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Crossover
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Crossover

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Author: Joel Shepherd
Publisher: Pyr, 2006
Series: Cassandra Kresnov: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Galactic Empire
Robots/Androids
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Synopsis

Crossover is the first novel in a series which follows the adventures of Cassandra Kresnov, an artificial person, or android, created by the League, one side of an interstellar war against the more powerful, conservative Federation. Cassandra is an experimental design - more intelligent, more creative, and far more dangerous than any that have preceded her. But with her intellect come questions, and a moral awakening. She deserts the League and heads incognito into the space of her former enemy, the Federation, in search of a new life.

Her chosen world is Callay, and its enormous, decadent capital metropolis of Tanusha, where the concerns of the war are literally and figuratively so many light years away. But the war between the League and the Federation was ideological as much as political, with much of that ideological dispute regarding the very existence of artificial sentience and the rules that govern its creation. Cassandra discovers that even in Tanusha, the powerful entities of this bloody conflict have wound their tentacles. Many in the League and the Federation have cause to want her dead, and Cassandra’s history, inevitably, catches up with her.

Cassandra finds herself at the mercy of a society whose values preclude her own right even to exist. But her presence in Tanusha reveals other fault lines, and when Federal agents attempt to assassinate the Callayan president, she finds herself thrust into the service of her former enemies, using her lethal skills to attempt to protect her former enemies from forces beyond their ability to control. As she struggles for her place and survival in a new world, Cassandra must forge new friendships with old enemies, while attempting to confront the most disturbing and deadly realities of her own existence.


Excerpt

Sunlight lay across the bare floor of the hotel room, falling rich and golden upon the smooth white sheets of the single bed, and the exposed pale arm of its occupant. Sun-dappled sheets shifted as she stirred sleepily, pulling smoothly to the pronounced curve of a hip.

Eyes blinked softly open. For a long moment she lay awake, listening to the morning. Distant traffic could be heard drifting up from far below. City sounds. The faint whine of the maglev line distinct above the rest. Then, past the window, the mournful, deep-throated whine of an aircar passing a skylane nearby.

Loose, dark blonde hair lay mussed and untended to her forehead. She brushed it back with a lazy hand. Rolled onto her back, sheet and mattress smooth and pleasant against her naked skin. Turned her head against the pillow to gaze calmly toward the broad, wide windows that counted for the far wall, tinted darkly gold against the deep glare of the rising sun. Another aircar passed with a sound like a throaty sigh. It moved on past the window, sunlight flashing from sleek, angular lines.

“Minder,” she said, her voice thick with sleep. “Less tinting, please.” The windows lightened, the sunlight grew brighter. “That’s enough.” The sun was painful to look at now, but her eyes adjusted, filtering the glare.

Outside were the city towers, tall, broad, and varied. An architect’s delight, they were. An economist’s dream. A technologist’s marvel. The towers stood not so close as to crowd, leaving plenty of open space between, gleaming golden with sunlight on glass. Aircars curved gently between them, banking slowly, unhurried and safely guided by invisible automation.

This was the city of Tanusha in the morning light, viewed from a single hotel room on the sixty-first floor of the Hanaman building, where the Emerald Si’an Hotel made its residence between the fiftieth and seventieth floors. The woman blinked at the view, no longer sleepy. Calm. Her lips pursed slightly in what might have been a smile. The traffic hummed, a gentle cacophony of life, and she listened, searching for nothing in particular, as her eyes took in the view without really looking . . . just drifting. In the comfortable bed with the silky sheets.

The net traffic was increasing, too. She could hear it—or feel it, which was perhaps more accurate—a steady drift and flow of voices and machine-talk across an undulating landscape of static. It increased as she focused, snatches of words, broken, obscuring walls of encryption, action and counteraction on the early morning airwaves. People talking sleepily over breakfast, their bellies full of coffee or tea, a paper on the slate to read in the golden light through the windows, munching a pastry . . . And she let it go, having little interest at this moment, content to feel it as a constant murmur, pressing comfortably at the back of her consciousness.

It was 07:13 local time on the twenty-four-hour clock. She stretched, luxuriously, arching her back, arms overhead, fingertips brushing the wall. And sighed. Pushed the sheets to one side, swung herself easily off the bed and walked naked to the bathroom, fingers combing her hair into some kind of order.

