Zydeck Salinger cruises in his Edison-class cruiser to his first missing-daughter job in about a decade. He nears the homeport in his one-man vessel, an Edison-class cruiser that is seamlessly synchronized with his mind.
From this great distance it looks like a thousand other bodies he has passed on his journey from Mars. As he draws nearer, the dwelling resolves into gleaming metal sculpture, an engineered thing. The port orbits Uranus’s moon Titania. Zydeck manually gauges the sun as if taking bearings as an older kind of wayfarer. His home star is the size of his thumb at arm’s length.
“Small in the sky as compared to home, isn’t it Silvie?”
His ship replies by spewing equations to him via scleral zilicon growth. The punchline of the joke is a grim one involving a star’s explosive finale, millions dying. He only gets it after seconds upon seconds of pouring over asymptotic calculations about spin rates of gas giants. That sort of calculus is easy enough for him though not as easy as it is for Silvie. It’s all she has, however; her language is mathematics. Zydeck’s mirth, in their little pocket of existence, is surrounded by miles of vacuous nothing. Only electronic ears hear his dour laughter, including his own half electronic ears.
Uranus occupies most of the cruiser’s cockpit view: looming planet; mordant stripes, faint rings; the rings with a perfect flatness that belies their composition of dust, rock, and some small ratio of garbage. The garbage is the ejecta and filth of Willow Springs’ wealthy denizens.
The ship shoots at blistering speeds toward the homeport. Smoothly the slender, pointed vessel alters its vector in one dimension by 45 degrees. The pilot effects the move with as little effort as saluting or striking a match. A small circle on the craft’s narrow nose pulsates with faint blue light, and in response comes a nearly identical flash from a metal ellipse hanging in the middle of space. Ship and gate syncopate in communication, a too-even dance of binary states. The force field looms before the small vessel, shimmers massively to reveal itself for half a moment. In an eye flutter the shield is again perfectly gone and the ship, needlenosed and one-manned, has penetrated the field, entering through the gate.
Now past the homeshield the pilot perceives the Façade of which he has been apprised. Within, it appears to be a sunny Earth day; bright blue sky, disc of a nearby sun no longer thumb sized but rather as big as seen from Earth. This is not Earth, but the scene is replete with birds dotting the sky and a line of far-off mountains. The cruiser is on a road, the road holoprojected beneath Zydeck and his ship. The sensation is magnificently forceful: he suddenly pilots a ground-hugging vehicle instead of his spacecraft. At the end of the long illusory road is a white two-story house, the homeport of the Bransons.
Zydeck has been through dozens of Façades. It isn’t because he’s mystified that he tries to plunge down through the false road; nor is he astounded when the apparent gravel changes itself immediately and practically without latency.
“What the hell are you running on?” he mutters to himself.
In a projection this huge, such an extreme degree of responsiveness has to be the work of a quantum processor. “I wanna be a quantum processor,” he says. Silvie murmurs a harmachromatic response. Again he tries to turn off of the road, jacking the till even more sharply this time. But the road responds perfectly, almost as though it knew he was going to turn before he formulated the intention.
The false, inevitable road, the manifold road that constituted all roads, led Zydeck to the Bransons’ homeport. The central structure was a two-storied dwelling with a sharply angled roof and chipping white paint. The flag of some fabled nation blew on the peak of its roof.
Zydeck Salinger, the Bransons, and one lieutenant of the Kundry stood in the Bransons’ high-reaching center room. Windows of transparent aluminum, one on each wall of the hexagonal room, let in the bright sunlight of the Façade, the fake day outside. That light was artificially yellow and gave the lieutenant’s face an unusually sallow, unhealthy look. Neither he nor the Bransons, a tall couple, cast shadows, for the light came from all around. An altogether fainter illumination entered the gleaming room from below, starlight. A circle in the floor offered the Vastness: stars, galaxies, and nebulae.
The Lieutenant had made introductions. Now the four of them discussed mission parameters. It was a zilchy kind of talk that Zydeck could tolerate for only a certain length of time.
“What kind of machinery do you use, freeagent?” said Helen Branson.
Zydeck explained what kind of Cruiser he had, about its being Edison-class, the rocketry being grindogen-fueled, and the hyperspace drive. The hyperspace drive was the kind that used tralentium for fuel, not one of the older dilentium-burning models. The nav system was Nantel’s most recent. It had Requiem-capacity motherboards and a quantum computational engine.
“Agent, what kind of machinery will you be using?”
