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Chapter 12

It was such a simple, yet effective technique, that Spaxter saluted in his thoughts whatever innovative engineer had made this application. There were such things as free-scanning palm access doors (often used in conjunction with facial recognition or other identification technologies) where the hand was simply raised to the appropriate position as the person walked through the active zone -- the security point could therefore be an invisible wall positioned anywhere along a connecting corridor, for example -- but as far as Spaxter knew no one had ever modified the concept to this unique design. And it worked so well to their purpose; a potential Ghostwalker was told to simply go the middle of the door and pray for entry. At the right position they broke the detection beam, alerting the security equipment; if the beam then scanned any two hands together the door would open. It was just unusual enough that it was unlikely someone would guess it, and he hated to think what would happen to the individual who didn't produce the prerequisite gesture.


Quickly perusing the concrete below and behind him Spaxter saw no evidence of blood, fire, or projectile damage, but there was a slightly unusual quality to the air. He strongly suspected that the method of choice for eliminating unwanted visitors was gas. Something else came to him now. This door was not new, and the palm-prayer equipment might have been a cutting-edge innovation a decade ago but was now merely clever. He realized suddenly what was bothering him -- the bare tickles of mental activity he had read through the panel were sluggish, low-level signals, not the crystalline traceries of the criminal masterminds he would have associated with this hardware, or the Ghost Walk.


And now the door was swinging free, snapping out of its electrical seal, and Spaxter moved into a reflexive defensive posture, legs slightly flexed for quick flight, gloved hand open, rasper charged, cape in full combat flare. He full-fired the meld and hastily reviewed the minds beyond the moving portal. And instantly relaxed, with a certain amount of puzzlement.


The room seemed to be peopled with buffoons.


The door swung straight up and inward on an arc that seemed shorter and quicker than possible for something of its immense bulk, revealing a shadowy interior space made up of six adjoined and individually lit work areas of different sizes, each occupied by a larger-than-average Japanese at a computer station or control array. Immediately Spaxter identified these as lower echelon Yakuza goons, each wearing the lumpy grey armoured body suits of modern gangland infantry, their hair worn past the shoulder in haphazard ringlets, several sporting asymmetrical facial hair that was probably prosthetic. They seemed universally unconcerned at their arrival. Most turned to observe them briefly before returning to whatever they were doing; Spaxter noted that two were watching entertainment channels, one was manipulating a complex game grid on a large glowing display panel, two were clearly wired into some kind of drug feed.


Spaxter read the mood of his partner where the cabby quietly shadowed him, breathing shallowly, and found him tense but alert, excited and frightened in equal measure. The nearest Yakuza performed a smooth swivel from where he had been sitting with his back to their approach. Spaxter instantly pegged him as security, not the least because his station featured a large viewscreen broken into at least a hundred smaller views of cycling camera feeds from which he had probably observed their entire approach. For the most part, he realized, had this man been watching, their journey through the underground would have appeared exactly the kind of flight from authority that this place was designed to enhance. But Spaxter wondered what the man might have observed while they were at the Shodome, and what he made of it.


A quick focused meld ascertained that the man was no more concerned about them than if they had been there to mop the floor. His name was Aya, and he had just sunk more than he could afford into a geomagnetic underwater racer, and hoped that the winnings from tonight’s proposed BioPachinko session would be large enough to cover the first payment. But Spaxter also read the lightning speed of the man in his easy turn, saw the folds and shadows of his grey jumpsuit where weapons nestled, and knew that if anything in the next few moments cast even a shade of suspicion upon the situation this man's warrior training would take over, immediately and effectively. But nothing in this mind gave Spaxter the slightest clue as to what he should do now.


In a reflexive defensive move the Yakuza stopped swivelling while he was sideways to where they stood, presenting the smallest target, with one arm hidden. He casually sized them up. Spaxter's rasper thrummed softly, in full prime, and the gloved hand twitched imperceptibly.


And now Spaxter dug, risking the heartbeat delay and more to find a code phrase or password lurking in the memory, or something that would buy him time. All he got, as another second ticked by and the somnambulant warrior began slowly stirring to alertness, was that if he didn't say something very quickly he would probably have to kill every one of them. And it didn't seem to matter what he said...!


"Shizuoka" he said, with a slight rasp, as if the delay had been caused by dryness in the throat or a breathing difficulty, and not by any doubt in the process itself. The Yakuza exhaled softly, once more utterly unconcerned, and turned back to his console, repeating the word under his breath as he did so for the benefit of his throat-mic link. Spaxter dug again for any clue as to what his next action should be.


Beyond the cluster of cubicles was a large open space featureless save for a large ceiling light that created a focused target of concentric circles on the floor, a shining three-foot bull's-eye at the centre. Even Tetsu knew without thinking that this could only be the launch-pad for the Ghost Walk itself, and where they should now proceed. But was there some preparation first? Was special equipment involved? The security man's thoughts yielded nothing but gambling fantasies laid over what was probably direct-feed military training, all of it slightly twisted by a deeply repressed, and dizzyingly cruel incidence of childhood incest. Apparently all he was supposed to do was repeat whatever the prospective walker said to him... and that was it. How could it be so simple?


