Shadowface



Small Shadowface Front Cover



Shadowface: noun, someone who creates virtual environments;

Shadowface: verb, the act of creating virtual environments.


Already airborne, the flock of hungry Kuugan screamed twice in unison.  Every man aboard the ship mouthed prayers to appease Fendor’s birds.  Every man except Divi, who leaned on his spear-shaft and moved his lips a little in contempt.  It had been a long time since he had fled through the Fendoramon, the twin pillars that guarded the harbor entrance at Tythre, and out into Mengan’s equatorial ocean, beyond the reach of the priests and the chiefs.  He was going to miss being free of all this.

The Kuugan screamed again.

Divi prudently joined the rough-voiced chorus of appeasement.  He didn’t fear the birds, but his shipmates might consider a heretic a suitable sacrifice for their lives.  “Great Fendor,” he rumbled, and let the rest of the words trail into the practiced drone of the others.

Hand caressing his spear-shaft, he stared at the once-familiar columns menacing him from what seemed a bare ship-length away, watched sea spray drip from the pitted fangs of the obsidian sea-snakes and make their stony eyes wet-gleaming and watchful.

Torn by opposing forces, the ship shuddered.  There was a fierce eddy here that gripped the keel even as the wind pressed the sails so hard the mast groaned in its foot-block and the rigging shrilled protest.  High-tide foam split and streamed around the pillar bases.  Nearly a hundred men had died to place the Fendoramon’s massive foundation stones in their sockets on the sea bed.

The Gate marked the only safe channel.

The sails quivered in a flaw in the wind, and Sea-Swan wallowed in the ko-littered water, sucked an arms-length nearer to disaster.  Divi shivered and pulled his cloak closer against the wind-lashed, stinging froth, listening to the steady, reassuring beat of the oar-master’s hammer.  The wind behind them and a fine crew, only a moment or two more and the ship would be safe—

The sails bellied full, and the bows rose out of the trough.  The oarsmen shouted in triumph, “Fendor!” and gray-winged Kuugan dropped screaming to the pillar-tops, disappointed in their hope of man-flesh.

Divi turned his head to look again at the Gate.

Jewel of the Enduring Sea, the Fendoramon.  Carved with Fendor’s twining serpents an age ago, now storm-battered old and rough, pocked with purple and black shellfish, green with weed, the Gate of Storms was still one of the wonders of Mengan.  People came tens of tens of days on pilgrimage to win the sea-god’s good graces by passing through his Gate.

Momentarily forgetful of appearances, Divi frowned.  If he could have escaped being here, he would have.  Every time he had entered Tythre’s harbor he had been drawn into trouble: the Jost were quarrelsome, the fat priests eager for money, and the informers—

Divi smoothed his brow.

He looked back over his shoulder at the reef-whitened ocean beyond the Gate.  Already he longed for the simple savagery of its tidal surges and fierce currents, the openness of its sparse and trusting people.  Not the subtle trickiness of rich Tythre, city of spying eyes, where all justice was for sale at the whim of the Jost.

Reluctantly, Divi turned his gaze forward, looking, as the others looked, for a glimpse of the city.  He could expect to be the first, for he was standing in the boarding platform above the bow, rising and falling gently with the lift and surge of water in the entrance channel.

The waist-high wicker basket had been much less stable when they were at sea, but he had gone there—often and gratefully—to stand, cloak-wrapped, lost in his own dark thoughts, shivering in the storm winds but safe from prying curiosity.  The ship was crowded with its full complement of crew and pilgrims, and there was little privacy to be had.

Divi was not anxious to explain what drew him to Tythre.

Now, as they prepared to dock, the main deck was swarming with people and heaped with luggage brought out too soon.  The plaited platform was still the only place above decks that was out of the way of the harried crew, and the warrior had to share it with the pilot’s sharp-eyed apprentice.  Divi was unofficial, an intruder, and would have to leave if the spotter asked.

“A riiiight, a right!” cried the boy.

