Varken rise, p.7

Varken Rise, page 7


Varken Rise

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  Brant shook his head. “That’s really the southern continent?”

  “It is,” the driver said. “Born and raised Barrosian, I am.”

  “It’s tiny!” Brant said. “That’s an island, not a continent!”

  “Islands can be continents,” Lilly said.

  Catherine peered out her side of the car, as the southern continent came back into view. Brant had a point. Barros was a watery world, similar to Nicia. Nicia, though, was nearly ninety-five percent oceans, with the only landmass available being used as a staging point for interstellar traffic. Barros at least had a decent-sized landmass in the north, covering the northern pole and stretching down nearly to the equator on one side.

  The southern continent was a large island and could be seen clearly from space. As continents went, it really was small.

  Catherine made herself ask the question she had been avoiding. “How many people lived on the southern continent?”

  The driver shrugged. “Don’t know. I didn’t know anyone who lived there. Never been there myself. I know people went there sometimes. There’s nothing to do there, anyway.”

  The tension that had been winding up inside her chest for five days tightened up a little farther at this unhelpful answer. The entire journey had been punctuated by a lack of information. While they were in the wormhole, nothing could reach them. Even though everyone had checked as soon as they had emerged from the gates, the feeds were still focusing on the hysteria. None of it was helpful. None of it was facts.

  She wanted numbers. She wanted hard data.

  She focused on the northern continent ahead of them. Perhaps there she would get the answers she craved.

  * * * * *

  Barros’ terminal city might have had an official name. Catherine never learned what it was. Like many other worlds, it was referred to simply as Terminal. It was a spacer’s city, filled with hotels, brothels, bars and every type of mindless distraction that travelers might pay for. Because most travelers who were passing through did not bother travelling down to the surface, the businesses in Terminal were less prosperous than their cousins on the gate station.

  Business in Terminal was booming today, as shuttle after shuttle arrived to dump their cargoes of people and equipment out upon the landing fields.

  Catherine pressed folding yen upon the driver of the ground cab they had managed to find at the landing field. “The best hotel?” she asked.

  “Best expensive, best food, or best rooms?” he asked.

  “Which hotel do Barrosians use before they head upstairs?” Kemp asked. He was a seasoned traveler and knew what to ask for, too.

  “The Lokasenna. It’s not the best in anything.”

  “It will do just fine,” Catherine assured him.

  Their ride to the hotel was slowed by heavy traffic, thick with over-sized ground vehicles hauling heavy loads. The roads were fused dirt and not holding up under the unexpected traffic. Potholes and cracks had formed, making the ride a bumpy one, for the ground car used wheels, as did most of the vehicles in sight. There were very few modern airbed vehicles and even fewer personal air cars.

  The tall, vertical fingers of air quality probes were everywhere, thrusting up into the sky from rooftops. Most of them looked as though they had been hastily erected. They gleamed with newness.

  The Lokasenna was a mid-sized building tucked away on a side street. The paint was fresh, the windows were polarized steel energy panels and the bellboys out the front were managing to keep the driveways clear of unnecessary vehicles.

  Inside the lobby, space-tired travelers were fighting for the last of the available hotel rooms. There was a long line of them waiting at the desk. Some were sleeping in chairs, with their feet upon their luggage and a paid sentry standing over them.

  “This might be a challenge,” Lilly murmured, looking around the crowded lobby.

  Catherine found the concierge and had a quick conversation with him. She used more of her yen and he unlocked his bomb-proof storage room, so they could stow their luggage.

  “You trust him?” Kemp murmured as they left the hotel again.

  “No. There’s nothing in my bag I can’t reprint when we’re back on board. Everything else I have on me.” She glanced at Lilly and Brant. They both nodded. “It sets up a relationship,” she continued, “so when I press him to find us a room later, he’ll know that we’re good for the money and he’ll try harder.”

  They couldn’t find a cab. A street vendor selling shell jewelry and wearable Geiger counters pointed out the direction to City Hall and assured them it was within walking distance. Brant bought a pretty pink necklace for Lilly as payment for the information.

  City Hall was a long step away and the heavy foot traffic didn’t help, either. Kemp became breathless quickly, forcing them to slow even more and for Kemp to curse his new body.

  Eventually City Hall came into view. It was one of the tallest buildings in the city.

  The local gendarmes were controlling entry into the building, checking IDs and turning away more people than they let through the temporary rope line. The rope line itself was energized and everyone was staying a healthy meter or two away from it. That was keeping the pushing and shoving down to a minimum.

  Catherine sighed. “I guess being me is going to be useful, for once.” They waited their turn in the lineup, which was moving quickly only because the gendarmes were turning away nearly everyone. When they reached the front of the line, Catherine held out her hand for scanning.

  The gendarme frowned at the screen, then looked at her. “Reason for visit, Mr. Shahrazad?”

  A few heads turned at the sound of her name. She was already drawing attention.

  “I thought I could help. I have specialist knowledge.”

  “Who is your appointment with?” He asked the question with a little tremor in his voice. It was a reaction she had seen before. The younger and less experienced authority wielders found her intimidating and her reputation for flouting authority an implied threat. This young one was clenched, ready for a fight.