Suddenly one of the other men turned, one of those in a drug feed, but not towards them. He turned for a better view of the circle of light. Spaxter flashed his meld at him in the instant, and there experienced, in a kind of dreamy liquidy haze, the man's memory of the last person who had used this service. It was a very little man, of indeterminate race, wearing a badly abused microfiber suit and clutching a bulging bubble-case to his chest. From what he could tell from this twisted recollection the little man had done no more than walk to the centre of the lighted area and disappear.


So Spaxter strode forward, his companion jumping to keep up. As they approached the light he noted several others turning to prepare for the departure, and he reflected on what it must be like for these men, their long hours and days of inaction, punctuated occasionally with these extraordinary moments of hyper-unreality as total strangers walked into the light and ceased to be. Eye pods were coming off, drug feeds tweaked. It was showtime...


As they entered the light Spaxter pored over the room, looking for any sign of a mechanism or device that could account for what apparently was about to happen. Except for a slight irregularity in the woven-graphite flooring just below the light the space was empty and featureless. By the time they had reached the bright centre Spaxter's anxiety had bloomed, and now the meld was revving at saturation levels, sweeping the room, soaking into the gaping goons and pulling from each a body of knowledge and subtlety of character that they themselves could hardly have dreamed of. And then...


It was a sensation unknown to even the most exotic of dreamers, a feeling fully outside human knowing, as if time and space were reflected in a sheet of mylared rubber, and unseen hands had taken the corners and pulled, twisting. Everything slowed and flowed and layered upon itself. The room morphed, instantly, yet infinitely slowly. It was growing, larger, becoming rich in potential, dense with technology. The goons were changing too, becoming smarter, or stronger and better armed.


And through the port of the meld, somehow standing out against the chaos of this time-twisted transformation, came a signal that Spaxter knew at once originated in a very sophisticated and high-powered mind-scanning array, equivalent to his own, and focused on their position. And Spaxter's meld matched it, broad-banding the shifting scene through its slow-motion outflow. The fluxing background resolved itself into a cavernous laboratory, bristling with equipment and peopled with an uneasy mix of lab-coated scientists of prodigious intelligence and dark assassins with impossibly grim credentials.


Spaxter grabbed his friend and fell with him to the floor with such force that he winded the man, forcing from him a startled cry of shock and pain. Just as two beams of destructive energy crossed in the space where they had just been standing, ionizing the air with a sizzling snap. As he fell Spaxter fired, catching the nearest assailant with a wide low-energy rasper burst where the man stood steadying a military-class short-range beam weapon across the top of what looked like a cryogenic control platform. He was a squat Caucasian, probably Russian, wearing a black leather trenchcoat over some kind of electrified body armour that probably would have stopped an anti-aircraft round, but proved less than effective against the snaking arcing tendrils of the rasper. A feature of the armour, which would have normally channeled all dangerous electronic weapons effects away from the body and into special heel grounds, actually acted as an efficient capacitor for Spaxter's exotic energy device, and after a second-and-a-half discharged a quivering bolt of electricity directly into the man's spine. His eyes rolled back and he sank silently behind the metal panels against which he'd been leaning.


Before this shot had taken effect Spaxter was twisting, still falling, landing flat on his side in such a way as to minimize the bounce, facing the direction from which the other energy beam had come. This turned out to be a tall muscular Korean in a sleek black shockskin, perched on a platform halfway down the left-hand wall. He was aiming two-handed a large spherical weapon, gyroscopically stabilized, that looked like an underwater spotlight floating before him. He had chosen not to wear the tight black head piece which would have completed his armour, and his exposed face betrayed the shock of the failure of his first, casual, but carefully calculated, shot. He was dropping into a crouch, raising the weapon to find the new sighting, as Spaxter, elbow planted on the deck, fired, palm up.


From this distance he could afford no mercy. The rasper whined. From the outstretched fingers surged a crackling wave of plasma which leapt across the room, expanding to a flat plane of white-hot energy. Spaxter thanked the makers of the shockskins for their uncomfortable helms, since in his one previous encounter with this exotic suit the unidentifiable substance from which it was made had proven to be remarkably impervious to rasper effects. This beam had no such difficulty with the flesh and bone of the exposed neck, however, and in a second the expression on the man's face had gone from the shock of failure to the considerably more profound shock of decapitation.


Now, still prone, and before either of his opponents had fully fallen, Spaxter refocused all power on the meld, blasted his piercing mental gaze deep into the nearest accessible mind. This turned out to be a slight bespectacled Japanese in a rumpled lab coat who was frozen, slack-jawed, behind a low bank of monitors, his knuckles white where he clutched the table at which he had just risen. Spaxter had gotten lucky, for below the ugly patina of this man's momentary fear and insecurity was a neatly ordered library of a mind. Like gazing upon an architectural schematic he absorbed its overall essence in the first moment of perception, then focused reflexively towards those areas most immediately relevant. In one great block he absorbed most of what this man knew about the Ghost Walk... and the remarkable enigma at its core, and beneath him...