They were approaching the last shrine of Fendor.  The inner harbor had its own gods:  the sea-god must stay within the sound of the sea.  The uncarved natural pillar of his oldest place of worship rose out of the sea-grass, splayed at the tip, like a warning finger—or a rearing snake.

“Hoooo!” yelled the spotter in his shrill young voice.  “Way!  Way there!”  The single-man scull skittered out from under their very bows, its sculler making an explicit gesture that the boy grandly ignored.  In this fine weather and with no other traffic the pilot was letting the boy do the work.

Divi killed a smile in his mustache.

The first shrine of Fendor was nothing but a lichen-covered, wave-worn stone.  The pilgrims below them on the deck might not even notice it.  The Tythrezee made a point of honoring the Oldest, rather than the Gate.  Divi’s nostrils flared as the wind faltered and shifted.  He could smell old blood:  Fendor’s tastes were simple.

Divi had ignored the spotter’s critical, side-long glances as long as he could, now was the time when he must turn his cloak and follow local custom.  It was wise to make a small sacrifice to Fendor when you returned safely from the Enduring Sea.

The shrine’s shadow trailed over him and he shivered.  He fumbled in his waist pouch for his ko, cocked his wrist, flipped the palm-wide, red-stamped hard bread into the water, then, when the boy’s back was turned, spat his defiant real opinion after it.

One last gesture for the true, sky-spanning gods, Kantorn and Naddich.

Along with the other pilgrims, Divi had bought a ko when the pilot boarded them a quarter-watch ago, anxiously pinching each greasy coin as he counted it over.  The wafers were expensive, as much as a night’s lodging, and making them was a nice racket for the Tythrezee, a task given to the celibate old and crippled, that they might earn a living from the pilgrims and not burden the city.

Tythre boasted it had no beggars.

Pilgrims said it beggared everyone who came there.

There were only six zerdemas left in Divi’s pouch.

The ko rose and fell on the waves before the grim, gray snake-stone, once, twice, three times.  Divi wondered if his offering would be refused by the Oldest.  That could cause him trouble if the boy should witness.  At the least, an expensive morning spent in cleansing and instruction.  At the worst—

Divi muttered the obligatory prayer in his beard with sullen fury.  Five, six times the ko rose and fell.  Still it bobbed untouched.  Now he could scarcely see it—with the wind well behind them and rowers eager to dock, they were moving quickly.  Divi’s hand clenched the rail.  Would nothing take the bread?

The three-spined sail of an armored greenfish showed for an instant as it rose to seize the offering, and Divi released his breath.  A warrior-fish.  That was good.  He knew very little of how to read the omens, but the warrior-fish was good for a warrior, he knew that.  He stamped his spear-butt on the floor-lathes in approbation.

“Fortune!” said the cracking voice at his elbow.  Divi nodded, solemn.  The boy grinned back, one city man to another, then pitched his voice lower to bellow the next turn, “A leefft, a left!”  There was a thudding of bare feet as the deck crew hastened to the sails.

Divi’s spittle was long-vanished in sea-froth.

Rigging loosened by the scurrying sailors, the patched brown canvas dropped to the deck to be lashed and secured.  With the wind’s pressure gone, the ship lolled for an instant, but the block-beat changed to a faster rhythm, the rowers increased their stroke, and the ship became handy again, cutting the dirty water of the harbor channel like an obsidian priest’s-knife.

The penetrating thunk, thunk had become more insistent as the deafening roar of surf around the pillars faded.  Divi rubbed his aching temples, then climbed the notched pole ladder down to the foredeck, eyes on the docks they were approaching.  Under the noonday sun the harbor was near-deserted, with only one upright, stiff-legged figure—like a blackened stick dejur-doll—waiting in the blazing light.

Divi would bet that was Chev, stubborn son of a bitch.

The Sea-Swan made the turn into the stone-walled basin reserved for Hartoon shipping, and the deck began to rock irregularly as they were caught in the cross-chop of the enclosed space.  Divi hoped the uneasy motion accounted for the queasy feeling in the pit of his sea-hardened stomach.  He was going to need all his wits about him when he faced Chevann.