Emerged from the shower at 07:26, having taken more time than she needed. But that was becoming her habit these days. She stood on the warm bathroom floor, her skin tingling from the drying cycle, small, fine hairs standing pleasantly on end. Ran a palm across her forearm, brushing at the hairs. Curious. Her forearm tingled. And she smiled at her own wanderings, and gave a slight shake of her head. Picked a brush off the bench, and began work on her just dried hair, watching the mirror as she did.

Pale blue eyes stared back. Attractive eyes, she thought. Yes, definitely attractive, as the hair began to fall into place. She put down the brush and leaned forward on the bench rim, gazing closely into those eyes. Ran the tip of her forefinger across an eyebrow, down to the tip of her nose. And trailed further down, pulling at a lip. Tried a smile, and liked how that looked. Content, she walked back out to the main room, still naked, sat down on the softly carpeted floor, and began to stretch.

After several minutes, the door chimed. “Room service,” called a very real and unautomated male voice. The woman climbed smoothly to her feet, gave her arms one last swing, and reached for her white hotel bathrobe.

“Enter,” she said, tying the robe loosely about her waist as the door light flicked to green and the door swung open. A smallish man entered, well dressed and with a bow tie beneath his collar, supporting a breakfast tray in one hand.

“Your breakfast, madam,” the very unautomated hotel man said. His cart was in the corridor behind him, loaded with other breakfasts.

“Thank you.” She smiled at him, and took the tray from his hands. He smiled back.

“I apologise for the slight delay, Ms. Cassidy. As you may appreciate, only the machines are never late.” She waved a hand.

“Not at all. I prefer the personal service.”

“I’m very glad.” The man smiled again, and gave a small bow before retreating. The door shut behind him, and she was alone again. The woman carried the tray to her bed, placed it carefully upon the rumpled covers, and climbed up beside it. She ate her breakfast like that, cross-legged on the bed in her bathrobe, watching the airborne traffic weave and sigh amid the tall, strikingly modern and eye-catching buildings of Tanusha, gleaming in the sun.

She washed down a slice of toast with a fragrant mouthful of Chinese tea, for which she had developed a strong liking, and reached for the small, compact unit on the bedside table. Palmed it in her lap and drew from the side a long, slim powercord. Brushed aside the hair at the back of her head and inserted the slim metal connector into the receiver socket with a small yet profound click! that she felt rather than heard, deep in her inner ear. Touched a button on the hand-unit and began the interface.

She found her personal records and files, all safely contained within hotel barriers and encryption walls. Darted inside, sorting bits and pieces, checking her traps, records of access, authorised and unauthorised. Found nothing, which pleased her. Her luck was holding. Surrounding traffic was very strong, as she’d become accustomed to in Tanusha. Automateds darted this way and that, countering, interacting, doing whatever their programming instructed them to do, all with that familiar, mindless tenacity. Minds were slower, pondering, thinking. Walls of light and motion, shapes and textures, glowing, impenetrable yet transparent, branches and limbs of consciousness that grew and retracted with intent or otherwise . . .

She flicked through her records one last time, scanning the numbers, the names, the images. April Cassidy. Which was not her name, but it was the name she wore for now, while it suited her. Born 15th of May standard, 2521, on Octavia 3, city of Tillanna. A registered citizen of the Confederacy, subject to its various rules and principles, recipient of its evident benefits. Both parents killed in the war against the League. No brothers or sisters, or close family of any kind. Raised under the legal guardianship of a war orphanage now disbanded, owing to Confederacy cutbacks on repatriation expenditure, now that the war was over. There were other things, too—social security number, birth certificate, credit cards, records of employment and company details . . . she was a cognitive software expert, self-employed—a journeyman, headed wherever work was available. And, of course, she had plenty of money, and generous terms of credit from her bank.

It was an interesting life. She thought about it for a while, disconnecting the hand-unit and letting the coil retract inside. She wondered what such a person would be like, this April Cassidy, with her orphanage past and her software skills. Sometimes she fancied she empathised, particularly over the lack of parents, a home life, a childhood. At other times she thought the deception might well be beyond her, this woman, with her civilian thoughts and peaceful upbringing, no matter how disrupted. She sat cross-legged in the bright pool of sunlight that fell across her bed, thinking about this life she had borrowed, as the city awoke from a light, almost-slumber, and a new day began.

