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Chapter 13

Tetsu was sitting on the platform, glazed-eyed, loose-limbed and slack-jawed, like a 3-month-old contemplating a bowel movement. Spaxter was in motion, leaping off to the lab floor and instantly heading for the station at which the European had been sitting. Once there, the largest of several active monitors verified Spaxter's assumption that the man had reflexively triggered an emergency shutdown procedure that was busy eradicating all files on all systems.


Spaxter slapped the Gauntlet on an input pad and risked a rather drastic high-power broad-key incursion. Without benefit of any advance probing the glove encountered a primary power mismatch and was forced to make microsecond adjustments to avoid massive damage, grounding, at last, the bulk of a fatal feedback surge of excess amperage into the metal frame of the console. A large enough segment of the charge took the more resistive route to ground through Spaxter's arm and body that he jerked like a shaken puppet and experienced a spectacular overload of the Meld. It was like the star burst blackout at the end of a knockout punch, but experienced as from a hundred different points of consciousness, and included cascade firings of sound and image playback clusters that burned into his brain like acid phosphenes.


Something else happened in that moment of which he could not be aware, though its effect on others was considerable. It was actually an extension of something begun when he had first slipped the discs into the glove. Their close proximity to the interior processor membranes of the Gauntlet had immediately begun to generate a symbiotic union between the two technologies. It was something like the effect of the beads on the human brain, but at the same time its exact opposite, expansive instead of restrictive.


The terminal's overload and power burst had been experienced first and most fully at the glove, and the effect on this nascent bond pair was extraordinary.


As Spaxter had discovered, the discs were nodes, energy foci, points on a shifting geometric whole made up of a dozen such power spots, most on this planet, others apparently not. Most were installed as the centrepiece of Ghost Walk stations similar to the one they had first encountered. In the instant of overload the hyper-energized glove/disc pair momentarily co-existed at all the points on this node network.


Those individuals in those other locations that happened at that moment to be looking in the direction of a transport pad witnessed the momentary appearance, floating in the air above the platform, of a disembodied black-gloved hand, bathed in power. It was apparently reaching towards them, perhaps pointing, or beckoning.


Those of the Yakuza who were still lazily gazing at the spot where Spaxter and friend had departed just seconds before witnessed the manifestation of the glove, though only one of those registered it as an actual event, and he dismissed it as an irrelevant system glitch.


An elderly Russian female, a former cosmonaut now serving as a security consultant for the Ghost Walk collective, was pausing in her tour of a Roman installation to gaze upon the spot lit platform and contemplate dreamily on the mystery behind it, when the glove suddenly appeared, reaching towards her. The instantaneous effect was an adrenaline surge that instigated a spontaneous heart arrhythmia. As a backwash of blood flooded her adrenalized brain she was launched headlong into a near-death episode that she would ever after mark (to herself, as she never spoke of it to another person) as her most profound conscious experience, and catalyst for a dramatic series of life-changes.


And there was another witness, not so far away. It was a pensive figure, the same whose unforeseen appearance had so launched these events, and he sat very still at the centre of an illuminated control array at the heart of a spacious artificial cavern, dark in its depths. His irregular monitoring of this affair had filled him with disquiet, and now he studied the incomplete message from a primary ground station with which he was now apparently out of contact. And then his eye was caught by activity at the transport pad that lay seven paces beyond this console. He saw the glove, felt it beckon, and for the first time in his existence knew something akin to human fear.


Spaxter swam back to awareness as from a great gulf of time. As he reconstructed the situation he momentarily mused that his apparent electrocution was some kind of karmic payoff for having blasted the first guard. As his normal vision irised open he became suddenly sure that he was about to be served the same fate he had subsequently dealt to the now-headless Korean, that the first guard had recovered and was at this moment leveling his weapon directly at him. He snapped his arm back and up from the lightly smoking contact pad and tried to master himself enough to engage the rasper.


In the next moment, however, his arm dropped as a dead weight to his side, and with the other he steadied his relaxing body against an equipment stack, exhaling long and slow. Standing in front of him, Tetsu cradled the streamlined black beam weapon from the first mercenary, and grinned. "Now I am one serious mothervector!" he said in a hilariously bad impression of a movie hitman. Spaxter laughed, though an observer might have hardly noticed. They would, however, have seen him draw breath, straighten, and turn his attention again to the monitor in front of him.


