Gull idled. This was what she lived for, these moments high above Freedom, released from the city’s grasp. Pedalling just fast enough to keep her paracycle in the air, she circled and ignored the stall light fluttering orange on its console. The city span slowly around her, but Gull was not part of it.
Even here where the black towers of the corporations pressed against the dome’s sharply sloping roof, she could glimpse The Elle through the city’s artificial canyons. The needle at the heart of Freedom rose from Rhaeticus’s floor to the dome’s roof. Close up it was too large to comprehend, it was overwhelming, but from out here, on the edge, it seemed slender and graceful.
Lifting off her goggles, she twisted her head and stretched to look upwards to the point where The Elle met the top of the dome and passed through. It glowed, sunlight reflecting off its smooth white walls, throwing light into the shadows between the towers. It lifted Gull’s heart. The Elle was the only way out of Freedom. The Elle was escape.
Charlie’s plink-plink chime dragged Gull’s attention back to business. Confirmation had been received. Gull looked down and saw the delivery platform lowering, like an ancient drawbridge, below her. She pushed forward and the paracycle’s nose dipped.
Charlie’s carbon-fibre skeleton groaned softly as they picked up speed. Gull smiled, patting the cycle’s side. Charlie could take it. Gull pedalled harder into the dive, struts straining as she pushed closer to the cycle’s limits.
The wind ripped at her clothing and slapped at her cheeks. Gull’s smile broadened and curled, suddenly reckless, at one corner. She loved to fly. At her back the propeller blurred, its whine all but lost as the wind whipped at her and roared away.
Gull came in fast and tight, pointing Charlie’s nose directly at the landing platform. A warning sounded but she slapped the manual override. At the last possible moment, when it seemed certain she would dash herself against the platform, she yanked back on the stick all her might, hauling Charlie’s nose up and slapping him down hard on to the landing platform. The paracycle bounced once then twice – long, looping and languid in the Moon’s low gravity – then began skidding towards the edge of the platform and a three hundred metre drop. Gull leant against the stick, bringing Charlie’s nose round, bleeding speed, letting the tail slide out until it seemed certain the little glider would topple over the edge. Then she flicked on the magnetic anchor.
The paracycle juddered to a halt slamming Gull forward against her harness then back into her seat.
Gull leant back, dragged her goggles off over her shaven scalp, and pushed back the sweat from her forehead with both palms. The only sound was the soft whine of the paracycle’s propeller, still spinning freely. She patted the frame of the paracycle.
“Good boy, Charlie.”
She reached back and grabbed the parcel, popped the console from its docking port and stepped between Charlie’s carbon fibre ribs onto the landing platform.
The guards were obviously groundhogs. They were clumsy and squat in a way only those born in high gravity could be. Still wrapped in bulky muscles, they were fresh from Earth.
“Do you have a death wish?” One of the guards bounced awkwardly towards Gull. He cradled his rifle in one arm – like a pet. It was a sleek, black M10 and Gull’s opinion of the guard dropped even further. The M10 looked impressive but it had a kick like a jackhammer and if the dumb guard ever actually fired the thing on The Moon he’d be flying arse over tit all the way to Copernicus.
“A girl has got to have some fun,” she said, trying to keep the contempt from her voice.
The guard leered, something dirty on the tip of his tongue, but Gull looked into his eyes and met his gaze nervelessly. She dared him. The joke died, dry in his throat.
“Identification?” The guard tried to reassert himself.
She handed him her company ID.
The guard snapped opened the little case.
On one side was a chip containing her biometric details. The guard ignored it. On the right was a credit chip. He scanned the chip and checked the read out.
“One hundred dollars?” There was contempt in his voice.
Gull sighed. She knew this was going to happen. Groundhogs were always the most trouble.
“It’s one hundred dollars for you, one hundred dollars for the next guy, one hundred dollars for everyone. It’s the going rate. Check the market board.”
The guard shook his head. “This is a free market, I can charge what the market will bear.”
“Well, this market will only bear one hundred dollars,” she stepped away from him, lifting her parcel. “And one of your bosses is waiting for this. If you want to go to arbitration, you can explain to him why his package was late. Is that what you want?”
“Okay! ” The guard raised a hand, suddenly smiling. “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”
She could, but she wouldn’t.
“Can I go now,” Gull read the name on the guard’s badge, “Castor?”
