Episode 21 (2180.08.10)
by Shawn Hagen (1997)
Starblade Battalion is the Property of R.Talsorian Games.
Opening Credits, same as before.
The Sloop John B. cruised close to the Long Rider, just part of all the other traffic in Solingen space. Tern looked over the sensor displays, noting that traffic was heavier than the last time he had been there. Of course there were all the warships there. System defense craft, built without shunt drives, loaded down with weapons. They were ready for a fight.
"Sloop John B., be warned that you must maintain course."
"Got you control," Tern said. "I'll go in nice, don't want to upset the boys with guns."
"It's not a joke Tern," the controller's tone took on a more friendly tone. "No one has been fired on yet, but a few people have had their papers pulled, in one case a ship was confiscated. They're being pretty heavy handed. Oh, my boss is coming, don't get fancy. Sloop John B., you are clear for re-entry. Control out."
"Thanks control, John B. out."
"That seemed to easy," Emiko said.
"Don't get worried Emiko. I'm well known, the ship is well known, and my father is powerful. Also, why should they be worried about me. I'm just a law abiding, loyal citizen of the Confederation."
"The law abiding part is lie a according to Diane-san."
"We all have our critics. Prepare for re-entry."
"Heat shields in place, cooling units at one hundred percent."
"Good, this will be easy enough, textbook re-entry, nothing to make anyone worried. Keep an eye on the course," he told her as he set a course for the planet.
The John B.'s landing gear dropped and locked as the ship approached the landing field. Tern opened the air-brakes, holding the ship steady against the increased wind resistance. He waited a few seconds, then shifted the direction of the thrust around, bringing the ship to a halt, hovering a hundred meters from the concrete landing pad.
The ship began to slowly drop, moving forward as the same time.
"Welcome to Solingen Sloop John B.," the controller said over the radio. "What have you been doing Tern?" she asked in a familiar way.
"This and that," he said. "Been busy?"
"Yes. One day we're keeping airspace open so the military can do all the drills they want, then the next day we're bringing in cargo ships, and then there is just normal traffic which hasn't slacked off."
"Ask them for a raise."
"I plan to," she laughed. "You're clear to enter your hangar."
"Give me a call, control out."
"A friend?" Emiko asked.
"Yes," he nodded. "I know most of the air and space controllers that work the major planets. Occupational hazard. We're down," he said as the ship jarred slightly. "Give me the basics."
"Nothing important," Emiko said as she looked over the damage control readouts. "If I am reading this right we are going to need to get the heat shielding on the starboard side looked at."
"I know a few people who can do it," he steered the ship towards a large hangar.
"Other than that, nothing. Well, maybe our fuel is a little lower than normal."
"Get the fuel system looked at as well. The maintenance crews here are among the best, might as well have some major work done."
"What's the story?" Juan asked as he came into the cockpit.
"Nothing special. We haven't earned any undo attention. We just have to clear customs now."
"Think there will be any problems?"
"I hope not. That sort of think might cost me my hangar."
"And get you killed."
"Probably just thrown in jail."
"Not much of an upside."
"You have to think positive."
Clearing customs was easier than Juan might have thought. The custom officers knew Tern and kept the whole thing easy. They gave everyone's documents a cursory inspection, then looked over the ship. The whole thing took ten minutes.
"You'd think that they'd pay more attention to this ship," Diane said.
"Why?" Tern asked as he cycled the lock closed and locked it.
"You're not funny," she told him.
"And you just don't have a sense of humor," he replied as he bent down to grab his duffel bag.
"Let's get out of here," Juan said. "We've got to set up our operating post, then get to work."
"Where are we setting up?" Conaly asked.
"Friends place. I've arranged a helicopter, Tern, you up to flying?"
"I'm always up to flying."
"No fair," Ree shouted. "He's not the only one here who can pilot helos."
"Do you hold a valid license?" Epiphany asked her.
"No, but what does that have to do with it?"
"Tern flies," Diane said, walking by them.
Emiko was a little surprised to be back on Marion Verees' farm. She had not really expected to see it ever again. Now that she was back, part of her wished that she had never come.
The place felt empty. Not only were some of Marion's children gone, but members of the other families in the area had also left. The sense of emptiness hung over the community, Emiko could feel it. The shouts, the sound of children playing, and the banging of doors opening and closing was diminished.
They had gathered in the attic of Marion's house, around a dusty table. There was a low hum as tiny motors shook the glass, and the staticy sound of white noise gave Emiko a slight headache.
"Well," Juan said, "now that we have covered introductions, let's get down to business. Marion, have you heard anything?"
"Nothing of real importance," she told him, her voice lacked something, something that Emiko couldn't identify, but missed none the less. "This seasons crop and the next one are already sold, and I've already had military buyers making appointments to talk about the crop after that. They delayed it though, canceled the appointments, told me that they would get back to me in a few weeks."
"Any idea why?"
"No. They don't know either."
"The upper echelons must be thinking that the war might be over soon. Interesting."
"So now what?" Diane asked.
"Now we start investigating. Anyone got any ideas?"
"I'll visit my father," Tern said. "Maybe he'll let something slip."
"I've got a few people I can talk to," Diane said.
