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The little cabby stood transfixed beneath the dome, gasping at some of the more bizarre sequences -- like the meld-ride into the alien mindscape -- but mostly just awestruck at the kind of daily existence Spaxter seemed to be experiencing as a result of his telepathic augmentation. He was startled by the glimpse of a black disc through a shuttle window, perplexed by the information break and subsequent dream-like imagery that was recorded during the period of Spaxter's beading, confused by the near-assassination of the man in the tower, strangely fascinated by his own entrance into the story. Nothing was explained per se, but Tetsudai was not without his native reason, and slowly from the cascade of confusion he began to grasp a true sense of the quest on which he had inadvertently joined this mysterious agent.
And now the flow of images lapsed, and he found to his intense disorientation that he was gazing at an image on the screen of the dome as he was seeing it through his own eyes, the screen showing the screen, reproduced into infinity, a glowing tunnel that drew him into it. He unbalanced, his gaze wavering, the whole image rocking. Vertigo seized him, forcing his head down as he took one faltering step forward, arms coming up reflexively to stop the fall which never came. To his surprise he felt a hand on his upper arm, steadying him. He looked at it, and a ripple of fear thrilled through him as he saw it was a glossy black, as if some oily trans-dimensional being had reached out of that vertiginous gulf and was about to draw him into its depths. And then relief that bordered on love washed over him as he realized it was just a glove he was looking at, on the hand of a friend, and he looked up into the eyes of Spaxter.
And they were his own eyes as well. It was yet another one of those upendingly disorienting moments; Spaxter had immediately sensed that he had accidentally generated a feedback loop by allowing the man's visual signal to reach the screen, and fired down the meld so fast he momentarily reversed the signal -- he was therefore unaware that the effect he had accidentally instigated was in fact far more profound: Dandan for a few seconds experienced the meld sensation firsthand. For a haunting moment the cabby lost the distinction between himself and his companion. He looked through Spaxter's eyes into his own, and saw a man afraid, yet strong, and strangely emboldened in this new weird comradeship. Like an egoless being, as if out of body, he in that instant decided with certainty his new linked fate.
"Uh - " Spaxter began, his meld gear off.
"I - " said Tetsu at the same time.
There was a soft pause.
Dandan straightened slowly and the two stood looking at each other.
"Are - ?" said Spaxter.
"You - " began Tetsu simultaneously.
They smiled. Spaxter nodded, indicating that his friend should speak. And the cabby found himself momentarily speechless. At last he turned and indicated the vehicle.
"Ghost - " he began, and couldn't finish. In that moment he knew that he had no need to speak at all, that if he wanted to his companion could see the shape of his thought in all its convolutions like an exposed translucent brain. A word would have been redundant.
Spaxter had indeed melded in that moment, reflexively trying to break through this little awkward impasse. He saw that thought and marveled.
This man, with nothing clearly to gain, with nothing in his heart but the probability of doom at the end of the journey, was now determined to see this new friend not only to the gate of the Ghost Walk but also to follow him faithfully beyond.
Reviewing from this new perspective the history of his association with the cabby, Spaxter was at a loss to explain this sudden devotion, attributing it at first to some kind of superficial bonding arising out of the extreme psychic destabilization of the beading and subsequent events. Studying the shape of that thought again, however, he was forced to realize that the intensely unpredictable lifestyle of an inner city cab driver had in fact prepared this man extremely well for the entire incident, and that this particular decision was part of a much more lucid pattern of reasoning.
Now Spaxter felt his earlier disquiet. This man hadn't just made some kind of spontaneous, love-struck adrenaline-fuelled decision which he would later regret; he had just intuitively recognized what Spaxter had been sensing all along -- that this absurd little quest, born out of the whimsical curiosity of an idle afternoon, was heading at high velocity directly towards something that somehow had to do with the very fabric of reality itself, and before which the everyday problems of an inner-city worker and a high-tech field operative seemed so insignificant as to hardly warrant thought.
And he smiled at last, giving in with a deep mental sigh to the force that swept him forward, accepting this moment and its fate, and glad beyond measure for the trust and companionship of this new associate, though equally sad for the indeterminate doom he felt sure he had brought upon him. If he could only be so trusting of his own skill and strength as was this man.
Tetsu looked up at him, and his eyes were his own and Spaxter’s were his own and they were smiling, and so he smiled warmly back. In that instant the tension flowed out of them both like rapid hydraulic release, leaving them suddenly loose-limbed and full of contentment to a degree that seemed almost absurdly incongruous. No meld was needed to communicate this common thought, and in a moment they were both completely swept away in the galloping awareness of the utter ludicrousness of the entire situation, the insane vagaries of fate, the strangeness of their union, the madness of their world, of time, of reality... in a moment they could not have even begun to explain why it was they were doubled up together there on the stage of the Shodome, rolling back and forth, heaving with laughter, tears flowing in a mutual paroxysm of joyful release.
