◀ Previous · Up · Next ▶

Chapter 3

If you don’t count the Ceres Ring, Panorica is the largest arcology in terms of both population and sheer size. It’s a cylindrical design like Kingston, but a vast, slow-spinning behemoth. You can dock either at the stationary center or at the rim, where you berth in gravity, start out much closer to wherever it is you’re planning to go, and pay twice as much in fees. She can’t afford to tie up there but she does anyway, because she’s on a schedule. She’s here for an appointment with her friend Ansel.

He doesn’t know she has an appointment to keep with him yet. But as he would say, that’s just an implementation detail.

Keces has a presence on Panorica, but the station enforces strict “public charter” restrictions on companies they contract for services with—she doesn’t have to worry about them literally owning the police like they would on Molinar. However, those corporations are required to make video feeds from common areas, like the spartan lobby of the small craft terminal she’s hurrying through, publicly available in the name of transparency. If Keces doesn’t already know she’s here, they will within the hour. Well, screw ‘em. She’s doing their job. Or trying to.

“Kis, where’s Ansel at?”

“His last reported location is Club Acceleration.” Of course it is. She knows just which table he’s sitting at. She steps out onto the plaza.

Panorica’s interior layout forgoes the stultifying squared-off precision of Molinar or the manicured arrangements of Kingston. Instead, it embraces the magnificent ordered chaos of varying city blocks, curved throughways and contrasting neighborhoods. Even when it had been built generations ago, its designers employed most of their artifice to hide just how much artifice a giant arcology entailed. In the intervening years, buildings have been redesigned, repurposed, demolished and replaced, just like—she assumes—a historical Earth city. And the light on Panorica is nothing like other stations, not one uniform ambient glow slowly shifting color. Instead, a yellow-white “sun” moves through the central core, fore to aft, through the daylight period. The sun’s almost all the way to the aft end; she docked at the fore, so she stands in deep twilight. Street lamps and business signs and lamps in countless windows glitter before her like docking beacons.

She jogs spinward, toward the personal transport lot. Since she only wants a one-person unit she shouldn’t have a wait. And she doesn’t—she has a choice between a dozen standing scooters. She hops on one, just a platform between two wheels and a semicircular rail to hang onto. The display lights up to confirm her ID information and the usage charges.

She taps the command button. The display changes to a map, but she doesn’t have to look at it. “Take me to the Deck.”

“Please hold on,” a tinny male voice responds, and the scooter starts rolling forward.

Some streets on Panorica take only pedestrians or transports this size, but this is a wide central avenue with faster, heavier vehicles. The scooter stays to its own lane, quickly hitting its top speed of twenty-five kilometers per hour. Growing up, she didn’t understand the Trans-Ring Railway, at four hundred eighty KPH, was sui generis. It wasn’t until she began exploring the rest of the River that she realized none of the platform arcologies, even Panorica, were big enough to need anything that went much faster than this.

At least this speed lets her see the city, measure what’s changed since she was last here…when was it, eight months ago? Most of the buildings hold apartments, restaurants and the occasional office for companies that need—or just want—separate physical space for their work. Her favorite sidewalk cafe is still open, she sees, but the little crafts boutique next door has shuttered. Nothing’s higher than four stories; much taller and you start noticing the drop in gravity.

And then there’s the Deck.

It’s a three-story inverted pyramid of a building hung at the top of a metal tripod, about four hundred meters over the floor. It’s high enough you can see just all of Panorica—at least all the populated side, as the “top” half of the cylinder is devoted to agricultural and industrial use. Gravity in the pyramid is about point-six g. In addition to the observation deck that gives it its name, there are four bars, three restaurants, and one boutique hotel. All have reputations for being fabulously overpriced and kept in business by tourists (and, in the case of the hotel, honeymooners). Where she’s going also gets tourists, but it’s none of the above. She’s going to what is, as far as she knows, the only low-gravity dance club in the universe.