A good life, she thought, finding peace amid the myriad simple, everyday intentions, the people intent on work, and family, and children on their way to school. The priorities were simple here. Life was a tapestry of basic concerns, and basic needs, and people were happy. The war had never touched this place, although Tanusha’s technology and its cash had driven the war’s progress to no small degree. She could be happy here. And if not here then, well, there were many stars, and many planets, and many cities and places to see. But for now, there was today. And she had an appointment.

It was 08:19 when she was invited in for her first interview. She left the Street Scene magazine on the coffee table in the waiting room, followed the secretary down the corridor to the open door, and walked inside.

“Ms. Cassidy?” the small, Vietnamese-looking woman said as she entered, rising from the seat at her broad working desk.

“That’s right,” April Cassidy said, exchanging smiles as she shook the other woman’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Phung.”

“Likewise. Please, take a seat,” indicating the cushioned chair before the desk. She took it, glancing once more out the office windows as Ms. Phung settled back into her chair. This office was not so high up as her hotel room, only the twenty-third floor. The streets were closer, as was the moving traffic, distinct beneath the shading trees.

“Lovely view,” she commented. “Every office in the city seems to have a view like this.”

“Yes, it’s a definite plus to living and working in Tanusha, that is certain. You’ve travelled quite a bit, I’ve noticed, to look at your résumé.” April Cassidy nodded, legs neatly crossed, hands folded comfortably in her lap.

“Yes, I love travelling. And I’ve never really found a place that I feel I could call home. Although this,” and she indicated out of the window, “this feels very nice. I could certainly get used to this.”

Ms. Phung smiled, and examined the datapad on the desk before her. “You graduated with full honours, I see . . . very impressive.” April Cassidy sat patiently, not fidgeting, waiting for the next question. “How would you rate the Batista University? I’ve not encountered anyone from there before.”

“It’s extremely good. They’re not overly theoretical, as a rule, and they have plenty of private sector involvement, so there are lots of practical, hands-on projects to get involved with. Plenty of job opportunities—I got a number of offers on graduating, but remaining on Octavia wasn’t a high priority for me at that point.”

“Hmmm.” Ms. Phung nodded, appearing genuinely interested, eyes continuing to peruse the slate. “I’ve heard that the opportunities on Octavia are quite good.”

“Yes they are, but I’ve always been a little more ambitious. I wanted to travel, and probably to work someplace where the environment is a little more cutting edge. Most of the best places on Octavia are already taken, and promotion doesn’t come easily.”

“I see.” More study. “And what drew you to Wardell Systematics?”

“It was one of the medium-sized firms most highly rated for innovative work in Tanusha, with lots of R & D, plus some very interesting long-running contracts—that aroused my interest.”

“You’d choose a medium-sized firm over a larger one?”

“Given the choice, yes, I would. I like the necessity towards creativity wherever possible. That’s the kind of work that most excites me, and it’s what I’m best at, too.”

Ms. Phung nodded to herself. “Well, perhaps you could show me what you can do?”

“Of course.” She reached into her inside pocket and withdrew her small black hand-unit, withdrew the cord, reached the end around behind her head, and jacked herself in. Thumbed the receiver button on the hand-unit, which set itself to the office frequency with a click and rush of data, a visual, sensual wave. Strong setup. But she was getting used to that in Tanusha. “What would you like me to look at?”

“This.” Ms. Phung tapped a few buttons on her desk keypad, and a strong system appeared amid the corporate boundaries . . . solid, intricate construct, a very impressive piece of intelligence programming. “What can you tell me about it, at first glance?”

“Well, it appears to be a level nine cognitive function . . . in fact, I’d say it was a visual sorting function, the way the memory bands are branched with third level backups as they are . . .”

The analysis went on for a while. Ms. Phung gave no overt signs of approval or disapproval, but April Cassidy could tell she was impressed. Which was not surprising. April Cassidy, for her part, was similarly impressed with the level of engineering in Wardell Systematics’ work—much of it was truly cutting edge and very creative, verging on custom design. Which was the one area where the smaller firms had a real edge over the larger ones, who were unable to get big enough returns from the smaller, custom contracts to justify their initial expenditure. And she doubted that this particular construction was the most they were capable of, either—much of that would be classified. Very interesting.

