25: Swing Shift

Second Quadrant.

Planet Lenworth.

Ring Airspace.


Point-Two was used to cold methodical thinking. He liked a plan to be worked out in advance and followed as closely as possible, with the most likely obstacles already considered and prepared for.

On the Liberator Garu, there were limited options for yourself or your opponent. You might not be able to predict exactly what move they would make, but you could narrow it down to three or four.

He realised that kind of thinking was only really suitable for a game, where everyone had the same restrictions and were bound by the same set of laws. And where infractions were dealt with severely. You might be able to circumvent the rules, but it would take great skill and gamesmanship, and it was hard to resent a player for pulling off inconceivable moves, even if they occasionally crossed the line.

This wasn’t a game. You couldn’t just decline a challenge. There were rules, but when you had so many players on the field of play at the same time, how was it possible to police them all?

Being part of a small community had warped his idea of what it took to compete against others. Not only could he not call on System, he recognised the desire in himself to not want to engage if no one else was going to behave correctly. He hadn’t thought of himself as so prim and petulant.

He forced himself to his feet and towards the front of the steeply inclined craft by grabbing onto anything that stuck out enough to offer some purchase. Now the unkempt state of the cabin turned out to be ideally suited for his needs. Was that why the inside of the ship had so many struts and wires sticking out all over the place? Was Tendu able to foresee requirements to such a degree that his genius made him appear to be crazy?

“Let’s go bitches. Lets-a-goooo.” Tendu hit a button and all the walls turned transparent.

They weren’t actually see-through, they were screens — the floor, the ceiling, the back wall he had just shut. Cameras on the outside were transmitting pictures from all angles. The effect wasn’t like you were standing in the middle of the sky — you could still see parts of the interior that weren’t part of the screen — but it was a very disorienting experience.

Behind them, coming out of the smoke still spewing from the explosion, three small craft were chasing them. They had green and red lights flashing on the front and on the roof.

Point-Two couldn’t stop thinking how he’d be able to handle all this much easier with System here to back him up, to warn others if they tried to cheat, to catch him if he fell. He couldn’t stop himself. He was like a child clinging to his mother’s skirt, which was ironic since that was the one thing he’d never been able to do.

While he was sure Hollet One hadn’t intended to send him to his death, he could see a certain devious strategy at work here. He could have sent Point-Two off very quietly with no problems at all. A seat on a passenger cruise, nothing very remarkable, his identity lost in the crowd. But no. He had chosen a far more intrepid exit for Point-Two. It seemed unlikely to be a coincidence. Little brother needed toughening up fast.

“This is your last warning!” the speakers blared with heavy distortion garbling some of the words. “Stop now or we’ll blow you out of the sky! Shit, he’s heading for—” The transmission cut off.

The angle of ascent wasn’t quite so vertical now. Point-Two made it back to his seat and looked at the ring that circled Lenworth. They were pointed right at it.

Tendu grinned and looked across at Point-Two. “They won’t follow us into the ring. Wouldn’t dare.”

“Won’t there be more security up there? You were supposed to get me out of here quietly.”

“No need to worry. When you feel the urge to panic, just take a deep breath and hold it, ten, fifteen seconds, then let it go. Haha, you’re doing great, man.”

They were still going up, the gleaming ring growing bigger, a giant chrome rainbow. From this high up, Point-Two could see the ring as a tube, the top half made of clear material, like an elongated glass dome. He could glimpse inside — fields and forests, large bodies of water. It looked clean and fresh and utterly out of place so close to the soiled and contaminated environment below.

Point-Two looked back over his shoulder. The chasing security ships had turned around.

“They’ve given up,” said Point-Two. “Why?”

“Because they know they’re outclassed,” said Tendu, his voice full of laughter. “And also…”

“Unauthorised vessel, you are in restricted airspace. This is Ring Police Interceptor Division. Turn around and return to the surface. Non-compliance will be met with lethal force. We are fully sanctioned, weapons are live.” The voice sounded far more dangerous than the security guys from the port.

Approaching from the ring were three slim craft with four wings apiece. On each wingtip was a red cylinder with black holes in it — a shred gun.

“I think we should do what they say,” said Point-Two. The Garu used similar weapons and he had seen what they could do to shieldless targets. The Garu’s were bigger, but there were twelve of these, and they were coming closer to keep the spread nice and tight.

“Just need to get the right angle,” said Tendu, not changing course.

Point-Two was floating again. They had broken through the atmosphere and were surrounded by stars. The interior of the ring was even more astonishing from up here. Beaches, crystal mountains in different colours, people flying… he could see people zooming around with devices strapped to their backs.

“Last chance,” said the voice. “Three… two…”

“One,” said Tendu, and hit a button.

