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Chapter 3

A very common form of access control in most industrialized centres was by way of some form of palm coding. Facial recognition still ruled in some areas, but had mostly fallen out of usage as it had proven so easily fooled by relatively simple techniques. The highest level securities used genetic prints or full bio-snapshots, or any combination of those, but the general consensus approach had retreated to the palm as secure enough for most applications and harder to lose than a key card. At the lowest level were print-reading sensor pads, or implanted chips that were scanned in passing, but there were a wide range of deployments. Spaxter's development of the Gauntlet began to a certain degree with his need as an Agency operative to circumvent all access restrictions. An early design that consisted of a microscopically thin fleshtone glove that confused the sensors with a dizzying burst of shifting palm-prints and microwave pulses (affectionately known as the "handjob") proved effective against simpler systems and was now a fairly common espionage and crime tool.


But the sensitivity and discretion of the more advanced hardware now easily detected even the best handjobs on the street, and some had retaliatory functions that made using them more than a little painful. The Gauntlet, with its multifaceted meld capabilities, was able to first "read" the device it was attempting to beat, merging with the software and instantly generating a facsimile signal that satisfied whatever patterns made the circuits produce the optimal return. In other words, whatever made it happy.


Thus it was that when he made his way out of the main ground transit hub into a service alcove and palmed the security lift that would take him directly up the tower to the skyport and air lounges high overhead, a route he was taking in order to avoid the traffic in the main tunnels and the bottleneck at the bodyscan gates, he discovered with surprise that the Gauntlet had made the access computer blissfully happy by supplying the code of the Prime Secretary himself!


The Gauntlet had reacted reflexively, and he took the moment before the silver door whipped silently open on the tight bullet-shaped compartment to analyze the data it had grabbed. That the Prime Secretary had an access code for this lift meant it was part of some Emergency Deployment Contingency Plan that would allow the head of state to be airborne in minutes should he be caught giving a speech or glad-handing a power broker or trysting with a love goddess in the immediate vicinity. That this code had never been used was hardly a surprise; it was an easy guess that the only people that used this lift were bored security types and overpaid maintenance men. What they didn't know was that the sophisticated logic system that had been installed to keep any old Joe Public from riding this executive booster was busy using nine tenths of its processing time fantasizing about the possibility that it would some day feel the touch of the hand of the Prime Secretary. The weight of control subprograms that were attendant upon that touch, and the fact that in the years of its service that touch had never occurred, had built the event into the closest thing this processor could come to a religious belief. The lift had faith. Spaxter gave it its epiphany.


"Mr.Secretary," spoke the lift as he stepped inside, in a clipped androgynous voice that seemed to have the slightest quaver. The internal lighting also seemed to flicker slightly, and the door sliding shut was not quite so silent or smooth as it had been opening. Spaxter had a moment of disquiet as he saw the possibility that his revelatory palm print had set in motion a sequence of program errors that could result in the lift hurtling itself into the under-vaults, or enacting an emergency self-destruction option, or any of a dozen equally catastrophic system failures. He scanned again the database he had picked up on the lift's programming, preparing to intercede. Suddenly the lift began trembling, and the voice, now pitched an octave higher and with staccato urgency, burst out again:




"Tactic able!" Spaxter interrupted loudly, to immediate effect. The trembling ceased, lighting stabilized. "Egress diamondhead." The lift rocketed upward, reacting to the executive security codes by instantly dumping its mismanaged free memory. The epiphany was over, the trace personality cast out.


In silent seconds the lift had made the transit up the five-hundred-story tower, and it was with some relief that Spaxter stepped out into the padded hallway that connected the lift discretely to the skyport access. As the lift door sliced shut behind him he made a mental note that perhaps it wasn't always optimal to make everything as happy as possible.


