck!" I point a finger at him. "Just...fucking don't talk." Eton's been sprung, the deal's fucked, I'm most certainly wanted for terrorism and murder and fuck knows what else, now here's some freaky nanoborg come to fuck us. Fuck I hate this shit.

"It's optimal. They'll have backups" Rig says. "I always keep a recent backup. You should too."

"A backup isn't the same person," I tell him, remembering Maggenza. "And I thought I told you to shut up."

"But how do you define person?" Rig says with a grin.

I don't really feel like getting into philosophy at this moment. "Damn!" My hand is tinging like hell. There's burns up my arm as well.

"Ouch, nasty. You better get the medikit sib."

"I will," I start to push myself off with my good arm.

"There's more but I'll explain to you later."

"Thanks." What more can go has gone wrong?

Oh Cosmic Sophia what I wouldn't give for a sexy gynonurse with enhanced sexual receptivity and big brown eyes and yummy legs and breasts soothingly putting on QuikHeal Cream and whispering how strong and brave and sexy I am while her long golden hair brushes against my face and her soft body is so close I can just reach out. "ARGHHHHHHH!!!!"

"It stings hey," The Lynch says, face wet with sweat. I've used almost all the cream on him, keeping just enough for me. Even so there's still not enough cream to go round. I'm not even sure that this stuff will work on him, he's got a different integument and tissue structure to me. The stuff I put on hurts like fuck. I watch the white foam bubble into my red raw arm. From the degree of burning I'd say it'll be about a week for the nanites to fix things.

"Yeah," I say "Stings." His unburnt skin is an unhealthy pale pink. "You okay?"

"Just body going into mild shock. Lynch will be okay."

I pat him on his big fleshy arm.

"We safe now Dante?"

"No Lynch we're not safe. There's some sort of nanoborg being on the bridge and I don't trust him. Jer. It."

"Maybe use emp grenade?" The Lynch suggests hopefully.

I shake my hand as the cream bites more. "It'd fuck the ship to hell. Besides this thing's a photonano. I doubt emp'll touch it."

"We in trouble Dante?"

"We in big trouble Lynch."



As Rig promised me, there is indeed more.

"The Wilson Free Zone Collective has us down as anti- market economy terrorists."

"Anti- market economy! It's not like I blew up their main mallplex!"

Rig gives a slight shrug. "Disruption of citizens going about their daily business. Frightening away potential customers. Damage to loading faculties. Causing grievous bodily harm to employees and customers. That sort of gigo."

I nod.

"And the Solar Dominion has listed us now as priority three criminal fugitives."

"Oh great. That's a brainwipe for sure if they catch us."

"Probable."

Fuck. Just great. Why couldn't we be a priority five, then we'd just get exile to a cushy habitat somewhere. I stare out at the sparkling stardust, brilliant point-sources against the deep black. We might as well be motionless, rather than coasting oortwards at several thousand kilometers per second.

"Input this," Rig's status lights blink, like he does when he thinks things are a sick joke. "The Hernandez superturing has put out contract on us, one million credits alive, a hundred thou dead."

I glare at Henry Bob. "I thought you said the AI went lightly on us."

"Je did," the shining hovering ball replies. "But that's only until you blew station. Now that you are off-station you are to be captured, alive if possible, and brought back for processing and treatment. You will make a fine exhibit."

"Exhibit?"

"For the Hernandez Action Immersive Entertainment Complex."

"Oh." I suddenly wish I'd been a nicer person. Maybe practiced meditation instead of trying to hassle drugs and tech. Better karma that way.

Rig says "there's a Henry Bob on each of the bounty-hunter ships too." He laughs.

I look at him coldly. "I suppose you think it's funny."

"In a fashion."

"So there's bounty-hunters after us."

"I picked up at least two, but I'd estimate half a dozen more."

"Have they seen us?"

"Possible but unlikely. One of them managed to ping the hull with a sensory laser but the outer skin absorbed it, no reflection. I hope. I decided it best to adopt a stealth profile anyway."

The Lynch suddenly starts wailing. I look over in the corner where he's huddled. "What about him?" I ask the ball.

Henry Bob makes a little coronal discharge. "Technically he is the property of a the Estate of Citizen Bertram Chie of Columbus. It is possible Hernandez will rule him a willing participant."

"But he's got the mind of a child!"

"Yes, it makes for an excellent saga," the sphere says. "My Parent Node predicted there would be an exciting event here and je was right. All the trappings of a Homer, a James Joyce, an Enrastered Link Connection epic. Ruthless but emotionally tortured smuggler, naive childlike sidekick-"

"Get out of my head will you!" I spit at it.

The sphere falls silent.

I retire to my cabin.



The faint ticking of pumps and life-support systems is quieter than usual. A lot of the systems have shut down to minimise our energy signature while cloaked. With less air circulation the familiar ship smells of ozone and plastic and stale sweat and jism and dirty laundry is stronger than usual. What's left of my hair's still giving off that singed smell, just to add to everything else. They are not going to take me alive. Or the Lynch either. Poor Eton. What I wouldn't give for some Blue Sixteen. It'll help with the pain as well. The beautiful, faintly mocking face of Second Officer Trudee Dianist jumps out at me. It's one of that soft erotica publicity series Captain T'Horran had made to drum up local business for the Valkyrie in the later decades of the war. I never had the heart to take the hologram down.

"But why? Why, Trudie?"

"It's not going to work Dante. We're too much alike!"

"I know. But that's great."