And laugh softly again, this time with relief, as he saw that his painful interface had successfully halted the system erasure and he looked to have more than a third of the original material to review. He wondered if he would come up with anything more relevant than had been captured in the tight adrenalin-focused meld with the first scientist.


And then the fundamental urgency of the situation flooded back to him, his anxiety over the fate of his friend now coupled with a dread certainty that his actions in this station had set some very large alarms off at the highest levels of this operation, and they might at any moment be the victims of just such a cataclysmic location sterilization as his appropriated code phrases inferred.


He turned to Tetsu and spoke three syllables in sharp staccato, the tone he knew would communicate no possibility of discussion, that their survival depended on immediate action. "Go. Transport." And then he turned his attention to the console.


And with that part of his mind not occupied with re-establishing contact with the system interface and executing a rapid-fire scan and capture of whatever useful data he could access in the sixty seconds he had arbitrarily decided he could risk, he marveled again at the quality of his companion. The brave cabby acted without hesitation in response to his words, and in seconds had loped to the exit recently used by the defecting staff. He held the weapon one-handed low and behind him, in classic combat concealment.


And then Spaxter's minute began in earnest. The single largest revelation in the great block of unsorted information he had so far absorbed was that even those in this advanced location knew only a fraction of the larger puzzle. Like most great criminal organizations they had ensured that every cell was as effectively isolated from all others as possible, and he had every reason to believe this database would be equally restricted. The initial meld with the scientist would doubtless prove the most profitable source, since it also included that man's personal hypotheses as regarded the source of the Ghost Walk, many of which Spaxter guessed were probably correct.


But Spaxter also knew that he had a special perspective on this situation, some kind of non-physical link to the processes at its heart, by way of his meld-enhanced encounter with the beads and their purveyors. It was as if one part of himself was already deep inside their secret world, and if he could only focus the signal from this remote appendage he would know them inside out.


This awareness allowed him to float through the files with an intuitive fluidity, aided by the earlier scientist meld which he ran as a subroutine and intelligent agent. He wasn't looking for secret files so much as decoding masking language to unearth clues to the larger structure.


And then he knew with certainty that a good piece of his sense of union with the Beaders was now focused in the glove/disc interface, that the discs were not just a passive transport technology but an actual piece of a larger intelligence, like a fragment of a hologram that contains the same information as the whole. There was an independence to them as well, as he could feel that they were somehow actively involved in creating a unique bond with the Gauntlet and through it his Meld, their present intense activity in some measure stimulated by the console overload.


He experienced a moment of concern that this might simply be a more subtle way of gaining primary control of his meld gear and mind... but rejected his anxiety almost immediately. Nothing in his growing union with the discs gave him anything but a feeling of expanding power and confidence, as if he had defeated an enemy scout and taken his superior weapon -- or, better, that he had recruited the scout to his cause. There was some fear in the recognition that this step took him a great deal closer to an actual confrontation with the man in black and his kind, but it was also the first moment he had felt that he might actually be able to do anything once that happened.


There was a subtle shift in his search of the database, as if the discs took over some measure of the pattern recognition process, applying an alien equation that proved far more effective in recognizing the gems of knowledge buried in the banks of routines and protocols and communiqués, then shaping and sorting these pieces. Slowly the puzzle began to fill out.


And then something else started to happen. The disc finding union with the Meld had a dramatic effect, sweeping away a bank of perceptual blocks that were artefacts of Spaxter's beading, like having someone walk into a room in which you had been living for some time and opening a closet you had forgotten was there. There before him was revealed large blocks of the missing time between the blackout on the plane and the wakeup in the Amaterasu. There, also, was the data burst from Tai, completely intact.


He released the interface with the console as if it was a group decision, outcome of an eye-blink meeting held between the discs, his hardware and himself, and then stood there for a heartbeat, marvelling at the cyborganic event that was sweeping like a chemical through his body. He had always been an unnatural man, so deeply welded to his augmenting technology that he was effectively a different species of being, but this new amalgam was another degree of experience, like being suffused with a light and power that brought all parts of the whole into a crystalline union. He was becoming the discs, and they him, each gaining the knowledge and power of the other organism yet independent of it as well.


Sixty-five seconds had elapsed since Tetsu's departure, and now Spaxter turned and sprinted to the door with an intuitive certainty that his friend would be there. Also at the heart of his sudden action was an intense urgency, apparently emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of the disc intelligence, to be elsewhere, fast.


