Sci-fi / Sufficiently Advanced Technology
Marcus Ivanovici Yamada, Earth's ambassador to Mir, was sitting at his desk, looking important. His jet-black hair and neatly trimmed beard framed a face betraying mixed heritage. Strong hands came out of the sleeves of an old-fashioned suit, fingers moving with silent energy as he typed. The man didn't look a day over 40, but the weariness in his eyes said otherwise.
Of course, Mir was technically a colony, but projecting military power at interstellar distances was impractical even with casual FTL travel. So the World Council representatives had swallowed their pride and sent him to stand in for the scattered governments of a ravaged planet.
He pushed the keyboard away and got up tiredly. He reflected again on the absurd size of his office as he walked to the window. The sun was behind the building by now, roughly towards the southwest, and the great pyramid of the Commerce Exchange shone like a jewel ahead, clearly visible across the five kilometer length of the White Way; the young city of Maripor was built on a mad scale. Probably as a show of force, the ambassador reflected bitterly. There was little love lost between the cradle of humankind and its far-flung offspring.
Yamada crossed the office again to sit on a couch, grabbing a tablet off his desk along the way. Somewhere in deep space, a Mirian vessel was flying towards Sol, carrying with it one end of a needle-thin wormhole. Until its century-long journey was completed, however, the fastest means of communication was by courier ship, which meant that news of trouble could only arrive behind the cause of such. That was the case right now, and what worried him most was the secrecy surrounding the issue. Nothing should have been too delicate to make an ambassador privy of the details.
He jumped to his feet when the interphone chimed.
/Captain Haas is here to see you, sir./
"Send him in."
He straightened up his clothes and his spine as he waited unhappily. His first reaction to the news had been to seek out the head of the Mirian Assembly, expecting to be put in touch with whatever passed for a secret service among these crazy libertarians. Instead, they had directed him to the chief of the City Watch, who in turn had assigned a regular -- if high-ranked -- officer to the case.
The door swung wide open, and his visitor strode in. It was a woman, with long blond hair flowing down the collar of a black and white uniform designed to stand out and impress. She closed the door before advancing towards him.
"Ambassador Yamada, I presume? I'm Irina Haas."
She extended a hand, which he shook. There was no sign that she had heard his little blunder over the interphone.
"I am Yamada. Thank you for coming so quickly, Captain."
He waved in the direction of a chair while he went around the desk. "Drinks?" he asked, but she shook her head. They both sat down.
"One week ago," he began abruptly, "a secret prototype has been stolen from a lab at CERN. On Earth," he hurried to add. "The thief boarded the first starliner bound for Mir. The timing was excellent. By the time we received the news, his trace was already cold."
Haas nodded. "I assume you've run a photo search over the public network?"
"Certainly. But this man is a hacker. Tricking computers is well within his abilities."
"Right. And what is so sensitive about this story that you couldn't file a formal complaint?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you that, Captain."
She frowned, and her voice grew cold. "I need to know what we're after if I am to help you."
"You misunderstand me... Haas-san. I can't tell you because I don't know. Something dangerous, in any event."
The woman sighed. "How do your superiors expect you to get results while you're in the dark like that?"
There was a pause, and his self-composure started to falter. "So, can you help me?"
"Officially? No. We can't investigate someone over a secret accusation. Our actions are fully accountable under the law."
He scowled. Constables of the Watch were nominated by the populace and approved by elected officials. One didn't end up in uniform without a spotless reputation, and they were very keen on keeping it.
"That said," she added cautiously, "we can't fault you for trying to locate one of your own who might be in danger."
The ambassador leaned forward ever-so-slightly. "What do you mean?"
"It means I'll be off-duty in a couple of kiloseconds, and it won't be much of a bother for me to go around and ask a few questions in the right places."
He nodded. "I would be very grateful if you did. But I want my head of security to go with you. If it's not too much to ask," he added.
She waved her hand in a dismissal, and Yamada pressed a button.
"Yvonne, can you see if Charles is in?"
/He's still in the hospital, sir. They said something about complications./
"What?! Why didn't you tell me?"
/I assumed you were busy, sir./
"So I was," he admitted grudgingly. "All right, let's see... what about Louis?"
/Off in Nushan with the trade delegation./
/On Shashi Station, supervising the repairs to your ship./
The man buried his face in his hands with a groan.
"When is my next appointment, Yvonne?"
/On Monday, sir. This was to be your free weekend, so I cleared your agenda./
"Indeed. Thank you."
He pounded on the button again and composed himself.
"It would appear you are stuck with me, Haas-san."