  “I don’t have an appointment,” she said lightly, with a bright smile. “I am sure the Governor will want to see me. Why don’t you ask?”

  He considered that, then waved to one of his companions, who pulled out a dashboard and turned his back on everyone so he could speak with some privacy.

  Everyone in the line behind them shifted impatiently on their feet. Some sighed.

  The second gendarme nodded to the first, who broached the rope line for them. Catherine smiled at him again as they stepped through and moved into the building.

  Inside the tall, open foyer there were very few people. It was a bright, airy place and almost silent.

  A man was coming toward them, a smile on his face. “Mr. Shahrazad?” he asked. He did not hold out his hand. “The governor asked me to meet you at the door. He has a few questions to ask before I can escort you to his office suite.”

  Catherine ran her gaze over him. There was something about his symmetrically perfect features that made her ask, “Are you a computer?”

  The man’s smile broadened. “I am, indeed. I am the city’s primary AI. You can call me John.”

  “Not even sentient,” Kemp murmured. “You’re not going to out-argue it.”

  Catherine studied the hologram. It was a high quality one, completely indistinguishable from solid objects, except that if she tried to touch it, her hand would pass right through. Kemp was right. A Varkan could be reasoned with. An AI followed instructions to the letter.

  “What are your instructions about me?” she asked curiously.

  “That is a confidential matter, I’m afraid. If you will just follow me….” He half-turned, waving his hand in a polite “this way” gesture.

  She stayed where she was. No one else stirred. “As I am one of the principals included in your orders,” Catherine replied, “then I am naturally enclosed inside that confidentiality envelope. You can tell me what your orders are

  The AI stared at her with an expressionless face. If she had not spotted that it was a computer before now, that blank stare would have told her. “That is…correct,” he said slowly.

  “And your orders are?”

  “To move you out of the lobby, to somewhere where any media feeds cannot see you. Then stall.”

  “For how long?”

  “That was not specified. I would stall until given new orders.”

  Catherine thought hard. This was not entirely unexpected.

  “Why would the governor be afraid to speak to you?” Brant asked her softly.

  The AI replied. “I believe Mr. Shahrazad’s association with the criminal Bedivere makes it undesirable for the Governor to be seen with her. There are currently fifteen world feeds and one hundred and sixty-seven interstellar feeds monitoring the Governor’s activities and this building.”

  The AI was being cooperative because she was. It was a basic algorithm. If she had argued or become angry about being denied access, then it would have fallen back to the polite-but-stupid mode that was its response to conflict.

  “Is there someone else we can speak to, instead?” she asked. “A chief of staff, or the coordinator of the emergency?”

  The AI gave her another bright smile. “I am afraid my orders were quite specific. The Governor does not want you to associate with anyone in the City. Your reputation is—”

  “Thank you, yes, I understood that the first time,” Catherine said and forced a smile. As long as it thought she was happy, it would not clam up on them.

  Lilly moved up behind her and spoke over her shoulder. “You’re not going to get anywhere here. Although I have an idea.” She hefted the reader in her hands, that she had been scanning while Catherine dealt with the AI. “If we could find a back door out of here so we can travel without drawing attention….”

  Catherine nodded and looked at the AI. “I am sure the Governor would not want us to exit the building through the front door where everyone can see us. It will look as if we have successfully completed our business with the city.”

  The AI’s face went blank again, as it processed that. “You are correct,” he said. “There is a side entrance that the Governor and senior staff have been using since the emergency began. I will show you to that exit.”

  “Thank you,” Catherine told him. “You are very efficient and helpful.”

  The AI beamed. It couldn’t feel pride. However, Bedivere had explained that positive feedback made circuits flow more quickly and smoothly…like an adrenaline rush, or a cortisol boost. It was a reinforcement loop that made an AI work toward being even more pleasant and cooperative, to experience more of it.

  Catherine didn’t mind patting the AI on the back. It had done its job.

  It unlocked the back door for them, a narrow sliding panel that moved aside to show a muddy alley and the backs of surrounding buildings. A single gendarme was patrolling the alley. He looked up as they stepped out, then went back to his patrol when he saw it was not the Governor or his staff.

  “Where to, now?” Catherine asked Lilly, as the door closed behind them and sealed with a low hiss of air.

  Lilly was studying the board again. “I’m looking for…there. There’s one. This way.”

  “Wherever it is,” Catherine said, “don’t take us there directly. Put a few full loops into it, so I can check behind us.”

  Lilly nodded and set off. Everyone followed her as she moved through alleys and between low buildings. Once, she backtracked, when the path was cut off by an undisclosed wall. That gave Catherine a chance to observe the route behind them without looking as though she was deliberately checking over her shoulder.

  It was very quiet in the side-streets and alleys, away from the main road from the landing fields. No one appeared to be following them, although that didn’t mean they hadn’t picked up a feed or two from passing through the foyer of city hall. If there were really that many feeds monitoring the building, and she had no reason to doubt the AI, then each of them would be competing to find something unique to report. Her arrival in the building would have alerted the feed coordinators, which were mostly AIs, who would have her in their indexes as a person of interest.