The screens around them buckled and fractured, like a hall of mirrors being smashed to pieces. Then they warped back.

“Where did they go?” The voice no longer sounded cool and authoritative. Now it was confused.

Tendu’s ship had stopped moving but they were still in plain view of the approaching vessels.

“What did you do?” said Point-Two, keeping his voice lowered for some reason he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It felt like a moment to keep quiet.

Tendu waved a hand at him. The three approaching ships were slowing down. At this range, their sleek design and artful paint jobs were even more impressive.

“Screens inside, screens outside,” said Tendu. “We’re showing them what’s around us, so they think we’ve vanished.”

If he understood correctly the ship was covered in screens on the outside of the hull, too. Pictures of what was behind them were being shown to them so the ship was invisible. It was a very low-tech cloaking shield.

“But their sensors,” said Point-Two.

“Can’t see us either,” said Tendu. “In one ear, out the other.”

The whole thing was so janky it was hard to understand with a proper education. Why would you go to these lengths when there were so many better options? You had to be really dumb to make something like this work.

“There!” said the voice on the speaker.

Point-Two saw something on the screen, in between the other ships. It was a copy of the ship he was in, shrinking.

“What is that?”

“That’s us making our getaway,” said Tendu.

From the police’s perspective, the image was meant to look like a ship flying away from them. How could anyone fall for something so ridiculous?

“It’s not showing on the sensors,” said the voice. “Should we chase it?”

“Let’s go see how they pulled that trick,” said another voice on the speaker.

“If they change angle or go past us, they’ll see it’s not real,” said Point-Two.

Tendu hit a button and the ship on the screen shot out a green ring from its rear and then shrank even faster, disappearing in under a second.

“Was that a jade drive?” said the first voice. “How the hell…”

“We just escaped using our jade drive,” said Tendu, chuckling. “Latest in hyperspeed technology, waiting list as long as your arm, if you got arms like a Delphidian worm.”

“Delphidian worms don’t have arms,” said Point-Two, floating around. “How much air does this thing hold?” He hadn’t seen any oxygen tanks.

“More than enough. We’ll just wait for our envious friends to go back to their comfy offices and then we can be on our way. Shame I can’t give you a better look inside. Oof, it’s nice.”

Tendu stretched out his legs and put his feet on the console or floating just about the buttons. It made Point-Two uncomfortable. One accidental slip and their homemade invisibility cloak might get turned off. He took a deep breath and held it. The police ships were still sitting there.

“Nice moves back there, by the way. You jump around like one of those space monkeys.”

Point-Two let the air out. “What?”

“Space monkeys. The first people in space were monkeys, didn’t you know that? What kind of history do they teach you on that ship of yours?”

Point-Two vaguely recalled what a monkey was, some kind of rodent with hands, but he was pretty sure they hadn’t invented spaceflight.

“That’s how they got their own planet. You’ve heard of Planet of the Monkeys, haven’t you?”

Point-Two felt like he was having his leg pulled. “How did you know there were explosives in my bag? Your organic?”

Tendu’s hair was back to normal (for him) and his eyes weren’t glowing. His organic was off now, but it had somehow warned him about the bomb on board.

“No, I just had a feeling. Man gets to know his ship, you know?”

“Where did you get the organic. They’re quite hard to get hold of, aren’t they?” And also expensive, but he didn’t say that in case it was taken as an insult. A man like Tendu probably had ways of getting hold of currency. That would probably be insulting, too.

“Hard? You don’t even know. I used to run with a group, delving ruins. This was back when there were still plenty of Antecessor sites that hadn’t been claimed by the big corporations. They sweep them clean with a hundred-man teams now, we used to do it with five people, and at least three of us would come out alive. Them’s good numbers.”

“There are still sites left, though, aren’t there?”

“Sure, sure. The ones even a hundred-man team can’t do anything to. I don’t recommend it, organics aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Terrible pains, they give you. Overheat the body, too. Better off buying yourself a nice warm coat and forget the whole thing. Ooh, they’re moving.”

The three ships swung around and headed back to the ring. They watched them grow smaller just as the police had watched their ship grow smaller.

“Nicely done, eh? Let’s get you to that wormhole.”

Point-Two finally relaxed, and then wished he hadn’t. “I think I need to use the bathroom.”

“Well, open the back and fire away,” said Tendu.

Point-Two looked at the back wall. “You really want me to open the door in space, with no suits?” It was a terrible idea, but then what so far haadn’t been?

“No, haha, I’m just kidding. Here.” Tendu pulled out a diaper from under his seat. “Put this on and get comfortable. I think I’ll join you. Now, where did I put that air freshener?”

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