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The Ghost Walk was real, but so bizarre that virtually everyone filed it under myth and superstition. It was, supposedly, a black market matter transfer network run by a renegade Yakuza splinter group.
Matter transfer was a scientific reality, but due to unpredictable instabilities at the subatomic level had been pretty well shelved for all practical applications, relegated to offworld industries -- predominantly asteroid mining -- and completely outlawed anywhere in the vicinity of Planet Earth. Everyone was familiar with the horrific footage from an early test site in Afghanistan where seven hundred square meters of mountain bedrock had quivered, jerked straight up six feet, then twisted out of existence like the image on a switched off picture tube, taking with it a neat little blue and green prefab building and its entire staff of thirty-seven. It was now pretty well accepted knowledge that in any attempts to convert physical mass into transmittable information the chances were something like one in four that a minute shift at the quantum level would send that mass instantly and irretrievably to some place that had not as of yet been determined.
And yet according to popular tradition, and international police files, it was going on all the time, all over the world, from operations centres right here in Tokyo, shuffling drugs and illicit technology and global criminals in and out of major cities like they were less than nothing. The Agency with which Spaxter had until recently been employed had, at one time, several major departments devoted solely to attempting to trace down and isolate the process by which these gangsters were seemingly successfully employing a technology that had so far eluded all the world's top scientists. Spaxter himself had never been assigned to the case, for the most part because his superiors, despite the tacit efforts being made, had in actuality pretty well given up on figuring it out and considered him more profitably employed on cases with realizable goals.
The mystery had in fact remained unsolved for almost a decade, and though there was repeated evidence that it was going on -- people and things appearing spontaneously in places a hemisphere removed from where they had been spotted only minutes before, for example -- the entire subject was so consistently enigmatic that there was a large body of disbelief in its existence despite the evidence. Part of the reason for this was the flourishing mythology surrounding the process, the explicit and fantastical anecdotes that described one incident or another associated with the Ghost Walk.
The name itself had come from one reportedly routine side effect of taking this high risk transportation; according to one popular tale a certain famous sociopath had paid a handsome sum to be availed of instant relocation and had ended up a wraith, walking forever in an electronic limbo towards a destination he would never reach. Some claimed to have seen him striding purposefully through the white noise on empty TV channels.
A British photojournalist who had disappeared while on assignment in Micronesia was said to have stumbled on a Ghost Walk station and been captured while collecting extensive photographic evidence, for which sin his atoms had been broadcast to the moon. According to this story he now walked forever as a ghost among the craters, once a month manifesting briefly as a physical being and suffering the torments of freezing vacuum exposure, then converting back into shadow shape to continue his eternal lunar trek.
The process was commonly believed to be incredibly dangerous, either from the unstable physics involved, or the capricious cruelty of the criminal element that controlled it. In addition to the spectral hazards there were many popular tales that recounted ghastly mutilations, deliberate or accidental, that resulted from different parts of the body being sent to different places, or all to the same place but just a fraction of a second out of synch, or into solid matter, or with half the information scrambled, or any of dozens of variations on this theme.
For some reason Spaxter had believed none of it. Firstly, such negative publicity would only serve the interests of those individuals that might want to discourage casual inquiry into the process, while increasing their public mystique. Secondly there was very little evidence to support the more sanguinary and imaginative tales, and what there was could easily have been fabricated for the purpose of furthering the myth. Unlike most people Spaxter did not have a deeply ingrained fear of the Ghost Walk, but that didn't keep him from reacting violently to Tetsu's proposal of it as an option in their present situation. The Ghost Walk was a world class mystery, a persistent riddle that fascinated scientists all over the globe and yet had eluded the best efforts by investigators from every major power to unearth its incredibly valuable secret.
And here was this humble working cabby who took it for granted that should Spaxter really want to take the chance he could without any particular difficulty lead him directly to their closest operations centre.
Spaxter involuntarily shook his head in disbelief. In less than one standard day he had been exposed to more staggering evidence of the operation of powers of vast proportion than he had experienced in his entire career as a major Agency operative. It seemed that he had been suffering for years under the delusion, brought on in great measure by the effortless powers put at his disposal by his high-tech augmentation, that he had a handle on pretty well everything going on in the world, from the inner thoughts of the highest leaders to the motivations that dominated the mind of Everyman. And now here he was cast adrift in a world rife with UFOs and Atlantean kingdoms, and about to take a trip on nothing less than the mythical Ghost Walk itself. He felt like a child again, full of wonder tinged with fear, and for a second he envied his companion who still had something of that matter-of-fact acceptance of the state of the world that he had just lost.
"Take me," he said, and followed the train of Tetsu's thoughts down the track that would lead them to what the cabby pictured, with more than a little fear, as a murky subterranean laboratory peopled with rodential thugs. The cartoon-like nature of the mental imagery betrayed the fact that Dandan had never actually been in the Ghost Walk station. His specific knowledge seemed to end at a restricted access parking garage about five major blocks from their present location. It seemed he anticipated no difficulty in getting there in a few minutes.