"Not my beat," Conaly told him. "I'm more of an outback person. Speaking of which, I have places to go. If you'll excuse me," he said as he left.
"Give me a little time to think about it. My contacts in the military are pretty cold. Epiphany?"
"I deserted, remember."
"Okay," Juan said. "Let's get to work. Any restrictions you want to put on us Marion?"
"No. I've told everyone that you are associates of Andy's. No one will pay much attention to you."
"Thanks," Juan said.
"Varris," Diane said as she walked towards the door. "You're with me."
"Because I think we'll work together well."
Juan looked at her questioningly for a moment, then followed after her.
"If you need anything, just ask," Marion said as she walked towards the exit. I'll be down in the garden."
"So what do we do now?" Epiphany asked.
"I need to get some sleep," Tern said. "Emiko, want to come with me? I'll leave in about three hours."
"Okay," Emiko nodded.
"See you." He left.
"Well, that just leaves us," Ree said to Epiphany and Emiko. "What shall we do?"
"Shopping?" Epiphany suggested. "It's been a while since we've walked Bridge Street."
"Sounds fun. Emiko, want to break your date with Tern?"
"Maybe next time," Emiko said.
"I'll buy you a new dress or something," Ree said. "Let's go," she looked at Epiphany. "If we hurry, we should be able to catch a ride with Juan and Diane."
Emiko found Marion working in her garden. She sat on the railing of the back porch and for a while watched her trimming the roses.
"You look well," Marion said after a time, not looking at Emiko. "The life of a soldier saint must agree with you."
"I guess," Emiko said, not sure what a soldier saint was. "I'm sorry about..." she trailed off.
Marion looked over her shoulder at Emiko, then smiled. "Blaming yourself for the stupidity of my sons," she turned to face Emiko. "You shouldn't. They were looking for an excuse to leave. While your speech was very motivational, they would have gone without it.
"It's just one of the things you have to face when you are a mother," she walked towards Emiko. "Eventually your children will leave, and no matter what they do you worry about them."
"I just feel that I might have sped that up."
"Perhaps," she shrugged her shoulders. "I don't blame you. I never saw you as a blonde," she said, changing the subject.
"It's Diane-san's idea. She says I need to be in disguise. At least here I can remove the contacts."
"Well, it does make you look different."
"Speaking of hair," Emiko began. "I want to get this cut," she grasped a handful of her hair and pulled it forward.
"The nearest salon is some distance away, but as you know, I cut hair."
"Why do you think I brought it up?" Emiko smiled.
"Come along, we'll do it in the living room, the light is good there at this time of day. It looks nice long you know?"
"It will help with the disguise, and, it wasn't really my choice to have it long," Emiko said as she followed Marion into the house.
"So you are reasserting your own style."
"Kind of. Also, hair cuts are often a sign of a new stage of life. I'm a bit behind on this one I think."
"Really?" Marion stopped in the kitchen and opened one of the high cupboards.
"Often. When you go from Elementary school to Junior High haircuts are often the norm," Emiko laughed. "The boys have to get really short haircuts, depending on the school."
"I see," she said as she took a case from the cupboard. "Well, I'll try not to go that short. Bring one of the kitchen chairs," she said as she left the room.
Emiko grabbed the chair and followed after Marion.
A short time later Emiko was sitting in front of the large picture window.
"Let's see," Marion took a step back from Emiko and looked at her. "Do you trust me?"
"Maybe," Emiko said nervously.
"Look at it this way," Marion picked up a pair of scissors and moved behind her. "Worse comes to worse, you shave your head and wait a few months."
"I don't find that to reassuring."
"Don't worry," she said as she combed Emiko's hair up. "It's been years since I've butchered anyone's hair."
Emiko sat there, unable to see what Marion was doing. The lack of a mirror in the living room made her feel a little more anxious than she might have. The sound of the scissors was one thing, when Marion brought out a set of electric clippers she wanted to tell her to stop. She held herself still though. After all, she had cut her children's hair, and none of them had looked that bad.
As she worked Marion kept up a light conversation, mostly about what was happening around the community. She avoided talk of those who had left. Emiko listened for the most part, happy to hear of people living a normal life. The knowledge that there were people concerned about cats killing chickens, and if rain was going to damage a crop, made her feel a little better.
"I think that will do it," Marion said as she finished drying Emiko's hair. "I don't see the need to shave your head and start all over again." She put the blow dryer aside and undid the poncho like cover she had put around Emiko.
"Good," Emiko said.
"Go take a look at it," she pulled cover from Emiko's shoulders.
As Emiko stood she noticed how different her hair felt, lighter. She also saw all the blonde locks piled up on the floor. She hope that Marion was right about it being good. She really did not want to shave her hair.
The closest mirror was in the bathroom near the front door. While Marion cleaned up, Emiko went to see just what had been done.
She stood in the dark bathroom for several seconds, then finally flipped on the switch. She was a little surprised at the style, it wasn't like anything she had worn before. The hair on the back of her head had been cut very short, but longer hair from the top of her head hung down to the middle of her neck. On the left side, the hair was long enough to cover her ear, and it hung down over part of her left eye. On the right side, the bottom third of her ear was visible and he bangs were cut so her right eye was unobscured.