“Yes. I get it, lady. Machinery. Me.”
“The freeagent is up to spec, Miss.”
If they had been doing this little rendezvous at his place, which was roughly 2.5 billion miles away this time of year, random red-orange and blue-yellow flames would have been licking into the conversational space. At all times Zydeck Salinger had some heavy duty computing going on. The Branson’s had to be doing the same but they had cooler, quieter more expensive processors and fancy wall work to make the place perfectly silently. This silence here, it was like a seven- or eight- million dollar silence; in which the notion of cyborghood hung.
“You didn’t mention weaponry,” Helen said.
“I don’t don’t like to talk about myself, maybe,” Zydeck said.
“I want to know. You will, if necessary. You have—”
“My belief is that violence is a last resort.”
“Beliefs are fine things,” said Helen. She looked about forty-five, which meant she might be seventy, eighty. She wore the expression of someone who knew her soul was hooked direct to an old-style shock battery, watching a big ugly nurse goddess hang her fat finger over the therapy button.
This was because the Bransons believed their daughter had been abducted. He was here to help them find her.
“The cost will be my normal fee,” Zydeck said; and he recited what he thought was an obscenely long numeral. In the next moment he cursed his own soul with his every mental voice; because not only did the Bransons not flinch; they continued in the conversation as though he had not even mentioned money. She might have muttered something like “that’s fine” or “right in line,” but then she was on to the next question.
“There’ll be extra charges. Grindogen, you know, the burn between here and home. It doesn’t grow on trees.”
The lieutenant said that this freeagent’s vessel met the required specifications for a mission of this kind.
“I see. Lieutenant, which precinct do you work in? Did you once work here, in ours? Rather, in what used to be our precinct?” said Helen Branson. “We used to be part of the Kundry, you know.”
“My precinct is the thirty-seventh. That’s Plusus. I never did work in the thirty-eighth,” said Lieutenant Conger.
“We know you’re far from here, OK, so no need for a cop act,” said the Branson man.
“Apparently, they think there’s no need for your kind of work in this part of the Uranian cluster, Lieutenant. Congressman Jeltz said we do not need a force here because there isn’t any crime in our neck of the woods. And they came right in here and took my little girl.”
When you had a homeshield and security system like the Branson’s, it might very well be true, Zydeck thought, that police were unnecessary. All told the system was a 22-gigawatt masterpiece. That number indicated the amount of energy consumed per day by the surveillance, shielding, and weaponry that the system controlled.
Jay Branson, Helen’s husband, father of the missing girl, was trying on a parade of grisly facial states, all espousing utter indifference. He probably supposed no one observed his macabre little chain of expressions, and almost no one did. Zydeck had half an eye just for him. Based on an analysis of his facial twitches and body language, Zydeck Salinger calculated a 73% chance Jay was hiding something. For all Zydeck knew, it was his own presence. Having a cybernetic freeagent standing in the central room of one’s dwelling could sure enough put the grumps on someone.
“I suppose you have your hands full there in Plusus. Bit of a rough and tumble kind of place,” Helen said.
Lieutenant Conger looked puzzled for a moment. This passed, and Conger and the Bransons discussed the work life of the lieutenant. Much of the conversation was about the nature of his district, the thirty-seventh. Wasn’t it crime-riddled and a little barbaric? Wasn’t it almost too much for the Kundry Police?
Zydeck knew they were wrong in this assessment, but the lieutenant did not correct them. He did not tell the Bransons that a region with a middle class tax base like that of Plusus was quite a well tended region, suburban in character with little crime. For those who saw such a neighborhood as shoddy by comparison with their own, well—that required a fairly high white tower. Such parallax required a household like the Bransons with its high-reaching center, its moon-planet-sun view, and its Façade.
Yes, the neighborhood Willow Springs was a rich place. It was composed of twenty or so similar homeports, and the places were fortresses of paradise. They were capable of taking care of themselves. Under such secure circumstances, what could have befallen this girl? Zydeck was forming the impression that she had run away. He was inclined to see this as a case of a runaway. He avoided fully forming that judgment just yet, though, because he needed to remain open to all possibilities at this early stage of the investigation.
Helen Branson said that they were terribly concerned about Ophelia, whom, she repeated, had been taken from them.
“How long has she been gone?” said Zydeck.
“Three days. Yes, if you’re here to question us Jay and I are anxious to get on with it. Please begin,” said Helen Branson.
“I just did,” Zydeck said, and smirked. Then he asked his questions.