Yamada looked back on the looming mass of the Tower of Man as the car sped away. Two wide arches swept along the ground, intersecting in the middle before shooting up into the sky. Near the top, three rings surrounded the unequal spires, supported by as many columns planted in front of the main entrance. At four hundred and fifty meters, the building wasn't especially tall, but the fact that it was almost as wide at the base made for an overwhelming presence. He wondered what the locals thought about it; his own feelings were ambivalent.
The new town was a wedge driven between the rocky ridge that bisected Maripor lengthwise and the old bohemian resort that had grown along the south-eastern shore in decades past. It widened at the tip of the island, behind the Commerce Exchange, where the planet's largest spaceport spread out on the ocean. The ambassador gaped at the view as the car raced along the White Way. On the right, slanted building walls were bathed in golden light by the afternoon sun. On the left, the mountain slopes were already in darkness above white rooftops, and palm trees lined the grand people mover, casting long swaying shadows on the asphalt.
"I need to get out more," he mumbled. His companion smiled, but didn't take her eyes off the road.
Mirians had an original way to deal with the overabundance of digital cameras inherent in modern civilization. Quite simply, wearing masks and disguises in public was lawful, period. On the other hand, nobody could complain if they were spotted and tracked by said cameras -- not that they had much legal standing, considering the state of computer graphics. The plaza in front of the main terminal hosted a parade of imaginative outfits from all and none of Earth's old cultures. Yamada settled for a more conservative baseball cap and large sunglasses, while the constable merely exchanged her uniform jacket for a civilian one. She also allowed half her hair to hang in front of her right eye, and painted an asymmetric symbol on her left cheek.
"All set!" she said, and waved him in.
They weaved through the crowd on the terminal's main thoroughfare for about fifty meters before turning into a quieter side corridor. Haas stopped in front of a desk set unobtrusively behind some columns and knocked on the glass. The young man behind it looked up and waved with a smile before going off in the recesses of the building. He was soon replaced by a short, plump woman who opened the window and greeted them cheerfully.
"Hello, my dear. How've you been? Listen..."
The ambassador couldn't understand much more of their chatter. Either his mastery of the local dialect wasn't as good as he thought, or else this was an altogether different language. The woman behind the glass looked at him repeatedly as they talked, and finally addressed him, in a somewhat archaic English, as might have been spoken in the 22nd century.
"When did this man arrive?"
"Three days ago," he answered warily, "on the King Michael."
"Do you have a photo of him?"
"Certainly." He pulled out his mobile and waved it at her workstation.
She tapped at her screen some, then waited. "Nope... there's no record of anyone looking remotely like that. Are you sure he took the shuttle to Maripor?"
Haas rolled her eyes. "I forgot. There are direct shuttles to Nushan and Valshaar now."
The man groaned. "Don't tell me we need to make a trip into orbit."
"I'll make a couple of calls," chuckled the woman at the desk.
"So you're off to Valshaar," said the constable as they walked back to the car.
"Apparently. I don't suppose you can come with me?"
She shook her head. "I'll be on duty all weekend. Do you know anyone over there?"
He grumbled in response, and she laughed. "I'd better get you a guide, then."
"Thank you. That's... very generous, actually."
"Least I can do."
They didn't say much more while she drove back the same way, then onto a street that sloped progressively upwards, buildings on either side decreasing in height as they went, though at a slower pace. The road ended at the base of a funicular track, which Yamada surveyed with suspicion. From their angle it seemed to go on forever, but he knew the mountain wasn't very tall.
"Why do we have to meet everyone personally, anyway?"
"It's called a courtesy visit, Your Excellency," she said with a little smile. "Besides, calls can be logged. I thought you wanted discretion?"
"And I thought you disliked the idea," he retorted.
Haas didn't answer until they were in the funicular and underway.
"I understand the need for it..." She turned to face him. "Oh, I know what you're thinking. Is that why I was assigned to your case?"
He waved his hands. "That's really none of my business, Captain."
They stepped out on a platform surrounded by forest. Twisting paths vanished among the trees in every direction, the going uneven as the terrain allowed. One path in particular stood out, leading straight up on rough mud-covered steps; the rainy season was just ending. Yamada climbed timidly at first, then nearly overtook his companion as he got used to the surroundings.
A small plateau squatted at the top of the staircase, overlooking the city. A couple of utility buildings could be seen further out, around a tall hedge that barred the way forward. The ambassador looked up, and that's when he saw it: a low construction, seemingly made of angles and topped by a telescope dome. The woman took the lead again, through a discreet opening in the living green walls, and into a wild garden. In the onsetting gloom, Yamada thought he saw a man practicing some sort of kata on the other side of the observatory, but then they turned a corner.