  No wonder the Governor thought she was as radioactive as his southern continent.

  Kemp moved up next to her, his own device in his hand. “No feeds followed us and there are no bodies behind us.” He nodded ahead, in the direction Lilly was taking them. “People ahead. Not as many as there were on the route from the landing fields.”

  “Thanks,” she murmured.

  They turned into a street that was fused earth similar to the landing field route. This one was dry, even and clean. Catherine looked around cautiously, trying to keep her head down as she pulled the wide-brimmed hat out of her carryall, shook it into shape and put it on.

  There were people walking up and down the footpaths, which were some sort of plastic resin of the same color as the road. These people had none of the harried look she had seen on the faces of almost everyone outside City Hall or at the hotel. These were locals, going about their business. They were dressed differently, with capes and light coats protecting them from the mild weather, and sturdy boots.

  Lilly didn’t detour after that. She led them down the sidewalk, watching her screen, then lifted her head to spot her destination.

  It was an old fashioned tea-house, with auto-tables and benches. It was half-full.

  “Over in the corner,” Brant murmured and Lilly headed for the bench in the corner that had three sides bending around the table. It was the most private booth in the room.

  They slid along the bench, threading themselves behind the table. Catherine wasn’t happy about being stuck behind an object that wouldn’t move out of the way if she needed to get out in a hurry. However, that was just old instinct talking. They were not in danger here. She was merely reacting to exposing her identity as she had been forced to do at City Hall. It made her jumpy.

  The bench was another type of resin made to resemble wood, as was the table.

  Lilly was busy with her board, so Brant leaned over and activated the table. The servery rose up through the middle, bearing four steaming cups.

  “I guess there’s not a menu,” Kemp said. He reached for a cup and sniffed it experimentally. “Smells good,” he murmured and sipped. Then sipped again. “Tastes odd, but it’s nice.”

  “A local caffeine,” Catherine guessed. She picked up one of the mugs and sipped. It was hot and she could taste the traces of caffeine on her tongue. “Coffee anywhere is good,” she decided and drank. “Why are we here, Lilly?”

  “We’re waiting for someone,” Lilly said. She slipped her device into one of the big pockets on her coat. “She says she’ll be here in five standards.”

  “Someone you know?” Brant asked.

  “Yes.” She looked at Catherine. “She’s Aneesh, although I trust her.”

  “She’s still with the College?” Brant asked.

  “She was an Ailved. She raises children.”

  “That’s probably the last remaining true profession left for the Aneesh,” Catherine said. “What’s her name?”

  “Nichua. Nichua Riyante.”

  Catherine turned her head, then looked down at her cup in confusion. She had been turning to seek out Bedivere, to check that he was already running searches on the name. She let out a long, deep breath, then looked at Kemp. “See if you can find anything on the name, please.”

  He nodded and pulled out his own reader.

  Catherine bent her gaze back to the mug of local coffee, her thoughts skittering. It wasn’t often she was reminded of the centuries she had moved through. Now, though, she was suddenly aware of the long tail of them behind her in the mists of history. She had known Bedivere for just over a hundred years and in that very, very short time, her life had grown around him, like a coral. Now she was noticing the empty space he had left behind.

  Nichua was wearing
a full cape and hood, which was not unusual among the pedestrians on the streets. She left her hood up until she reached the table and stood looking at them all, a worried expression on her thin, pinched face. “Who are these people?” she demanded of Lilly.

  “I trust them with my life. You can, too,” Lilly told her.

  Nichua was staring at Catherine and her lips parted. “I know you.” Then she glanced around the table once more, putting it together. “What have you got me into, Lilly?” she demanded. “I can’t be seen here with you, not with them. The College is trying to stay out of the disaster, yet she—” Her finger lifted from beneath the hem of the cape and pointed at Catherine. “She is the reason the abomination awoke in the first place and was permitted the freedom to bring this destruction down upon us.”

  Lilly paled and Brant shifted closer to her.

  “I always thought of you as a broad-minded person who knew how to think for herself,” Lilly replied evenly. “You don’t know the other side of the story. You can’t judge based on the feeds. You know they’re manipulated.”

  Nichua swallowed, looking around the tea room as far as the edges of her hood would permit. “If I am seen here with you, the College will expel me. Then where will I go?”

  “If you have backbone enough, you can go anywhere you want,” Catherine said gently. “There is life outside the College. Lilly is a perfect example.”

  Nichua pressed her lips together, doubt gnawing at her.

  Catherine shifted on the uncomfortable bench, time ticking down in her mind. “Will you tell us what you know about the disaster? Like you, we are trying to find the truth. We travelled here to learn for ourselves.”

  “You want to exonerate your mate,” Nichua replied.

  “Not if he is guilty,” Catherine replied. “Though I will not declare him guilty until I know what happened.”

  “He killed a man.”

  “That would be me,” Kemp said easily. He gave her a smile. “I know Bedivere. Not as well as these fine folk, but well enough to doubt most of what they are saying about him in the feeds. This disaster here on Barros does not fit with what I know of him. Will you explain to me what you know?” His smile grew warmer.

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