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According to the map the pipe was rated for humans, but Melilah Award, one-eighty centimeters long, only just fit into it. Curved, cream-colored walls veined in yellow rushed by as she hurried to the next hub, pushing herself along with hands and feet in the negligible gee. Lights in visible spectra were few and far between, and she navigated by infrared when the darkness was complete.
An air current blew from along the pipe at roughly her velocity. She imagined a bubble of her exhalations accompanying her like an unseen shroud and quickly quashed the thought. It made her throat tighten as though she were actually suffocating.
She pushed on, conscious of time ticking away fast. Her watchmeter told her she still had work to do. Fourteen people were observing her from afar, locked on to her trace as she plumbed the innermost regions of the giant habitat. Seven of them she knew well: fellow gleaners, keeping tabs just in case she'd caught a whiff of some new, rich vein of overlooked information. Four were friends she'd asked to tag along for the ride, until the time was right. Two of the remaining three were unknown to her, possibly pseudonyms for the Exarch and, therefore, of some concern. And the last ...
She checked the time. Thirty-two twenty. Another three hundred seconds.
"I told you, Gil: leave me alone." She spoke aloud.
The echo from the pipe's smooth walls gave her words extra substance, if only to her ears.
"Now, don't be like that, 'Lilah."
She cringed at the use of the nickname. "Why do you go to so much trouble to track me when you're not even prepared to listen to what I've got to say?"
"And why do you resent my surveillance of you? Seems strange for one who expends so much energy on defending the openness of our society."
"It's not the surveillance I mind, Gil. It's you."
The distant man chuckled. "Could be worse," he said. "You could be so dull that nobody would want to watch you."
"Sounds like heaven."
"I know you're lying."
Gil Hurdowar was right, but that didn't make him any easier to tolerate. Melilah could picture him, a scrawny figure jacked directly into the Scale-Free Bedlam feed. His face was lined, and his hair possessed a disconcertingly piebald quality that spoke of badly maintained antisenescence treatments. She had learned from her one and only in-person confrontation that his cubicle smelled of burnt sugar, as though a saucepan of ruined toffee had been hidden in a cupboard and forgotten months ago.
She—elegantly youthful, in appearance at least, and meticulously clean—took offense at his interest in her, and she made no bones about showing it. That was how the system worked. He could watch her if he wanted to, but she didn't have to like it. Especially at moments such as these, when being observed was exactly what she didn't want.
One hundred fifty seconds. Her watchmeter was down to twelve. At the hub, she kicked right, then almost immediately right again. The new pipe was slightly wider along one axis, giving it a squashed feel. Although there was no real indication that this area of the habitat was experiencing undue structural load, Melilah was distinctly aware of how near the center she was getting. With thousands of kilometers of pipes all around her and unknown cubic hectares of chambers piled high above, it was no wonder that the heart of Bedlam had long ago collapsed into a solid core. What had once been perfectly habitable spaces were now flattened foundations for new architecture. That new architecture would, in turn, one day collapse on top of the layers beneath, if Bedlam kept growing at its current rate.
Melilah sincerely hoped she would be well away from these pipes when that day came.
"Looking for something in particular?" Hurdowar pressed, voicing the question that was undoubtedly on the minds of many of the others watching her movements. "Data cache? Hard-copy store?"
"Who says I'm looking for anything?"
"You only come down here when you are."
"That's not exactly true." Bedlam's basement was vast and, for the most part, empty. The habitat's many citizens naturally tended to gravitate upward, resettling as fast as each new layer could come online. This constant migration left a labyrinthine vacancy in its wake. She wasn't the only person looking for things left behind, and she knew for certain that she wasn't the only one who used it as a repository for her own private data. The core of Bedlam was a graveyard for many things best left forgotten.
Melilah didn't have to justify herself, but she wanted her cover on public record. "Since when has amateur archeology been a crime?"
Hurdowar snorted. "If that's what you're doing, then I'm your guardian angel."
"The information laws are there to protect us all. I'm doing the community—and the Exarch—a service by upholding them."
"And making a tidy profit while you're at it. Hell, you don't need to explain it to me. I'm just jealous. Why else would I be snooping at you every waking moment?"
"I thought that was because you're an insensitive asshole."
"Some would say that. Consider the rest a bonus, then."
Twenty-five seconds. The pipe ended at a chamber large enough to have earned a warehouse rating, way back when. She took a moment to get her bearings. Five exits led from it, two deeper still. She took one of the latter, following her internal map.
"I'll ask you again, Gil: will you please leave me alone for a while?" The irritation in her voice was real.