Somebody joined them soon after they sat at a stone table in the midst of flower beds. It was a man all right, unremarkable but for the mane of wavy brown hair flowing down past his shoulders into an untamed beard which gradually gave way to an uwagi. The latter was negligently worn, but clean and soberly patterned.
"Irina!" he bellowed. "What brings you around?" He noticed she wasn't alone and nodded a greeting. "Hello there."
"Calder," she called warmly, "still a loner?"
"Can't help it. I tried renting out the ground floor bedrooms, but there's no shortage of accommodations in the city."
"You know what I mean."
He sighed and sat down with them. "Yeah... Shandra's always on patrol, and Rune is back at the retreat. But enough about me. Who's your friend?"
"Oh, right! Meet Ambassador Yamada of Earth."
His eyes grew wide. "It is an honor!" He bowed his head briefly before extending a hand. "How may I help you?"
The other man shook his hand. "It's a long story..."
"Allow me," said Haas, and launched into another incomprehensible tirade. It occurred to the diplomat that it wasn't meant to keep anything from him, but simply to convey a vast amount of information quickly.
Their host listened intently. "All right," he said in the end. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as possible," replied Yamada.
The other man seemed unperturbed. "I need half an hour to wash and pack. Please, step inside and have a snack."
The ambassador laughed. "Not quite that soon, Mr..."
"Calder will do just fine, Your Excellency."
"You don't have a surname, Calder-san?"
"I have many surnames. Coigreach, Ailteir, Aonaran... Take your pick."
They met back at the spaceport, in front of a mural map of Mir, which like most of them only depicted one hemisphere of the globe. Mir being the satellite of a gas giant, and tidally locked to it, the side facing its superjovian parent was all but uninhabitable due to volcanism and earthquakes. The half humans could comfortably live on was dominated by a crescent-shaped supercontinent, which left the south and center of the map to one vast ocean. And if you placed a pin right in the middle, Maripor was a short distance to the northwest -- the last significant island in that direction until the continent and Valshaar, thousands of kilometers later.
Yamada almost didn't recognize his new guide with a ponytail and well groomed beard. The Mirian's travel clothes seemed inadequate compared to his own military-styled gear. What if the search was going to take them outside the city? At least they wouldn't stand out during the trip, it seemed.
"This is your flight." The woman raised her voice to cover the sudden onrush of the crowd. "Good luck."
"Thank you, Haas-san... For everything."
She nodded and turned away. A loud announcement blared from distant speakers.
"She was right about one thing."
"I do wonder why she helped me after all."
Calder pondered for a moment. "Enlightened self-interest."
"It's really simple," the Mirian explained patiently. "People helping each other in any way they can is the whole point of society. Laws and institutions aren't worth a thing unless they serve to further this goal."
The ambassador nodded. "In other words, she's expecting a service in return."
"Actually," said his guide, "she trusts that ultimately you are doing a good thing. Something that will benefit everyone."
Embarrassment hung between them like a cloud until Yamada waved it away. "What about you, Calder-san?"
"Me? Ha ha. I've embarked on an adventure, Your Excellency. No more and no less."
They held each other's gaze for a moment, then the diplomat leaned over to the window. He barely caught a glimpse of the city blasting light into the night sky before the shuttle banked and accelerated.
Mir had an overly long day, to the degree that the human body had trouble adapting. Even the natives often slept on a shorter cycle, keeping the entire planet awake around the clock. Yamada filled his insomnia with reading material. Recent mail, a refresher about their destination, a second look at the troublesome memo about to ruin his weekend...
He woke up with a start at the landing announcement. It was still night as they set foot on the continent, but it didn't last much longer.
Dawn caught up with their train as it was entering the city proper, racing on streets barely wide enough for a single rail track and a row of trees. He leaned against the glass to get a better view of the architecture. Where else had he seen those narrow facades pressed into each other, with receding upper floors and skyways crossing the road every so often? Oh yes, in the old town of Maripor, on the other side of the island, which like Valshaar had been founded by rebels coming back from their self-imposed exile in the Harra mountains, the spine of the Western subcontinent, in the early days of colonization. But while Maripor's size was limited by geography, Valshaar had grown to be the largest conurbation on the planet, as discontents had continued trickling down from the domed cities of the eastern Sahakara plains.
At long last, the train eased downwards into a tunnel that joined a handful of others before stopping into an underground station large enough to qualify as a neighborhood of the metropolis above it. As he followed his guide up the escalators, Yamada had the distinct feeling of being watched, but he couldn't pinpoint the source.