“Sure,” he waved her away. “Look after yourself.”
“No one else will.”
It took several moments, but eventually Paitoon was able to open his eyes again. His lips were still making the shapes of a mantra as he tried to calm himself.
A man in a blue uniform was standing in front of him, a sympathetic smile on his face. Paitoon’s head only reached the level of the golden shield emblazoned on his chest. “Freedom Constabulary Inc.” it said.
“Sawatdee-krap,” Paitoon said, performing the wai – placing his hands together at chest height and bowing slightly.
“Constable Hayek, sir,” the man bowed slightly, he had sandy coloured hair and blue eyes. “Do you speak English or should I send for a translator?”
“Pardon,” Paitoon flushed. “No translator necessary. I speak English. My name is Paitoon, Paitoon Chattaponsiri“
The guard looked over his shoulder at the seething mass of people on the station concourse.
“Overwhelming isn’t it?”
“Incredible,” Paitoon nodded, letting his eyes close again for a moment. “I never imagined it could be so huge, so busy…”
“Is this your first time in Freedom?”
“My first time off Earth.”
“I thought so,” Hayek grinned. “You have family here?”
“No. Not yet,” Paitoon looked away. “I have escaped the war. I hope to earn enough to bring my family here soon.”
Constable Hayek nodded slowly.
“You have a job arranged?”
“Not yet, but I’m sure –”
Constable Hayek shook his head.
“Do you have the means to support yourself?” Hayek asked. Paitoon looked at him blankly. “Money? Do you have much money?”
“I spent almost everything I had to get here.”
The constable sighed. “Well then, I’m afraid I must mark you as an indigent migrant. Freedom does not restrict entry, but those who cannot pay for air and water must –”
“But I am a programmer,” Paitoon protested. “I am very good. I earn lots of money in Bangkok. I do good work.”
“How many of these people do you think programmers, Paitoon?” The constable said, shaking his head. “There are no jobs. Without money or a company registration you cannot get insurance. Without insurance you cannot get credit, you cannot rent property, you cannot get work. You will have no status. You would be better to go home.”
“Please…” Tears welled in Paitoon’s eyes. “My family. The war.”
Hayek ran a finger over his chin, thinking.
“I’m not supposed to do this,” the constable said. “But there might be a way. I know some people. It won’t be cheap.”
Paitoon reached into his pocket and showed Hayek a small bundle of credit chips.
The constable nodded and gave Paitoon a card and pointed to the back.
“Give this to a man called Kush at this address,” Hayek turned the card over and tapped it, an animated map sprang to life. “That’s how to get there from here.”
“Thank you very much,” he said, then remembered what the flight attendant had said to the passengers as they left The Elle. “Take care of yourself?”
Hayek laughed, shaking his head. “Look after yourself.”
“Sorry. Very sorry,” Paitoon bowed again. “Look after yourself.”
The constable nodded.
“No one else will.”
Dropping the package off took longer than Gull expected. The wage slave behind the reception desk seemed to have had a lobotomy.
By the time she finished her console was flashing frantically with queries from Buck about where she was and a list of jobs she was to bid for. She sighed and shoved open the door to the landing platform.
The first thing Gull noticed was that the guards were huddled in one corner giggling and scanning chips.
Then she saw her paracycle drop away from the landing pad.
At first she thought they’d turned off the magnetic tether and let the cycle be blown away, but then Charlie turned sharply right, his wings wobbling, and began to gain height. Gull saw a flash of black hair. Then the cycle swished around the edge of the tower and was gone.
“My ‘cycle,” she turned to the guards. “You bastards let someone steal Charlie.”
The guards had straightened up. They weren’t laughing anymore. Their rifles were levelled at Gull’s belly.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Shit!” Gull turned back to the now empty open space of the landing pad. “Bastards!”
“If you don’t have any more business here madam, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask you to leave.” The big guard, Castor, stepped forward. He was grinning.
“I paid you,” Gull said. “We had a contract.”
The guard shook his head and tossed her credit chip back to her. She caught it. It hadn’t been drained.
“It can be very dangerous up here. We wouldn’t want an accident, would we?”
Gull’s shoulders slumped. She nodded. The guards escorted her to the lift.
“Look after yourself,” the guards chorused as the doors slipped closed.
“No one else will,” Gull whispered to herself as she began her journey to The Floor.