"When the show's just getting interesting? I don't think so, 'Lilah."
Her internal timer hit zero. Far above the lowly tunnel, the system's primary flared. Magnetic fields flexed and snapped like whips. Huge gouts of supercharged particles poured through interplanetary space, frying every unshielded object in their path. The poles of magnetically active worlds and moons flickered blue. With the uncanny promptness of a vast machine, the symptoms of Hipparcos 62512's grumpy restlessness overtook the lumpy, half-made skin of Bedlam's outermost layers—and would have rendered them and what lay beneath utterly sterile, but for the sudden opacity of PARASOL in orbit between the station and the sun.
Melilah's watchmeter noted the departure of her four friends, as planned. Five of the gleaners went with them, and both of the unnamed traces. That left just two gleaners and Hurdowar.
"Is it a big one?" she asked them, knowing what the answer would be. She'd checked the solar weather reports in advance.
"Huge," said Hurdowar. "Pretty, too."
One of the two remaining gleaners took the bait. Melilah slipped into a pipe too narrow for her to stand in and shot along it like a bullet down a barrel. Close, now. She stretched in her crawl-suit, enjoying the physicality of her quest.
"Not as pretty as what I see right now," Hurdowar added.
She swallowed revulsion. "Give me a break, will you?"
"No can do, 'Lilah. But please, feel free to watch me back if it makes you feel any better."
"Thanks, but I think I'd rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt spoon." The pipe constricted to the point where she had to put her arms at her sides and let her feet kick her along. "Listen, Gil: you may have your rights, but so do I. I'm not some animal in a zoo; I'm not your property. Try to corral me, and I'll take whatever means necessary to stop you."
"But I keep an eye out for you. I give you leads!"
"My gratitude has its limits. I can cope just fine without you."
"Really?" A sly tone entered the man's voice. "Did you realize that the Nhulunbuy requested permission to dock fifty minutes ago?"
At Bedlam? The words were almost past her lips before she could stop them. She hadn't known, and the news took her by surprise. "What business is that of mine?"
Hurdowar chuckled again. "You don't fool me, 'Lilah. You know as well as I do who's running the Nhulunbuy these days. And you know he wouldn't come here unless he had absolutely no choice."
"Damn you, Gil," she cursed. The last gleaner winked out, perhaps from embarrassment. "My relationship with Palmer Eogan is none of your business."
"Can't blame a guy for being curious—especially when you still call it a relationship."
She brought herself to a sudden halt. Here.
Calling up a series of virtual displays, she scrolled rapidly through them and launched a package of countermeasures, prepared in advance against just such a contingency. If Gil Hurdowar wouldn't go away voluntarily, she would just have to make him. There wasn't a hell deep or hot enough for someone like him—and to hell with penalties, too. The Exarch could cut her off completely for all she cared. At least she'd be alone.
"I'd love to continue this engaging conversation, Gil, but—"
Hurdowar's channel died with a squawk. Her watchmeter clicked to zero at last.
Zero. She focused her thoughts on the task at hand. No one was watching her. This was her chance—and it wouldn't last long. The Exarch would be onto her in moments for shutting Hurdowar up like that. In Bedlam, there were many crimes, but few were as fundamental as restricting a citizen's right to information. Loathe him though she might, Hurdowar was a citizen, and the Exarch imposed the laws protecting him with the same rigor he imposed those of the Gentry.
Damn them, too, she added to herself, but didn't dwell on it. The seconds were flying by. She had brought herself to a halt by a narrow niche that only appeared on the most detailed of maps. Most importantly, it was out of sight of the nearest CCTV feed. She'd checked it some years earlier and found it to be empty. A scan of the area since then showed no signs of anyone moving in. But just because no one had, didn't mean that she shouldn't.
Reaching into a pocket of her crawl-suit, she produced a flat packet as round as her palm. Colored to match the pipe's milky wall, it was designed to stick unobtrusively and remain out of sight forever. Should anyone trace her path to the niche, they would assume that she had already cleaned it out and might not bother taking a second look. Even if they did look, the camouflage would probably still fool them.
Melilah reached inside the niche to stick the disk in place, and was startled to find something already there.
What the hell? She pulled her hand away. The niche should have been empty; she was certain of it. Putting her disk back into its pocket, she leaned into the hole and examined what she'd found more closely. It was standard model data fiche, solid-state, unsecured. She pulled it loose and held it up warily in front of her. Some data caches—like hers—were booby-trapped, rigged with viruses or EMPs designed to take out both the idly curious and the deliberately invasive alike. She swept it while she had the chance, while Hurdowar was off-line and the others were busy with the flare.