A cold wind was blowing under the cloud cover which pressed down on the rooftops. They walked out of the cramped square, along a boulevard then onto increasingly narrower streets, until at last they reached one covered along its entire length with transparent panels. The visitor understood now the purpose of the free-standing columns with cantilevers at the top that dotted the cityscape: every open space must have been covered at some point, to keep oxygen in.
"Where are we going?" he asked as they ducked into a gangway.
"Shandra -- that's my girlfriend -- owns an apartment here. She usually rents it out to friends of ours."
"How does that help us?"
"We can grab a bite and catch up with rumors. Even get a place to sleep if we're lucky."
It turned out to be a mazelike abode which darkness only helped to make cozy, occupied by two young couples. They hadn't heard anything useful, but did know of a spare room in the building, close to the entrance. Between eating, chatting and dropping their bags, it was three hours before Yamada and his guide were back on the streets.
"So, what's the plan, Ambassador?"
"Simple: I'm going to call all the Terran communities in the city and see if someone like our fugitive has turned up. What? We don't have time to visit them all in person."
"I didn't say anything," smiled the Mirian.
The wind had picked up. "I hate spring," muttered the Ambassador as he zipped up his jacket. His companion just tugged at something inside a sleeve, making his duster shorten and thicken into a thigh-length coat.
"What do you do if your smart clothing breaks, Calder-san?"
"I don't know... what do you do if your tablet computer breaks?"
"I break out the pen and paper."
The Mirian smirked but said nothing more while the other man called one number after another. The nations of Earth had spent the past century warring over the dwindling resources of their world. Curiosity was suspect; "frivolous" research, practically banned. Luckily for them, most of those who would have been prone to either were long gone from the Solar System. Hyperdrive had been developed in the colonies.
"Found him!" exclaimed Yamada after a while, waving his mobile. "He showed up two days ago at the Saunders Center."
"I'll have to look it up."
"It's next to a place called the... City Circus, I think they said?"
"Ah, right. Never mind then. Shall we?"
They had ended up in a wide open plaza dominated by a concert hall. Behind it, a vast amusement park gradually melted into a tree barrier, while on their side quaint little streets trickled away among elegant houses. The gray sky muted all colors, and the few passers-by hurried along without a look around. The Mirian led the way into the labyrinth.
"Don't tell me we have to walk all the way there, Calder-san."
"Oh no. Only until we lose this guy who is following us."
Yamada struggled to abstain from looking over his shoulder.
"He was here all right," said the young man behind the desk. "Rather pudgy, brown-skinned. Said his name was Nehal."
"Did he need any help?"
"Oh yes. He was nearly out of money. Having a hard time coping with the gravity, too. Then again, so do most off-world visitors."
"It's only twenty percent higher than Earth's..."
The young man grinned. "But not everyone is in good shape, Ambassador."
"You know me?"
"Of course. I've seen all your speeches. Seldom in person, I admit."
Yamada took off his sunglasses with an air of "I give up".
"Did he say where he was going?" asked his companion.
"Said he had friends in Karling. Why are you after him anyway? Is he in trouble?"
The two guests looked at each other.
"That's what we're trying to find out," the ambassador answered slowly. "Did he have any unusual luggage?"
"As a matter of fact he did. Tiny suitcase. He wouldn't let it out of his sight."
The visitors exchanged another glance.
"In fact, now I remember wondering what was in it."
"Wish we could tell you..."
They peered around carefully as they left the low, flat building with its dull beige paint and the firm that advertised free assistance to immigrants, but there was no sign of pursuit this time. Yamada idly promised himself to make the Center a donation as he followed his guide around to buy tickets for the next leg of their journey. The City Circus turned out to be a mall combined with a train station, an odd arrangement that was nevertheless not uncommon on Mir, but he was too tired by now to enjoy himself.
And then they were home, and the door was unlocked, while the contents of their bags were strewn all over the room.
"They only took my tablet computer," said the Terran after fifteen minutes of packing up his things. "I didn't think it was that valuable compared to everything else."
"You can find them abandoned in coffee shops," his companion informed him. "This was no simple theft."
"Then why...? Oh."
The Mirian nodded. "They must be after our guy."
"Well, it won't do them any good. I keep all sensitive information on..."
"Shush!" gestured the guide, and mouthed, "there could be microphones."
Yamada cast his companion a sharp look, then nodded. "Never mind then. We stick to the plan."
"You're not calling the police?"
He hesitated, then shook his head. "We'd better not waste any time."