“I’ll have a discussion with the rest of the group,” Ms. Phung told her when they were finished and rising from their seats.

“Obviously I can’t promise you anything in advance, but I must say I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen here today.”

“Thank you. You do know where I’m staying?”

“The Emerald Si’an Hotel, yes. I’ve got the room number recorded somewhere. That’s a nice place, the Emerald. Try the Thai restaurant on the top floor, it’s marvellous.” She extended her hand, and April Cassidy took it in a firm, friendly clasp, and smiled.

“I’ll remember that, thank you.”

“You have other interviews today, I suppose?”

“Yes, three more today, and another four tomorrow. I intend to spend the time in between just wandering around.”

Ms. Phung sighed. “Well then, I suppose that if we did decide we could take you on, we’d be lucky to get you, wouldn’t we?”

April Cassidy’s smile broadened. “As you say, I can’t guarantee anything . . . anyway, it was a pleasure to meet you, and I’m sure I’d be very happy to work for your company if that is what eventuates. It all just depends. I’m sure you understand.”

Ms. Phung smiled back. “I do. I understand very well.” She walked to the door and opened it. “Just one thing,” she said, and April Cassidy paused in the doorway. “Your old company on Reta Prime, Boushun Information in Guangban . . . why did you leave them, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Not at all. Well, I’m . . .” She smiled, and gave a small, self-deprecating shrug. “. . . I’m a fairly restless person. Boushun were very good to me—and I to them, I’d like to think—but I just had a feeling that I could do better elsewhere. And Guangban isn’t nearly as nice a city as Tanusha. I think it’s more sensible to make a move like that when you’re younger and don’t have too many commitments and connections. So here I am.”

“Indeed. I’m very envious.” They both laughed. “Well, have a nice time in Tanusha, and I may be seeing you again sometime soon.”

“I’d like that. See you later.”

April Cassidy left the offices of Wardell Systematics feeling pleased with herself. Things were going very well. With any luck, within a few days she’d have the pick of the bunch, and a very impressive bunch they were, too. It was highly unlikely that they’d ever find a young technician with quite her degree of ability, although she’d been careful not to show off too much, just as they’d been careful with her. The work would be interesting, the pay would be excellent, and she might just make some friends along the way. It was a very agreeable list of positives. Yes, all in all, she was beginning to enjoy Tanusha.

She ate her lunch that day in one of the green parks between the roadways, on a quaint wooden bench under the spreading branches of a leafy tree. The meal was a couple of crisp vegetable rolls with a spicy dip, bought from a parkside vendor—it tasted delicious. The breeze made a pleasant sound through the spreading leaves, mingling with the surrounding traffic noise, though that remained muted even down here at ground level. Some nearby smaller buildings rose unobtrusively above the trees. Near and distant the towers rose, evenly yet randomly spaced, tall and gleaming against the crystal blue sky.

A remarkable exercise in city planning, Tanusha. Social modelling on a massive scale. “A Grade” office towers—or mega-rises—were about 400 metres high, as uniform in height as they were varied in imaginative, inspired design. They stood widely spaced, no two in close proximity, except for the occasional twin-pair, each marking a convergence of traffic and building density. Midsize buildings clustered around such centralised hubs—business districts, a crisscross of road and rail transportation, fanning outward. Midsize high-rises ranged from 100 to 150 metres and varied greatly, though evidently within zonal limits. Between the hubs lay suburbia, undulating to occasional multistorey flats penetrating the carpet of lush green trees that lined the many streets, parks, schools, temples, shopping districts, and sports stadiums.

She could see the patterns, even down here at ground level, though one had to venture high to truly appreciate the fifty-seven million people-strong scale of it all. High-density pockets amid a varied sea of human residence. Grand convergences, dropping low then rising once more. Computer modelling accounted for traffic flows, for services and the availability of, and distance from, Tanusha’s multifarious attractions and necessities. High-cost and low-cost residencies blended together to mutual advantage. There were no bad locations in Tanusha. The planners had obviously seen to that. Such industrious civilianisms impressed her. And more to the point, the place was beautiful, with variation and aesthetic design wherever she looked. And so many trees. She took another bite of her lunch, and felt pleased at her choice of cities in which to start this new life.