Divi cursed silently.  He’d thought he would have a day or two before this confrontation.  Frayed fragments of verse flitted through his mind.  He needed to compose something fresh and striking to distract the man from his anger, to make the Jost Paramount listen to his case.  Now was not the time to stumble and give Chev time to think of past awkwardness.

Not that he would need reminding, thought Divi sourly.  Divi’s last adventure would have galled the Paramount every waking moment since Divi had eluded Jost justice.  Divi frowned at his hand, gripped his spear-shaft tighter.  He must be prepared for anything, even ambush.

It had been a mistake to offend the Paramount.

But it was, after all, only a minor scam, almost a joke, and the girl had come to no harm.  Come willingly enough, for that matter, eager for the greater freedom of the ocean women.  But Chev would not be pleased to hear his sister had become an unmarried, clanless fisherwoman, no matter how elegantly Divi phrased the truth.

The block-beat sounded a tattoo.  The oarsmen dragged their oars to slow the Sea-Swan, lifted them from the water, pulled them inboard.  They glided toward their assigned slot on momentum alone.

The pilot’s boy knew his business.

Divi scanned the approaching dock again.  To his experienced eye, the sweep of bare planks around the Paramount looked too perfectly deserted.  Chevann was completely alone, unaccompanied, without one servant or guard.  Not even a sleeping drunkard or a drowsing dog marred the clean, white new wood.

Divi scratched among the stiff curls on his chin, thinking.

They’d completely rebuilt everything he could see since he’d last been here.  He couldn’t be sure of knowing the ground if he had to fight or flee.  What few workers were in sight on the sea-wall were hauling a cart half-full of burlap-wrapped straw bumpers at a deliberate pace.

You could pack a lot of warriors in that broad, flat bed, behind the bales.

Divi’s right hand restlessly checked the position of the dagger at his hip, his left rocked his spear shaft so the thin thread of sunlight on the edge of his spearhead could show him how perfect its keen edge was—

DEEVEEE.

The vast disembodied voice filled the sky from horizon to horizon and the scene began to fade.  Shit, thought Divi as the gray fog closed around him.  He hated to be interrupted once play had begun, and Chev was fussy about getting everything exactly the way it was when they broke off.

He shuddered, trapped between here and there—

And tumbled back into the reality of the simulator chair’s clammy embrace, the constant unscratchable itch of the contact cap, and the sour taste of his sticky teeth—Divi breathed open-mouthed at exciting moments.

He’d been dumped out.

He automatically slapped the save, then rubbed his hand across his smooth-shaven upper lip, and restored expression to his flaccid face by pouting and grimacing.

It wasn’t the virtual, it was the reality that got you, every time.

The contacts up his nose plucked and pulled at the hairs of his nostrils, and there was a cramp in his right foot—the result of shifting it to an awkward position between the footrest and the chair leg while he was under the sim.  Damn booth was too small.  Loosening the restraint at his waist, Divi reached down and rubbed the agonizing knot, eyes disfocused and ears straining for outside sounds that might tell him why Bechal, the sys-ops, had dumped him out.

He could hear nothing beyond the thin walls of the booth.  There were no alarms, no chatter-call to signal urgent information on the screens, nothing.  Divi shifted uneasily in his seat and frowned.  In a normal alert the air would be filled with mechanical wails and whoops that would tell what had gone wrong and where the crew should report to meet the threat.

Whatever had happened had to be serious.  Although Divi was low in the station’s pecking order, Chevann was the chief administrator.  No one would interrupt his sim game on a whim.  And a simple red light on the board wouldn’t have spooked Bechal into dumping them out.  Even an emergency call for Chev would still have rated a programmed departure from the simulator.

It was not entirely safe to exit so abruptly.

Thinking about what dumping out might have done, Divi’s eyes stung with the sweat dripping off his hair.  He blew a breath out, then mopped his forehead against his sleeve, once, twice, tense, alert for some roar, whistle, screech to overwhelm the brush of skin on cloth.  But there was only the rush of blood in his own ears, the beat of his own heart.