There were still a few hours until the train, however, and both men needed rest. The ambassador was surprised that it was still daylight when they got up. He followed in a daze as the Mirian cleared things up with the landlord, then led him on a tortuous path through hallways and skyways, which ended in the underground station via a basement. It all seemed very insecure at first, with so many interconnected buildings, but there was always someone in the common areas. The thief couldn't have passed through there unnoticed -- or followed them, for that matter. Was social engineering stronger than doors and locks?
The train crawled sluggishly behind a bend in the tracks, like a snake defying gravity as it clung to the forested slope. From behind the waystation, a broken road meandered up the mountain, drawing the gaze towards a familiar shape adorning the nearest peak: a perfect replica of a medieval castle, complete with surrounding village.
Yamada consulted his mobile. "Two hours to sunset. Can we make it?"
The guide examined the road ahead with an experienced eye. "Most likely. I'm more worried about that." He pointed at a wall of rolling blackness advancing towards them in the northern sky.
"Oh crap," was the diplomat's only answer as he started up the trail.
They climbed in absolute silence for a while. Even after centuries of devastation, Earth's ecosystem was richer than anything the colonists could have brought along. In the distance, among the sparse vegetation, the setting sun lit up the sides of rocky crags. The wind was muted among the tall, straight trunks of pine and fir trees; it wasn't until the hikers emerged in an open space that they realized how much colder it had become. The Mirian's coat further shrunk into a short, thick parka. His companion had to settle for a thin rain coat. It wasn't much of an extra layer, and he jogged in place for a moment, rubbing his arms, before he resumed climbing.
Then the snow came.
At first it was tiny ice crystals stinging half of his unprotected face. He pulled up his hood and pressed forward, leaning against the wind. Soon, big flakes were blowing across their path, reducing the visibility to... oh, less than he liked. The wind came in gusts now, threatening to push him off course.
"We'll get lost!" yelled Yamada, turning his back to the wind as he hugged a tree trunk.
"Just make sure you're going upwards!" answered the other man.
They grabbed each other's arm and kept pushing. Their boots sank deep with each step. Progress seemed unbearably slow. Everything was white. Together they slipped, fell and got up again. A boulder blocked the path. One one side the ground fell, on the other it rose. In the rapidly diminishing light, a fence could be seen atop the ridge that was now raising in front of them.
"We must have missed a turn," groaned the Mirian.
"Don't panic," breathed his companion. "There has to be a way up."
He dropped his bag and bent down over it. "Let me get my flashlight."
The other man nodded and pulled two short cords. Red dots lit up on his breast pockets. "Let's try this way."
They waded away from the wind through knee-deep snow, Yamada shivering uncontrollably as he forced himself to move one stiff leg, then the other. He couldn't even react anymore when the guide suddenly vanished under the snow. He just lost his footing and slid down into darkness, bag tumbling down behind him. It seemed to go on forever.
He couldn't tell how long it had been. He remembered wondering at the smoothness of a rock wall in his flashlight beam. Then voices echoing, and the sensation of being carried. All that mixed with memories of parachuting on a snowy mountain in Central Europe to storm a castle that could only be reached by underground train. No, that was only a movie projected in a dark room...
He woke up.
Soft light filtered through a screen decorated with children's drawings revealed a pair of sleeping mats taken up by himself and his guide, who was still asleep. Their bags formed a meager barrier down the middle, and both the walls and floor were carpeted. He threw off his blanket. Most of his clothes were still on, minus the raincoat and boots, which were nowhere to be seen. A mix of domestic smells floated in the air, and beyond the screen someone was snoring lightly. He got to his feet noiselessly and went exploring.
"Some guide you are, Calder-san."
"We got here in one piece, haven't we?"
They were standing in the doorframe of the house with their host, a blond-haired boy taller than either of them, watching a robotic snow thrower pass through the narrow street, emergency light contrasting with the bluish light of the dawn. Narrow two-story houses with high-pitch roofs and exposed timber frames huddled into each other. Those on their side were only facades jutting out of a rock wall -- most of each dwelling was under their feet, a remnant of the days when air was unbreathable. There was no way to erect geodesic domes on a mountain.
"Kommt!" said the host. "To the castle we go."
They trundled up the steep thoroughfare, towards the towering pile of stone that darkened the sky.
"What's the castle for, anyway?"
"It's an observatory."
Yamada nodded. "But why a medieval castle?"
"It's traditional, and very solid. No fancy materials needed."
"Hear that, Calder-san?"