He recorded the following data. Ophelia was a twenty-eight year old woman. She had only been out of sight for a week so far. This much Zydeck had already known from the file Conger had given him before meeting here at the Bransons. He also knew that Ophelia’s age was what made the Bransons insistent, even to the point of seeming defensive, that their daughter had been kidnapped. Usually when parents called about missing children, the child was much younger than this Ophelia. The parents were probably afraid that Zydeck would not take the case as seriously as he should. But he took every case seriously. Anyway, he thought a week without contact was a long time for even an adult child to be absent. She had not communicated with her folks about this absence either before or since her departure. Helen cast looks of resentment at Lieutenant Conger as she spoke. The looks would have something to do with the lack of action on the part of Kundry police. As a couple the Bransons were the kind who seemed to have grown similar to each other as they had grown old. They both possessed the same longish face in elderliness and the same stooped height, and they both shook their head in the same dubious way when some turn in the conversation displeased them. They used the same laugh to evince indignity about the fact that Zydeck Salinger’s intercession was necessary in their lives.
He kept on with his questions. With patient condescension, Helen gave information of the kind that a concerned, somewhat nosy mother could always contribute. She recited the names of some of the places where Ophelia hung out. These were names, she said in a mildly ashamed voice, that she had gleaned from receipts and overheard connection talks: Triskelion Farr, The Old Yogi, and Vermont on the Rings. Helen told Zydeck Salinger what sort of a Cruiser Ophelia drove. It was a Pleebox that would cost as much as a fairly well furnished Homeport. Helen provided two- and three-dimensional pictures of the girl as well. She said Ophelia rarely had friends over to the port any more. It had been more than a year since Ophelia had brought anyone home. The girl considered herself artistic. Zydeck spared himself a show of Ophelia Branson’s artwork, and the parents said they would forward digital samples to him. She’d had many boyfriends, or an average number for a woman her age, though none for a year or so that they were aware of. When she did have a man in her lief, she would have one at a time, though often the relationships had come in fairly rapid succession.
Finally, leaving the detail for last, Helen ventured that Ophelia had received the Treatment for a cerebral injury a couple of years earlier. She had to know this fact was among the most important. Yet she had left it for the last.
Zydeck said nothing. Something became clear for him as Helen Branson made this utterance, a large fact that loomed in his reckoning underneath all he had come to know about the case. That Ophelia was a cyborg, a human with self-propagating Zilicon parts, colored it all a little differently. The father’s stand-offishness fell into place, and perhaps even Ophelia’s own motivation. Could she have been desiring solitude? It was a possibility—though he would not mention it to the girl’s parents, of course.
“And since you’re also a. . . . Well, since you’ve also had the treatment. . . .” said Mrs Branson, trailing off. She had not needed to say it. Zydeck had heard it a numberless times before.
“Since we all think the same,” said Zydeck, “maybe I’ll be extra effective. Right?”
Lieutenant Conger mumbled that this freeagent’s Treatment history was indeed one of the reasons he, among all the department’s freeagents, had been contacted about the Bransons’ case. This statement might have been true or just more of Conger’s diplomacy. Many times Conger had proven a solid associate and a straightforward guy. More importantly, The Kundry PD, Conger’s employer, always paid well and paid quick. He could assume the Bransons would do the same since they had been referred by the Kundry.
“I’m sure I can find your girl. I’m sure I’ll be tuned right into her,” said Salinger.
“It’s offensive that I should have implied that, and I’m sorry,” said Helen.
“I’ve got what I need from you,” said Salinger.
“I dearly hope you do. I’m sorry, agent. We want our daughter back. We need our girl home.”
As Conger and the Branson woman wrapped up niceties, Salinger observed Jay Branson surreptitiously. The man was turned toward the floor portal, and the expression he wore bespoke a forlorn defiance against the universe.
Through the portal, the edge of the big planet Uranus was coming into view. The moon Titania, which Willow Springs orbited, was being edged out. As Zydeck noticed this, a secondary mental process was carrying out absentminded calculus, math that told him the formula for the trajectory of the neighborhood around the moon. When each new home had been completed, the house would have been given a final shove intended to create a very specific pattern of spin. That push determined its orbit for the following years; determined what the house’s occupants would be able to see until the next orbital adjustment. In a complex, intuitive flash that would have been difficult for an all-flesh human to comprehend, Zydeck Salinger foresaw all the views this window would ever hold.