“Freedom is a dream.”
Everyone who came to Freedom believed it, at least for a moment.
Clutching his only bag and the card the constable had given him, Paitoon forced his way through the mass of people milling around the elephantine columns at the exit to the Elle station.
He stood before The Monument to the Founders, a slender pile of polished golden chains rising fifty meters above the ground. Each chain was at least as thick as a man’s leg and every link had been burst open.
Beneath the monument was a plaque, ten meters tall, with the proclamation of the three laws.
“Freedom is a dream built by man’s imagination,” it began. Paitoon didn’t need to read the words. He knew them by heart. “The dream will be built on three laws. The market is free. What can be bought, may be sold. Do what you want, and so will I. From these simple rules will flow liberty and justice for all.”
Paitoon stood before those broken chains and thought of his family on Earth and of what he’d given up to get here. His father had told Paitoon not to leave the monastery. He had begged him to keep his promise and complete his three-month’s retreat in the sangha. But the war had come so close and there was no shame in leaving.
Paitoon took a final look at the monument and closed his eyes, offering a prayer that his father and his family would soon see it too.
Gull was pushed out through what felt like an airlock – one small metal door clanging closed behind her before another swung open – and stepped into what appeared to be a busy street market atop a dump.
This was The Floor. Rotting rubbish fluttered in tottering heaps and the stink forced Gull to pause and fight back the urge to puke. Crowds swept this way and that in fast-moving torrents, each eroding its own path through the rubbish. Between the mounds of detritus, market stalls were wedged up against the side of the towers or huddled on eyots in the heart of the flow of people. Some of the stalls sold food, fresh and cooked, some of them sold clothes or electronics or drugs or people. One or two appeared to be trying to sell the rubbish on which they were built.
She had survived down here before, she told herself, and got out. She could do it again. She could feel the comforting weight of Charlie’s console in her jacket. As long as she still had that, she had a link to his transponder and she could find him.
She needed a Mission. She needed The Church of Christ the Entrepreneur.
Kush greeted Paitoon with a broad smile, placed a heavy arm across his shoulders and swept him inside the hostel.
It was not as Paitoon had been expecting.
The ground floor was a busy club. Music thumped loudly, so that the whole room seemed to throb, and a large group of bored looking young men lounged by the bar. Paitoon could make out a few couples leaning close together in dark booths arranged against the wall and on a second level above.
Kush rushed Paitoon through to an elevator.
The elevator pinged and the doors opened onto a narrow corridor, thick red carpet covered the floor and walls.
“I’ll show you your room,” Kush led the way. “And then we can talk about your new job and how you can pay your way.”
Missions weren’t hard to find, signposts were on every corner. But the guys blocking Gull’s path meant that getting through The Mission doors was going to be expensive.
Gull could hold her own in a street fight, if she had to, but she was giving a hundred pounds to even the smallest of these guys. Anyway, the ordinance conspicuously strapped to their hips suggested they didn’t do fistfights.
The biggest guy grinned and held out his hand, palm up. Another groundhog. His skin even still had that brown tint that suggested naked, non-fatal exposure to the sun.
Gull’s mind raced. She couldn’t afford street tax.
The second thug stepped forward, he could have been the first one’s brother, or clone. He let his hand drop to rest on the handle of his pistol.
“Come on! Don’t waste our time.”
The third one held back, at first Gull hadn’t notice him. He was tall and slender and pale. A Lunie, born and bred, Gull reckoned. He had the lean, rat-like face of someone who’d spent too long on The Floor.
“I am looking for escort to The Mission. I cannot pay street tax but I have enough credit to pay one of you the going rate.”
The two groundhogs grinned stupidly at each other, shrugged, reaching for their guns.
“Contract?” The Lunie asked.
“Contract,” Gull replied.
“What?” The first groundhog turned in time to see the butt of the Lunie’s gun catch him flush on the bridge of the nose and drop him, his face a bubbling, bloody mess on the floor. He was trying to scream, a mixture of fury and pain, but his throat was full of his own blood.
As the second groundhog fumbled to drag his gun from its holster he found the sudden blade of a razor-thin knife pressing on his Adam’s apple.
“Drop the gun, Ronnie.” The heavy weapon thudded to the ground. The Lunie nodded at Gull. “Pick it up – and strip Duke as well, before he works out he isn’t dying. Make sure you get the piece in his boot.”