But the latter's attention was elsewhere. Atop a flat concrete roof a large parabolic antenna was pointed at the castle, and the hum of a transformer filled the street corner.
"What's going on?"
"Emergency power," explained the boy stoically. "Storm took out the power lines."
He didn't seem annoyed by all the questions, but neither was he interested in conversation. The one exception was when they passed by a house which had a peculiar sign hanging above the door: a letter K made out of blocks and framed in a wide-based triangle.
"That's our church and library," he said with a hint of pride.
It was the only time he volunteered information during their trip.
Near the top of the castle's eastern wall was a series of narrow windows, and behind one of them stood Yamada, admiring the village and the landscape beyond it. Dozens of meters below him, the slope leading up to the stone wall was criss-crossed by stairs and alleys, mostly covered in snow; cleaning progressed slowly.
He turned to the sound of a door opening. At the far end of the room, Calder looked up from his mobile at the young man who was just squeezing in from the hallway. He was short, and hardly fit, unruly black hair falling over his eyes. His eyes darted between the two visitors and settled on the ambassador.
"Mr. Yamada, I presume?" he asked uncertainly.
"That would be me, Mr. Sh..."
The young man lifted a hand. "My name is Nehal."
"...Ah. Very well, Nehal-san." The diplomat waved at one of the many chairs around the conference table. "Please, sit down."
He did so. "Am I under arrest?"
"Do you see any uniforms in here?" The Terran sat in turn. "I have no authority to do such a thing."
The hacker fidgeted. "Then what do you plan to do?" He eyed the Mirian nervously.
"Maybe I should step out," suggested the latter.
"No, stay," said Yamada. "What I plan, Nehal-san, is to do the right thing."
He breathed deeply and continued. "You've... liberated an object. Obviously, you thought it important enough to be worth forfeiting your career and life."
"You have no idea."
"Indeed, I don't. Someone can apparently order the World Council to keep secrets even from me. And they're here, Nehal-san. On Mir."
The young man paled.
"Luckily, they're incompetent," quipped the Mirian. "We've lost them for now."
"Y... you're not going to turn me in, then?"
"I believe in the rule of law, Nehal-san. If I turn you in at all, it will be to the police. And you haven't broken any laws on this planet. Have you?"
Yamada leaned forward. "So, what is it, Nehal-san? What can possibly set such forces into motion?"
Pride gleamed in the hacker's eyes. "I'll show you."
"How much do you know about quantum mechanics, Mr. Yamada?"
The laboratory was a mess, but the ambassador could tell there was method in the madness. One table in particular attracted his attention. It only held a computer, a printer missing its cover and a tiny suitcase which lay open, several mysterious items spread around it. Another young man, dark blond like a local but wearing a ponytail, sat there watching them with curiosity. Opposite from him, Calder leaned against the door frame.
"Er... it's really weird and unpredictable?"
"Good enough! The only reason why physical laws are reliable on a macro scale is that the behavior of subatomic particles averages out over sufficiently large samples."
Yamada nodded. "Go on."
"Now, imagine you could influence that behavior and make it more predictable on a quantum scale. What could you do then?"
"I don't know... electrical conductors the width of an atom?"
"Very good! Now think bigger."
The hacker laughed. "You're so pragmatic! Fantasize a little!"
"All right, I give up. You tell me."
"Check this out." He leaned over the blond man's shoulder and typed something on the keyboard. Almost instantly, the printer spat out a piece of paper, which he handed to Yamada. It had a single, large symbol printed in the upper left corner, but not from any script known to the diplomat. The ink was phosphorescent, and as he watched the ideogram or whatever it was started glowing more brightly, until it burst into flame. He managed to crush the paper into a metal tray before getting a burn.
"Neat trick, but you could do that with a lighter," remarked Calder.
"Why, yes you could. Bear with me, I'm trying to make a point here."
He sat at the computer, pushing his friend aside, and typed a more complex command. This time, the printer churned for a long time before yielding a page with a pattern of symbols in the middle. Like before, they started to glow, but this time they also extended thin luminous tendrils all over the sheet, which appeared to darken in color. No... it was in fact the air around it. The paper was actively sucking light out of the air!
"That's... impossible." stated Yamada. He reached out with a hand, but pulled it back in a hurry. The object was equally adept at sucking the heat out of his flesh.
"Not anymore." The hacker donned a glove, and with it grabbed a kind of metallic wand which he passed over the piece of paper like a hand scanner. The glowing lines disappeared without a trace, and with them the unnatural effect.
"Did you just break the laws of physics?" deadpanned the guide.
"Indeed. This looks dangerous, Nehal-san. And for what? It doesn't seem very useful..."