The position and spin of the Bransons’ home allowed for maximal planetside viewing and for as little direct sunlight as possible. There was no functional purpose behind the careful spin calculation; it was purely aesthetic in nature. The transparent aluminum was treated, of course, to filter out unsafe energies. It was just that direct light could be uncomfortable to the eyes even when limited to the safe, visual spectrum.
“One more thing, Mr. Salinger,” said Helen. “We want you to give her a choice. Ask her if she wants to come home.”
“And if she doesn’t want to come home?” Zydeck asked—for he had to ask, though he thought he knew what was coming next.
“Bring her anyway. We just need to know,” said Helen.
“Offer the girl a ride home, and if she doesn’t accept, take her with force?” said Zydeck. “That doesn’t exactly sound professional. In fact, it sounds like kidnapping.” He looked in Conger’s direction; for, kidnapping, of course, was against the law. But Conger had joined Jay in gazing at Uranus. He pretended not to hear.
“I hate to ask you to compromise your professionalism. I’m sure that an augmentation of your normal fee would ease possible damage to your reputation?”
She was willing to offer an extra five thousand credits if Zydeck would give Ophelia the choice, or rather the illusion of choice. And another bonus of five thousand if he had Ophelia back home within three days. The money would be transferred within forty-eight hours of completion of the task. Zydeck agreed to these terms.
Zydeck Salinger and the lieutenant left to make their ships ready. As the lieutenant left he touched the edge of his hat, saying that he would speak with them soon.
The two men waited in the decompression chamber of the Bransons’ house. It was a tiny room, 4 feet square, 8 feet high.
Because of how pneumatic technology had advanced and cheapened, decompression upon arrival and departure at a homeport was no longer necessary. Like some other upper-crust homeowners, the Bransons maintained the anachronism of the decompression chamber for reasons of style. In effect, they used it as an entryway into the home proper. It was a kind of foyer. The walls were hung with family pictures. Conger and Salinger stood on a Mandulusion rug, all spattered and abstract, composed of bright blues, greens, and reds. They were here for a private little talk.
“You’re wondering ‘Why fuck did they throw me this wandering daughter?’ The answer is they could sue us,” Conger said. “We needed to put our best freeagent on this job. That’s you.”
“I’ve never much cared about the why of these things. Still don’t,” Zydeck said.
“But I want to tell you. We collect taxes here. But we don’t police the neighborhood.”
“You and your empire,” said Salinger.
“I know,” Conger said.
“And your Plusus. What a barbaric place.”
“Ha. Maybe if you live as high up in a tower as these people.”
“They might be listening,” said Zydeck.
Conger grinned and lifted his arm, showing Zydeck the inside of his forearm. A small, lens-like device shone there. It was an EM scrambler.
The room was too small. Conger had on some kind of cologne that smelled like rubbing alcohol and daffodils. It was not as strong as Zydeck’s own smell, which was that of his cockpit. He knew he smelled of machine oil and notes of burnt plastic, but also there was the stench of a body gone without cleansing for several days. Zydeck spent about half of his flight time out of body. The effect was that it was easier to neglect hygiene. In this case there was a small advantage to that. He enjoyed a little making Conger uncomfortable.
Zydeck had known Conger for over twenty years. This lieutenant was the only person in Imperial administration whom Zydeck might call a friend. Conger was his go-between with the Kundry; whenever they had a job for Zydeck, they sent Conger to make him an offer.
It was true that Zydeck tried not to know much about the man. This desire was based on Zydeck’s generally held principle that the Empire was a bunch of bureaucratic hooligans. But some knowledge of a person is unavoidable when you’ve known the person for twenty years. This was especially true when you had enhanced perception, as Zydeck did. Conger’s son and daughter were respectively 17 and 12 years of age. His wife’s name was Alicia, and they liked skydiving. The cyborg knew some other facts.
Did Conger know that Zydeck knew these things? Probably not. Zydeck could not help knowing, though. His powers of observation were unwilled, covert, and occurred with complete automaticity. Much of his brain had become synthetic, and it knew its job was to gather information; thus did he develop unwilling knowledge.
He had become a cyborg because there had been a fashion for it a while after he was born. More recently, cybernetic technology of the kind he had received was used only in extreme medical cases. When he found this Ophelia babe, subaltern voices cried it to him that he wanted her story. Was the world still basically anti-cyborg? Had this supposed Cyborg Rights movement done a damned thing?