The vehicle slipped like a shade into the street.
Spaxter did not know whether this was a good idea or not. It seemed that every step he had taken towards the resolution of this one chance-encountered mystery had instead plunged him ever-deeper into realms of the fantastic. His unquenchable curiosity had started a quest which had brought him at every turn a new enigma. There was a dream-like quality to this effect, such that he entertained the notion that it was all some kind of induced imagery, perhaps originating exactly in the broadcast/meld incident in the Gimme Shelter Carpark Motel. Maybe his body was still lying in that bed, glove glowing where it touched the screen control; maybe there was a man in black on that screen, very blonde, looking into the room. Perhaps a powerful intelligence was leading him on this circuitous adventure to prepare him for some stupendous revelation. It would make sense to acclimatize a human mind to vast change by first intimating the truths behind the great mysteries which had coloured its daily existence, perhaps overlapping them in just this fashion so as to create a cumulative revelatory crisis in his awareness. UFOs, Atlanteans, Ghost Walk; what would be next, the Space Whale?
Even as this notion came to him, deep in his reflections, a vast bulk seemed to sweep across his field of vision and he was gripped with vertigo. For a fraction of a second he was certain he was in a space tug floating out an orbit factory launch corridor; across his path, out in the void, the dark bulk of some great behemoth was swinging majestically across the starscape, surely the mythical Space Whale itself.
As it turned out, the truth was no less impressive.
With a start Spaxter realized the visual experience was originating in the meld, still tuned to the cabby in the driver's seat, and he snapped his head around to look at him. Immediately the disorientation was explained. Tetsu was gazing straight up, through the transparent panel in the vehicle's roof. Spaxter did the same.
A part of the sky, perfectly oval, was gone. This utterly black hole was moving, and growing, approaching them around the corner of the Amaterasu towers. A thick whirring sound rose out of the silence, but in front of them, not above.
Suddenly the cabby was eyes front and all action. He twisted the wheel to put the machine into a tight spin from which he rocketed them towards a narrow alleyway. Looking out his window Spaxter saw that this response had been occasioned by the appearance at the end of the block of an unmarked black pursuit van, accelerating towards them on a ground effect energy cushion.
"I presume those are not friends of yours," Dandan said with a pleasant good humour that contrasted sharply with the grimly perilous business with which he was occupied. The car had negotiated several impossibly narrow back-alley passages and a hairpin turn and now was flying down a long and shadowy ramp towards a wall of pitch black.
Glancing through the roof Spaxter saw in the gap between the buildings that the hole now completely dominated the sky. Several muffled crashes indicated that the pursuit vehicle was having some difficulty negotiating their route. Suddenly a translucent beam of energy appeared on the ramp behind them and started moving in their direction. A quick glance above revealed that the beam disappeared into a tiny glowing circle in the vast oval void hovering high above them.
"No friends but you, Tetsu."
And they plunged into the darkness, fibre-delivery lights across the front bumper automatically activating to dispel the dark. They were revealed to be traversing, at no inconsiderable velocity, a vast grey parking zone which Tetsu's thoughts made clear lay below an abandoned office complex now given over to squatters and those adapted lifeforms known popularly as urbvermin. As they drove the occasional scampering shadow disclosed the existence of members of both these groups occupying even this lightless and inhospitable level.
Now Tetsu overrode the headlights and slammed the machine into reverse. They rocked, shockseats absorbing most of the g-force. Even as Spaxter gleaned what it was the cabby had in mind he doubted the plan's potential. It seemed their emergency vehicle, in addition to basic battery systems, had an auxiliary chemical fuel source for short jet transits, and this tank had various features for dumping and igniting. It was the closest thing to a weapon that the cabby could think of.
Spaxter looked back, and the pursuit van, caroming off its last turn, was leaping down the ramp towards the garage.
Dandan was piloting them backwards towards the door at a startling speed. Just as the two converging vehicles seemed certain to meet explosively at the point where the mouth of the garage was bathed by a beam of energy, Tetsu thumbed the jet exhaust, blowing half the auxiliary tank in a wide stream across the rear and firing the remainder in a controlled jet explosion that changed their direction in a quarter second and simultaneously ignited the discharged fuel. The shockseats plunged. They rocketed back into the garage.
The timing was such that the pursuit vehicle, hurtling down the ramp, crossed the glowing threshold at the precise moment that a bloom of flame erupted in the mouth, engulfing it, and a knife of backwash cut into the front end. As the cabby had hoped, the driver panicked, jerking hard on the wheel at the same moment that the supercharged effluent disrupted the car's ground effect. The result was a teetering skid, the vehicle spun right, there was a resounding kerrang as one edge of the energy skirt struck pavement, a sizzling pop as the magnetic envelope collapsed with a static discharge, and the grinding cacophony of the grounded vehicle sliding to a stop, paint smoking.