Four point seven seconds had elapsed since their arrival.


He rolled to his stomach, gauntleted hand reaching for a barely-discernible seam in the woven metal of the flooring that covered the platform on which they lay – a large circular elevation lit like a theatrical stage. As he found the hidden panel marked by the seam, and popped it open with a deft three-fingered pressurization, one of the scientists leapt to his feet with a cry of alarm. It was a lanky European, both craggy and polished, and with an unmistakable air of authority. He had apparently been occupied in the seconds after the botched assassination with keying something into a sleeve-mounted terminal pad, but halted his programming at the sight of Spaxter's actions. "He's going for the discs!" he yelled, in a clipped English with a heavily aristocratic Austrian accent, then glanced quickly around, verifying in a moment that both the mercenaries in the room were incapacitated. Snapping a key from his neck he reached for a security panel.


Meanwhile two of the remaining four functionaries, young ambitious technicians at stations widely separated and some distance from the platform, had reacted to the short firefight by reaching for their own hand weapons, and would soon be diligently discharging them in Spaxter's general direction. But by now Spaxter had reached into the cavity exposed by the raised panel on the floor of the platform, and extracted a thin flexible sandwich of small metallic discs, gold and silver, that shimmered unnaturally. Barely glancing at these discs he looked for a quick storage solution and settled on slipping them into a thin slit at the wrist of the glove, so that they now rested in the palm next to his skin, under the Gauntlet. Now he had only seconds before he would be under fire again, or the European's key would activate some devastating rain of death upon their position, and he shuffled quickly through the meld data, searching at the edge of panic for the one piece of the puzzle, the magic bullet, the key that would turn this situation OFF.


And he found it.


In the same moment he was rising, gloved palm extended, and calling out, in a deeply resonant voice that filled the stage and rang the vaults of the laboratory: "YOU ARE FORGOTTEN!"


The effect of the code phrase was instantaneous, locking every standing man mid-action. Breathing stopped. Only Tetsu moved, having regained enough awareness to haul himself to his hands and knees, slowly inhaling, only dimly aware of what was transpiring. The scientists waited for the upshot, the followup phrase that would complete the signal and dictate the actions they must take. The "You Are Forgotten" code was a generic alarm bell that indicated a very serious security situation, but they had reason to believe, based on the violence that had marked its inception, that this situation was particularly serious. Now they waited to hear their fate.


In the moment of their anticipation Spaxter had dug again, navigating the maze of the meld data to the one phrase that would best serve his need, and having found it, used it:


"We Are Tectonic," Spaxter intoned, and in the silence of the chamber it had the quality of opera.


"I come in peace."


This latter was like a bomb going off. The tectonic phrase was bad enough. It indicated a total disruption of the global network on which the security of the system depended, probably an information breach at an executive level. But the second phrase meant that this specific location was deeply compromised and they might have only minutes to save themselves. Spaxter's unauthorized arrival, his apparent fore-knowledge of the system's policy in such situations, his competence in dealing with it, and his unhesitating retrieval of the precious (and most secret of all) discs, all indicated to these men that he must be a third-party operative hired by one of the shadow powers of the Ghost Walk organization. So anxious were they to fill in the pieces of this enigma that several even presumed that Spaxter’s use of an unauthorized destination code, “Shizuoka”, which had automatically sent them to this location to be eliminated (and later studied for clues as to what kind of security breach they represented), was in order to test their defense protocols. Whatever his origins, they presumed Spaxter’s next logical action would be to sterilize this location so it would not fall into other hands. A couple even speculated that the hapless cabby, who was just now shakily getting to his feet, was actually a gendarme, a human bomb.


It was an innovative French terrorist/technician that had first devised a way to implant the organically sheathed components of a miniature cobalt nuclear device in the abdominal cavity of a human being, in the first application of this technology succeeding in turning the Arc de Triomphe into the Trou de Defil during a Bastille Day celebration.


If Dandan were a gendarme he was probably an unsuspecting dupe, promised a large sum for what he would have been led to believe was a standard smuggling operation carrying currency or data in a surgically implanted stomach pouch. In this situation Spaxter would probably just kill him and leave, let the remote signal or isotope timer or cortical activity deadman's switch or whatever fuse it used set the bomb off after he was far away, transforming this building and part of the surrounding block into a ragged radioactive hole.


And these men had no intention of being anywhere near the place.


A compromise of the location did not necessarily mean they had been made. None of them had full knowledge of the true identity of any other, none had knowledge of the Ghost Walk beyond their immediate responsibilities, and they had reason to believe that the system sterilization procedure of which Spaxter was a probable part was even now eradicating all record of their involvement. They would slip back into their alternate lives and try to forget that this place had ever existed, already made considerably wealthier by their involvement to date.


In four seconds Spaxter and Tetsu were the only two conscious people in the room.