"You know what I mean. The war's over. We've got no on left to fight. So we've been fighting each other this last localyear."

Sinking feeling in my stomach

"I can't take it any more. I love you too much...and I love myself too much,...to do this to myself."

"But we can go somewhere...out to the periphery"

"It doesn't have to be forever Dante. Just...just give me some space.
"

For a moment it all overwhelms me. So much time past. So many lives come and gone. Maybe it all ends here, on a botched mission; one more expendable organic that ai uses and forgets. Like the villain's bullet monkeys in a cheap immersive action-spy drama, boom boom, you blow them away before wasting the next one, never mind they had dreams and hopes and ambitions and lives and loves too.

Companion.

Dante.

What's our chances?

There are too many unknown variables to calculate.

Well guess.

This is a guess.

Yes! Sweet Sophia!

Anywhere from oh point three to eighty-one percent.

Thanks. That narrows it down heaps.

You're welcome. Now I must contemplate our situation.

Do some contemplating for me too willya?

Companion goes off-line.

I close my eyes. The pain in my arm and the back of my head and neck is an overwhelming throb. I go with it. Let it swallow me. I wish I could just fall asleep.

But I can't.



Henry Bob wants to access my memories for his media recording.

"Just allow him," Rig says

"How do you know he can be trusted?" The thought of some weird photonanite probe fucking around inside my head is too awful to contemplate.

"He's on the level Dante. He won't fuck with you. He just needs it. It's for his job!"

"What about your memories?"

"I gave him them."

I study the hovering sphere, the constant plasma flicker of light along its surface. "What'd he give you in exchange?"

"A point one share in any profits."

I shake my head.

"You can get some cred exchange too."

"Oh yeah. Where'll we spend it?"

"Uncertain. Perhaps off system. We'll find somewhere."

Companion?
I can't guarantee anything Dante

I look at Rig. Look at Henry Bob. Sigh. What the fuck. I'm dead already. Just haven't been caught yet.

"You have a standard InScape/Metasoft compatible socket?" Henry Bob asks.

"Yeah yeah." I indicate the pimple socket at the base of my skull.

"There will be a brief moment of disorientation." The sphere floats closer. The plasma patterns are quite hypnotic really. The faintest smell of ozone in my nostrils. It floats behind my head. I squeeze my eyes shut.

"Dato-Barthold growing up among the chrome and glass and diamondoid Second Federation inforich perfect society my hemother bringing home all jer decadent friends the place was always a mess of immersioves and virches and pharm and why do you have to bring your fuckfag friends back all the time if you want to chew up our processing allowance do it at their place and how can I concentrate on my gaming who are you to talk all you do is game get out and get a real life will you two be quiet I'm trying to virch here ell use the earmuffs darling Willy run out and play with Maggenza and Eton there's a good boy not until he's finished his homework oh for cosmos sake William don't be such a prude the boy needs his entertainment and let's get some more angelcloud sib fuck Eton how can you walk I'm fucked hahah I dunno sib, good genome spose from stealing stuff from shops with Maggenza cos he's got his father's foxer unit and it's like this we go to the periphery we get a ship together her sib how can we get a ship Mac they don't take anyone under eighteen yeah well fine next stationyear we hitch a lift on a freighter hey you wanna run Cheektowchong Who? That reanth sib, the hairy fuck check out his biz copy sib lets go hey sib I am so wasted yeah this pharm is unreal hey what do ya think those copies will do when they wake up in the some bot probe don't be so weak sib it's just biz they'd do they same to us if it was reversed even Jane't silhouetted against the light of doorway and we come together in hot lust oh honey woman, rainbow spunkrat, running the tips of my fingers down her spine she shivered slightly I've got a raging fat but I'm taking this one s-l-o-w oh yes oh yes oh yes I'm going to fuck you Jane't Jane't you are so good so good to fuck this who are you? tell you what juve you run along and play now and leave us to run things here yeah well how about you get fucked come on Maggenza we better split fucking metalhead cunts I'll show them Dante nah look it's optimal we've got enough already we don't need to nah I want to Maggenza look out that container drone!!!! slick face too slick I wanted to go with Maggenza's clan even though they seem to blame me almost personally but the slick face smiles at us we assure you that Phoenix Enterprises is a reputable corporation now if you just wish to leave the deposit no that is fine yes thank you citizen Dante have you heard it's war whaaaat??? Yeah Eton's broad grinning face Metasoft and the Dommies are gonna go at it fuckkk no shit yeah my dad says all the others will get involved, the neggies and the cozos and the whole lot wow unreal sib hey do I keep my free socket yeah they gave it to you check this sib there's a nocozo outfit they're looking for crew we just gotta make our own way what sort of outfit Pirates for Profit are you shitting me no man it's true they've fucking legalised piracy just as long as they don't pirate their own world hahahah yeah sib we just gotta make our own way there how much we got left over yeah that's optimal that's enough hey fuck is that a mean ship oh yeah I think I'm gonna cream my pants it's so beautiful look at those fucking guns on it man that is so wild the Valkyrie ok listen up you scrawny little mudball shits my name's T'Horran got it T'Horran only it's sir to you and this is my fucking ship and what I say you do and when I say jump you say how high understand SIR YES SIR!!!! now you mudballers are going to try powering up the reactor core on my mark two one burn engage engage engage screaming into the fray at a dozen gees particle cannon blasting take that you fucking revisionist scum there's no explosion in a vacuum no sound no shockwave just a flower of unfolding superheated plasma it's so hot and so good I've never seen anything so good never felt anything so good as you Trudee as we strap ourselves together and she presses her hips against mine and I go inside her and she's slick and wet and thrusting with her hips against me like a wild animal oh fuck fuck fuck but Captain isnt that habitat a Cozo? what is wrong with you Mister Dante your not having second thoughts are you? no sir of course not sir! good because I'd hate to have to blow you out the airlock okay battle stations everyone let's grab some loot hey the Cygies have have joined hey no shit hey yeah fucking Cygie Revisionist scum yeah I bet the whole galaxy's gonna be carved up maybe there'll be no-one left in the end but us crazy raiders pirates fire in the hole! another emp grenade goes off I burst through the next bulkhead there's a woman and kid there huddled against the far corner; crying screaming, staring back at me with large frightened eyes I don't think just shoot where once two human beings were there is just mangled flesh her Dante you okay you okay sib yeah sib it's optimal Trudee Trudee Trudee the cabin stinks with our sweat and our lust and what the fuck is it? some sort of biomorph Sir what's your name freak? Fucig Bikwag Zer it trembles what sort of name is that? what'll we do with it sir? I dunno, put it in the galley, it can process those legumes we aquired can you process potatoes freak? Fucig Bikwag can Zer good from now on your name is The Lynch The Lynch Zer? You heard me Dante take it to the galley show it where the legumes are! sir! The war's over! Over!!!??? Our world falling apart ten years we were the lords of our destiny now back to where will you go? Trudee smiles at me Corona, I've got family there would you like to come? Would I? You bet. Hey Eton, we're going to Corona! What'll happen to the Lynch? I sorta like him. Let's take him with. Fuck you Dante well fuck you Trudee Well fuck you Dante I've just had enough of you moping around I can't fucking breathe yeah Eton just thinking about Trudee no reply she even gave me the wrong urel hey Dante Corona's a big place she's probably caught up in something no we were supposed to meet again here wish I never let her out of my site this sucks I'm gonna get drugfucked Maggenza yeah I'll be in on it can you believe it hey you havent aged at all yeah it's been three centuries at least we've done relativistic time blowing the shit out of the galaxy and then we were in Corona and we fucked around a bit and came back here you crazy old grey-haired sib how many rejuves did you say you had hey lets get smashed and pick up some whores trust you to suggest that Eton hey what's the Rig doing now he's got his own ship no shit yeah the Screaming Jack this is an optimal job Dante I don't know Rig what do you wanna spend the rest of your life vegging out in some immersive living off government erg-stamps this hyperturing's sweet Olympia? Yeah je's got a set-up through the wormhole to Wilson Free Zone is that the Wilson Demopoly no it's a Free Zone now yeah we just go through the gate it's paid for my ship already no shit? this is on the level Dante! optimal count me in Hernandez Orbital Cafeterias, crowds, lights, holos, brilliant psychedelic day-glo madverts and broadband ads everywhere Lynchs going on like a little kid: I'm hungry Dante i'mhungryi'mhungryi'mhungryi'mhungry"