What had happened?

Continuing to cautiously flex his painful foot on its own, Divi put out an inquiring hand and slowly opened the booth’s door the width of his little finger.  Forced through the crack, a draft from the main sys-ops room brushed against his cheeks and brow.  He sniffed it.  Nothing but the antiseptic stench of deodorants.

So it wasn’t a fire or an equipment failure.

Cold air licked his ear as he pressed it to the gap.  He heard the measured clicks and bongs normal to the sim equipment’s working, the constant susurration of the sys-ops center’s heavy-duty ventilator—there were almost a dozen sweating, immobilized people here on some work-shifts—and a murmuring of indecipherable words that, from their pitch, must be Bechal, talking.

To the machines?

No, thought Divi.

While most of the mech handlers personified their machines, gave them names, Bechal never did, never used the official short forms, never used an unnecessary word to the voder, never ascribed any emotion to an AI.  A mech was a mech and Bechal made a point of keeping that clear.  There should be no expectation of extra effort in a crisis, no confusion about what to sacrifice in an emergency.

The crew mocked Bechal’s rigidity behind her back, but her judgment was respected.  Machines had been destroyed on her shifts, but none of the mech handlers had ever been injured or incapacitated, let alone died, while in her care.  Her success was almost enough to inspire faith in the company rules she followed so rigidly.

As for talking to herself:  not likely.

Divi shook his head, and scratched his ass—numb from sitting still.  He could feel the striations of the sensee fibers in his sim-suit printed on his itching backside.  All the time people spent in these booths, you’d think the damn seats would be padded.

Bechal wouldn’t talk to herself.

When Divi was, finally, officially allowed to board 10-10, he’d switched off the unneeded trundler that was waiting for him, dumped his hand-sack of clothes in his barren quarters, and reported for duty immediately.  The trip up had been cold and cramped, and after finding his way through the long corridors from the main lock to the residence section, he was already depressed by the gray uniformity of the station.  Five years in this dump!  Not a eighth of a shift on board, and he had been eager to snap into the virtual and escape.

It was main day, Bechal’s shift, and when Divi opened the door into sys-ops and saw her, his first thought had been how beautiful the well-proportioned oval of her face was.  His second was how badly it was spoiled by the tight-clenched jaw—lips thinned unbecomingly, bitter marks drawn in her cheeks.  Seeing the tension in her, Divi had lost interest immediately.

He was old enough that his tastes were sharply defined.  He made an unspoken bargain with each new companion that he expected to keep his problems to himself, and she must, too.  Whenever a woman wanted to either give or receive greater intimacy, support, whatever, Divi freed himself, moved on to someone else.

His longest relationship had been his six months with Kattya on CE 10-3.

Kattyamanan was a clever woman, who could look pretty when well-dressed.  She was also a harsh, practical bureau, with the experience to look deeper into Divi than most.  Whatever she saw, she left it unmentioned and untouched.  At the time, young enough that he could not yet defend his privacy skillfully, Divi had been grateful.

Older now, he was not always so sure Kattya had been kind.

Once in a while Divi still wondered, if he’d had a little more polish, if she’d had a little more time, whether she would have taken him with her on her transfer to Tau Theta VI.  But he was young and crude and she was required to leave immediately for her new post.  Kattyamanan had left him with a good bonus, but without a second thought.

Bewildered by his change of fortunes, Divi had snapped into a totally supported sensory at the most expensive pleasure house on Kaikan, and tried everything they could offer, gorging himself on their reality virtuals.  A week later all he had left were memories.

And useful experience.  He could have become a real showpiece.  He was already good-looking, discreet, and even, for a personal entertainer, well-educated.  But he hadn’t yet learned how to handle money, or how to be gracefully dependent.  That made him a potential embarrassment—so once Kattya had dropped him, none of the other bright young execs on 10-3 would take him on.