Her interviews had gone very well, and she was confident she’d made a good impression. Tanusha’s software tech was legend, almost certainly the best in the Federation, but still, she had certain capabilities she knew very well they would rarely have seen before. And she’d kept a lot to herself. An unfair advantage, no question. She’d been relying on it for going on a year now. It kept her comfortable, well paid, and secure. Among other things.

A commotion nearby caught her eye—children, perhaps eight or nine years old, running haphazardly across the green lawn between the trees, shouting and laughing. That building must be a school, then. Several of them were kicking balls or throwing Frisbees. They made a lot of noise, most of it unnecessary. Several nearby lunchers got to their feet and moved off, looking annoyed or bemused, their peaceful lunchbreak now disturbed. April Cassidy sat on, eating the last of her vegetable rolls and watching the children with intense curiosity, like a musician reading from a particularly interesting sheet of music. And smiled at their arguments, at trivial things elevated to such a groundbreaking importance.

She finished her last mouthful and got up, tossing her trash in the bin provided and strolling off toward the walkway that would take her to a lightrail stop, from where she could get to her next appointment. Not that she was intending to go the short way there. A gridiron ball hit the ground in front of her, a young boy running after it, still some way off. She picked it up with one hand and put her briefcase on the grass. The boy held up his hands expectantly, but she gestured not at him but at the girl he’d been playing with, some thirty metres away now. Eyes wide, she jogged backward, awaiting the throw. April Cassidy threw it not particularly hard, but the ball shot upward through the sunlit air in a huge arc, spinning madly and sailing on to land a good ten metres behind the girl even as she ran madly after it.

The boy made a loud, awestruck sound and grinned at her. April Cassidy grinned back, picked up her briefcase, and walked off toward her rail stop.

It was 18:32 when she got back to her hotel room at the Emerald Si’an, and outside the windows the dimming sky was streaked with shades of pink and orange. She placed her briefcase on the freshly made bed and began to pull off her clothes, folding each item onto a neat pile beside the case. That done, she walked to the shower and stayed there for a while. Then she crossed to the wardrobe to select another outfit from where she’d hung them on her arrival in Tanusha last evening. She pondered for a moment over the tight black dress, before deciding no, not on her first night out. And settled finally on the other dress-suit, which was formal but had flared hems and wide cuffs, flamboyant striping, and a low neck that revealed some skin beneath. That plus a black blouse, with a low neckline, and matching stockings.

She dressed with the fastidiousness of an utter egotist, examining herself in the mirror on the addition of every new article, but her expression was more curious than self-obsessed. Then for makeup, which she’d never entirely got the hang of—or the point of, come to that—but no matter. She sat herself in front of the mirror with her small cosmetic box and applied a touch to the lips, and eyelids and lashes, with not inconsiderable artistry for one so lacking in practice. And then jewellery . . . well, she had precious few items, save the silver chain with the star-shaped emblem that had some significance to one South Asian cultural group or another—she put it on, and it settled comfortably around her neck, the emblem only just visible above the vee of her jacket.

Finally, she gave her hair a quick brush and examined herself one last time in the mirror. She looked . . . formal. Formally attractive. She hesitated to suppose she looked more attractive than usual—they were only clothes, after all. But she thought she looked very nice. And found herself smiling at her own ignorance.

“What would you know?” she asked the woman in the mirror. The woman smiled back calmly. A controlled display of humour, but genuine. She possessed no other kind.

Tanusha had many popular nightlife districts, but the Fern Street district numbered among the ten most well known, a high ranking indeed for a prolific party town like Tanusha. Fern Street ran along the centre of a protruding bulb of land, isolated by a loop in one of many branches of the Shoban River delta snaking back upon itself. April Cassidy could certainly see where the nightlife industry came from, as she ambled along the curve of riverfront, gazing up at the nearest towers that soared above the riverbanks. Light blazed and flickered off the darkened waters, tossed by the wake of a passing cruise ship and several smaller craft.