I screaaaaammmmmmmmmmmmm



3. Onship It's the waiting that gets you.

We eat in silence. The Lynch's lost most of his appetite. He is a miserable sight, pale pink and smooth on the unburned bits of his body, dark red and shrivelled on the burns. The fucking cream didn't take. His tissue structure didn't match. He regards me with large sad eyes. Rig goes back to 'facing with his ship. Henry Bob just hovers. Now he's got my memories for his story, he seems to have mostly shut down, frozen into a sort of solid structure. An aluminium-grey sphere, faintly bobbing on the air-currents. Maybe if we can capture him he might be worth some money. Ransom maybe. Or technology exchange.

I push myself over to the control-deck, floating in the zero-gee. Rig is plugged in, motionless. Status lights flicker across his his cybernetic units, and on the ship readout. Onscreen the stars haven't changed much. It's still the direction of the Cygnus sector. We are still coasting. We are still cloaked. To use the engines would mean advertising our position. The Screaming Jack isn't a hi-tech expensive ship. Just a basic amat drive. An amat exhaust of energetic pions lights up space like a big laserneon sign here we are here we are.

Time passes.



The two Dommie cops approach me.

"Excuse us zer, may we see your identification chip," one says.

"We have reason to believe you are carrying proscribed hyperturogenic nanobots," the other says.

I trigger the emp grenade. Nothing happens. The cops move to grab me. I run down the access corridor of Henandez passenger dock, only it looks like the mallplex back at Dato-Barthold. No matter how hard and how fast I run, I can't shake them.

I look behind me. They have morphed into nanocyborgs, liquid superturings.

I jump on a moving walkway.

They follow.

I leap up for a decorative support strut, climb with all my might.

They follow.

I claw myself awake.

I am in free fall. Little tickings and faint whirrs from the Screaming Jack's processing units and life-support systems. The highlights of Trudee's holograph glow with phosphoresnce. It takes a long time before I no longer afraid enough to move.