The Deck wasn’t built with the rest of Panorica, but it’s at least fifty years old—the architectural flourishes of faux cantilever beams and tall, thin triangular columns along the edges of each level didn’t turn out to look so timeless. Yet it’s impossible not to be impressed, even as many times as she’s seen it before. From an engineering standpoint, it’s Panorica itself—hell, the River itself—that’s the true marvel, but it’s background wonder. The Deck is sheer celebratory hubris made manifest.

Gail hops off the scooter before it comes to a complete stop in the parking lot, earning her a reproachful buzz, and hurries along the short path to the elevator. It runs up one of the legs, enclosed on all sides but the floor by glass. Sometimes she’s been able to wangle a ride on the service elevator inside a different leg, which makes the trip in a third the time, but she doesn’t see any employees she knows nearby. So she gets in with the tourists—ten total, nine of them cisform—and waits for it to start moving. At least there’s only a couple of young kids to enthusiastically smash themselves into other passengers as the gravity drops.

The countdown clock on the wall shows it’s not leaving for another two and a half minutes. She leans against the railing. “Kis, Ansel’s still in the Club, right?”

“No subsequent locations are recorded.” She didn’t expect a different answer—Ansel usually stays there late, and while he could have left without leaving a track, he usually leaves his privacy mirror set to share any public stops he makes with friends.

The transform kid flashes her a suspicious look, trying to decide if she’s got a communication mod or is just crazy. His body is mostly unmodified human, but he has big cat ears and a tail, both electric blue, matching his mane-like hair. Tattoos cover his arms, abstract patterns in faintly reflective ink. The tail moves all the time, too, and it’s nearly as long as he is. She wonders how often it gets caught in doors. He’s kind of hot, though. The black pants and half-shirt, both tighter than a fully furred totemic would be comfortable in, don’t hurt, either.

Gail nods to him with a slight smile. He relaxes and smiles back, folding his arms loosely over his chest. Okay, more than kind of hot. Also barely twenty. One of the cisform women is paying far more attention to Catboy’s butt than she should be. Oh, tailchasers. Her boyfriend’s oblivious.

Finally the countdown hits zero, music starts playing, and the elevator starts rising. A recorded voice begins narrating the history of the Deck—right, it’s closer to sixty years old than fifty—and warning people to hang onto the railing, which no one does. The ride up takes a full three minutes, which the recording extols as a virtue.

As much as she wants to mimic Catboy’s too-cool-for-this disaffection, the view of Panorica slowly unfolding below always catches and holds her attention. Most tourists ride up here during daylight, but that’s wrong. Nighttime has magic. The colors mute, streetlights creating bursts of contrast and shadow. The curve of the station comes into sharp focus, making the little world seem impossible, surreal, beautiful. Buildings jut out parallel to the horizon, people walk sideways, creeks flow up into the huge linear parks on either side of the city. Gail has never set foot on Earth or Mars, but she’s seen images. Nothing on a planet compares to this.

Soon the recording runs out, and the trip proceeds without narration except from the family with the kids. The mother, a stocky woman with limp brown hair and tired eyes, tries to point out landmarks to them, but they seem more interested in bouncing around in the slowly diminishing gravity. Her eyesight isn’t good enough to pick them out at night and it doesn’t sound like she’s been here before, so she doesn’t have a clue what she’s looking at. “That’s Peters Park,” she’s saying, pointing at one of the linear parks. Can’t get that one wrong. “Pay attention. And that big hexagon building is… uh…”

Gail walks over, with long, pillowy low gravity strides. “The Davison Museum of Art. It’s a dodecahedron.”

“Oh. Thank you.” She smiles at Gail. “I’ve heard it’s a very good museum.”

“It is. It’s almost worth a visit just for the building itself.”

“Why doesn’t your tail have fur?” the daughter asks. She has limp brown hair, too, and looks like she’s about six. Mom pales visibly.

Gail grins. “Because I’m a rat.”

“Why are you a rat?”

“Jennifer,” the mother hisses, now looking mortified.

“You’ve been on a spaceship, haven’t you?”

The girl nods. “Uh huh.”

“I live on a spaceship.” Gail spreads her hands. “All ships need rats.”

Jennifer falls silent at that, blinking slowly twice. Mom laughs, then looks self-conscious about it.