A team of doctors and physicists had installed an initial Zilicon node on Zydeck’s brainstem near the base of his skull. Since then, the node had done reproduced as it was designed to do. It spread dendritic strands throughout his body’s systems, year by year replacing more of his original, organic cells with Zilicon. The technology apparently believed in getting through the most difficult part first; for in his half century of creeping Zilicon replacement, over sixty percent of the replacement activity had happened in his central nervous system. That was the big boy, the spine and brain, maker of his very thoughts.
In each year that passed the synthetic dendrites replaced more of Zydeck’s mentation, even his autonomic processes. Some of the synth growth had happened rather quickly around his thirties: too quickly, he was convinced. The doctors and scientists said the Zilicon network had progressed all according to plan. One of the ongoing, minor challenges of his life was to achieve the chutzpah, self-esteem, psychiatric blend of medications, or whatever that would finally make him OK with listening to experts on his own thought process.
They believed they had better insight than Zydeck himself into his very own thinking. From an ironic remove, he put it to himself this way: whatever else the scientific team had accomplished, they had achieved the ultimate in presumptuousness: they took his ownmost conscious experience as their scientific bailiwick. And here Zydeck had been casting himself as the go-to guy on the subject.
For whatever reason, they could not accept that they had divided his mind. For sure, and as practicality demanded, they had a tag for the divided mind phenomenon. It showed up on their charts, after all. There was a glow indicating intensity of activity over here, but another here, and here see? They dubbed the dual thinking “Parallel processing.” What none of the scientists ever acknowledged was the existence of his first-person point of view on this weird experiment. To Zydeck, these were his secondary voices. He tended to them because they screamed or whispered. They had actual personality; yes, always a variant of his own style of talk, gesture, and whatnot, but they were real, man! Everpresent and ever useful. It had taken him about a decade to calm down and accept these secondaries. Those years were filled with tranquilizers and recombinant nanotech that tried to slow the zilical growth spurt.
It might be placed on their shoulders to tell him two plus two equalled four—but only after seeing that it might have been five in “some mathematically fucked-over universe”; which showed that Zydeck’s secondaries handled simple arithmetic processes, albeit with a certain verve. Another told him that twenty-seven percent of his body’s resources over the past six days he had dedicated to a process named “retrospect upon personal history of caring: can Zilicon invest emotionally in carbon-based life forms? And if it could, should it?” Beyond springing up on-demand to solve math problems, secondaries also came to be as daemons in the zilical substrate. They also did complex numbers-crunching type processes over stretches of days, weeks, even years. “I’m developing some theories about Finnegan’s Wake to share with you,” said one of Davidson’s long-running secondaries to another, who was zilicoding a symphonic analymph of Bach’s Fourth Sonata.
Over that decade he had worked on meditative acceptance that those secondary, synthetic processes were truly him. That was a monstrous effort and for a moment now and again he reverted to insanity. At times he dispersed into uncontrollable fragments. Would he lose coherence entirely? Could his primary process lose all primacy, and if that happened, would it be like dying? Or more like schizophrenia? A life that was a dream? They were distinct mental lines of thought—and they were his voices nonetheless. These voices did certain kinds of thinking whether he wanted them to or not. Zydeck still felt like himself (as much as he ever had) because one of the voices was always a “primary process.” He always possessed a center, tried and true. It might switch from time to time but it brought all its memory and conscious experience with it.
Research on cyborgs the world over showed that primary processes—uppermost thoughts, the loudest mental voices—always took place in organic nerve and brain tissue. Parallel processes on the other hand were always synthetic. One day Zydeck’s last organic CNS neuron would perish. His mental gear and tackle would be all Zilicon. No Cyborg had gone there yet. But some day Zydeck and at least a few other old-timers would.
“Fifty thousand credits,” said Zydeck. “That’s all I care about.”
Conger grinned. He was probably glad he could rely on Zydeck for at least this: to keep things simple at the bargaining table. “Fifty thousand, you bet. Plus a bonus of five thousand if you have the physical personage of Ophelia Branson here in three day’s time.”
Conger didn’t mention the other bonus, the one about offering the girl a false choice. He really had been pretending not to hear.
The door of the decompression chamber would open onto empty space if either of them pulled down the pump switch now. Soon the red indicator light on the wall would turn green, a declaration that a ship was locked in place ready to be boarded. The lieutenant was departing first because Zydeck had said it should be so. He’d said his own cruiser needed a moment to complete a small repair upon itself.
The light turned green. Conger seemed about to say something else, but then stopped, turned to the exit.
“Is it true? Did the Kundry choose me cause this chick is a cyborg, like me?”
