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As it turned out Lance was too late to get a seat on this shuttle, and the flight was uneventful, or would have been if not for the power failure and the UFO and the zombie flight attendant and the earth-shaking information Spaxter received over the phone and the religious riot in economy class.
The riot occurred about ten minutes into the 30-minute flight when a tour party of Bubbeloits, a rather lunatic quasi-Buddhist sect that followed the teachings of one Raphael Bubbel (who believed, among other things, that the highest achievement of spiritual attainment was to be incarnated as almost anything made of rubber and that solid human waste had sentience) took violent offense to the playing on one of the in-flight entertainment channels of a popular music video that referred to them (with graphic visual satire) as "Bubbleheads". A full eight rows of passengers had to be sedated with jets of narcotic gas, the atmospheric effects of which tended to influence the behaviour of everyone onboard.
Spaxter had waited to contact Tai Nijiri until he was airborne because it would narrow the number of possible monitoring points his call might encounter. Now at last, comfortably ensconced in a first class seat near the control cabin of a Mach 20 shuttle arcing a sub-orbital path towards the land of the rising sun, happily feeling minor residual sedation from the ambient riot gas, Spaxter palmed an armrest phone-link and proceeded to make contact with his Japanese friend.
Tai Nijiri ran an information processing network from the ancient Shinto/Buddhist temple that rested on top of a 300-story office tower just outside Shizuoka, a stone's-throw from Mt. Fuji. Spaxter and Nijiri had spent training time together in their teens, learning the subtleties of sucking interface at a very exclusive research centre run by two very strange fellows known as the Brothers Gridd. Spaxter had opted for the romance and glamour of international intrigue while Nijiri had taken his father's faltering software firm and turned it into the most advanced processing network on the Tokyo Stock Exchange -- Mutéikoo, or as Spaxter called it, Data Mutata.
He had no difficulty glove-melding the sophisticated communications port that rested at his right hand, and rapidly shunted his signal through the shuttle's private satellite uplinks, subcarried it on the airline's global network as if it were part of an entertainment service and took it right to a main Tokyo switching centre. There he scrambled around a bit, making sure he could find a discrete enough circuit, and finally connected to a local microwave phone system. He beamed a standard number, followed it with a security code. By avoiding the shuttle's passenger uplink he knew he had bypassed nine-tenths of the possible monitors who might have had interest in his whereabouts, but he knew he'd have to take a chance with Nijiri's private line. He didn't activate the chair's projection screen -- clever lensing made your viewscreen appear to be hovering about two feet in front of you -- which would have made his conversation visible to the three other occupants of first class.
Instead he affected his meld-based internal visual processor to achieve an essentially identical, but utterly private effect.
His call was through in ten seconds. It was picked up on the second ring. He was sending the camera feed built into the extended right arm of the seat, which by being lensed in a reverse fashion to the screen would make him appear to be looking directly out of the receiver's screen from about two feet away. Evidently Nijira recognized him immediately.
"Oh man! Spaxter! What a time you call! Does that meld stuff make you psychic, man? I need big help here! Where are you? I'm through! Seppuku time for me, keemosabe. Somebody's got in, in a big way. Info-infiltration, data extrata, all systems down, all credit cancelled, all projects dead... I'm about to take the last walk, friend, the one past the rock garden - "
"Whoa! Hold on, Tai!" Spaxter didn't have to actually verbalize, one benefit of the glove/meld combination being the ability to pick up the signals from the speech centre of his own brain, and in the glove encode them into a broadcast signal -- an electronic telepathic projection -- but for Tai's benefit he did move his lips to support the sound he was sending. Someone watching, and at least one of his companions was, just saw what appeared to be a man talking quietly to himself.
"Get into a bit of that Zen breath-work will ya?" Spaxter implored, "Find your centre and nail yourself to it!"
The image he saw was a small neat-featured Japanese. He was wearing a dark checkerboard suit that appeared to be subtly changing colour and pattern features every few seconds. The face had the telltale eyeball glisten that signalled high-end ocular implants. The picture did not come from a camera, but was being digitally generated from a recent photoscan and synched to the voice. The matte background was a 3-D travelogue of landscapes traversed by air, for the most part vast mountain ranges with individual peaks sculpted into the logo of Mutéikoo Inc. -- a stylized platinum-textured Fuji densely engraved with a sampling of all known human symbology and wrapped with a Shinto temple knot that upon close inspection was revealed to be constructed of gold microprocessor cabling.
The neatly groomed head incongruously mouthed Nijiri's impassioned speech with an expression of placid self-assurance. "Hold on, Spax...", it said, sounding breathless. Electronic interference fractured the image. It stabilized, but now the head imploded lazily, the mountain ranges dissolved as under cosmic-strength acid rain, then black. Then chaos.