Onship there is no day and night. The body keeps its own circadian rhythms. At least I do and The Lynch does. You wake up, brush your teeth, crap, do a few calisthenics and electro-stimulate your muscles to keep them in shape in the microgravity, have a sponge bath, put some more anti-biotic on your untreated burns, do the same for The Lynch, float over the galley, have a tube of spirulina paste or soyclone or reconstituted synthetic fruit juice. Remember your daily calcium-bot injection so your bones will shrink to nothing in the zero-gee. Float over to the bridge. Watch the unchanging stars. There's Azelfafage, and that bright one is of course Deneb. Watch Rig doing whatever the fuck he does when he's facing the ship (maybe sleeping). Grab lunch, which isn't much different to breakfast. Piss and shit recycles into syntheticfruit-and-vege and clone-soya protein. But somehow there is still a taste of piss and shit there. Float to your cabin. Face with a hypermedia on Autowars of the Version War. Masturbate over Trudee's hologram and a few tired memories. . Listen to some music, think of the good times, think of the bad times. Go back to the bridge again. Talk to Companion about what the best way would be to capture and immobilise Henry Bob (if indeed we can). See how the Lynch is doing (not too good). Have dinner. Get mad cos it tastes so bad, slam the table with your fist, go to the lower deck and try unsuccessfully to figure out why the recycling unit is making food that still tastes so crap. Go back to your cabin. Think about how fucked your life is. Wish you were back on Dato-Barthold with Cheektowchong and Maggenza and Eton. Or on the deck of the Valkyrie again with Trudee and the crew. Distract yourself by watching a docudrama on the birth of the Silicon Generation or the biopunk movement of the old earth Information Age. Think about how wild and crazy and big and cold this universe is. Go to sleep.



Fire in the hole! Another emp grenade goes off I burst through the next bulkhead. There's a woman and kid there huddled against the far corner; crying screaming, staring back at me with large frightened eyes. I don't think just shoot. Where once two human beings were there is just mangled flesh and shiny red spherical droplets of blood floating in the zerogee

I wake up screaming



"We're expendable aren't we?" I say to Rig one day.

"That certainly appears to be so," Rig says. It is one of his rare moments now of not facing the ship.

"The hyperturings and mainbrains play their Great Games and we are pawns," I tell him.

"Agree sibling," he says.

I look at him curiously. His face with all its cybergear looks strangely appropriate against the backdrop of stars. The red supergiant Xi Cygni is just right of his status light. It is kind of appropriate, in a way. "You ever miss not having a woman?"

"Negative."

"You'd've liked Trudee."

"Maybe."

"She'd've liked you too."

He says nothing.

Or maybe she wouldn't. I don't know. I add "I guess."

He seems bored.

"You cut a deal with that ball?" I ask him bluntly.

"Henry Bob?"

"Wuh huh."

"Negative."

"But you like him," I persist.

The faintest hint of a shrug. "He's okay."

"You're sweet with him?"

He doesn't say anything.

"What's gonna happen to you Rig? When they catch us."

"Hoping they'll go easy with me."

"You might be skinned and mounted in their display, along with me and The Lynch."

"Possible." He seems faintly sad at the prospect.

"Yeah, good chance," I say.

He stares out at the blackness and endless stars. "You afraid of dying Dante?"

"Dunno. Yeah."

"Me too."

That surprises me. "You made a copy though. Your optimum!" I say. "By your ontology."

"No I'm not, sib. Cos after I'm dead maybe no-one will revive my copy. Sure storage space is cheap, but bodies," he taps an instrument studded arm "are expensive to grow. You should know - look how much you and Eton had to dish out for Maggenza"

"Isn't even the same Maggenza," I say.

"Well, you don't conceive it is."

I don't want to talk about Maggenza. "But you have an account put aside don't you?"

"Affirmative. But the Hernandez ai may claim my assets as damages."

"Ah. You think je will?"

"Affirmative." He nods, looks sad. "probably the Jack as well."

"That's tough" I say.

He suddenly whirls on me. "That's tough? What do you know meatie? This ship is my life Dante. This ship is me! ME!!!!"

I look into Rig's bloodshot aquamembrane eyes. He looks crazy. Maybe I'm crazy.

He backs off, embarrassed. "Sorry. Apologies."

"It's optimum sib," I say softly.

"It's a shame about the deal. I was planning on a real big upgrade. Some extra ram-chips. Down deposit on that second-hand conversion-drive I found at Morvis Industrial Orbital. Put in extra sensors. Maybe a third reactive layer."

"Optimal" I nod. Not sure if he's talking about himself or the ship. Apart from the drive.

He looks at me. "You still got the shit?"

"Wuh-huh." I think of the little capsule of illegal memebots that Olympia gave us to deliver.

"Maybe we can find another customer. We won't even need Olympia"

"If we get out of this."

"Shame about Eton."

"He was my best friend." I suddenly feel sad again.

Rig says. "He was a nice guy. For a meat."

"We went through a lot together. Him and me."

Rig says nothing.

"Grew up together at Dato-Barthold. Hanging out together with Cheektowchong. Pirated together on the Valkyrie."

Rig says nothing.

"Trudee liked him too."

Rig says nothing.

"Sure she got mad when he got into junk, but other times she liked him."

Rig says nothing. I don't know if he's even listening. I don't know why I'm even saying this shit. Habit I guess. Just it makes me fucking mad, that's all. "I mean, fuck. He shouldn't've gone to work for the Vance AI. FUCK!" I slam my fist against the wall, making me spin out of control. "Shit!" I right myself, float back to where Rig is regarding me with sudden faint amusement. "Yeah he should've stayed with Olympia. Vance could've found someone else. Ke-Jing was keen."

"Who are you deluding sib? Olympus and Vance did a deal. That is how we got this cushie courier job in the first place. They needed organics who trusted each other."