A little slowly, a little tiredly, the lieutenant turned back toward Zydeck. “No, no, no, he said. “I was just saying that for Helen’s benefit. In my line of work, when you got a little rank under your belt, you gotta tell people what they wanna hear some of the time.”
“You were singing that song,” said Zydeck. “Spitting that game.”
“Exactly,” said Conger.
“Look, they ain’t cyberist. The Kundry I mean. When did you ever see evidence of that?” said Conger.
Zydeck had never been tricked into joining the cyberist debate as a matter of light conversation. He was not about to be fooled now. It was not a cause he had ever wasted time with. Trying to prove that the Kundry was biased against cyborgs would be like trying to prove any institutional prejudice. Any fact taken alone could be dismissed; and a totality of facts that seemed to prove the prejudice would be dissected into smaller pieces and explained away one little infraction at a time.
“What’s your read on the girl’s dad?” Zydeck said.
“What do you mean my read?”
“Seemed a little, I don’t know, disinterested or something, wouldn’t you say?”
“Pretty clean profile. He’s an engineer. I doubt there’s much there.” “You mean he’s got a boring jacket.”
“Even better. Or maybe worse from your perspective: he ain’t got a jacket. Goodbye, Salinger,” said the lieutenant. He smiled as he left, kindly or sarcastically Zydeck could not say.
As he had done a thousand times before, he wondered if Conger believed they were true friends. He was an imperial rat and he was Zydeck’s moneyed liaison, the cyborg’s way to stay within certain bureaucratic good graces. At what expense came this alliance? What is it costing me? Zydeck thought. Zydeck needed this relationship. More specifically, he needed the money that flowed from it. The cost of maintaining his ship was great, and to maintain his ship was to maintain his mind. His ship contained much of his mind. Because he was cybernetic, he had to extend his existence into something. Zydeck could not accept using a planetside mainframe like most cyborgs did. In doing that he would be anchored to a single solar system. Never would he willingly limit himself to such a small section of the wide universe. If his ship lapsed so did he, so he was more driven to take every dime he could get, compelled to enter whatever treaties he entered.
Conger slid open the door of his ship. Visible within was a pilot in a private’s uniform, a bright red shirt that fit like a second skin. It bore the Imperial logo, a “V” shape encircled by what was supposed to be a comet with a long tail. Only the privates wore uniforms anymore in the Kundry, in what had been known as the Empire. When it came to minor matters like garb, people the civilization over had developed a riotous distaste for uniformity. Therefore, anyone of higher rank wore what they liked. For the same reason, it was not the Kundry who owned Conger’s cruiser; Conger personally owned the vessel. Like others of his rank, he could style it how he liked.
It had black pseudoleather seats and the controls were colored garishly, often in primary colors. There were big red, yellow, and blue pushbuttons. There were many orange indicator lights and screens with text. A row of green, black, and blue levers jutted from the panel that faced the two seats. The cockpit had a classic setup with which Zydeck was quite familiar. The copilot functioned as the gunner in this kind of arrangement, which meant the private would pilot while Conger, acting as gunner, would be free to shoot what and whom he pleased. The target might be asteroids or other obstructions. Perhaps it would be villains. To the perspective of the lieutenant, lawbreakers of any kind were fair game. The private saluted the lieutenant and Zydeck, neither of whom returned the gesture. Conger grunted and ducked into the cockpit.
“Oh yes,” he said. He took a little container out of his pocket and handed it to Zydeck. It contained a Zilicon memory card. “Most recent version of the List.”
“You have my undying gratitude.”
“You know I have to give it to you,” said Conger. The card contained the names of other freeagents in the field who were under contract with the Empire. And other contacts.
“New friends of yours, huh?” said Zydeck.
“I wouldn’t say I can vouch for them all,” said Conger drily. They both knew this was a vast understatement of his feelings about the people named on this list. Zydeck was gratified that he had annoyed Conger on the matter. The freeagents were contractors like Zydeck who often benefited from cooperating professionally. Nothing wrong with that; it was downright helpful a lot of the time. Mostly, though, it contained Imperial Informants, or “Eye Eyes.”
The Kundry was notorious for trading lenience to criminals who would snitch on their fellows. Most said the Kundry was too generous with that kind of thing. There were now millions of Imperial protected witnesses, including many violent criminals, even some who had once committed murder. The Kundry rained out plea bargains very freely, and it was an extremely controversial policy. It worked better than anything if you measured its success by how much it reduced violent and organized crime. However, for those protesting the List, statistical success did not hold water.