“You better kill me now, you piece of shit,” Ronnie was trying to talk without moving his throat, a trickle of blood was running down the groundhog’s neck.
The Lunie laughed.
“Ronnie, I’m going to take every weapon and credit you have and then I’m going to leave you down here on The Floor. If you pair of witless groundhogs survive long enough to see my face again – and I doubt it – then you’re welcome to do you worst. This lady is not paying me to kill you but, if there’s a next time, I might just do you for free.”
The Lunie kicked out the back of Ronnie’s knees and he collapsed to the ground.
“Thank you,” Gull said.
“No need for thanks as long as you can pay,” the Lunie said, then smiled. “I’m Laslo.”
“I’m Gull,” she looked at the two groundhogs. “What do want to do now?”
“Empty their pockets, then I’m all yours.”
They kept Paitoon awake for six days. Someone would punch him, someone would be nice to him, someone would kick him, someone would feed him. At first he’d been overwhelmed by the horror of it all. He’d cried and begged and promised them anything. But by the sixth day, Paitoon had gone cold. The pain and the misery were still there, but he had become detached. His real self was somewhere else.
The first time they raped him, tying his hands and feet to the legs of a table, he had frozen in horror and disbelief. He’d simply refused to accept that this could be really happening. Later he’d kicked and bit and scratched and screamed, fighting them with every ounce of his strength, to no effect. Finally he’d fallen silent again, numb and beyond the kind of pain they could inflict on his body.
“Will you take the job?” Kush asked him.
Paitoon just nodded. He’d been saying yes almost since the moment the beatings had started. He’d have said anything to get them to stop.
But this time he just nodded.
Kush grabbed a handful of Paitoon’s hair and pulled his head up, staring into Paitoon’s eyes.
“Will you take the job?”
“Yes,” Paitoon’s voice was a whisper.
Kush stared at him for a moment longer then let Paitoon’s head drop. Paitoon heard him leave the room.
Paitoon had said yes a thousand times, but this time Kush seemed satisfied. And Paitoon knew that it was because he meant it now. He’d do whatever they wanted. He should never have left the monastery. It was karma. He knew it.
Kush came back, holding a hypodermic.
“This is Zoom,” Kush said, pressing the needle into Paitoon’s arm. “You’ll like it.”
The world began to dance.
The lay accountant in The Mission had to check with a Brother before he let her access the grid without paying in advance. Gull explained that they’d make no money if her credit was stopped and the Brother smiled sweetly and nodded.
Gull called base and cleared things with Buck. Technical problems, she’d said, and promised to be back on station tomorrow. He bought it. That gave her credit for another day.
Behind her, the Brother coughed politely.
Gull turned. “I need to find a paracycle.”
The Brother bowed slightly.
“There are many paracycle dealers, the nearest –”
“No,” Gull cut him off. “I need to find a particular paracycle. Mine. It’s been stolen. Can you help?”
“I have sworn to help others,” the Brother said, reaching into his robes for a retinal reader, “and make a profit.”
Gull swiped the reader across her eye and keyed in a figure. It was everything she could afford. She handed it back to The Brother. He checked the figure and then showed it to the accountant.
“And I’ll need a taxi.”
“I am certain that the Lord will look favourably on your gift, my child.”
Castor was a regular. He came to the hostel twice a week and, since their first time together, he always asked for Paitoon. Paitoon didn’t mind Castor. He was quick, didn’t talk and always left a generous tip.
This visit started like all the others. Paitoon began to undress, thinking of the money and trying to judge if Kush would think he’d done enough to deserve today’s fix. He could feel the need slithering behind his eyes.
He wanted to zoom.
Paitoon turned and was surprised to see Castor unmoved, sitting on the bed, hands clasped between his knees, staring at the floor.
“I don’t even know your name,” Castor said.
Paitoon closed his eyes. He could cope with the sex, and the beatings, and the humiliation. Zooming helped. He could cope with the violence and the pain. For the times between fixes he’d built a wall in his mind. The things that happened outside the wall happened to someone else, not to him. But he hated the customers who wanted to talk, who behaved as though he was their friend. They chipped away at the wall. They made it all feel real. He hated them.
“I’d like to help you,” Castor said.
Through the window of the hostel room Paitoon could see down a long open canyon between Freedom’s high towers. A flyer bobbed and swooped like a bird.