A choice piece of real estate, it was. Particularly the isolated bulb on the inner side of the river’s bend, where the towers grew especially thick and well lit. Mostly residential and tourist developments, she thought as she strolled, hands thrust deep into her pockets. With river views on all sides, it was hardly surprising that so many people would want to live here. And where people went, entertainments followed. But river views were everywhere in Tanusha—the megatropolis sprawled across the broad basin of the Shoban delta, where the runoff from the northeastern Tuez Ranges divided into hundreds of spidery arms that snaked across the flat, forested ground. The riverside topography had obviously given the city planners ideas. People-centres sprang up, lining the banks. The original trees had been kept wherever possible, leafy greenery flanking the gleaming waters in a most un-urban fashion. And she wondered again at the priorities of a city whose designers would devote such care and attention to frivolous fancies.

Couples strolled by, arms about each other as they walked, their way lit by muted pedestrian lights. Music echoed through the air from a multitude of random sources. Fragments of conversation drifted across the water from a passing cruise ship as a jazz band played and glasses clinked.

Most of the attractive young women out on that night, April Cassidy noted, were in the company of attractive young men. Several people glanced at her as she passed, and several of the male glances lingered. Possibly she looked a touch unusual, not in that she was well dressed and attractive, but in that she was alone. But then someone had to be alone, she supposed. How did people become couples without first being singles? She’d been reading the signs for nearly a year now, learning on the job, as it were. Sex was easy. Relationships less so. Courtship was downright confusing. And romance eluded her entirely. She preferred her orgasms uncomplicated and frequent. But then, what would she know?

Further on, the peaceful riverside walk changed. The open space and occasional tree gave way to a row of compact old-fashioned brick-and-mortar buildings, four storeys high and with flat, colourfully painted fronts, narrow windows, and attractive wooden shutters. All about were tables, crowded with diners and the roar of mingled conversations, music, and laughter. She picked her way leisurely among the crowds, watching the waiters with their loaded trays and the people gathered about the tightly packed tables, intent on conversation. The entire waterfront now was bars and restaurants, with new premises every few steps and signs by the walkway advertising the local specialty. It smelt delicious. Everything did.

She finally found an empty table right by the riverside, in a slightly quieter section of the row. A well-dressed waiter took her order, which she selected entirely at random, and moved off purposefully. Nearby, a melodious saxophone was playing, unaccompanied and very pleasing to the ear. From further along, a lively techno-rhythm was thumping, dimmed by the waves of conversation.

Her meal, when it arrived, was . . . different. Callayan seafood, from the fish farms along the neighbouring coastline. The waiter, having no other customers to attend to, assured her that it was a local delicacy. April Cassidy wasn’t sure—it was certainly rich, and strong, but very, very unusual. By the time she’d finished it, and half of the glass of fruit wine that accompanied it, she’d decided that she liked it. Which was her usual conclusion about unusual things. She ordered dessert and started on the second half of the wine, gazing out across the water.

A man slipped into the seat opposite her. “Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked.

“No, of course not.”

He smiled easily.

“I’m Joachim.” Extended his hand, and she took it.

“April.”

“April. That’s a lovely name.”

Conversation with Joachim proved interesting, if not spectacular. Obviously he wanted to get her into bed. She looked him over as they talked, surreptitiously, and decided that his chances were pretty good. Thus decided, she enjoyed her fruit ice cream dessert and a second glass of wine that Joachim bought for her, and enjoyed the company.

“So what do you do for a living, Joachim?”

“I work for a small communications firm, Hsu Communications—you probably won’t have heard of them since you’re so new in town.” She shook her head, sipping her wine. “So, you know, I’ve got this great view from my office in the Mohan building . . .”

She learned a fair few things about Tanusha from Joachim that evening. Mostly small things, like where the best entertainment arcades were, and who the most famous martial arts star was, and how to get a line of credit when you were seriously overdrawn from too many late-night benders, doubtless with an assortment of single, attractive women of whom she was only the latest. After half an hour, she thought she’d probably have preferred her own company again, but she fancied she was getting a feel for the typical Tanushan resident, which had to be worth something. And besides, she rather had her heart set on sex.

12:37, and April Cassidy stood naked before the broad, clear windows of Joachim’s apartment. Tanusha at night was a spectacle to behold. She had never seen so many lights, such variety of light, probing, strobing, fingerlike or centred patterns and colours intentional or otherwise . . . she placed a hand to the cool window, palm splayed, and trailed her eyes in a lazy sweep across the never-ending horizon of blazing lights.