Nijiri had switched over to a hand-held camera in his inner office, a densely-strewn chamber that lay at the centre of the temple, and was obviously trying to jury-rig a stand for it. The image bobbed and jerked, rolled and bumped, finally settling into a canted view of a wall of glowing fish tanks. Nijiri stepped into the field of view -- disheveled, haggard, hair askew, sleep-deprived.
Spaxter kept the shock from registering on his face, and sought to synthesize a reassuring tone in his broadcast voice. "I'm on my way, Tai. I'm in the air now. Tell me, what's going on?"
Nijiri sat, by the sound of it crushing something in a packing case as he did so. The camera now only caught an upper quadrant of his head as he sighed deeply and ran a hand through his hair.
"Started about a month ago. Some of my employees were coming to work wearing this new kind of jewelry. Of course they went through standard security inspection, the jewelry - or whatever it is - was analyzed. It just looked like pieces of plain metal on any tests they could come up with. At least -- I don't know -- what went wrong? There must have been some new kind of transponder in there. And those people got weird on me, it was spooky. And next thing I know -- wait a minute, did you say you were in the air? in the AIR? Where? Shuttle? Nippon Air 227? Oh -- !"
The part of the head that was visible disappeared, the camera jerked, shifted, settled into a new cant. Several heartbeats later the head reappeared, uncomfortably close, and fuzzy until the camera automatically brought it into focus. Nijiri was wide-eyed and panting, and spat out the next lines with a speed and purpose that belied the near-catatonia that had marked his previous ramblings. He was obviously concentrating on something on a surface near him, and there was the sound of keys being tapped at a tremendous rate.
"Spax, I presume you're plugged in, get ready for a dump. This is BIG. I haven't time to tell you what I know, or suspect. But I’ve been running predictives on movements, and seeing how they’ve tracked me… previous apparent abductions… you just called… the flight you’re on… What I’m trying to tell you is that if I were to make a guess I would say you may very well be in deep shit up there ma- DAMN!" There was an ugly electronic squeal, the head dipped from view and a frantic scrabbling was heard, probably of bubble memory packs being hastily replaced. Spaxter knit his brows in confusion. He had never before seen his friend in anything but the most sedate, controlled state of mind. His attempts to meld him over the connection just now had come up with nothing but jumbled, confused patterns that were probably the result of a combination of the sophisticated anti-surveillance program that interlaced the signal, and Nijiri's incipient nervous breakdown.
Now Spaxter forced himself into a meditative state, seeking in relaxed receptivity an understanding that was not forthcoming from this disturbing contact. He shut his mind momentarily, to the call, to the last vestiges of the Bubbeloit riot, the residual gas... and then something brought him out of his reverie before it could even begin. What was it? Movement. A flight attendant, male, tall and blonde, moving from the service corridor between first and second class, up the aisle towards the cockpit. Nothing unusual... Spaxter casually melded him .... Blank!
He was instantly alert, focusing fiercely, digging hungrily for a glimpse of that blue river, surprising himself with the desperate urgency of his need, just to see it one more time… in vain. The man was truly blank. Then his eyes caught something else, glinting slightly, on the man's head, at the temple, a small silver disc. In the seconds before the attendant disappeared through the cockpit door Spaxter recorded a dozen other impressions, such as the man's blank gaze, his mechanical stride...
"Tai," he spoke over the line. There was a slight movement onscreen. "Tai, did that jewelry look like little silver discs, worn on the skin, at the temple?"
His friend's face now jumped into view, the slightest hint of startled relief now added to the look of disturbance. "So you do know something! Thank God! Well, here're my files anyway, for what they're worth. Are you ready?"
And then without waiting in any way to ascertain whether or not this were in fact so, he closed a circuit that sent an even terabyte of data, downloading from his personal file-base, over this jury-rigged network directly through the glove connection into Spaxter's head.
Once, when called upon to describe the sensation of this kind of downloading to someone who had never had an intimate knowledge of direct-wired cybernetic systems, he said that "it feels like being pressure-fed ball bearings through a garden hose rammed in each ear," which was both an exaggeration and an understatement. The sensation was actually not one that could be described in any kind of normal human terms (though one well-known woman scientist equipped with some fairly impressive head-wired processing gear often used the terms "data dump" and "RAM rape" interchangeably), but whenever it happened, as now, it caused Spaxter's teeth to grind and his eyeballs to twitch and his bowels to loosen. There was a subjective hour of nauseous disorientation, no more than four seconds in real time, then the contents and implications of the information files that had been transferred began to seep in.
The one first class passenger who had been curiously observing Spaxter seemingly talking to himself had also seen the sudden play of emotions and discomfort, and now saw with alarm the jaw drop and the body stiffen and the non-gloved hand go white where it clutched the armrest.
Being a doctor, this passenger felt such certainty that he was witnessing a heart attack in progress that he would surely have gotten out of his seat and gone to this poor man's aid had not at that very moment the shuttle power failed, plunging him and everyone on board into uncanny darkness and silence.
And then, of course, the UFO came.