Selecting a narrow security portal that let him into the common corridors by way of a gap hidden behind a curved advertising stanchion, Spaxter blended into a crowd of debarking Eurasians and made his way towards one of the lounges that ringed the lip of the circular skyport. Entering a sparsely-populated restaurant section he selected the curve of a booth that gave him a view of the room, the corridor, and the two kilometer drop to the cityscape below, and when the waitress passed he ordered a standard Jumpstart -- a series of seven nutrient bulbs designed to supply the physical needs of an individual about to partake of the particular rigours of low-orbit space travel.


His mind was uncharacteristically blank, his meld gear powered down, his gloved hand slowly flexing and relaxing in response to some internal mechanical mantra. This meditative state always preceded a session of memory review, and while his conscious thoughts drifted free his unconscious shuffled recent meld files for intensive diagnosis.


When the nutrient bulbs arrived he automatically took them one at a time in his gloved hand and gently squeezed. Yet another ancillary function of his glove was an osmotic ingestion mechanism that transferred the contents of the bulbs into a nutrient delivery system laced like a bloodstream through the surface of his body armour. Constantly monitoring his blood state, the suit ministered automatically to dozens of different nutritional and medicinal needs, delivering most substances through cutaneous absorption. Effectively, Spaxter now only ate for pleasure.


And now he internalized, turning all focus in on the replay of that singular sequence which had so vitalized his morning and curtailed his anticipated period of protracted relaxation. After his enigmatic encounter with the man in black he had sat in that bed in the Gimme Shelter Carpark Motel and rerun the sequence an even forty times -- forwards, backwards, frame by frame -- in between trying to get the channel back by any means possible. In the excitement of the event he had recorded the basic meld signal but failed to initialize it with the reference code that would have allowed him to trace the source transmission in one step. Instead he had been forced to attempt the extrapolation of the source from inferred tunings, painstakingly recreating his freewheeling passage through the broadcast bands in a futile effort to again happen upon that elusive channel.


He delved through the available listings for any of three dozen of the most likely cities from which the channel might have originated, and found several possible candidates, but none were carrying a program that answered the description. Finally he concluded that he had been tapping a random satellite drop and that therefore the originating signal could have been anywhere on earth, or off. Again and again he went over the recorded sequence looking for any kind of clue that would have indicated who or what he had been dealing with. Again and again he was forced to conclude that nothing in his previous meld experience could compare with these few subjective seconds of inexplicable wonder.


And finally a plan had come to him, how he might decode the messages he was now certain were hidden in those bursting geometric balls and dark mercury rivers, and he had quit his padded sanctuary and made for the city and the transit hub.


Now he dove once again into those blue estuaries, that mercury sea reflecting infinite space. He lingered over the tributary wherein language was being magically, mechanically contrived, for therein seemed a fundamental key to the decoding of this enigma. Every now and then he almost thought he grasped something from the complex undercurrents; there was a certain similarity to melding the more advanced artificial intelligence devices, a digital regularity that lay beneath the human mimicry. But here there was a much denser energy at work, an organic complexity that animated a disturbingly lifeless power. It filled him with fear and awe like nothing he had previously known.


"Zaddit? .... Wonmoh?"


Spaxter jumped out of his reveries with a jolt, surprised at how deeply he had allowed himself to descend. In the instant of his "awakening" he discovered that his meld was revving in overdrive and he at once took the entire scene in with supernatural clarity. The waitress was standing leaning over the table with a look of concern, and he saw that he had pulverized the last of the nutrient bulbs in the Gauntlet and left it smoking on the table.


He also took in a couple of other things that slammed their way forcibly into his consciousness before he could damp down the hardware. The waitress was beautiful, in an earthy, lustrous way, both internally and externally; she was also battered and bruised, mostly psychologically, by a thick-skulled hood with the moral code of a hammerhead shark who had recently insinuated himself into her life to its tragic devaluation. Spaxter's sudden intimate knowledge of this unpleasant relationship was made more complete by the fact that the hood in question was sitting at a table no more than 20 feet from him, directly behind the waitress, watching their exchange with sullen disinterest.