"That's where I come in," said Nehal's friend. "I've been able to track down some of the research underlying our little toy -- it's been floating around the colonial academia for a while now."
"You mean the basis for this technology was set in the colonies?"
"Of course. It's not the kind of thing one develops from scratch. Anyway, the originally envisioned applications were fairly mundane. Look."
He walked over to another table, which supported what looked like a magnetic coil connected to a power supply, and turned it on.
"It looks like a magnetic coil." stated Yamada.
"It is a magnetic coil. Try it out."
The ambassador fished some coins out of his pocket. He selected one, and threw it at the machine. It very nearly missed the core, but then was deviated and stuck to it.
"So far so good, right? Now watch this."
He flipped a second switch, and a network of very fine glowing wires lit up around and among those of the coil.
"Try it again."
Another coin flew towards the coil. Then both visitors jaw-dropped as it bounced away before touching its target, with a faint crackling sound.
"...A force field," finished Calder. He tried to touch the coil with a pen, but could only push it partway. A faint aura formed around the tip, accompanied by the same noise as earlier. It was like going against a high-pressure water hose. A straightedge wasn't any more effective; swinging it forcefully merely pushed the coil around on the table.
"So that's why they wanted to keep the whole story under wraps," mused Yamada.
"What do you mean?"
"Think about it, Nehal-San. What would you do with this technology if you were the government of a former superpower?"
The hacker shrugged. "I don't know... anything? What does one do with a magic wand?"
"Warships. More powerful, more efficient, better protected."
Outside, a cloud passed over the sun. Around the room, clocks ticked, fans spun and liquids dripped through pipes.
"That's absurd," the blond man said drily. "Interstellar warfare makes no economic sense."
"Economic considerations haven't stopped many tyrants."
"You mean the World Council is willing to ruin what's left of Earth's economy for a symbolic rule over the colonies?"
"Not the World Council, Calder-san. They're a democratic government. Also a powerless one."
"But you represent them."
"What will you do?"
The diplomat frowned. He pulled himself a chair and sat tiredly.
"Let's see. How easy is it to reproduce this... what do you call it?"
"A negative energy converter can be found on any orbital shuttle. The main issue is bootstrapping the femtomachines, but any serious physics department should be able to build the equipment. I brought a sample."
"So, it takes a university."
"Pretty much, yes."
"Very well. Nehal-san, I want you to come back with us, to Maripor."
"But I'll be arrested and sent back!"
"No, because you'll conveniently slip away long enough to duck into the Immigration Center and request asylum."
The hacker blinked. "Wow. Cool. What about the devices?"
"Your friend here can take care of them." He turned to the friend in question. "If you don't hear from us in a couple of days... Well... Just... Send the data to all the universities you have access to."
"Especially off-system." He pressed his hands against his temples and moaned.
The young man thought for a moment. "And if those people show up?"
"Call the police. Publicity is your best defense."
Yamada stood up clumsily, upturning the chair.
"I don't feel so well. Let's go eat, or better yet, drink."
They returned to Valshaar the same day, with some help from a tractor.
The storm had cleared the skies as far as the city, which had otherwise escaped its force. The wedge of forest that extended from the north side nearly all the way to the City Circus now looked inviting as the train rode along the final segment of track, trees on one side, buildings on the other. They left most of their bags in a locker; none of them felt like stopping for the night this time.
"There's one think I don't understand, Nehal-san..."
Yamada tugged at the lapels of his too-thin jacket and hurried to get out into the sun.
"...you seemed surprised when I shared my suspicions with you. But you must have known something fishy was up. Otherwise why run away like that?"
The hacker offered half of a smile. "You're right, of course. There were these people. Had been there from the beginning, but showed up more often once we started showing results."
"How else?" came a voice from behind. "It was, after all, our project."
It was a man with nearly white hair in a buzz cut and steel blue eyes, wearing a black suit that looked ready to burst on his broad shoulders. He was flanked by two others, nearly identical, and more of them came out of nowhere to surround the trio.
Yamada sized him up calmly. "And you are?"
"Let's go with Mr. Smith," smirked the man.
The ambassador nodded slowly, his eyes darting around the nearly empty parking lot squeezed between the shopping center and a construction site.
"And what do you want, Mr. Smith?"
"Why, to take our man into custody. Thank you for escorting him, by the way." He didn't even look at Nehal while he said it, as if the hacker was beneath his notice.
"But I am to render him to the World Council."
The other man folded his arms. "Come on, Mr. Yamada. We are the World Council, for all practical purposes."
