Old Man's Blog

Outland Exile: Chapter 18

Nyork, Unity


Monee’k is different from the other girls, Iain thought. That would be obvious to anyone who bothered to really look. Her body floated, while all the other girls merely danced. He knew his attraction, his addiction, for her was getting out of hand. All his spare pay, not that there was a lot, went to buy time with Monee’k at the Night Lite Ballroom. If he got there early enough, he could dance with her the entire night … or until his money ran out. She smiled at him as they shared a few words dancing, his hands caressing her warm skin as they moved. He shivered.

He had seen her arrive at the club once before. Even with her clothes on, she had been easy to spot. She had a bounce in her stride that he would know anywhere. Iain had been waiting across the alley from the stage door in the rain, his service coat buttoned and his collar turned up. He hunkered down into the coat, trying to warm himself against the wind coming in from the river.

A group of women started down the alley to enter the stage door, the lights from the street making them unrecognizable silhouettes. It was only when the others turned to go in that Iain saw Monee’k at the back of the group. She stopped. When she smiled, Iain felt himself breathe again. He waved, stopped, his hand still up. She walked across the alley, smiled again, and took his hand. She held it as they talked. She was special.

“Nice to see you, Sergeant.”

“Call me Iain. Can I call you Monee’k? That is a pretty name.”

“My name’s really Heather. Monee’k is like a stage name … Iain. You’ve been coming here a lot lately.”

“I’ve been here before, but I started coming back when I noticed you.”

Heather had laughed, and it had made his heart skip. Once inside they had danced until closing. Heather had paid for their last three dances.

To Hecate, Malila’s disappearance had been wrenching. At the museum, Hecate had been too brusque with her, the memory of their abrupt parting haunting her even before she’d learned of Malila’s disappearance. Then, Malila’s apartment vacant and O-A terminated, Hecate had imagined a purge inside the DUFS. Malila would never have seen it coming. Even as she was bending the rules in unimagined ways, Malila could be blindsided after a not-quite-agile-enough maneuver. Someone would find it so easy to denounce her.

Hecate had made judicious inquiries through the governmental back channels, but to no avail. Malila had just evaporated.

Then Victor had been denounced. To watch his slow, public evisceration at the hands of lesser creatures had been agony. It had been a mercy when he killed himself.

Since then, the one remaining bright spot for her was the book warehouse. To her surprise, Victor’s suicide had not canceled her access. She was spending more and more time within its high dusty walls, staying all night before returning to the ministry.

She found and inhabited worlds of hope, despair, joy, sorrow, and delight. Eventually, it scared her, thinking she might lose herself to the books. There was so little to keep her here otherwise.

“Doggy, I can beat Khama’s last jag!” said a grinning Jasun Ciszek as Iain arrived.

“Given up on loser lieutenants, has the old man?”

“Seems he has changed from looies to loos,” said Jasun.

“Makes sense when you think about it, Gunny. Whata we gotta do now?”

Jasun slipped into official bureaucratese. “Our section is to direct all resources to evaluating and revising policies and procedures for the care and maintenance of all sanitary facilities in the command.”

“You’re kidding me, yeah? We are supposed to feck off everything to make sure the toilets flush?”

“By the authority bestowed by rank and custom … yes.”

“So what do I do with the Chiu data?”

Ciszek was ready for him and passed over a small scrap of actual paper.

“Just post it to this address, Doggy, just the raw data. Let’s get a move on. I need to get this new shit started before my ThiZ break. We gotta have something to show by retreat today.”

Iain gave a smart salute before slouching into the seat at his console. “Ours is not to wonder, Sarge, why these bizzles are in charge.”

Jourdaine smiled his bodiless smile as the Presence. He supervised Khama, unbeknownst to the man or his sergeants. In the CORE of the Unity, secrets of state, encrypted industrial correspondence, and even a low-level data stream were free for the taking … to Jourdaine. The best security procedures were no match for a Presence that could move outside the mirrored corridors of the ’net. With little danger to himself, he had been able to have Khama not only initiate but now disassociate himself from the first step of his trap for Chiu. He had his trip wire—the auto ping.

It was a start. Unlike any usual trap, however, this one possessed parts that never would appear to connect with any other part. It would never look like a trap. Anyone climbing up the data stream would find people ignorant of any connection they might have with each other. It was not complete yet. He still needed a spring to energize it, a trigger to set off the capture, and the jaws to seize his prey.

With that thought, the next item on his scavenger hunt would be a spring, to magnify the tentative vibrations of the trip wire. In the vast landscape of the CORE, if you could view it from Jourdaine’s perspective, there existed all sorts of oddities and back alleys with bits of program or personality that had gotten lost or corrupted. Becoming cumbersome over time, the CORE techs had found it easier to assign a distant and silent block of memory to them, letting the bits fight it out among themselves.