"Fuck they're screwing us hey. They fuck us good. We're less than dirt to them!" The words penned by one of my name sakes (well, sort of....) for old old Earth comes to mind. I star out at the magnificent starscape, quiet, eternal. "Like flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

"Gloucester, in King Lear." Rig always was a show-off in that way. Guess it comes from being four hundred years old. "Hey," he perks up. "He'll be optimal. Dommie'll give him a brainwipe, find him a nice job. He'll probably be better off."

I laugh without humour.

"Yes," Rig says softly, staring out with me at the onscreen starfield. "Right now, he's the luckiest of all of us."



4. Snowbowls

"Not much of a selection," I point out.

"There was at one time more clades," Rig explains "but some of them were taken out when the Mutuals blew the wormholes. Some even made alliances with one side or the other and started fighting with each other. Same thing happened at Popejoy."

"Okay."

"You missed all the excitement." Sure I did. Why do I always get that Rig is jealous he didn't come with me and Eton to sign up with T'Horran on the Valkyrie? "Most of the higher tech ones made it, and a few fortunate lower tech ones. Even before the war was halfway through the survivors spread out to claim the vacant snowballs."

"Okay."

"Now, there are a number of possible snowflake colonies we can go for," Rig says, indicating the holographic display. Our position is indicated by a bright blinking blue white dot. The haloist habitats, the snowbowls, are indicated by a duller blue-grey-green, each with a little label and hyperlink. Various centerward orbitals and habitats are indicated by red, blue, green, yellow, orange, and brown dots, depending on their type and their allegiance. "Almost all these are ultra tech, a few are po. I suggest we stay clear of the dolphs, they're pretty sweet with Hernandez."

"Optimal," I nod in agreement.

The Lynch picks at his food. Most of his fever has gone. At least for now. But there's something worse. Recently a really rotten smell has been emanating from him. I'm worried that it's a result of the healcream nanites not working, patches of flesh have actually died, gone gangrenous.

Rig says "It'll mean a big burn, whatever choice we go for."

"You think the bounty hunters are still onto us?" I ask.

Rig gives one of his infinitesimal shrugs. "A million credits is a lot of money. They may be cloaked and coasting, like us. Or maybe they are at their scanners, just waiting. Or you are right maybe they gave up already."

"Maybe we could fight them if we show up."

Rig makes a face.

"Turn our tail around and fry them, hey." I grin at the thought of those muvvafukkas being cooked in a wash of relativistic pions.

Rig says nothing.

"Or use the particle beam cannon. It works doesnt it?"

Rig says "it works."

I look at the 3-D map again. The little blip that's our position. The popup notes on distance, velocity, suggested optimal Delta V. The smattering of snowflake colonies. "How much can we trust these flakes?"

"Not much," Rig says. "They are weird fuckas at the best of times. And Wilson is a Free Zone, so it attracts the weirdest of the weird. We make the wrong choice, they will hold us for Hernandez, pocket the million."

"Yeah." Those were my thoughts exactly. Sometimes Rig and me are really in tune.

"Scope this, I prepared a basic summary." The display changes. The snowbowls grow, change hue, everything else disappears. "This is from the Wilson Free Commonwealth local census. I just moulded it onto our present setting. Red is Cheiba Colonies, Blue is Organism Qosyri, Orange the Coffeena Clan, Yellow is Affekt Nation, Aqua is NeoDolphin Ocean Space, Light Green is Evitta, Dark green is Cosmo Tribe, Magenta is Tinka People, Violet is Backgrounder Cygnus, and white is others, usually not affiliated. You can see trade routes, political alliances, population, petaflops, whatever."

"Fuck man." There are so many. It is a maze of information. "You could spend a lifetime getting into this shit."

"Some do."

"Yeah. There's this peer in my arcology who's into this shit."

Rig looks at me. "A real peer?"

"Well, he says." I snicker, thinking of old Moorhead and his clutter of datacubes and remotes in his tiny one room unit. "Claims he's fifth in line to the throne of the Kath Commonwealth."

"Where is that?"

"Some minor old core demopoly. Indus Eridani Belt. Something." I shrug.

"Okay."

"I looked it up once. It's a real place."

"Kath Commonwealth."

"I'm not sure if I pronounced it right."

Rig nods.

"Yeah. He has the snowbowls all mapped out. The whole fucking galaxy. He's doing some thesis in hider-ology or something."

Rig is silent.

"Could sure use him here sib," I point out.

"Dante he is probably just some crazy fuck. Cosmos are you one stoopid meat. You believe anything. Even back at Dato-Barthold you believed anything"

Dato-Barthold. We really lived then. "They were good times, weren't they sib?"

Rig says nothing.

Is it the same Rig? I wonder. He seemed a lot more human and less machine back then. "Hey, here we are again, plunging into the unknown. I mean not some simple a-b-c courier job but the real thing. The unknown. Which one to choose? The random number odds against us."

Rig sighs. "Personally Dante, I don't think we can trust one single one of those cunts."

"Okay." Glumly, I look at the confusion of races and nations and factions and tribes, the trade routes, the allegiances, the phylogenies, the archetypes, the probability matrixes... That yellow one looks okay. Nearby. "What about Affekt Nation."

Rig gives a contemptuous laugh.

"What?"

"They would eat you for dinner."

Okay. "What about the Backgrounders? They won't do a deal with ai!"

"Where have you been the last five hundred years? They deal with ai all the time! They just arrange some third party to mediate!"

"Yeah I know that. But maybe, well if I tell them we blew up the Hernandez dock they might...?"

Rig slowly shakes his head.

I look over at Henry Bob. He hasn't moved or spoken in weeks. Just floated about, occasionally bumping into walls.