"Apart from the funding," the hacker pointed out sourly.
"We're clever like that." Smith's tone changed. "Now step into the van please."
Yamada tilted his head at the black vans conspicuously parked nearby. "Are you seriously about to kidnap a diplomat?"
"That's a strong word. We just want you to be there as a witness when we put our mutual friend into a cell."
"He's right, you know." said the hacker. "That way I won't simply disappear."
"Hrm. What about Calder-san here?"
"I'm still your local guide until further notice. If you'll have me."
None of them said another word until the two vans were well underway.
"Tell me one thing... Mr. Smith." Yamada made a gesture towards the hacker, who was hugging the troublesome suitcase. "Why not just take the prototype and go? You must know that you can no longer trust Nehal-san."
Of course, the suitcase now contained only data drives full of garbage and empty cryocoolers.
"Sure. What we want, Mr. Yamada, is to set an example. We can't have researchers run off like that. They might spill the beans to the wrong people."
"You mean a colonial government."
"Wait, what? Ah-ha-ha! You thought the President wants to retake the colonies, for the glory of Earth Eternal?"
He leaned forward. "Any colony can outbuild us three-to-one in conventional warships. And they'll help each other with no hesitation. No, Mr. Yamada, that would be madness. But if we had all of Earth on board..."
The ambassador's expression froze. "You want to overthrow the World Council?" In one fluid move, he whipped out his mobile and pressed a button. "I'm still their envoy, Mr. Smith."
"Don't bother," said the latter coldly. "See that box over there? It's made to completely confuse any mesh network device."
Yamada checked the screen. He tried a few more times, then pocketed the device with a sigh. "Where are we going, anyway?"
Through the polarized windows, he could see increasingly rare factories and warehouses gradually making room for farmgrounds.
"To our consulate in Nushan. The authorities there are more likely to tolerate us arresting people."
"That's going to be one long ride," commented the guide.
Right before the entrance to the east-bound highway, the vans had to turn left over a bridge, then right around a large grain elevator. And just after the bend, the road was blocked by two heavy trucks with emergency lights flashing. The driver swore as he slammed on the brakes, nearly getting the second van to read-end them.
"Cops!" he yelled, frantically trying to turn the vehicle around.
"Or not..." added the guide as more police cars came from somewhere to box them in.
Smith was the first to regain his calm.
"You!" he snapped, pointing at the hacker. "Not a word to the cops. We have your family."
"No you don't. They're not on Earth anymore. I made sure of that."
"Oh, I know. They're on the way to Mir."
The young man shuddered and clamped his mouth shut, just in time for someone to knock on the driver's window. It was a middle-aged woman with a serious face and short gray hair, wearing a uniform not unlike that of the constables in Maripor, except with softer angles and gold trim instead of white.
"Everyone please step out of the vehicle," she said.
"What seems to be the problem, officer?" asked Smith from the back.
She peeked inside instead of answering. "Are you all right there?" she asked the unwilling passengers.
"Naturally!" Smith rushed to answer instead. "We're giving Ambassador Yamada and his staff a ride."
"Ah, but I have no business with them. It's you I was looking for, 'Mr. Smith'."
The room, hastily borrowed from a local bus depot, was bare. Plain benches and tables lined two walls, and the window showed nothing but a wheat field undulating in the wind. Most of the men in suits were gathered in a corner and guarded by constables. Only Smith was standing with the uniformed woman and his former prisoners, looking more unhappy by the minute.
"...And that's our story, you see," finished Yamada. "I apologize for not going through the proper channels earlier, but discretion was essential until the latest development."
"That still doesn't explain how you turned the tables on us," growled Smith.
"Oh, that's easy. We kept our... mutual friend in Maripor up to date with our progress, and she in turn informed the authorities here. They weren't happy to hear that a bunch of spies were traipsing around in their back yard."
"You're pretty obvious, you know," added the guide. "Had you taken our bags wholesale from the room yesterday, we would never have suspected anything."
Smith's pale face was slowly becoming red. "And the police filter? That was no coincidence."
The Mirian played with one of the many cords dangling from his jacket. "You got me. My coat's been emitting a tracking signal ever since we got into the van. Your jamming device can't fool a dumb radio."
"And by the way," said the hacker cheerfully, "I've recorded all our conversation."
With a strangled cry, the secret agent rushed the trio. The Mirian's hands flashed, and the attacker staggered away drunkenly.
"I told you they were incompetent, Ambassador."
"You know what, call me Marcus. And let's get Nehal-san to Maripor. I have one hell of a report to write home."
Bucharest, 14 February 2013