“Can you get me out of here?” Paitoon said it bitterly, sarcastically. He knew he was trapped. He turned to face Castor. “Can you?”
The big man nodded. “I think so.”
Paitoon paused. That wasn’t what he’d expected.
“Why would you help me?”
Castor looked up, meeting Paitoon’s gaze for the first time. He was a boy.
“I love you,” Castor said very softly.
Paitoon turned back to the window.
“You could live with me,” Castor insisted.
Paitoon turned back.
“I love you too.”
“I knew it,” Castor leapt across the room and grasped Paitoon, pulling him closer. “I knew it!”
Gull had no time for the Church’s religion but she had to concede that they were efficient. Within ten minutes the Brother had returned with a small tracking device and an address.
“Your initial payment covers the use of this device,” he held out the tracker, “for a twenty-four hour period. If, by the end of that period, it has not been returned to a certified representative of The Church of Christ the Entrepreneur you will be charged at these additional rates.”
The Brother held out a pad. She thumbed down through the terms and conditions. The rental rates for the tracker were exorbitant but it didn’t matter. If she didn’t have Charlie back in twenty-four hours, The Church could join the back of the line of creditors who’d be queuing up for a pound of her flesh.
She blinked into the pad and handed it back.
The Brother nodded.
“A taxi has won the bidding for your contract. Are you ready to leave?”
“Tell him I’ll be ready in ten minutes,” Gull said. “There’s one more thing I need to do.”
Stealing the paracycle had been easy. Castor bribed the security crew to get Paitoon into the building and the receptionist to delay the girl while they busted the locks.
Flying the paracycle, though, was altogether more difficult. Paitoon wobbled off the tower’s landing pad easily enough and turned quickly to get out-of-sight, just in case the girl was armed, but almost at once he realised he was dangerously out of his depth.
The little flier was being buffeted back and forth between Freedom’s immense towers. Paitoon was swept back and forth, up and down, on an invisible, violent roller coaster of rocketing updrafts and plummeting downdrafts.
Paitoon gripped the control-stick in two pale-knuckled, sweat-slicked hands, hunched down in his seat, and pedalled harder. He looked down at the computer’s controls and, timidly, twitched the control stick to the left, altering course as instructed.
The console he’d plugged into the paracycle’s computer had been expensive but it was old and not perfectly compatible with these more modern systems. He had, however, been able to create a simple emulator to allow him to get most of the basic functions working. Later he’d reprogram the whole thing.
Suddenly, a slicing crosswind burst from between two towers. It caught the raised wingtip of the paracycle and flipped the flier over, filling the wings like a sail.
All across the computer console lights flashed a frantic red. Paitoon jerked at the control stick. The paracycle refused to respond. It wrenched, twisted and turned. Helpless, Paitoon was thrown about in his harness.
A downdraft ripped at the flier, tossing it, nose down, towards to distant floor. Paitoon felt the wind rip at his face. To one side a silver tower was so close he felt sure that he could reach out and touch it. Looking down, the gap between the tower and its neighbour appeared to narrow. Somewhere, down there, was The Floor. Paitoon closed his eyes. How long will I fall, he wondered.
But after a few moments he felt himself tugged sideways. The console beeped.
The paracyle jerked again.
The flier was levelling off.
The lights on the computer turned green.
Paitoon looked at the console screen. A message was flashing.
“Warning: Do not exceed aircraft tolerances. Emergency recovery procedures in effect.”
For a long moment, Paitoon gawped helplessly. He had not known that was possible. He patted the computer box and began to pedal again.
“Khawp khun, little flier.”
Getting inside had been easy. Gull showed the guards an empty parcel, her company identity and paid them with credit. They waved her through.
Inside, she tried to look like she knew where were she was going. She made confident, but not aggressive, eye contact with each of the groundhogs she met in the corridor. This was a company building. The same company that she’d called at this morning. Someone there had set this whole thing up. One of the guards? They hadn’t seemed smart enough.
She glanced at the tracker again. She was on the right floor. It must be just down that corridor.
Then the signal went dead.
Gull tapped the tracker against her palm.
She reset it, waiting nervously in the narrow corridor, trying to look like she belonged.
She’d have to try every door on the floor and hope that someone recognised her.