She stared at herself for several seconds, then smiled. She liked it, though she would like it more when she could return her hair to its natural colour. As she continued to look at herself she realized that she looked younger with that haircut. Maybe that was one of the things she liked about it. It reminded her of times when she was just an ordinary student, with a kyoikumama and no worries greater than passing her next exam.
She brushed her hair back from her forehead, watched as it fell back into place, then turned and left the bathroom. She had to thank Marion.
"So, what's this place?" Juan asked Diane.
"Well," he looked the building over. "brothels are always interesting sources of information."
"Who is it you want to talk to?"
"Ever heard of Richard Mandela?" she asked as she set off across the street.
"Sits on the Solingen board, his family holds eight percent of Solingen stock. He's good at his job."
"He also has a conscience."
Diane stopped at the front doors and turned back to Juan. "He has to keep his family happy, which sometimes means doing things that don't sit well with him. To deal with that guilt, he gets punished."
"I see," Juan nodded.
"He's my barometer for judging how bad Solingen is being," she pushed open the door and entered the building.
Juan was a few steps behind her. The place was dark, so dark it almost hid how tacky everything was. There was a scent of stale sex in the room. He was immediately aware of how different the place was from where Ree had worked. He could not picture Ree in a place like this, unless of course she was a client.
Diane was approached by a older woman in a tight gown. "How may I help you," she asked, a large smile on her face.
"My name is Marshall Vichy," she held out her badge. "I'm not here to arrest anyone or cause any trouble. I know Mr. Mandela is here and I want to talk with him."
The woman looked at Diane and her badge, then nodded. "Please come with me," she said.
Diane put the badge back in her pocket and followed after the woman. Juan was a few steps behind her.
The woman showed them to a small office. "Please wait here," she said.
Diane nodded and entered. Juan took a look around, then followed Diane. He pulled the door closed behind him. "Great place," he said.
"I'll admit, his usual choice is a bit higher class."
"None. These people aren't going to cause problems."
They waited, not talking about much. Diane slouched in her chair, looking like she was half asleep. Juan knew the look was a lie.
After thirty minutes the door was open, the woman stood there. "He'll see you now."
Diane got to her feet, walking towards the door. Juan took his feet from the table he had been resting them on, then got to his feet. By the time he exited the office Diane and the woman were at the far end of the hallway, just starting up a set of stairs.
Juan hurried after them, catching up at the first landing. They walked down an ill lit hall, the smell of sex grew stronger. They stopped by a door. The woman knocked, then opened it up. She stood aside so they could enter.
Inside, Richard Mandela sat in a chair in the middle of the room. There was something odd about his eyes. It took Juan a moment to realize that he was wearing subtle makeup. It was almost hiding something. Richard had been crying recently.
Diane looked him up and down. "Must be pretty bad this time."
"What are you talking about Marshall?"
"Let's not play that game," she walked over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. He hissed in pain, and there were fresh tears in his eyes, though Diane had only gently squeezed his shoulder. She looked down at the dark robe he wore. There was a wet spot where she had touched. "How bad is it?" She walked to a small sink in the corner of the room.
"I have nothing to say to you."
"Do you think this frees you of the responsibility?" She washed her hands, scrubbing hard.
"I have nothing to say to you." He sounded angry.
Diane looked at him, then turned around and walked to the far wall. She pulled open a set of curtains. Juan had expected a window, instead there was rack there.
Diane bent down, looking at the floor. There were drops of fresh blood there. She stood. "Usually a paddle is more than enough for you," she said, turning to face him. "Getting cut by a whip? What is Solingen up to?"
"I can't tell you."
"Come on," she said to Juan, walking by him. "He's told us enough."
Juan looked at the man sitting there, not moving, probably in too much pain to move. He almost felt sorry for him, but could not find enough empathy to understand Richard. He just followed Diane out.
They did not speak until they were out on the street.
"You could almost respect him," Diane said.
"Something big is up. They are going to do something very nasty."
"Got any other leads?"
"Not right now."
"My turn I guess."
"I was hoping."
"If I just get this information, you won't let it go will you?"
"If you mean will I want to know who your source is, no."
"Always looking to catch me up." Juan smiled.
"Know where my apartment is?"
"Been in it?"
"Need a key?"
"No, but I'll take one."
"Here," Juan reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a key. "Wait for me there. I shouldn't be more than a few hours."
"Where are you going?"
"Just to have a talk with someone. I doubt I'll find much out. It's more of a personal matter."
"In a few hours then," she said, shoving the key into a pocket. She picked up her pace, leaving Juan behind.
Juan stopped and watched her go. Then he turned and headed the opposite way.
<Sir,> his secretary sent. <Mr. Varris wishes to see you.>
<Send him in,> Albert Knox sent back.
A few moments later the door opened and Juan walked into his office.
"Mr. Varris, it has been some time. What brings you here?"
"Curiosity," Juan said.
"About everything," he said as he took a seat across from the man. "This war you've started has made doing business a little difficult."
"Perhaps I have been misinformed."
"Perhaps you have. Have you come to take me up on that job offer?"