The n-dimensioned space assigned to them frothed with danger, of course, but it was always worth a look. Sometimes, the bits of program acted like rats, burrowing into otherwise protected file dumps to retrieve a datum or two. However, there were some things you could not get rats to do.

For those jobs, you needed graduate students.

Dr. Waylan Swartzbender, the Rodman professor of the Heidegger School of Practical Theology of Columbia University of the People connected with Jourdaine via a video interview. Jourdaine needed no O-A for this. Everyday coercion, fear, and duplicity were quite sufficient for academics.

“Colonel Jourdaine, I must say I am a bit surprised. My meeting was with a … Undersecretary Chilton … about the funding?” said the E30 S30 man in the rolled-sleeves, red-shirted uniform of a tenured professor.

“Yes, Professor Swartzbender, it is about that we need to speak.”

Jourdaine was pleased with the several beats of eye blinking that his words provoked. Good start.

“Is there any problem, Colonel Jourdaine?”

“I do hope not, Doctor. That is why this interview is what we must consider … informal. It would be unwise to make known this conversation outside ourselves. It would look like … favoritism.”

The academic smiled on cue. Sometimes it’s too easy.

“Well, then, Colonel. The funding proposal was in order, surely? It is almost the same as last year, plus COLA, capital fund, pedagogical allowances, the usual … isn’t it?”

“Yes …”

Jourdaine waited for the professor to blink. He blinked.

“Who is BethanE Winters, Professor Swartzbender?”

The professor’s eyebrows flicked up in surprise, and he looked down, rather than up, recalling her. The man was working from notes.

“Why, I was unaware there was this level of inspection into the academic process, Colonel.”

“Who is she, Doctor?”

“Just a graduate student.”

“Indeed, a graduate student … just. What is her area of study then?”

A hurried number of keystrokes later, the professor said, “The superiority of ethical immanence to the concept of transcendent ethicality with the deconstruction of the modern city-state as text.”

“Now, Professor, I am hardly a man of your learning or insight, but I had thought that concept a bit played out?”

“Indeed, indeed. Rather hackneyed, expected more, distracted, don’t you know … government contracts. But … why is this important?”

The professor looked up into Jourdaine’s eyes. His chin came up; his lips thinned.

Excellent, Jourdaine thought. We finally come to what he thinks important. Time to set him up.

“Are you familiar with The Vital Realism, by John Baudrillard, Professor?”

The older man’s eyes dilated, and there was a slight intake of breath. Jackpot, thought Jourdaine.

“I was a very young scholar at the time, Colonel. The book was on the Correct Readings for Consumers list then …”

The professor subsided as Jourdaine raised his hand and shook his head. Take your foot off the accelerator briefly; makes the turning easier.

“It is not your … reading habits … we are questioning, Professor. Citizen Winters seems to have acquired a copy from her current liaison with a Malik Mafee. What is your opinion of the work, since you admit to having read it?” Now let him hear the trap snap shut. It will focus his efforts wonderfully.

“Oh, derivative, totally derivative. Old-fashioned. Knew it at the time, of course,” the professor said, rather too fast.

Just a little frenzy, as expected, of course.

“So glad to hear you say that—and, of course, your loyalty and … orthodoxy … have never been in serious question. But this Citizen Winters … another issue entirely. I think I would feel very much better about her advancement if we could judge how loyal and cooperative she is,” Jourdaine added, waiting for the response. Open a gate and see how fast he rushes to it, he thought.

“Yes, assuredly, Colonel. I could have her do some of my classes,” the professor said and actually looked away to write something.

“Hardly, Professor.” Jourdaine laughed but did not smile.

The man looked up, startled. The man needed his priorities rectified.

“I think I will provide the test,” Jourdaine said. “A little discrimination test for her.” Jourdaine sent the file to the professor as he spoke. “She is to review this data stream, and when it matches these parameters, here, she is then to set this flag in the CORE. Her thesis would be unwise to accept if she fails, don’t you agree? She will find the task tedious but untaxing. Is that acceptable?”

The look of immediate gratitude on the man’s face was unfeigned. It had taken so little. The professor disdained money and thus lowered his own value to the cost of an impoverished scribbler. He disdained politicians and thus became a bad one.

The remainder of the interview was painless. By the time Jourdaine broke the contact, Swartzbender was practically rolling onto his back to have his belly scratched.

The same day, a good deal less unusually, at Columbia’s University of the People, a graduate student’s thesis advisor assigned her to do a task that was completely useless.

Now Jourdaine needed a trigger. Questing around the frothing edge of the CORE, he had seen how an anomaly dimpled the surface, darkened it, and distorted the landmarks. He swooped closer and could tell it was Charlie. Inside a swirling vortex of the CORE sat what had been a promising sports personality.