Paitoon had finished making all the modifications and was getting ready to leave when the doorbell rang. He checked the room’s security system and saw a messenger girl in the corridor holding a parcel. He opened the door with his hand out, wondering whether Castor had ordered something else that he might be able to sell.
He stood there for a moment, arm extended, wondering why she wasn’t giving him the parcel? He looked up into the girl’s face. She was shaven-headed and had that deathly white shade that marked out real Lunies. They all looked the same to him.
Then the pieces clicked into place. He looked left, to where the paracycle sat folded against the wall and a wave of panic broke over him.
“Yet mang!” Paitoon tried to slam the door but it bounced back off the girl’s foot, jammed into the frame. Paitoon grabbed the door with both hands and tried to force it shut, but the girl slipped her body between the door and the frame.
“I want my cycle,” the girl said softly. “Just give me Charlie.”
Suddenly the pressure on the door increased. Paitoon was driven back across the room, scrabbling to stay on his feet. He crashed with a thud against the far wall. His hand brushed a bag full of Castor’s stuff. His gun was on top, just out of reach.
The girl was standing inside the doorway.
“I just want my ‘cycle,” she said.
Paitoon lunged for the gun.
An insect bit the side of his neck.
No. That was wr-
Gull weighed the stunner in her palm, looking down at the little Asian lying on the floor. She didn’t know enough about Earth to be able to say exactly where he was from, but she was fascinated by how fragile he seemed. He could have been a Lunie.
Gull checked the other rooms. She was cautious but, she reckoned, if there’d been anyone home the sound of the struggle at the door would have brought them running.
Her plan had been to take Charlie and leave, but when Gull saw that little guy had been hacking at the console, she realised she was going to have to wait until he woke up. He’d done something to the systems. She couldn’t make her console fit and she couldn’t fly the paracycle without it. He’d have to fix it.
Finding the bag full of credit chips, a stash of Zoom and a good quality pistol, all the way from earth – worth plenty of credits – had made her pause. That was an extra complication she’d liked. It wasn’t what she’d come for, but she decided she’d deserved the money for what the little guy had put her through. Today had been expensive as well as frustrating.
She propped the bag next to the door. She pushed the little thief up against the sofa on one side of the room and sat in an armchair opposite him, setting the stunner on her knee. Then she sorted out her insurance.
When Paitoon awoke he was slumped on the sofa. His arms and legs were numb. He could feel a stream of warm spittle pooling at the base of his neck. It was strangely comforting.
He looked up.
The girl, the one he’d stolen the paracycle from, was sitting opposite him. She had the stunner levelled at his chest.
Paitoon tried to move his arm, but it flopped uselessly at his side. He noticed the girl’s eyes flicker at the movement. She was nervous.
“Tell me what you’ve done to Charlie,” the girl said.
Paitoon shook his head.
“Whomf?” His lips and tongue felt as unresponsive as his arms and legs.
“The paracycle,” the girl waved the stunner towards the machine. “What have you done to the systems?”
“Maggin’ it c’mpabable…” Paitoon shook his head in frustration. The stuff was wearing off, but it was hard to speak.
The girl ignored him walking over to Charlie, poking suspiciously at the changes he made.
“Fix it.” She turned back towards him, waving the stunner. “Put it back.”
He shook his head.
“Beddah!” Paitoon tried nodding at the console.
Gull watched as Paitoon started working on Charlie.
Something was bothering her.
“How did you plan to get jobs?”
“Wha?” Paitoon looked up over the edge of the magnifying lens he was using while working on the electronics.
“Jobs?” Gull waved the stunner around. “How were you going to get jobs with the paracycle. You haven’t got a company registration.”
“I do not need one,” the little guy was smiling broadly. He tapped the console he’d jury-rigged to Charlie’s systems. “I’ve set it up to adopt a different registration identity for every bid. Each one looks like a platinum-rated ID. No one ever checks up on identities with a high-trust rating but even if they did, by the time they’ve blocked one bid I would have already moved on.”
“But the whole system depends on the market being secure, everyone knows it can’t be hacked. The encryption -“
“The encryption is intact. I cannot read other people’s messages. The network is secure, but people are not,” Paitoon was suddenly quite animated. “Each bid is supposed to be authorised with a unique registration identity as it leaves each company. But people get bored or lazy so they do them in batches with the same code key. My console scans the network for clumps of messages from one node sent at the same time. It can then compare the identifier codes and construct a valid pattern that fits within the pattern of the clump and attaches it to my bid.”