The music swells as the elevator platform comes to a stop and the doors open. Gail—and Catboy—wait for the tourists to exit first, the kids bouncing out toward the observation deck, giggling madly. The adults wobblejump their way after them, yelling admonishments. Then Catboy heads off across the polished stone floor, not jumping in his steps but gliding, perfect athletic poise. She’s so distracted by the way he moves—the way he looks moving—it takes her a couple seconds to realize he’s going the same way she is.

This is the middle floor, above the hotel and under the observation deck, and it’s where most of the shops are, the restaurants and bars and tacky souvenir kiosks surrounded by padded railings. The walls are padded, too, although you have to look closely or smack into one to notice. Her path takes her close to one of the cafes; as she passes by, the menu board highlights the pumpkin cheesecake. She hasn’t had dinner yet and it’s pitching her a favorite dessert? She’s not sure what that says about her eating habits, but it isn’t good.

The warm grey patterned tiles end at a sunken floor along one wall, glossy black over shifting patterns of glowing light. As she steps down on it, the colors ripple. They flow toward the pitch black doorway at the far end, and as the stream gets closer to the entrance they pulse in time with a driving beat you feel more than hear. Small symbols to the right of the door glow bright white, pulsing in time with the music.

v ÷ ∆t

A full transform tiger, decked out in formal black shirt, jacket and kilt, stands to the left of the doorway. He looks like a polite striped mountain. As she approaches, he nods. “Gail.”

“Hey, Carl.” He could just be reading her name off a HUD in his eye, but she doesn’t think he is. She isn’t, either. She remembers him. “No line yet?”

“It’s early.” He waves her in with a sweep of an arm.

The glowing floor is the entrance hall’s only light source, the lacquered walls and ceiling reflecting the stream’s turbulent dance. Two steps in and she’s past the noise cancellation barrier, and the music jumps from conversational volume to bone-shaking.

The hall’s just another six slow-long-stride steps long. Then it turns to the left, and all at once you’re there. The walls and ceiling and floor go matte black rather than shiny and the ceiling bubbles into a huge dome, and nothing but air remains between you and the speakers. The main floor rotates, a disc about twenty-five meters across, and the club has a projection system like the one in Kismet’s cockpit. Look in any direction and you see the stars that surround Panorica. You dance floating in space.

Gail slots people on the floor into three categories: the nervous, the nutbars and the magicians. The nervous step onto the disc and realize they don’t have a single clue how to dance in low gravity, and make tiny little petrified moves, not always in time with the rhythm. The nutbars are the ones who have grievously miscounted the number of clues they have. The results range from amusing to dangerous.

Right now there are only five people on the dance floor, three totemics and one who’s gone more xeno, iridescent green skin and silver eyes. She’s never figured out the xenos. Totemics have a history, a philosophy, even a spirituality, and you might think the spirituality is bullshit but it’s there. As much as she tries to give xenos the benefit of the doubt, she’s pretty sure they’re just about looking alien. Xeno guy’s a nutbar. Surprise. The cisform woman is nervous, barely moving; her partner’s not bad, and the silver vixen moves decently. Maybe the wrong word given the outfit she’s barely wearing.

Catboy, though: he’s a magician. Whirling in midair, spinning end over end, dancing sideways against the wall, always aware of where that meter-and-a-half tail is, tattoos as much of a light show as the pulsing spotlights swinging around the dome. She stops at the railing by the dance floor and just watches. He’s lost in the music, and she lets herself be lost by proxy for a few minutes. When the track changes, one percussion line smoothly melding into the next, she follows the railing up to the second level bar.

The tabletops and the bar itself are high-gloss, reflecting the stars and lights from the dance floor. The underside of the bar glows and flows like the entranceway. It’s an oval bar, most of the tables on the side overlooking the club, some on the opposite side with windows looking down at the city. It’s still loud, but less than it looks like it should be.