Spaxter cheered his friend, clapped him on the back, laughed aloud at the audacity, the execution. Tetsu broke into a grin, laughed self-effacingly, and shrugged off the accolade, even as he redirected Spaxter's attention to their present situation.
They were racing across the garage, lights back on, vast plain of grey roaring under them, vast sky of industrial substructure over them, the occasional featureless figure diving for safety out of the light path.
Now Spaxter picked up the plan from his friend's similarly speeding thoughts. They would follow a remarkable route, a path that Spaxter never would have previously conceived, a complex interweaving of subsurface areas that spoke of an extremely flexible underground road system known only to a very few. He picked up a note of regret that the cabby was feeling for having been forced to reveal this one entrance to their enemy, however many safeguards lay before them still to protect its ultimate sanctity.
They had crossed what must have been at least a half mile in a few seconds, Dandan executing several lightning maneuvers to avoid debris or support pillars or life forms, aided in his guidance by dash radar, and now appeared to be hurtling towards the wall of the garage at a fatal velocity. Thumbing a dash control Dandan popped a metallized micro-chute -- a louvered scoop extension that extruded from the rear spoiler. It helped sweep them to a smooth rolling stop just before a vast advertising graphic of a grimacing male model.
The young man in the towering photo was baring his foot-long teeth for some product whose name was obscured by graffiti; the only markings on the face being a clever bit of colour that made the right eye appear to be winking. Quickly scanning the wall on which it appeared, part of a pedestrian walkway to the elevator and core, Spaxter saw that for a long stretch the wall was similarly arbitrarily defaced, but with the headlights pinpointing it the winking face seemed the most ridiculously obvious secret message he had ever seen. He couldn't help but laugh.
Dandan killed all but a couple of low running lights and parked the car, smiling at Spaxter. With an easy lope he approached the wall, and stretching up placed his right hand on one unnaturally white incisor. As he touched it a faint glow of activation betrayed the fact that the tooth disguised an old-model palm access panel. The cabby froze in this position while the finicky circuit slow-scanned his palm print, handicapped in its operation by the interceding plastic film of the advertising poster.
Spaxter recorded the image and filed it immediately in a safe place: the man stretching in the dim light to lay his hand upon the glowing tooth of a vast and leering face.
And then he laughed again.
Now he activated his own right hand, tapping the radar to check the position of their pursuers. The vehicle was definitely grounded, but he guessed those subtle readings moving away from it in their direction represented two men on foot. Unless they had military-level surveillance equipment they wouldn't have gotten enough information from their flight to know their exact destination, but the headlights would have been visible for most of the transit of the garage, and the agents, undoubtedly beaded, were proceeding unerringly in their direction.
Spaxter looked again at the portal, and laughed once more. For most anyone from this culture looking for a signpost it was an absurdly obvious message, no doubt designed that way -- easy to communicate in any number of codes even to complete strangers – and yet it was exactly the kind of nonlinear association which seemed to stymie the operation of a beaded human, and Spaxter felt suddenly secure for Tetsu's secret.
The scan ended and the cabby started back from the wall, which was suddenly sliding open in two diverging panels. Now he was back in the car and they were slipping into the newly-revealed cavity. The running lights picked out stacks of cases lining out what Spaxter now realized was the building's original freight elevator, simplistically disguised by the large graphic, likely designed that way in the first place for aesthetic reasons. The panels slid into place behind them and Spaxter waited for the familiar vibration of elevator motors... which never came.
Tuning into Tetsu he discovered to his dismay the actual leg of the journey they had just instigated -- something he'd missed in the earlier meld of their route.
The floor began to tilt, evidently beautifully counterbalanced to that end. He had about two and a half seconds to prepare himself as the floor tipped forward through twenty degrees. There was a solid, ratcheting release, and the world fell away.
Dandan hit the full lights as they dropped like a stone down a shaft of silver macro-ducting, angled just enough against the vertical that their tires retained contact. The duct tunnel was probably scavenged right from the building core a few hundred feet away, and adapted to this purpose. It was already curving towards the level. Spaxter now realized why the cabby had failed to fold his drag chute scoop before entering the elevator. He now adjusted the device as an airfoil, stabilizing and slowing their descent. Even with the chute they plummeted down the silver tunnel like a bullet. By the time they had achieved the horizontal and burst into an open space they had gained fantastic speed. Dandan adjusted the scoop to slow them, then when they were moving at a respectable rate across the glittering tiles of what appeared to be an abandoned chemical storage facility he folded the device and re-engaged the motor.
"Hey, some fun Spax?"
Spaxter hadn't laughed this much in a long, long time.