To someone watching from the seats they might have been automata, robot players of a Shodome performance where a programming error had accidentally sent the entire happiness quotient allotted for a cast of fifty into only two performers.
Something happened then. Maybe it was something in the meld gear, or perhaps a stray charge inadvertently leaking from Spaxter's glove while he was lost in laughter... More likely it was the dome projection hardware reasserting its internal control after its usurpation by this unfamiliar operator: While they rolled, unaware, abandoned to folly, the screen came alive again above them. Softly the scenes pulsed into life, then dissolved, vastly realistic landscapes out of space and time manifesting in stately majesty then dreamily disintegrating.
Like many lives, lived at once.
In but a minute they were sitting up, there on the floor, gazing quietly at each other. The screen had discreetly subsided its ambient performance, and now they both knew the time had come to assay the next stage of their adventure. In a moment Spaxter had read the details of their intended route from the cabby's resolute thoughts, and they got to their feet. While Tetsu made for the driver door of their parked vehicle, Spaxter again took a moment to interface with the house electronics, this time to ensure that no trace imagery from their use of the system had been captured. Satisfied that this was so he returned to the car and climbed in as the engine thrummed softly to life.
In fact, one image had been absorbed by the Shodome memory, shunted through unknown channels into a backwater circuit of a screen-refresh program. The effect of this chance signal routing was that during all subsequent screenings in that theatre patrons were treated to the subliminal impression, delivered in random nanosecond flashes as often as several dozen times throughout a performance, of a blonde man in black, gazing intensely down upon them from the dome. No one would ever know why, but from that point forward all shows presented there, no matter how innocuous or light-hearted, would leave most viewers pensive and disquieted, and the theater would soon fall into permanent disuse.
In contrast to earlier transits, Dandan eased the vehicle out of the Shodome staging area at a very slow pace. Neither man expected any more sudden attacks from dark vehicles; something clearly told Spaxter that their mysterious pursuers were, for all their obvious powers, still limited in their ability to trace them without the aid of the beads.
In silence the dark tunnels slid by, until they emerged into the relative brightness of the main access road with its occasional pocket of emergency lighting. Dandan kept the vehicle lights low, and where before he had been barreling forward with a large measure of mad abandon, now his entire demeanour had shifted towards caution. Within two minutes he had brought them around the long curving section of road that framed the back limits of the Shodome and turned down what might have once been the garage bay delivery access for one of the large retail outlets in the abandoned complexes at street level. He brought the car smoothly into the bay and then deftly executed a reverse maneuver that slid it into a recess evidently designed as an executive parking space of some kind; the narrow space was outfitted with armoured shielding that effectively hid the car from the rest of the garage.
As they stepped into the hollow echoes of the bay Spaxter melded high and hard, digging with tight focus towards the large grey dock door that Tetsu's thoughts made clear was the very door of the Ghost Walk itself. The large panel was featureless metal, unadorned in any way save for a small lightning bolt symbol about shoulder height and well to the right of centre. It was the kind of symbol normally used to indicate a major power trunk line below the surface of an industrial structure, and was inappropriate on the face of what should have been a light entry barrier to an elevator or storage complex. This one minor idiosyncrasy was enough to confirm for Spaxter that something unusual was definitely going on beyond the barrier.
In addition the meld could pick up only the faint scratchy tracery of half a dozen minds on the other side, which distinctive interference indicated that the door was not only powered in an intensive and unusual way but also seemed to have a level of sensor shielding that Spaxter had only found in high security installations. None of these elements served to reduce his anxiety, but neither did they infer anything metaphysical or extraterrestrial about this place.
The door was on an elevated platform, clearly to accommodate the unloading of large vehicles, and Tetsu headed to a set of stairs recessed in the concrete to one side. Looking left and right, he headed up them, and at the top turned and stopped, surveying the panel cautiously from the new perspective. He looked at Spaxter meaningfully.
Spaxter did not need the meld to know what that look meant. The wave of the cabby's newfound commitment had carried him this far, and washed him right up this set of stairs, but here was as far as his knowledge could take him, and he could no longer be looked to for navigational guidance.
The meld did, however, reveal that Tetsu had one more scrap of knowledge related to Ghost Walk procedure of which he himself was almost unaware. Translating it from the cabby's rustic Japanese it had the singsong character of a children's song, and Spaxter suspected that like many archaic nursery rhymes it was both meaningless and fraught with dread intimations. It seems the memory had just come to Dandan, that he had previously filed it as part of the almost limitless mythology surrounding this thing and of no special significance, but now it had drifted to the surface accompanied by the vague sense that in fact it was the only way to now proceed. "Walk the Ghostwalk," was all it said, "pray for passage."