Right where she expects him to be, at “his” table, Ansel’s turned to watch the dancers. He’s almost certainly watching the catboy—he’s cute, and he’s the only dancer worth watching anyway. Ansel’s a fox, full transform. Every time she sees him he’s varied his color scheme. Tonight he’s mostly just fox-colored, but the hair sticking out from under his tan driving cap is vivid green, and his claws are copper, glittering when a spotlight catches them. The drink sitting in front of him matches the hair almost perfectly, a snifter full of lime green something on the rocks, garnished with a slice of orange and a paper parasol changing color in time with the music.

Gail hurries over, and as he’s turning she’s dropping into the seat opposite him. “Ansel!”

His violet eyes—that’s natural, or at least it’s never changed in the years she’s known him—focus on her in surprise. He’s not much younger than she is, but still looks like he’s barely into his twenties. The guarded expression falling over his face makes him look older, though. “Gail.”

“How’ve you been? It’s been a while.”

“I’ve been fine, thanks. I’m not about to wish it’d been a while longer, am I?”

She feels her smile slip. “I hope not.”

“Sorry.” He holds up his hands. “But when you show up out of the black here without sending me a message first, you usually want something and you figure it’ll be harder for me to say no if you’re pleading in person.”

That doesn’t sound either right or fair to her, but it’s right this time, isn’t it? She laughs self-consciously, looking at the table. “That’s not always true.”

“I didn’t say always, I said usually.” Ansel takes a long sip of his drink and pushes the glass aside. “Okay, talk to me.”

“I’ve got a quick job and I need advice from someone who’s more technical, and you’re the best I know.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“So. I’m trying to track down a lost databox. I have some information on it—appearance, serial number—and I know roughly when and where it went missing…”

She trails off. The fox’s eyes have widened in a deeply unsettling way, as if she’d said I just need you to help me hide a body. “A databox. You’re tangled up in something that involves finding a databox.”

Her ears lower. “Is that bad?”

“Oh, Gail.” He rubs his forehead. “Do you know what the payload is?”

“I’m not sure I even know what a databox is, beyond an educated guess. It’s a physical data backup, right?”

He wiggles his hand in a sort of gesture. “It’s not backup storage, it’s singular storage. You keep the data from being anywhere but in the box, so you need physical possession of it for access.”

She tries to make sense of that. “Data doesn’t have a location.”

“It depends on the data.” He waves his hands around. “Some data stays localized, like your spaceship’s ‘personality.’” (She can hear the air quotes.) “Most data gets replicated across hundreds of storage nodes. But if you’re paranoid, you keep all the copies of critical data physically isolated. That minimizes the chance of unauthorized access, but it makes it possible to lose the data forever. If you want backups, you need more databoxes.”

“So how do I find it?”

“You don’t. That’s part of the point.” He leans back and crosses his arms, looking at the ceiling. “Since the databox’s owner didn’t go to a judiciary, this is something they don’t want to attract any attention to. Have you talked with Sky?”

“Why would I do that?”

He drops his head back to look at her. “When you’re trying to investigate a crime, why would you talk to your sister the police officer? You’re right. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

She rolls her eyes. “C’mon, you just said it yourself—my client doesn’t want a judiciary involved. How do you think they’d feel about bringing in the Ring Judicial Cooperative?”

“I didn’t say give her the case, I said ask her for advice. I can’t give you some kind of magic databox-finding algorithm. You need a thief-finding algorithm, and that’s her department, not mine. And why did they hire you to find this?”

“I was kind of in the wrong place at the wrong time. Look, can’t you give me any help here?”

“Yes. I’m going to go to the bar and buy you a drink. What do you want?”

“I don’t know.” She glances at the drink special menu on the table. “A mezcal sour.”

“Got it.” He gets up.

She doesn’t consciously slump as much as let herself go, sliding down in her seat. What had she expected Ansel to say? “Oh, sure, Gail, let’s just bring up a map and show you where the thief is.” Of course not. But kind of. That’s not exactly what an algorithmist does but it’s almost what one does, just with data instead of crooks, and she knows he’s damn good at his job. Find the data, find the crook. Except databoxes don’t work that way.

Her plummeting mood—not that it had far to fall—keeps her occupied enough that she doesn’t notice Ansel’s return until he sets her glass down in front of her with a firm bang against the tabletop. He has another one of whatever it was he had before, too. “What you need,” he says, “is to narrow down where the thief could be. You can’t look everywhere on the River at once.”