He had started scamming a bit, risky little business deals for a handful of this, two k’s of that.  He was always collecting money to pay off someone, while he stalled someone else, and looked for yet a third someone to invest.  He hadn’t really minded the rough hustle, even though he became lean and hungry and secretive.  Divi wanted to be the one in control, and working for himself, he was.

Anyway, when he had walked into the sys-ops, and Bechal’s tight face said secrets, he knew she wasn’t a prospective companion.  Off-limits right from the start.

They got on well enough.  Their jobs demanded it, and running a virtual had a camaraderie of its own.  Handling machine dreams built a bond that couldn’t be explained to the reality-bound.  You believed, absolutely, in the sim, and, at the one and the same moment, knew it was an illusion.  Start talking about it to someone who hadn’t experienced it, and you sounded frazzled.

After a year on 10-10, Divi was glad the Ice Lady was close-mouthed, that she wouldn’t reveal anything that she hadn’t thought about twice.  It was impossible to supervise people in the virtuals without knowing the smells in their noses, the tastes on their tongues, the rumble of food in their guts.

If someone did creative work, as Divi did, the shadowy undergrowth of the unconscious mind was exposed, too.  He could never feel self-conscious by merely taking off his clothes before Bechal:  she could see him nakeder than that any working shift.

So, given, Bechal never chattered, but she was talking aloud.

Someone must be here.

Who, thought Divi.

When the system was on, no one other than the sys-ops was supposed to be here.  Everyone else was either snapped into the sim, or in the prep and clean-up area.  That was the rule and, unlike some other official regs on this frontier station, it was rigidly enforced.  Bechal would never tolerate an unauthorized person conversing while she worked.

Chevann, the only one who might have made her violate Carter-Ermeril standing orders, had been visible in the virtual when Divi was dumped out, should still be as intertwined with leads and sensors as Divi was himself.  Was probably incapable of motion, shocked by the sudden transition, if he was all right.

Divi moved his shoulders uncomfortably, thoughts drawn unwillingly to the alternative.  If the booth equipment crashed while you were under stimulus, you would be trapped in sensory chaos, your mind permanently frazzled.  Dumping stressed the sim systems to the max.

Divi shuddered again, chilled by his cooling sweat.

In sensory chaos, mind-static, your senses sent random messages of unrelated smells and sounds, tastes and touches that your brain struggled to assemble into phantom coherent patterns.

If you were lucky, your sight was left to tell you that what you felt was not now, and never again would be, real, that you were forever distanced from the real world, and unable to enter the virtual again.  But you could feed and clean and clothe yourself, even do simple labor in a controlled environment.

If you were unlucky, you were trapped without contact with reality, forever.

Everyone was required to undergo a synthesized, diluted, controlled sim of sensory chaos before they were licensed to handle any simulator equipment.  As a sys-ops, Bechal would undergo some new variation of mind static every time she was re-accredited.

Divi’s first experience had been near the end of his training as virtual villain.

He had been building a simple synthetic space—green grass, blue sky, yellow sun, very generic—when the sys-ops plugged in a distorter without warning, and everything—

Changed.

The grass above his feet was silver-gray and bristling, the sky a desolate mauve, and the sun a dim purple dot like nothing found in nature.

He shuffled his feet, once, to make sure he wasn’t going to drop headfirst forever, and grinned.  It was attractive, in a nonsensical way, like the virtuals kids played in to prepare them for unusual environments—low-g, gas worlds, hot basin work.

Nothing scary about it.

He opened his mouth to laugh, and coughed and gagged.  The air had become as thick as syrup.  He made a hoarse, ratcheting sound, trying to clear his lungs.  He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t—

The sys-ops switched the distorter out.

And once again Divi was standing on the green grass he had been assigned to create, breathing freely.

He had been—surprised.  The drowning sensation wouldn’t have gotten him if the sys-ops had given him time to start the calming exercises.  If that was sensory chaos, he could get used to it.  You could make it a nice trip, if you could pick your—

The operator switched him in again.