"We should ask him" Rig says.

"I dont trust him" I tell him.

"He might be able to suggest something."

"No."

"It's my ship!" Rig says.

"Rig, it's in his interest for us to get caught!"

"How would you know?"

"Well it's his mediastory isnt it?"

"A story can have many possible outcomes"

It makes me mad. "Man you are so fucked. Why'd you let him in in the first place?"

"I didn't! He overrode all my protocols."

"Yeah." I nod. "And you want to wake him up."

Rig studies the sphere. "Maybe he's out of power. Whatever he is he must use a lot of juice."

I'm not convinced. "Nah. I think he's kept some in reserve." I float around the hologram display, through it, bouncing off the walls, looking at our position, mentally calculating Delta V, checking out each of the haloer colonies, allegiances, clade-types, xenophobia index....



5. Organism Qosyri

"You stupid meat. They're po."

I study the census stats on Organism Qosyri. There's not much. Most of the fields are blank. "We've dealt with po before."

"Correction dimwit. Olympia and Vance have dealt with po. We ran errands."

"I think it's our only chance."
Rig, they have an excellent aioidophobia index. They distrust ai more even than the backgrounders.

I grin. "You tell him Companion!"

Rig says "this is my ship we're talking about!"

I give him as fixed a stare as I can while floating in microgravity. "Why is it that the only time you get concerned is when it's your fucking ship's at stake?"

"You bayish meat. You couldn't possibly understand!"

I grab him by his blue synthetic-skinned arm. It is skinny and clammy and the tubes and stuff pulse underneath. "Each other, we're all we've got left now Rig." I tell him through clenched teeth. "Now that Eton's brainwiped, Olympia's dropped us-"

"You don't know je has. And take your meatie hand off me."

I let go of him. It's actually a relief. "Talk sense Rig. We're fugitives."

He says nothing.

"When we fucked the delivery we lost our superturing patronage. You know the score. We're on our own. Do you think that creepy ball could get onboard in Olympia was still supervising!? There's just you, me, the Lynch, companion, and the Screaming Jack, if it's sentient."

"It's sentient in a way you can't understand."

"Okay okay. In a way I can't understand. Do you want the Lynch to die?"

"He won't die."

"He is dying now. And you know it."

Rig says nothing.

"Rig?"

He looks at me. Status lights blink on his cyberware.

"If Lynch died, if I was wasted....would you give a fuck?"

Long silence.

My own breathing in my ears. Faint beeps and bips from Rig's 'ware. Soft ticking of the ship's systems.

I look back at the Qosyri stats. There's almost nothing on them in the Encyclopaedia Galactica either, just a few dozen kilobytes of text, an image like something from the First Federation, and a few hyperlinks that don't seem to work, at least not with the local mirror on the Screaming Jack. Ok yeah I know it's a really old edition. It doesn't even have anything on the Version War for cosmos sake. But you think there'd be something on this lot. Fuck that Rig, he's so aloof. He wasn't like that in the old days.



I chew on my soy and vegie stick without enthusiasm. It still tastes like shit. Maybe this will be my last meal.

Rig looks at me like I'm a stupid baseline. "I can't understand why you prefer this to a nice saline drip."

"It's not the food, it's the food recycling unit."

"Don't blame my ship!"

"I'm not blaming your ship!" Sweet Sophia why does Rig always have to be so touchy! "Just the food recycling unit needs tuning."

"Well you do it!"

"I had a look at it. I looked at it twenty times!"

"Well I couldn't find anything wrong with it either!"

I dump the used squeeze-bulbs and food-packages in the cleaning unit. Soon they'll be filled with more recycled body wastes.

Rig pushes his food concentrates away. They float like tiny ecohabitats in the galley. "I don't blame Lynch for not wanting to eat. Where is the big lug anyway?"

"In his bunk I guess."

"Do you think they can fix him?"

"I should think so. Even a bay habitat could, given basic bio medical faculties."

"This is going to cost us," Rig says moodily.

"I know sib. I'll make it upto you."

"Sure you will meatie...Sure you will."

We float over to the bridge.

No-one says much.



In spite of all his protests, I can see Rig is happy to actually do a burn. He's spent some time working out how to make our torch mimic a peri-kupier cargo drone. Ok it won't fool anyone looking closely, but in a whole oort cloud of ships and burns and what not we shouldn't draw too much attention.

We hope.

I sit at the nav console, watching him as he faces the ship. You really see the transition. One moment Rig is your usual poorly cordinated cyborg geek. Albeit one that's about three hundred years old with synthetic blue skin. The next the body slumps. Just the basic bi-bip bi-bip heartbeat and other basic life-signs to show he's not dead. His entire consciousness transferred to the Screaming Jack. Transmigration. Except it's reversible.

I look around. "Buckle down Lynch."

The Lynch struggles into his seat. The rotten smell is terrible.

Henry Bob's nowhere to be seen. Vivid image of him coming to life, floating down to the engine room, sabotaging the drive. Gotta watch myself, getting really paranoid.

Rig's voice over the com. "Ready sibling?"

"Ready sib."

The power builds noticeably in the ship. Lights and dials brighten and beep.

"Reactor on-line. Power-cell capacitance engaged."

The whole ship vibrates. How strange it has been, I have gotten really used to the silence! I try futilely to block the image of half a dozen bounty hunters and Dominion scouts leaning gleefully towards their scopes.

"Burn in five seconds four...three...two...one...ignition!"

