Thursday, 20 August 2015

Where it all started... Part One

Ok, I haven't quite reached 10k sales yet with the Eden Paradox, but slowly getting there :-)

This is where it all started, chapter one, where Micah is introduced, along with the infamous and (so the female fans tell me) irresistible Gabriel.

More tomorrow.

Chapter One
People rarely search for bodies in ceilings, Gabriel O’Donnell reminded himself. He should have a couple of hours before anyone discovered his latest victim. Slipping unseen from the side door, he dissolved into the amoebic mass of dignitaries arriving for the fund-raiser at Eden Mission Control. He itched to shed his tuxedo and starched shirt, but he needed the camouflage – along with the stolen emotion-ID that had required a messy killing – to secure entry. He blended in with the wealthy entourage decked in stark designer suits and power dresses. He didn’t speak to anyone, didn’t sip from the champagne glass he occasionally raised to his lips. He let his eyes glaze over as if he, too, were rich enough to forget what was outside, an Earth maimed by War and near collapse from heat exhaustion.
Somewhere here was his target, but as yet he didn’t know who. He slowed his breathing and sharpened his senses, filtering out the bass hum of the aircon and the drone of conversation. He suppressed the cocktail of cologne and perfume the crowd wore to mask residual traces of sweat from their journey through the early evening LA heat-haze. He glanced at his wristcom, switched to privacy mode so only he could read it – no message yet confirming his mark’s identity. The display did tell him it was a cool nineteen degrees Celsius, compared to forty-five out in the open, and way below the 2061 climate control mandate for public buildings. Nothing new, he thought: the rich make laws for others to follow.
The idea flickered across his mind that if he dispatched ten or twenty of the moguls here tonight, instead of just one, a lot more mouths would find food. But only for a while. The latest vidcast from his mentor had confirmed what he’d already suspected – the holocaust was mere days away. When he found the right target, maybe he could delay its onset, and save millions.
A fanfare of horns sliced through the banter, announcing the holorium was open: the Eden show awaited them. He swept forward with the elite mob, a spider hiding amongst flies.
            As the alcohol-rouged gathering rounded a corner, he glimpsed the twin Stentons bordering the corridor: floor-to-ceiling carbon-black monoliths. State-of-the-art security gear. He focused his mind, careful not to tense his body. A few surreptitious glances verified what the memorised floor plans had told him – this was the only access point. Six heavily-armed security guards manned the station, eyeing people as they passed through. The two in the front used an age-old technique called the fence, an unblinking stare-down subduing those passing through, ruffling a few of the male celebrities in the process. The middle two checked people and bags, but this was more for show – the Stentons did the real work. The final two guards scanned the assembly using peripheral vision – letting their right brains detect any unusual behaviour patterns of the swarm. Not bad, he thought. He knew he could take down all six if necessary, but then his mission would fail.
He had to get past them.
The Stentons were top of their class – a biometric system based on psychological finger-printing, using subliminal stimuli to trigger minute fear responses. The monoliths were especially good at picking out kamikaze terrorists, whose fear response had a singular signature, and experienced assassins like Gabriel, who had none. Earlier, he’d had to instil panic into the day’s first victim before terminating him, while downloading the visceral feedback. Gabriel now had those terror responses primed in the neural net embedded in his scalp – they would match the dead man’s E-ID card Gabriel held in his left palm. He’d actually apologised to the corpse afterward, taking rather more care than usual with the body. He was a Sentinel assassin, not a psychopath.
Slowing to an amble, he let one or two suits rub past him as he weighed his options. He laughed at a nearby joke as if he were part of that particular gang. But his insides felt hollow: too much was riding on tonight’s mission. Watching the shuffling pack tighten toward the checkpoint scanners, he decided he needed an extra edge. Distraction was also an assassin’s tool.
As they herded like cloned beef toward the final security check, he surveyed the audience and picked out a busty woman in her thirties, sporting an emerald halter neck dress of gossamer-thin silk. Most of the middle-aged men pretended a little too hard not to notice her. As he mingled behind the woman and her escort in the funnelling queue, he casually reached into his pocket. He extracted the sliver of acid-coated razor-wire from its sheath. He coughed as he approached the twin security columns. His right hand, en route to cover his mouth, grazed the material of the woman’s halter with the filament, depositing a trace of acid. He let the hair-like strand drop to the floor, crushing it underfoot. Holding up his E-ID pass, he stared as required towards one of the monoliths, the under-dressed woman behind him. He held his breath.
Whoops and guffaws erupted as her halter snapped. Gabriel turned around, feigning surprise and interest, and the guards manhandled him through the full-scan checkpoint without serious attention. Once past he walked to the empty restroom and located the locked stall marked Out of Order. His fingers rapped in the entry digicode, and he stepped inside. He found what he expected, a small black rucksack, and checked the contents: gravitics, stiletto knife, and slimline S&W pulse gun with night-sighter. All he required now was his target’s name, but his wristcom stayed quiet. His handler didn’t usually leave it this late.
He zipped up the bag. As he headed out, he checked his reflection in the restroom mirror, and paused. He searched for any trace of the young man he’d been before the War, before becoming a killing machine, before losing her... Eyes black and remorseless as a shark stared back at him; hers had been green, forgiving. She would have been twenty-seven today. He slung the rucksack over his shoulder. Happy birthday, Jenny. He broke off his gaze, stole through the door, and entered the holorium.