The plea policy had begun as a kind of desperate backlash on the part of the Kundry against the corruption that organized criminals had been able to create. Civilization had gone rotten to the very core. The List was, in fact, the Kundry’s way of corrupting the criminals against one another. We are offering such sweet deals among your cohorts for snitching on you that any paranoia you might have is fully justified—and then some. The Kundry was turning the criminals’ own ranks against them. Every criminal organization, whether a partnership or a multiplanet smuggling gang, was deeply infiltrated by an existential threat.
Any arraigned criminal could potentially cut a deal and become an Eye Eye, for there was no restriction as to MO. Sure, the List could be very helpful, by Zydeck tended to deal only with the other freeagents, whose names were also contained there. He was extremely wary whenever he contacted an Eye Eye. In those cases he might be dealing with a murderer. He avoided doing so whenever possible, but sometimes the job required the risk.The Eye Eyes had become a society of their own. They began to identify themselves to one another, and their fraternity became a powerful resource for its members, as tended to be the case with any club or gang. The List became a way for the informing criminals to pick up jobs, borrow money, and find shelter. Most importantly, it was a way to enjoy protection from enemies, especially from the so called Unstable Criminals. Unstable crime was the old- fashioned kind committed by people who had never informed. Zydeck had heard it said that the Eye Eye club occupied the midlands between Imperial Enforcement and the real criminal underworld.
The seemingly obvious problem with the List was that it might fall into the hands of unstable criminals. If an ambitious cartel head or gang leader got hold of the List, the Eye Eyes would suffer murder, perhaps torture, and so might their family members or close friends. Wouldn’t this happen on a large scale, and often? It did happen, but less frequently and usually less virulently than anyone might have expected. The Eye Eyes had become their own gang, and had that layer of protection. Further, the existence of such a huge list of Eye Eyes had changed the famously intense stigma that criminals placed on other criminals who snitched. The stodgy old perspective was being blown away by the everyone’s-doing-it factor. Yes, some old-timers perpetuated the traditional bloodlust that they believed should apply to stoolpigeons, but that was less and less common. It had gone out of fashion and seemed a little backwards. The snitch hatred was, perhaps, the criminal version of religious fundamentalism.
One result of the List’s existence was that fewer and fewer incarcerated individuals were murdered each year. If it had done nothing else, the List could brag to have lowered prison murder rates. The first decade of the List had brought about such a decline for the first time in half a millennium. Vengeful torture and death remained powerful factors, undoubtedly, in the decision of whether to become an Eye Eye. But that risk had always been part of the game for criminals, notably those with a rap sheet that qualified them strongly as candidates for the List.
There were all kinds of unintended, unpredictable dynamics in the relationship between law enforcement and the Eye Eye network. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, the network had become a legal resource for its constituents. There tended to be a huge number of crooked lawyers among the Eye Eyes, and this resulted in the network being more organized and powerful than anyone had predicted. The way it had shaped up, there were certain crimes that enforcement would just look the other way on. This was an informal policy, and the line between acceptable and prison-worthy crime lived and shifted of its own accord. One of the determinative factors was often whether the crime had hurt an ordinary, non-Eye Eye, a totally law abiding citizen. If so, it was tacitly agreed by all parties that the offender should probably be punished. On the other hand, if it was an Eye Eye whom the crime hurt, or even better, an unstable criminal, the offender was much less likely to be punished in any way.
In that single way, the Eye Eye network hurt the police, limiting their power slightly. On the other hand, it was a factory of information about unstable crime, and gave them a firmer, more versatile way to regulate criminality than any ever conceived. The List of Eye Eyes had created an information economy, a powerful resource for those enforcing the laws of the Kundry.
Another unexpected facet of the situation was how dependent all Eye Eyes would be upon the police. It was horrendous, what could happen, if you lost your status as an Eye Eye. Suddenly, you were off the List. In effect, any booted Eye Eye was immediately thrown to the unstable criminals. Being Listed was the only genuine credential of Eye-Eye-hood. Once a person was on the List, he or she desperately needed to stay there. This was good for the Empire, because it gave them enormous power in the lives of the Eye Eye (though there were still all those lawyers to deal with).