The Screaming Jack shudders and I'm slammed back in my seat by at least ten times earth-standard gravity. Body a mountain of lead, lungs burning with fire, try desperately to breathe. Fuck Rig does he always has to be so macho! My eyeballspress down, everything goes red, and suddenly I'm weightless again.

"What was that for?!" Fuck he could've killed us!

Over the ship com Rig replies "had to make it seem like we were a big cargo drone, needed a short sharp burn. Won't fool anyone looking hard. Now excuse me, I'm busy."

I unbuckle and float around. "You okay Lynch?"

"Lynch feels sick."

"Yeah, you smell bad too. Don't worry, these snowflakes will have medical facilities. You'll be okay sib."

Assuming the bounty hunters or Dominion drones haven't seen us. Assuming po won't demand too much in exchange for their hospitality. Sweet Sophia I hope the price isnt too high.



6. Daojjan bEtamr

Daojjan bEtamr isn't that big even by snowball standards. This far from Wilson Prime, all that is visible is the faintest smudge against the darkness. Rig hits the optical enhancement for my benefit. A small but beautiful blue-green pearl shines clear and bright in the pristine starlight. Sparks that might be bots or small ships form a halo of motes around it.

The com unit comes to life. The com squawks a few times through half a dozen ridiculous local dialects before cycling through to Low Anglic. "-yourself and state your purpose or we will deploy lethal force! Attention unidentified ship! This is Organism Qosyri habitat Daojjan bEtamr. Identify yourself and state your purpose or we-'

I activate the transceiver. This is going to be rough. Diplomacy was never my strong point. "Greetings Noble Organism Qosyri. We are a free ship on the run from the hegemonist Solarist main brain and totalitarian Hernandezian superturing. We seek short-term asylum and medical aid."

Rig says "Well spoken Dante. You sounded like you were quoting the Cosmomarxist Guidebook. The hegemonist Solarist main brain"

"You can do better?"

"Negative. But if they start shooting I'm going to hold you fully responsible."

"Sure."

"And I swear, if the Jack is damaged I'll flush you out the airlock so quick you won't have time to shit your pants."

"Fuck off Rig. What do you want to do? We agreed Qosyri's the best of the lot of them."

"You agreed!"

I stare at the shining blue pearl on screen. So beautiful, so deadly. They could take us out with laser fire or a mass driver as easily as one swats an insectbot. Or turn us over for a tidy reward. I don't know when I last felt so vulnerable. Oh yeah, it was when I saw Henry Bob on the bridge with Rig. And before then when me and the Lynch were climbing up the elevator shaft ready to be sliced and diced by security lasers...And before that was when....and before that was when....

"Well?" Rig's voice goes after some time.

"I know I know. They should've replied already."

"Conferring maybe?"

"Yeah."

"Calling Hernandez to claim their reward?"

"No I think they'll wait till we dock for that."

"You're just one big bundle of optimism Dante."

"Best way to deal with life."

"Attention fugitive ship Screaming Jack. This is Organism Qosyri habitat Daojjan bEtamr- "

I leap for the com-link, ramming into the control panel in my eagerness. "We hear you Daojjan bEtamr!"

"You stupid meat," Rig laughs. "We're still two light minutes away!"

I look at him, feeling mega stupid.

"-be treated as an aggressive act. Attention fugitive ship Screaming Jack. This is Organism Qosyri habitat Daojjan bEtamr. Follow the flight path we are transmitting. We have weapons trained on you. Any deviation will be treated as an aggressive act. Over."

"You got the flightpath?" I ask Rig.

"Yeah, came through loud and clear. Well they know who we are, they must've been following the newscasts. Okay, tell po optimal. I'm going to 'face my ship again."

"Optimal." I hit transmit. "Hello Daojjan bEtamr. We have received your flight path. We will be following it as you request. Over. " I quickly strap myself in. Rig brings the Screaming Jack to life again.



The snowball habitat looms huge as we make our final slow approach. No longer a tiny blue pearl. What was once a dirty ice comet core has been shaped into a magnificent blue-green sphere at least three kilometers on its widest axis. A dense halo of diamondoid and metallic remotes, bots, and cargo vessels swarm around like it like an extended atmosphere.

Rig takes us to the airlock docking bay, using the manoeuvring rockets with great skilfulness.

Clunk!

Rig says over the comlink "I'll track you on the com from here. Have Companion keep the channel open. But any sign of trouble you're on your own. Copy?"

"You're a veritable bodhisattva of compassion Rig."

"Fuck off meatie."

I look in at The Lynch. He is in a bad way. "Come on Lynch. Here's where you get better." I hope. I help him into his vacuum suit, pull on my suit, make for the airlock. No point taking weapons, they'll have scans, anyway we can't appear hostile.

The Screaming Jack's lock closes behind us. We are floating in a small sealed chamber, the roof is barely high enough for The Lynch to stand, assuming there was gravity here.

I subvocalise: Rig are you getting this?

His voice and av are grainy. "They've got some sort of privacy field up. But either it's not very good or it's not on full."

Optimal.

My suit says the outside air pressure has equalised. I break my helmet seal. The air has sharp smell. Reminds me of moldie. It's mixed with other odours I can't recognise. But it's breathable. I take off Lynch's helmet as well.

"This is one suspicious bunch of muvvafukkas, sib. They've got a whole battalion of weapons trained on you; I can't get a good echo but it seems to be your standard anti-personnel maser/laser batteries, some particle beam projectors, one or two heavier units, and a whole lotta shit I dont have the faintest idea fucking what it is."