*          *          *

Despite the aircon maintaining the room at a fresh fifteen degrees Celsius to optimise the technology’s performance, Micah sweated.
"You won’t make it, not this time," Rudi said, leering beneath a wavy moustache. He anchored his feet against the chrome desk, tilting the recliner back further, hands linked behind matted black curls.
You could have helped. Micah’s silver gloves were a blur as he worked at the holo-bench. Its data columns and networking filaments resembled a complex city of skyscrapers: sapphire flying buttresses connecting golden spires and towers. He grimaced at the writhing red sores leaching energy from four of the amber columns, defects he had to remove for the program to run.
"Let me work, Rudi. I’m almost there."  
            Rudi persisted. "Why’d you agree to do this in the first place? Thought you’d get a chance to work with our resident Slovakian princess in Comms, eh?" 
            Micah dropped a filament and felt a stab of dread as it tumbled down inside the cylinder, ricocheting off several columns towards the central golden nexus. He caught it just in time with his left hand, without disturbing the overall structure. That was close! No time to wipe the beads of sweat building on his brow.
            "Nice catch," Rudi muttered. "So is she, but out of your league. You know that, right?"
Micah ignored him, suspecting it wouldn’t make any difference.
Rudi stretched his hands forward, framing Micah between thumbs and indexes as if taking a holopic. "I mean, look at you. The basics are okay – no hunchback, all your own teeth, body parts in the usual places. But the wiry fuzz on your head, the bulging eyes – is that a thyroid thing, by the way? And as for dress sense..." Rudi’s hands returned to their habitual position, clasped behind his head. "Does your Mom still buy your clothes, or what? No style. That’s the problem, Micah. She’s class, you’re not."
            Micah braved a shrug, but he knew Rudi was right: unlike Rudi, he had an abysmal record with women. He glanced at the countdown: 3:08. Any second, he’d get the call. His fingers, wrapped in second-skin holo-transducers, felt the subtle vibrations in the digitised information, like pulsating ice cubes covered in Braille. This part of his job at Eden Mission Control still gave him a buzz. He threaded the teraquad info-strands into place with a precision and purpose he rarely knew in the rest of his life.
            On cue, the screen switched on. A red-faced, balding man glared at him. Micah didn’t stop. Seconds mattered.
"Sanderson. Tell me it’s ready."
            "Yes, Mr Vastra, Sir. Almost ready. It’ll be on time."
            "Better be." The screen blanked.
            Rudi chuckled. "You’re in deep shit. Three minutes till lights out."
Micah dismissed the remark and flipped back into the zone, holding his breath, rapt in concentration. All sound ceased in his mind, like a frozen waterfall. As he slotted the final filament into place, the reds vanished. The resultant data harmonic sent a tingling rush through his gloves into his arms and spine, making him gasp. He snapped his right forefinger and thumb together, transmitting the program.
"Done!" The display shimmered and was gone. He peeled off the gloves, threw them onto the work bench, and slumped into his chair.
            Rudi sighed. "Why didn’t you just re-use the last vid – why does each one have to be different? Why make work for yourself? These shitheads don’t care. You’ll get no credit. And meanwhile, she doesn’t even know you exist!"
            Micah grinned. This one was going to be good. It would move the audience, he just knew it. "You wouldn’t understand, Rudi. It’s… art. Besides, some of the Hi-creds here today have been to the show before – they’ll be impressed when they realise it changes each time."
            Rudi shook his head. "No hope whatsoever…"
            Micah snatched up the remote-ball and squeezed it to select the holorium viewscreen on his macro display, then pressed harder to show feeds from all eight cameras. He scanned the views, zooming in and out on the audience about to see his production. The stock-straight profile of the Eden Mission Director, Keiji Kane, was easy to pick out from the crowd, greeting indistinguishable men in dark suits with expandable waistlines. The younger women in the audience were strikingly dressed in angular flow-suits, the older ones decked out in more classic elegant outfits.  
He watched Kane’s acerbic assistant Sandy march up to him and whisper something in his ear, her hand touching his waist as she bent forward. Kane nodded, and headed over to his front row pew. People followed his lead and took their seats for the show, a prelude to a tour of Eden Mission Control, the first step in eliciting continued financial support from the ultra-rich. Micah wasn’t keen on the fact they had to do this every month, but it was vital to keeping alive the four astronauts on their way to Eden.
He zoomed back out when someone unusual caught his eye – a tanned, slim man floating through the crowd like a dancer – all in black, no jacket, just a small back-pack. No one seemed to notice him as he headed toward the rear exit, cutting through the flood of people vying for the best places. Micah leant forward, intrigued by his effortless movements, like a dolphin swimming through the current. He lost him, though, as he moved out of camera range. Plain-clothes security, he assumed.
Rudi was right about one thing, though. This wasn’t his real job. They were both full-time telemetry analysts, poring over sensor information slip-streaming back from Earth’s only faster-than-light ship, the Ulysses. Comms was haphazard at best, involving unpredictable and still barely-understood tachyon fields, coupled with an increasing delay as Ulysses got farther from Earth. He didn’t fully understand the theory, but he and Rudi were two of the people disentangling the data and making sense of it. Still, he had a modest talent for holo-vidding – not enough to give up his day job – but he enjoyed watching people’s reactions, and it made a break from the drudgery of endless analysis of signals traversing incomprehensible distances across the void, telling everyone that all was still well on the mission to Eden.
            Reluctantly, he had to admit that Rudi was right on the other count, too. He pretended he wasn’t searching, but when he found Antonia in the audience, his breath softened. He zeroed in on her. Although she was staff, like him, Antonia always got an invite to these functions, being the daughter of the Slovakian ambassador. Though "Princess" wasn’t correct, it wasn’t entirely inappropriate – she was regal, statuesque, with porcelain skin and almond-shaped eyes. He watched her slink into her seat, and observed the fading holorium lights twinkle on her sequined dress.
            "Naughty, naughty!" Rudi said. "Mustn’t spy on staff, you know."
Micah frowned, only in part due to the comment: she had a tall, suave escort. Switching the cameras to night-vision mode, he zoomed away from her, resisting temptation.  
            Rudi slapped his thighs and got up. "God, I’m sorry, man, I can’t bear to watch another one. I’m going for a spin on the Optron. Catch you later."           
            The door hissed closed. Micah switched off four of the camera views to allow a central picture to emerge of the main holo-images the two-hundred-strong audience had gathered to experience. They were in for quite a ride, and he’d have to write a report later on their reactions, to fine-tune it for next time. He sat back, and waited.