The fiche was clean of traps. Accessing it, she brought up the contents in an internal window and scanned through them.
Old letters. Some pictures. Two faces recurred: a pair of women, one with brown hair and a square jaw, the other skinnier, shorter, a redhead. They had been lovers, had gone surveying together; there were maps of a tangled, convoluted space Melilah assumed was Bedlam. Most of the photos portrayed happy times, snapshots of contentment; they had holidayed at Sublime on at least one occasion, before the Catastrophe. But Melilah sensed sadness lurking behind the smiles. People didn't bury good memories without a good reason.
In this instance, it looked like someone had beaten her to it.
She tossed the fiche in her hand, momentarily indecisive. The data she had found was valueless on the open market. It was no business of hers, of anyone at all except the person who had put it there. She would be doing them a service by replacing it and moving on.
But that would leave her business unfinished. The simplest thing, she told herself, was to replace the fiche and do as she'd originally intended. She doubted the person who had placed it would ever come back—and if they did, they probably wouldn't notice hers, tucked away behind it. Most likely both of them would remain there, untouched, as this layer of Bedlam compacted around them. Both repositories would be buried physically as well as mentally.
So that was what she did. She replaced the fiche and stuck her disk nearby. Then she kicked herself away, pretending to be heading elsewhere just in case someone happened to glance at her at that moment and wonder what she was doing.
The flare had been roiling around Bedlam for two full minutes. Her surprise package had kept Hurdowar busy all that time, forcing him to untangle knotted data lines and unclog stodgy feeds before he could get out. She didn't care what he thought of her, what weird sort of kick he was getting, following her around as he did. But pretending it didn't affect her was the surest way of letting him know that it did.
The Nhulunbuy requested permission to dock fifty minutes ago ...
She opened a link to Gil Hurdowar. It would look good for her if she made the first overture, made it appear as though the breakdown in comm was a genuine accident. Worth a try, anyway.
"You there, Gil?"
Silence. The link registered as being open, but nothing came along it.
She tried another line, and another. More nothing. She dialed an acquaintance at random with the same result. Frustrated, she punched in the code for the Exarch himself, and only echoes of her frustration returned to her down the pipe.
"Is anyone out there?"
The feeling of claustrophobia returned as one by one all the lines she had opened shut down. For the first time in years, Melilah Awad was truly cut off.CHAPTER 2
The alarm, once triggered, spread rapidly through the colony's infostructure. Exarch Isaac Deangelis normally skimmed the surface of temporal flow like a stone over water, experiencing individual days as though they were minutes, riding the ebb and flow of the economy, watching Palmer Cells come and go like darting pond creatures, embracing the sure vantage point of long time as was his birthright.
When the alarm reached the outer layers of his distributed consciousness, however, his entire self jerked abruptly to a temporal halt. It felt like a transport collision in slow motion. A single moment crystallized around him, spreading out in branched waves of supersaturated connectedness; what had once been liquid and smoothly flowing suddenly coalesced into an incredibly complicated snapshot of the colony as a whole, caught in the seed crystal moment of the alarm. As he changed gears from very long-term overview to minutely microfocused, he sought the source of the disturbance and critiqued his agents' autonomic reactions to it.
The first name he saw prompted a sigh of resignation. Her again. He didn't need to see the footage in detail to recognize Melilah Awad's elegantly angular features or her naturally grown hair, dyed brown and white in geometric streaks parallel to her fringe. Her tight-fitting semi- pressure suit accentuated her natural physicality with a brazenness that unnerved him only slightly more than her resentment of him. She seemed to be at the heart of every disturbance in his domain. When the Exarchate had annexed the colony, forty-odd years earlier, Awad had been Deputy Counselor, second only to the system's nominal head. Although the annexation had been conducted with the same swift efficiency as those in other habited systems, with very little loss of life or material assets, the aftereffects were pervasive and tenacious. Awad, left with no functional role to play in the system's new government, made a point of encouraging anti-Exarchate demonstrations whenever she could, and would, he was sure, foment active dissent were it not for the system's antiprivacy laws that would immediately finger her as the ringleader. Deangelis couldn't stop her from talking, not if he wanted to maintain the system's unique character, since imposing absolute rule would prompt even greater resentment than he already experienced. He tolerated the rumblings and was proud that, so far, the situation had never flared into open revolt as it had once or twice elsewhere.
Excerpted from Geodesica Ascent by Sean Williams, Shane Dix. Copyright © 2005 Sean Williams and Shane Dix. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 27, 2014