"I'll admit, with things being as they are I have considered it. I have to say no though. I would like to offer my services as a mediator in this war. You have to hammer out a truce sometime."
"Thank you for the offer Mr. Varris, but at this time I cannot accept it."
"That's too bad."
"Is there anything else?"
"No, I don't think so."
"It was good to see you again."
Juan nodded, then got to his feet. "Things could get very dangerous you know?"
"You should know as well as anyone that one must always take chances if they hope to succeed."
"I try not to put people's lives on the line."
"Later," Juan said as he walked from the office.
Albert watched him leave. He had been looking for something, hoping to get something. Juan Varris was a very tricky man to deal with. He knew more than he said, and gave away very little. He knew something was going on.
He was not sure where Juan's loyalties lay. At times he was certain that he cared only for profit, and yet at other times, he was not so sure. A Juan who cared only for profit was something he could deal with, something he understood. A noble Juan could be dangerous.
For a moment he considered having the young man killed. He decided against it. Too many deaths might draw more suspicion than he would have liked. There were many other he was sure were a threat. Best to deal with them first.
Juan left the Solingen GmbH building. He turned to look up at it. It was the tallest building in the huge Arcology of New Plymouth, the home office of the huge corporation that controlled the Cluster.
He thought about his mother, Albert and Philip. A triangle of unrequited love. It was like some bad opera or something. One day he'd have to work on getting something written about it. It was the kind of story that would sell well.
He shook his head, putting the thoughts out of his head.
Albert was up to something, he was sure of that. Something very large. He just had a way of reading the man, some instinct that helped him deal with him. It was only a vague feeling, but he suspected that Albert was embarking on a course that he was not completely sure of but would follow to the end.
That was dangerous.
Juan shook his head. It was time to find out what was happening.
The building that the Planetary Board of Directors met in did not stand out from the others around it. The only things marking it out were the Confederation's symbol--the seven stars--and the guards in PAFS that stood by the entrances. Those guards were more ceremonial in nature, the offices of the PBD were left alone more often than not.
Emiko looked around, a little nervous. She did not believe that she was there, that she was walking through the halls.
"Relax," Tern said softly.
"Don't worry, you look completely different, no one will recognize you. Don't act nervous, it will just make people pay attention to you."
Emiko nodded and did her best to look relax. No one will recognize you, she said to herself. You're just a blonde, with sunglasses, who looks younger than you did. You're perfectly safe.
Tern led her to a large, open office space. He walked directly towards the receptionist, giving the woman a smile. "Brenda, you are looking well."
"Young Mr. Roarke," she looked at him. "What can I do for you?"
"My father in?"
"Think I could see him?"
"Your father is a very busy man."
"Why don't you call and see?"
The woman frowned for a moment, then went quiet, a far away look in her eyes. After a few seconds she returned her attention to Tern. "He'll see you."
He nodded, then looked at Emiko, "Let's go."
Emiko followed him through the office space, towards a set of doors. Tern opened on and went through, Emiko stopped on the threshold for a moment, then stepped in.
The office was large, but seemed small due to everything that was inside. A large desk, several bookshelves and curio cabinets filled the room. There were models of starships and mektons on many of the shelves, as well as pictures of men and women in combat dress.
She only gave the room's contents a cursory glance, her attention being drawn to the man behind the desk. Andre Roarke looked a little like his son, he was thin and his hair was black, though short. There was something different in the eyes though, a lack of fire that she had grown use to in Tern. He also looked uncomfortable, though she was not sure why.
"It's been a while," Andre said.
"Been busy," Tern said, looking around the room.
"Please, sit," Andre said. "Can I get you something?"
"No," Tern said, taking a seat on a couch. He reached out and pulled Emiko down beside him.
Andre looked at Emiko for a moment, then shifted his attention to Tern, dismissing her. Emiko felt relieved. "What are you doing here?"
"Just in the area. Thought I'd come and say hi to my Father. How is everyone?"
"Your mother is fine, though lonely. Julia has been rotated to the front lines."
"Must make you happy. Maybe she can get some nice medals. You can put them together in one case and show them off."
"You treat everything like a joke."
"It's part of my charm."
"Have you ever thought of taking responsibility for your life?"
"Yes, but I'm worried I might become like you, taking responsibility for too many people's lives. What's the death toll now?"
"You know nothing. You have no idea what you are talking about. You think we had a choice?" Andre's voice rose as he spoke, he was close to shouting by the time he finished.
"I think you took the easiest of choices. Going to war was quick, and let's not forget profitable."
"You know nothing."
"That's not quite true. I know my father has decided to help with atrocities."
"Who are you to judge me?!" Andre stood, snatching his cane from beside the desk, raising it into the air. "What do you know," he brought he case down on the desk. The crack of wood on wood made Emiko jump slightly. She closed her eyes, wishing she was not there.
"And what about you," Tern stood. "Sitting here, in your office, while people like Julia die."
"I would rather be on the front lines than here!" Andre snapped. "I'd rather be there, making easy decisions, in clean fights, than sentencing millions to die from an office. You think it is easy?"
"It seems to be easy for you," Tern smiled.
"Get out!" Andre raised his cane again. "Get out before I do something I'll regret."