*          *          *

Gabriel’s wristcom located the surveillance weak spot at the rear of the holorium. He set it to emit a fold, allowing him to work within a three metre sensor void, rendering him invisible to normal security sweeps.
The lights dimmed. All eyes gazed forward.
He slipped on a black silk hood, donned his gloves, and switched his wristcom to nerve-stim mode. He curved his thinly-sheathed tongue inside his mouth to activate the hands-free control mechanism. Few could master it: a single cough, yawn, or inadvertent swallowing could be misinterpreted as commands. But to Gabriel it was the ultimate assassin’s tool: internal, invisible to anyone looking for signs of subterfuge.
Turning away from the audience immersed in the holo-show net, he approached the vertical steel wall at the back of the holorium. He switched his genetically-coded boots and gloves to lizard mode, tough microscopic hooks and barbs crystallising within seconds. His breathing remained silent as he scaled the sheer face, taking care not to move too fast. He knew enough psycho-physiology and anatomy not only to kill efficiently, but also to use the strengths and weaknesses of human and animal perception: oblique, rapid movements were perceived by all mammals and reptiles faster than any other sensory signal, especially via peripheral vision, for self-evident survival reasons. 
            Six meters up, he positioned himself underneath a vacant balcony. He manoeuvred upside down, using his tongue control to activate gravitic contact pads on his feet, knees, waist and ribs. A millimetre at a time, he peeled his hands from the ceiling to test he was secure. His masked head fell backwards, upside down, like a gecko hanging from the ceiling, so he could see the audience. He had no interest in the holo. Tapping a short command into his wristcom to signal he was in position, he lifted an object the size of half an apple from his pocket and attached it to the ceiling. Last, he strapped the mono-pulse barrel with sighting lens to his forehead. He could see everyone in the audience – the backs of their heads at least. Everything was set.

He waited, immobile, an obsidian gargoyle ready to spit fire.

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