The central mega-rise of this region soared up to her left, this one shaped like a sail, glass and metal in a mutually enfolding embrace, ablaze with corporate signage that conformed to the architectural intrigue. About its skirts fanned the middle high-rises, an irregular jumble of disparate shapes, crowded and clustered unpredictably above streets ablaze with neon and nose-to-tail late-night traffic. One of Tanusha’s hubs. One of hundreds. Beyond, the buildings faded to parks, trees, and a vast expanse of forested suburbia broken by the bend of yet another branch of the Shoban, gleaming in the electric night. And beyond them, other mega-rises staked out additional hubs like flags, sometimes grouped close together, sometimes forming corridors along strategic stretches of river or road, sometimes isolated and alone, but always purposeful. Aircars in their hundreds wound between. A trained and patient eye could discern the invisible skylanes, watching the drifting, bending masses of blinking airborne lights. Like swarms of fireflies in a forest, stretching away across the vast, urban distance.

Her eyes followed as one of the airborne transports whined mournfully by, a shimmering reflection slipping across its gleaming shell like mercury, running lights blinking. Voices played at the back of her consciousness, a building pressure, then receding with tangible, physical sensation. Machine traffic, people traffic, sharemarkets, transport guidance, personal calls . . . all blended smoothly into one clear presence. Thus the city spoke to itself, and thus to the other cities about the globe, and to the station above, and the planets and the people beyond even that. The net was huge. Vast. And many, many things beyond . . .

She turned to look at Joachim, who lay naked amid the comfortable tangle of sheets, limbs splayed amid the fall of night light from outside. Sighed, softly, and began to pull on her clothes from where they’d fallen 107 minutes before. Joachim did not stir, having had perhaps one glass too many in the evening past. And she had worn him out—107 minutes was apparently much longer than he was accustomed to.

Well, she thought, as she fastened her belt about the waist of her jacket, she had no complaints. It had been a while, that was all. A week, at least. She checked that her wallet was still in her pocket and that her various cash and identification cards were still where they ought to be, and then finger combed her hair back into some kind of order in the gleam of window light before Joachim’s bedroom mirror. Her hair was slightly strewn, but she liked the effect and she smiled at herself in the mirror. The mirror smiled back.

And then, because she harboured a secret ambition to one day become a hopeless romantic, she walked to Joachim’s bedside and kissed him gently on the lips. Joachim’s breathing may have altered slightly, but his eyelids never so much as fluttered. April Cassidy moved softly to the door, opened and closed it silently, and walked off down the empty corridor, the soft remnants of a saxophone melody running gentle circles through her mind.

That night, alone in her hotel bed, she dreamed.

She was surrounded by cold, dark metal. Loud, mechanical noises echoed and crashed, and heavy forces crushed her into her seat, then tossed forward against the restraint bar. Her thickly gloved right hand clasped the grip of a rifle, locked into a heavy brace. Her body was encased in armour, lightweight but hard, and a helmet strap pulled tight beneath her chin, visorplate open, systems temporarily offline in the predrop.

Other soldiers sat on the benches around her, similarly armed and armoured, secured by their restraints as the forces slammed them this way and that and the engine noise whined in their ears. She knew their names, these soldiers. There was Tran, child-faced and slight. Rachmin, cold-eyed and narrow-jawed. Chu, tongue protruding from a corner of her mouth in nervous habit. Dobrov, dour and grim. Mahud, with barely restrained eagerness. The man sitting opposite regarded her darkly. Sergei. Or Stark, as he was more often called.

“Not long now, Sandy.” She could see the target image on the forward scan uplink, drawing closer. She looked about her. Another sudden lift slammed her hard down into the seat, blurring her vision. Her discomfort grew.

“My name’s not Sandy. I’m April Cassidy now.”

“Wha’s tha’, Cap’n?” asked Chu.

“My name,” she repeated. “I’m not Sandy any more. My name is April Cassidy.” The return stares were blank, uncomprehending. Tran yawned.

“Approaching the target, Captain,” said Stark. His stare was ominous, as always.

“I can’t lead you,” she told him. “I’m not supposed to be here. This is a mistake.” The discomfort grew worse. There wasn’t much time, and she was unprepared, so unprepared. How could she lead them without her plans? Where were her intelligence reports? She always had intelligence briefings before an operation, but she couldn’t remember receiving one.

Copyright © 2006 by Joel Shepherd


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