Tern stood. "Let's go," he looked at Emiko. "It seems my father is busy."
Emiko got to her feet, happy that it was time to leave. She almost ran to the office door. Tern walked after her, then turned in the doorway just before he left. "Julia is good you know, but we both know she isn't the best."
"Get out," Andre said quietly, dropping into his seat. "Just get out."
"Bye dad," Tern said, then turned and left, closing the door behind him.
When Tern looked around he saw Emiko was standing at the far end of the office, looking as if she wanted to leave. He walked over to her "Let's go."
"What was all that about?" Emiko asked him.
"Wanted to see what was up. My father is not a happy man. Something is bothering him."
"You seemed to want to upset him."
"Just rubbing salt in the wounds," he said. "That means making something worse," he told her when he noticed the confused look on her face.
"Because we don't like each other. I was not the son he wanted, and he was not the father I cared to have. Bad mixture. We keep away from each other. Even if I hadn't been pressing things, we would have ended up fighting. It is just the way things are."
"I guess it is."
Andre held a picture frame in his hands, staring at the photo within. One of the few pictures of all the members of his family together. Juan had only been four at the time, it would be several years before he started to hate his father.
He put the picture down and sighed. Hard words were always said when they came together. He shook his head as he reviewed everything that he had said to his son, everything his son had said to him.
A concerned look crossed his face. Something nagged at him. He reached for his phone. Best to make sure his concerns were groundless.
Emiko clung to Tern's waist, holding onto him tight. The motorcycle was a fast vehicle, and loud. Tern sped along the streets, taking corners tight, weaving in and out of traffic. Emiko thought she should be terrified, but somehow she wasn't. She trusted Tern's skills.
"Want to get something to eat?" Tern asked her--his voice coming over the radio links in the helmet.
"Hold on tight."
Tern rapidly slowed the bike, turning sharply at the same time. They came to a stop, with the screeching of tires, in front of several vending machines.
"Here we are," Tern said, putting the kick stand down.
"I was hoping for something a bit more restaurant like."
"All the time in the world for restaurants," Tern told her as he removed a debit card from his jacket pocket. "Juice? Coke? Beer?"
"A coke please."
Tern nodded and pushed the card into the slot. He hit the button for a coke, then another for a can of ice coffee. He handed the cans to Emiko, then removed his card. "Hungry?"
"Well, meat, fruit, or the great unknown of snack food?"
"How about a salad type deal," he pushed his card into another machine. A moment later he handed Emiko a plastic wrapped bundle of vegetables.
While Tern got a burger, Emiko opened her salad, snapped the plastic chopsticks apart, and began to eat, still sitting on the motorcycle.
Tern turned so he was sitting sidesaddle. He took the can of ice coffee from Emiko, then unwrapped his burger.
"This reminds me of Tokyo," Emiko said, a small tomato held near her mouth.
Emiko popped the tomato in her mouth, quickly chewed, then swallowed. "Just the vending machines. We used to do this sort of thing all the time."
"Who was we?" he asked, then took a bite of his burger.
"Just some friends from school."
"They are convenient," he said. "And the food is not bad."
Emiko nodded as she opened her coke.
They sat and ate in quiet for a time. Tern looked up. There were motorcycles close by, he could hear their engines. They got closer, and closer, then he saw them. "Get ready to leave," he said, tossing the wrapping from the burger into the recycling bin. The can of ice coffee followed.
Emiko was not sure what was going on, but she finished her coke, then tossed her garbage into the proper recycling bins. She pulled her helmet on. In front of her Tern swung his leg over the bike.
Five motorcycles pulled into the vending area, boxing Tern in except in front. Emiko looked at them. They looked like police. The one on his left lifted the face shield of her helmet. "Tern, your father wants to talk to you."
"We already talked, thanks."
"Come on Tern, you know the way this works. The boss gives us our orders, we do them. Now let's go."
"Not today," Tern closed the faceplate of his helmet, then pressed the electric starter. The engine roared to life. He turned to face the open space ahead of him. One of the other riders was already trying to cut him off. Tern gunned the engine, waited until he felt Emiko grasp him tightly about the waist, then he dropped the clutch. The bike shot forward on its rear wheel, passing though the small space the other bike had almost closed. He leaned forward, the front wheel dropped to the ground. Looking in the side mirrors he could see the motorcycles behind him, closing.
"Hold tight, lean with me, and don't be afraid," Tern said to Emiko as he twisted the accelerator, shifting up. The bikes behind him began to recede. They weren't as far behind him as he would have liked.
Ahead of them would be a T intersection. He had to turn, the wall of concrete separated the pedestrian concourse from the roadways. There were the tunnels under the concourse, tunnels that went almost everywhere. He smiled behind his helmet, speeding up.
The concrete barrier was not too high, and it had a slight grade to it. He had walked along the top of it, with friends, talking about how easy it would be to jump it. Racing towards it, it looked higher, and the grade almost nonexistent. He put those thoughts aside. He knew he could do it. He ad done similar. It was just going to be a little harder with a rider on the back.
Too late to change my mind now, he thought, popping the bike onto its rear wheel, pulling the front above the height of the wall. Just as the rear tire touched the barrier, he reved the engine up high. The tire clawed into the concrete, propelling the bike up into the air.