In seconds Spaxter had absorbed a distastefully complete catalogue of details about this smalltime hitman and how he had come to subjugate this lovely young woman, and for the moment it drove out of his mind completely all thoughts of his own.


"No, that's fine. Thank you," he said evenly, touching the credit pad with the coded index digit of the Gauntlet to transfer the funds. As he did so he glimpsed a timestrip blinking softly from within the surface of the table, and realized that he had less than three minutes to make the Nippon shuttle. He stood, touched her softly on the arm, and in a hypnotically even voice said softly, "You love the artist and he loves you."


She froze, stunned, a dream-like expression washing over her features. As he strode across the room he noted out of the corner of his eye how she sank slowly into the warm impression where he had just been sitting, her eyes gazing sightlessly into the deep distance.


With four long steps he reached the table of her tormentor, who only slowly roused himself from a customary stupor at this abrupt accosting. He was a stocky, swarthy, underworld cliché; a tanned, scarred face with slitted black eyes, oily ringlets falling to a high leather collar, bristled moustache over puffy misshapen lips. His name was Lance. Spaxter noted every nuance of his physiology, measuring every subtlety of his fighting strengths, noted points of weapon concealment, lifted from his living mind his every movement before he made it.


And before the man could even begin to formulate an attack, or even a response to this sudden encounter, Spaxter spoke. He used a phrase that figured prominently in the fellow's conscious fears, not even knowing exactly what it meant, but sensing that it could be used to make him leave this woman, this town, maybe this planet, maybe forever.


"Lance, Bruno knows where you are," he said with a silky resonance that was meant to express mock confidentiality. Their eyes were locked, and Spaxter did not need meld gear to know that he had struck this man to his very core. Now calling on his telepathic technology he picked up from the startled mind some inkling of what this relationship to Bruno was all about, and he used that to finalize the woman's salvation. "Bruno doesn't like people who takes what's not theirs... He has - friends - in this city. In fact," Spaxter smiled for effect, feeling histrionic, "Bruno has recently made a lot of friends in this country, and they're very interested in how you're doing. My advice - "


But Lance didn't wait for advice. Pale and unsteady the man jerked away from the table, headed straight for a booking counter. Spaxter stood slowly, and smiled at the irony that his little humane gesture might mean that he would have this unlikable character as a fellow traveller on the next shuttle out of this part of the world... and with a start he realized he would barely have time to make that shuttle himself!


He picked up his pace, heading out the lounge doors towards the main ramps to airdocks one level up. Through the glass walls that separated the lounge from the passageway he caught a glimpse of the waitress, now looking directly at him, still sitting in the booth. He stopped to look, and saw that she was half smiling; he picked up from her thoughts that though she didn't understand how, she did know that in that moment her life had changed, that when she got off work today she could go back to her artist friend without fear, move in with him, have his babies, have happiness. In a second there would be tears, but before that could happen Spaxter had touched the brim of his hat, given her his own half smile, and disappeared down the corridor.


What a world this was, and what a burden it made of this gift of inner knowledge! More than once Spaxter had felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over him as it did now, a sullen resentment at his apparent inability to reject the weight of this woeful world when it dropped upon him. He knew that another random scan of the masses moving up towards the airdocks would no doubt reveal any number of other situations that could benefit from his immediate intervention. Every human had some hardship or other, and at times like this Spaxter felt like a fool for so naively, automatically, shouldering these anonymous spiritual burdens.


For speed he once again soft-melded the crowd, touching, moving, sliding his way up the ramps like a dark thought. Once as he glided along he reached out with perfect timing and steadied a frail student, laden with software packs, who had been rudely jostled by a huge Philipino, and who without that assistance might very likely have tumbled over a low guardrail and down a ventilation shaft to his death -- just another casual casualty of the cruel throng.


Spaxter, wrapped up in his momentary self-pity, never even consciously registered this little reflexive act of salvation.