“So you can bid without a company?”
“But someone will work it out eventually?”
“Perhaps. But by then I should have enough money to incorporate – and I’ll have a trust-level based on delivering platinum-rated contracts.”
“I don’t…” The girl’s forehead creased in concentration. Paitoon watched, interesting to see if she could work it out. “Ah, I get it. The bidding and the trust rating systems are separate. You bid with the fake corporate identity for the bid, but when you complete the order you present the console and take the payment and trust-points to you own identity –”
” – just like any sub-contractor,” Paitoon smiled.
“Smart,” the girl shook her head. “And you worked this out by yourself?”
“I’m a good programmer. No one would believe me when I arrived,” Paitoon looked away, a mournful expression on his face. “I earned a lot of money in Bangkok, before the war.”
“You know what that means,” she pointed to the console.
“Freedom,” they both said together.
Then the door opened.
Gull watched the guard come through the door, dumping a bag of gear on the floor, unaware of anything unusual. She recognised him at once.
“Huh?” Castor turned, confusion spreading across his face. It took a moment for him to spot Gull sitting in her seat opposite the door. It took a moment longer for recognition to be flash across his face. And it took longer still for him to realise that he should be reaching for his gun.
“Don’t move, Castor,” Gull waved the stunner as menacingly as she could. “Your friend Paitoon can tell you what sort of sting this thing can deliver.”
“How did she get in?” Castor was looking at Paitoon.
The little guy opened his mouth but Gull hushed him.
“You concentrate on my flier, Paitoon,” her eyes never left Castor. “You know for a building full of company guards, security around her is a joke.”
Castor grumbled something, and started scanning the room. His eyes fixed on the bag of credits and the gun. He took half a step.
“Don’t do it Castor!”
The guard just leered and began to reach down.
The stunner’s compressed air jet fired a needle into Castor’s chest.
That wasn’t right.
Castor laughed – opening his jacket to reveal his work uniform – mesh and body-armour – beneath. Gull could see the little needle futilely trying to pump its sac of venom into the unfeeling plastic.
He put his hand on the gun.
“Don’t do it Castor.”
Castor laughed harder.
“How long do you think it will take that little peashooter of yours to recharge? A lot less time than it will take me to load this – so screw you, you’re dead.”
Castor checked the pistol, it was unloaded. He reached into the bag, looking for a full clip. Then he stopped. He pulled out a watch and some jewellery.
“This is my stuff! But this was all in the vault. How did you get this stuff?”
“I didn’t,” Gull shrugged, looking at Paitoon. “He had it all packed up when I arrived.”
“I was almost free,” the little guy didn’t look up from the work he was doing on the console.
“After all I did for you?”
At this Paitoon did look up and Gull could see the hate in his eyes.
Castor rocked back, his face an image first of abject misery that morphed quickly into fury. He delved into the back, coming up with a full clip.
“Stop, Castor,” Gull stepped towards him. “You don’t want to do this.”
“Shut up!” The guard swept out a heavy arm and caught Gull across the side of the head. She sprawled across the room, tripping over a sofa and dropping to her knees.
Gull reached for for her stunner, but it was gone.
“I think I’d like to invoke my insurance policy now,” she said.
Laslo stepped from his hiding place in Castor’s bedroom, two pistols levelled.
“Put down the gun, Castor,” Gull said.
Paitoon saw the stranger, another Lunie, step out of the darkness of the bedroom and heard Gull warn Castor but he could tell that, even if the guard was aware of what was happening around him, he wasn’t paying attention.
He watched Castor finally succeed in slamming the clip into the pistol, flip the safety and pull back the slide to put a bullet in the chamber.
“Stop it Castor!” Gull was shouting.
“Castor!” Paitoon tried to put himself between Castor and the Lunie. “Don’t do this!”
Castor’s eyes were fat with tears. His chin was trembling. He looked like a child having a tantrum. Castor brought the pistol up, pointing at Paitoon’s chest.
Gull said something that Paitoon couldn’t make out over the pounding of blood in his ears.
Castor slumped back against the apartment wall. Two roses of blood blossomed on his chest. His pistol flew across the room, landing at Gull’s feet.
For a moment there was absolute silence.
Paitoon found himself kneeling beside Castor, cradling his hand, gazing into the piercing stare of dead eyes.