Tern held on tight, leaning forward. The rear tire hit the grass that surrounded the concourse. As the front tire was coming down the rear tire was beginning to slide out from under the bike. He fought it back up, having it mostly under control by the time the front tire hit the ground. Once again he had to fight to keep the bike from falling over.
There was a jarring bump as the bike left the grass, sliding onto the sidewalks of the concourse. He brought the bike around, squeezing his brake, sliding to a stop pointed back towards his pursuers.
"Baka!" he heard Emiko yell as she pounded on his back. Tern hardly noticed. He looked back at the bikes and riders behind him. They had all stopped and were looking at him. Tern waved at them, then gave the bike some gas. Emiko once again gripped him tight around the waist.
He let out the clutch, the bike jumped forward. He turned around, heading into the concourse, deftly avoiding the pedestrians. A short time later the bike was bouncing down the stairs, into the tunnels.
"So, dad, your enforcers said that you wanted to see me," Tern said, looking at his father's image over the vidphone.
"What were you thinking?!" Andre demanded. "Do you know how many people you terrified with that stunt?"
"My date for one."
"You are not funny Tern. You haven't been in a long time."
"Uh huh," Tern said with a bored tone. "What was it you wanted. This is a secure line by the way, figured you might be paranoid."
Andre was quiet for a moment. "Tern, about what I said in the office..."
"You're planning something scummy dad. What is that to me? Personally, I'm planning on taking a long vacation until this war is over, maybe make a few bucks in the process, not that I need them. I'm not about to take a stand."
"Yes," Andre said. "I forgot that. You care only about yourself."
"Got that right dad."
"It will be terrible if Julia dies, but at least she will be fighting for something."
"I'm just a big disappointment aren't I. We've been here before dad."
"I guess we have nothing more to say."
"I wouldn't say that," Tern told him. "I was wondering, could you get the police to leave me alone. After all, if you hadn't sent your people after me, I'd not have had to driven so dangerously."
"I'll clean up after you again," Andre said.
"Thanks dad, you're a sport. We'll have to do this again real soon," he said sarcastically, then cut the connection before his father could reply.
When he left the phone booth Emiko was waiting for him.
"Sorry about the ride," he told her, smiling.
"I'll survive," Emiko told him. "At least I didn't embarrass myself." She smiled.
"Better than some."
"Do you hate your father?"
Tern looked down at her for several seconds. "No, not really. We just don't understand each other very well, or maybe we understand each other too much and don't like what we see."
"How about you and your parents?" he asked as he walked towards his bike.
"I love them all," Emiko said as she followed them. "My mother is sometimes hard to please, but I know she acts that way because she loves me. She is just always worried about me, sure that I will make all the wrong choices." Emiko looked thoughtful. "She may be right."
"Your father?" Tern asked as he stopped at the motorcycle then turned around.
"Easy to get along with, though he was never as home as often as I would have liked. Obon is soon."
"Obon, the festival of the dead. It was one of the few times that my father got home. The whole family would go to the family grave site, clean it, put everything in order, pay respects to our ancestors." Emiko went silent for a time. "I guess this year only my mother will be there."
Tern dropped a hand on Emiko's shoulder. "Come on, I've got a surprise for you."
"You'll see soon enough. Get on."
Emiko waited to see if Tern would expand. When it became obvious that he was not going to do so, she got on the bike behind him.
"You took your time," Diane said as Juan entered his apartment.
"Sorry, had to think about some things. Been comfortable?"
"No food in this place. I ordered in. Hungry?" She held up a white box. "Chinese."
"Thanks" he smiled, taking the box from her. "Like the place?"
"You've always had good taste, though I never liked the pastels."
"Tell me Marshall, did you have a search warrant all the times you came in here?"
"All the times was never more than twice, and no, I didn't. I never really searched thought, just looked around, trying to get a feeling about who you were."
"Did it work," Juan took an egg roll out of the box.
"Not really. So, what is it you want to show me."
Juan held up a hand as he chewed the egg roll, then swallowed. "I deal in information, right?"
"Yes, you know all the dirty secrets."
"Please," Juan shook his head. "Know my sources?"
"You've got a lot of friends, they give you a gossip network. You know some hackers. You have connections everywhere."
"Its not enough is it?"
Diane shook her head, scowling. "No. There is more, and I just don't know it."
"I'm going to let you in on a secret, and there is only one reason why."
"Exactly. I could die. Someone else needs to know about this."
"If I don't meet with an unfortunate accident, this never happened, you know nothing."
"Oh, great. So I spend the rest of my days, tortured, knowing your secret, but not being able to do a thing about it."
"Right," Juan smiled. "I was sure you could appreciate the irony."
"You are getting back at me, aren't you?"
"Perish the thought Marshall. Follow me," he put the food box on a table.
Juan took her into his bedroom first. In the closet was a hidden safe. He removed a black box with a single cable coming out of it. Next he took her into the bathroom. Under the sink was another safe, and he removed another black box. That one had two input jacks. Finally he led her to his office. He ignored the obvious safe in the corner, and opened another save, hidden in the floor. He removed a third black box, that one with three leads, and a keypad.