He tried to orientate himself, open his eyes, but his eyes were open.  He was in free fall, in absolute darkness, and naked.  Not just without clothing, or even without skin, but completely without the filtering protection of his senses, snapped in to the world as it was.  He could—taste—the sensations sleeting through him, sweet and sour, gusting to sharp and nasty.

The darkness he floated in began to form acrid curls and coils, loosely filling the space around him.  Alarmed, he tried to move away, and found himself held in place.  Even as he tried to escape, he felt the loops begin to grow rough with bitter strands that bound him still more tightly in position.  When he felt those begin to pimple, he panicked.  There was no room.  No room!  The space around him filling with ever finer structures of unreality, mouthless, Divi screamed.

And was lying on his generic green turf under the yellow sun in the blue sky with a voder slowly repeating the request that he count, slowly, down from one hundred.

Having gotten a high enough stress reading, the sys-ops had switched the distorter off.  The whole experience had taken seven seconds.

Divi lay there in the normal sim, shaking with relief, telling himself he was chagrined that he hadn’t understood the voder, and that he hadn’t managed to say even one number, that he was annoyed that he had only reached the second level, that he was embarrassed by how foolish he’d been not to take charge of the situation when there were ten considered to be perfectly safe and dozens of slightly riskier ones in frequent use by instructors:  anything other than acknowledge he’d been scared out of his skull.

Gasping, he lay on his rough sketch of grass.  The sys-ops’ booming voice demanded that he speak.  In a voice gone high even in simulation, Divi said, “That was quite interesting, really,” as if he were a guest at a rather dull party, reassuring a nervous host.

She was polite enough to switch off her laughter.

When she’d released him from the sim, the sys-ops was careful to explain with bored precision that he would never be expected to endure another test without a direct order from a supervisor and his own consent.  “Occasionally, impressing the gravity of the warning is considered to make some risk worthwhile, for those seeking more responsible positions, but they are fully briefed on what they may experience in order that—”

Then and there Divi swore to himself that he’d never aspire to being a systems operator.  Bechal, Divi knew, would have experienced the full range, well into the danger zone.

All fully-trained sys-ops were very careful.

Bechal was fanatic.

Not everyone could handle the threat implicit in the experience.  Some of people in Divi’s training class wouldn’t even re-enter the sim after the warning simulation, even though it meant losing all of the credits, status, and security their new skill might have brought them.

Several who shattered under the strain of the warning were future execs, but they, at least, resumed something like normal lives when their haunted dreams and flashbacks ended.  Although they could never enter a virtual again, a mid-level bureau or exec could function without ever snapping in.

Of the droppers compelled by company statute to take the training, the two who had shattered were dead.  Spazz splashed them before the first week was out.  What would you  expect, was the general mutter among the other trainees.  Droppers were nonproductive, untrainable trash, no matter what the aptitude tests said.

And uncertified trainees were not the only ones terrified by the touch of mind-static.  Divi remembered seeing Karst emerge from the his booth, drooling, eyes jerking around in their sockets to follow something unseeable, cringing from the touch of something impalpable.  It was only a sensor failure and he was, basically, unharmed, but he was never able to make himself enter a virtual again.

Until that moment, Karst had been Divi’s instructor.

Divi shivered, straightened, reminded himself that he was all right.  It was bad luck to think about such things, spoiled your nerve.  His present problem was in the reality.  He must find out what was going on.

He tilted his head to the gap, licked his lips, and left his mouth ajar, tongue tip in one corner, straining to sort individual words from the general muted rush of sound.  His brows contracted in concentration even as his free hand resumed soothing his foot.  It was Bechal talking, but he still couldn’t make out what she was saying.

“—into normal distributions averaged against long-term expectations—”  Bechal must have turned around or moved so some quirk of the room’s acoustics sent her voice to him, for now Divi could hear her clearly.  So clearly that he wondered if she could see the darker line along the door’s barely-open edge and knew he was listening?