They made it so that an Eye Eye had to deliver a certain amount of information to go on being a member of that quasi-criminal society. The Kundry created an economic system of tattletale. The only purchaser in this new marketplace was the Kundry, and they paid in the coin of safety, in the form of allowing an Eye Eye to stay Listed. Since they had a monopoly on forgiveness, and since the Eye Eyes had an uncontrollable appetite for breaking the law, Imperial enforcement was able to set the exchange rate. The currency was measured in months and years of Eye Eye membership. On the whole, it had to be said that the Eye Eye system was good for society. By all measures, violent crime had gone down because of the Eye Eye network. However, statistics is no part of morals, and the Eye Eye litigation was extremely unpopular on ethical grounds. The public did not have the entire picture clearly, and it seemed to Zydeck that this was what kept civilization afloat. What people could see of it, they did not like; so if they saw more, surely they would riot.
The Eye Eyes were also unpopular with a certain kind of police officer, albeit a kind that was, like the old-fashioned, fundamentalist criminal, rarer and rarer these days. The basically good, traditional officers such as Conger despised the Eye Eyes and their List. It was a different story for newer or more adaptable officers. For the younger generation, the notion of police work—and even of the difference between good and evil—had shifted. It rankled guys like Conger even more that the rookies were so accepting of the List; so anxious to use it and call the usage “justice.”
Conger and those of his generation were not completely naive to corruption. No strangers were they to the fact that an officer sometimes had to get dirty in a small way if it meant saving lives. But newer, more morally-flexible counterparts to Conger lived in a different world. The new theory of justice was as follows, quoting from the Department of Imperial Enforcement’s regulations: that body was tasked with “coordinating the criminals in the various jurisdictions” in such a way as to “reduce harm to society.” After all, violent crime was at an all time low, and the DIE was even beginning to make progress with property and financial crimes. For the newer generation, good and evil were as bloodless and abstract as notions of computer logic and mathematics, or the postmodern thesis of history. Good and evil were interesting in a theoretical way. These concepts were very important for academics and politicians, especially perhaps sociologists and psychologists; but their impact ended there. To this new generation of officers, Zydeck was discovering, the notions were purely philosophical. It was as if, for these younger enforcers, there had never been a chance to ”protect and serve.” Their lives were rarely on the line in the new way of doing things, and the job of police work had lost its characteristic association with patriotism, risking your life, and do-gooding.
Conger had a more passionate feeling about the Imperial List than Zydeck was capable of manifesting. To Zydeck, the List was distasteful at a deep level, but not for reasons he could yet make perfectly explicit, not even for himself. He always felt like he had more thinking to do on the subject before he could muster true disgust. His recourse was to chide Conger. He liked to bother Conger because although he was an opponent of the List, he unquestionably benefited from its existence. Somehow, it had become Zydeck’s personal objective to keep Conger bitter about this supposed abomination, this cancer on the organ of justice. It was a matter of amusement for Zydeck. Conger had some good qualities. He often seemed reliable. He liked to keep his word. But he wanted to pretend blindness to the overall inhumanity of the Kundry. That was the one thing about the man that troubled Zydeck in a deep way. Every time the two of them discussed Eye Eyes, Zydeck used sarcasm to throw some light on the soullessness of that inter-galactic entity, the Kundry. The ribbing was friendly but there was a purpose behind it.
Conger slid the door of the decompression chamber shut behind him. It sealed itself against the vacuum of space with a whump, a sliding sound, and a nearly inaudible whine. The light turned red.
Zydeck Salinger knew that a few feet away an explosion was occurring . . . had occurred, was long gone. The continued stillness of the air in the chamber was something of a deception. Blue plasmatic thrust had just leapt into existence and was burning at a temperature as hot as the Sol: this was the propulsion of the Lieutenant’s Cruiser, which, by now, was thousands of meters distant. It only took a narrow column of vacuum space to nullify shockwaves that would otherwise have traveled as sound. The emptiness made an absolute nothingness of all that hot chaos. There was no substance, no basis on which the explosion could travel, no way for it to connect with Zydeck’s air. So much of existence was what did not exist. . . .
Zydeck turned his arm up so he could see the inside of his wrist. There in his actual flesh was a small screen, in which he read transmitted information from his ship. He pressed a button that was hidden under the surface of his skin, an inch or so below the little screen.
A moment later the light turned green. When Zydeck had made the excuse that his ship was repairing itself at the moment, it had been one of those unconscious reflexes, a secondary process. He had wanted Conger to be the first to leave. A voice in his mind had told him to enter his cockpit in private. Zydeck felt a strangely powerful need to keep Conger from seeing inside. There were no secrets about or within the cockpit; no, not exactly. His privacy was more like a habit of some kind.
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