"What's in that safe?" Diane looked at the one in the corner.
"About two hundred thousand credits, some jewelry, and several disks full of information, some of it even useful."
"A two hundred thousand credit blind?"
"Hey, if you are going to do something, do it big." He put all the black boxes on his desk and started connecting them, plugging the cables in. Once he did that he plugged the entire assembly into his computer.
"This is it?"
"No, this is more of a dog house."
"You lost me."
"Juan took a seat in the chair. About ten years ago I stumbled upon this old program. It was a seeker."
"That's what I called it. What the program does, basically, is splits itself into several million little smart viruses, and all those little smart viruses head off into the computer network. They work their way into systems, slowly, and then copy all the information them can. Once they are full, they leave, when they can, and work their way back to the meeting spot."
"And you just found this?"
"Basically. I suspect that is might have been something an AI created, long ago. The program is, in itself, close to being an AI, but there are limiters worked into the program. It is quite clever."
"So you basically have access to almost everything."
"In theory. In practice, there is just too much information coming in. Maybe an AI might be able to sort it all out, but I dump more than ninety nine percent of it, unseen."
"Okay, now what?"
"Now we call the program in," he told her, typing a code into the touch pad.
"Seems too easy."
"Do I look stupid?" he asked her, holding up the thumb on his right hand. He peeled the nail on the thumb back, then pressed down on the exposed bed.
"Only the nail, and part of the bed. It doesn't hurt, in case you are wondering."
Diane watched at Juan reached into his mouth, wiggled something, then pulled out a molar.
"Not real I take it."
"Do I look crazy? This," he held the molar out, "is the key chip." He pushed the molar into a small slot, just below the keypad. "Now, we wait."
"It's been a couple of months since I've been able to check this. An hour of two."
"Tell me, if you get killed, how am I supposed to use this if I can't get your body?"
"You know my apartment in the Telluria spinner?"
"Been in there."
"No. Not that one."
"Okay, in the entry hall is a guardian lion, nice stone work, looks really old. Cut its left eye out. There is a steel box imbedded on the stone. The box is harder than the stone, so you shouldn't have to worry about it." Tern got to his feet. "I'm hungry."
"Plenty of take out left."
Emiko looked around the hotel room. It was elegantly decorated, with dark colors and wooden furniture. Tern was behind her, tipping the bellhop. She walked to the window and pulled back the curtains. Darkness had settled and the lights of the other buildings were coming on.
"Like?" Tern asked.
"It's beautiful," she said.
Tern walked up behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Hungry?"
"What do you want?"
"Sushi, sashimi, ramen, some other things."
"I'll order it all up," he told her, walking to the bed.
Emiko stared out the window for some time, then closed the curtains and turned around. Tern was lying on the bed, the phone in his hand. He must have finished ordering because he hung up the phone. She walked over and sat down beside him.
"This can only be dinner," he told her.
"I know," Emiko said. "but I want it to be more," she leaned over to kiss him. Tern reached up to pull her close.
Later, when they heard the knocking at the door, Tern rolled off the bed. "Dinner is here," he said.
Emiko sat up, her face flushed. She reached up and did up the top three buttons of her blouse.
Tern opened the door, then stood aside as one of the hotel maids pushed a cart in. Tern paid her, gave her a tip, then showed her out.
"Let's see what we have," Tern said as he pushed the cart towards the bed. Emiko knelt up on the bed and reached towards the cart, taking the cover off one of the plates. "Yours I think," she said, looking at the steak.
"Yes, I like my meals cooked."
"How boring," Emiko removed another cover, finding a wooden tray with her sushi on it. "Oishiisoo," she said, picking up the tray and a set of chopsticks.
"Enjoy. The hotel has some of the best cooks in the cluster."
Emiko picked up a piece of sushi with her chopsticks and put it in her mouth. She smiled. "Umai," she said around the morsel of rice and fish.
"I take it that means its good?"
They ate in a companionable silence for a time, Emiko put aside the tray of sashimi she had been working on. She moved up close to Tern. He gave her a questioning look. She kissed him on the side of his mouth. "You had a bit of gravy or something on the side of your mouth."
"I'm such a slob," he put his food aside. Emiko moved forward, putting her arms around his neck, kissing him.
"All you have to do is say no," he said, sounding a little breathless.
"I don't want to say no," she said softly, her hands sliding down to start working on the buttons of his shirt.
"Thank you," he said softly, looking up towards the ceiling. He returned her kiss, his own hands beginning to fumble at the buttons of her blouse. He pulled a little hard and snapped the threads holding the button in place. "Sorry," he said between kisses.
"It doesn't matter," Emiko said, sliding her hands under his shirt, wanting to feel his skin.
"In that case," he tore at the sides of her blouse, snapping off several more buttons, ripping the material.
Emiko began to laugh, breaking off their kiss. She fell backwards onto the bed, staring up at Tern.
Tern looked down at her, then he moved forward, holding himself above her. He kissed her, gently biting at her lip. Emiko reached up and pulled him down onto herself.
"So now what?" Diane asked, looking at the readouts on the screen. The amount of information that had come down was just amazing.