“Yeah.” She sits up and takes a sip of the drink, and grimaces. “This tastes like a barbecued lime marinated in tequila.”

“Isn’t that what a mezcal sour is supposed to taste like?”

“Maybe.” After a vigorous stir the drink is better. A little. “I just don’t have a clue where to start looking.”

“You still haven’t answered the big question. Why you?”

“Because I found the wreck the databox was supposed to be on, and they think I stole it.”

He lifts his brows inquiringly.

“I didn’t!”

Ansel lifts his hands. “I didn’t think you would. But you don’t just come across shipwrecks randomly.”

“I got a tip from a kid I knew growing up who’s a yacht captain now.” She takes a longer sip of the drink. Maybe it’s not so bad. “If I don’t get the databox back to them in three days they’re going to report me as socius indignus. I could lose Kismet.”

“Wow.” He rests his muzzle in a hand and exhales. “All right. You don’t know what’s on the databox, but a company’s trying to keep attention away from the theft. Maybe secrets they’ve stolen from another company.” He sits up and scratches the back of one ear. “Or secrets they’re afraid another company will steal. Who are their competitors?”

She lowers her voice. “It’s Keces.”

“So their competitors are everyone. You do know how to pick your enemies.” He drums his fingers on the table. “I’d bet this involves the energy or transportation divisions.”

“Transportation?”

“Moving anything between stations is still expensive.”

“It sounded like something more…serious. Cheap freight can’t be worth killing over.”

“Anything’s worth killing over if there’s enough profit involved.”

“Mmm.” She stirs the drink again. “So any other ideas?”

Ansel takes a long sip of his drink, which looks much smoother and sweeter. She wishes she’d asked for one of those. “Figure out where the ship was coming from and where it was going, see what Keces divisions match up with those, figure out their competitors.” He empties the glass. “And for Christ’s sake, call Sky. She may come up with some defense against the socius indignus by tangling everything up with the Ring’s crazy communist legal shenanigans.”

“They’re not communists.” It’s almost a reflexive response.

“You know what I mean.” He waves his hand dismissively. “Look, I’ve got to get going. I’m on a tight deadline for my current contract and I’m planning to work through the night.” He stands up.

That’s probably a half-truth: it’s likely he has his portable display with him and could work here just fine. She’s seen him do it. But she won’t press; she’s made him prickly enough tonight as it is. Maybe she should have brought a gift, not that she could afford one. “Okay. Thanks for the help you could give.” She hopes she made that sound credibly sincere.

Ansel leans over and gives her a hug. “Take care, Gail. Try not to get in any more trouble before we meet again, hmm?”

She grins wryly. “I never try to get in trouble, Ansel.”

He laughs. Then he’s gone.

Gail slumps back in her seat, eyes closed for a few seconds, then gets up with her glass and heads to sit at the bar. It takes her another ten minutes to finish as much of the sour as she can stand, and she’s about to order something else when Catboy sits down next to her. He’s still breathing hard from his dancing. That looks good on him, too.

When the bartender approaches, he orders something called a “Livingston Swizzle.” The bartender nods and looks at Gail.

“I’ll have what he just ordered.”

He grins at her, the same grin as he had back in the elevator. “You’re not dancing.” His smile shows pointed feline teeth.

“I’m not much of a dancer. I came here to meet someone.”

“But you’re alone now.”

“Yeah, we already met. He just left.”

“Then you don’t have a reason not to come back on the dance floor with me.”

She laughs. “Other than the part about me not being much of a dancer? I saw you move. Compared to you I’d feel like a brick.” She looks behind him at the huge tail; he’s looped it around the stool several times. “Is your tail prehensile?”

“Yes.”

The bartender brings both drinks. She takes a sip of hers. It’s got citrus and ginger and she can’t tell what else, but she’s sure it’s stronger than it tastes. That’s good.

She tilts her head and grins. “So what can you do with a prehensile tail?”

He laughs, and meets her eyes with his as he takes a sip of his own drink.

◀ Previous · Up · Next ▶