Hidden in the warm, sweaty darkness of the sim-booth, Divi listened, ear to the opening.  “The colors signify priority of task, from red for the most urgent, through yellow for routine, to green for do-as-time-available—”  His lips parted slowly until he noticed his slack face, closed his mouth and whistled silently, miming dismay at his own confusion.

Why would Bechal be describing how they posted mech schedules?  That was nothing anyone would care about in an emergency.  He licked his lips, half-wished he could spit his annoyance, dropper-style.

While one’s position on the rotas was an obsession of every hog pusher, anyone with mech experience could read them at a glance.  Carter-Ermeril 10-10 wasn’t expecting any refresh personnel.  If they were, Divi would know.  A new arrival was a big, long-anticipated event.  Of the sixteen other people on board, none had needed an explanation of the rota board in years.

And in any case no one was ever sent out so untrained they couldn’t read the schedules.  They hadn’t even done that to Divi, and he was rated a criminal.  Raw meat was usually trained in mech-handling at one of the bigger, better-supplied stations closer to the sun—almost completely self-sustaining habitats that could tolerate some not-immediately-profitable extra bodies.  Stations like Fornost AI, Telurand.  Like CE 10-3, where Divi himself had been trained.

Divi eased the door a trifle wider.

Logically, whoever Bechal was talking to must be off-station and important.  Or perhaps threatening.  Whoever-it-was didn’t know enough about meching in the virtuals to hold the lowest crew job.  An upper-level CE bureau, for example—

Divi almost laughed aloud at the thought.  Shit.  No self-respecting admin would tour this reeking dump, referred to by its inhabitants as “Armpit” when they were in a good mood, and as something more earthy when they were in a bad one.

CE 10-10 was the asshole of the system, and no one came here who didn’t have to.  Even the mandatory inspections were done by rolling, self-powered cams, whose sealed tapes were only shipped to confirm what was bursted over the net.  Downsun they claimed even the cam cans reeked.  It might be true.  The stench of protein processing penetrated every crevice of the station.  CE 10-10 stank, all the time, everywhere.

Divi rubbed his hand down his face and wondered who the hell was out there.  He had expected to hear the unknown’s voice at any moment, and be able to guess at least sex, age and origin, but the visitor—if there was one—was letting Bechal run on and on.  Divi waited, one hand on the door’s edge, ready to close it, the other still busy massaging his foot.  He was in clear violation of standing orders.

Slow minutes passed as the sys-ops soloed with elementary explanations, and silence clogged the pauses.  “Initial position in the rota is established by entering new personnel in the first available slot, in alphabetical order, if there is more than one—”  Her voice trailed off, waiting.

Divi waited too.  There was no response.

Bechal continued.  “The rota is constantly updated for every point of the station.  Anyone can be located at any time.  We maintain a constant-readiness surface watch on Gantre II through the main sys-ops cameras.  These figures here show the percentage of perceived surface change.  The display highlights the same information in false color—”

Listening, an angry pulse began hammering in Divi’s ears.  Something was wrong.  Bechal had dumped him out.  So why wasn’t she here checking on his condition, updating him?  He could be trapped under burned-out contacts, dying of sys-shock, in urgent need of attention.  And what about Chevann?  Chev should have been dumped from the sim when Divi was.  He’d had time to get out.  If he hadn’t freed himself, he needed help—unless he too were listening.

You are in violation of standing orders, the voice in the back of his mind reminded him with authoritative persistence.  Divi knotted his shaking hands into fists, bit his lip again, still unwilling to reveal himself.

Bechal’s voice had trailed off again.  When she resumed, her voice had gone up a half-tone.  “In the event of an unpredicted bloom, we can switch the harvesting grid coordinates to obtain optimal results?”  Her voice went unexpectedly high.  “I, ah.”  Bechal took a grip on herself.  “As you can see, it’s a very simple system, really.  If you have any questions—”  Her voice faded querulously.

Still no response, unless there was some unseen gesture.

But there was someone there, Divi was sure of that, and that something was very wrong.  He pressed the console top with his damp palm, watched the counter smear.  The sys-ops booths were so heavily used that they were seldom unoccupied long enough for their cleaning systems to cycle completely.  Disgusted, Divi rubbed his hands together, watched the dirt pill.