"Now we fool around with the search programs, see what we can find. What should we look for?"
"Information for Solingen?"
"Shall we cut that down a little?"
"What do you think?"
"Will we be able to find anything out that way?"
"A little," he entered the search parameters into the computer. "The private minutes from all meetings going back two weeks."
"Sounds good. How long will it take?"
"We'll see when it is done," he told her. "Do you want anymore of the rice?" He reached for one of the boxes.
"No, but make sure you leave some of the shrimp."
"Right. Looks like we got some early returns. Vote to give themselves a raise, passed, must be nice. Vote to open up a second ODF ship line on Rubicon, didn't pass it. That will have generated some bad blood."
"The Richters have a lot of interests in Rubicon, more than most. A ship yard there would have benefited them. Albert likes to control the power and the Richter family is a threat to him. Vote on aggressive recruitment drive, whatever that means, passed. Operation End Strike, passed, barely."
"Fifty point two percent in favor."
"That's what I was thinking. So, a search on operation End Strike."
"Nothing that looks important. We'll go back to it if this lead pans out."
"So this is how you do it."
"Yes," Juan turned around to face her. "Information, that's the way to go. I found out about Tess this way."
"It's wrong you know."
"It's theft, just in a clever way."
"And that's all right with you?"
Juan thought about the question for a time. "Mostly."
"What can I say, even I have twinges of guilt every now and then. Fortunately, situations like this help me get over them."
"Lucky me," Juan turned back to the computer. "We have something."
"I'm not sure. It's encrypted."
"Can you break it?"
"No. I have a bunch of keys though."
"Define a bunch."
"Two, three hundred thousand."
"Which means we do it the slow way."
"Exactly. Shouldn't take more than, say ten hours, if we are lucky," he told her as he set up the computer to try each decryption key, starting with the most recent.
"Looks like it is going to be a long night."
"I'll go down to the store, get something to drink. You order more food."
Emiko ran her hands along Tern's back. Somewhere along the line they had undressed each other, but she couldn't quite remember when. Her senses were filled with him, her thoughts were crashing together, she could barely think, only act and react. Everything Ree had ever told her seemed so far away, and she was not really thinking of it.
Tern ran his lips up her collarbone, gently nipping at the skin. He lifted his head, then kissed her as he moved about. There was a sudden pain, but it was a little thing, and so far away. It was lost in the waves of pleasure that spread out from her center, in a soft, golden warmth.
"So then I picked up the gun, and told him that if he didn't come down, I'd shoot him."
"What did you do?" Juan asked.
"I shot him."
"Flesh wound. He came down. Broke his leg in two places and his arm."
"I see. And this was a good thing?"
"Out of all the possible outcomes, that was the best."
"You scare me Marshall."
The computer beeped. Juan turned a looked at the screen.
"Anything," Diane asked.
"The first line looks like bad poetry, but almost makes sense. Then it just sort of goes crazy. Not the key. Starting the sequence again."
"Remember that time on Organon?"
"What was it?"
"Drugs. Nothing illegal mind you, just some antibiotics that had been developed. The company that had developed them wanted them sent to their sister company on Mars, but they didn't want Solingen finding out."
"So they got you to work out the details."
"Move the goods, everyone is happy. What did you think it was?"
"Someone had killed a family of miners for a lot of diamonds. I thought you might have been moving them."
"I don't touch things like that."
"Knowingly Juan, but how often do you know everything about your clients and their merchandise, even with that little toy," she indicated the computer.
The computer beeped again. Juan turned to look as the screen.
"More bad poetry?"
"No, not this time. We got it."
"So," Diane opened a box of noodles. "What is it?"
"Nuclear strike on a planet. Population centers. They are going to hit Earth."
"What?" Diane sat up, the box of noodles falling from her hand.
"This is only a brief, a lot of the details are not here. We've got to get to work. I'll clean everything up here, I want you to get back to Marion's place. Send the call, we're going to have to talk about it."
"Right," Diane got to her feel. "Are you sure?"
Juan shrugged his shoulders. "All I have is this file, which could be fake, and a feeling."
"I think I have to same feeling. See you in a few hours." She left the office.
Juan stared at the screen for several seconds, then saved the file. Once that was done he shut the computer off, removed his tooth from the slot, and put it back into his jaw.
He was trying to make sense of an order to bomb Earth. It made almost no sense. He could not see the value of it, and, he was a little scared about what might happen to the home world of his species. They had to stop it.
Emiko traced her finger along Tern's bicep, she sighed happily. She was not sure if it was everything that Ree had told her about, but she was happy with it.
"Tern," she said softly.
"What?" he asked, sounding near sleep.
"Can I ask you something?"
She rolled on top of him, waking him fully as she kissed him. "Can we do that again?"
Tern laughed and hugged her tight. "We can but try."
Ending Credits, same as before.
My thanks to Josef Heilinger who sent me his impressions of the Rubys. I'd also like the thank Lim, Yik Sen who has sent me some very nice pictures of the Arrow.
"We're here in the Engineering section of the USS Enterprise.
We have replaced the fine Dilithium crystals they usually use
with folgers crystals. Let's see what happens.
Shawn Hagen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
On to Chapter 22