“You silly boy,” Paitoon whispered and found his throat constricting and his eyes burning.
“Does he have insurance?” Laslo leant over Castor’s dead body. Gull took the opportunity to dip and scoop Castor’s pistol from the floor. She slipped it into her waistband at the small of her back.
Paitoon looked up, trying to compose himself.
“Does he have insurance?” Laslo pointed one of his pistols at Paitoon’s head.
“Which is it?” Laslo pressed the gun barrel into Paitoon’s forehead. “Retard!”
“Not for this,” Paitoon took a deep breath. “His company provided him with investigation and retribution insurance but it only covered him while he was on duty.”
“Good,” Laslo smiled, poking Castor’s arm with his boot. Then, satisfied that Castor was dead, he turned to Gull. “So, contract fulfilled?”
Gull nodded, suddenly aware that two pistols were pointing at her midriff.
“Well you can keep your cash,” Laslo grabbed Paitoon by the collar and dragged him to his feet. “I’ll take this retard, his little console and that bag, and we’ll call it quits.”
“No! Please!” Paitoon squirmed but the Lunie pressed the gun to his neck and he settled down.
“Get your console,” the Lunie pushed Paitoon across the room. “You are going to make me rich.”
“I can’t you let take him,” Gull said.
“You can’t stop me,” Laslo smiled broadly.
Slowly Gull began to reach around behind her back, feeling for the butt of the pistol. The smile disappeared from Laslo’s face.
“And if you so much as touch that gun you’ve got tucked back there, I’ll blow your stupid head off.”
Gull froze and was suddenly aware that she’d underestimated the Lunie.
“In fact, I think I might have to kill you anyway,” Laslo walked across the room, his spidery limbs picking a path between overturned furniture.
“There’s no profit in it,” Gull said, trying to meet Laslo’s gaze.
“But maybe I think that you know too much about the retard’s clever little machine,” Laslo raised a pistol. “Maybe you’d report me to the Chamber, just to get your own back.”
Gull tried to take a step backwards, but she was already pressed against the wall. She raised her hands.
The Lunie put a finger to his lips.
“Stop!” Paitoon yelped.
“Shut up retard!” Laslo didn’t even turn round and Gull’s view was blocked.
“This is your last warning!”
“What are you going to do, little man?” Laslo glanced over his shoulder then stopped laughing, taking a step to one side.
Paitoon was clutching Gull’s stunner.
“That thing isn’t even charg-“
Laslo’s eyes rolled back in his head and his mouth dropped open. Then his knees trembled, gave and, slowly, he collapsed to the floor.
“That bastard was going to kill me,” Gull said, lashing out with her boot against Laslo’s unprotected sides. Then she stopped, and turned to look at Paitoon. “You saved my life!”
Then she turned to the wall and puked.
Paitoon brought the girl a drink of water and she rinsed her mouth.
“Mai pen rai,” Paitoon dipped into a wai. “You’re welcome.”
“So I guess we should get out of here.”
“I certainly do not wish to be around when he wakes up,” Paitoon nodded at Laslo.
“Mmm,” Gull wiped at her mouth, then she looked over at her paracycle, Charlie. “Is he fixed?”
“Yes,” Paitoon looked away. “I am sorry for the trouble I caused you.”
Gull wandered over to the work table and picked up Paitoon’s hacked console.
“Do you really think this thing will work?”
“I am certain of it, at least for a while.”
Gull took another three steps to where Charlie lay folded against the wall. She stroked the paracycle’s wings.
“I won’t be your slave,” Paitoon said. “I won’t live like that any more. If that’s what you expect, then you’d better kill me now, because I won’t work for you.”
“I’m not going to kill you.” Gull scratched at the stubble on the top of her head. “Did you enjoy your flight in Charlie?”
“It was terrifying!” Paitoon’s complexion paled visibly at the memory.
“Then maybe we do a deal,” Gull said. “You run the technology, I’ll do the flying and we share the profits. We’ll call it a cooperative.”
Paitoon’s eyes narrowed.
“But I thought you Lunies only looked after yourselves.”
“Can your scam make both of us rich?”
“I think so,” Paitoon nodded. “With luck.”
“Then if I look after you, I am looking after myself. Right?”
“Contract?” Gull held out a hand. “Contract,” Paitoon replied.
“Freedom” was first published in Jupiter SF #12