The door was a liquid-loaded thermal slider, indicating that the cover for this operation was some kind of organics laboratory. It was angled in such a way as to reveal to anyone on the street, upon opening, only a non-distinctive reception area. He caught the handle in motion, throwing his weight to send the door sweeping into its recess. He stepped into the street just as Tetsu arrived.


Spaxter already knew where they were, from the very first meld with the scientist. It was Yokohama, a section of the harbourfront that had once been a centre for Japanese fish farming and processing, later protein synthesis with bio-engineered krill. Lately the industry had succumbed to the vegibeef boom, a synthetic meat grown like vast melons in underground fields, and much of this sector of laboratories and warehouses was abandoned.


And Spaxter's heart had sunken as he had realized how difficult it would be to make his way the hundred kilometers through the densest region of Honshu to his friend in Shizuoka. Here he was with an awesome power of transportation literally in the palm of his hand, yet this short transit might well be beyond his capabilities. The discs only communicated with each other, and there was no disc any closer to his destination. And by way of his union with the disc intelligence he knew now without question that the black ship was only seconds away from their present location. His last desperate hope was that the cabby had yet another miracle up his sleeve.


As Tetsu arrived all hope fled. The cabby was on foot, out of breath, weaponless, and clearly in a panic of despair. Spaxter did not need the meld to tell him that these vacant lanes and faceless structures had yielded nothing in the way of speedy escape to even this resourceful native. The meld was busy telling him, by way of the disc, that this time they would not even see the black ship; it would seal their fate by triggering the destruction of the lab before they even knew it had arrived in the vicinity. He knew he had but precious seconds to grab Tetsu and use a disc event to take them out of this location. He also knew, more by intuition than anything else, that in so doing he would be losing any chance of saving Tai.


With a pang he lunged towards his comrade, reflexively activating the glove/disc in preparation for immediate ghost walk... and stopped. Tetsu had changed, no longer bowed in defeat. He was straightening, eyes glistening black slits focused on the building they had just left. Spaxter reflexively melded the man, and instantly knew whence came the new-found hope. Before he had a chance to turn and follow the cabby's purposeful gaze, Tetsu was active, sprinting to the corner of the structure, bending over to inspect the shadowed gap where the metal siding met a ground-level drainage channel. In a few seconds he had extracted the thin spindly frame of a courier's street-luge, commonly known as a smear.


Even with his telepathic insight Spaxter was startled at the brilliance of Tetsu's reasoning, how it was likely such a facility would need speedy and covert message capability, how the kind of street-level courier clan they would probably employ usually liked to have a backup vehicle hidden somewhere near most major clients, and the most likely location for such a stash.


Now the cabby was gingerly unfolding the ultra-light skeleton of the luge, and deploying the cargo sack. The smears were a brilliant piece of adapted technology, using superconducting alloyed struts from the fuel ignition system of a space freighter to channel a focused energy stream from a single brick-sized micro-fusion power source. The rider would lie prone on their back on a minimal body rest, feet leading, and channel the discharge from all ground-facing surfaces of the delicate frame by way of hand and foot controls. The combination of focused thrust, minimal mass, and intimate body control made these easily the fastest and most maneuverable vehicles on the streets.


They were also by far the most dangerous, having earned their nickname the hard way. Officially outlawed, they were yet an accepted reality of inner city finance, and a subject of considerable urban folklore centred around the secretive members of the quasi-mystic "clans" that operated them. The general media referred to these riders as greasers, but those in the cities who actually witnessed the passage of these impossibly fast human/machines had come to refer to them as thoughts. It was rumoured, for example, that the most adept of these riders would enter a transcendental state while in transit, and in this condition would not only be able to slow subjective time and anticipate every obstacle and traffic condition, but actually will themselves and their machines through solid matter.


The courier would carry messages or documents in a code-secured vest pouch, but if a larger parcel were being carried he would deploy a self-inflating light alloy cargo sack that would ride the air currents behind the luge like a silver drone. Tetus looked up from where he was prepping the vehicle. It floated tentatively eight inches above the pavement, thrumming softly. The appended sack drooped behind like the streamlined abdomen of a robotic wasp.


They were seconds from taking desperate flight away from this incipient death zone on a flimsy sliver of high-risk velocity... and Spaxter's heart sank yet again as it came to him that there could be only one logical cargo for which the cabby was now unsealing the silver pod, and he was it.