Even Jourdaine, not a fan of the usual blood sports, had heard the reports that a defensive lineman, one who had just been given his O-A, probably a little too late, had almost immediately COREd himself out. His owners were furious.

Jourdaine’s Presence sat near the lineman, close enough to hear but far enough away so as not to be hit by the backwash of the man’s emotions.

oHw ddi I gte ehre? Ewehr si eerh?

No! I said that wrong.

How.did.I.get.here? Where.is.here?

The trainer had given him some of the yellow pills and told him not to take them all at one time.

I sohudl avhe lenisted!

No! Not right.

Thoughts and images swirling around him, he could get no fingerholds for his own ideas. He kept falling, falling forever. His flesh melted and reformed as he watched. He saw his guts clench and move, pink and writhing like a newly killed hog.

The O-A had been such a great new toy when they’d put it in. They’d said that it was going to improve his game. It had taken a lot of hard work to get the thing to work, but it had been fecking amazing. He had been able to see the game like a bird and feel the ball move before he could see it, feel how the quarterback was going to move by how he pressed against the earth.

They had told him not to look into the CORE. He had understood that.

What he had not understood were all the willing, enthusiastic, exceptional women who had undressed for him every time he’d turned around. He could just eat them up … the girls. They had come with their pills and the pills with their visions, and he’d eaten those too.

Mi’ llafign!

Charlie watched his fingers morph into staring alien eyes before they dissolved into a fetid, sticky mass. It hurt so bad.

He was aware of the Presence for a while as he watched his fingers regrow.

“Charlie, Charlie. You aren’t falling. Look at me, Charlie. You are here with me, and I am not falling. I can make it all go away. You don’t have to do this Charlie …”

Charlie looked over and could see only the barest swirl of darkness in the shadowless noon of the CORE. He didn’t have to say anything. The Presence calmed him. He was grateful for the brief respite from his torrent of sensation. He clung to the Presence and wept, for the first time since that night when they had found him raving.

He had tried to hide from them in the CORE. Now he wept. Just having the Presence there gave him an anchor. Once he stopped falling and stopped crying, the Presence told him what he had to do.

“Charlie, you can listen to me, Charlie. I can get you home. You will stop falling. It will all be easy, but you have to do your part. You know how to execute, don’t you, Charlie? People depend on you. You have always done your best for a teammate, haven’t you? I’m your teammate, Charlie. Just one more assignment, and we can go home.

“Just watch the flag. See the line marker. When it comes up, just throw the switch. It will send you home. But you have to wait. It isn’t time yet. It is too dangerous to test the switch until the flag is set. Do you understand, Charlie?

“Yes … und’stand: assignment flag home.”

“Excellent, Charlie. At the right time, the switch will send you home.”

Trip wire, spring, trigger … only jaws were needed. The trap was coming along.

He would be ready for her: Khama to order the auto ping to be tripped if Chiu’s O-A came within range, an agent of his own in the shop to create the auto ping, an expendable E20 graduate student to read the raw data, her thesis advisor ready to denounce her if needs be, Charlie to trigger the switch, and, easiest of all, a snatch team. Anyone working on any one link was unable to identify Jourdaine himself: no program code to be unearthed, no data dump to be gone through by some enterprising eprovost. Jourdaine’s programming had been in people, and when people died, their memories died with them. Chiu, if she surfaced alive, could dispute her last disastrous meeting with Suarez. If anyone took her seriously, it might expose Miramundo Morales. Jourdaine wished to reserve the pleasure of that revelation for himself.

Of course, it was probably unnecessary. Chiu had already been missing for three weeks. He’d give it six months and then dismantle the whole affair. His coconspirators would go back to whatever they had been doing, never knowing they had been a part of a conspiracy.

But this had been a good deal of trouble for one jumped-up second lieutenant unless … she might be recycled.

Palace coups required audacity, brutality, and the ability to draw people to his cause. Power blocks in academia, the government, or the arts were fools to contest a change in government against a unified military. Barring kitchen knives and makeshift cudgels, only the DUFS had weapons.

However, the DUFS was hardly unified. It seethed with intrigue. Like a magnet, any leader powerful enough to succeed induced polar opposites to dispute that success. Disinterest combated enthusiasm, disaffection contended with popularity, and combinations of lesser powers blocked a greater one. Jourdaine would have to be seen and unseen, exceptional and unremarkable, decisive and compliant.

For this coup d’état, then, he needed not supporters but metasupporters, those who were unaware how their actions might forward his plans. Many were in place already, Jourdaine’s spiderweb of subordinates. None of his people knew another. None of his human tools would ever be able to report more than an odd enthusiasm or quirky behavior, and Jourdaine would remain a bland smudge on their recollections.

But at some time the virtual must become real, and for that he needed a face.