Spaxter looked again at the door, reached out one gloved hand to electronically caress it, taking care not to touch the surface. In a moment he knew exactly what it was they were facing. This was nothing less than a pressure-lock panel from a FROGPRINCE.
A FROGPRINCE was an exotic military vehicle originally designated as a Free Reconnaissance Armoured Amphibious Personnel Carrier, but sardonically rechristened by the press, for the sake of the more amusingly apropos acronym, as a Free-Ranging Overland Go-anywhere Personnel Reconnaissance Invasive Nuclear-Capable Explorer. In its mobile format it was a high-velocity ground and water craft with sleek aerodynamic housing that could reach speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour over virtually any terrain, carrying almost a thousand tons of equipment or personnel in gyroscopically-gimbaled interior comfort, using retractable glide-blades and low-level thrusters to achieve short "hops" of as much as a kilometer at a time over impassable obstacles. Once it reached its objective, which was presumably a fortified encampment that for some reason or other was inaccessible to standard air assault, the vehicle would anchor itself into the building's most solid foundations ("kiss the princess"), then unfold a towering superstructure of flexible dimensions that had a thousand possible functions from simple assault ladder to chemical cannon to catapult. The design, Sino-Japanese in origin, had proven prohibitively costly for all but the most extravagant corporate armies, and only a handful had been built, receiving considerable public attention as a white elephant weapon that had bankrupted its manufacturers. According to Spaxter's knowledge a FROGPRINCE had only ever been deployed in combat once, quelling a Manilan uprising in an incident that had entered common parlance as synonymous for "overkill".
This door was part of the vehicle's lower surface, an access panel meant to double as effective protection against projectile, beam, and radiation weaponry while in transit, then open explosively to disgorge infantry or robot assault upon landing. Spaxter had recognized it from the telltale electronic fingerprint of the high voltage charge across its surface, a secondary feature designed to both discourage hostile physical contact and channel any static buildup from electromagnetic attack away from the fuel centres -- and incidentally effectively shield from most forms of invasive surveillance. Had he or Tetsu carelessly touched this surface it would likely have been fatal. Clearly there would be no way through by force.
Further quick survey revealed that this had not been a military installation. Someone had salvaged a working panel from one of these vehicles and retrofitted it to this particular task; the edges showed rough patches where the engineering was not perfect, where plasteel caulking matched up surfaces which were misaligned. Still, it was obvious the setup was effectively designed to withstand just about anything short of full military bombardment.
Tetsu looked at his companion, fear and excitement mixing headily in his thoughts.
Spaxter returned the look with an encouraging smile, and was about to return his attention to the problem at hand, when he once again picked up that singsong rhyme, lingering in the background of the cabby's excitation. Pray for passage.
This time it triggered something in him. Once more he reached out his glove cautiously towards the door and began reading the vaporous electronic exudation that radiated from its surface. He started to make his way slowly along the length like a man feeling along a wall for a faint vibration or hot spot. He had just about passed the halfway mark, moving like a shadow along the broad ledge between the door and the drop into the garage, when two things came to him.
There was a change in the force-pattern of the door's field, as if he had encountered an invisible barrier perpendicular to the door proper; and the faint ticklings that in Spaxter's ongoing meld represented the minds of whoever was on the other side of the door suddenly got perceptibly sharper, as if someone had just sat up and taken notice.
He turned to the cabby and waved him urgently over. "Quick!" he whispered, loud enough to set it echoing in the bay. Dandan sprinted the twenty feet that separated them in a quick low crouch that bespoke some kind of martial training, as if he expected to be fired upon at any moment. He stopped close to his friend, eyes wide, holding his breath.
Spaxter leaned close to him and spoke softly but with clear command. "Pray," he said, "right here." And he indicated a place in the air directly in front of him, about a foot away from the surface of the door.
Confusion paralyzed the little man. The order seemed insane, and yet what was there about prayer that seemed so appropriate to him right now? Tetsu Dandan had never considered himself a religious man before this moment.
There was an ominous hissing sound, somewhere above them and beyond the door, like something being charged, or loaded. Spaxter grabbed Tetsu's hands, slapped them palms together, and thrust them into the invisible space he had previously indicated.
The hissing stopped, there was a pause of profound stillness. And now there was a new sound, faintly audible; it seemed to be a musical scale, played on some kind of chimes, slightly mechanical. From one side a thick ratcheting cut into the relative silence like machine gun fire, and Tetsu flinched in reflexive horror. Spaxter only smiled, letting go of the cabby's hands; they stayed where they were, locked in prayer, and Tetsu looked at them as if they were not his own, as if his one hope might lie in their talismanic efficacy.
And then, in a spray of dust and atomized lubricants, the door began to open.