Bechal was a cool professional, not the nervous twitch he was hearing now.  She held everyone’s life and sanity in her hands every time they meched.  Throwing Bechal off-pace while she was supervising threatened everyone who was in the sims.

Divi picked bits of muck from his fingers and listened.  “‘It is the sys-ops’ responsibility to maintain readiness at all times.  Machine intelligences are never an acceptable substitute for an alert watch officer—’”  Bechal coughed and hastened on, self-consciously quoting some lesson from basic, “‘—may be supplemented by displays as needed.  At no time—’”

Divi’s hands stopped their restless motions at the grate of hard-soled shoes on the safety-roughed flooring.  The station staff all worn flexees—to reduce the wear, and give their feet freedom to grip the rungs and railings of the work spaces.  That sound confirmed that there was someone from off-station here.  Not a gunzo, a gunzo wouldn’t bother with this nonsense.  Divi would bet it was a downsun.

He snapped a fleck of dirt at the wall, where it stuck among a hundred others, then his eyes narrowed at his sudden angry insight why he was so sure the unknown must be from one of the stations closer in.  Shit.  He was getting soft.  The sys-ops was being chilled.

Bechal was assuming that if her listener didn’t respond, he didn’t understand, and she must not have explained it well, so she was going back to first principles, the simplest lessons.  But whoever she was talking to was deliberately trying to get her off-balance by not reacting.  There was nothing she could say that would win a reply.

Divi resumed pilling smeared dirt in short, angry strokes.  A chill would have been nothing but a pointless bit of nastiness if Bechal were not being distracted from supervising the vulnerable bodies in the sim.  The crew would consider diverting a sys-ops’ attention more than criminal.

Divi tensed and leaned toward the crack to listen as Bechal broke off, stammering in her confusion, “I’m.  Suh, sah, sahhrry if it’s not clear—”  The apology trailed off, thin and awkward and undeserved.

Divi found himself gripping the door edge so hard it was near cutting his fingertips.  Surely Bechal would catch on in a moment.  She was not stupid about people—just vulnerable because she was trained to help.  In any case, her eyes should be on the displays, not on whoever was making her give this geared-for-a-moron briefing.  There were too many things that could go wrong in the virtual.  Pain shot up his forearm and Divi released his grip.  No point in hurting himself.

There was still no sound from the visitor.

Whatever Bechal said next was indistinct.  Perhaps she had turned away again.  Or perhaps she ran out of coherent words to plug the silence.  Divi’s lips curled in noiseless anger.  Whoever was putting the Bechal off-balance for his—or her—amusement had a reckless disregard of the consequences.  Or was a damn fool.

Downsun you learned to frost a chiller fast enough.  But harassing the sys-ops—belatedly, Divi realized why Bechal had dumped him out.  Get the people in sim safe.  That would be her first reaction if she was too distracted to supervise the work crew and the expanding two-person simulation properly.  Bechal went by the book, and the book said, everybody out of the virtuals if there wasn’t an attentive sys-ops present.

Even if you had to dump.

Ear pressed to the opening, Divi strained to pick up any further hint of what was going on.  He could hear nothing but the ambient noise level, the unending mutter of the machines.  He sat back and mopped his face again, annoyed by the intertwining sensor leads.  He sighed deeply, then froze, afraid he might have been heard.

This was a situation, and even though he was the least experienced of all the crew, he would be expected to act.  Life here had its own strict, if unofficial, rules, quite different from the drops of 10-3.  You served the interests of the group.

Divi tensed at the memory of angry eyes, safe behind faceplates while he stood bare-ass, threatened by a gloved hand on the open-hatch switch.  He was pretty sure, now that he’d been here a while, that they wouldn’t have actually blown the lock.

Pretty sure.

He never intended to find out.



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Shadowface is available from Amazon.

Copyright 2016 Catherine Mintz. All rights reserved.


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