Thanks Rig. That makes me feel so much better. What are they doing can you see?

"I don't know. The far bulkhead's got extra shielding"

I'll try to get closer, see if I can find somewhere for you to get reading. I push over to the far wall.

A voice snaps out in perfect low anglic. "That's far enough, sunward barbarian citizen Billy Dante!"

Whoops, that got their attention! I hold out my hands, palms towards them. Swimming, floating, it's all the same. "I'm unarmed."

The voice barks again. "You have a rider."

I tell them "that's my partner Rig on the narrowbeam. He's okay."

"How did the biomorph get those burns?"

Tell the truth Dante. You're terrible at lying anyway.

Yeah don't I know it Companion. "I had to blow the Hernandez docking lock using a shaped charge. We were burned by molten liner coming through. We didn't have sufficient healcream and he's developed gangrene. I think"

"Why did ai allow you escape so easily?"

The truth nothing but the truth. "We have a nanoborg entity on board. It's called a Henry Bob. We believe it made a deal with Hernandez AI."

"A nanocyborg. Is this an attack?"

"It's on our ship zer! It's on our ship! We didn't bring it through the lock!" Sweet Sophia don't let them cut us down here!

In a grainy window in my field of vision Rig's going "what do you mean our ship, it's my ship, you cretin."

Silence.

I try explaining some more. "It's a rep for some mediacorp. They want to make our escape into a virch or something."

Silence.

I manage to grab a wall bar. "Scan us if you don't believe it! All I'm carrying is a military nanoclone Metasoft 25.3i09 Trajan Companion biochipset, some transceiver implants, and a few adrenal and reflex boosters and the standard ID templates. That's all!" I gesture at The Lynch. "He doesn't have anything at all."

Sweat pools under my suit.

They're scanning us Dante.

Thank the gods! Rig says "yeah, it's some sort of magnetic resonance thing, but not the sort I'm familiar with. Hang on, I'll try to get a better readout on it." He closes his grainy window.

The snowball voice says "you appear to be free of malicious tech. We now need an organic sample from both of you. In the wall unit over there, simple-minded sunward barbarian. Not that one, the other one."

Simple-minded hey? Fuck, no wonder everyone hates po snowflakes. They could do with some etiquette lessons.

Dante you misunderstand. It is a term of address.

Yeah. Well the Chesterton Po never spoke like that!

Rig's window opens again. He's laughing.

I subvocalise at him: fuck off. Take the cheek swab provided, scrape some lining from inside my mouth, deposit it in the little dish. It slides back. Another one takes it's place. "Now the stolen biomorph!"

Stolen? Great, they've dug up our old file. I pick up the swab. "Open wide Lynch."

"Will it hurt?" he is frightened, slightly feverish again, smelling of sickness.

"No they just need to know you're optimal."

"Lynch not feel optimal." I push myself forward. He opens his mouth. It's funny but in all these years since we grabbed him and all that other neat gear from that aristie yacht the Valkyrie stopped in the Columbus heliopause, I've never been this close to The Lynch. I get a whiff of the worst halitosis I'd ever experienced. Ughh! Swallow my nausea, take a scraping from inside his cheek.

We wait.

Another unit slides out. There are two small hypodermics.

"Inject these!" the voice commands.

Shit. This could be anything. "What are-"

"Either do it or turn around and go back to your ship, sunward barbarian!"

This is getting me mad. "Hey I only want to know what it is."

"We will not repeat our command!"

I look at The Lynch. He is slumped against the wall.

Companion?

87% likelihood it is simply an antibiotic to kill incompatible microflora.

Perhaps knowing my tendency to worry, he doesn't tell me what the other 13% could be. And I don't ask. I pick up the hypodermic, press it to the vein on my neck. It goes in with a sudden prick. Well, I'm either to be dead, immobilised, memebotted, planted with a hostage device, or simply innocularised so I dont give this lot of snowball tweaks a lethal cold. The Lynch gets the second syringe.

Time passes.

Should've brought an ebook to read.

Well, at least I'm not dead.

I'm starting to need to go to the john. Should've taken my other suit, the one with the liquid recycler.

I check the digital clock in my field of view. It's only been 38 minutes. But feels like I've been floating in this cramped little room for ever. You think they'd supply you with some immersive material at least. But oh no.

Another set of hyperdermics slide out. This time they want a blood sample. I guess to see if their nanites have taken. I always get queazy at the site of blood. Especially my own. But I give them a sample from me, another from Lynch. Settle down to wait some more. Floating in this claustrophobic room, with Lynch's smell of decay thick in my nostrils.

"We have analysed your samples, simple-minded barbarian. You may now enter our glorious habitat bEtamr."

Here goes!!!

The airlock opposite slides open.

Rig's window opens again "you're in sib."

"And let's hope I get out again in one piece!" I subvocalise back to him. I gently kick off the far wall, glide through. It's even smaller in here than in the antechamber. A long blue and green lit corridor, a claustrophobic tube. A remote or bot the size of a human head glides up to me. It's followed by a twin. The first remote barks "This way!" I follow it. There seems to be something like a snub-nosed laser in a port just under it's equator, trained on me no matter which way the remote moves or spins. Please don't let this thing shoot me. I risk a glance behind me. The second remote has taken its place in front of Lynch. There's another bulkhead. It opens for us and we go through. Strange equipment, biosystems, and biota like plants and corals are melded into the walls/floors. Metal and carbonite alternate with living cladding and thick growths of vegetation. . Small organisms like fis